Friday, October 14

Passing On Success: U.S. Wins Gold; U.S. Media Snoozed

Scanning the major media headlines this week, one might assume that the United States is dead in the water. The economy is a train wreck. The national debt is out of control. The space program is all but shelved.

You have to turn all the way to the sports section to see a different story, page two for some publications. The United States team won the gold medal at the world gymnastics championships on Tuesday. It is the team's first world title since a 2007 meet in Stuttgart. And, the team did it after losing one of their top members.

Twenty years ago, this would have have been front page news for days and weeks. This year, it took hours before  many news outlets even knew they ought to be covering it. Some ran it as a sports headline only. And a few more, despite the story staring them in the face, spun a negative headline.

Slate: The United States women's gymnastics team keeps winning gold, but at what cost to the athletes?

Seriously? Electronic outlets were even worse. On America Online, for example, it featured 23 headlines. Not one of them mentioned the U.S. win. Neither did any of the 36 headlines on Yahoo. The Huffington Post ran a story, but it was nowhere near the front page with several dozen others featured instead. In fact, the publication is too busy taking on evil corporate types who make a living off people who don't get fair wages — the irony.

What ran instead? Stories like the Corrupt History Of The Corporate Person, More Bad News For Anthony Weiner, and my personal favorite, Selena Gomez Rocks Glitter Short Shorts On The Carpet.

News Flash: U.S. Women Win World Title At 2011 World Championships.

These women represent some of the brightest, most focused, and dedicated athletes in the world. They represent physical preparedness and, especially important in gymnastics, the mental aptitude to win.

You can learn more about the gold win on the USA Gymnastics site. The men's team didn't do bad either. They brought home the bronze. Some media outlets covered it as a negative, but it's the first team medal for the men's team in eight years. They will certainly be contenders at the next Olympics.

I understand some of it, especially for media outlets in a digital space. According to Alexa, Yahoo's top regional traffic rank is in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Iran, and Nigeria. For The Huffington Post, it's the United States, along with Canada, Pakistan, and South Korea. And anymore, about 30 percent of AOL visitors live in the United Kingdom, Germany, Egypt, and Indonesia. There's nothing wrong with any of it.

In fact, along with the U.S., CNN is heavily viewed in Canada, Nigeria, and Mexico. Fox's top three include Argentina, United States, and Thailand. MSN is popular in Columbia, Mexico, and Belgium. (Please note: this does not mean that U.S. media isn't read by Americans. They rank high here too.)

Again, there is nothing wrong with any of it. You cannot secure a top Alexa rank with one country dominating visits. In fact, this oddball occurrence is one of the reasons the infamous 300,000 rank on Alexa test (for blogger outreach programs) is one of the biggest lies in social media and public relations circles. You have to look deeper if you are trying to reach a specific audience or region.

But that PR point is best saved for another time. The point for this post is that digital outlets are global outlets, and do not necessarily represent American interests, even if they cover American news. This is equally relevant for other countries too. You have to look beyond global rank, and even that is not perfect.

Two Possible Takeaways From The U.S. Gold Win Missed By Media. 

The United States media is becoming packed with Debbie Downers because negative headlines attract more eyeballs than positive headlines. (Ironically, blogs generally perform better with positive slants.) 

This isn't new. But what might be new is that the media isn't looking very hard for good news. And sometimes, it ignores it because a healthy percentage of their readers don't want to read about American success stories. (Much like Americans, in general, don't want to read about Iranian success stories.) 

Then again, maybe it is unique to this country. The United Kingdom's media outlets didn't underplay their star performers. Their women's team finished fifth and their media outlets covered it front and center, much faster and much more positively. Good for them. I think that is great.

But it does makes me wonder. What is the psychological impact of a country that punishes itself daily?

Wednesday, October 12

Saying Whoopsie: Netflix Actions Still Speak Louder

"This means no change: one website, one account, one password ... in other words, no Qwikster." — Reed Hastings 

After several trials and a comedy of errors, CEO Reed Hastings is trying one more time. The message is shorter. The writing is sloppy. But at least people understand what it means: No Qwikster for Netflix.

Qwikster was the proposed solution to accomplish Hastings' long-term goal to completely separate Netflix from the DVD shopping and shipping business. To date, it only accomplished one goal. The restructuring was ridiculous enough that it has all but quelled the alarm over Netflix price increases in July.

Reed was clear about that too. "While the July price change was necessary, we are done with price changes," he said once again. Qwikster, even though the company had already reported it had divided itself into two units, obviously was not necessary. According to some, that makes Qwikster a modern equivalent of New Coke. I don't think so, exactly.

Communicating Change And Price Increases. 

In a few years, assuming Netflix recovers and it probably will, some will ponder whether the price increases and subsequent Qwikster campaign generated publicity and brand awareness that will pay dividends at the bank later.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. My take on the whole buzz up is that it didn't have to happen.

Communicating change, even uncomfortable change, is relatively easy. Had Netflix given customers a head start and a better pricing model, it could have raised prices on DVD shopping and shipping and incentivized the move to streaming. The majority of subscribers might have voluntarily switched.

And if the company was serious about skipping out on DVD shopping and shipping, it could have eventually frozen new DVD subscribers some time after the switch. Eventually, the DVD division would have died a quiet and less painful death. No big deal. Netflix knows DVD mail programs are numbered because product purchase and shipping costs are too expensive to make a profit.

Netflix wants to be a streaming service and anybody who doubts it ought to look at its investor relations overview. Nowhere does the description include anything about shipping. On the contrary, the description emphasizes 25 million subscribers over 200 devices. At $8 per subscription, that's $200 million per month without the hassle of pressing discs.

The solution was painfully simple, but overlooked. All Netflix had to do was make its DVD shipping product less attractive over the long haul by making it pay for itself. All the while, it could have been up front and honest with customers that the cost of products and shipping caused the price increases, much like utilities do every year.

At the same time, incentivizing the switch would have made sense because Netflix could probably bank on the idea that most people who try streaming are less likely to go back to shipping. It could have even partnered with some of the device manufacturers, underscoring how easy it is (and encouraging people that today might be the time to upgrade). It all could have been handled seamlessly and without the silly spin of calling a "price increase" a "price change."

Who cares what Netflix does anyway and why does it matter? 

Beyond investors and subscribers, it really doesn't matter. It also makes for a great case study in communication. And the reason there is some significance is simple enough.

Netflix prides itself on the following four traits in an increasingly competitive market: outstanding value, robust selection, customer satisfaction, and adaptability. It believes this is what sets it apart in the marketplace.

The handling of the communication in recent months, especially because the company prolonged the negative communication, cuts deeply at three of those four traits. Customers felt the new price change was not an outstanding value. Customers felt the decisions eroded customer satisfaction. And customers believe that while Netflix might be adaptive, it is not adaptive to the customers it serves.

The worst communication practice for any company is to communicate against the value proposition of the company, especially if it disproves the majority of them. Investors clearly did not appreciate the missteps. Netflix stocks dropped to almost a third of their value (from around $300 to $100 per share) before the price increase. In other words, the lost valuation may have paid for the price increase.

But the real indicator is yet to be announced. On October 24, Netflix will have to report its earnings. And along with those earnings, an accounting of how many more customers are disenfranchised.

Monday, October 10

Creating A New Economy: Are Marketers Ready?

Watching economic indicators can be daunting at times. On the one hand, organizations like the ManpowerGroup are encouraging companies to start employing people. On the other hand, PNC reports that four out of five small businesses will reduce or maintain their employees over the next six months.

Job incentives will not turn the tide, they say. But the reasons for their decision go deeper than the surface argument of weak sales. There is some evidence to support that the economy is changing.

Wealthier countries in the world are beginning to question whether rising incomes equal happiness. It's an idea the Futures Company suggested two years ago. It came up yet again in a recent study conducted by Experian. People are looking for something different from the brands they once consumed, and it may point to a context that has been recently presented by Umair Haque, director of the Havas Media Lab, author, and frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

Building a 21st Century Economy from Umair Haque on Vimeo.

The future is more formative than many marketers might think. 

Most business measurements for success are linked to more customers, more leads, more sales. And yet, consumers seem to want less: less consumption, less brand status, and less sameness. The purchasing decisions they make tend to be more meaningful. And the mandatories (how they define basic necessities) seem to be more encompassing.

Is it any wonder that there is more divisiveness over what constitutes happiness, left and right, both with relatively equal economic demographics and both unhappy with the establishment. The key difference is security vs. freedom. But this identification has nothing to do with politics. It's a symptom of change.  

It hints at the shift of how companies might interact with the consumers they serve. Sometimes it surfaces in small ways, like pushback over policy changes or how people respond to quality over consumption. And other times in big ways, with companies volunteering to be attacked (as they attempt to make up for losses caused by questionable regulation) or others undone by their own taxpayer-funded extravagance, delivering a black eye to the entire industry. 

The marketers of the future will consider their customers stockholders. 

On some level, consumers are not much different than they were two decades ago. There are still segments that make decisions based on how they prioritize four considerations: the bottom line, immediate social impact, minute details, and cutting edge advancements. 

But what has changed is a greater need for acceptance and participation, possibly encouraged by the empowerment of social media and the Internet. People don't have to vote with their dollars outright; they can express their dissatisfaction publicly. And then, if the company expresses no desire to change, they vote with their wallets while lobbying for others to do so too. 

Many marketers are frightened by it. But they need not be so terrified. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Kickstarter is that it taps into the change that is occurring in the marketplace. The people who participate are readily engaged with the people who have some smart and creative ideas.

This doesn't mean that the creator gives up any control of their project, although some do collaborate with backers. It simply means that they create an opportunity for consumers to share in their success, much like Donors Choose does for education. 

Status, brand, and big budgets all become secondary considerations to delivering a fulfilling and meaningful experience. Consumption is replaced by consideration. More messages are replaced by the right messages. Impulse shopping is replaced by purchaser fulfillment. 

It seems very unlikely that some companies will measure up in the decades ahead, especially if consumers become aware of a better choice. You can even see it in the most mundane of places. Facebook pages that have enticed the most likes are not the most talked about

So the questions are pretty simple for marketers. How do you align your company with the near future consumer? And if you cannot, then what will your company's exit strategy be in this decade?

Friday, October 7

Creating Comedy: The Alliance for Family Entertainment

The Alliance of National Advertisers' (ANA) Alliance for Family Entertainment (The Alliance for Family Entertainment) is launching a national search for a new screenwriter this month, with the winner receiving $5,000 for a 30-minute live-action family comedy. Along with the cash award, the winner will receive personal mentoring from  John Wells on his or her script.

Wells is probably best known for the creation of ER, Third Watch, and The West Wing. The Alliance for Family Entertainment is the same group responsible for bringing the Gilmore Girls, Everybody Hates Chris, and Friday Night Lights to television. It has also helped find, support, and air 20 hit TV shows over the years.

All amateurs are invited to submit a script for consideration. 

The Alliance for Family Entertainment is serious about finding someone new from the United States. Entrants must be individuals (not teams) and not members of a professional writing guild or professional writing union.

After the mentoring, any additional opportunities that arise with networks would be negotiated. While networks make any final decisions, the Alliance for Family Entertainment is a group of nearly 40 national advertisers and supported by the ANA. It represents approximately 30 percent of all U.S. television advertising dollars.

"Marketers of family brands are often stymied in finding shows to support that offer smart, sophisticated takes on family life that everybody can watch and enjoy," says Bob Liodice, president and CEO of the ANA. "So our determination to find and help fund the production of promising family scripts and encourage emerging young talent to write stories about modern family life is good for business."

The contest has a litany of official rules (read those carefully) posted on a standalone site: America's Newest Comedy Writer. The contest was open to submission yesterday, and will continue accepting them through Oct. 28. The judging period is brisk, with judging concluded by Nov. 11 and the winner announced on Nov. 28.

The Alliance for Family Entertainment supports several initiatives, including granting scholarships to young screenwriters from time to time. It was initially started when ANA members Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson felt that there was not enough family programming to display family brands. Those shows tend to lose out over edgier programs in the ratings.

The irony is that many viewers believe that advertisers support the edgier shows, even though there are many companies that would prefer backing family shows (ideally, with viewership). One of the quips on the Alliance for Family Entertainment site is that they believe there can be shows that don't bore or shock families after 8 p.m.

Comedy writing, especially family comedy, is the hardest form of writing. 

Even in writing advertising humor, edgy comedy is immensely easier than wholesome because edgy humor can capitalize on making us uncomfortable. A couple of years ago, I shared six guidelines for funny in advertising and much of it applies to family sitcoms as well. Here are three more.

Tip 1. Jokes aren't funny. While jokes can be funny for standup, they aren't very funny for television. It's one of the reasons that shows packed with one liners don't last long, even if a character is a jokester. When it comes to programming, people want to lose themselves in the characters and not the writer.

Tip 2. Timing is funny. Great script writers know that timing is funny. An easy way to take advantage of timing is to allow the audience to briefly anticipate it. Writers can win one of two ways: Either by delivering what the audience expects or, better, making them think they know what to expect and then delivering something better.

Tip 3. Real life can be funny. There is a close relationship between comedy and tragedy, especially when the tragedy is something we can all relate to, e.g., toilet paper hanging from the back of someone's pants. This is also why stereotypes aren't often funny. Not everyone will be able to relate to them. The more people who can relate, the funnier the situation.

Writing comedy has always been one of my favorite things to do (not that I have many chances to do it). But it is exceptionally hard work to be funny. It's especially hard because you have make it look easy.

Wednesday, October 5

Writing Wrongs: Five Things Writers Need To Teach Themselves

According to the Harvard Business Review, nearly one-third of all professionals write poorly. And if these numbers are consistent with high school proficiency studies from two years ago, the majority aren't much better. Most get by with rudimentary skills.

After all, proficiency is a cut above basic. And right now, only about one in five high school graduates is a proficient writer. I suspect that number could be cut in half (and half again) if we set the bar closer to professional standards. There are only a few who could be considered good to great.

Most studies suggest that the problem begins before high school, with students not being required to write enough to become proficient. This year, I believe it. My son has been struggling with writing lately, which prompted me to ask: When did someone ever teach him to write in the first place? I can't recall.

I'm not worried yet, but only because writing is something I can teach him. Or, more accurately, I know that I can teach him how to teach himself how to write. Writing, like art, is a largely self-taught skill.

Writing is one of the most difficult and rewarding skills to teach. 

As an instructor, I've taught writing classes for eleven years. One of them is a simple half-day editing and proofreading refresher. It doesn't provide me with any sense of how much or how little students might know, before or even after the class.

My next session for Editing And Proofreading Your Work will be held this Nov. 4. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas, likes to run the class two or three times a year. My other class is very different. It's a 10-week truncated course with eight assignments and one in-class assignment. It's held in the spring.

I have a general sense of the writing proficiency in the class after the very first assignment. And in general, the writing proficiency at the onset of the class is in decline. Even students who are working in the field (as writers) are struggling. But the struggle isn't always about writing. It's everything else.

The assignment is to write their own obituary, set some 20 or 30 years into the future. It's a great first exercise because it gives me an indication of their skill sets beyond writing skills, which are often even more critical than remembering grammar rules and style tips. It's also what most professors can't teach.

Five things professors cannot teach people to help them become better writers. 

1. Listening. Especially in communication (advertising, public relations, etc.), listening skills are critical because so much of the work is translating an organizational vision into motivational or educational or instructional content. If you don't listen to the client, it's impossible to deliver acceptable work.

The first assignment is a giveaway. Even though I will ask for an obituary as if a journalist wrote it, I will often receive a eulogy. It doesn't matter if I explain the difference in class or not. Likewise, it doesn't matter that the mandatories (like double spacing) are included in the course outline for some.

2. Understanding. While understanding is just an extension of listening (turning listening into active listening), it still counts. If you don't understand an assignment, it pays dividends to ask questions.

The first assignment is a giveaway because I do not pass out obituary examples. I ask them to look a few up on their own. Most clients do not provide samples. And the few who do are generally stuck in "I like" thinking that usually has nothing to do with their audience. I do, however, tell students that they can ask questions any time by email. Few ever do, and never on the first assignment.

3. Thinking. There is no way around it. Good writing requires good thinking. Not only do writers have to think up an organizational structure, but they also have to make it flow and remain interesting or compelling.

The first assignment is always revealing in how much time I will have to invest in organizational structure. It's not uncommon to see different ideas jumbled up in the same paragraph or any transitional bridges that will help their readers move from one point to the next.

I do teach how to think, but sometimes it's a challenge. More and more students want templates.

4. Passion. Probably the biggest decline in writing proficiency from my perspective is passion. I suspect the decline has been accelerated because of the breakneck speeds at which people attempt to write, but the real culprit is that some students struggle to connect any passion with their subject.

The first assignment is telling because if the students struggle with writing about their own dreams and aspirations, it's a fair indication that they will be passionless when they have to write a news release about the opening of a hotel. Unfortunately, you can't teach people passion beyond quick tip lists.

5. Motivation. In addition to a lack of passion, more students are struggling with self-motivation. Not only do they cheat themselves on the amount of time it takes to write a quality piece, but they are also too busy with life to complete every assignment. And even if they do complete every assignment, many resist rewrites so they have the opportunity to practice applying all those notes they receive on graded papers.

The first assignment provides a great benchmark for both areas. It's easy to tell which students are serious and which students need prodding — even though most took the course to become better writers. As hard as it is to imagine, they won't make time to help themselves.

Anyone can teach you grammar rules and style tips. The rest is up to you. 

The statistic on writing proficiency came from a bundled collection of articles that Harvard has put together. They do a fine job covering the basics, from pushing past writer's block to avoiding grammar gaffes. But mostly, they only scratch the surface on the most critical skill sets that I've included above.

If you really want to be a better writer, much like I will be teaching my son, then you have to master those five areas first. I'm not always convinced students are being taught these skill sets anymore.

To be a better writer, you really need to listen to what your client (or instructor, or audience) needs, understand the subject matter almost as good as the experts, organize the best approach to communicate those ideas, find the hook that provides enough passion to drive the story forward, and have the motivation to make every piece leave an impact.

If you don't have these down, then everything is trivia. If you do, then the rest is all style and polish.

Monday, October 3

Creating Communities: More Choices, Weaker Loyalists

The saying may be cliche, but the science is real: Birds of a feather do flock together.

According to research published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, people prefer to make friends with others who share similar beliefs, values, and interests. But even more interesting, in the age of diversified and limitless choices online, people are even more apt to choose friends who are like them.

In fact, although the study was not conducted on Internet relationships, it found that when people have more choices, they are even more likely to seek out relationships with people like themselves. The logic point is sound: Similarity makes for smoother and more pleasant interactions.

What happens when the choices are limited?

This was one of the questions that Angela Bahns of Wellesley College and Chris Crandall and Kate Pickett of the University of Kansas sought out on college campuses. The researchers approached and surveyed pairs of students on two campuses, asking them questions about various beliefs and values.

By comparing the answers between college students at a campus with 25,000 students to another with only 5,000 enrolled, they found that students interacting on a larger campus with more choices were even more likely to be similar to their friends than a smaller campus with fewer choices.

However, that wasn't the extent of the study. It also found that the students at the smaller campus rated their friendships as closer. And researchers speculated that friendships on the larger campus may not be as tight because students felt they could more easily make new friends.

What community managers and marketing pros might learn from the study.

Social ecologies shape the way people initiate and maintain relationships. This isn't the first study to suggest it. The paper includes references to previous studies, including Kon & Losenkov (1978) that found similar differences between rural and urban schools.

The earlier study found that rural schools had fewer friendships and less "network elasticity" but more stable relationships. What makes this important for companies attempting to develop online communities, or even those developing social networks, is that as their communities grow, they change the social ecology.

And, in fact, rapid growth and diversification of a social network or a community on a social network could undermine the strength of the community as people feel less connected to the larger population. In other words, pressing for popularity — capturing more members in a shorter timeframe (the measure of success for most companies) — could lead to a more fragmented, less engaged, and more transient population. It's the difference between a trend and a fad.

It may even allude to a flaw in the tribes concept by Seth Godin. While Godin is right that community managers a.k.a. leaders ought to seek out similarly minded individuals to create a tribe (or more likely, the tribe will come together on their own within a social ecology), the tribes concept is less scalable than anyone imagined and the faster it grows, the more likely it begins to fragment.

As the group or network becomes larger and larger, it is even more likely that the "leader" or "leaders" of what seems like a strong community will alienate segments of their growing population — either because the growth was propelled by the temporary alliance of another "leader" or because "new leaders" of smaller groups begin to emerge within the larger ecology. This leads to less influence, not more, as current algorithms and marketing quotients dictate.

The importance of organic development and adaptability.

While there is certainly something to be said for rapid growth and viral attention, long-term success relies on the adaptability of any online community — there may be a need for community managers to slow down. Slowing down allows community managers to segment emerging tribes within the networks (creating many small towns within a larger network), elevate members within their network (to manage different segments) or, at minimum, revisit their content strategy to ensure topical strength over individual allure (making the connection based on interest as opposed to personality).

Failing to do so frequently leads to so-called leaders or brands abandoning large segments of their network base as similarities begin to erode and/or segments of a larger population begin to push back. There are several individuals and companies and social networks facing this now.

Once they reach a critical mass, they begin to change the ecology they create, alienating the initial attraction. And in the greater context of the Internet, their once seemingly "loyal" base quickly discovers that network elasticity means that they can replace them. It also means something else. Unlike a prospect who has no pretext of expectation, those who are disenfranchised never forget.

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