Monday, May 16

Cashing In Customers: Budget Rent A Car

ArizonaCombined, Budget Rent a Car and its parent company Avis Rent a Car generate about $4 billion in car rental revenues. The company is doing well enough that it has put in a bid to purchase Enterprise or Dollar Thrifty, once it gets past anti-trust hurdles.

And yet, the company known for its long-running tagline "We Try Harder" and its subsidiary closes customer service on the weekend. Well, maybe. It depends on who you talk to.

Does Avis still try harder? Apparently, not under the Budget banner or on the weekends.

When you receive an unsigned form requesting insurance information from the Budget Vehicle Damage Department as part of an accident "investigation" without any other information — description of damage, evidence, police report — it's something you want to resolve immediately. You feel a sense of urgency, because you know there was no accident or damage.

The form, dated May 6, was received May 14, approximately three weeks from the time of the rental. We know there wasn't a problem because, until May 14, I would have described the rental experience as better than smooth. The attendant who checked the car at the Tucson airport didn't cite any damage. In fact, he adjusted our contract because we brought the car back with a full tank, even though we had prepaid for the gas. Trust me. That never happens.

Any semblance of good will quickly evaporated, not on receipt of the form, but in trying to resolve it. When my wife called the number on the form, she discovered that department was closed. She tried the customer service department, which was also closed.

Then she tried another number, a separate customer service number if you want to extend your rental period. After 20 rings, someone answered. They transferred her to roadside assistance. Roadside assistance was as perplexed as she was about why she was transferred to them.

Since my wife was frustrated, I set my deadline aside to send customer service an email, letting them know I think it sucks that a billion dollar company that provides services on the weekend would shutter up its customer service department during operating hours.

Tip 1. Don't force customers seeking private resolution to look for public customer service.

Believing I would not get a response until Monday, I sought the attention of the person staffing Budget's Twitter account. She immediately offered to help, asking me to follow Budget so we could send direct messages. It's a standard social media tactic that doesn't work unless they can actually help you. This one could not.

The primary goal is to move any complaint away from a public forum not help the customer. Still, the Twitter representative requested various numbers — with each message piling into my DM thread at a rate of four to one. I gave her the information. And within seconds ... she told me customer service was closed on the weekend. Sigh.

Tip 2: Don't castrate your social media reps by limiting their ability to provide customer service.

Customer Service FailI wrote back a cheeky reply and un-followed Budget. With the conversation public again, Twitter monitor Ashley retorted that (sic) "As mentioned, customer service is closed but I would've liked to help w/ the resolution to ur issue when they reopen on Monday."

My thought about social media is pretty clear on this point. If you empower employees to manage Twitter, they ought to be able to manage customer service. And shortly after that comment, I received an email from Budget's customer service department.

Customer service was suddenly open. He instructed to me to call the Accident and Damage Claims Department (a different department and number than the Investigation Department on the form). They would be open on Monday.

I responded that I thought it was ironic that a customer service department that was supposedly closed would refer me to another department that is supposedly closed. To me, a resolution at this point would no longer be sufficient. An apology was in order.

Tip 3: Don't silo your operations to the point that nobody knows what they are doing.

While I was musing on Twitter that I wondered how many tweets it would take before Budget realized its customer service issue was becoming a crisis communication scenario (about 30 tweets, in case you were wondering), my cell phone rang. It was Budget's customer service department.

The representative told me that they had recently decided to extend their customer service hours. Obviously, somebody forget to tell their social media team.

He asked me to detail the experience, because other than the note his manager gave him to call me, he had no knowledge of my grievance. I started over, being mindful not to allow a rant to overshadow a resolution.

At that point, he assured me that it was Budget's policy to inform the customer of any damage at the point of drop off. He said that although he had no access to claims records, he would advocate my issue on Monday (today) by noon. He gave me his direct number.

BudgetWhile I wasn't really satisfied, I could accept his course of action.

About a half hour later, customer service emailed me, saying they would gladly provide a formal apology letter and would like to also include a customer service certificate. I told this second representative, who identified himself as an Avis customer service representative on the second email (same person, different company), that if a customer service certificate is a discount, I would still be leery of renting from a company that claims an accident when no accident occurred, three weeks afterward.

I am, of course, very interested in receiving the formal apology. I might even post it in the follow up.

Tip 4: Effective customer service saves your company time, money, and heartache.

Primarily because of the silo-heavy operations and faulty internal communication of Budget, along with Avis (since some operations are apparently shared), five different representatives worked on an issue that they were not able to resolve. Of the five, only one took real ownership (no resolution, but a course of action) and another took partial ownership (no resolution, but the promise of an apology). All of it could have been avoided had the initial customer service department picked up the phone.

But more than that, there were several points of contact that could have taken ownership. None of them ever did. And none of them, despite having the same rental agreement number, knew what the other representatives were doing.

Tip 5: Even minor investigations have a nasty way of uncovering some facts.

Unlike Budget, our small local insurance company and our attorney can be reached to provide customer service on the weekend. What they told my wife was difficult to believe. They both said that with increased frequency, Budget and other car rental companies have started to treat normal wear and tear on vehicles as damages that customers are obligated to pay for.

In fact, had we done as requested — provided insurance information without specific knowledge of any damage or any evidence of damage (keeping in mind there was no damage) — it would have been akin to admitting an incident occurred and that we were liable. They believe, adamantly, that is what Budget was hoping we would do.

They even recommended that we copy and cc the state insurance commission all written correspondence. The problem is that severe. There are state investigations into these fraudulent practices.

Given a car rental company charges rental rates that can pay for a car five times over in a month plus retain the resale value of the asset, it seems almost impossible to believe they would subscribe to such a tactic. However, it's more common than you think.

budget sucksOther stories, including those that cite Budget specifically, also say that many companies have reversed their old policy of having agents perform a walkaround with the customer prior to accepting the vehicle. The cursory walkarounds used to be standard practice so customers agreed with the condition of the car before leaving the lot.

Rental companies do not staff enough people to do so anymore; some of them even have parent companies man empty service desks part time. Many people have requested a pre-checkout walkaround and have been denied. We certainly didn't get one.

Worse, the general feeling from our insurance representative was that rental car companies specifically target individuals who do not subscribe to the fear marketing that rental companies use to solicit additional insurance and roadside assistance fees. That would include people like my family. We have double coverage when we travel — private insurance and travel insurance from our credit card company — and maintain AAA membership for roadside assistance.

Still, it leaves me to wonder what would happen had we bought additional insurance. Would a claim have been filed without our knowledge, possibly marring a perfect driving record? Maybe so. It's hard to say, especially because if the car was damaged it happened well after we turned it in and and well after we flew home. It's even harder to say because the so-called insurance doesn't insure anything anyway.

Preliminary conclusions about the social media customer service issue with Budget.

To date, I don't even know what the supposed damage to the vehicle is. And based on the perfect return, I don't believe for a minute that we damaged the car — let alone were involved in an accident we can't remember.

Regardless of the resolution and pending apology, I still don't think I would ever rent from Budget again. What I do think is that I will be forever compelled to take pictures of a rental car well before we leave the lot. We can call this disorder they cause Budgtophobia, a severe and overwhelming fear of car rental scum.

Kidding aside, I do advise taking pictures of any rental. From everything I've read on the topic, the only people who successfully see faux claims of damages waived are people who make the issue public or take it to the press. The goal of the company seems to be to look like a hero as they overcome the problems they create and to avoid the rigor of investigative reporters.

All of this is a recipe for mistrust of the company and the rental service industry in general. That's not so easy to do. To earn such a distinction, you really do have to try harder.

Living case study ahead. The follow-up post on Friday, with a growing list of improvement points for Budget Rent a Car.

Friday, May 13

Moving Forward: Success As A Verb

“Success is a journey not a destination. The doing is usually more important than the outcome.” — Arthur Ashe

Sure, you’ve seen the quote used often enough (usually twisted and unattributed) that it borders on cliche. And it might seem out of place for someone who tends to be outcome focused. However, it doesn’t make the concept any less valid. Success works better as a verb than an adjective.

I had a discussion with my son the other day. Although he is only 12, he wanted to begin some type of physical fitness training.

So I gave him a schedule suitable for his age. But he almost didn't commit because the first few days surprised him. He wasn't as strong as he thought he was and had to reduce the weight related to some exercises. It was discouraging, he said. I'm weak.

I encouraged him not to give up. He was already succeeding because he was moving in the right direction. Everything else is just a matter of time and commitment.

A few days later, he found that the exercises were getting easier. And with every day he succeeded in completing a schedule of sets, he felt a sense of accomplishment (and was impressed by early results). I feel stronger, he said. His muscles tighter.

So, I used his discovery as a teaching opportunity. I mentioned the Ashe quote, but in a different context.

“No matter where you are in life, all of it is nothing more than a temporary state of being.”

In other words, it doesn't just apply to fitness. It applies to everything. Weak; strong. Fat; fit. Poor; rich. Burning water; celebrity chef. Struggling hack; brilliant author. Eager entrant; respected professional. Unread blogger; popular publisher. So on and so forth.

Almost every label you can dream up is nothing more than an adjective that takes a snapshot of the place where you are, without considering the place you're moving toward. And as such, they don't matter all that much.

I suggested that my son picture two extremes in his mind on a mile-long line. Imagine where he was on that line. And then imagine imagine moving toward the extreme he wants. Once he did, I told him to erase it all and focus on the movement in the direction he had picked. That's all that matters.

Let's face it. Most people never reach either extreme destination. And if they do, their time there is only temporary. A best-selling author only retains the title until his next book. A boxing champion eventually gives it back. This year's best actress isn't necessarily the same one who will accept the prize next year.

What's more important than adopting the snapshots as labels is continually moving in the right direction at a comfortable pace. Pace is important, but only because people generally work on several dozen goals at once. (No one can set the highest pace for all of them they eventually want.}

The secret to success is never thinking you’ve achieved it.

While it might come across as a paradox, most people who are successful find themselves striving for some higher or seemingly unreachable benchmark. Meanwhile, people who say they are successful are usually on their way down, perhaps already having enjoyed a brief moment of weightlessness after being shot up into the air with the full force of 4 Gs.

success2Imagine what would happen to my son a few years from now if he set some benchmark of success based on how much weight he could lift. If he stopped working out after reaching it, it wouldn't be long before he wouldn't be able to do it again.

In other words, success as an adjective isn't a place you stay. It's a temporary state of being while we are continually moving in one direction or the other.

At first, my son thought this sounded a bit discouraging. But then might find it liberating. If he wants to build strength, the act of building it makes him successful. That will never change (unless he gives up or moves in the other direction), making the verb more powerful.

Whereas the adjective is a snapshot, success as a verb is a journey. And knowing this, he doesn't have to think of himself as weak (he's not anyway, given his age) nor afraid of what areas need more work than other areas. All that matters is he is getting stronger every day and I wasn't only talking about fitness. Success is a verb in anything we do.

“I run on the road, long before I dance under the lights.” — Muhammad Ali

Wednesday, May 11

Listening To Experts: Or Social Media Intellectuals?

smart guyAlthough a recent Hoover Institution video, Peter Robinson interviews Thomas Sowell, had political overtones, it also inspires some questions that fit for social media. Are the experts that your company is listening to "experts" or "intellectuals" and why does it matter?

If you ask Sowell, your company might be cautious listening to "intellectuals," people whose end products are only ideas. It might be worthwhile to consider other intelligent people who produce end products like vaccines or buildings or campaigns and programs instead. The difference between the two isn't only in what they know (or think they know) but it's also a matter of attitude and accountability.

The latter is one of the first distinctions Sowell points out in the interview. Intellectuals do not have accountability to their ideas whereas people who execute ideas are frequently held accountable. The reason for the exemption is obvious. Intellectuals can fault the execution. They can fault the data drawn upon to make their conclusions. They can fault unexpected events.

The concept makes for a compelling argument, especially when it's moved to a new field like social media where there are few experts and many thought leaders. It might even be safe to say that some people are operating within the sphere with nothing more than ideas or, more specifically, opinions — ninjas who are so unfamiliar with a sword that they still struggle with their butter knife at dinner.

Five Warning Signs That You're Working With A Social Media Intellectual.

• The belief that their knowledge of things far exceeds their experiences.
• The notion that superiority in one field transcends into superiority in all fields.
• The willingness to provide advice without having the benefit of consequential knowledge.
• The over-reliance on studies, surveys, and statistics without looking at individual people.
• The unwillingness to rigorously review data that might run contrary to their own conclusions.

These types of behaviors abound in social media. Some social media experts tell executives how to run a company. They have ideas related to political policy. They make a living as consultants without ever managing a campaign (beyond their own). And they draw conclusions based on a singular study. And social media people search for validation more often than truth.

It doesn't have to be social media people, of course. The entire communication industry has a tendency to over reach into topic areas where they have no experience or even consequential knowledge.

I remember one "expert," for example, who suggested an ice cream company make whatever flavors people could dream up (and then convince them to sell it) without ever considering the operational nightmare of cleaning out the machines in between every new concoction. Suffice to say, it was an intellectual daydream and not even a very good one (and that's without mentioning all the problems associated with nut allergies).

ideaDon't get me wrong. It seems to me that intellectuals can be very useful, especially if they dream up stuff that other people do not. But any company hiring them as consultants has to vet every suggestion and rigorously research the contrarian views.

Why? Because at the end of the day, unlike the intellectuals who think about it, the people who actually do it will be held accountable. It's especially true when such advice begins to drift away from social media and into human resources, customer service, production, pricing, loyalty programs, how your shoes look with blue pants, what your spouse might like for dinner, and where your kids should go to school.

Sure, you can ask their opinion on all that stuff if you like. However, opinions from intellectuals — especially those propped up by popularity — are exactly what they sound like. They are opinions, and they might even be opinions of lesser value than non-intellectual experts who happen to be immersed in the business of doing. Or, at minimum, doers will be well equipped to vet.

Monday, May 9

Advertising Obesity: Are Marketers To Blame?

scaleIf you thought that the United States was the only country targeting advertisers and marketers as the cause of childhood obesity, you'd be wrong. Australia has it out for chocolate and junk food too.

As proposed, the national blueprint would join aggressive anti-obsesity legislation shared only by Sweden and Quebec. Not only does the legislation regulate junk food advertising to children, but it kills chocolate-based fundraising drives in schools.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the blueprint would specifically limit television ads during certain times and ban all advertising across email, text messages, movies, magazines, school fundraisers, and public transport.

One study suggested that as much as 84 percent of the public supported the idea that "children should be protected from unhealthy food advertising."

In the United States, there have been similar efforts to curb childhood obesity, with most marketers attempting to make voluntary changes. For example, cereal companies have reduced the amount of sugar in their products.

The CDC reports that approximately 17 percent of children and adolescents, ages 2—19 years, are obese. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) breaks the numbers differently. It says 10.4 percent of American children, ages 2 to 5, are obese; 19.6 percent, ages 6 to 11, are obese; and 18.1 percent, ages 12 to 19, are obese. Three children in five are overweight.

However, almost all studies to determine obesity is based on body mass index (BMI), developed in the 1800s. It tends to overestimate body fat in people with a more muscular build. Ironically, BMI does not actually measure the percentage of body fat despite being used to do so in most government studies. It might even promote malnutrition.

BMI flawsBMI was only adopted as the result of Ancel Keys' efforts to popularize the measure in 1972 (he also marketed a specific type of diet). In recent years, Keys' studies have been criticized. Likewise, it wasn't until 1998 that the U.S. adopted World Health Organization standards and dropped the BMI obesity rating from 27.6 to 25. When that happened, 25 million Americans went from normal/overweight to obese.

A better measure might be a waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio. This measure tends to be more accurate for athletes, especially body builders, who have a higher percentage of muscle and a lower percentage of body fat. It also helps women who have a "pear" rather than an "apple" shape. A WHtR under 50.0 percent is generally considered healthy.

As a personal illustration, I score as borderline obese on a BMI scale, but the target waist-to-height (WHtR) ratio matches exactly where I am. If I attempted to reduce my BMI, I would look gaunt and force starvation. One inch off the waist would be a balanced solution. There's a reason for pointing out the discrepancies..

Maybe marketing and advertising isn't as evil as people would have you believe.

While it is clearly good news that manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in cereal, the reduction of advertising to children doesn't necessarily correlate to changes in their diet. In fact, Kate Carnell, chief executive of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, pointed out that aggressive bans on advertising junk food in Sweden and in Quebec, Canada, have not worked.

How can that be? Technically, advertising to children has no real effect because children are generally powerless to take action. They need parental assistance to obtain excessive amounts of unhealthy products. In short, advertising is effective only when children do not understand the intent of advertising (to sell product) and parents are incapable of setting effective boundaries.

bikingAdd two more pieces to the puzzle. When Britain faced similar questions about childhood weight issues, it found that children expend about 600 kcal/day less than their counterparts 50 years ago. And, children today are also subjected to more "anti" unhealthy lifestyle choices.

The latter is especially concerning because "anti" campaigns actually undermine their own messages. Take anti-smoking commercials aimed at youth as an example. Every time they are exposed to the advertisement, they are forced to think about smoking. Ergo, when you tell children not to do something or not to eat something, you implant an image in their mind of them doing exactly what you told them not to do. It ought to be part of parenting 101.

If you want to bring about a positive outcome for kids, banning advertising isn't the solution. It might even be just the opposite.

• Appreciate that the studies many governments use to indicate obesity are flawed; avoid labels.
• Educate your children, early on, that the intent of advertising is to sell them something; be skeptical.
• Teach your children that setting boundaries is not a parent-child conflict; say no and mean it.
• Encourage healthy behavior (exercise, activity) over anti-advertising messaging; show them.
• Reduce access to stationary activities, e.g., television time and computer time; stress fitness.

If parents can take these actions, there won't be a need for overreaching regulation. More importantly, your children will remain healthy, and treats as an occasional reward or opportunity to have fun together over dessert won't have any impact whatsoever. Moderation and will power is an effective life lesson whereas focusing on scarcity or sacrifice predisposes misery.

Friday, May 6

Rethinking Education: The Parental Role

studentsA few weeks ago, I wrote a trio of posts revolving around education. They focused on immersive education, student expectation, and system solutions. Never once did I mention parental obligation. And several people said I ought to have. But I didn't. And it was intentional.

That is not to say there isn't a parental role. But I have mixed feelings about the increasing role parents are "supposed" to play.

On one hand, there is a clear need for parents to insist — demand — a change. On the other, there doesn't seem to be much point in sending children to school if the obligation of educating them falls to the parent anyway.

From an idealistic standpoint, schools are the educators and parents provide oversight. From a practical and pragmatic standpoint, there is a need for parents to become more involved because a failing system means someone has to be accountable. And when it comes to our children, the buck stops with us as parents. So the question is answered in two ways.

The Role Of The Parent Reformer.

Whether you have children or not, take some time to watch Waiting For Superman. The film lags in places, but still provides a primer for what is being lost.

Visit General membership is free, but there are opportunities to make donations. If nothing else, will keep you apprised of what is happening in the school systems, including some of the less effective policies such as favoring seniority over effectiveness when schools have to cut back.

Become as involved in the school as possible. Depending on the school, it might be worthwhile to join the PTA. However, closer to home, we found the local PTA was less of a cooperative between parents and teachers and more of a cooperative between parents and teachers' unions. Even on the national level, the PTA has become politicized, saying it only supports charter schools if they accept the "positions and principles of the National PTA." Enough said.

As an alternative, parents can make direct connections with the teachers and principals of the school on their own. Many parents are sometimes concerned that if they critique an ineffective teacher, there will be retribution. However, it's simply not true. In a worst case scenario, you can demand that your child be moved.

SupermenAs a parental reformer, the time invested can make a difference while keeping the responsibility and accountability of education on the school. Educators and administrators do have a tendency to listen to squeaky wheels. Be squeaky. It's important for two reasons.

First, sooner or later, children outpace parents in terms of the subjects they study. Students won't be able to rely on their parents in college. Second, not every parent is capable of picking up the educational slack, e.g., educational success should not be dependent on whether or not a single parent has to work two jobs.

It would be worthwhile for parents to have a psychological shift in how they perceive education. Younger parents, especially first-time parents, tend to get too caught up in seeking teacher-school affirmation that their child or children are smart and well-behaved. Instead, the emphasis, even early on, ought to be on accountability because every child has the potential to be "smart " and socially responsible. It's the schools' and teachers' responsibility to ensure the potential isn't wasted.

The Role Of The Parent Educator.

While I maintain that the role of education ought to be the responsibility of the school, it would be dishonest not to recognize that parents are becoming more burdened with education. I had a conversation with my mother, who is raising my niece and nephew, about education. And she doesn't recall having to invest nearly the same amount of time in my education as theirs.

Specifically, unlike when I attended school, the children are being sent home with homework they are not prepared to do. In some cases, they mention that their teacher did not have time to cover it in class or, at least, enough for the students to fully grasp the problem.

Baloney. The steps in early education are straightforward. Give students some foreshadow of what they will learn (advanced material with practice problems), show them how to do it (in-class instruction), ask them to do it with oversight (in-class assignment), ask them to do it on their own (homework), and then go over those areas where a majority of the class struggles.

While the teachers ought to be following these steps, parents have to be more reactive if they do not. In terms of homework, parents do the most good if they ensure an environment for study (no television, distractions), review the work, make sure they understand the concept, and then check the work after the child completes it on their own, requiring them to find the solutions for any missed. (Never do their homework!) Of course, this only works if the parent can understand the homework.

Beyond providing oversight — making sure your children understand homework, are turning in assignments, and are maintaining acceptable grades — parents who want to be involved in their child's education need to find ways to augment their education. It's not easy, which I can illustrate by example.

My son started struggling with reading in the second and third grades not because of his skill level as much as the subject material he would choose. He couldn't connect with the books. And after I read a few, I could appreciate why. They sucked.

educationSo, I decided to guide him toward a better selection (only to find out most of the books I knew were not on the AR list). Undeterred, we scoured an online listing looking for high-rated books that touched upon some of his interests; about 20. From those 20, he chose five based on their summaries. His reading immediately improved, even though we had to prod the school to order the tests that coincided with the books. It seems they only order tests for some AR books.

Where the fiction selection paid off beyond meeting school requirements was in discovering related nonfiction interests. For example, his interest in Greek mythology (which in turn opened up history). While we didn't go further, that historical context could have easily opened up art and writing assignments. In short, it helped create an immersive education structure.

For my daughter, things will be a bit different. After considering our options, we decided to enroll her in a private school, starting in kindergarten. Two interesting facts about the school. First, they have an immersive educational format like the one I advocate. And second, while they encourage parental involvement, they accept full accountability for education without relying on parents to augment their education.

It makes me wonder. Why aren't public schools doing the same? But more importantly, despite the examples above, the primary areas of focus for parents are best placed in teaching children social skills (respect for others), the value of education (self-respect), and a love for learning (quest for knowledge).

That will be the foundation that propels them, more than any hands-on eduction. Does that make sense? Although parents are forced to be more hands on for pragmatism, the best thing we can teach our children is the desire to educate themselves. Because if we fail at that, then any educational prodding is merely a Band-Aid until they aren't ours to prod anymore.

Wednesday, May 4

Marketing Public Relations: Truvia

SteviaOn the heels of becoming the number two sugar substitute in America, with a 12.8 percent share of the retail sugar substitute category, Truvia released a "study" confirming that "U.S. moms are already buying (or interested in buying) products made with the Truvia® brand for the whole family, including their kids."

Yes, there is some oddity in the language. But let's lay the groundwork.

The "study" was a survey (conducted by the company) of 2,417 primary grocery shoppers, U.S. moms ages 18-59 with children ages 1-18 in the household. It was fielded in October 2010. According to the findings:

When moms were asked about potential products that could be made with the Truvia® brand in categories such as dairy, ready-to-eat cereal, confections, and beverages, the findings were similar across all product categories (sic):

• Half to two-thirds of moms who are current product purchasers in these categories are interested in products made with the Truvia® brand.
• These moms also indicated they would purchase these products for the entire family, including the kids. 90% of moms would purchase juice drinks and 89% would purchase ready-to-eat cereal made with the Truvia® brand for their kids.
• Even moms who currently don't buy products in certain categories were interested in buying products made with the Truvia® brand and said they would buy these products for the entire family.

The intent of a dual-pupose release and why they don't always work.

Since being introduced to the market, Truvia faced some skepticism as a sweetener because of the chemistry and unconfirmed reports that the plants are genetically modified.

In general, genetically modified foods are accepted in the United States more than most countries in the world. But what stands out about this one, is the amount of attention being given to the side effects. (Proponents argue that it is on par with any other food allergies typical in a large public.)

Whether there is any substance to either claim is up to science to decide. My interest lies in whether the public relations efforts of Truvia are on par or have they turned a corner. In this case, the story is that Truvia has surpassed Merisant's Equal® (aspartame) for the past 16 months and the 52-year-old brand Cumberland's Sweet'N Low® for the past 12 weeks. (Source: ACNielsen Food/Drug/Mass+Wal-Mart, 4 weeks ending 3/19/11.)

So, why would Truvia mar the facts with vague pullouts from a survey, further complicating the communication by making statements such as "half to two-thirds?" They obviously know what the numbers are. They just didn't release them. If anything, the release makes them more suspect because the public relations and marketing teams are either beating the numbers into submission or attempting to oversell the study.

Five tips for releasing a study, especially without a third party.

• Always include the raw numbers. While it's generally acceptable to round in the release (almost half, more than half, etc.), the difference between roughly 1,200 and 2,000 of 2,400 is a huge discrepancy.
• Always include some methodology. In this case, giving the the readers some indication of the questions asked and/or whether or not these mothers had knowledge of the possible side effects would be helpful.
• Avoid vagueness. According to the writing, the company is bullish that "even" moms who don't buy certain products (dairy, cereal, confections, or beverages) are interested in the product.
• Make it clear that the full study is available; include a direct link to the study where possible. In this case the company merely pointed to the website, which did not include the release along with its listings.
• Never oversell a study. If the facts from the study are solid, let the journalists draw their own conclusions, keeping any "guidance" confined to the quotes. True, understaffed publications aren't likely to investigate nowadays but it still pays to pretend they might.

The entire release is bizarre, but no more bizarre than the entire story revolving around Truvia. There are two odd story tracks revolving around the slick award-winning campaign.

TruviaThe first is that Truvia is a success story. Truvia rebiana is already used as an ingredient in over 30 food and beverage products today, including Glaceau Vitaminwater Zero, YoCrunch 100 Calorie Packs, Kraft Crystal Light Pure, and Minute Maid Premium Pomegranate Tea. It also seems the release was embargoed as the company had pitched several publications (without the study), with Fast Company picking it up. (Truvia's Test: Can Diet Sweeteners Go Natural?) Along with this success story is the possible conspiracy theory of why the primary plant was banned from the U.S.

And then there is the other story. While the markers of Truvia have made efforts to become more transparent, it is manufactured by Cargill, which made the toxic ten list in 2008 despite some heavy-handed greenwashing on the Truvia site (the company pledges to make it better by 25 to 50 percent by 2015). Of course, it is also odd the FDA had no interest in allowing Truvia in the U.S. market until it teamed with Coca-Cola.

The net sum is that Truvia has had to participate in significant public relations efforts since deciding to make a play for the U.S. market. It has obviously won many of those battles, even if the FDA hasn't "approved" the product (it filed a letter of no opposition to rebiana, which are the leaves of the banned stevia plant). So why would it punt with an ill-conceived press release?

The only plausible answer is that the company is feeling some push back after some early success in the market. Specifically, some manufacturers aren't ready to recreate their recipes with Truvia, and the excuse they kick back at Cargill is that moms haven't approved it nor are they demanding it. And, despite the spinning, the survey seems to confirm it.

Monday, May 2

Begging For Conformity: A Social Media Killer

Being DifferentThere's a secret about social media that I thought you might like to know. You'll never get anywhere doing what experts tell you to do.

This is true for Facebook. And it's true for Twitter. It's certainly true for blogs. And it's also true for Digg, StumbleUpon and Reddit. Heck, it's true for any social network or social media tool that your company has its eye on. If you follow the leaders, you will eventually lose.

There Is No Formula For Everyone To Follow.

It's not really about social media per se. It's about human nature. The more things become the same, the more people want someone to drift away from all the sameness. It's why music and art tend to flow in cycles. Ergo, Nirvana opened up grunge until grunge became saturated. Minimalist art had people buying two-tone canvases until Andy Warhol pushed up pop.

It happens in almost every industry. It's even the primary reason newspapers and television news started to struggle. It wasn't so much that social media swept the scene as much as it was that they were reporting on the same things, day after day and year after year. News needed a fresh perspective and social media just happened to be the method of delivery.

Social media experts are doing it now too. As the number of experts has increased exponentially, there are proportionately fewer who don't jump on the the most obvious topical bandwagons (and then sometimes lament that someone "followed" them without credit). Seriously?

Of course everyone is spinning the five-step crisis communication solution to the tragedy du jour. Of course everyone is covering the Delicious shift. Of course everyone wants to talk about the iPad 2. Naturally, most people want to discuss the demise of MyBlogLog. Oh wait, not that one. Some people are embarrassed to mention it.

The point being is that most bloggers and social networkers, commercial or otherwise, have a tendency to follow in everyone else's footsteps. It's what they know. They've been watching the sameness factor of traditional media for too long. It's rubbed off on them.

Nobody wants to be the one person caught not covering something. So it stands to reason that the slowest high-speed chase in history locked every channel into live coverage of a white Suburban on cruise control. Yawn.

There Is No Social Media Formula, Results May Vary.

I've worked on about two dozen social media accounts. Not one of them has been the same, even if they used some of the same tools (sometimes they did not). But that's because I appreciate that social media doesn't drive effective content management. Strategic communication drives effective content management — finding the balance between the core of a company (mission, vision, values) and some objective. (And none of it has to do with eyeballs.)

Sure, there are people who would like to tell you differently. Public relations, for example, likes to add formula pushing the message. Social networks like to follow each other, until the social network eventually fails. And social media experts like to add relevancy to scoring systems that aren't relevant. (Um, Empire Avenue is just a flippin' game, not something that needs to be gamed.)

Geoff Livingston distinguishes the approach between machine gunners and garners. Chris Guillebeau frames it up as a cure for a starving artist. And Julien Smith packages similar advice in a way that only Smith can do.

The secret to social media isn't knowing what everyone else is doing so you can do it. It's knowing what everyone else is doing so that you can do something else.

The Better Way To Build A Social Media Effort.

About a year ago, I was contacted by a specialty contractor who was savvy enough to appreciate that his startup might have a competitive advantage with a social media program, but I passed on the job. The reason I passed was because he sent over a dozen or so links and asked that I create a social media program based on others that he "liked."

Broken ProgramsOf course, I didn't say no outright. I only said no after he insisted I develop a social media program that would undermine his company's core and primary objective, and was predestined to be an exercise in boredom.

You see, as a specialty contractor, he wanted to demonstrate that his firm was creative and different (core). He also had an objective of attracting architects, designers, and creative general contractors — people who are often brought in on the projects first and then refer or bring in people like him (objective).

My solution was different than what he expected. I suggested rather than be like everybody else (push content about his company and opinions), he might want to develop content about the people he wanted to attract. In other words, his program would be underpinned by the great creative work of his prospects.

"But," he frowned. "That might mean giving exposure to my competitors too."

Ho hum. I just didn't have it in me to write marketing copy that masqueraded as social content. So, I suggested he contact a firm that was much more formulaic or attempt to do it himself. I'm not sure what he decided, but I know nobody reads the content.

Why would they? Just like the dozen or so programs he liked, his company has a blog that is nothing much more than a serialized "about me" page. You know, just like everybody else, which speaks volumes about his company. He's just like everybody else, no matter how many times he says otherwise.

Friday, April 29

Misaligning Loyalty: Brand Loyal Or Penny Pincher?

how much for a funny hat?Loyalty programs are everywhere nowadays. Almost every company offers rewards and discounts to join Facebook pages and online communities. Airlines and book stores deliver perks to the people with the most miles on membership cards. Some social media experts even promise to promote their followers for the favor (reciprocal exchanges).

But did you ever consider that many loyalty programs aren't really about brand loyalty at all? In many cases, brands are actually undermining customer loyalty with perks and preferred discounts because the incentives they offer reinforce allegiances to discounts over product and service differentials. And in some cases, they disenfranchise brand loyalists all together.

How does it happen? As companies increase the amount of freebies and privileges, the customer becomes more loyal to the "perks" and less attached to the brand. At the same time, some companies undermine the value of customer satisfaction. Ergo, if the only thing keeping a customer returning to a store is a discount, then it's equally likely that they would visit someone else for a slightly better discount.

Worse, hastily planned programs can erode customers on both ends of the spectrum: customers who learn to expect more because of their status within the program (making it an entitlement instead of an incentive) and customers who expect less because they believe any specials are intertwined with sacrifice (quality, service, both).

In some cases, these discrepancies are exceedingly difficult to track. The warning signs occur in the frequency and quality of customer referrals. Either the customers stop referring people or they might refer the perks but not the product or service, per se. Some marketing managers will even hide the problem by suggesting increases in reward programs offered, creating a series of temporary lifts to hide the erosion of loyalty.

So how can you tell the if the loyalty program in place is seen as a positive part of the experience? It's not always easy to really know (short of temporarily withholding perks), but an executive might start by asking what kind of loyalty program they really have.

What is the basis of my loyalty program?

1. Bribery. The most common type of loyalty programs in play today are not loyalty programs at all. They are bribery programs, sometimes with a sense of urgency that demand immediate action. While the program creators will tell you that you have an increase in loyalty, the customers are equally loyal to the price point. (Even when I was working with car companies, customers became savvy enough to wait for seasonal events before visiting dealers. If a customer is willing to wait for a sale, they aren't necessarily loyal.)

2. Addiction. Airlines and hotel chains have been in the business of loyalty programs for some time. The irony is that many of them don't run loyalty programs as much as habits. There was an article in Psychology Todaythat recently pointed this out. The true objective of some of these programs is to make the customer pay more on a habitual basis in order to receive an "incentive" that they could have bought ten times over or chosen another company.

3. Reward. It might not seem so on the surface, but there is a huge chasm between rewards and bribes. And, as long as a company can maintain the distinction, a reward program can enhance customer loyalty. Rewards, especially those that aren't written as part of a purchase point, put the company in the position to exceed customer expectations. The feeling they create is more in line with a thank you and not necessarily a kick back.

Back in January, I read a post that lacked some substance but still managed to nail the concept. Guy Winch, Ph. D., wrote "Customer loyalty occurs because customers’ purchasing behaviors become driven by their feelings for the company, not vice versa." And then he went on to mention that trust (and I might add mutual respect) underpins customer loyalty.

crmThe general concept is to forge deep personal connections with customers. That way, they will always choose your company regardless of any other factor in the purchasing decision. If they are unwilling to do that, then they aren't loyal whatsoever.

So how did everything get so out of whack, making loyalty programs so pervasive? There are dozens of reasons, but asking the wrong questions is the most prominent. Specifically, some companies (or perhaps marketing experts) asked the customers if they would be more likely to purchase the product at a lower price or perk. You don't need a survey to tell you the result.

Anytime consumers are given the option of getting something they already buy for less, the answer is yes. The only time they might hesitate is if you weigh the question with consequences. And even then, without the consequences occurring at the time they are asked, consumers will pick the lower price or perk. However, you can also expect a fair amount will complain about those consequences even if it was spelled out to them on the front end.

Wednesday, April 27

Diversifying Digital: Social Is Not Enough

digital advertising is not enoughMuch like Web designers had to diversify after websites were widely adopted two decades ago, marketers are forecasting that digital marketing and social media will no longer be enough in the months ahead. At the same time, marketers expect traditional firms to demonstrate solid digital skill sets.

According to a new study conducted by RSW/US, which highlights survey responses from companies that include AT&T, Baxter, Volkswagen, Moen, and others, only 18 percent of these managers believe that their traditional full-service firms are digital savvy. Even more striking, this percentage is down not up from one year ago.

At the same time, 67 percent of marketers do not think digital firms can survive as digital "only" experts. Marketers believe that such firms will have to deliver more full-service offerings in order to remain relevant. The study findings suggest that marketers are not satisfied with working with large teams of specialists. They want to limit their outsourcing to one or two shops.

"Digital isn't enough and full service isn't full service without it," said one Fortune 500 executive we spoke with about the study. "Right now, marketers are being asked to work and meet with ten or twenty different specialty shops, ranging from public relations and social media to specialty marketers and advertising agencies. It's too expensive and time consuming."

The RSW/US study suggests that marketers are also tired of "the whole social media ownership 'fight' occurring over the past couple of years – with PR, social firms, and full-service firms, all vying for 'ownership' of the social space." Of all possible "owners," marketers see full-service firms as the best choice but only if they are willing to strategically manage the process rather than creating banners and buying online space.

"I’ve seen plenty of digital firms with great, hot creative — but they lack the accoutrements necessary to make it a complete experience," writes the study's author. "The more sophisticated marketers get in the digital space, the more they will demand smarter planning, better buys, more actionable analytics, and more strategic integration with other media in the mix."

There is a sense of urgency among marketers to see the change happen sooner than later. Only 55 percent say they would consider using their primary agency again if they were to put their account up for review. This compares to 68 percent in 2008. Worse, almost 20 percent said they would not rehire their current agency.

Top most common tips from marketers to agencies.

• Help clients understand how the finite budget fits into sales.
• Show clients better creative, and not just for the sake of creativity.
• Demonstrate that the agency understands the client and market.
• Be relevant by keeping pace with market trends instead of selling cookie cutter ideas.
• Stop sending junior people in to head important projects that require senior people.
• Present good quality ideas rather than a quantity of ideas for the client to pick from.
• Prove that the creative solutions will somehow fit with the company's strategy.
• Know the customers and have a better sense of what they might respond to.
• Try influencing the campaigns more and directing them less. Condescension is not welcome.
• Focus on the development of strategic campaigns instead of generic gimmicks and ideas.

Overwhelmingly, the most common concern that marketers have is that most agencies, they say, do not have a grasp of the company, company products, market segments, or customers. Interestingly enough, this understanding underscored almost every successful agency during the golden era of advertising.

Although not included in the study, the abandonment of strategic principles coincides with the emphasis on design, beginning in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, design is the most common characterization marketers give their agencies after full service, which accounts for about half of all firms. And, even inside full-service firms, design is dominant.

Unfortunately, most designers are promoted for creative prowess and not necessarily for their strategic skill sets. Still, marketers seem to sense that full-service agencies are more capable at developing these skills than digital "only" firms.

The full study from RSW/US is available for download and the organization recently added commentary in regard to the future of digital firms. RSW/US is a professional business development organization with the heart of an agency. It is located in Ohio.

Monday, April 25

Banking On Outlooks: Business Startups

Startup Outlook 2011According to new study released by Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), U.S.-based private and venture capital-backed tech companies are more optimistic in their near-term outlooks. More than 83 percent said they will be hiring this year, which is up 10 percent from last year.

The study focuses on a survey of 375 executives (80 percent at the C-level) of U.S.-based, early-stage companies in four high technology sectors: software/Internet (206 companies), hardware (63 companies), life sciences (83 companies), and clean tech (23 companies). The survey was conducted by a third-party market research firm, Koski Research, in February.

Key Findings From The Startup Outlook 2011.

• Nearly one in four companies (23 percent) exceeded their 2010 revenue targets, up significantly from 2009 (15 percent).

• Two in three executives say that business conditions in 2010 were better than they were the previous year, and three in four expect they will get even better in the coming 12 months.

• The vast majority of surveyed companies (83 percent) plan to hire in the coming year, up from 73 percent a year ago.

• 65 percent of respondents say business expansion and new markets are a top priority for them in 2011.

• The life science sector is more cautious in its outlook, citing regulatory/political issues as its primary challenges. Across all sectors, regulatory/political issues ranked as the third biggest challenge faced by startups.

• The top two concerns are the uncertainty created by our regulatory environment and the overall negative impact this environment is having on risk taking.

While the outlook is positive, government is slowing the recovery.

In order, the biggest challenges faced by these companies included equity financing, scaling operations for growth, and regulatory/political environment. While equity financing topped the list, the cause is also tied to government.

According to survey respondents, venture capital fundraising and investment levels are hindered by a tone set by the administration. While government claims that innovation is the key to success, it has also maintained a tone that suggests an aversion to risk. Unfortunately, innovation and risk go hand in hand.

"Probably my biggest concern (after equity financing) vis-a-vis operating as a startup in the U.S. is the stifling regulatory/tax environment here," said one survey respondent. "The sheer number of regulations and tax issues that have to be dealt with are staggering and the corporate (and related) taxes are highly punitive relative to other developed countries."

According to several respondents, the environment created by the government is driving more companies to move operations overseas. Along with regulatory issues, respondents said that they tend to hire slowly, given the high cost of compensation packages and the high cost of living in the U.S., along with the scarcity of qualified tech employees.

That doesn't mean executives are not bullish on America. On the contrary, only 13 percent would recommend their peers look elsewhere to start a company. The primary reason for their sentiment, respondents said, is because of the country's entrepreneurial spirit. In order to move beyond current challenges, SVB says the U.S. needs to adopt a more entrepreneurial environment.

Innovation remains the key in helping turn the U.S. economy around.

Among the suggestions included in its policy perspective, SVB suggests that the government promote risk taking and reward successes that result from it, remain open to disruptive innovation (even if it turns older companies upside down), provide a stable, predictable legal and business environment (without the back and forth of sweeping policy changes), and avoid excessive regulation. In addition, the government needs to reform education to ensure the country remains competitive in providing a strong pipeline of talent or allowing more qualified immigrants to bring their skills to America.

Other suggestions included government-sponsored R&D, tax credits for R&D, maintaining a sound system for protecting intellectual property rights, promote the flow of adequate risk capital into startups, and remove subsidies, regulations, and other market-distorting forces that favor incumbents.

These changes are critical for tech companies to help increase the speed of economic recovery, the study suggests. Otherwise, the U.S. will continue to discourage venture money, driving more technology away to India and China. The full report can be found here. It includes insights specific to each sector.

Friday, April 22

Making Commitments: Earth Day Network

One of the most valuable lessons I've ever learned (and shared) is the power of one. I learned this lesson when one advertising great pulled out a palm-sized bed of nails and laid his hand upon it much like art that originated in India. Nothing happened.

"See," he said. "When you have too many points, nothing sticks." It was a very effective visual lesson, and his only point.

Advertising works just like this old street-festival spectacle. It's all about weight distribution. If you place equal emphasis on thousands of points, there is too much information for anyone to make an informed decision. Focus on one point; it sticks.

How To Make One Billion Acts Of Green Stick.

As important as Earth Day can be, it has lost some of its impact as it became more commercialized. Nowadays, some of the biggest supporters are organizations that may or may not even be all that kind to the environment. It's hard to say so let's focus on something that works.

One idea that I really appreciated this year comes from the Earth Day Network. It is asking people to make one pledge, written and posted, that will ultimately help our planet.

Over 100 million people had already participated last week. People are sharing pledges to take small and large actions this year — not just for one day, but for a lifetime. And what I like so much about this idea is that those people who pledge the smallest contributions — one thing — are much more likely to stick with it.

A few highlights: One person pledged to turn off the tap when they brush their teeth and another person pledged to purchase more local food. Another person pledged to plant a garden at school and yet another pledged to change their lightbulbs for more energy conservation. One person pledged to turn off the shower when they shampoo and another pledged to install dual toilet flows.

Sure, there are bigger pledges. But I like the small ones because they are one-time reachable goals that are much more likely to stick. And, even if it doesn't seem like a lot, one billon of those actions (even 100 million) add up to a significant impact.

The Earth Day Network also goes a long way in making suggestions, broken down into categories that include green schools and education, advocacy, energy, transportation, sustainable development, conservation and biodiversity, recycling and waste, and water. People can also join pledges that other people have already created.

It's the power of one point. It's the power of one personal action. And it's magnified by the number of people who participate.

Wednesday, April 20

Advertising Dud: Why Great Creative Fails

Eastpack Ad
I have nothing against Eastpack. They started in the 1960s to make duffel bags and knapsacks for the armed forces. Twenty years later, the founder's son noticed that students were using military daypacks as book bags. So they started a new line for students.

They are a tough bag. They even come with a 30-year warranty (except those with item-specific warranties), which is how they came up with the tagline "Built To Resist." That's your background.

Imagine being a copywriter assigned to the account. You have a lot going for you. Military tie-in. Check. Retro cool. Check. Modern designs. Check. Unique selling point. Check. There is no question. If James Dean needed a backpack, this would be it.

So what do you do? Throw all that out the window and rip off an unrelated 1980s video game, changing out the bricks for students who hurl themselves off buildings. They don't even bother to land on the backpacks that are among the toughest in the industry. It's kind of sad.

Sure, there is some pixel art appeal lurking somewhere behind the scenes, but I seriously doubt people are contemplating the unseen connection. Instead, the newest ad campaign from Eastpack is a great example of how more and more advertisers think they need to draw attention to themselves instead of the products they peddle.

Will anyone even remember the brand? The copywriter might remember. But for the company, this is par for the course. They have produced dozens of advertisements where the creative is the hero and the product just an extra.

"Successful advertising sells the product without drawing attention to itself, it rivets the consumer's attention on the product." — David Ogilvy

Look, there is no doubt that the ads approved by Eastpack are an exercise in great creative. But great creative is more art than advertising. The difference is in what happens afterward. Art is designed to elicit an emotional response. Advertising is designed to make you want to purchase (or least know more about) a particular product.

A couple of years ago, Retin Art asked How do you feel about advertising? And in response, penned a post that captures how most people feel. We love it. And we hate it.

Too many advertising professionals are getting too smart for their own good. They want our attention but then never do anything with it once they get it. And that's why great creative doesn't really belong in advertising. It fails so badly that more people would rather read a product review. (Hat tip: copyranter.)

Monday, April 18

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 3 of 3

GlobeThere are probably several hundred issues that could be pulled out of the recent protests in Wisconsin. But out of them all, the most important one remains largely neglected. The education system is broken. And we collectively broke it.

The reason I say we collectively broke it is that the entire issue is more complex than most people know. For all of the debate in Wisconsin — bankrupting government vs. workers' rights — few people dug deeper than the symptoms to identify the problem.

If they did, some people might have raised an eyebrow to learn that the largest teachers' union in that state also owns the health insurance company that public schools contract. They will learn about it soon enough. I see a bigger problem.

The education system is overwhelmingly complex and inefficient.

The debate ought to have never been about teachers and their salaries. The formula is too complex. It's not like other salaries.

Roughly speaking, average teacher salaries are $45-55k for 180 days of work* (as opposed to 240 days in the private sector) with disproportionate benefits of about $30k and tremendous job security (very difficult to let poor performers go) but this is also offset by paltry starting salaries (some as low as $25k), greater education requirements, shrinking autonomy, and personal investments that many teachers make for their classrooms.

What strikes me as more interesting is that teacher salaries and benefits only account for 30-35 percent of the entire education budget whereas the professional-private sector invests closer to 40-45 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. Health care is even higher, with 50 to 55 percent of its revenue in payroll and benefits. (Some sectors are lower too; quick service can be as low as 20 percent.)

nevadaIn Nevada, I know that the Clark County School District reports that 65 percent of its funding goes to salaries and 21 percent to benefits (which seems to indicate that less than half of the salary allotments go to teachers), which leaves 12 percent for services and supplies. Yet, if only about 30-35 percent of the entire budget goes to teachers, then they only account for about 35 percent (or less) of the entire salary budget. The question to ask is who else receives salaries.

In many cases, administrators make two to three times the amount that teachers do. In other words, the bulk of the salary spending doesn't go to teachers, but rather the people who administer the teachers. The irony is that any time there are cuts to the budget, the people most likely to face cuts are the teachers themselves.

*As someone who teaches, I can attest to the fact that good teachers work unpaid on most weekends. And it is not uncommon to continue researching education materials during the summer for the following year.

The agenda needs to be less on adults and more on kids.

When I helped open a private school in Las Vegas, the philosophy was to place an emphasis on the child's education. While I do not know if it has held up since then, I do know that it was the answer to every question related to the school. From which textbooks to purchase (with teacher-driven input) to how many microscopes they needed in the science lab, it always came back to "everything thing we do is dictated by the educational needs of the children. Period."

Most decisions made by the public school system are not based on this. They are based on school board directives, including which books are useful. They are based on how much union dues can be collected. They are based on a disconnect between teachers and the public over what constitutes fair salaries (and fair benefits). They are based on seniority over performance in all but six states.

At the same time, test scores are ridiculously poor. The dropout rates are unacceptable. And the students, from most surveys, are bored and disengaged with their overall studies (only one country ranks higher in terms of bored students than the U.S.). I even raise an eyebrow when my son shares how his education is invested — rallies featuring McDonald's, rule refreshers as to why students aren't allowed to shake hands, career quizzes pointing to jobs that may be gone in ten years, etc.

A student-first ideology makes sense because it removes all the burdens from the education system. It also increases teacher support because teachers are the biggest student assets. Great teachers will have an impact regardless of any other tools (whether tech or textbooks).

However, in order to move forward, school districts will need to consider modular tools, including smart boards and tablets for students — even if that means a certain percentage of parents have to purchase them much like parents are asked to purchase school supplies or uniforms or any number of other items kids need for school (with sponsor opportunities for certain income brackets). Tablets would reduce some of the costs associated with other materials and make books more accessible to the students.

But I would hold off on too many tech investments. School districts have a tendency to put tech ahead of the students. If the overall education system isn't working, then it doesn't matter what tools you have at your disposal. And, the overall plan isn't working.

Three considerations for an overall plan.

From what I've been told, school districts tend to remove autonomy from teachers in the classroom. (In my personal experience, the best teachers complained about administrative directives whereas the worst teachers supported it. Weird, I know.) To be effective, school districts could be changed with mapping out expectations (what the kids need to learn by the end of the year) but the teachers need to develop plans that are designed to get the students there and then beyond the mark.

Teacher Autonomy. Teachers need autonomy — even from some textbooks — because many of the books are wrong. (Last summer, we invested in a tutor who promptly untaught our son inferior methods in math.) This places a greater burden on the teacher, but if more funding could be allocated for performance-based raises, they might be more willing to invest.

Transitional Teaching. Another shortfall in education is the lack of transitional planning. The administrative function of assigning kids to their teachers in the following year needs to take place before the conclusion of the school year. This would provide the new teacher or teachers the opportunity to assign material for students to prepare with over the summer.

Student Expectations. The expectation for every student ought to be college, with the higher marks set for college entrance as opposed to a high school criteria. Learning vocations instead of pursuing college entrance ought not be a consideration until the eleventh grade. The reason is simple enough. Many trades are not looking for secondary education; even the greatest percentage of manufacturing jobs in America are classified as highly skilled.

I've mentioned the need for immersive education in the first part of this series. I use the technique too. While I consider every class custom, some structural elements are the same — an introduction that ties in a current event, coverage of common errors from the last assignment, theory related to the subject, case studies related to the subject, execution tips related to the subject, and then an assignment and optional reading based on the subject. Students also rewrite whatever assignment is returned to them.

students firstApplied to math, after covering common errors from the last assignment, I might include the history of an equation, examples of why an equation is used, basic instruction on how to use it, in-class practice and corrections, and then some inventive homework to ensure they can master it. They might also receive an additional assignment based on what they missed with the first. Having not taught math, math teachers are probably best equipped to decide if it would work for them.

I suspect they would need more time than the allotted 50 minutes. But then again, in Nevada, some students have seven 40-minute classes, effectively reducing the teaching time to 30 minutes or less, not counting roll. That needs to change. Education requires more than snack-sized offerings. Expecting students to benefit from seven classes in one day is just a symptom of a struggling system.

Friday, April 15

Filling Voids: A Company Content Takeover?

Shel Holtz, ABC, principal of Holtz Communication + Technology, wrote a post that touches on a topic area that I wanted to see more companies embrace several years ago. The Internet makes it possible to become your own media company — providing honest, credible, and valuable feature content around your products.

His post, Business-produced content could fill the sharable-content gap created by paywalls takes a slightly different spin that he sees it as a solution to the growing trend among news publishers to put up pay walls. I agree with the concept in part, but then there is the other side of the coin. Companies are not enough to supplant true news coverage.

The Future Media Crisis Will Be A Mile Deep.

Last week, my Writing For Public Relations class was treated to an hour with Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media. Spotleson has been kind enough to grace the class ever since I started teaching it. He even remarked that he could use it to mark the passage of time.

And this year, he shed some light on the state of news media. Specifically, what news media is shedding cannot be easily replaced. We're losing dedicated investigative reporters and senior writers who tackle the most complex issues, those who aren't so easily replaced by special interest citizen journalists and snack-sized entertainment features. (Investigative reporting is the most expensive proposition for any newspaper or news magazine, paying senior writers to spend weeks on one story.)

Looking at some of the reporting on the more complex issues in recent years, I'd go one step further and say we've all but lost most of them. And even the few who remain tend to do little more than report on two polarized talking heads or slant stories toward whatever politicized position their audience has embraced. The truth doesn't bubble up to the surface so much.

Even the most recent economic crisis is just now being understood. CNBC recently reported the findings of a two-year bipartisan probe that concluded conflicts of interest, excessive risk-taking, and failures of government oversight triggered the financial crisis (hat tip: Lewis Green). Both Republicans and Democrats agreed, citing problems that existed well before 2003.

The Story That The Media Largely Missed.

In fact, in 2003, the Bush administration tried to take some steps to correct such problems as they pertained to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But any progress being made to stop the problems was stalled then by Chris Dodd, chairman of the Senate banking committee. Dodd had allegedly been one of several dozen politicians who received special loans. He wasn't alone either. If you read Fact Check, everyone was to blame.

But this post isn't meant to explore the political wrangling that led to the financial crisis. It's an example of how times were already changing. The news media, by in large, was already out to lunch and asleep at the wheel. Instead of critical and objective reporting, the shrinking percentage of people reading newspapers were spoon-fed sensationalism — things that attract eyeballs.

In 2003, for example, the invasion of Iraq captured headlines. So did the shuttle disaster. So did the Laci Peterson story. So did SARS. So did a lot of stories with all of them important but with the emphasis on immediacy. What wasn't covered were our long-term simmering stories — the economy, housing market, or education. All of which would have required objective interests poring over research for weeks and months.

If they weren't being covered almost ten years ago, it seems highly unlikely they will be covered in the future. Or, for a more local example, Spotleson mentioned how local newspapers used to be the watchdogs over all sectors within the community like police departments and other government bodies. And when no one covers them, bad things usually happen.

Businesses Are Good At Reporting Wants; News Media At Reporting Needs.

Holtz is right that businesses can step up their own media outreach efforts and become publishers around their special interest areas, especially if they are sensitive to what consumers want and are reasonably objective in their presentation without filling the Internet with big brochures that get updated daily. Consumer-centric content is more valuable. Instead of talking about how great the company is, better content tells people how to get more greatness out of a product.

At the same time, communicators might want to remain steadfast in convincing news media outlets that there is a void that needs to be filled. Investigative information is too valuable to find behind a pay wall (because we generally don't want to hear it).

To take care of this niche, what we really need is for news media outlets to elevate their advertising rates to pay for objective reporting. And if the reporting is not objective, then at least they can ask the tough questions. All they need to do to recapture some of their old ad rates is deliver content that draws an audience because it is valuable (and not cheap entertainment). In contrast, putting up pay walls for content that doesn't measure up (The Daily doesn't measure up) only drives the audience away.

Wednesday, April 13

Targeting Influencers: Dear PR Pro, There Is No Spoon

no spoon, naddaOne of the hardest lessons for many public relations professionals to grasp comes right out of the Matrix. There is no spoon. There is no campaign.

"It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself." — Potential

It took reading Kary Delaria's PR’s Biggest Mistake When Working With Influencers to fully appreciate it. She rightly suggests too many public relations practitioners approach influencer outreach like media relations instead of community relations.

She's moving in the right direction. And yet, I cannot apply it to anything I've ever worked on in social media, even if they are clearly better than what most public relations professionals want to do in social media. Let's step back.

Specifically, some public relations professionals want people, especially influencers, to push their content to a mass of people who will hopefully visit the destination and perform an action — like a page, subscribe to a reader, purchase a product, or whatever. Most public relations professionals think that by reaching out to influencers, they can increase the mass.

But social media doesn't really work that way, which is the gist of what Delaria was trying to point out. However, overlaying a community relations approach might be scoffed at too, even if it is only because the public relations practitioner abuses it.

"It is not the influencer that bends, it is only yourself."

1. Define goal, content and context. Not exactly. A worthwhile social media approach does consider goals, content, and context as Delaria suggests. But the goals, content, and context should never be bent to the influencers.

It needs to stay true to the community or audience you want to reach. If you can prove yourself worthwhile to a community or attract your own, influencers will be attracted to what you are doing anyway. In fact, they are just as interested in your community as you are (if you have one) — because if they ignore things within their sphere, they won't be influencers for long.

2. Test the theory and the outcome. According to Delaria, panelist David Binkowski suggested that if you had a running influencer campaign, you might run a test on the pool of influencers and then thin the list. But I might suggest that if you are running an influencer test, you're already losing mutual leverage.

As soon as you start testing them, then you've already put yourself outside the sphere where the so-called influencers are and outside any community filled with the people you want to reach. That doesn't make sense at all. You might as well brand "agenda" on your forehead.

3. Manage the community? I'm all for online community managers managing a community from a functional perspective. Someone has to run the advertisements, remove the spam, and provide very loose guidelines for the community to follow (very loose).

But I've grown very weary of community managers who try to manage the people who visit. For very much the same reason above, anytime you take planned actions to "influence" people within a sphere, you've cast yourself as someone outside it.

"It is not people who bend, it is only yourself."

Think of it this way instead. Hopefully if you are representing a company online, you have more than a passing interest or paycheck in the balance. It's probably best for you to like, even better if you love, whatever you are representing online.

If you are passionate about the subject, you already have a common interest with the people you might connect with online, whether or not they are influencers. Thus, they are not people to "target" as much as they are people you get to know.

As for campaigns in general, don't think of them in the traditional sense. They are simply part of whatever you bring to the table. If you have the insider information, unique perspective on a topic, clever idea for entertainment, or some other worthwhile contribution, you are just as much of an influencer as anybody.

The only difference between you and them is that they've probably been at it longer, got lucky one day, or never bothered to implement tactics that position you outside the community that interests you. In other words, there is no spoon.

Monday, April 11

Rethinking Education: Immersion, Part 2 of 3

Yesterday, I received some thank you notes from students in an intermediate class, ranging from third to fifth grade. I had made a modest donation to fulfill a DonorsChoose project request for a phonics program because the students haven't mastered reading and writing.

The pictures alone tell the story. While my own daughter, age 4, is learning to spell and recognize simple words, these children are struggling to the do the same. Imagine that for a moment. They're in third grade to fifth grade.

Sure, it's very likely some of these children are new immigrants (not all of them are), placed at a grade level based on age. But sooner or later, they will be combined into standardized classrooms to either fail or command so much attention from a teacher that the entire classroom will struggle with rudimentary skills so slower classmates can catch up.

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." — William Butler Yeats

I've never met a kindergartener, first grader, or second grader who is disinterested in school. So when does it happen, exactly?

If you believe Waiting For Superman, it happens sometime in the fourth grade. Personally, I think it happens well before the fourth grade — the foundation is laid as early as the first grade when teachers begin to assign labels for success.

Thank youThe problems with the education system merely manifest in the fourth grade, when testing begins and the children start to exhibit whatever predestined labels have been attached to them. This child is an overachiever; this child is an under performer — with most of those labels being assigned for very little reason other then their willingness to conform to an environment or their socio-economic background.

What's especially odd, however, is that students aren't as aware of their socio-economic background when they enter school as the teachers who educate them. They are also less aware of other identifiers too. Skin color makes little difference to them. Religious preference doesn't enter playtime conversations. Role modeling is mostly non-existent, at least among new peers.

For the most part, any pressures they face pale in comparison to those Ruby Bridges Hall faced as the first black American to go to an all-white school in New Orleans. She graduated and became a travel agent. Obviously, she wasn't deficient or predestined to fail despite her circumstances.

At yet, here in Nevada, we continually hear that socio-economics has driven the state to have the worst high-school dropout rate in the nation. Most studies suggest that low-income families are the primary driver. Others claim Nevada's poor performance is merely a matter of how the numbers are crunched, saying that the state's rates suffer from poorly performing students who move here. Others say it is because not enough is being invested in education.

The excuses don't seem to account for the trends tracked by America's Promise Alliance. That organization noted that the number of high schools in Nevada deemed “dropout factories” rose from eight in 2002 to 34 in 2008, with the increase representing nearly 54,000 students. During that time, the state's graduation rate fell from 72 percent to 51 percent. Population growth has also since slowed, especially during the recession.

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school." — Albert Einstein

The problem, here, in part has nothing much to do with anything politicians talk about. The problem is centered around one of three discussion points —  scarcity of resources, socio-economic issues, politicizing the classrooms. Simply put, the state fails because either the state or select school districts invent reasons to fail and then pass those reasons on to the students.

StudentOr, to match the excuses with common language — it's a lack of funds, it's the parents' fault, and it's the students' fault. Seriously? Our children are being told they will fail because success isn't in the budget, their parents are poor or are single parent households, and because they or their classmates come from other disadvantaged school systems (or countries).

I don't believe it, any of it. Nevada students fail because they are given every reason to fail. Since I went to school in Nevada, there has been a dramatic shift to improve grades and educational scores by encouraging all of the children to shoot for the minimum standards.

But as any teacher ought to know, when you tell students to shoot for the base minimum, they won't all measure up to that bar. If you want them to succeed, the expectation is no less than 100 percent or more, while reinforcing than anything but doesn't constitute failure. Students shooting for higher marks, even when they falter, hit 80 percent or better regardless of funding, socio-economics, or preassigned excuses.

"If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." — Andy McIntyre

Some people tell me that my experience as a teacher is tainted because I work with students who have elected to be there. (If that were true, all college students would earn As in every subject.) I humbly disagree. The challenge is greater because the education system has already failed many of them, given their lack of mastery of the English language.

We have no privileges in this class. I don't have any special monetary funding to get them where they need to be (I lose money teaching); there was even one year that everyone had to wear coats because the heater in the room was broken. The students come from every socio-economic background (unemployed to financially successful). They are ethnically diverse, with some speaking English as a second language. They have varied education backgrounds (high school dropouts to master's degrees).

But in my class, there are also no excuses, labels, or unrealistic expectations.

And every year, it only takes one or two assignments for the students to learn that I cut no breaks. The class average on the first assignment is in the 60s (high school level writing or less); the average on the last assignment is in the 80s (better than the writing provided by an average working professional). This is done in ten weeks (about 16-18 hours, plus 16-18 hours of homework).

My expectations are simple. Regardless of where they start, they will be better writers by the time the class ends if they do every assignment (and rewrites after the assignment). At minimum, they will be able to write one standard news release without common errors by the end of the session. But they really learn more than that, more than many working professionals.

That is not to say some don't drop. I lose one for every ten. But then again, they have an entire life of baggage by the time they come here. In contrast, every kindergartener, first grader, or second grader that I've ever met wants an education.

So why I support programs and individual projects at DonorsChoose.

Thank youI supported the literacy program by the aforementioned teacher to give them another educational tool and help the kids overcome the stigma. You see, those students are in a special class, with a 50-50 shot of drawing a teacher who cares or a teacher who collects a paycheck.

Obviously, they have the former, given she is seeking outside help. So, by funding their educational needs, I would like to think that I sent a message to the students and the teacher that the ROI on learning to read is worth it. They seem to based on the thank you notes.

Other than that, I don't care where they came from because they are not disadvantaged in my eyes. They all have the potential to excel, assuming the expectations are high enough and the system allows them.

But isn't it the same with any job? Most new employees want to excel too, until their employer or supervisor proves to them otherwise. Yeats might have been talking about education, but his idea really applies to everything. At least I think so.

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