Friday, April 27

Branding Failure: Your Brand Is Not You

Professionals aren't the only ones struggling with the lack of social networking etiquette and the impact of errant tweets on so-called "personal brands." It seems that online friends, extended family members, and spouses can be the source of most online friction.

Even if someone carefully manicures their online presence and pedigree, it only takes a single tweet, comment, or picture from someone closest to you to undo everything in a day. One button click on Facebook can undo a decade of being an ideal "power couple" when someone changes their status from 'married' to 'its complicated'.

These seemingly harmless, sometimes quirky online episodes under the existing rules of social networks can set off a flurry of phone calls among family members, make connected employers think twice about whose head is clear enough to lead that big project, or even scare away the usual friendly suspects who normally subscribe to everything you share. It doesn't even have to be so overt, either.

Anything can happen, really. A couple of years ago, I was working with a candidate who took a pretty tough stand on illegal immigration. One of his followers, who the candidate hadn't spoken to in years, took exception to what he had to say, enough so that she started rallying against him on Facebook thread.

The entire episode exploded into a half-day session of angst as his followers split into decidedly different camps on the issue. But the real kicker was when her barely coherent argument was punctuated by the fact that she was his cousin, talking about illegal immigrants who were in his extended family. Yikes. He didn't even know it (and it didn't change his position). But there were consequences.

Does 'personal branding' mean we need 'couples branding' and 'family branding' too?

This is one of many reasons that personal branding doesn't work. And it is the main reason that I am always perplexed when social media professionals argue that personal branding ought to be an ever-constent concern. Yes, the same people who advise organizations can't control their brands are sometimes the same people advising individuals that they ought to control their online brands. Are they kidding?

If you think it's difficult to manage a message within an organization that can set some semblance of guidelines, then you might as well lower your expectations for personal branding where no such guidelines exist. Well, except for those folks who ask their better halves (and friends) to seek approval.

Can you imagine doing the same with all your friends and family members? 

Years ago, I wrote a little post about Tom Cruise to illustrate the pitfalls of personal branding and the paradox of expected behavior, whether or not someone pursues personal branding as a means to an end. The point I was trying to make then — the fragile brand theory — is the further away someone drifts from the reality of who they are, the more damaging any deviation from that brand becomes.

It also explained why some public figures are expected to be saints with no room for error and others are expected to be sinners with reckless abandon. But what I didn't write about then was that the entire image is dependent upon those who claim to know you best. And that means any personal branding deck is stacked with wild cards that undo anything that isn't authentically you or, worse, the contradiction of anything you've said or done, whether it is true or not.

Brands are fragile. Character is not. And even that is going to take hits. 

Recently, I reviewed this brilliant little thriller called Defending Jacob that underscores the point. The story, about an assistant district attorney whose son is accused of murder, illustrates just how fragile a brand can be. At the onset, the character is one of the most respected people within his community.

But when his son is accused, all those years of reputation building come undone. To make matters worse, his wife becomes fixated on the fact that the protagonist comes from a long line of violent men, the most immediate of which is incarcerated for murder. Never mind that he hadn't seen his father since age 5 or that he didn't share this dubious fact because of the baggage (and labels) that come with it; his wife still obsesses over whether or not she had a right to know before they were married.

Sure, the book is fiction. But the concept is not. People make judgments about all sorts of unrelated things, ranging from who you associate with to your extended family. Brands can't be controlled.

Five years ago, when online personal branding became the topic du jour, it all seemed easier. But that was only because there were fewer people actively engaged in social media. Nowadays, even those obscure family members (like the second cousin who always seemed like he came from another planet) and those long lost friends (like the one you ditched school with and told all sorts of secrets), can snap any brand you've built since then in a second. But those folks are only the tip of the iceberg. The person  sitting next to you is just as likely, even if they have no intention to do you any harm.

You can't control any of it. So you might as well be comfortable with it. It's just part of life. Live it.

Wednesday, April 25

Making Decisions: Are Consumers In Control?

I was sitting in a business meeting yesterday when someone posed an interesting point. Eighty percent of startups develop products they never intended, driven by the markets they never intended to enter as dictated by the consumer. Never mind that the figure — 80 percent — was anectodal and unattributed.

This thinking is all around us. Some people say that social media sparked a consumer revolution, one where executive edicts were traded up for crowd-sourced darlings. You know the story. Companies better listen to consumers or else. They know what they need and make everything better.

How does the public know what 'should be' when it doesn't know what 'could be?'

Sometimes the public is right. During the Bronze Age in Great Britain, which spanned 2100-750 BC, consumers had it right. The early metal work started by the Beaker culture continually improved over hundreds of years until the final phases when Britain and the rest of Europe produced classic leaf-shaped swords.

For all we know, consumers would have refined bronze work for several thousand years more (like some cultures around the world did) if it hadn't been for the inconvenient introduction of another metal that would eventually sweep across Europe between 800 BC and 400 AD (or so). Iron and steel changed everything, including the entire socio-economic system that made people comfortable.

But can you imagine the change if we were experiencing it today? Some corporations would have argued evolving from bronze to iron was idiotic. Not only is iron more difficult to smelt and more costly to shape, but consumers would also be complaining about higher prices for a stronger but more brittle metal.

That's all fine and good, I suppose, until those guys with the iron cut through your defenses.

So what if this so-called 80-20 rule is right? What do you want to do? 

Sometimes I think businesses hire too many people who guess at so-called guarantees. The reality in business, much like life, is that all models only work sometimes and all guarantees are guesses at best. And that makes the riddle of bronze vs. iron nothing more than a parlor trick.

What I mean by that is: most decisions are never as clear cut as "do we fulfill the public need for better bronze or go with the gut of the guy in the back room and build out our iron division." Instead, they are littered with intangibles. You know, the guy in the back room could just as feasibly be working on a ham sandwich, in which case refining bronze might be better than hurling lunch meat.

So, it really does depend on the team and our best guess, just as history teaches us. Right. Some people backed beta and others picked up VHS. Flash forward a few dozen years only to find out that both decisions were wrong because DVDs, er, Blu-Rays and digital files win for now.

All this leads to a different approach. It seems to me that business choices have nothing to do with sizing everything up into 'either' and 'or' columns. Companies are better off innovating products and services that consumers have never seen and then refining those innovations once they are released in the marketplace based on consumer input, while keeping a watchful eye any inspirations that occur within every marketplace with every launch. That, of course, and everything needs to be weighed against what's next — information and ideas and innovations that consumers know nothing about it.

Ergo, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion because the guy in the buyer's back room had just as much time but came up with a ham sandwich. They called it Timeline. Meanwhile, Instragram went niche.

Monday, April 23

Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman

There has been plenty of buzz-up over Peter Shankman's declaration that people have one brand — not personal or professional (hat tip: Olivier Blanchard). And while this verdict has garnered some attention because Shankman is well followed, the epiphany isn't so special.

It has always been true, even if "brand" is the wrong word. He's talking about character.

"Every single day, someone directs me to their LinkedIn profile to learn more about them. You know what I do when they do that?" Shankman says. "I go right to Facebook and search on their name there. Why? Because I know they're on their best behavior on LinkedIn, but on Facebook, they're going to be 'real.' Guess what? I'm not the only person who thinks this way."

In his example, he's right. People share different things in different places.

So unless you are a superhero — Superman, Batman, Spiderman,  Iron Man, and the like — there is no division between your personal and professional lives. In fact, superheroes aren't so good at having two either. Even people who swap their public personas with secret identities by finding the closest phone booth or sliding down a bat pole, tend to struggle in attempting to juggle multiple personalities.

But that is not to say Shankman is right. He is presenting a conversation starter, not a conclusion.

People ought to give up on brands. People ought to give up on judgments. 

As a society, we set different behavioral boundaries in different places: Someone might behave differently in church than they would at the local pub. It's a mistake to think just because you are exposed to someone at only one location or the other somehow means they are pulling a fast one.

On the contrary, the fact that they exhibit appropriate behaviors in two different environments is admirable. It demonstrates how they can adapt to a variety of social settings. In fact, if people acted the same in church as they did in a pub, you might be more concerned about them.

The same can be said about social networks too. People act differently on Facebook and LinkedIn because each community has different behavioral expectations. And, for many people who work in communication-related fields, we probably have a lot more than merely two. Everyone does, really.

Given that, the opposite of what Shankman is getting at bears truth too. People who are able to encapsulate their entirety into a single "brand" that consists of readily available attributes would be remarkably 1-dimensional and probably boring. At minimum, they are most likely faking it.

Let's face it. If you can fit everything about yourself within the confines of an elevator speech that people can actually remember, then you have a bigger problem than figuring out what to write down on the cocktail napkin so you can commit it to memory. Well-rounded people are not organizations where a mission, vision, and voice encompasses an agreed upon direction for every facet of operations.

In fact, this chronic need to ferret out the "truth about people," as Shankman suggests, says more about those lurkers than it could ever say about the people they investigate. Short of discovering someone is ethically and morally dysfunctional or engaged in something illegal, why can't we learn to accept what people want to share with us?

How I learned to stop worrying about my brand like Batman.

When I was just beginning my career, long before social media, I was especially concerned about my professional brand. I would literally adopt a different demeanor, dress, and attitude to exhibit a certain sense of serious professionalism to offset my youthful age, a barrier for many overly judgmental prospects.

While it worked well enough, there was some consequence. Being overtly aware of everything you say, do, and share (as a by-product of what you project) can be stifling. It also creates the propensity for fear and doubt because purposely exhibiting certain qualities also means chronically keeping score.

Isn't that the fundamental reason most people are afraid to speak in public? They are too worried about what other people might think of them. Did they like what I said? Do they see me as an expert? Do they agree with my conclusions? And so on and so forth.

It was too maddening to maintain. So, I gave it up. Instead, I decided to adopt a basic principle. I care what people think, but I don't care what they might think of me. Why should I? I'm a complex person.

People are too complex for a single brand. Get over it.

I like Mozart as much as metal (as well as alternative, punk, country, rap, hip hop, folk, etc.). I am both fiscally conservative and socially committed. I have faith, but don't measure others against my beliefs. I enjoy clinical books that some people call boorish and contemporary books that others call controversial. I wear a suit when the occasion calls for one, and Doc Martens when it does not.

I could fill a million file cabinets with contradictory likes and another million with things that I haven't made up my mind about. And I certainly don't want to share them all with everyone or, in some cases, with anyone. So what?

If someone is going to imagine a "brand" about me, it will likely depend upon the setting where they meet me offline. So why ought it be any different online? When I eventually decided to make a public page beyond my personal account on Facebook a few weeks ago, it had nothing to do with branding or ego and everything to do with privacy and context.

In other words, while some subjects cross over, others do not. People who want to read about communication-related topics are a little less interested in commentaries about music, literature, and movies. People who want to contact me for a job don't really need to know that I went to a musical production a few nights ago. People whom I have a conversation on Twitter don't need to be part of the conversations I have with select friends and family (and don't really want to be, either).

Sure, Shankman is right that the boundaries between personal and professional sometimes blur, but the course correction doesn't need to be a burden to the individual so much. It needs to burden society.

Just because information exists doesn't mean we need to rifle through it all like an investigative reporter, looking for way to add up the labels and deliver a judgement. If we do need to do that, then it might say more about our own characters than anything we can uncover.

Friday, April 20

Going Social: NASA Turns Earth Day Blue

While NASA sometimes struggles with public relations to justify loftier goals and big ideas like a moon colony, there is no doubt that the agency is starting to find footing with social media. While the program is best described as fledgling (only because it lacks cohesion), there is something that can be learned from it.

Specifically, NASA is hosting Earth Day activities for three days in Washington D.C. and two days in Long Beach, Calif., but its physical presence is only the beginning of its efforts in support of Earth Day. Portions of the program will take advantage of real-time communication and engagement.

How NASA Communicates On Earth Day. 

• National Mall in Washington D.C. The main location will be held in Washington D.C., with three days of displays and presentations open to the public at the "NASA Village," mostly held from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. On Friday, there will also be live presentations hosted on the Earth Day Network stage (12th Street and Jefferson Drive SW).

Live Webcast And Scientist Chat. Focusing on A High-Tech Checkup of Earth's Vital Signs on Saturday, NASA scientists will take people on a world tour from the vantage point of space, providing insights that can only be made possible from orbiting sensors. The webcast is scheduled to air 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, April 21. It will be viewed online at the NASA Village.

NASA Earth Day Video Contest. Independent of these efforts, NASA is asking people to share their vision of what NASA's exploration of Earth means by creating a short 15-second to 2-minute video. The contest is being hosted by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and participants are invited to draw from NASA's image gallery. Submissions will be accepted April 22 to May 31.

• NASA Center Activities, Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Other than being mentioned via NASA's Twitter and Facebook accounts, there will be another location-based event on Saturday and Sunday. Held at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., attendees will share science research about our ocean planet, using exhibits and hands-on learning demonstrations for all ages.

How NASA Could Have Communicated Earth Day. 

All of the above efforts are admirable and certainly a step in the right direction, especially because they employ both physical locations and social media. But I cannot help wondering how NASA could have created a campaign with a greater national or global scope, something that could have captivated the world. Such a campaign might have included:

• YouTube video contest leading up to the Earth Day event (as opposed to after the fact).
• A social media campaign encouraging the media and bloggers to support an event.
• Ten physical locations supporting three days of featured events at staggered times (plus exhibits).
• The eleventh location would naturally be held on the International Space Station.
• A dedicated Ustream program that cuts into main events at each location on a rotating basis.
• Social media support for all of those rotating activities over the course of three days.

The concept is only a thumbnail, but NASA has enough locations around the United States to tighten its proximity to the public across the country — Texas, New Mexico, and Florida not withstanding. Such an effort could possibly bring the nation together on the successes of NASA not just in space, but on planet Earth as well.

Then again, I've never understood why this country hasn't made an effort to declare a national Space Day (of observance) on July 20, enabling NASA to make Earth Day a minor practice run for a much bigger event. After all, July 20 remains one of humankind's greatest accomplishments, underscoring that our destiny points to the stars if we ever want to gain a better perspective about the planet we call home. It seems to me, we don't think about space exploration enough.

Wednesday, April 18

Making Lures: Oooo Pinterest Is So Pretty

Do you remember Dory being hypnotized by a pretty little light in the animated film Finding Nemo by Disney? Or maybe you remember how much fun she had bouncing a squishy little jellyfish. Or maybe you remember how much fun they had swimming with a shark until its addiction to white meat kicked in.

Pinterest is filled with those moments. But it's not Pinterest you have to worry about. 

There aren't so many lures on Pinterest as there are lures off Pinterest — enough tips, tactics, and strategies to game the buzzed up social sharing network to fill an ocean. Learn to say no to them.

There is no such thing as a Pinterest strategy, let alone eight of them. And pitching doesn't have much to do with repinning other people's pins just to attract attention to a wall of marketing fodder on a network. In fact, the entire reciprocal push of other people's stuff so they will push yours is becoming passé. People see through it, mostly.

There are always those legal considerations too. Plopping every photo from your company on Pinterest is paramount to giving up any copyrights (which isn't so bad unless you're a photographer or those pics have monetary value). And that doesn't even account for accidental repinning infringements, with your company being much more interesting to any infringed party than a lone network participant.

But I don't really want to get too wrapped up in making a win-lose column about Pinterest as much as I want to offer up some common sense. When your communication strategy begins to become so benign that you count pins, repins, likes, and comments as your objective, what you're really saying is that you have nothing to offer. Do something different with Pinterest if you are going to use it. It's simple.

The best "strategy" for Pinterest is to use it like participants do. Don't try to game it for glory. 

The best online communication comes from natural interests that are designed with the company's intent in mind, not a means to grab up flash-in-the-pan attention. If anything, all those tactics tend to backfire.

• Review your organization's mission, vision, and values.
• Elevate your plan to see if the network augments anything.
• Consider relevant content you can share at the right time.
• Become a participant without any agenda other than quality.
• Work at being a beneficial presence not someone who benefits.

That's my list of five, but it might not make sense for anyone who hasn't seen it through to execution. Personally, I enjoy Pinterest but it doesn't fit this marcom slant beyond the occasional educational and psychological threads. So I don't develop sneaky ways to force it.

The platform is much more in sync with Liquid [Hip], a music, film, fashion, and travel review site. But even with relevant content, we didn't make a marketing channel to push anything. Instead, I integrate what other under-the-radar creative people find with our own. And mostly, they pin it before we do.

The idea is to make like-minded quality content indistinguishable to the content we create — which is precisely how people use networks without agendas. Most people pin to express something. Maybe you can too.

For example, if you have a parks and recreation department, maybe you could host a beautiful park photography board (with photographer permissions). If you are a tech company, maybe you can share like-minded innovations. If you are a restaurant, maybe you can highlight recipes that you have tried to make at home (along with some from your establishment). If you are a general contractor, maybe you can have a board that celebrates architecture or designers. And the list goes on...

There isn't any mystery to using Pinterest. The only mystery is how you can avoid the temptation to use it for anything other than the intent of the network. It isn't really about ROI as much as market position.

Specifically, you have to ask if you are one of them or just trying to use them. If it's the latter, skip the pinning and mind the "teaching" lures that promise marketing. Some lights have ugliness attached.

Monday, April 16

Social Networking: Moms Know Best

If you have ever wondered why some companies cater to moms more than any other group online, a new study by Performics, a marketing firm owned by Publicis Groupe, recently shared its answer. After studying nearly 3,000 active U.S. social networkers, the firm concluded that mothers were "more versatile, present, active and engaged users of social networking sites, compared to other women."

Not only were mothers 61 percent more likely than other women to own a smart phone, they are also more likely to be active on social networking sites. Specifically, they were 16 percent more likely to visit Facebook and 46 percent more likely to visit Google+ on a daily basis.

But even outside of the study, there is ample evidence of how important moms can be to a social network. In fact, despite noted policy problems, moms are the catalysts behind the success of Pinterest, which reported 16.23 million unique users last February.

It is now one of the most active social networks online despite that 80 percent of its participants were female (March 2012). And, according to another study, almost all "mom bloggers" are actively engaged in Pinterest (as much as 98 percent) with  90 percent describing it as fun, 67 percent using it for organization, and 60 percent browsing beautiful things.

Do you know what other social network moms embraced? Right. A little app called Instagram that Facebook recently purchased for $1 billion. The irony? Facebook isn't among many moms' favorite social networks, despite them visiting it on a daily basis to connect and keep up.

Moms have a long history of engaging and organizing on social networks. 

When most people look back at some of the most spirited successes and failures online, most of them are linked to moms. They were the catalyst behind the Motrin headache, were part of the GAP logo retraction, continue to be part of McDonald's outreach efforts, prompted one of the largest recalls in Maytag history, and were among the first to express their distaste over the Tropicana logo change too.

In terms of the biggest disasters mentioned above, the reasons seem clear enough. Moms are reported to be 75 percent more likely than other women to trust information they receive from companies through social networking sites. And, as a result, they tend to react more aggressively when that trust is broken.

Marketing to moms might make marketers think twice about quick fixes. 

There have always been benefits to including moms in the online marketing mix. But there are some downsides for companies that are reckless with their messaging. Moms, unlike many other groups, have a greater awareness and more experience influencing, participating with, and promoting brands.

View more presentations from Performics

They are 45 percent more likely to make a purchase as a result of a recommendation on a social networking site than other women, including apparel (54 percent more likely), cars (64 percent more likely), and travel (46 percent more likely). They are also more likely to recommend companies/brands via social sites (34 percent), discuss companies/brands on social sites after seeing an ad elsewhere (48 percent), talk about companies/brands they follow on Facebook (24 percent), link to a company/brand ad (23 percent), post a company/brand ad (53 percent), and share interesting or relevant content about a company/brand (50 percent).

In other words, if your company isn't thinking about moms, then it isn't thinking. And if your company isn't thinking, these moms will be among the first to remind you who really knows best.

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