Wednesday, January 11

Educating: And The Future Of Public Relations

While every class of Writing for Public Relations students is different, there is an unsettling trend that has accelerated in recent years. Students, some of whom are working professionals, are more inclined to feel that they haven't received enough direction before receiving their first news release writing assignment.

Before their first news release assignment (but not their first assignment), they are given instruction on identifying news leads and better writing in general; base information to be included in the release (who, what, when, where, why); format instruction, including a two-page example featuring a closely related topic; an organizational website to source additional information (as well as additional hints at where to find background information); and general instruction on usage of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Last year, for better than half the class, I was told this wasn't enough information. 

The last client who asked me to write a news release gave me a general topic. "I want a new release about 'blank.'" That was it. And looking back 20 some years ago, the first client who asked me to write a news release said exactly the same thing. Most of the time, however, I'm not even given a topic.

It wasn't any different as a journalist, I recall. I received my first assignment from a heavily circulated entertainment magazine because I happened to be at a press conference. The editor of the magazine was sitting at my table and after we started talking, he said "write something about this mess ... 700 words. It's due Tuesday." So I did.

Early freelance assignments were even more challenging. You had to send a pitch letter, which means you were solely responsible for every stitch of the article, from concept to the finished piece (which ought to match the general tone of the magazine). But that's what you did. Many writers still do.

It's worth mentioning because it demonstrates the contrast between the need of the field and the expectation of students in the educational system. The need is problem solving. The expectation is direction for the directionless.

Standardized testing is an incredible waste of time because it measures short-term memory.

As America rushes toward standardized testing, Asia is moving away from standardized testing. They are moving away from it for the same reason Finland is emerging as one of the most educated countries in the world despite children waiting until they are 7 years old to enter school. Standardized testing isn't an adequate measure of knowledge and, more importantly, it isn't a measure of applied knowledge.

Instead of testing the child in a clever ruse to find potential, they assume all children have potential. Instead of asking children to memorize facts for multiple guess tests, they are intent on finding out what it takes to educate each child because they do not believe socio-economic-ethic differences and the ability to be educated are inherently linked. And most important, they want to teach students how to think as opposed to what to think.

I want to teach public relations and communication students to think too. And every year, they are resisting it with greater vigor. (One of my colleagues even told me that he had a student ask whether or not some material was going to be on a test because if not, he'd better move on instead of wasting time.)

The entire field of public relations and communicaton can be summed up as problem solving.

While it could be said of any field, I am starting to believe that the next wave of students who consider communication as a viable field will struggle compared to those who entered the field ten years ago. Not all of them, mind you. But a large enough percentage to turn the field inside out as these students are more reliant on rote memorization and tip sheets than ever before.

And, along with those tip sheets comes something else. When the crisis communication steps or the sentence-by-sentence boilerplate release shell doesn't produce results (because all crisis is different and journalists aren't keen on boilerplate releases), they don't have to take personal responsibility.

After all, it's not their fault. Either they will be perplexed because the tip sheet failed, not them. Or they will be affable because the boilerplate shell failed, not them. Or maybe it was the instructor or blogging tipster who failed, not them. Or maybe it was the vendor who failed them, despite relying on the same tips.

How to write a news release is too simple for many to grasp, because the simplicity is complex.

If you want to write a news release that wins, all you have to do is find the news value (with an emphasis on what is unique if the announcement is commonplace). Write in such a way that it is easy for journalists to put their own spin on it. Make it sound fresh without the hype, because if the news release sounds boring then the news you have is probably boring (or maybe it's your writing). Make sure you consider the audience beyond the journalists and the brand too. And send it to the right journalists (those who have an interest in whatever you are pitching).

That is all there is to it. Five steps that I'll reframe next week to make it more palatable. But don't let those steps mislead you. If you are going to do it right, these will be some of the most challenging steps you could ever hope to follow.

And therein lies why so many public relations professionals are struggling. They want to be told what the news is, told what words to use, told how to write, told what journalists want, told what people will respond to, and told where the list with the right journalists is located.

But that's not public relations. It's regurgitation. It's the by-product of 12 years of standardized multiplication tests. And it's starting to impact every field from web design to technological innovation. Unless, of course, we can reverse the instruction and inspire people to become problem solvers again.

Monday, January 9

Crunching Numbers: Why CNN Couldn't Predict Iowa

The CNN article comparing the Republican presidential primary candidate online scorecards just prior to the Iowa caucus last Tuesday (hat tip: Geoff Livingston), demonstrates just how little the network understands social media.

While the lead line — a strong Web presence must be part of every political hopeful's strategy — is right, CNN doesn't really understand what it all means. The online scorecard, as they called it, doesn't mean anything, especially with the number they cherry picked from a handful of social networks.

Sure, CNN qualified it, saying "these numbers may have no bearing on how the candidates actually fare with Iowa caucus goers." May? Show some backbone. They have no bearing on the outcome and they won't in any other state either.

Why online scorecards mean virtually nothing to political campaigns, especially primaries. 

A quick recap of the presidential nominee hopefuls showed Ron Paul winning Twitter, Rick Perry winning Facebook, Ron Paul winning YouTube, and Newt Gingrich in a dead heat with Mitt Romney on Klout.

(Klout? You've got to be kidding me, CNN. Here's the scoop on Klout. Quit pimping it for a score.)

In the end, the Iowa caucus goers returned a decidedly different verdict, placing Mitt Romney (who was dead last on YouTube) and Rick Santorum (who was dead last on Twitter and has the worst possible top Google search result) in first and second (or second and first or perhaps tied, depending on how you see the caucus counting snafu). So what happened?

The social media numbers CNN chose to report don't consider proximity (there was no analysis of how many lived in Iowa), candidate preferences (some people likely follow more than one or all), degree of influence (which way they leaned), the sentiment of the interest (sometimes people follow candidates for comic relief), or the greater body of communication (offline) that bombard people on a daily basis (likely 100 to 1). And about a hundred or a thousand other things.

Heck, those numbers didn't even consider the most rudimentary question — who is registered to vote and for which party, if any. And there was no way to count the closeness of the communication (e.g., one visit by a candidate at your home carries more weight than a gazillion tweets). 

And there is the rub. Not even the silly mention machine that the Washington Post runs on the bottom of its website can account for anything. It counts "tweet" mentions in the last week, with Gingrich capturing 56,000 and Huntsman picking up 23,000. (Huntsman is worth following for the entertainment value lent to his campaign by his daughters, but that's about it.) And yet, more and more media outlets reward candidates for capturing buzz ups by placing their faces on the page, like online advertisements.

The real social media numbers that matter aren't the social media numbers you can find.

None of this is to suggest that an online presence doesn't count. It counts. But no one can really measure what you need to know to have a semblance of an accurate prediction.

The bottom line is some percentage of all their followers, friends, subscribers, and viewers do count. They are registered loyalists who either have influence over caucus goers or are caucus goers — people who will actually share the messages with other people who will listen or, more importantly, vote. In other words ... each candidate had about three peeps in Iowa who fit this description except Santorum and Romney who obviously had four and five, er, five and four, er, four-and-a-half and four-and-a-half each.

In realizing this, it might even one day make us pity any politician who actually takes online advice, never appreciating that it was started by a few hundred people from a foreign country. Oh wait, this already happened. Never mind.

The best online analysis on political campaigns has nothing to do with politics.

Seriously. Because politics tends to be overtly pronounced — bigger success and bigger blunders — this is an excellent opportunity to watch the ebb and flow of the net, immediate reactions that buffet the candidates around like Ping-Pong balls. And while you watch it, don't be overly amused (even if it is amusing) because the same thing can happen to a business any time.

Decent social media people can understand the numbers of any social media program. Good social media people can understand the marketing and public relations ramifications. And great social media people can feel whether or not something is sticky or slippery. There is an art to it, specifically one that appreciates the human behavior of individuals, groups, and the masses.

And, at the same time, if you are interested in this political cycle as it pertains to some future outcome, keep in mind that the Internet has undergone some dramatic changes since the last presidential campaign. The mass adoption that has taken place, along with less scrupulous non-voting outsiders masquerading as concerned voters, will make predictability impossible. And that is the only thing you can count on in all future elections.

Friday, January 6

Changing Social Networks: Five Big Changes In Progress

Sometimes social network developers feel like they're in a foot race. If they aren't moving forward and making big changes, the general thinking is that they are somehow falling behind. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't.

But social networks are compelled to make changes whether they need them or not, and I've been told as much by people who own them. The only hold out among bigger networks is Reddit. It relishes its own roughness and the people love them for it.

Personally, I like change. It's why I do what I do. 

But not all change is good. So why is it almost every social network is undergoing change, with Linkedin and Google+ being the least obvious? They think they have to, with the latter network not as obvious because it's currently implementing changes around its network instead.

For example, not everyone noticed that Google+ gave Blogger users the option to replace their Blogger profile with a Google+ profile. I work with several platforms, including Blogger, so I noticed. I made the change too, which came with some unintended consequences like changing my Blogger post signature from Rich to Richard Becker. The cost is a certain casualness, but I can live with it.

The rest are undergoing more obvious changes. Some are good. Most aren't. Let's look at five.

The five most significant social network changes taking place right now.

1. Facebook. Facebook wants people to migrate to Timeline. On the surface, it's not a big deal. It's a new graphically-intensive look for the largest social network on the block. Under the hood, Timeline is not a small deal. It will change the way you think about Facebook.

Pros. For professionals, especially those in communication, the personal marketing potential is right on target. The branding opportunities are apparent; so much so that some people have changed their tone. There isn't much they can do about the past. That quip in 2009 is alive and well on the front page.

Cons. For most people, Timeline makes Facebook feel more formal. For the exact same reason personal marketers like Timeline, most people do not. They did not sign up for Facebook to tell their story. They signed up to connect and have fun. Timeline also places privacy in the forefront once again, but that is an entirely different conversation.

Outcome. Mostly neutral. The best thing about Timeline is the look and that it is optional, for now. Over time, Timeline is the direction Facebook wants to go. While this scrapbook concept is okay, it redefines the intent, which leads people to wonder if maybe they ought to share only their choicest moments in life, which means all our casual connections, shares, and banter are best left ... where?

Best use. Whether for business or pleasure, it's still the best network connector out there today. So let's hope they don't blow it for the sake of Timeline.

2. Twitter. Twitter, which was the only social network that initially refused to be called a social network and still does, has been rolling out changes in big broad strokes. While not everyone has the new interface, those who do are struggling to get used to it.

Pros. The aesthetic is more pleasing at a glance because it reopens more of the background image, giving marketers more room for branding and contact information.

Cons. The new interface is counterintuitive, including where you compose a new tweet. Instead of above the feed, it forces you to move up to the top of the page or sweep left. It also places things you don't need to see (who to follow) directly in your field of vision. And ironically, things you do what to see (like a website link and mini bio) on a completely different page.

Outcome. It sucks. Every day I sign in to Twitter, I dread the day my account will suddenly look like one of the ones I manage. If it wasn't so heavily adopted, this change would convince me to leave it. Thank goodness for third-party interfaces.

Best use: While its ability has been hindered with marketing messages and link sharing, it manages to retain its status as a real-time communication tool. But it might not if it imposes a new layout.

3. Digg. Digg hasn't really known what to do with itself since it cut off its mutual sharing services (Digg me and I'll Digg you pacts) nose to spite its mutually spammy community (no one else was left) face just before it turned commercial. Recently, Digg was hoping to revive itself by encouraging people to share their Diggs on Facebook.

Pros. Other than showing how many tweets and likes something has (which is surprisingly inaccurate), you tell me.

Cons. Noted changes to Facebook aside, I don't think I could ever bring myself to share a link from Digg, which would require people to pass through Digg to get to what I am sharing. Some people do, but I don't get it.

Outcome. I want to like Digg, but Digg makes it hard to like Digg. The core problem is that it killed its sense of community and hasn't done anything to get it back.

Best use: It's a remnant news aggregator without enough topic categories, mostly used by people who want to share tabloid news, tech, science, and politics. Well, sort of.

4. Delicious. The bookmarking service that Google wanted to kill before fans pushed back has undergone big changes since it was sold. The initial changes were designed to make it more graphically oriented and better organized, which was a good call.

Pros. It does look better and is better organized. Even the "stacks" was a solid concept, which allows you to group similar posts together, regardless of how they are tagged.

Cons. Unfortunately, the network tied its front page content to popularity as opposed to freshness. As soon as it did, the front page started looking static and participants discovered less new content, with the exception of those gaming the system.

Outcome. At the current drop-off rate, Delicious won't be saved. It might even be dead by the end of the year, and I don't think anyone will care unless it gets fixed.

Best use. If you want to collect content and you want to send people to it, Delicious is a fine place to do it. Unfortunately, discovery trumps bookmarks and networks without people are useless.

5. Chime.in. For the last few weeks, I've been reading posts about Chime.in written by people who claim to know social networks. They say that the bright and shiny object syndrome days are over because nobody is piling into the new Chime.in. They are wrong because Chime.in isn't really new. It's a completely re-imagined Mixx and it has a foothold (but not with marketers).

Pros. Mixx needed to be remixed, and Chime.in has done a great job at it. It's graphically smart, easy to navigate, and organized by a tagging system that allows you to follow tags or people. It also staffs visible human editors who share outstanding content.

Cons. It may never have mass appeal, preferring to serve a hard core notch. Sometimes that's better.

Outcome. There is definitely a renewed interest in Chime.in, especially in the arts, which is where I spend most of my time there. It is hands down the best change of the bunch because the developers were clearly thinking about people first. Even better, there is no incentive to be the biggest "chimer" on the block.

Best use. It's one of the better organized topical playgrounds and feels intuitive to discover new things within a topic or people who share the same interests.

I probably could have included SlideShare and StumbleUpon too (especially because it took a few days to find a direct submit link button on StumbleUpon), but I'm still walking through what's really new. I also could have included a few that recently shuttered. Suffice to say no one really noticed (which is why they were shuttered.) Only one really surprised me. It's only flaw was it wasn't being marketed.

There are really four lessons here, and you've heard them before. When you start trying to be all things to all people (e.g., Facebook, Google+), eventually you could become nothing to everyone.
When you forget to keep people in mind and simply expect people to like whatever is on your mind, they tend to wander (Digg, Delicious). When you embrace change for the sake of change, it's never a good idea (Twitter). But when change has a purpose for the people you serve, it's almost always great (Chime.in).

And, most importantly, never think for a second you've figured out a social network. The moment you do, the entire site will be remade. And when that happens, all of your so-called assets will be gone.

Wednesday, January 4

Flipping Forward: 2012 Ahead

I've never been a proponent of sharing firm news here unless it's relevant. But this year, it's relevant.

There are plenty of changes ahead for me and my firm, and some of them will inevitably land here (but not all at once). After writing and sharing more than 1,400 posts related to communication, this space is starting to feel overdue for more diversity, especially as it applies commentary, curiosity, and creativity.

I don't necessarily have a direction per se, but I did invest most of last year on projects leading up to this year. The direction fits right in with some of the advice I shared last year — less talking and more doing. Doing pays dividends.

Copywrite, Ink. will undoubtedly remain the hub of my business activity (and I don't mean this blog, but the company behind it). After building this company for more than 20 years, it makes good sense to keep evolving it. However, what we do and how we do it has been changing for some time.

Since the beginning, communication and writing services has been at the core of the company. And while much of that will remain, the company also increased its investments in several incubator projects, both proprietary and partnered. With some of these projects maturing this year, we're shifting toward an invitation-only structure: We will decline more prospective accounts than we accept.

While some people might think this is counterintuitive given the economy, I am confident the new model is a better fit with a new economy. It will be a better fit with a company vested in creation as much as communication. And, it will be a better fit for me, because too much of the communication industry is settling on client servitude — over-concentrating on things like reach, frequency, and clicks rather than the hard work that makes those things tick.

Don't fool yourself. If those are measures, you have the wrong objectives. Carry on without them.

Liquid [Hip] is one of our creation projects. What began as little more than a whim 18 months ago has grown steadily from a few hundred visitors a month to tens of thousands. I still consider it a hobby of sorts, but only because it's fun to be immersed in creative works. It also gives me a venue to experiment with social media without any of the constraints that are sometimes imposed by clients.

If you've never visited, Liquid [Hip] is an online review site, which only reviews things the reviewers actually like. There is a heavy emphasis on music and books, but our editorial rotation allows us to pick up apps, film, fashion, gadgets, games, and good will. It's not for everyone. We cover cool, not popular.

Currently, we're busy corralling all the reviews, but there are some other exciting prospects for Liquid [Hip] in the months ahead. I'll share some of these developments as they mature in actualities.

Celebrating Legacy. Last May, I had the good fortune to meet one of the most highly decorated police officers in the history of the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Retired law enforcement professional Randy Sutton envisioned an online legacy archival system after several deeply personal experiences made him reassess life and invest two years into developing something that could add value to other people's lives. Celebrating Legacy was the outcome.

While there are several other great people involved (to be introduced in the future), what originally started as a communication project quickly evolved into a creation project. Borrowing from years of behind-the-scenes experience with several social networks, I became a lead project architect.

Currently, Celebrating Legacy is pre-alpha with internal program testing slated for January. We'll immediately follow this up with an invitation alpha phase. There is still some dust on the site itself, but you are more than welcome to visit the front porch or submit an application to become an alpha tester. At its earliest stages, I anticipate alpha testers will have access to 80 percent of 'year one' services.

Yorganic Chef is a hybrid creation-communication project for our firm, which is also maturing this month. The site will sport a placeholder page until about mid to late January. Once launched, Yorganic Chef will provide people a place to order ready-made gourmet meals in the Los Angeles area. The meals will then be delivered to the customer's front door on a schedule convenient for them.

The venture is the brainstorm of Nick Diakantonis, who has 25 years of culinary and entrepreneurial experience. Years ago, he was one of the founders of Pasta Ditoni's (a wholesale pasta distribution company) as well as Piazza Market, which is located in Ohio.

Los Angeles will be the first of many markets where Yorganic Chef will open. Initially, Diakantonis planned to make Las Vegas his test market until an angel investor of sorts lobbied for his company to start in Los Angeles. Having seen the menu, this is the right project at the right time and in the right market.

Odds & Ends. The projects above represent the forefront. Personally, I have a book to finish this year (sigh, maybe), a children's book to illustrate, and two concepts for board games that were the direct result of hanging out too much on Kickstarter last year. This creates a nice array of options, and some of it has even prompted me to invest some holiday downtime into rekindling dusty skill sets in fine arts.

At the same time, I will stay on with UNLV and have accepted an invitation to speak at the Nevada Parks & Recreation Society conference in April. The topic will likely be social media, perhaps a parsed version of last year's social media class (the deck almost refined enough to share online).

And, although I am extremely reluctant to come out of retirement from politics, I have been asked to work on a Nevada State Senate race, two State Assembly races, and one Congressional race (as campaign manager on any of them, if I want it). We'll see. These aren't decisions to make lightly.

A Conclusion Or Perhaps An Opening...

I've had some wonderful opportunities to meet hundreds and thousands of people in the seven years since I started this blog. Not all of them are in communication, but it's the communicators who need to hear this the most. Unless your company is doing, social media is an exercise in spinning wheels.

Sure, there are a few communication blogs that become popular enough. But most of them eventually fade away. From my original 2005 blog list, not one remains. From my Fresh Content Project list last year, maybe 20 percent are viable today. And if I added all the communication blogs up, maybe one in 1,000 monetize social media into speaking, authoring, or consulting.

Keep that mind, especially when you ask yourself what you are going to write about this year. It's the wrong question to ask. Unless you teach social media, you really need to be doing something else. And then you can write about that. Care to join me? I know 2012 will be great year. I hope it is for you too.

The first social media story (Friday) this year runs down a few social networks you've forgotten about and whether or not their recent changes are enough. And then, on Monday, I'll follow it up on why politics cannot be measured by social media or media relations as much as grass roots.

Friday, December 30

Trending Technology: The Deloitte Study, Part 2

For the last three years, Deloitte has published its annual "Tech Trends" report to identify what areas will have the most impact on CIOs in the coming year and beyond. The predictions are based on insights from Deloitte's technology subject matter specialists. 

This year, Deloitte split its list into two parts, "(re)emerging enablers" and "disruptive deployments." We discussed their five "(re)emerging enablers" in part 1. This post focuses in on the "disruptive deployments," which may even be more important in the year ahead.

Deloitte defines disruptive deployments as trends that showcase new business models and transformative ways to operate. In many cases, I believe that Deloitte is right that these will be among the leading trends in 2012. But, at the same time, I think most of them send organizations in the wrong direction.

Five Areas Deloitte Predicts Businesses Will Focus On In 2012.

Social Business. The emergence of boomers as digital natives and the rise of social media in daily life have paved the way for social business in the enterprise. This is leading organizations to apply social technologies on social networks, amplified by social media, to fundamentally reshape how business gets done.  Some of the initial successful use cases are consumer-centric, but business value is available — and should be realized — across the enterprise. 

The concept of a social business has always been a bit of a misnomer. Successful businesses were often social until technology made it possible for them to be less social — replacing human interaction with automated phone systems and online shopping carts. Social networks merely bring people back into the equation with a twist on how we define social interaction (but there is no guarantee it is social, given how many automate their social media presence). Being a social business isn't the real answer. It's being an empathetic business that will deliver the edge. You have to understand and care about people.

Hyper-hybrid Cloud. Cloud-based and cloud-aware integration offerings are expected to continue to evolve, and many organizations face a hybrid reality with a mix of on-premise solutions and multiple cloud offerings. The challenge becomes integration, identity management and data translation between the core and multitenant public cloud offerings, and offering lightweight orchestration for processes traversing enterprise and cloud assets. 

The concept of a hyper-hybrid cloud is intriguing and perhaps not as difficult to program as one might think. Layering the public and internal cloud systems, provided the programmers have strategic direction to identify the right data as well as the ability to categorize that data, seems like a workable solution. But beyond that, as I mentioned in the earlier post, the data needs to be visually dynamic and accessible across the entire business. Currently, most businesses have too many gatekeepers between the information and the people who need it.

Enterprise Mobility Unleashed. Mobility is helping many organizations rethink their business models. Consumer-facing mobile applications are only the beginning. With the explosion of mobile use cases, organizations should make sure solutions are enterprise class – secure, reliable, maintainable and integrated to critical back-off systems and data. 

Everybody loves to talk about mobile and how it is changing everything. But mobile isn't what businesses ought to think about for 2012 (even though most of them will). Executives need to appreciate that there is no longer a barrier between mobile and non-mobile, broadcast and digital, etc. and etc. Where the trend is right, however, is that organizations need to be even more careful in developing secure, reliable, maintainable and critical back-off systems. Maybe the real question to ask is why there needed to be a so-called mobile migration to convince an organization to think of this stuff.

Gamification. Serious gaming simulations and game mechanics such as leaderboards, achievements and skill-based learning are becoming embedded in day-to-day business processes, driving adoption, performance and engagement.

Gamification has become a bigger buzzword than social business this year. Expect the trend to continue, even if it is a short-term solution that will eventually fade away. Chasing carrots is fun for awhile until people eventually grow tired of it and give up all together. Ask the people who know: game designers. Unless you are continually committed to upgrading the game, people will lose interest in what has become the most shallow level of participatory praise ever conceived.

User Empowerment. User engagement remains a key doctrine for enterprise IT with consumerization setting expectations for solutions built from the user down, not the system up.  Compounding the need, IT is becoming increasingly democratized, with empowered end users able to directly source solutions from the cloud or app stores -- on a mobile device and increasingly on the desktop. 

There is certainly a trend in this direction, even though most organizations would be better served by finding the balance between system and user solutions. The best businesses will provide a baseline operating model (based in part on existing user interface knowledge) and then allow participantd to provide feedback that can be vetted for inclusion (or not). The concept isn't limited to systems. It means everything. Recently, I reviewed a steady cam innovator that did this brilliantly. Consumers asked for a different color and the ability to use the steady cam with an iPhone, but the developers came up with the solution based on their existing design.

Deloitte did an excellent job pinpointing what are all likely trends next year (even if most of them were introduced this year). So there are two ways to look at the research: these are the topics you will need to be up to speed on in 2012 if you aren't already. Or, if you are charged with making CIO decisions for your company, you might consider leapfrogging to what comes next.

Those are summaries of the first five predictions from Deloitte, along with our field notes. If you are interested in seeing their 64-page study, you can find it here. If you would like to discuss some of our observations in depth, drop a note in the comments or reach out direct any time. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 28

Trending Technology: The Deloitte Study, Part 1

For the last three years, Deloitte has published its annual "Tech Trends" report to identify what areas will have the most impact on CIOs in the coming year and beyond. The predictions are based on insights from Deloitte's technology subject matter specialists.

This year, Deloitte split its list into two parts, "(re)emerging enablers" and "disruptive deployments." It defines emerging enablers as trends that have been vested in but deserve another look, and it defines disruptive deployments as trends that showcase new business models and transformative ways to operate.

Using Deloitte's predictions as an outline, we've included some additional notes based on observations that our team has made in the last 12 months, beginning with the first five trends that fall under the "(re)emerging enablers" topic heading. On Friday, we'll follow up with the second set of five trends that Deloitte identifies as "disruptive deployments."

Five Areas Businesses May Want To Revisit In 2012.

Geo-spatial Visualization. Geospatial visualization takes advantage of geographical, location-aware data and provides semi-structured data from mobile devices such as geo-tagging and new streams of location-aware unstructured data. 

We're bullish on geo-spatial visualization, but mobile geo-tagging tends to elevate privacy concerns even when people opt in to these services. Several geo-tagging enterprises exploded and then dropped off in 2011 as people found out that sharing too much information isn't always a good thing.  If businesses can develop semi-private geo-tagging solutions (where consumers can check in with the option of private and public sharing as opposed to making all information public), then businesses can benefit from such data. Of course, this assumes they give consumers a very good reason to participate.

The challenge in geo-spatial visualization is that the elective nature of participatory location-aware data frequently skews measurements because not all consumers have a desire to participate and those who do might make up a unique group in terms of their psychographics. Where businesses can boost the relevance of the data they collect is in tracking more tangible outcomes tied to weakly linked data that doesn't infringe on individual privacy, e.g., proximity marketing campaigns and specific location sales.

Digital Identities. The digital expression of identity is growing more complex every day. Digital identities should be unique, verifiable, able to be federated and non-repudiable. As individuals take a more active hand in managing their own digital identities, organizations are attempting to create single digital identities that retain the appropriate context across the range of credentials that an individual carries. 

While the thought is a good one, especially in light of Google's effort to improve the Web by minimizing anonymity, there is always that looming question of privacy. More and more people don't feel comfortable with the prying nature of the net or the continued push to create singular online identities that link everything about their lives together. Part of the reason is that people are more complex than businesses think, and tend to keep various aspects of their lives relatively separate.

Organizations, on the other hand, are clearly trying to manage their online presence, but still struggle with an old school mentality that information can be controlled. Instead of attempting to control information through reputation management, organizations would be better off appreciating that they have blemishes and imperfections. Consumers tend to be very tolerant of most mistakes, but are less forgiving of how companies mitigate them.

Data Goes to Work. Organizations are finding ways to turn the explosion in size, volume and complexity of data into insight and value. This is occurring across structured and unstructured content from internal and external sources.  This is expected to complement but not replace long-standing information management programs and investments in data warehouses, business intelligence suites, reporting platforms and relational database experience. 

There is no doubt that organizations have a greater need to employ insightful data analysts who can turn bulk data into quickly understandable and visually stimulating information. More than any other trend, information management provides a definitive edge over the competition.

However, organizations that want to benefit from the vast amount of information that is available also need to develop a culture that tolerates analyst findings as opposed to looking for instructing them to find affirmation data. In addition, organizations need researchers who can correctly identify what data is important and then translate the information into visually dynamic reports without manipulating the numbers or misleading management — making research a function of intelligence over information.

Measured Innovation. CIOs can help facilitate the discovery of the next wave of true disruption -- and continuously improve the business of IT and the business of the business. Measured innovation offers an approach to managing both disciplines by providing a pragmatic way to identify, evaluate and launch potential innovations with a focus on aligning opportunities to areas that can fuel disruption and create measurable, attributable value.

Whether related to technology or communication, measurement is the most important and most abused resource available. Organizations will benefit from better measurement systems in the year ahead, but only if they are willing to measure the right outcomes.

For example, more executives need to appreciate that tangible measures such as increased revenue tend to be a side effect of less tangible outcomes, such as innovation, reputation, and market penetration. So instead of investing in tactics designed to increase sales, they would be better served by investing in strategies that improve the company, products, and promotional efforts, which will inevitably increase sales.

Outside-in Architecture. Flexibility in operating and business models is proving more important. As a result, need to share is colliding with need to know and shifting solution architectures away from a siloed, enterprise-out design pattern and into an outside-in approach to delivering business through rapidly evolving ecosystems.

If you can imagine business enterprise software that tracks multiple department activities (from product innovation to promotional activities) to direct geo-location outcomes, you'll find a glimpse of the future. Specifically, businesses need solutions that adequately deliver a near real-time view of their business at every layer and level.

While the analogy is dramatically oversimplified, operational analysis needs a visually dynamic tool not all that dissimilar to a Sims game (or the existing infrastructure that makes OnStar work), whereby multiple department input data that is simoutaneously viewable and reviewable by every department at various levels: the overall marketplace, geographical primality, departmental activities, and anticipated activities.

For example, pulling up a real-time product report could provide, at a glance, the status of product development, packaging progress, promotional development, regional field tests, anticipated market introductions, etc. based on preset percentages of completion that can be drilled down to the individual or team responsible for the execution.

Those are summaries of the first five predictions from Deloitte, along with our field notes. If you are interested in seeing their 64-page study, you can find it here. If you would like to discuss some of our observations in depth, drop a note in the comments or reach out direct any time.

Friday, December 23

Wishing You Happy Holidays: And Merry Christmas

Every once in awhile, I'm asked if I really believe in social media. The question is the outcome of occasional sarcasm and satire.

The answer isn't all that much a mystery. I don't believe in social media beyond the tools that make it possible, namely anything that detracts from the people who make it work. And that means you.

As much as I appreciate the talent of social network architects, engineers, innovators, content creators, and investors, it's the participants who ultimately build them. Try to remember that before allowing any service to make you a slave to standards, scores, or whatnot, especially at the expense of your closest connections.

When you really stop long enough to think about it, we aren't given many holidays. We might see 100 of each, and even that is on the outside and against the odds. Make every one of them count, holding your family and friends a little tighter or longer this year. Those are outcomes you can count on.

The Box by Richard Becker

T'was the night before Christmas
and all seemed a loss.
There are not presents to wrap,
just a big empty box.

Their mum had tried hard
to save a pound and sixpence.
But the landlord had told her,
"You must pay the rent."

And not with her children,
all snug in their best,
Christmas was ruined,
her heart heavy with dread.

But when the dawn broke,
she heard not a tear.
Her children were shouting,
"Come see what's down here!"

The big empty box,
was all festive and wrapped.
"Let's open it together,"
they smiled and clapped.

So they undid the bow,
and then opened the lid.
The box held no surprise,
yet her kids squealed like it did.

"I don't understand,"
she looked down, bewildered.
"There is nothing inside,
not a stitch, not a sliver."

But her children were smiling
with toothy grins.
"They're the best gifts we have:
faith, family, and love, from within."

Merry Christmas and happy holidays from my family to yours. May every moment of this season be filled with what's most important in your life. I'll have something up next week, but not on Monday. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, December 21

Advertising Time: Real Time Vs. My Time

Louis Gray wrote an interesting post about real time news, especially as it relates to the explosion of interest spurred along by social sharing tools. In truth, it probably started happening before social networks. Most blog posts have a perceived shelf life (even if freshness might not matter).

Most people readily jumped on the bandwagon, with some people saying that delayed news will no long be acceptable. When they don't have enough time to keep up with readers, they reconcile everything at the end of the week, scanning the first two or three before marking the last 50 read. Even Google wants the Web fresh, enough so that it is willing to alter search algorithms to favor freshness over depth.

Gray's point is right on the money. Real time could very well be a temporary trend, fueled by an illusion. Every day, we receive nuggets of real time news a mile wide and an inch deep, when what we usually want is in-depth information on whatever topic might happen to be top of mind.

Good luck finding it. Even something as simple as an album review can be difficult to find under the wash of "fresh" track listings for more popular artists releasing an LP. Don't bother looking for song lyrics for any band with fewer than two million fans. Ringtone companies have that search sewed up. And many companies operating on networks, assuming they respond at all, are more interested in creating the illusion of real time service. Your issue will be resolved just as quickly by picking up the phone, with the only caveat to make it public.

Real time doesn't hold a candle to what people want, and marketers might take notice.

But it's more than that where Gray strikes at the heart of the matter. We don't want freshness. We want on demand content when we want it, much like more and more people expect their entertainment served up.

"Advents in information and content sharing over the last few years have instead made 'on demand' a reality, getting me what I want when I want it, not when someone else decides for me," writes Gray.

This gave me some pause about marketing too. Since the 1950s, advertisers have been attempting to create a false sense of urgency with ever increasing last chance "opportunities." Never mind that your last chance to save 40 percent really means until next Monday when we restart the email.

When you really think about what advertisers are doing (beyond telling you that they mark their products up so high that their profit margin can absorb a 40 percent reduction), they are marketing urgency with the expressed objective to convince you to make a purchase on their time.

Sometimes it works. But just because it works today, doesn't mean it will work tomorrow.

Consumers might be ripe to experience "on demand" marketing much like they enjoy on demand entertainment today and maybe, as Gray suggests, on demand news tomorrow. The best time to offer someone a discount is when they want to buy the product — their time, on demand.

Monday, December 19

Advertising Consolidation: Employment Projections

According to The Creative Group, most advertising executives aren't looking to hire new employees in the near term. But people in the communication industry can still consider this good news because only 4 percent of marketing and advertising agencies are considering layoffs and 18 percent anticipate hiring staff in the next there months.

"Many companies are looking to refresh their branding to reflect new product and service offerings, as well as take their marketing campaigns to the next level in the year ahead," said Donna Farrugia, executive director of The Creative Group.

In other words, most agencies are increasingly interested in diversifying the services they offer and the staff they employ. Based on which professionals they are most interested in hiring, it seems most want to provide full-service communication to their clients, with an emphasis on non-traditional agency functions such as public relations, web design, and social media.

Top five agency positions in demand for first quarter 2012.*

1. Account services (24 percent)
2. Brand/product managers (21 percent)
3. Public relations professionals (17 percent)
4. Web designers (16 percent)
5. Social media professionals (14 percent)

*Based on executive responses to the question: "In which of the following areas do you expect to hire in the first quarter of 2012? Media services and marketing research also scored better than 10 percent. While mobile application developers, interactive media, print design/production, creative/art direction, and copywriting all lagged under 10 percent. 

What this means is that many advertising agencies are not only looking to bring more public relations and social media services in house, but they are also increasingly interested in offering these services as a total package, something many marketing clients have been asking agencies to do for years.

In fact, diversification seems to be one of the primary reasons that most marketing and advertising executives are confident in their growth prospects next year. Eighty-nine percent said they were confident, even among those that were not planning to hire in the first quarter. Others, of course, based on their hiring priorities, are hoping to grow their agencies simply by hiring more account executives.

What agencies seem less interested in hiring are what used to be considered essential services at an advertising agency — creative directors, art directors, and copywriters. In terms of priority, all three lagged well behind non-traditional positions, with copywriters coming in dead last.

Advertising agencies are betting on a very different game.

Believe it or not, there are two reasons that marketing and advertising executives are shifting priorities. While many see public relations and online services as essential for growth, they also say that it is increasingly difficult to find skilled creative professionals. Without having the best creative in house, agencies are becoming more reliant on distinguishing themselves in other areas.

It could also allude to another trend in the industry. More executives are increasingly confident in outsourcing creative services but less confident outsourcing or partnering with public relations and social media firms. Part of the reason might be related to how both services are billed (creative is often outsourced by the project whereas public relations and social media are retained).

All of this is part of an ongoing trend that started several years ago, but was punctuated last year. In the quest to own social media, advertising agencies are bringing social media in house much like many brought web design in house during the 1990s. And for those who see public relations firms as owning social might note, it seems more agencies are simply bringing that service in house too.

Friday, December 16

Teaching Social Media: The Real World Test

While I was walking down the long narrow hallway toward the computer lab where I was scheduled to teach a social media class, I had a revelation. I was marketing myself all wrong offline.

What I really needed to do is use "proven online social media strategies" offline. You know, all those proven strategies, not by the people who know something about communication and marketing but by the people that we know all about. Right, you know who they are. I don't even have to tell you. That's the point. We all owe them a debt of gratitude.

Social Media In The Real World.

I. Increase Followers. 

As I said, I was walking down the narrow hallway, and I started to think about how important the number of followers is in social media. Apparently, it's important. The more people, the better. 

I stopped dead in my tracks. I needed to know how many students were in the class.

I looked rather clumsy, standing there, juggling two water bottles in my left hand, the satchel slipping off my shoulder, and handouts spilling out as I tugged at the flap with my right hand. But I didn't care. Numbers are too important.

It took a little more fumbling, but I found it: The student roster. One ... two ... three ... I stopped, mouth agape. I counted them again. Eight. And then I counted again. Still eight.

Eight isn't so good. The class usually pulls in 20. In truth, I wasn't surprised. The former program director had scheduled the class the weekend between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. Right. I was a prime time network show being moved to Friday in the hope we could win a weak night. It never works.

So I retraced my steps and started peeking inside the other classrooms to see how many students they had. Six ... five ... seven ... twelve ... hmmm ... now that was more like it. I walked in, and put my satchel on the desk in the front of the room. The other professor looked at me, crinkling her brow. 

II. Troll Management. 

"Can I help you," she said, hands on hips, looking like a sad sack. 

"No, you can go now," I said, feeling better because I had increased my followers from eight to 12. 

She stood there for a minute, obviously shaken, and then made some sort of spitting noise. I was going to ignore her, but she was making the students in the class uncomfortable. So I gave her something to do.

"You know, you can report me to the office if you like," I said. "And while you're there, can you tell them to make me more handouts? I need more. A lot more."

III. Crowd-sourcing. 

I pulled down the overhead screen in front of the white board. It took a few tries, but eventually it stuck. I turned to face the class, and smiled. 

"Today, we're going to talk about social media." 

"Um, this is supposed to be an accounting class," one of the students said. 

"Um, no, this used to be an accounting class," I said, raising my hands to encourage them to show a preference. "Today, it's student choice. Facebook and Twitter or assets and liabilities."

I counted the hands. Five for accounting. Six for social media. One abstained. 

"No hand raised doesn't count," I scolded. "Engagement matters. What do you want to talk about?"

"Twilight."

The class groaned. Accounting was now social media. 

IV. Sharing. 

After establishing that this was now social media, I shared a little bit of my background and then looked  out over the class blankly. And they looked back at me, blankly. So I tried to prod them along. 

"Questions?" 

"You haven't told us anything yet," muttered the Twilight kid. 

"Social media doesn't work that way, Mr. Cullen," I countered, almost glib in my excitement to show I was a real guru. "You can only share information at a rate of one to eight. That means eight of you have to say something first or one of you can say something eight times. I don't care, either way."

"He doesn't care, either way," beamed one of the students. 

"He doesn't care, either way," said another. 

"He doesn't care, either way," added a third.

There's always one or three in every crowd. I squinted my eyes at them. 

"I'd appreciate it if you would wait for us to cover retweets before doing that," I said. "Moving on ..."

V. Quantity. 

Before I could continue, the troll I booted out earlier had come back. She brought some gangling looking office assistant who stood at least a foot taller then me. That's pretty tall. I'm 6 foot.

"Oh good, did you bring the handouts?"

"Handouts?" he said, as if it that was the first he'd ever heard of it. 

"Yes, I specifically asked her to make copies," I said, motioning my hand up like a conductor to the class.

"He did ask for handouts," said one of the students. 

"Yes, she was going to get handouts," said another, grinning, chin in both palms. 

Good, I thought. I was making real progress here. 

"Yes, I need lots of handouts," I said, a few of the students casting the office assistant glances. "It doesn't matter what you bring. Just bring them, lots of them."

Handouts are important. It's what sets most content creators apart from conversationalists. The general concept is simple enough. If you barrage everyone with enough content, they'll be too dazed to notice that you haven't given them anything useful. 

VI. Mob Rules.

The office assistant's phone buzzed. It was his girlfriend. She confirmed it. I needed handouts. 

"And take Debbie downer with you," I said. "I'm trying to teach here."

Two of the students stood up, acting as if they were ready to usher them out. I was impressed. We hadn't covered mob rules, but these kids took to it like coke heads with Pixie Stix. 

"It's cool," he stammered. "I mean, yes sir."

And off they went.

Since I didn't really have anything to hand out yet, I suggested a break. Who knows? The students might even have enough time to come up with the rest of the class content if I waited long enough. But in retrospect, I wish I hadn't told them to take a break. I didn't really need a break. I was on a roll.

VII. Adding Value.

I decided to maximize my time instead. I revisited all the classrooms I passed by earlier and poked my head in to listen in. Eventually, the other professors would sense my presence and invite me into their conversations. It was easy, like playing Farmville on Facebook.

"No, no," I would shake my head. "Except, you know, that one point you made..."

"Yes?"

"It's all very wrong," I would pounce, and then launch into a counter argument.

It didn't even matter so much what I was saying. All that mattered is that I offered some semblance of initiative understanding. That was enough. And, of course, it helped when one of the students who was following me everywhere would chime in.

"He's right, you know."

"I'm teaching social media instead of history or whatever this guy is teaching," I concluded. "You're welcome to join me. I'll even cover whatever this subject is when we get to Wikipedia."

VIII. Perks. 

I'm not going to lie and say it worked every time, but it worked well enough. I'd capture or two or sometimes half of their students before pied piper-ring away to the next room. It took 15 minutes.

The results were breathtaking. Even I was surprised when I did a post-break head count. I had 32 students in my class. It wasn't a record by any stretch, but 32 is better than 12 and a million times better than eight, which was the class size I would have had if I was playing by established rules.

"I think I have enough students now to tell you something important," I said.

They all leaned in closer to hear.

"There is a special at Starbucks today," I said. "Right after class. You can join me or go on your own, it doesn't really matter to me as long as you use this code."

I wrote it down on the white board, amused by how low tech teaching can be. Schools need QR codes for this stuff.

"What does that have to do with social media?"

"What does that have to do with social media?" I asked back, but didn't wait for an answer before continuing. "It has everything to do with it. If even ten of you use the code, I get a free T-shirt."

"Free T-shirt," half them chanted, circling the newbie who asked the question like tribes people. It looked like a scene from Lord Of The Flies.

IX. ROI. 

How do I know it was a newbie? It's always the newbie who asks a stupid question like that. What do people think social media experts do, work for free? No. We don't pay for coffee either.

In fact, I was just planning to cover this advanced subject matter when the gangly office assistant showed up again. He had the troll with him and some new guy.

"Did you bring the handouts?" I asked.

"Mr. Clark wanted to speak to you first," he said.

"Yes, I told Burt to hold off until we had a chance to chat," said Mr. Clark.

"Okay," I said, reaching down to my side to feel for a pistol. It sounded like a showdown, and it wasn't even a western.

"Well, if you take the registration of the original either students in your class, minus the cost of all these handouts for 32 students, then you're providing the university a negative return on investment," he said. "What's worse is you never even showed up at the computer lab, so we'll have to issue those students a refund. And all these students will probably want refunds for the classes they left too."

At first, I thought it was because he was standing next to Burt, but Clark was a very little man.

"You're talking about ROI," I said.

"Yes, yes I am," he said.

At first I was going to dazzle him with outcomes, like how many times the class parroted me, but no one said a word. It was quiet. Too quiet. So I let him have it.

"You silly little man," I chuckled. "There's no ROI in social media for you, but there is for them. And me too. Because I ... well, I'm getting that T-shirt today and there is nothing you can do about it."

As the room burst into applause and students chanted "you silly little man" over and over again, I uploaded the entire confrontation on YouTube. I could already feel it in my bones. The book deal was clinched.

Of course there is an ROI, I mused silently. The only real question is: Who gets it?

***

Social media can be an extremely powerful component of a communication plan, assuming it remains grounded in communication. And the easiest way for anyone to test a social media program is to imagine how all those tactics, strategies, and secret formulas might look if someone applied them to offline communication. If you do and it sounds silly, it probably is silly. Have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, December 14

Advertising Arts: Poster Design Contest

The Art Institutes and Americans for the Arts, which is the nation's leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, will accept entries for the 2012 Poster Design Competition through Feb. 3, 2012. Winners will earn up to a full tuition scholarship to study at one of the more than 45 Art Institutes schools located in North America.

The theme of the competition is "You Can Create Tomorrow." The competition is broken into two categories: high school seniors and high school graduates/adults (from the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico) to design a poster that best expresses the theme.

"We are inspired by the creativity that students exhibit in the artwork they create for this competition and believe that this scholarship competition helps some of our most talented students achieve their educational goals," said John Mazzoni, president of The Art Institutes. "We, along with our partner, Americans for the Arts, eagerly await submissions to see the innovative and unique ways this year's students express their vision of 'You Can Create Tomorrow'."




Last year, the grand prize winner was Ernest Castillo of Las Vegas. He created a poster that depicts an artist's journey to a magical deep sea environment as he paints his first stroke on a blank canvas. The image exemplified last year's theme "Life Is Better With Art In It." 

As the grand prize winner, he won a full tuition scholarship to study at The Art Institute of Las Vegas. (Had he lived in a different city, the scholarship would have been awarded closer to home.) His work was also showcased along other entries at a Congressional Reception on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. 

Castillo was overcome with the news, never believing that he would have an opportunity to earn a degree in art. Two other winners, Adrianna Simmons and Paulina Zaborny, received half- and quarter-tuition scholarships. Their sentiment matched Castillo's excitement, which is one of the reasons that Americans for the Arts supports the annual competition. 

"We are excited to be part of this scholarship competition," said Robert L. Lynch, president and CEO of Americans for the Arts. "The entries not only highlight the remarkable talent of our nation's youth, but also remind us what a vital role art plays in our everyday lives."

For more information about the competition, visit The Art Institutes Poster Design Competition. Local winners also receive scholarship money, ranging from $1,000 to $3,000.

 The Art Institutes is a system of more than 45 educational institutions located throughout North America. The Art Institutes schools provide an important source for design, media arts, fashion, and culinary arts professionals. Several institutions included in The Art Institutes system are campuses of South University.

Americans for the Arts is the leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America. With offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City, it has a record of more than 50 years of service. Americans for the Arts is dedicated to representing and serving local communities and creating opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts.

Monday, December 12

Splitting The Difference: Consumer Confidence

If you are looking for evidence that demonstrates what people think and what people do are two different things, December's Consumer Reports Index tells the tale. Consumer confidence remains extremely low and confidence in job market shaky. Yet, the holiday spending index last month was up 13.9 from 12.4 a year ago, with December looking better than last year.

According to Ed Farrell, director of the Consumer Reports Sentiment Index, consumers are shopping because they are tired of demonstrating restraint year after year. So even if their economic outlook remains unchanged, they are spending more in a stable but negative economy.

The mixed bag of data from the Consumer Reports Sentiment Index. 

What's most interesting about the economic climate and consumer sentiment is how fractured the nation seems to be. Different income groups, different age groups, and different regions are experiencing different economic realities and expressing different consumer sentiment.

For example, people have reported more job losses than job gains in the first time in four months, with the Northeast hardest hit. People living in the West are experiencing the most economic stress, due to the economic uncertainty of jobs and the economy. Consumer confidence among people, ages 18-34 and 65+, has remained unchanged or lost ground (career starters and fixed incomes).

People with a current household income over $100,000 have slightly higher consumer confidence whereas people with a household income under $50,000 have slightly less consumer confidence. But it's middle income families that are under the most economic stress.

The report shows that people are most concerned with medical bills and medications, missing payments on major bills, and health care coverage reductions. Whereas the higher household incomes are seeing more stability, middle income families are barely making ends meet. For households under $50,000, 20 percent could not afford medical treatment or medications, 13.5 percent missed a major bill payment (but not a mortgage), and 12.5 percent lost or reduced their health care coverage in the last 30 days.

Irregular economic climates drag consumer confidence down.

One of the reasons national leaders are struggling in developing a solution is because the current economic climate is not allowing for a one-size fix all for the nation. Specifically, some areas of the country believe taxation is the only way out of the current crisis because they need relief while those in less depressed areas know increased tax burdens may erode their marginal economic foothold.

But avoiding the politicized nature of the economic climate, let's consider what this means for marketers. The three key areas where some companies are winning is by focusing on location, confidence, and relevance.

Location, because some regions of the country are outperforming others. Confidence, because some consumers, even in depressed areas, are making purchases. And relevance, because consumers will purchase meaningful products regardless of their financial situation.

While holiday spending has increased, personal electronics is the only segment of the economy that has successfully demonstrated it can deliver meaningful products. In fact, the increases in spending this year are largely tied to personal electronics, which is up 31.4 percent (up 21.2 percent from last month).

According to the Daily Finance, six of the top ten product purchases are related to electronics. Only Pillow Pets, Australian short boots (that cross a boot with a moccasin look), a Fisher Price dancing Mickey Mouse and indoor remote controlled helicopters can compete (you might notice the latter two rely on electronics).

In fact, even Toys "R" Us reported that the LeapPad Explorer is the most sought-after purchase for young children. It makes sense. The LeapPad Explorer is like a tablet for kids, with an education-entertainment bent.

The long and short of it in making marketing decisions into 2012. 

Unless Farrell's one cautionary concern is right — that strong holiday sales could set the economy up for a weak first quarter — marketers have to do a better a job focusing on proximity (financially stable areas), demographics (select incomes), and psychographics (specific interests and positive outlooks). That means segmenting markets, targeting people who can actually buy the product (instead of blasting everyone), and making meaningful connections to the product or service offering.

Those are the questions to ask. Are you in the right markets? Are you reaching the right people? And are you demonstrating that your product can add tangible value beyond status? Because if anything has changed, status products just don't cut it anymore.

Friday, December 9

Reconditioning Engagement: Not What You Think

During my class last weekend, I said it plainly enough. If you want to create a true online community, you need to look beyond "being on" a social network. You or your organization need to build one.

It doesn't have to be the next Facebook. It might even be tied to the functionality of your site, with differing degrees of community, as not all communities are created equal. And that's all right. Not everyone needs a strong community. Weak communities can produce equally powerful outcomes.

An oversimplified observation between strong and weak communities. 

BlogCatalog, for example, has a reasonably strong community. It used to be more robust than it is today, but there is no mistaking it as anything less than a community. People identify with it, invest time in it, connect with other members, develop friendships, and sometimes take action on its behalf. There are others too. As clunky as it can be, Ragan has built a community. So has Recruiting Blogs.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, has a weak community. It's one of my favorite sites, but the structure of the site doesn't necessarily create relationships between members as much as it creates them between backers and creators. People do identify with it and invest time, but connecting with other members is relatively rare and members take action on behalf of the creators more than the site. The same can be said about DonorsChoose, another favorite of mine.

Google+, as it exists today (tomorrow may be different), and Twitter aren't really communities. You can build connections, followings, events, lists, and loosely aligned links. But it doesn't necessarily build a community. And then there is Facebook, which can be used to create some semblance of a community. However, most organizations do not.

The difference is largely in how we define, view, and establish engagement. And today, most organizations define online engagement in terms of likes, clicks, shares, comments, etc. as Richard Millington reminded me the other day on Feverbee.* His argument is both right and wrong. And here's why...

Actions indicate activity, but not engagement or community. 

The cornerstone of Millington's argument is that people who "like" a Facebook page aren't active enough. That is a fair and valid point. However, I know people who live in my city that aren't very active either. Does that make them a non-member of the community? Or our community any less than a community? I don't think so.

That is not to say that Millington is wrong. He is right that Facebook pages aren't the best places to create a community. And he provides several alternatives.

However, that doesn't mean it cannot be done. I manage some pages that have all the elements of a community, even if the actions are not always evident. I also belong to a couple of Facebook groups. One in particular, which is private, is truly a small and vibrant community. Although it lacks the scale of something like BlogCatalog or Ragan, we all contribute and interconnect, from time to time, and have conversations. Some more than others. And that's okay too.

But more importantly, it seems to me, organizations don't necessarily have to build a community to create engagement (unless they want to encourage members to engage with each other). And that leads to another observation. Engagement is not measured by actions (outcomes maybe, but not actions).

This was a direction I moving in when I wrote an article about how word of mouth happens offline more often than online. When I pulled in the Keller Fay study, which looked at online activity as opposed to offline activity, it was to dispel the notion that the number of "likes" somehow means that the page is engaged. The study proves that many users are not even active, let alone engaged.

But there's more. If the same brand enjoys 880 million offline conversations during an average month, including 442 million active recommendations to buy or try it, it is obviously a highly engaged brand despite those people existing independent of any community. Likewise, looking at those numbers again, nobody discounts the half that have nothing to do with a purchase like social media skeptics always want to do with social media (e.g., they think unless it results in a sale, it's a waste).

Beyond that, nobody can really track all those silent conversations and conversions that manifest when we least expect it. I was reminded of one the other day.

I was speaking with my aunt over the holidays and we were talking about education. Before I could tell her what I thought about a specific issue, she told me what she thought, which I recognized as my own thought.

"That's uncanny," I said. "I was just going to offer that up."

"Really?" she said. "I just read an article about it."

"Really?!?" I just wrote an article about it. Where did you read the article you saw?"

"Oh, you know, come to think of it, I think it was on your blog."

We laughed, and my mind whirled at the same time. She is not a member of "my" community. She does not make any measurable "actions" online. And yet, she was obviously engaged by the article when she was reading it, and based upon her response, possibly influenced by it.

Sometimes I think the communication industry is so busy attempting to measure social media that we forget how real engagement works. Ergo, if you read this post (or at least some of it), you were engaged for a period of time. What happens after that — whether you click, comment, or share — has nothing much to do with it, unless you want it to.

*If you read the Feverbee post, which is a good one, please ignore my comment there. I misread his post, which cited repurposed content from my blog, and then made a statement that "this" was misleading. He meant how people define activity is misleading. It happens.

Wednesday, December 7

Overreaching With PR: Communicators Aren't Commanders

Bob Conrad touched on a great topic last week, even if some of the devices didn't fit together neatly. Oversimplified, he asks if public relations practitioners are prone to overstep in analysis and their own ability.

The answer is probably, but not all of them. It really depends on the individual practitioner. In using the UC Davis spray analysis for evidence as he did, however, he was absolutely right. Most public relations practitioners failed at an analysis because they did not understand the event.

What many public relations professionals who wrote about the UC Davis crisis did was enter in the aftermath and liberally apply standard crisis communication steps, ticking them off like a scorecard. Some of them even thought it was an Occupy protest. It really wasn't. It was about tuition increases.

Regardless, what public relations professionals who wanted the opportunity to include that now infamous picture on their blogs needed to do is take a different approach to presenting the real problem. To be a real case study of the UC Davis crisis, they would have to frame it properly, like this:

The Real Crisis Communication Case Study Question For UC Davis.

You're sitting in your plush communication office balancing your checkbook against your recent cost of living and merit raise because of the extra time you have, now that you are satisfied with next season's class schedule catalog that has finally been sent to print. (You're especially fond of the photo you picked for page 2). When, suddenly, your phone rings. It's the chancellor. 

"We have a crisis," she screams. "The kids are protesting about our insane tuition increase ... you know, the one that has driven up tuition 250 percent in the last ten years. It's turning into an Occupy protest down there and could turn violent. It's not even safe to walk into the campus, assuming those thugs let you by. They want to shut us down! What should I do? Or more importantly, what will you do?"

A. Walk out and express empathy with the mob in your new designer suit.
B. Recognize that they are only kids and give them treats and call their moms.
C. Flog yourself for not planning ahead and having the police already dressed in riot gear.
D. All of the above.
E. Mention the photo you picked for page 2 and go to lunch.

With the exception of "E," I framed these multiple choice questions based on the analysis that Conrad was right to criticize. The reality of this situation is that no cookie cutter crisis communication steps were going to help a public relations practitioner who needs disaster response experience.

The Reality Of The UC Davis Disaster.

The UC Davis crisis was largely unavoidable. The California university system is struggling to keep up with increasing employment costs that it cannot control and less funding as their budgets are cut. (Some of it could be fiscal mismanagement. Hard to say.) Sooner or later, these students were going to protest ten years of successive and excessive tuition increases. Call is predestination.

Given the atmosphere of Occupy rallies around the United States, it is even more likely that such protests (because there is no solution) will turn violent. It's just the mood of the moment, even among students who can afford a $24,000 to $54,000 per year for education. (Yeah, for UC Davis. Go figure.)

Students have rallies and protests all the time, at least when I went to school. Generally, unless they are disruptive or likely to turn violent, staff can reason with students to disperse as needed. Most of the time, you let them do their thing. (I worked as a resident assistant for two years.) If they do not disperse, you call the police (some schools have campus police; some private). Once the police arrive, it's their call — even if someone is advising them.

Of course, something else has changed since I went to school. Police protocols have been radically changed since 9-11, with most department training significantly more elective and aggressive than it was in years prior. In short, officers assess whether the protestors need to be subdued prior to removal (as opposed to simply picking up and arresting those passively resisting).

Personally, I think the officer in charge overshot. But the real point here is that the call to shoot pepper spray into the faces of those students was not one to be made by public relations. There were no PR advisors there, and the outcome might have been the same even if PR advisors were there.

So contrary to all the assessment write-ups, all public relations pros can do in this kind of a disaster is help mitigate it. Sometimes that means playing out a losing hand. And if you worked in communication for UC Davis on that day, you had a losing hand. What else can be said? No wonder I skipped it.

Do Communicators Make The Best Commanders?

The real question looming in relation to Conrad's post touches on a bigger question, spurred on by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). Lately, the society has been attempting to make the case that public relations people make great CEOs.

I mostly agree with Conrad, but for a different reason. A profession, in general, does not indicate whether or not someone would make a great CEO. However, PRSA is presumptive in its answer.

They ask: Who who else besides the CEO or chairman has their finger on the pulse of the company like a public relations person? While it varies from organization to organization, I might say "everyone."

It certainly would on a plane. You see, while a public relations professional might have an understanding of the pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight crew, passenger service agents, ground crew, mechanics, and even passengers, I think most of us would think twice before letting him or her fly the plane. Unless, of course, he or she happened to be a great pilot.

Monday, December 5

Peeking Inside Their Minds: Shopper Profiles

According to a new study by Integer Group and its research partner Decision Analyst, there are four primary behavioral patterns that consumers adopt when shopping for big ticket items that range from home remodels and furniture to automobiles and vacation packages.

Assuming the study has merit, it may also reveal that recessionary pressures have shifted consumers away from status shopping and more toward being conscientious or frugal. I've parsed some of the study results along with four personality styles that have been identified in previous marketing efforts.

Four Predominant Shopping Behaviors. 

• Fretting Frugals (31 percent). They find shopping as enjoyable as a root canal. They are nervous about making the right and wrong choices, are extremely price conscious, and easily overwhelmed. They are the most likely to delay big purchases, not over price but because they want to make the right decision.

For years in marketing, I was taught to consider this behavior style as consistent with analysts, people who pore over lists and make comparisons based on detailed decisions. Price isn't what holds up the purchase as much as making a decision. They are also the least likely to share purchasing decisions to avoid criticism, preferring to look for information that affirms their choices.

• Experience Lovers (29 percent). They consider shopping a labor of love. They are also the most likely to become brand loyalists, convinced that the decisions they make are the right ones and will always be the right ones. The experience is as important as the products they buy.

This might be a new take on the modernized supporter, people who consider everyone's feelings in the household before making what they believe is the right decision. They value their role as making the decisions, carefully balancing the needs of everyone.

• Passive Purchaser (25 percent). They are the most convenience-driven consumers, looking for quick and easy purchases. They do not waste time researching products and are not loyal to brands, but rather make their purchasing decisions based upon intuition.

This most closely resembles a controller, someone who is especially adept at making decisions not because they enjoy it but rather because it needs to be done. They want to know the bottom-line price and benefits without wasting any time.

• Social Adventurer (15 percent). They believe that everything bought is a reflection of style and personality. They are also most likely to tell others about their purchases, mostly because their purchases reflect who they are as a person.

Based upon previous marketing models, they are most like promotors, people who are always looking for the newest ideas, products, and services. They are not brand loyal, but do take more time shopping to find products that seem to be one step ahead. With social networking only recently earning mass adoption, they are well-experienced in letting others know about positive and negative experiences.

Why The Research Might Matter.

Although I'm never fond of the label approach to marketing, the study could be significant in that shopping behaviors have remained relatively equal as a percentage of the population. This study suggests that the social adventurers (promotors) are diminished, perhaps being driven toward conscious or frugal behaviors due to economic pressures.

Such a shift in behavior would be consistent with other studies. Both frugal and conscientious buyers are more likely to seek stability and security, more likely to embrace a new economy, and more likely to appreciate the shopping experience. However, focusing on these behaviors might not be as useful as considering attitude or other psychographics that can help make marketing decisions.

For too long, marketers have been focused on demographics and reach as the two primary indicators in determining their marketing decisions. While such methods can work, they tend to be subservient to focusing on topical interests and attitudes that transcend age, gender, and other demographic bias.

Friday, December 2

Writing Santa Claus: When Mail Really Works

In one of the best programs ever conceived by the United States Postal Service (USPS), yesterday marked the first day of its annual "Letters to Santa" program. The campaign has helped fulfill holiday wishes of children and their families for nearly a century.

Through the annual letter-writing program, members of the public and charitable organizations respond to children's letters addressed to Santa Claus, the North Pole and other seasonal characters. The program is especially meaningful given how much people rely primarily on electronic communication. Receiving a letter, especially from Santa or Rudolph, can be an unforgettable experience for anyone.

"We are delighted to once again kick off the holiday mailing season with the start of our annual 'Letters to Santa' program," said Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe. "The Postal Service is gearing up for a huge mail delivery to the North Pole to help Santa and his elves get ready for the big day."

The tradition started in 1912 when then Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock allowed postal employees and citizens to respond to the letters in the program that became known as Operation Santa. In 1940, mail volume for Santa increased so much the Postal Service invited charitable organizations and corporations to participate and provide written responses to the letters and small gifts to the children who wrote them.

While the exact number of Operation Santa letters is unknown, the USPS estimates it reaches into the millions (New York City handles 500,000 letters alone). The program works because postal workers sort the letters between those that wish Santa a happy birthday and those children who are in need. Those from children in need are then adopted by individuals and organizations, who respond to the children and often mail them a gift based on the letter (volunteers are responsible for the gift and return address).

All names (except the first name) and location references are blacked out before volunteers and organizations adopt the letters to protect the identity of the senders. If you would like to participate in helping fulfill some of the wishes of children in need, please read the USPS letter adoption guidelines.

In lieu of having a letter sent in for adoption, the USPS also allows parents (and others) to mail self-addressed stamped letters (presumably written as Santa Claus) in larger envelopes to a specific address in Alaska. The postal service will send the letter back with a North Pole postmark. For more information, refer to the USPS Fact Sheet. To receive the North Pole postmark, letters must be sent prior to Dec. 10.

There are other commercial enterprises that offer paid Santa letters and gifts, but USPS is not associated with any of those programs and is the oldest Letters From Santa operation in the United States. It is generally managed by local post offices. The USPS has a dedicated page for the program.

Before any questions about whether the program is a wise investment of taxpayer dollars, it's important to note that the Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations. It is a self-supporting government enterprise. Most people are unaware of this fact.
 

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