Friday, August 31

Being Duped: From Political Outrage To Social Spoof

When my cousin shared the newest outrage from Senate challenger and Congressman Todd Akin earlier this week, I had to look twice. The Daily Currant ran a satirical news story with the headline Todd Akin Claims Breast Milk Cures Homosexuality. But the real story had nothing to do with Congressman Akin.

The real story has to do with how most people didn't look twice. People who already felt disgruntled by the politician's extreme pro life position were outraged and responded. Some ''quasi" media outlets even republished the entire story as if it was fact, forgetting that the site is satirical.

The corrections are starting to mount up — Rockford Register Star and The Celebrity Cafe among them. Others were so embarrassed that they have deleted the posts, leading search engines to empty pages. A few, for whatever reason, have let it stand as fact. And Twitter, no surprise, took the lead in spreading the satire as real news, followed by forums on the opposite extreme of ideology.

News spreads fast on the Internet. Faux news spreads even faster.

While it's no surprise that the original outrage left people susceptible to believe anything, it also reinforces how social media is a mixed blessing. Few people check sources before sharing, especially when the story affirms what they want to believe. Not everything on the net is grounded in truth.

The story that was buried in the wake of the satire might be more of a surprise. Rep. Akin is leading in some polls and the race itself is still tightly contested across most polls. The reasons are simple. His opponent is weak and the majority of Missourians are ready to forgive the misstatement in order to see her go.

The fact that he is still very much a viable candidate demonstrates something else about social media. While numbers and news stories, back links, and opinions across the whole of the Web matter, they are not always aligned with the realities of a geographical region. Missouri knows the 6-year story better.

Of course, that has nothing to do with my opinion of what Rep. Todd Akin had said. There is a better sense of that in my original piece. I thought it was a travesty, but maybe not the campaign killer that many people expected it would be. His rebound suggests the Missouri race is very much up for grabs.

Wednesday, August 29

Branding Threads: How People Connect To Brands

Author Geoff Livingston wrote a great thought piece on brand relationships that might make you think. He said customers don't care about our online brand conversations. And mostly, he is right.

Why should they? Most brand conversations are being developed for the brand, not the customer. Many brand conversations, including offline word of mouth, don't happen with the brand as a participant anyway. And brand trust needs considerable reinforcement from peers to be believed. 

His point isn't to dismiss online engagement, conversation, and activity outright. It's merely a means to remind brand managers and marketers that short-sighted social media without integration won't do much to enhance the brand relationship outside of a few online loyalists, assuming the brand has any.

What struck me as especially savvy about his piece was how much more thought needs to go into how businesses approach social media (especially if a company keeps its social media efforts isolated from the broader spectrum of marketing, advertising, and public relations). It made me wonder who really owns the customer relationship? It's not always the brand. 

How branding threads are created and who owns the relationship. 

I have an appointment this week with my dentist. About a month ago, the practice called me to reschedule my appointment because my hygienist no longer works there. I was surprised to learn it. 

I was surprised because this hygienist and I had formed a relationship. We were partners on a project; the project is my teeth and gums. But this week, she won't be the person working on the project.

Of course, this relationship didn't always exist. When I first chose this practice, I did it because I wanted the best practice available to replace a practice that had broken its brand promise (and our relationship) after 20 years.

The decision to try the new practice was made based on its communication (which is how I found them) and reputation (online and offline recommendations, reviews, and news). All of it constituted a brand promise, even statements or opinions that might not have been their own.

The practice has exceeded the brand promise over the years, including one surgery. I trust the doctor implicitly. So why is there some trepidation about the upcoming visit? Easy.

My routine visits were scheduled on Fridays and the doctor didn't work on Fridays, the brand relationship was left to migrate from the practice (and doctor) to my most engaged point of contact — the hygienist. She earned it. 

None of it was intentional. Like many good employees, she created multiple threads to strengthen the connection whereas the practice (like most brands) maintained a singular connection (the ability to deliver on its brand promise). After three years, she knew me and I knew her. Beyond a casual interest in our respective families, the real deal was that she understood my project goals and could meet them.

There are finite possibilities to strengthen a one-thread connection. 

The point is simple enough, much like I commented on Livingston's original piece. There are finite brand possibilities associated with transaction-based connections. If you want to strengthen a relationship between a customer and a brand, then more threads need to be established beyond the transaction. 

If you don't, then the relationship could become diluted or migrate as more weight is given to other relationships — like a hygienist or perhaps other customers or maybe a news report and public outcry. Sure, those things could jeopardize the strongest brand relationship too, but maybe not to the same extent if the brand relationship is reinforced from multiple communication streams and third parties.

In other words, engagement can work but that assumes it is the right kind of engagement. If it only consists of a direct response message, then the relationship isn't strengthened. And, like many online connections are made and reinforced, those relationships can migrate to the individual making them if there is no other point of contact. Interesting stuff, these fragile brands.

Monday, August 27

Dropping Confidence: Marketers Need To Adjust Expectations

One recent survey by an online coupon site doesn't see the holidays shaping up to be as strong as last year. In researching shopping attitudes and behaviors, its results revealed more than 7 in 10 consumers (71 percent) have a dismal view of the economy. One in four are worried about being able to make all the necessary purchases. Only three percent felt the economy was in "good shape."

The survey from RetailMeNot.com coincides with deeper studies, including one published by Bloomberg. The latest decline marks the longest series of declines since 2008. Part of the problem is that gasoline and grocery prices have risen, but there is no real job growth.

The first study mentioned was designed to look at how consumers plan to shop for the remainder of the year. And RetailMeNot concluded that the lackluster economy has helped to create a demand for discount shopping (namely coupons). We have another tip for marketers following study highlights.

Highlights from the RetailMeNot consumer sentiment study. 

• Women (46 percent) are more likely than men (31 percent) to start shopping earlier than November.
• Most (23 percent) will start shopping in early November; Some (12 percent) on Black Friday/Cyber Monday.
• An increasing amount of people (15 percent) plan to wait until after Cyber Monday to begin shopping.
• 54 percent of respondents will finish between Black Friday and their gift-giving holiday.
• 31 percent said that they will be done with their holiday shopping by the end of Cyber Monday.
• Women (58 percent) are more likely than men (50 percent) to finish shopping after Cyber Monday.
• Nearly a third of respondents (31 percent) intend to do their holiday shopping online.
• More than 70 percent of consumers (71 percent) think the economy is in "bad" or "terrible" shape.
• A quarter (25 percent) believe the economy is "okay;" fewer than 1 in 20 think that it is "good" (3 percent).

One of the most compelling statistics is that 4 in 10 respondents (40 percent) say that they should be able to get most of what they want, but cannot afford it all. Only about a third of respondents (36 percent) are not worried about being able to buy all the things they need in the coming months. Nearly 1 in 4 feel it will be difficult to purchase things they need over the next several months, let alone what they want.

Marketers might have to try something new if sentiment doesn't shift. 

What is most concerning about consumer confidence is that what was once called the "new normal" is beginning to erode into a self-fulfilling acceptance that things might get worse. There is little faith that the existing administration can do anything.

Marketers might be able to help consumers (and themselves) three-fold. Market first (people will be making shopping decisions earlier), market online (people are making decisions online even if they are planning to shop offline), and market fair (offer discounts that might help stretch the budget). All three might seem like common sense, which is why there are two more worth consideration.

Marketers could make a lasting impression by making purchases more experienced based. Shopping for experiences is one of the few types of purchases that hasn't slowed down (e.g., travel is up). The reason is pretty simple. People are looking for distractions that give them a chance to breathe.

Second, although this might sound like contrarian advice, is to ease up on push and plus marketing. If there has ever been a time to help consumers find exactly what they need as opposed to padding sales, this might be it. The trade off is an exchange of short-term gain for long-term loyalty.

When consumers are in a slump, customer satisfaction becomes too important in establishing long-term relationships. Given how many marketers claim they want long-term relationships online, it only makes sense that they adjust their objectives accordingly. Too much urgency or attempting to plus sell the transaction could pressure consumers into making an unexpected decision — buy nothing at all.

Friday, August 24

Being Quotable: Akin To Politics

"The interesting thing here is that this is an individual who sits on the House Committee on Science and Technology but somehow missed science class." — President Obama 

That is the most recent quotable from President Obama, shared during a fundraiser in New York City. Expect more of them. The President and his campaign team believe that running against select members of the Republican Party is easier than their opponents. It also distracts from real issues.

The outrageous quote from Senate challenger and Congressman Todd Akin won't last as long as the President would like. It's flash in the pan, especially since most members of the GOP (along with the Romney/Ryan campaign) readily denounced it and asked Akin to step aside. After Akin apologized, he says he won't step down despite his high profile quote being published everywhere.

“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” Rep. Akin said.

With one poorly thought-out quote (and questionable science sourcing), Akin proved that proverbial campaign killing silver bullets may exist, provided they are self-inflicted. Rasmussen noted he dropped in the polls to 38-48 percent of the vote, down from leading 47-44 percent. The reversal is so strong that even his opponent, Claire McCaskill, has said that the Republican leadership should leave him alone and let him run. She sees a win ahead. She's not alone.

As Rasmussen pointed out: most Missouri Republicans want Akin to quit the race while most Missouri Democrats want him to stay. Without any doubt, Akin is still hurting himself while continuing his apology tour too. He might be apologizing without proper explanation, but it's for the wrong thing.

Breaking down the Akin blunder from a communication perspective. 

People really focused in on the word "legitimate" as the catalyst for the crunch. It's also the word Akin has taken to in framing an apology. There is no such thing as a "legitimate" rape, he has said.

But the real problem with his statements was something else (beyond demonstrating an almost unforgivable lack of empathy). It's this idea that women can prevent themselves from becoming pregnant. It was such an odd statement that I had to look it up.

The Los Angeles Times believes it comes from a book published in 1971. Mostly, it notes that the trauma associated with rape makes pregnancy less likely. There are other unrelated fertility studies that can be misused to bolster the concept beyond trauma. But none of it is as conscious as one could infer from Akin's quote. Likewise, even if people assume the occurrence is rape, then exceptions still exist.

The reality is that while the GOP party is seen as largely pro life, the majority of its members fall somewhere along a very broad spectrum (much like Democrats do along pro choice) of what that means. So there is no question Akin bungled it. After all, abortion is a hard enough topic to address without picking up on the even harder and more extreme issues that revolve around it.

Akin would have been better off considering former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's position, a carefully weighed opinion that separates his personal belief from what is politically manageable. Akin makes it unmanageable because before you start addressing exceptions, you have to reach an agreement on more basic principles, e.g., when does life begin. Until that question is answered in the political conscience of the U.S., it's nearly impossible to discuss fringe issues.

In a nutshell, the Akin's personal position is that life begins at conception and therefore, any new life ought to be protected regardless of circumstance. That is what he meant. It's an extreme pro life position, because it also extends the psychological and physical damage (which is horrendous enough) from a single event to a minimum 9-month ordeal.

I get that he brought it up because he wanted to paint himself as someone who doesn't run from his convictions. But he omits another fact. It's unlikely, if not impossible, to think one congressman or future senator could readily enforce such a belief. Even if he could muster enough bipartisan support to make this into a law, it would still face legal challenges from laws like Roe v. Wade.

The dilemma of dangerous issues. 

Having previously worked in politics, I know discussing pro life/pro choice issues is difficult for candidates. It forces them to take a position, even though most people haven't made up their minds across every nuance. Why would they? Most people cannot muster an authentic soul-searching response until they face the choice.

In some of the less usual circumstances that surround abortion, none of us really knows what we would do or could do. On this issue, many people also experience an opinion shift as they are confronted by those experiences. Yet, there are many voters who demand an answer (with some being single issue on this point) despite the fact it is a personal issue and always subject to change.

The law on the other hand is less subject to change. Most proposed laws are pinned to funding and time. Generally, the debate around funding is a question of whether it is fair to use taxpayer money to fund projects they are morally opposed to or whether limiting any such funds unfairly limits choice to those who cannot afford to make such a choice on their own.

All of this is important to consider before making any communication observations, especially because it underpins what Akin says he wants to do but never did. He said he wanted to have adult discussion.

Should Akin drop out of the race? It depends on who you are.

At the end of the day, Akin bungled it more than he realizes. He chose a topic that requires empathy and demonstrated none of it because empathy isn't exclusive to one party but all parties.

Does that mean he should step aside? Given the race is under 90 days away, there is time for him to recover even without party support (short of his party organizing a write-in candidate that might split the ticket). His electability is up to the people of Missouri and their priorities. Someone on the outside can only guess whether his personal position and careless comment outweighs whatever else he is running on.

If he wanted to pursue a long-shot recovery, it seems to me that he would need to demonstrate he learned something about being human (beyond semantics), demonstrate he can have adult conversations about abortion (arguing a fringe position is not a discussion), look into the science that made his argument sound so ignorant (unless it's a conscious choice, it doesn't count), and learn how to address the issue and then shift away from it toward issues that are important to the people of Missouri (which he hasn't really done) so it's not all about him.

That and, even if he has lost the support of his party, he ought not whine about it. He needs to accept their rebuke and find his funding elsewhere. Like it or not, some people share his views.

Naturally, his party would be better off without him for the short term and maybe the long term as Akin will likely remain the poster child for ... what? Politicians who confuse 'having values' with 'wanting to legislate values.' Sigh. Maybe we'll learn that no one can really legislate 'values' in either direction one day. I somehow doubt it.

At the same time, it seems that some Democrats are relishing what Akin said too much. It may or may not be a campaign killer for him, but it's still a pretty thin case to act like he's a rule and not an exception. If they keep pursuing the easy potshots, it only solidifies their overemphasis on vilification.

Wednesday, August 22

Being Steve Jobs: Where The Open Forum Got It Wrong

Barry Moltz is a pretty smart guy. But he really blew it when writing up why business owners don't want to be like Steve Jobs for the Open Forum by American Express. Sure, with a broad brush stroke, we can call Moltz right — it's one thing to be influenced by someone, it's another to mimic them.

So he's right in saying that small business owners don't need to learn how to be "just like Steve Jobs," but not for any of the reasons included on his list. The real takeaway from Jobs is that you never want to compromise being yourself. And Jobs, if he was good at anything, was being himself.

Rehashing the list: Where it's on and where it's off.

Demand More From Your Employees. Moltz took exception to the fact that Jobs frequently told employees that they could never do anything right. Some of them were even afraid to take an elevator ride with him for fear of losing their job by the time they reached their floor. Moltz says it's better to be just be blunt (but not lambasting them or embarrassing them in meetings).

But there is another dynamic here that is missing. Jobs operated from an position that no matter how good something was, it could always be better. He was right. The challenge that many small business owners have is that they are always trying to reach some place of complacency where they can just go with the flow. That place doesn't exist. Maybe Jobs was too harsh for some tastes, but people knew where they stood. Those who excelled also developed a knack for fearlessness, which is critical for creativity.

Tell Customers They Are Wrong. Jobs also had a knack for telling customers that they were wrong, sometimes firing off emails in the middle of the night saying so. Moltz says the lesson is to cool off before firing away an email. The advice is mostly right. I tell people the same thing all the time, except when they are passionate. In those cases, I tell them to draft it up exactly what they are thinking as long as they don't hit the send button until they can read it fresh in the morning.

Still, I think the bigger lesson here is that sometimes you have to tell customers they are wrong. The quickest way to lose a customer is do exactly what they want when it's the wrong way and watch it fail. Communication people, in particular, do this all the time. They think they are preserving an account by doing what customers tells them to do (even if they know its wrong). Then they lose the account anyway because the customer holds them accountable to the outcomes. The grief isn't worth it.

Claim Your Employee Ideas. Moltz relates how Jobs frequently reviewed employee ideas and presented them on as his own. Moltz says it is always better to share credit when credit is due.

Jobs was hardly the only person to do it. Andy Warhol and Charles Eames most immediately come to mind, which is why I have mixed feelings about placing idea ownership in the black and white column.

While Jobs' style is not mine own, many small business owners could use a dash of it. It isn't necessarily appropriate to steal ownership, but neither is it appropriate that small business owners undervalue themselves. They create the environment, fund the work, inspire the direction, etc.

Never Settle For Less Than You Want. Moltz sets up the lesson by showing Jobs as uncompromising on two points — both in business and smallest details. He wasn't afraid to break bad contracts and cared about the inane (even if it what kind of flowers are in a hotel room). Moltz partly agrees, saying that you ought to never stick to a contract that doesn't meet your needs and ought to push people past their limits. But he wants to negotiate resolution and leans light on the details.

I've met a few self-made millionaires and billionaires. All of them sweat detail. I know one who won't eat an orange unless it measures out to perfect circumference. I often wonder if maybe they are right. Maybe those inane details matter. Or maybe you need to decide if they matter to you.

More importantly, small business owners sometimes get mixed up anytime the word "negotiation"  comes up in a conversation. It's because many small business owners have their words mixed up. "Negotiate" and "compromise" are not the same thing. You can negotiate a win-win contract. But "negotiating resolution" smacks of compromise, which is a settlement of mutual concessions.

The last point is probably the biggest takeaway of all. Compromises are often lose-lose propositions, with both parties losing, even if one party thinks they are winning. Small business owners can't afford to play that game. If you can't negotiate a win-win with someone but you can with someone else (assuming quality, price, etc. are all equal), you have to move forward. If you compromise or force someone else to compromise, then you're likely headed in the wrong direction. Never settle, but never ask someone else to settle either.

Monday, August 20

Emerging Markets: Will Shift Social Scores

A recent study by eMarketer pinpoints something marketers may need to consider in the near future. Emerging markets lead the world in social networking growth. And these markets are very likely to eclipse North America (China already did).

This simple but important truth could change the way people look at online measurement. With the fastest growth rates in the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific, places like North America will represent a smaller and smaller portion of the global audience.

Specifically, some estimates suggest 78 percent of the U.S. population is connected to the Internet, but it only represents between 10 and 11 percent of the global online population. Conversely, 38 percent of China's population already represents 22 percent of the global online population. India already represents 5 percent of the global online population, with only 10 percent of its population.

It also means marketers have to erase some of their previous preconceptions in terms of influence or importance. Looking at Alexa rankings or influence measurements might not mean what social media experts told them they meant. Some search engines will likely be impacted too.

There are several ways to think about the global population shift.

One old rule of thumb (although it was as erroneous then as is it today) was to ignore anyone who didn't meet a specific global threshold. Nowadays, it's even less true. Unless a site or social network account is attempting to cater to a global audience, it's not likely to have a global rank as high as its country, regional, or local rank.

Ranking or popularity doesn't have anything to do with content quality. It has everything to do with potential reach. If the potential readership has a smaller audience, then it likely won't perform at higher levels. It's a lesson I wish some communicators would have considered before dropping their communication blogs.

Some thought they were losing their audience, but the reality was that they were catering to an ever shrinking reach against the total population. Ergo, as online demographics diversified, a smaller percentage of people were interested in communication-related topics. Likewise, as time goes on, fewer people may be interested sites with English content or Western-style visuals or even hot topics.

Mashable scratched the surface of how global participation can shape a network. It compared participants in the U.S. and participants in the U.K. on Pinterest and discovered some very different statistics. In fact, the interests of U.K. participants looked vaguely familiar to me. They were similar to the online interests of U.S. participants five years ago (but on different networks).

What seems to be happening on the small scale is similar to what happens on a global scale. In this case, U.K. small businesses and consultancies are moving into Pinterest ahead of consumers. In the U.S., the migration patterns were flipped. Small businesses mostly stayed away until public relations and social media specialists began taking an interest, based on independent blogger traffic spikes.

It's a small example, but one worth considering. If your content or connection isn't geared for a global audience, you'll either have to accept your company's smaller global reach or begin altering the content in consideration of other cultural expectations and influences. The latter isn't necessarily the best idea. It all depends on what your companies does, who it serves, and where those people might live.
 

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