Friday, September 21

Imagining Futures: Social Media For Groceries

Every weekend, my wife sets time aside to fill our grocery list. We used to go together, but our schedules have made this almost impossible and our new shopping system a little less spontaneous.

I cook four nights a week. She cooks three. So my list is written up nice and tight, while she still likes to search for coupons and buy a few spontaneous treats or plan a meal depending on what she sees.

Mostly, she alternates between two stores, Albertsons and Smith's. They both have their advantages and disadvantages, sometimes depending on sales and the day of the week. Price, quality, produce diversity, butcher diversity, and name brands in stock all make a difference on who wins for the week.

Recently, I've noticed another factor that might contribute to how we shop. Both stores are starting to promote apps to make things easier. It's sounds great, but let's be honest. Despite being electronic coupon books, the current apps don't really do enough.

Grocers have to stop thinking mobile and start thinking physical. Specifically, apps cannot be modeled after what exists. They have to be modeled to promote customer objectives. I know it will likely make shelf renters cringe over the loss of impulse buying, but groceries are prime social business candidates.

Many grocery stores are going mobile, but not nearly enough. 

For starters, both of them want you to enroll and provide your email address. You know why. Customers come last. These apps aren't about you. They are about the store and adding you to an email list. Good grief. Isn't it sufficient that I wanted to shop at the store enough to download an app? Never mind. Let's move on...


Abertsons. The app is unattractive and not very intuitive from the start, but that's not the trouble. Other than e-coupons and a store locator, there isn't anything surprising or inspired. Let's point out one flaw.

For example, one of the marketing points is to make your shopping list using the app, but that lacks a tangible physical connection. Since it isn't tapped into the store inventory, you can add items you will never find in the store. It doesn't sync your list against its own e-coupons. And it doesn't organize the list by store layout (or even department), which means a lot of wasted time.

So other than advertising and maybe six e-coupons, why do I need this app? The first generation app is mostly useless, but at least I could try a few things before signing up for an account and spam.

Smith's. It's a better looking app that not only works for Smith's, but all Kroger grocery store brands too. Good enough, but then what? The weekly ads and e-coupons are nice enough, but each one wants you to sign in to add them to the shopping list.

So I did. It's much more intrusive than Albertsons, but I played along and added my Shopper Rewards number. My registration failed, it said, because my number is already in use. Right. By me.

I skipped that step and then had to confirm my email. Do they know how frustrating it is to leave an app to do that? I went to my desktop to save a step only to find that the confirmation hadn't even arrived. I double checked it and resent it from the app. Nothing (not even in my spam folder).

There is nothing like technology to remind you how fragile brands can be. That's as far as I got.

How to reinvent a grocery store app that works for the customer. 

First things first. Scrap the accounts on the front end. You can entice me later with things that make sense — special account-only offers and recipes that I don't have at home — but let people shop in the meantime.

The first thing people want and need is a store locator, which both apps are already equipped with (so that's easy). But after the store is located, the app ought to adjust to a physical layout of the store.

Then, when I start to add items to my list, the app ought to check approximate store inventory, apply any e-discounts and coupons, and arrange the list using a geographical layout of the store. That way you are sure that all your dairy items are picked up in the dairy section.

The app ought to allow for branded and non-branded items. Consumers have different tolerances for different items. Sometimes not having Comet in stock can be a deal breaker. Sometimes it just matters what napkins are on sale. Flexibility is the key and helpfulness raises the bar — e.g., maybe you can segment and merge lists based on regular purchases like milk, eggs, and bread to help people skip retyping everything. All this would not only make sense, but also merge the high tech and high touch.

Want to go a step further? Some grocery stores allow orders and pick- ups anyway. So it only makes sense to have the 'option' to send the list in advance of a shopping trip (along with any special butcher cuts and deli meats). The customer can choose whether they want to do more shopping in the store (while only their special items like meat and deli are prepped) or have everything bagged (assuming you are specific) in advance for a nominal fee of $5.

If $5 sounds too light, you have to think long term. As long as it's done right, people will have a hard time giving back the hour or two they saved. If you want to go a step further, add $20 for delivery.

All of it delivers on the brand promise that both groceries are missing right now. Grocery apps are great but they need to marry the in-store and out-of-store experience. At the same time, it would win over customer loyalty and reduce wait times because the app might already have your debit card info for the express self-checkout or (perhaps) already be factored in by the assembly team before hand.

Wednesday, September 19

Interesting Opinions: Wi-Fi Is Not Enough?

When I read the article with Glenn Lurie, an AT&T executive who sees every new consumer device before they are released, I was surprised. Although it is not his call alone, he has taken the position that Wi-Fi is not enough.

"We try to look for all the opportunities in the world to get the OEMs to understand that they shouldn’t be building two devices," he said in the All Things D interview. "They should be building one device with Wi-Fi and 4G. It’s more efficient for them than having two [product] lines."

He believes it is a simple matter of education. Consumers must learn that they need always-on connectivity, he said. Naturally, eliminating Wi-Fi only would serve AT&T too. More connections means more subscribers and more subscribers means a better revenue model if they choose AT&T.

I appreciate his candor, but the comments immediately following the story tell another story. Even with the best of intentions, Lurie is out of touch with the customer. People see subscriptions as traps.

Understanding the consumer mindset and product usage. 

It really isn't that hard to understand. People opt for Wi-Fi only iPads and tablets so they don't have to pay for another cellular subscription. Many of them believe the phone subscription is enough.

From the consumer perspective, it makes sense. It even has an historic context. The number one reason that newspaper and magazine subscriptions dwindled is because people are genuinely tired of subscriptions that eventually begin to feel like utilities — fees you have to pay for the basic services.

Among monthly fees, publications are frequently the first to go. Especially if your income is unstable (tip workers, etc.), elective subscriptions go twice as fast. So you have to pick and choose from a long list of fundamental and elective expenses.

For most people, mandatories include: electric, gas, water, municipal services, mortgage payments, car leases or payments, car insurance, telecommunications, mobile telecommunications, cable or satellite, and taxes. Now add health insurance (especially with new government requirements) and life insurance. Immediately following those payments are the electives, ranging from gamer accounts and clubs to gym memberships and lawn care. All of them cause a dwindling supply of disposable income.

Where do iPads and tablets fit? For many but not all consumers, it's closer to the bottom because those who opt for Wi-Fi only are satisfied with using their smart phones when they are on the go and Wi-Fi only when they have access at home, work, the hotel, and a growing number of other venues (both public and private hot spots). In fact, given how many places are adding Wi-Fi and AT&T's support of such hot spots to cut down on system overload, it seems more likely Wi-Fi is preferred (doubly so because some functions require Wi-Fi access to work). All things considered, why pay more?

Obviously, some people do have a need. The split between the products is generally 60 percent Wi-Fi only and 40 percent 4G. The slight advantage Wi-Fi has is a lower model price and no subscription fee after you purchase the product. But there is even more to the story.

AT&T and other providers have contributed to Wi-Fi only sales with usage throttling, data usage caps, service issues, roaming charges, high overage changes, etc. Maybe it's not the consumer who needs to be educated. AT&T could learn something about consumers and make 4G more tempting.

Making a better future to marry Wi-Fi and 4G. 

I'm not one of the many people who equate AT&T with the evil empire. I genuinely prefer them as my phone provider, think they have better customer service, and they recently did us right by offering advice on how to handle our phone service (for three phones) while traveling in a foreign country.

So how do carriers sell always-on connectivity? For starters, they could break away from device subscription models and replace them with account subscriptions instead. If you already have an iPhone, your iPad subscription is, gasp, inclusive because you're less likely to use both at the same time.

Or, they could implement lifetime plans built into the product price much like they did for Amazon Kindle (with a better fallback for usage overages). Or, they could give people the option of buying 4G-ready devices without a subscription, allowing them to add it (or drop it) at their leisure.

Of course, they could improve their system so it isn't affected by high-usage customers (thereby killing the throttle concept). And, if they are among those who want to regulate Internet traffic and bandwidths, they could give it up and stay focused on their core service to provide a better experience.

Simply put, it's not education that consumers need. They need an incentive, especially those who get along fine without 4G connectivity, using their iPad mostly around their already Wi-Fi friendly home.

Remember. AT&T is pushing "Think Possible." And right now, people think Wi-Fi everywhere, which is a better fit with Steve Jobs's old vision to make a contribution to the world by making tools for the mind that advance humankind. Something like that makes subscriptions optional.

Monday, September 17

Making Social Physical: Social Media In Restaurants

Every time I read a story that pits high touch against high tech, digital against physical, or the Internet against brick and mortar, it annoys me. These articles are worthless. The advice is nonsense. The agenda is forcing small business owners to pick one thing or the other because the future is coexistence.

I was reminded of this recently when a mutual group member (David Lopez) of mine posted an article about Mobile Point-of-Sale (POS) technology in restaurants. This article doesn't pit high tech and high touch against each other. It marries it. And this technology is only the tip of the iceberg.

The customer perspective of handheld devices.

When I was traveling in Vancouver a few weeks ago, two restaurants had already adopted mobile point-of-sale handheld devices. Specifically, the server asked us if we needed anything else and we said no, so she pulled out a handheld device. Right there, she swiped the card, allowed me to review the charge, and we were done. The handheld even listed tip options, automatic tip percentages (5-20 percent) or hard dollar amount.

Contrast this to the traditional method practiced by most restaurants. You finish your meal and the server eventually brings out the check. Most people let it sit there awhile, finishing up any remaining edibles and conversations. Eventually you slip in a charge card and it sits around until the server has time. They pick it up, take it back to the register, and then bring it back to you to sign (and calculate the tip in your head).

The traditional method means something as a simple as paying a bill can take five to 20 minutes or more. The tech-savvy solution clocks in around two minutes. The customer wins because several points of contact become one point of contact (and you can leave when you want) and the restaurant wins because everyone who has spent time in restaurant knows that table turns impacts the bottom line.

The only semi-odd thing about it, from my perspective, was having the server stand by while writing the tip. I generally tip 20 percent anyway (a old good habit from my days as a reviewer), but it felt awkward. But I imagine this feeling would pass pretty quick if it was considered a norm.

POS technology is only the beginning: iPad menus rock.

One of the restaurants that adopted POS technology went one step further. At LIFT, the menus are iPads (and better than their website). It is the most amazing experience. The menu is divided into sections — appetizers, lunch, dinner, dessert, wines, etc. You pick a section, scan the list, and then pull up a picture and description of the dish you are interested in before placing your order.

I can't remember the last time comparing and picking a dish was so easy. There were no guesses or surprises. It also helped establish one of the best first pre-meal impressions of a restaurant ever.

The iPad menus really made my creative wheels spin too. There are so many remarkable things a restaurant can do with social technology and take it to the next step. What if customers...

• could tap their smart phones to the menu and receive the menu app?
• could tap their smart phones and subscribe to a content rich blog attached to it?
• could tap their smart phones to enter a contest to win a free lunch?
• could order their meals or request specific seats before they arrived?
• could receive a survey the next day instead of trying to do it at the table?
• were invited to an upcoming special event or special menu sampling?

After just completing a two-year social media contract with a restaurant in Las Vegas, I can attest to the fact that although social media can deliver a return on investment (30-80 check-ins a month, noting that only about 10 percent of all people actually check-in), traditional social media models don't go far enough for restaurants. The primary reason is that they are too focused on impressions and captures (local searches, of all things) and not focused enough on the customers at the table.

Specifically, most restaurants are so comfortable with the old media model — impressions in magazines, phone books, etc. — they have been conditioned to think that applying old media rules to new media is all that can be done. Sure, some of them receive a lift if they implement a social media program, but the real magic of a successful restaurant in the future will not be social media as another marketing silo.

Restaurants that look at technology as an extension of their physical location rather than a means to attract people to a physical location will be the ones with the best bottom line. And those that do it in the United States now (while the recession still makes people think twice about eating out) will be light years ahead of their competitors in the future. This post only scratches the surface.

By the way, I would like to add something about LIFT, given they helped inspire the story. Hands down it was the best meal, best service, and best experience of every restaurant we visited while in Vancouver. And as someone who once wrote dining reviews of some of the finest establishments in Las Vegas, I would have given them five stars, perfection. And yes, the harbor view helped too.

Friday, September 14

Managing Change: Public Relations Can Be Proactive

By most accounts, the biggest hurdle in the Chicago teachers' strike has been performance evaluations. It's not new. Los Angeles and Boston recently adopted performance evaluations too, some of them signing on with reservations. They are afraid the evaluation process will be unjustly used to let teachers go.

The good news is that the Chicago strike may be nearing an end. Among the concessions: Evaluations of tenured teachers during the first year could not result in dismissal and later evaluations could be appealed. There are some new benefits added in an effort for both sides to make concessions.

The question that always looms is how long will these concessions remain viable? There is, after all, a big difference between negotiation and compromise. The first involves two groups working together toward a solution. The second involves two groups offering concessions, which sometimes looks like a solution but often breaks down because it isn't a solution. It just moves things forward.

Where public relations professionals can affect positive change. 

Strikes are often publicity generators for hardened deal makers. But if public relations professionals were allowed to interject on the more strategic aspects of a crisis, something else might happen.

If we adopt and expand the definition of public relations beyond communication as it had been in prior definitions (and assume practitioners embrace it) rather than confine it, public relations may have prevented the Chicago strike because it could have helped mitigate an evaluation process designed by teachers and the administration as opposed to just the administration well before it made it into a contract negotiation.

They had the time. Falling test scores is hardly new. It has been noted for a long time. But the debate about it usually becomes heated during contract negotiations and elections. That's when most evaluations are made on an "accept it/reject it" basis. The fact that it becomes a sticking point so late in the game undermines the intent of the evaluations in the first place.

In theory, evaluations usually have several functions. They can help evaluate student knowledge. They can show teachers where to improve or what works. They can provide benchmarks to map trajectories.  So on and so forth.

Most of that is tactical so it needs to be pulled back a bit. The real issue here is that students are not prepared to advance because they lack fundamentals but they somehow are advanced anyway. And perhaps more importantly, some of them do not develop the critical love for education that they need (the one area where charter and private schools seem to excel more than any other factor, it seems to me).

Everybody ought to be asking the same question. How do we instill a love for education and help children succeed? Ideas from all quarters ought to be proposed, worked out, and tested by a mutually agreed upon evaluation system (phased in as suggested before) before it becomes the law of the land.

This requires open communication, which is a potential function of public relations. Why do the teachers think students are failing and is this belief valid? Why do the parents think their children are failing and is this valid? Why do the administrators think education is failing and is this valid?

This would have been a better approach by the administration. Preventative public relations.

Another lesson for public relations in negotiation. 

Although the Chicago teachers' union seems to have found some language that makes these evaluations more tolerable, there is a better lesson for public relations practitioners. Every "accept it/reject it" demand can be better met with a counter solution.

A counter solution is any measurable program that offers a better outcome than the proposal. Had the Chicago teachers' union (or teachers on their own) proposed a potentially better or provably better evaluation system, then the media would have been less likely to zero in on performance, salaries, etc. as a contrast to the evaluations proposed by the administration.

Instead, the media would have likely compared the two evaluation systems. And teachers, like I believe most do in their hearts, would have looked like they were interested in the students more than what they get. That is what teaching is all about it, isn't it? In fact, it's why I lend some of my time as an instructor.

For the public relations practitioner, the point is pretty simple. Always consider that you may not have to make a choice based on a "black/white" scenario laid out in front of you. You can set the communication and solution parameters by being proactive in planning or be better prepared to change the conversation for the benefit of equally important publics.

Wednesday, September 12

Dueling Crisis: The Chicago Teachers' Strike

At first glance, most people would size up a teachers' strike as a crisis communication problem for city government. Not this time around. The decision to strike in Chicago created a quadruple crisis — for government, unions, teachers, and parents. Everybody is going to lose this time, especially the only people who are not part of the clash: the students.

The assessment of a quadruple crisis on the quick. 

Government. It's not exclusive to Chicago, and exists in many major cities. After years of giving into collective bargaining concessions (some smart and some not so smart), government has run out of fiscal room to continually reward lackluster results and downward trajectories. There is no money in the coffers for salary concessions. There is increasing pressure to save failing education systems.

In an effort to meet somewhere in the middle, Chicago seemed willing to approve a generous salary increase, but wanted to end undergraduate teacher tenure and add evaluation methods that would usher in a new era of educational accountability. You can see where they often place the blame — teachers (and sometimes unions).

Unions. The unions have done a tremendous job building an infrastructure to elect politicians who rubber stamp concessions and force out those who will not. The amount of money used for lobbying and political campaigning is mind boggling but not surprising.

Unions make their money based on how much money their members, voluntary or mandatory, contribute. They also need to win every year in order to justify their existence. So, it is in their best interest to protect teachers with more years in the system (tenure), protect the employment of every teacher (regardless of results), and always seek out more money, which in turn generates more cash for lobbying, political campaigns, and their payroll. You can see where they often place the blame — government.

Teachers. While each city is different, Chicago teachers have done better than most. The average salary is around $71,000 per year in a city where most household incomes is around $46,000 per year. But despite this salary discrepancy, it is no picnic to teach in a city with severe economic problems and a higher than normal percentage of at-risk children who attend school every day just to get a meal.

While not all teachers on are board with the union or the strike, those that are want to preserve job security, earn salary increases (because they have hit their caps), and avoid accountability for student performance. The latter isn't because of what most people think. By the time many meet new students, these students are already broken or behind. Most of them place the blame somewhere else — parents.

Parents. Other than teachers, there isn't a more diverse group in the mix. Most parents want their children to receive a better education than they received, but they see that school systems across the country are failing to engage students and instill a love for learning that is necessary for success — even  if their children are better suited to enter the trades (which I'll address another time).

Sure, there are a few who are dismissive, either believing that a failing education system cannot help their children at the onset, devaluing it because of their own occupations, or treating the system like free day care. But I don't think this describes most parents. More likely is that many parents are already stretched too thin to invest an hour on homework every night or, in some cases, they themselves don't understand the material their children bring home. And then there are those who struggle with everyday discipline, let alone education. As the most fractured group, they place blame wherever it is ideologically convenient for them — mostly government, somewhat teachers, occasionally unions.

There are no 'group' heroes in this mix. 

The educational system that was created in most struggling cities is broken because it was designed with the best intent until the best intent was sidelined for winning on issues (some fair and some not so fair). So as groups, there are no heroes because each of them contributed to the mess that exists today.

If you are looking for heroes, you can only look for individuals. Somewhere in the mix, there are politicians who are willing to do whatever it takes to build an educated work force. There are teachers who work longer unpaid hours, doing everything possible to fix the problems they inherited. And there are parents who even though they feel helpless, still instill the importance of education in their children.

But as groups, you will mostly find governments giving into union pressures and political clout with parents too readily taken in by campaign material. At the same time, union wins convinced enough teachers to go along for the ride (or be silenced out of fear). It wasn't always this way, but it is today.

The reality of teacher evaluations, overall. 

While the one takeaway today fits better into education than public relations (which I will be covering as a living case study), there is only one solution that fairly addresses the principal cause of the strike. Despite best intentions, I cannot see how a teacher evaluation system can be implemented across the board on an already broken system despite my own belief that every school system needs one.

So maybe it's time for the good people of Chicago to have a reality check — a hard and fast K-12 evaluation system on teachers, especially one that relies on test scores, isn't fair for one simple reason. But rather than focus in on the problem, I'd rather offer up the solution that addresses it.

Evaluation standards would have to be imposed in phases, starting with K-3. Then, whatever evaluation is put in place would follow the kids into future grades, middle school, and high school. Any other method causes problems because too many children have been passed up with a deficient education.

Ergo, it's not fair to expect a 10th grade teacher to produce 11th grade students when they are given an abundance of 10th grade students with a 6th grade education (or less). However, if the evaluation system was phased in, then there would be no excuses. A 10th grade teacher with 10th grade-ready students will be able to prepare them for 11th grade or even further.

Teachers in the lowest grades would be the first to be held accountable for the class but not every student. Students who are deficient can receive special help or be held back. The point here is simple enough. Fourth grade teachers would not inherit students who are not ready.

The pressure to perform would also be mostly erased, being more likely to look for students who are struggling as opposed to teachers who are struggling. However, school officials could take a closer look at any teacher whose entire class slips. Make sense? You can hold teachers accountable based on class performance, but not necessarily every individual student.

I have more insights on the teacher evaluation topic and some education pitfalls, but I'm looking at a public relations topic for Friday. You see, it seems to me that Chicago is mistaking politics and propaganda for public relations. But on the contrary, public relations is rarely so divisive.

Monday, September 10

Making It Personal: From Education To Marketing

While most people see the 1960s as the "Golden Age of Advertising," its birth can be traced bak to the 1950s. Along with the booming post-war prosperity and adoption of television as a means of mass communication, it was the ideal time for agencies to capture the imagination of a semi-captive audience. 

Some people find the old commercials produced from the 1950s through the 1970s a bit campy with relatively poor production techniques. But if you take a closer look, you'll understand why people responded to the messages — those commercials connected to their era on a personal and sometimes intimate level. 

Unless it's being used as a 1980s and 1990s broadcast channel (when advertising sought to out clever itself instead of appealing to anyone), social media (and social business to some degree) makes the same promise. It provides people the opportunity to get to know the people behind the company, the musicians behind a band, the authors behind the books, so on and so forth. Making it personal works. 

Where advertising and education meet is a matter of perspective. 

While that might seem an odd way to start a post touching on education, some might propose the two are related more than most people think. When it comes to delivering an effective, memorable message that sticks, there really isn't much difference. Personal perspective can solidify and shape how we view history or even current events much more effectively than statistics and bullet points. Stories work. 

One groundbreaking independent documentary series, POV (Point of View) on PBS, has been doing exactly that for almost 25 years. As it aimed to widen the nation's discussion of the most important social issues of the day, it has become its own historic archive of personal perspective by putting a human face on current affairs and now history. Here are a few examples. 

I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful by Jonathan Demme conducts character analyses of fearless matriarch Carolyn Parker, who struggled to rebuild her house in New Orleans after it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Depending on the class, POV suggests watching film clips and then organizing the information into essays (with outside sources too, I imagine) that can be applied to civics, geography, social studies, and history. 

The City Dark by Ian Cheney studies the nesting process of the endangered loggerhead turtle species. The video illustrates how artificial lighting along beaches disorients turtle hatchlings and hinders their ability to reach the ocean successfully. The film provides cross-over content for biology, environmental studies, geography, and current events. 

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday follows civil rights veteran and barber James Armstrong and where the movement fits within the context of U.S. history. Integrated into a lesson plan, it provides a perspective for civics, social studies, world history, and current events. 

There are other films too. And while teachers must always be mindful to provide contrasting viewpoints or lead students toward appreciating the "why" behind the "what happened," all of them make for memorable communication, reinforced by a personal connection between the subject and viewer. 

Interestingly enough, POV has been developing a better connection between the films too. Its Community Engagement and Education Department partners with middle schools, high schools, colleges, and community organizations to provide more resources than the films themselves. 

Educators are invited to the join a growing community network where they can borrow more than 70 films for free download, along with 125 free standards-based lesson plans. There are also more than 217 streaming video clips and access to 130 film-based discussion guides for a variety of subject areas and grade levels.

"We have found that the personal storytelling in our films is a wonderful learning tool; it becomes a springboard for discussion that not only helps students understand the issues, but often helps them learn about themselves," said Eliza Licht, vice president, POV Community Engagement and Education. "The goal of our interactive education campaigns is to use film as a tool to support students in becoming thoughtfully engaged citizens." 

While the films sometimes don't necessarily provide a broad view of all subjects (because that's the point of perspective), all of them demonstrate how communication is most effective when someone can relate to the subject. For consideration, educators might want to visit the POV's Lesson Plan section.

How educational instruction can help professional communicators.

For marketers, advertisers and communication professionals, there might be something else to consider.  When was the last time your company produced anything that connected to the people you want to reach? Or perhaps, if you want to think about it another way, what was the real reason Blendtec became one of the most referenced YouTube success stories?

Some advertising students and professionals immediately think it's the gimmick that gave the series a lift.  Sure, that was part of it. But the foundation doesn't have as much to do with one well-thought out gimmick as everything else in the segments — the personality and empathy of the spokesperson and the viewer's connection to the products they decide to blend — have equal weight.

They make it personal, much in the same way it advertisers did several decades ago. And that's the point. You might ask how you can make your company's message just as personal too, but without the blender.

Friday, September 7

Inspiring Content: Inspire Yourself First

A few months ago, one of my students stopped me mid-sentence when I hit the fourth of five ways to find inspiration for writing. I didn't blame her. Any time a professor tells practicing and future public relations people to experience life, it sounds dangerously close to life coaching over professional instruction.

And yet, it's necessary to mention tips like that because most press releases are pretty boring. Sure, some pretend not to be boring. They force connections to current trends. They smack of snappy marketing copy. Or maybe they rely on exclusively on a big brand name. It doesn't matter.

They're still boring, especially those that were written for the sole purpose of trying to gin up some SEO keywords. It's enough to make you grateful that some folks give up and just send the facts.

You might know what I'm talking about — boilerplate releases that come with an unwritten note that reads "I couldn't find anything remotely interesting about this pitch and gave up. Maybe you'll have better luck. Here are the facts and a few bullet points." Not the best idea, but at least they are honest.

Quit Treating Your Audience Like Second-Class Chumps. 

I didn't really write that subhead. I paraphrased it from an article by Danny Brown. He was writing about how many bloggers start to phone in their posts when they're satisfied with some level of traffic.

For whatever reason, once they capture some kernel of attention, their posts become less thoughtful, their platforms feel dated, and all of their popup ads and ebooks begin to blend together into some thick and sticky formula with an aftertaste. You get the point. Whatever it might be, the lesson is still the same. Don't settle for allowing everything to become mundane. The people who read deserve better.

In looking back, about the only thing Brown didn't cover is where it all starts. It doesn't start with the post or platform or press release or client. It always starts and ends with the writer. Bored writers produce boring stories regardless of the medium. Their words scream "am I done yet?"

Boredom Starts With The Distraction Of Everything Else. 

As a writer, whether writing a blog post or press release, you ought to know the feeling by now. There might even be a little voice in the back of your head whispering "All I need is a lead or maybe a gun."

It's misery and you want out. The reason could be anything. Maybe you already wrote ten releases about the same subject and your eyes are tired. Or maybe you have a half a million other things to do, but the deadline or schedule dictates that the content comes first. Or maybe you just feel a little blue today and are having a hard time fining that elusive hook. Or maybe someone bruised your ego last time.

Whatever. Those are excuses, justifications designed to make you feel better about what you might eventually do to pass on your boredom to your readership or the media as if they deserve to be punished for your problem. The truth is as soon as you hit "schedule" or "post" or "send," you've compounded the original block. Too much boring communication is hard to overcome.

As Brown says in his story, doing the right thing doesn't always come easy. But there are solutions to help you avoid blocks or break out of the mundane and get back on the epic track. I'll save those for next week. But you already know the feeling associated with better content. It's when you look up from your keys and an hour has ticked off, but you could keep writing for another hour if you had the time.

Wednesday, September 5

Shopping Online: The Sales Tax Issue

As Pennsylvania becomes the newest state to require online retailers to collect a sales tax on residents, Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Revenue a.k.a. chief tax man Dan Meuser says it will level the playing field for brick-and-mortar businesses. But will collecting a sales tax really level the playing field?

If brick-and-mortar businesses really believe that, then they have fallen behind further than I ever thought. According to eMarketer, more than 72.6 percent of Internet users bought online on 2011, representing 148 million people (ages 14 or more) who made at least one purchase. Thirty million more are expecting to join them by 2015.

There have been dozens of studies published about the motivation of online buyers. And almost none of them place avoiding sales tax at the top of the list. What are some of the reasons people shop online?

Ten reasons that people shop online instead of offline.

1. There are no store hours online so they can shop online any time.
2. They can comparison shop between stores and find better prices.
3. They are given discounts to shop online by brick-and-mortar stores.
4. They never have to worry about crowds or checkout lines.
5. They can find things easier instead of searching racks and shelves.
6. They don't have to associate with cranky salespeople or pitches.
7. They are never sent to another store because of out-of-stock items.
8. They don't have to spend money on gas, driving to different stores.
9. They can see what other people are saying about products and stores.
10. They can do it alone and from home, wearing whatever they want.

Sales tax doesn't even register. Other then discounts and clearance sales, the biggest incentive that online buyers look for is free shipping. Shipping is something people prefer to avoid. That's about it.

But in looking at the list, brick-and-mortar stores have much more work to do than worry about sales taxes. In order to compete with online retailers, they have to create experiences online transactions can't offer their customers as well as capitalize on the reasons people sometimes prefer to shop offline.

Ten reasons that people shop offline instead of online.

1. They enjoy store-hosted events and special appearances.
2. They are still wary about online privacy and security.
3. They want to try on clothes/shoes and match up outfits.*
4. They find it easier to take in the entire store at a glance.
5. They like to window shop and visit other stores in proximity.
6. They consider shopping a social experience and enjoy it.
7. They don't have to wait for the item to arrive by mail.
8. They like knowledgeable employees on hand to help.
9. They don't worry about being spammed after one purchase.
10. They enjoy making discoveries they would have missed online.

*This includes hearing a sound system or test driving a car, etc.

There are more, but most of it revolves around the experience. The question brick-and-mortar stores have to ask is whether or not they are giving shoppers a reason to come in the store. With the exception of best practice independents (e.g. Book People in Austin, Tattered Cover in Denver, Amoeba Records in Hollywood), most stores don't.

Some of them (especially bigger brands) effectively cannibalize their own in-store customers by trying to convert them to online shoppers by offering better follow-up deals than their customers could ever find in the store. In essence, the online component of transitioning brick-and-mortar stores is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, retailers ought to be working to erase the online/offline distinction.

The future of brick-and-mortar and online retailers. 

Although I often wonder how many times government can tax the same dollar (taxes are levied, frequently more than once, every time money moves from one place to another), requiring online retailers to pay online state sales tax has very little to do with fairness and everything to do with state tax revenue. They might as well stick to that statement because they aren't helping brick-and-mortar stores, most of which are trying to develop some semblance of an online presence or online storefront.

Right. The reality is that brick-and-mortar stores as we knew them are nearly obsolete as even independent sellers have to develop an online component where they can increase sales beyond walk-in traffic and/or stimulate walk-in traffic with special appearances or events. What many haven't done yet is map out the potential symbiotic relationship between high tech and high touch, but they will. Eventually, every store will be best described as brick-and-click and not one or the other.

The future of retail is one where you can use mobile apps or online sites for in-store assistance, with off-site solutions when you can't find the size or color or whatever you want on hand. It's one where if you purchase a book from the store, you might receive an email or posting any time that author makes a book tour visit. It's one where you can try something on in the store and save your sizes or preferences for updates, referrals, and future purchases (online and offline). It's one where search engines are somewhat circumvented because the store earns consumer trust and loyalty. And so on and so forth.

Monday, September 3

Dueling Studies: Labor Day Blues Or Silver Lining?

According to the New York-based Conference Board, consumer confidence fell to 60.6 in August, down from a revised 65.4 in July and the 66 level analysts were expecting. As published by USA Today, the index now stands at the lowest it has been since November 2011 at 55.2.

But according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan, the final sentiment index climbed to 74.3, a three-month high, from 72.3 in July. As published by Bloomberg, this gauge averaged 89 in the five years leading up to the recession. (Bloomberg reported confidence was down a few days earlier.)

The causes are easier to understand. The economy is struggling under the weight of rising gas prices, economic uncertainty among business owners facing more regulatory burdens, and the high unemployment rate that remains above 8 percent (but is even higher when people who have stopped looking for a job are factored into the equation). There are other factors too.

Sentiment, on the other hand, is not only elusive but also relative to who you are, where you live, and what you read. We live in a world with too much information for its own good, and some of it is suspect.

How media selection can dictate consumer confidence and economic perception.

When you look at headlines from various news outlets, the message is as mixed as the reality. "Consumer sentiment is a bit brighter in August," reads one. "Consumer confidence takes unexpected fall," reads another. "U.S. consumer confidence rises but outlook still grim," claims one. "Consumer confidence crash stifles gains from housing report," states another.

None are wrong or right. The variations in reporting are dictated by which studies are reported, how they are reported, headline semantics, and in-story sources. It's kind of a mess.

But the point here is that dueling studies and sources, along with what people share across social networks, can skew how people see the world. People are more likely than ever to self-select the reality they want and then see all of the other media outlets as biased.

At the same time, the media have increased its own online analytics, carefully tracking what people are looking for and then delivering based on those results. If one story gets more attention than another, someone is sure to say "we need more like that." This isn't really new, but it does seemed pronounced.

How individuals can navigate the influx of communication overload.

Without a doubt, relying on affirmation media will bias an individual's perspective even if the media stories themselves are not intensionally biased. Instead, it's best to develop a slate of media outlets that challenge ideas as much as confirm them. Once you focus in on a story, check up on the sources.

When most people read news stories, there is an assumption that the newspaper has already vetted the source. This isn't always the case. So when it comes to business stories in particular, take a few minutes to look up the sources. Even if the journalist isn't biased, the sources within the story might be. If they are, you can weight their contributions accordingly.

Along with those sources, find a few more on your own as well as any your social connections might turn to from time to time (preferably with ideas that confirm and challenge your own). This composite of information can be augmented and adjusted based on your geographical location, industry, company, and individual anecdotal observations (adjusting for your own bias).

When it comes to the economy today, nobody really agrees. Most of it depends on what indicators people want to focus in on to prove their point. The real tells are a little bit different. Most people don't feel better off than they were four years ago, which is what continues to shake consumer confidence. Even those who might be better off on paper, feel pinched because the same money doesn't go as far.

At the same time, this doesn't necessarily mean that the news stories ought to influence individual and business decisions. Some companies do very well in a recession while other do not. Some local economies are recovering and some are not. In other words, while individuals and small business owners can think of the news as the canvas they paint their story on — the story is still their own.

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.

Friday, August 17

Marketing Research: Listening For You Or To Them?

Last year, American Express must have been pretty happy. It had the most dramatic increase of voice and positive sentiment across social networks among banks. This implies it was doing something right. But was it really? Maybe all the other banks were doing something wrong.

The real evidence of an outcome came later. In April 2011, the company reported a first quarter net income of $1.2 million, up 33 percent from $885 million the year prior. The baseline analysis alludes to the idea that sentiment may be predictive. In this case, maybe. American Express had just moved aggressively into online commerce.

But there were several other factors in play for the company. It had settled litigation with MasterCard and Visa. It had launched several premium products. Cardmember spending was up 17 percent.

One year later, the story was much the same but not nearly as strong. Cardmember spending was only up 12 percent and net income only grew 10 percent (without the benefit of settlement payments). And according to Digital: MR, it was still the most talked about bank on social networks.

It also carries a great introductory APR, but its regular APR is not nearly as competitive. And its stock performance, which is among the top ten, does not reflect the same exuberance as its conversation points.

Sentiment analysis can be useful, provided it is not a distraction.

Personally, I'm a big fan of sentiment analysis. It can be used as a benchmark for communication efforts. But marketers ought not mistake sentiment as the end all in marketing measurement, making decisions that upturns mean "do more of the same" or downturns mean "do less."

In fact, in digging deeper into the American Express sentiment, we found that much of the buzz comes from a smaller group of passionate advocates than, let's say, Citibank, which has considerably more reach from a broader base of people. My only point is that not everything is as it appears to be.

My second point is that if your marketing team is only using sentiment analysis as a means to track positive impressions and share of voice, then the research time is probably being wasted. There is a big difference between listening "for you" or listening "for an industry" and really hearing consumers.

In reality, only about 20 percent of research investment ought to be tracking impressions or attempting to snuff out complaints or improving positive:negative sentiment ratios. There is something much more important to consider: who are these people anyway?

The more you hear from consumers about everything else, the better your communication.

Instead of dropping every dollar on sentiment analysis, there are much more interesting things to learn about any particular segment of the population you might identify as customers or prospects. And none of it really has to do with your company.

What kind of music do they like? What were the last three movies they saw in theaters (and liked)? What were the underlying messages, if any? What kinds of books are they reading? Are they rigid in these tastes or more eclectic? Would they rather go to a fancy restaurant or buy new clothes? Is there a difference between what they buy and what they like? What kind of political leanings do they have? Are they aggressive about it or not? Do they cook? Are they struggling or secure? So on and so forth.

While you always have to keep in mind people feel this level of marketing research seems creepy, the takeaway is that marketers have a better chance of building a relationship if they hear what people are saying instead of listening for the latest mention. Or, in other words, marketing insight might be more powerful than marketing research.

It's a valuable lesson from old school copywriting — you communicate to a person, not an audience.

Wednesday, August 15

Alienating Publics: Every Message Is Public

You would think communicators would get it by now. While it always pays to tailor your message to an intended audience, there are no intended audiences anymore. Everything is subject to global opinion.

In 2008, Yahoo! became a public relations class example when it failed to consider that announcing cutbacks might have unintended consequences. The layoffs were announced to shareholders first, with smiles to suggest that the company was turning a corner. The lack of empathy impacted employees.

Flash forward four years and communicators have come full circle. President Obama is still trying to correct the misstep with his infamous "you didn't build that" speech. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney had a similar experience during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And CEO Dan Cathy did it when he was explaining his stance on same-sex marriage while speaking to Baptist Press.

Communication is never isolated to a single audience.

It is the easiest lesson to take away from the Chick-fil-A controversy. In considering his audience, sharing what he believed to be similar values with those who would read the Baptist Press made sense. Chick-fil-A wants to convey itself as a family-friendly restaurant chain.

Where it doesn't make sense is within the purview of a global audience. Words, even if there is no evidence of action, have consequences. But this isn't a just lesson for Cathy. It is a lesson for Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno too.

Moreno has been attempting to brush off his announcement that he will block Chick-fil-A's effort to build a second Chicago store. He has since backed down, simply saying he wanted to review their anti-discrimanation policy. At least his message is better than Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has resorted to saying that he doesn't want to say any more and inflame the situation he already inflamed.

The aforementioned stories also have the best possible quote from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She said to Emanuel: "You're alienating conservatives in your city. It's difficult to alienate that many people in one lump. To do it concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment."

To alienate people concisely and memorably is a major accomplishment. 

No matter who you feel it fits best, it's the most concise and memorable lesson anywhere. The art of communication is hard not because people are afraid to be straight, but because they have to communicate their mission, vision, and values in such a way that it is honest without being hurtful.

Pretense: "Honey, do I look good in this dress?"

Pick one: 1) "The other one has always been my favorite." 2) "It makes you look fatter."

While some people are remiss that I haven't come out swinging with a stance on this issue, we can learn more by appreciating the finer art of communication. Think before you speak. And if you don't, take a moment to think about who you might have hurt with that last comment. You don't need fists to be a bully.

It's a lesson that Chick-fil-A has taken to heart. Consider the statement about the "Kiss" Day protest.

"At Chick-fil-A, we appreciate all of our customers and are glad to serve them at any time. Our goal is simple: to provide great food, genuine hospitality and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A. — Steve Robinson, executive vice president, marketing, Chick-fil-A, Inc. in response to "Kiss" Day.
 

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