Friday, December 21

Looking For Newness: You Could Be

For every advantage big established companies have in the field today, they have some disadvantages too. Part of the problem is newness or, more precisely, the lack of newness. They just do what they do.

Even if they do what they do well, they have a disadvantage on the newness scorecard and it's not only cosmetic (as in a new advertising campaign). It has to do with what they are doing or aspiring to do that conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. But more importantly, there is a psychology to it all.

A steady stream of newness helps make everything worthwhile. 

The biggest cliche in business circles (and sometimes individual lives) is that everything is going well or good, real good. Few people ever offers and specifics. They treat the entire conversation as a string of obligatory niceties.

"How are you doing?"

"Fine, you?"

"Good. How's business?"

"Oh, you know. Moving along."

"Anything new?"

"No, not really."

If zombies could talk, this would be their conversation. It's frightening and pathetic all at once while explaining why zombies have resurfaced as leading paranormal lore. We're terrified they might be us.

The problem with many businesses, even startups after a surprisingly short time, is they all gravitate toward the same. They experience a tremendous surge of elation before falling into routine or boredom. Complacency is the same thing with just another name. Newness tends to be inspired.

The three paths to prevent zombification. 

There might be more, but three is enough to illustrate the point. The businesses that are most susceptible to boring either tell it all, have nothing to tell, or are too busy shrinking themselves into nothingness. The objective is to do the opposite without killing yourself.

Initiate one new thing every month. While this is scalable to company size, the point is to make it manageable. Having even one new thing (with a definite beginning and end) can ensure your company is always moving forward. It's all right if it overlaps other months. It's the start that counts, especially if you can break up one project into several milestones.

Don't blurt out every idea today. It's one of the hardest things for startup businesses to manage. They want to share every product, service and success story on the front end. Share inspiration in little bits and pieces to show progress rather than sharing everything with nothing new to share for months and months. (Interestingly enough, social media almost demands constraint because several months of nothing feels like an eternity.)

Bring more to life than you kill. Whether or not there is an economic recovery in progress, many businesses have become too used to the idea of cutting back. Even when cutbacks or putting things on hold becomes a primary objective, companies and organizations cannot afford to kill more than they create — even if that means creating while cutting back. Newness can come in efficiencies too.

To recap, companies and organizations can plan initiatives to phase over the course of a year (phased in to prevent overload and burnout), show restraint in communicating anything until it is relevant (even if some of the work is already done), and always plan to create more newness than they kill.

The latter is important, especially in light of how many organizations I have seen kill off programs without replacements. Doing so almost always creates the impression of surrender while demoralizing employees and board members at the same time. Worse, even if the organization attempts to salvage a program later, resurrection (especially at 50 percent) will only reinforce that they let something go.

The same holds true for individuals. Musicians are always working on the next track. Artists are always working on the next work. And authors are at least thinking about the next book. It's how they keep their audiences engaged — something new is always on the horizon.

In fact, it doesn't even have to be as lofty as all that. Newness can be big or little, long or short term. The "what" doesn't matter as much as the continual "when." People like 'newness' news, especially the good kind. Almost anything might work (or ask your kids for some vicarious newness), just as long as you don't have to bore people by saying fine, good or the same old thing. Do that too often and they might not even bother to ask.

Wednesday, December 19

Blowing Up Instagram: Facebook

If you ever wanted to test against the fragility of a social network, Instagram is the photo sharing social network to watch. Facebook, which is well known for overreaching on some terms and privacy issues, has decided to claim ownership rights on everything members upload and share across Instagram.

Instagram, which was one of the few apps worthy of review in 2011 (pre-Facebook) on our alternative review site, received a respectful opening score before any of the other bells and whistles it has added since. We gave it 5.2 on our alternative scale, which would be right around 7 or 8 on a non-alternative 1-10 scale. It rated high because it revamps the artistic fun associated with Polaroid cameras for the modern age, using digital data instead of the integral film commonly associated with Polaroid photos.

So what changed? Instagram via Facebook is now asking for unspecified future commercial use of people's photos, which means (as the article states) a hotel in Hawaii can use your Instagram photos if they pay Facebook. The member won't receive any money. They won't receive any credit. They won't even receive notice.

What will the Instagram member get? A whole lot of headaches, advertisers too.

One has to wonder about the logic of such service changes, especially because it opens up a steady stream of problems even if members don't care. The worst of them, even for Facebook, is that this change of policy makes them a publisher and not a sharing service, culpable for the images people post.

But there are other problems too. The very idea that one day an Instagram member might see their photo in a commercial advertisement without compensation or notification is flawed. Given that most photographers would claim copyright infringement before realizing they signed away their rights on Instagram, I would advise any my clients to avoid purchasing pics via such a pariah policy.

In fact, Instagram makes it all especially risky because there are thousands of bands, authors, and artists that have turned to Instagram as their preferred photo sharing tool. Given their struggles with preserving copyrights in the digital age, it doesn't seem plausible they can afford to support a service that claims ownership of concert shots and album designs or artist proofs and dust covers. I just don't see it.

Amateurs will have plenty to worry about too. Their kids could become the poster children for anybody and everybody Facebook decides to the sell content to. In some cases, it puts kids even more at risk. In other cases, it will be even more creepy in the hands of some questionable advertisers buying the rights.

A speculative analysis of why Facebook made this logic leap. 

While Facebook/Instagram hadn't made a public statement about the policy changes, one could assume that the logic leap was made because Facebook makes similar claims on content shared to Facebook. Along with this precedent, people have largely ignored the problems with the Pinterest policy too.

What these two policies have taught social networks is that once people become attached to a service, they tend not to care and outright ignore any policy changes. They give up their privacy. They give up their rights. They give up everything (as long as they can use the service). They just don't care.

Except in this case, Facebook seems to have made a fatal flaw in assuming people would treat Instagram policy changes the same. First and foremost, unlike Facebook, there isn't a compelling reason to use Instagram given all of the other photo sharing networks in existence that don't claim ownership.

While Instagram is preferred, there are plenty of alternatives. Even the effects features have since been duplicated across a wide variety of apps. All anyone has to do is use them to achieve the same result.

This makes or an interesting case study in that unlike Facebook, which has achieved a must-have status in perception if not reality, Instagram still feels optional despite the $1 billion price that Facebook paid. It also makes an interesting case study because Facebook is being forced to continually prove its own stock price while illustrating why its publicly traded price continues to struggle. It might be worth something as the leading social network today, but it is still being managed in a rather immature fashion. Sooner or later, the front runner might implode like almost every other front running social network before it.

A final thought on rights and social networks in general.

Personally, I've always found myself operating in two different directions when it comes to ownership and the Internet. On one hand, publishers and distributors have to be open minded about Fair Use laws. Even when it comes to my content, here and sometimes other places, I've taken a lenient stance provided links and credit are given when links and credit are due. Social is all about sharing, much like TripAdvisor has realized in opening up its content to thousands of other sites.

On the other hand, I have practiced restraint and resistance to every social network I have ever worked with that has tried to claim ownership of other people's content. In one instance, I turned down an offer to help edit a book made up of member-generated content after learning that the content originators would be credited but not notified or compensated. I made my case strong enough that the network dropped the idea.

The bottom line is that there isn't any need (except greed) for social network startups or established behemoths to claim anything but enough rights to enable people to share their content. Anything beyond a post or picture as a one-time share is an overreach that people ought not to ignore.

They ought not to ignore it for two reasons. Social network members that ignore policy changes risk becoming little more than slaves to the social networks they support. And social network providers, even if they are more sensible in their own policies, need to police their industry against such abuse or all of them will risk future legislation and laws that reverse and regulate the immaturity of a few.

Immature really is the right word. Despite the best guesses of some, Facebook is ruining Instagram. I will hate to leave, but if Instagram doesn't self correct by Jan. 16, I'll be among the departed.

Update: In traditional Facebook fashion, Instagram responds to the pushback with an apology.

Monday, December 17

Raising Expectations: Online Retailers

Online sales are expected to increase this year. Online shoppers are also increasing their already high expectations. Now that almost half of all online retailers are offering free shipping, more consumers are expecting free returns too.

In fact, one recent survey conducted by Harris Interactive for Shoprunner, which is a shopping services network, shows as many as 81 percent of online shoppers say they are not likely to make additional purchases from websites that charge for returns. Sixty-nine percent also say that the process for returning online purchases is too complicated.

There are hundreds of decisions companies make that impact brand.

While most marketers invest significant time in attempting to increase sales, far too few are concerned about customer life cycle — the potential for one client to make multiple purchases for months, years, or even an entire lifetime. Some invest everything into incentivizing purchases without ever considering the other touch points related to the transaction.

The reality is that everything counts. Customers are looking for ease of purchase, speed of shipping, cost of shipping, shipment packaging, product performance, return policies, and cost of returns. The impact any of these touch points and others have can make all the difference.

How much? According to the study, customers paying for their own returns decrease spending with retailers between 75 and 100 percent within two years. In contrast, customers who receive free return shipping will increase their spending with the retailer by 158 to 457 percent in the same period.

The survey goes a long way in suggesting that customers are more inclined to consider their entire experience as part of the brand relationship as opposed to product performance alone. (The same can be said of offline purchases too, where customers have become weary of less than stellar customer service.)

There are several other areas where many online retailers can step up their game. 

• 67 percent of online shoppers would purchase more online from mobile devices or computers if they are already already familiar with the same secure, easy check-out procedure.

• 77 percent said they would spend more online if retailers offered free 1-2 day shipping (but also admit that faster shipping options gives them more reason to procrastinate).

• 80 percent of consumers say they like the option of picking up online purchases in person, a concept recently included in a New York Times article covering how online and in-store shopping have changed.

But improving policies and technologies isn't the only area where retailers can step up. Customers are keen on seeing technology improve in-store purchases too. Mobile isn't only the answer for consumers. It is quickly becoming the answer for retailers too — everything from offering free Wi-Fi to finding out more product information to giving customers immediate access to inventory that is not readily available in the store can increase sales and improve customers retention in person or online.

Friday, December 14

Syndicating Content: Why TripAdvisor Doesn't Need Visitors

Bloggers have known it for some time, but it works for big business too. The goal of effective branding doesn't always begin and end with attracting visitors to an organizational site but creating content other people want.

For some time, TripAdvisor has been putting this idea into practice. The number of people who view TripAdvisor content on sites other than TripAdvisor has doubled since last year. Now, more than 300 million visitors per month see TripAdvisor content on sites like Best Western International and Thomas Cook instead. They aren't the only ones. More than 500 companies carry TripAdvisor content.

Site visits shouldn't trump sales. 

The program, which originally started as means for businesses (and TripAdvisor) to encourage more traveler reviews, has since grown into an array of services for travel brands to syndicate TripAdvisor content,  integrate site technologies, engage customers, and increase bookings.

"We recognize that a growing number of guests turn to social communities and online reviews for research before they book a hotel stay," said Dorothy Dowling, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Best Western. "Now our guests read TripAdvisor traveler reviews without leaving our site, which not only saves time but also helps each guest choose the right Best Western hotel for their needs."

There is another reason for companies to consider the option, according to TripAdvisor. According to the September 2012 PhoCusWright survey, 53 percent of travelers won't book a hotel if it doesn't have TripAdvisor reviews, which includes 75 million reviews and opinions. The volume of user-generated content attracts about 60 million unique visitors (75 million if all 19 media brands owned by the company are included).

In other words, TripAdvisor content offsite is read by five times as many people as it is onsite. And interestingly enough, TripAdvisor doesn't care. As many as 60,000 unique domains carry TripAdvisor content, shifting the company away from attracting site visitors and reaching out to them instead.

The concept brings new meaning to the old concept that winning companies look for innovations, ideas, and spaces where their competition isn't. In this case, it turns out that the places where TripAdvisor competition isn't is everywhere they could have been — on the places they review.

Wednesday, December 12

Marketing Challenge: Big Data Casts Big Shadows

A new study sponsored by EMC Corporation found that despite the unprecedented expansion of the digital universe due to the massive amounts of data being generated daily by people and machines (an average of 5,247 GB of data for every person on earth by 2020), only about 0.5 percent of the world's data is being analyzed.

This provides both opportunities and challenges as only about 3 percent of potentially useful data is even tagged. (Ironically, only about 20 percent of all data being generated is adequately protected.)

The two-fold challenge for marketers in the next decade. 

If marketing firms and IT departments capture, organize, and analyze too little data, they are more likely  to capture big shadows with distorted information. If marketing firms and IT departments capture too much data, most of them will succumb to information overload paralysis.

This is doubly true because the amount of information stored in the digital universe about individual users exceeds the amount of data that they themselves create. Every day, algorithms are generating data about everyone who is active on the Internet that is only as good as the proposed algorithm.

The effectiveness of these algorithms can be appreciated simply reviewing the advertising content being served up on various social networks and ad revenue websites. If the advertising doesn't match your needs or interests, it is very likely caused by an ineffective algorithm that is attached to your data (and then attracts more erroneous data). The potential for advertising dollar waste is tremendous.

Author Geoff Livingston scratched the surface in his recent article Does a Social Score Make a CMO? Forbes attempted to determine the top 20 Fortune CMOs baed on social scoring as opposed to outcome measurements tied to their work. Social scoring is largely useless data, casting shadows that may or may not be true especially because people who work for big brands tend to attract more followers regardless of their contributions or real influence (even within the field).

Ergo, in some cases, it is the brand and not the person attracting attention. Likewise, other people work hard to game the system, either trolling for follow-back propositions or purchasing followers to inflate perception. Big data doesn't know the difference, despite claims to the contrary.

These are only small examples of the bigger problem. The point is that as data seemingly becomes increasing accessible that doesn't mean that its value increases with the volume. Even if Western Europe is currently investing $2.49 (USD) per GB, the U.S. $1.77 per GB, China $1.31 per GB, and India $.87 per GB to manage the digital universe, there are no guarantees that big data can capture more than distorted reflections of the people marketing wants to persuade.

Big data can be useful, but only when it is continually vetted by traditional research. 

Even as data measurements improve for anyone hoping to track, research, and predict consumer sentiment, marketers ought not become lazy researchers relying on slivers of data or online surveys. If social networks are an opportunity for organizations to be more human, then big data collection ought to work toward understanding behavior as opposed to dehumanizing population groups.

Some marketers today might be surprised to find that their best efforts to automate and insert keywords (as an example) might produce a measured response in the short term but fail in vetting sessions that involve live customer interviews, face-to-face interactions, or even focus groups. While the challenges are not insurmountable and provide additional opportunities beyond the digital universe, it goes a long way in demonstrating the need to think beyond the obvious, especially when what is "obvious" only accounts for a fraction of a percent, less than traditional methods used to capture.

While the study raised many of the questions above, there is additional information that can be gleaned from it for marketers and IT professionals. For more highlights from the study, visit the EMC multimedia overview page. It presents eye-opening information about how much we don't know vs. what we think we know as well as an even analysis of challenges and opportunities for big data.

Monday, December 10

Ending The Daily: Don't Blame The Tablets

There is plenty of speculation as to why Rupert Murdoch's The Daily folded, but don't fooled by some of it. Any contention that the tablet is to blame is a mistake. The medium wasn't the problem. It was the message. It was the business model. It was misunderstanding what consumers want from digital news.

For every failed newspaper-turned-news tablet, there are dozens of successes. And none of these successes are crippled by issues experienced by the News Corp. experiment, despite Felix Salmon outlining all the tablet troubles some news outlets are experiencing with tablet delivery.

Here are few of them. But most are fixable.

The most prominent issues with tablet native news, according to Columbia Journalism Review. 

• News applications are clunky, with most requiring a long download for every issue.
• Navigation is difficult and unintuitive, with pages less than dynamic and without a search.
• Archival issues abound, with most tablet editions being limited to single issue reads and no history.

But anyone who understands the native apps and the web a little more than the bold digital experiment by Murdoch won't be fooled into thinking that the tablet is at fault. All you have to do is flip over to Flipboard to get an idea of what can be done without the deep pockets News Corp. once had.

• News applications need to drip stories in a steady stream, not make standalone issues.
• Navigation is easy when the content is arranged by topic, letting readers prioritize content.
• Every great native app can built with archival content in mind, including related links.

While I haven't had an opportunity to fully review the free application process for Liquid [Hip], an alternative reviews site, I do know the benefits outweighed any issues. Thanks to the innovative partnering opportunity and programing ability of UppSite, converting web-based content to a native app isn't perfect but closing in on perfect.

The biggest advantage is that stories are delivered as they are published, making it faster to retrieve reviews than a browser. And while navigation still needs to be improved by allowing publishers to set major categories and listing the rest of any index as alphabetical (suggestions made by our firm), the potential already exists. Once it is complete, including a search, archived content isn't an issue.

While some people might note that web content ported to a native app lacks some media-rich dynamics that publishers want to take advantage of, it seems to me that it still makes the best blueprint. Content delivered one story at a time is better than trying to build editions. Dynamic content, ranging from videos to interactive features, can still be built in easy enough. And, if publishers are paying attention, then they might appreciate another trapping that The Daily exhibited. Weak content.

It wasn't that the content was weak per se, but the depth of reporting didn't justify the price. Native apps (or web news sites) need to do a better job balancing short-content appeal while still delivering the depth of reporting that used to set magazines and newspapers apart from the spoonful-sized stories that electronic (television and radio) provided. How do you do it?

Building a better news experience for people with mobile phones and tablets.

It's relatively painless, really. All publishers need to do is write an executive brief-like lead story (around 350 words) that opens up three to 10 in-depth stories or point-of-view pieces or dynamics (graphs, videos, etc.) that paint a complete picture (along with archival capabilities). Doing so creates the reader choice that most people crave — which is why they search for more content after spending 15 minutes or so with a post online.

So no, it wasn't the tablet that doomed The Daily, which was filled with surface content that couldn't justify a high subscription price. Like most failed digital products, it was the development team behind it focusing too much on developing something for a medium as opposed to people who use that medium. If they had done that, then The Daily would have been the best practice and not the pitfall to avoid. But no matter. Sooner or later somebody else will spend their time in the right place and finally get it right.

Friday, December 7

Marketing Content: Small Business Tips

Pamela Muldoon at Next Stage Media has put together a decent list of four simple questions to ask for small businesses that want to explore content marketing. By using a jewelry store as an example, Muldoon was able to flesh up a content marketing primer that every business ought to think about.

The first four questions proposed by Next Stage Media.

1. What are the seasonal conversations and events for your business or industry? 

Muldoon suggests that first step of any content marketing begins with the easiest step first. Know when your customers think about your products. In this case, a jeweler ought to be planning for content on or around Christmas, New Year's and Valentine's Day.

Advice enhancement: While the advice is spot on, there are plenty of other prompts content marketers ought to consider. St. Patrick's Day, for example, screams emeralds. Many other gems have seasonal appeal too. And any jewelry can create dates by advocating community service and nonprofit connections.

2. What does your target audience need to know about your product(s) based on time of year?

It's ideal that Muldoon offers up some in-depth understanding about the customer's purchasing experience. In this example, she suggests knowing the purchasing cycle of the customer — knowing when they are about to propose and how far out they need to plan for the engagement ring.

Advice enhancement: This is all smart stuff. If you can raise the right questions and answers at the right time, people will be more likely to turn to you for advice. While that may seem hard to map out, many jewelers can look for proposal trends and then calculate how many months in advance people start thinking about it and shopping for rings.

3. What questions do the customers of your industry have that will improve their current situation?

One of the best prospects of social media is to move beyond the product. The point here is simple enough. For the most part, people can buy a 'diamond' anywhere. In order to be more successful, small businesses need to differentiate themselves in different ways. It could be the cuts, stones, designers, personal touch, customer service, or any number of differences.

Advice enhancement: Demonstrating a clear contrast between one business and another is critical regardless of the industry. This almost always goes beyond a unique selling proposition (USP) because most USPs are created based on what clients think is the best in their field as opposed to the differences that exist between them and another.

4. What else does your target audience spend money on throughout the year?

By far, this was one of my favorite bits of advice. Muldoon correctly establishes that people are 3-dimensional and cannot be afraid to provide content beyond their product offerings.

Advice enhancement: While Muldoon suggests offering a larger product portfolio to prospects, companies don't always have to move beyond their product or service offerings. Sometimes advice is enough, especially as it relates directly or indirectly back to the product. Ergo, depending on the jeweler, people (especially existing customers) might like to learn a few fashion tips or closely related topical advice, ranging from etiquette to experiences.

The best content marketing strategies consider marketing, public relations and editorial. 

While I'm not a fan of the pressures to increase the quantity of content marketing, I am very much in favor of improving content quality. All four questions are a solid first step for small businesses to appreciate that they might have something to contribute. Consider it a starter set because once a base is established there are dozens of unique aspects to every business, ranging from new products being introduced to caring for products long after the customer purchases them.

It's also a good idea to remember that text isn't the only form of content available. Video, images and interactive experiences can all play a role in developing context. And, above all, never forget to listen to walk-in customers, the questions they ask, and the stories about designers that they want to hear.

If you consider all the possibilities after launching base content, new paths will present themselves — areas that are underserved or co-op opportunities that never existed before. As they do, it will also become more clear that content marketing is shaping up to be one of the better integrated communication concepts that any company can effectively deploy next year as long as they think it through first.

Wednesday, December 5

Making Messages: Negative Means Negative Results

When you think of the most memorable anti-drug commercials of all times, the analogy that likened our brains to eggs usually comes out on top (or at least in the top five). It was straightforward and powerful.

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.

Unfortunately, for as memorable as this classic campaign is, it doesn't do the job. According to researchers at Indiana University and Wayne University, negatively framed messages are not the most effective way to reach the people in need of persuasion.

The following advertisement or even the entire "just say no" campaign has very little impact on people who are substance-dependent. In fact, the study found that the substance-dependent group showed little brain activity in response to negatively framed messages.

In some cases, the negative messaging led to worse or riskier behaviors. It makes sense that they would. Most substance-dependent people have already accepted the risks. Intellect doesn't rule addiction.


The real takeaway here is how negative messaging doesn't work on intended audiences. As the researchers have shown using neuroimaging, the negatively charged messages didn't stimulate the brain in substance-dependent people.

One possible explanation might be that substance-dependent people have not only accepted the risks but also developed a resistance to risk-aversion based messages. (The phenomenon might even be likened to how stuntmen, soldiers and others can perform in life-threatening situations.)

Being clever isn't enough. Being positive might not be either.

In lieu of negative messages, one suggestion was to promote the benefits of staying clean as opposed to telling people what not to do or why something might be bad for them. While this might be on the right track, it still neglects the dynamic relationship between substance and abuse.

In order to work, the long-term benefits of staying clean would have to outweigh the perceived and immediate benefits of the drug (from the perspective of the substance-dependent people). Unfortunately, there is a point when substance-dependent people cannot comprehend the possibility. Many of them elevate the immediate rewards that the substance provides until it eclipses everything, including their lives.

From a broader advertising perspective, risk-aversion messaging and negative messaging rarely have as much impact on the intended audience as creatives think. Instead, such messages tend to bolster a deeper reaction in people who see such ads as a clever or emotional affirmation of their own beliefs. In this case, people who would never do drugs. So you have to ask yourself. What's the objective?

Monday, December 3

Thinking Social: How Automation Hurts Awareness

Although many social media practitioners are quick to equate exposure to awareness, they aren't the same. Quantity does not always replace quality. Too much exposure can diminish awareness.

This might explain why some social media practitioners who have tried to make social media more scalable with auto-sharing tools might be missing out in the long term. As they continually send out a steady stream from the same sources or send out similar broadcasts throughout the day, their followers slowly begin to tune out.

Although many of them will try to adjust by changing out their sources, the problem might not be the content. The problem is over exposure. Too much exposure can actually diminish awareness long term.

A psychology study that hints at the over-exposure phenomenon.

The over-exposure phenomenon isn't too far off from a new study being conducted at the University of California. It shows that people do not always recollect things they may have seen (or at least walked by) hundreds of times.

In the first experiment to consider the validity of the theory, researchers asked people where they could find the nearest fire extinguishers in their office. Despite walking by them every day, only 24 percent could recall where they were located (and not always the nearest ones).

Think about this for a minute. Fire extinguishers are designed to stand out. They are often painted bright red and set against neutral or beige backgrounds. They are also important. In the event of a fire, they could help prevent catastrophic damage and save people's lives. And yet, our brains tune them out.

Sometimes social media tries to hard to be a fire extinguisher. 

The brain does more than tune out fire extinguishers. When faced with over stimulation on networks like Twitter or even Facebook, it automatically tries to tune out everything irrelevant. The brain only wants to see relevant content.

One illusion that illustrates this exceptionally well is a red dot placed in a blue circle. As people try to focus on the red dot, the circle will eventually fade away and possibly disappear as the brain decides that the circle is as irrelevant as white noise. It doesn't even matter if there is more blue than red.

The same thing happens with sharing. People tend to scan streams for relevant content — things they want to find — and everything else eventually falls into the background (e.g., someone using hashtags for a Twitter chat, a steady stream of auto links, a restaurant reminding them it's lunch time).

Worse, over exposure can lead to negative impressions too. Bad commercials, overwritten billboards, political advertisements, and other aggressive marketing tactics are often cited as bothersome, eliciting as many negative impressions as positive impressions. And no, it doesn't matter if the message is important or, as in the case of fire extinguishers, painted bright red.

Friday, November 30

Boring People: I Tend Not To See Them

It might sound cynical, but many of conversations about communication are cyclular. They reincarnate themselves again and again.

Danny Brown knows it too. He recently noted the reincarnation of Kumbaya communication culture best described as the chronic urge to be nice-nice and non-critical.

Skip on having an opinion and play it all safe. As he points out in his piece on the subject, everybody is afraid that having an opinion that will drive away readers (and even advertisers) from their blogs or extended networks. Fear is a powerful motivator for most people, especially when they think they have something.

He takes a different tact. Boring isn't in ... it's invisible.

Brown makes a good point. There are around 200 million blogs being published (and I'm not sure this counts online newspapers and magazines). All of them are competing for some scrap of attention.

This isn't 2005 when there were only half that amount. Back then, publishing a blog felt like enough, especially in neglected niches (like communication was then). Everyone was pretty even back then, with everyone scrutinizing each other for giving bad advice (or good advice). There were even foils in the crowd, hellbent on criticizing everything. Some people hated it. I thought the industry needed it.

But then things took a turn. The various communication industries (public relations, advertising, emerging social media, etc.) developed a healthy dose of fear. The people who staked a claim were worried about image, stuff I used to liken to the borg or, better yet, pirates. I wasn't the only one.

Ironically, the people who promoted the idea of landing somewhere between neutral and nice had the most to gain. When all things are equal, people tend to gravitate to the most popular people and not the most popular content.

It's no surprise. This is the same phenomenon that occurs in media circles. Big brands can do almost nothing and get media attention. If a little brand does that same thing, nobody cares. Ergo, when Gen. Petraeus has an affair, expect headlines. When it is your neighbor, nobody cares — not even you (unless your spouse is involved).

It's the way the world works. If you only write to rubrics and rules, you're boring.

To compensate for the rebirth of vanilla, Brown suggests more bloggers play the part of a contrarian. And, for the most part, he's right. If you see something wrong, don't be afraid to point it out.

It doesn't matter who the author is or how big their following or how many times it's been shared. If someone doesn't vet the industry now and again, all sorts of oddball standards begin to take hold.

While you might earn some pushback or an occasional mob-like reaction from their loyalists, it won't stick. Any rub ups over opinions usually last no more than a few days or a week a worst. In a month or so, you'll barely remember it happened (whether it pops up in Google searches or not).

Well, some people might remember. But that requires a different tack all together. You have to be able to accept criticism before you offer some of your own. For example, I received all sorts of flack for criticizing and calling the demise of Utterz. But that all ended in a few months, after it folded.

Wednesday, November 28

Killing Media Advisories: For Immediate Release

A recent Ragan extra more or less declared the term "media advisory" dead, along with "for immediate release" as good measure. In fact, the eight reasons why public relations professionals ought to stop using these phrases was not only good for a laugh, but also shareable in some circles. Maybe so.

Number 5 was especially funny: "Just because a college professor or some PR agency taught you to write 'media advisory' or 'for immediate release' doesn't make it meaningful or right. (sic)" Keith Yaskin, who wrote the piece, is somewhat right. Those reasons alone don't make using the terms right or meaningful. But then again, neither does taking advice from a random hack.

Have news release headers lost their luster?

Maybe, but not for the comical reasons that Yaskin provides. If news release headers and instructive phrases have lost their meaning, it's because many public relations professionals never learned what it all meant from the beginning. Something was missed during their transition from copy editor to reporter or administrative assistant to public relations practitioner.

Let's start with the obvious. Headers are simply meant to tell journalists and television reporters what the content might be. A new release was supposed to contain news. A press release was supposed to contain information that may or may not be news (although some old school television reporters used to tell me they hated the term, given the association with printing). A feature release might contain soft news. A media statement was commentary from someone with an opinion or comment on something.

And a media advisory? Contrary to the chortle that media advisories are an attempt to masquerade as the U.S. Coast Guard, the header used to have real meaning. Media advisories were a heads up to media that something was going to happen — such as an event, opening, tour, press conference, public statement, etc. — that might be worth dispatching a news crew or photographer to cover it.

A media advisory wasn't meant to earn column inches or publicity pixels. All it was supposed to do was let the media know that something was going to happen that could constitute news —from the mundane (like an opening) to the bizarre (a new world record for the biggest hoagie). It was predictive. And as such, it wasn't necessarily ready for print or broadcast because it hadn't happened yet.

Why "for immediate release" lost its meaning in the hands of flacks. 

Much like news release headers were meant to be instructive, so was the cutline "for immediate release." It was never meant to be a standalone. Like headers, there were other options until some agencies (and now most agencies) started to use the phrase ad nauseum, causing people like Yaskin to toss up their hands and chuckle.

Joining "for immediate release" was "for release at will," "for releases before or after [date],*" "for release by [date]," and so on and so forth. It worked, until public relations firms and in-house organizations thought that "for immediate release" carried a greater sense of urgency.

They were guided by the mistaken belief that everything they sent required immediate attention and immediate coverage because that is what they taught their clients to expect. Never mind that journalists used to hang onto "for release at will" content a little longer in case the news of the day dictated that the story might fit (and hadn't gone stale).

Sure, it's less likely they would keep it today because content is cheap and there is a steady stream of it, every single day. As I pointed out in one of my presentations, there are approximately 1.4 million news stories put out every day and 4.3 million news releases. Of those, only about 140,000 news stories are inspired by news releases, making the odds of coverage rather slim beyond a blurb or passing mention.

Those figures, by the way, are two years old. There is a good chance we've doubled the content overload in the last two years, without even counting all those posts, white papers and whatnot.

Don't blow things up until you have a backup plan. 

If there is one thing I've learned after a few decades in business (as well as community advocacy), it is that ignorant people are quick to cut anything they don't understand. It's especially easy when they don't have any industry knowledge, insight or history.

Right. All those meaningless little things might actually mean something, but you have to take the time to know what they are and why they are perceived to be important. If the answer is useless — such as "we do it this way because we've always done it this way" — then it makes sense to let it go. But if there is a meaning behind the apparent madness, then it might be worth preserving.

But then again, I'm not making a case to preserve "media advisory" or "for immediate release." If neither the journalists and broadcaster nor public relations practitioners know the meaning of these headers and instructional phrases, then they might as well be dropped. Or maybe not.

The choice is really up to each professional or quasi practitioner. Use it or don't use it, but at least you won't be ignorant as to why it was used in the past. As for me, personally, I'll include whatever clearly communicates to the intended audience whether others want to muddle the meaning or not.

*As a side note, it might be helpful to know that "for release after [date]" is different than an embargo. 

Monday, November 26

Chasing Content: B2B Doubles Down On Ineffective

According to the Content Marketing Institute, B2B marketers are bullish on content marketing. Almost 90 percent of B2B businesses (88 percent) will retain or increase (54 percent) their content marketing budgets in 2013. Ten percent aren't sure if their budgets will be increased/decreased, leaving only 2 percent expecting to cut their content marketing budgets.

While all this data suggests that content marketing — articles, blogs, infographics, email newsletters, and social networks — works, it's not working for most. Only one-third of these marketers believes their content marketing is effective. So why invest more?

B2B doubles down on quantity, not quality. 

With the majority of B2B marketers developing large in-house teams to manage all their content marketing efforts, many think that their greatest challenge will be producing enough content. That means more posts, more email, more social network updates, and more [fill in the blank] will be the new measure of success.

What many don't realize, however, is that they are contributing to the largest marketing arms race in history. It's the outcome of a strategy, if we can call it a strategy, that suggests whoever produces more content wins. Yes. Over saturation alone, literally drowning the audience in communication, will somehow lead to greater market share.

When some marketers ask why they don't believe their content marketing is effective, few think it is quality, purpose, or value of the content. Most seem to think they either need more content or bigger advertising budgets for their tactical campaigns. (Tactical is an important word here, given that the majority of companies employ 18 content tactics on average.)

It makes sense that they think this way. Seventy-nine percent consider brand awareness the number one priority for their content marketing efforts. Almost half believe that sharing content is an important measurement. More than half believe that website traffic is a leading measurement criteria for success.

It's also unfortunate that they are mostly wrong. Sound strategies that produce tangible outcomes produce success. The rest of it is magic, with maybe a little smoke and mirrors.

On any given day, I can increase my site traffic by several thousand percent. It doesn't take much effort. A few ad buys here and there can make the least valuable content ever published look popular. The real question is whether or not the content is effective, which is directly dependent on strategic goals and not shares or likes or the usual measures.

Setting goals to sales isn't a suitable measure either. All marketing efforts directly or indirectly support sales. If they didn't, why would a company chose to do them? It doesn't really make sense.

Setting the right objective is a simple concept that eludes many marketers. 

There are dozens of ways to slice strategic communication, but let's start with one — the most obvious. Marketers ought to be less concerned with brand awareness and more concerned with brand integrity.

Brand integrity means that not only do people know who you are, but also what you do and, ideally, that you do it well. Awareness alone is futile. Ergo, Gen. Pertraeus has more brand awareness now than at any time in his career. The scandal ought to be a footnote in his career and not the other way around. It might have been a footnote too, but awareness has eclipsed any previous integrity that reached a smaller audience.

The point is what we communicate is ten times as important as how much we communicate. And what we communicate ought to be based solely on the objectives of the company.

Sure, there are a few baselines that ought to be considered minimums for certain media (e.g., writing a blog post once a month is not necessarily better than none), but marketers might start thinking smarter than simply trying to outproduce and outspend their competitors. If you don't think your content marketing is effective, it probably isn't. And if it isn't, it ought to be fixed before you toss in more dollars.

Friday, November 23

Building Spaces: Environments Impact Minds

Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
Fast Company recently covered a story in the Pacific Standard that explores how certain types of spaces affect our behaviors and ultimately our brains. Designers and programmers might take note of it.

Architecture isn't the only design that ties into neuroscience. When people click on a link and land on a page, design and organizational function create a cascade of immediate reactions, sometimes before anyone has the chance to read the first word. It dictates how we feel when we visit a platform.

The reason is simple. Our brains can't always distinguish the difference between stories, pictures, programs, and real-life experiences. This is the reason horror flicks can trigger our "fight or flee" mechanism. It's also why some photos, like the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, have an immediate calming affect on our mood. In at least one case, as Fast Company noted, it inspires clarity.

Thinking spatially, contextually and visually will become a dominant design driver. 

In fact, neuroscience studies in this fascinating field use virtual renderings of architectural models to test their theories. One of their many findings concluded that design is often responsible for making people feel lost or providing enough guidance to create a confident, intuitive sense of where they are going.



There is a dual edge to this kind of design theory, both architecturally and online. While our brains may have some design preferences that may be universal (something along the lines of feng shui), some of our preferences are built upon other environmental factors that help set our expectations.

Ergo, there is a reason that architectural movements tend to occur in waves or that Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ all create similar streams of content. Advertising design sometimes does the same (the dark and edgy advertisements that dominated much of the 1990s have fallen off, for example). But that doesn't mean designers and programmers ought to be concerned with trends alone.

There do seem to be universal design elements and structures that touch our subconscious, which is why certain natural and classical architecture immediately appeal to our senses and feel timeless. Such consideration could make the design-build stage of everything — advertisements, websites and social networks — much more effective in delivering a memorable, automatically comfortable experience.

Perhaps there is a Pinterest connection to intuitive design.

This could even be why Pinterest took off as its own unique niche network. While there were several sites that were launched (and relaunched) around the same time, Pinterest propelled itself forward because it stumbled upon an interesting, universally appealing platform design that felt natural.

Sure, some people believe that Pinterest took off because it was all about visuals. But it seems to me to be much more than that. While the structural layout wasn't necessarily original or new, it did take advantage of a more universally appealing design — one that "feels" cleaner than other networks but not overtly sparse as Google+ looked when it was originally rolled out.

In other words, it seems a few answers to why some platforms succeed and others do not might be more linked to design and neuroscience than we think. And if it is, better design-program integration will eventually become a priority.

Wednesday, November 21

Socializing Monkeys: SMAC! Takes Thanksgiving

If you have never head of Leslie Lehrman or Jennifer Windrum, the day before Thanksgiving is the ideal day for an introduction. Leslie Lehrman is dying of cancer. Jennifer Windrum is her daughter.

And yet, despite the direness of their situation — that this may be their last Thanksgiving together — they and their family are grateful. For the past seven years, Windrum has used social media to chronicle her mother's fight against lung cancer. Today, more people are aware that lung cancer research is being neglected for all the wrong reasons because of their efforts and awareness always leads to action.

A social media campaign becomes a catalyst for action.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to ask Windrum a few questions about WTF? For Lung Cancer and SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer as her story became a good will pick on Liquid [Hip]. There, you will find some of the back story. Here, I want to ask for your help.

SMAC! Sock Monkeys Against Cancer only has a few days left to raise $35,000. While Windrum will meet her minimum $29,000 funding requirement, she really needs $35,000. She has until Nov. 30 to raise it, but she needs some additional help because her mom took a turn for the worse this month.

Windrum has been where she is needed most, bedside with her mom. Tomorrow, even as their family gets together for Thanksgiving, she will be there too. Ten years ago, this inconvenient truth would have canceled any fundraising effort. But social media is different. For every minute Windrum cannot be online, she has a network of friends who are willing to step up. She has raised more than $20,000.

The funding is to launch a new sock monkey product line with two very interesting twists. The sock monkeys are always sold in pairs so any time someone purchases a SMAC! sock monkey, another will be sent to someone with cancer. And any time someone purchases a pair, it will raise funds for the National Coalition of Oncology Nurse Navigators (NCONN) and Liz’s Legacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Eppley Cancer Center.

The first directly benefits cancer patients because NCONN provides advocates who help cancer patients with appointments, phone calls and treatment regimens. The second directly funds cancer research.

Why sock monkeys? 

On one of the many occasions that Lehrman traveled to various medical centers around the United States, Windrum gave her two sock monkeys — a Mother's Day gift from her twin daughters. Those two sock monkeys helped to remind her mom that no matter what happened she would never be alone. She had people who loved her, their hugs were tucked inside for whenever she needed them most.

They worked. And personally, I am not surprised.

Having lost many family members to cancer, including my two grandparents who raised me until I was 10, the smallest symbols of our affection always become the greatest catalysts for them to face whatever comes next. And because of Lehrman and Windrum, these little guys carry with them not only our love but also a gesture that sweeps across hundreds and thousands of cancer patients and survivors just like them.

I am especially touched by the Lehrman-Windrum story because Windrum gave up everything her career might have become in favor of a career tied to a cause that most people don't understand. It was especially noble given there is virtually no funding for lung cancer research because it has become associated with the stigma of smoking.

But perhaps that makes the story all the more compelling. Although Lehrman never smoked, she has become the victim of this stigma. The lack of lung cancer research is as responsible as the disease.

While they both know any cancer research funding will come too late to help Lehrman, it might one day save the life of someone else who has lung cancer. It currently accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths and 80 percent of the people who are afflicted have never smoked or gave up smoking decades ago.

You can join me and help change this. While every $10 donation is an amazing show of support, $50 or more will include your choice of the first two sock monkeys designed specifically to help cancer patients and cancer research. Larger pledges include sending dozens of monkeys to cancer patients too.

You can learn more by visiting the pledge form at StartSomeGood. If you cannot help with a donation, then perhaps sharing this story or passing along this ask will help it find someone who can help. Or maybe you could even can save a little time at the Thanksgiving table tomorrow and smile at everything you have to be grateful for. Just ask Lehrman and Windrum. They are grateful for any and all support.

Monday, November 19

Being Everything: PR Won't Find Answers For Petraeus

The most recent sex scandal to shake up government was General David Petraeus. And this story, like many that have come before it, has some public relations professionals asking questions. Specifically, they wonder if the time has come to rewrite the public relations rules for sex scandals.

Not everyone thinks so. Some people are starting to wonder whether public relations professionals are biting off more than they can chew to become de facto organizational ethics coaches. As James Savage points out in his guest post on Communication Ammo, reputation management might not even be within the purvue of public relations.

As Savage quotes risk management expert Dr. Thomas Kaiser: "The role of PR department is essential for 'clean-up' operations following a reputational risk (sic) event, but they should not be key in its active management. Reputational risk is not a PR exercise — the underlying problems of any event need to be solved rather than actively managed after the event."

Kaiser is mostly right. Public relations professionals might face certain risks associated with their field, but they aren't in the business of risk management. However, I do think it is within the purview of public relations to predict consequences, thereby providing counsel to organizational leaders and implementing a plan to serve the organization and public interest.

As noted before, there is a very clear difference between disaster planning and managing public relations related to disaster planning. While some public relations professionals might be knowledgeable enough to address ethics, reputation and disaster management, the doing is different than the talking. When it comes to Petraeus specifically, there is another question that needs to be asked.

Who does the public relations professional serve again?

If public relations is serving the organization and public interest, there isn't much to be done about Gen. Petraeus. To date, in fact, I have never read a definition of public relations that suggested they serve the organization, public interest, and anyone within the organization that has a lapse of good judgement or character flaw.

Other than ensuring the public that there was no breach in security or mitigating any damage because there was a breach in security, the CIA (while perhaps embarrassed) doesn't owe anything to their former head. He obviously wasn't representing the agency when he engaged in the private affair.

In other words, Gen. Petraeus, not public relations, will have to mitigate his own wrongdoings. And even if he did hire a public relations practitioner to communicate this mitigation, they might offer insight into how the public might respond to any specific actions. Otherwise, that's about it.

Sure, there are times when a public relations professional might be called in some time after a mess has occurred but before it is broken to the public. But the ethical viewpoint is pretty clear, especially because public relations professionals do not have attorney-client privilege.

Ethics isn't confined to a single profession. It's for everyone.

When someone brings something wrong to your attention, you tell them it is wrong, refuse to participate or aid in covering up the wrongdoing, and demand immediate correction. Unless public safety is at risk, it is usually advised that the wrongdoer is given the opportunity to correct it on their own, with the understanding that the person they have attempted to being into their confidence will move to correct the problem if the wrongdoer does not. That's not public relations. It's ethics.

I might add that Brad Phillips is right about one thing. The pat crisis plan for sex scandals has worn thin. The public is growing weary of the "admit it, apologize for it, demonstrate remorse, and promise to never do it again" battle plan. That only works for the individual.

As Phillips points out, Newt Gingrich had a better answer. I don't mean it's something to duplicate. I only mean it was true for Gingrich. So maybe that is the best lesson at all. You have to be true to yourself before you can be true to others.

Friday, November 16

Persuading Publics: Who Are You Talking To?

national drop out rate
The Ad Council recently launched a new PSA campaign in support of education. The campaign, which promotes BoostUp.org, attempts to reach parents and reaffirm the importance of consistent attendance in class because of a startling but not surprising fact: nearly 7.5 million students (K-12) chronically miss school.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in a given year, which is about 18 days. The hope of the Ad Council and U.S. Army is to bolster awareness that absenteeism and performance goes hand in hand. But one wonders whether the message will reach the right people — it's the same message they've been promoting for years.

Why good ideas sometimes miss the mark. 

It's an important message and a well-meant campaign. But there is some psychology missing from the creative strategy. Their own research alludes to it — students who attend school regularly in their early years are more likely than chronic absentees to read well, obtain higher test scores and graduate.

The key words, "early years," tell part of the missing story. Parents or other role models play a critical role in defining the importance of education well before children make a conscious decision to skip school. The first spot attempts to convey this point directly, despite taking a slightly cavalier approach.



The other factor, unaddressed in this spot or the other one that simply attempts to cleverly quantify the problem, is whether or not the children in question have developed a love for learning. And if they do love to learn, we probably need to understand what interferes with their desire to go to school.

It could be any number of factors: peer pressure (friends that don't value education), family pressure (parents who equate kids that care about education as an attempt to be "better" than them) or economics that require students who would be in school to either work or babysit for younger siblings.

There are also psychological pressures, ranging from the belief that they aren't smart enough or that education won't make a difference other than fostering dreams that won't come true. There are more stories and Boostup.org chronicles a few of them outside of the campaign.

Unfortunately, none of the new ads really address the problem. They only address the symptom, a frightening statistic that people feel powerless to change. Except, we can help change it — even if the organization seems to mostly drive volunteerism and donations. Here is a list of ideas.

What education really needs is more engagement.

As an instructor and also someone with an expressed interest in our education system, engagement is the key. In fact, one of the best programs created by BoostUp.org is the mentoring program because it truly addresses the need. According to the organization, kids with mentors are 52 percent less likely to skip school. That's a powerful number with the potential to cut 7.5 million absentee students in half.

It's also challenging in its scalability. Anyone who has school-aged children might already feel overwhelmed by the amount of homework they help their children with, making mentorship less obtainable. However, it does provide a direction to think about. There are three primary factors.

1. Students have to develop a love for learning. This is teacher driven, but some homes can reinforce the idea. If they don't have a love for learning, it's ten times harder to instill the value of education.

2. Students cannot have their education derailed outside of school. It isn't fair for parents to pit school needs versus home needs. This is parent driven, and probably the best place to think about a campaign — one that still attracts volunteers and donations but shows the consequence of parental decisions.

3. Students need to be engaged in more ways than school. It's patently proven that schools that introduce music programs see an uptick in school performance. It doesn't have to be music. It could be any special interest activity. It works for two reasons. It instills self-confidence (something they can do) and keeps them too busy to engage in activities that put them at risk. This is organization driven. If not part of the school, then offered through any number of after-school organizations.

People tend to cut all the statistics along socio-economic status, but I've never fully believed it. There are no socio-economic boundaries in kindergarten. Almost all children are excited to go. Almost all parents are proud of their child's first day. Maybe what people need to start focusing on is what changes in the dynamic between first grade and fourth grade, which lays the foundation for the rest of their education.

But more to the point. I'm bullish on the good work of BoostUp.org, but found the latest round of ads one off for effective. Laying a problem bare isn't enough to be effective. It has to change behavior. A different concept, such as one student taking two different paths in life, might better drive the message if the primary drivers are parents. The spot above, while clever, shows the problem without a solution that overrides parental denial. And even then, the real problem is a combination of all three outlined above.

Wednesday, November 14

Giving Traditional Ads Lift: Social Media

Coca-Cola Bears
One of the primary problems marketers and public relations professionals still face in attempting to explain social media is the measurement. It's a problem they created and they can't get out of it.

There are three reasons most social media measurements fail to impress executives. It's too broad in its attempt to quantify likes, followers, and fans. It's placed in a vacuum, without considering the interdependence of all marketing and communication. It's too direct response oriented, attempting to count clicks even if consumers respond to the social conversation in different ways — like visiting a store and actually buying something or bookmarking a link for future reference.

The reality of social media is the need for integration. 

New research published in the Journal of Marketing Research successfully creates a better understanding of the symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media. For 14 months, Andrew T. Stephen from the University of Pittsburgh and Jeff Galak from Carnegie Mellon University studied sales and media data provided by Kiva.org, an online company that facilitates small loans between individual investors and people in underdeveloped countries.

The authors considered a loan a sale, and categorized mentions of Kiva in newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio as traditional earned media, and mentions of Kiva on blogs and online social networks and communities as social earned media. In doing so, they found that each mention of Kiva in traditional media had the largest per-event impact on sales.

Over the time period studied, each unit of media publicity from a traditional media organization generated 894 additional sales from new customers and 403 additional sales from repeat customers. A blog mention, by comparison, generated 90 additional new sales and 63 additional repeat sales. A mention in an online community generated 99 additional new and 48 additional repeat sales.

The authors say the disparity between media forms is not surprising because traditional media typically has a much broader reach than social media. However, since social media mentions were much more frequent than those in traditional media, the authors found that when this was taken into account earned media in social channels had a substantially larger impact on sales than traditional earned media did.

The study also found that social earned media helps drive traditional earned media. "Conventional wisdom is that traditional earned media makes a large mass of people aware of something and then gets them talking. However, our findings suggest that the reverse may be more likely than previously thought," said the researchers.

Marketing, public relations, and communication needs to be integrated. 

You can find the study published here. But there is something else to consider. While awareness is frequently considered for its horizontal value (total impressions or reach), it has vertical value too — how deeply it penetrates, how long it will be remembered, how likely people will talk about it included.

When anyone mentions the Coca-Cola advertisements featuring polar bears, people respond with warm, affectionate, and almost nostalgic remembrance. This cultural penetration success story has very little to do with the total number of people reached times the total average of impressions per impression. Sure, those numbers help. But there are plenty of ad campaigns that never took off despite having the same numbers.

What made the Coca-Cola bears brilliant was the company's use of advanced animation (at the time) of the right characters at the right time while maintaining a hardwired connection to the fuzzy brand Coca-Cola wanted to reinforce. (Let's not forget that they did the same thing to Santa Claus.) It's pre-social success.

How this fits into social, though, is still pretty apparent. If an organization has a following on a social network, do you think those people will be more likely to see and remember a new ad? Or, perhaps, do you think people who see a new ad will be more likely to visit a social media outlet? Or, perhaps, if they share something related to the organization online do you think they might be sharing it offline too?

The point is that great communication doesn't confine itself to a medium. It's what gets in our heads or our hearts. Numbers alone will never do it. Because if it was all about numbers, every campaign would win.

Monday, November 12

Marketing To Races: The Biggest Lie In Politics

In post-election discussions, we can expect to see plenty of racial graphics. It's the kind of analysis that makes my skin crawl because it reinforces blatant ignorance — that people somehow pick candidates and political parties based on the color of their skin or presumed minority status.

Maybe some do — those that do are falling for a political parlor trick — but not really. It has much more to do with cultural identity as demonstrated by a study from Columbia Business School. The more someone identifies with cultural ideology, the more likely they are to be predisposed or sympathetic to specific issues — especially if they believe one candidate wants to reinforce that minority grouping and if that minority grouping believes (and is enabled to believe) they need help to "level" the playing field.

The reality is that minority groups don't need any special advantages, perks, or handouts to make it, at least not along racial or ancestral lines. To say that they do, it seems, is more racially loaded than saying they don't. Hispanics don't need "help" to make it. African-Americans don't need "help" to make it. German Americans don't need "help" either. While some people might need help to address some socio-economic disadvantages (e.g., growing up in a poor neighborhood), race doesn't play a factor unless people pretend it does. And if they pretend it does, then they likely have something to gain.

A personal and anecdotal analysis of minority status.

While some people argue that statistical data shows minorities have unfair disadvantages, they might consider that the continued reinforcement of such statistics is the problem and not the symptom. When you raise someone to believe that their racial minority is disadvantaged, they will eventually believe it.

The concept is easy enough to test. All you need to do is look to people who have the genetics of a minority but not the cultural upbringing of being in a minority, saddled by this concept that they are disadvantaged. Incidentally, I recently learned that I qualify to this unique subset.

My father's paternal lineage (my grandfather) was always a bit of a mystery. Most accounts speculated he was a Spanish-Irish solider serving in the British army. But in recent years, my German grandmother changed her story, saying that he was a Mexican-American serving in the American army (his name escapes her) in the post World War II theater around Berlin.

Not that I distrust her, but the news was somewhat of a surprise because it contradicted the little bit of ancestral thought that I had managed to scrape together for my kids. I was tired of guessing so I finally decided to splurge and purchase an ancestral DNA test. It turns out everyone was close, but wrong.

My missing 25 percent is Bolivian (with some distant Greek European). The United States lumps Bolivians as part of the greater Hispanic/Latino grouping used in politics. In fact, Bolivians represent the third-smallest Hispanic group in the United States. Genetically, for me, it's a dominant match.

Except, I never knew it. I was more inclined to think any early "disadvantages" were limited to poverty as well as a physical handicap (mentioned in comments) I was fortunate enough to leave behind. There was no predisposition in my life to think I would have a harder time succeeding because I was related to the Hispanic/Latino minority. I didn't need special grants. I didn't need to seek MOB status.

While I find it interesting that after almost 45 years that I qualify for these things — a minority group member is an individual who is a U.S. citizen with at least 25 percent Asian-Indian, Asian-Pacific, Black, Hispanic, or Native American heritage — it seems I had a different advantage. I wasn't saddled with the label. Interestingly enough, many Asians aren't either. As a grouping, they have no problem excelling as a minority group in the United States, even if their ancestors began in poverty.

In fact, they tend to be among the least likely to pursue MOB status. So are Portuguese-Americans (my wife is half Portuguese), which has an exceptionally unusual relationship to the Hispanic/Latino minority grouping as Gregg Sangillo noted about Benjamin Nathan Cardoza's service on the Supreme Court.

Being a minority, identifying as a minority, marketing, and politics.

In much the same way Supreme Court Justice Cardoza has been used to discuss the uniqueness of  Portuguese-Americans, I think there is a deeper issue. There is a difference between "being" a minority and "identifying" as a minority because the thought of minorities continues to permeate our culture, both in marketing and especially in politics. To that end, it seems there are two takeaways.

• Reinforcing that minorities are disadvantaged is a lie. The people who continually attempt to label minorities as disadvantaged so they can "help" them does them a disservice. Individuals who have no knowledge of being in a minority group tend to excel at the same pace, suggesting race or ancestral heritage has very little to do with success. What is more damaging is the chronic promotion that these individuals are disadvantaged. They have a better opportunity to succeed without such dubious distinctions. They have a better chance at excelling in education without specialized tests or educational programs. And you can expect this to be heard more and more often by the Supreme Court.

• Cultural identity is a temporary status. Over time, cultural identity tends to change. Even if a certain minority group doesn't fully assimilate in a geographically-based culture or tends to maintain some semblance of their heritage, the minority group does change over time until it takes on characteristics that uniquely align to the origin. Ergo, in another 100 years, most Mexican-Americans will have almost no commonality to their Mexican ancestors (even if they preserve their heritage), much like Mexico bears no distinctions to Spanish or Native Americans. It has been this way throughout history and political pundits who ignore this simple truth will eventually be dismissed as being irrelevant to the bigger issues of ideology regardless of skin color.

Sure, I suppose both categories of exploitation among marketers and politicians (marketers to boost sales and politicians to curry votes) have some short-term gain. But over the long term, there is no truth to it, except one. The more we classify individuals based on race and ancestral heritage, assigning preset stereotypes into how they behave or what is important to them, we fall prey to circumventing the collective American experience in favor of one that panders to narrower and narrower special interests. I'd rather pursue Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision. It just doesn't matter.

Well, it does matter from a personal perspective. I am curious and fascinated by my newly discovered ancestors as much as I was curious and fascinated by the ones I have always known. Otherwise, I'm still just the same person before I knew anything (because racial and cultural identity is not innate).

Friday, November 9

Setting Education Standards: Is Meeting Them Good Enough?

When my son comes home with a C on an English paper, I usually don't give it much thought. There are always other opportunities to earn an A on something else to balance everything out. This time was different — the teacher had forced a four-point project into the five-point letter grade system.

In other words: 4 points equaled an A, 3 points equaled an C, 2 points equaled an F, and 1 point didn't even register. When my son asked about the grade (because we don't accept C work without explanation), the teacher said not to worry about it. He met standards. Meeting standards is C work.

Never mind that there was some confusion over what was taught. The teacher had taught the students how to meet the standards, but did not cover the much more subjective criteria to exceed them. She didn't know how to because the school district had recently adopted a new system called Springboard.

Program adoption and the trouble with education.

To be fair, I don't know enough about Springboard to comment. Basically, it is a foundational component for the College Board's College Readiness System, offering a "proven Pre-AP program that increases participation and prepares a greater diversity of students for success in AP, college and beyond – without remediation." That sounds good, except some teachers have said they don't get it.

Since they don't get it, they don't know how to teach it. And worse or equally bad, my understanding is that the school district rushed the implementation of the new program without developing a transition stage between the last system they had adopted that promised to do all the same wondrous things but didn't.

The reason a transitional cycle would have been useful is because while a sixth grader would enter this new program at the opening, an eighth grader would have missed the first two years of the program and also have to unlearn any unique attributes of the last program. After all, most education programs pre-introduce specific concepts at different times and presuppose that others have already been introduced.

The people who make decisions for educators don't always understand this, but it's not rocket science. Gaming developers, social network developers, technology innovators, and smart organizations do this all the time. They assess what people know and then build products based on easing them into an upgrade system. Ergo, it's easier to introduce people to smart phones as opposed to smart paper.

But beyond new program adoption, there are some problems (and solutions) to the entire process — enough so that we can break them out. They apply to real world management as much as education.

Problem 1: Expectation. Never give people a set of standards without the benefit of what they could do to exceed those standards. While I have dozens of examples, this concept was one of several I applied while serving as president of a local IABC chapter a few years ago.

In addition to giving the board members a list of expectations, I included a second punch list of what they could do to exceed expectations. What happened? Nine of 10 exceeded expectations, with the comparative weak link on the board opting to meet the baseline requirements.

The lesson is simple. If you show people (students too) what they need to do to excel, they will excel. Otherwise, most of them will be complacent in meeting the standards provided (with few exceptions).

Problem 2: Evaluation. The concept of the A-F grading scale is largely pervasive in society, especially educational institutions. For most education systems, it replaces the E, S, N model used in elementary school, even though A-F is still implied with the introduction of the S+ (B) and S- (D).

As an instructor at a state university, I've always considered an A-F grading system less than useful beyond a benchmark to show progress up or down. Otherwise, it's somewhat misleading. For example, the so-called C performance that meets standards inside academics doesn't measure up in the workplace. Employees that maintain a C performance don't last long. It's hard to win with a 70-79 percent effort.

Problem 3: Education. Perhaps more troubling is that the A-F grading scale has another downside. While the school system recognizes 70-79 percent as meeting standards, the reality is that 70-79 percent could be indicative of how much of the material the student retained.

If they only retain 75 percent of the material, chances are that they will be starting at a deficit when they enter the next class. This is especially telling in foreign language courses. Students who score a C in their first year are more likely to go down than up in subsequent years because "meeting standards" does not provide a strong of enough base to move forward with confidence.

Problem 5: Enthusiasm. Confidence is critical to any education. Having taught for the better part of 12 years, I've seen this in my classes with some students. There are always some who are surprised by receiving benchmark papers that score considerably lower than they expect. It puts them at risk.

It takes a special effort to pull these students up after resetting their expectations. If I don't, some of them will purposely underperform or give up all together. At my son's age, this presents a challenging proposition as kids his age carry these feelings forward as opposed to confining them to one class.

As plenty of teachers and I have concurred, course subject is only 50 percent of the educational criteria. The other 50 percent is instilling a love for learning that transcends the subject. The last thing you want to teach a child is that all they need to achieve is a C or, worse, that a C is what they are supposed to achieve. Not giving students (or employees) the opportunity to excel by earning an A or B is the same as setting them up to fail.

The solutions for education start as early as possible and then pay it forward. 

As classes become more encapsulated in high school and college, I am confident my son will eventually learn that teachers tend to have a greater impact than the course material. Some teachers you survive. Other teachers inspire.

As long as he can discover his own love for learning, it will be easier to dismiss those poor misguided teachers that teach to standards without inspiring excellence rather than assign any misgivings to the subject. The same holds true for managers. While people don't always see the connection, they are often teachers too.
 

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