Monday, January 14

Burping Content: It's Not A Social Media Strategy

As content marketing remains a priority for many marketing managers this year, more people have been keen to make the case that more posts means more traffic. Why not? Frequency is an easy argument to make.

More content means more leads. More content means a longer tail. More content means more to share on social networks. More site traffic means more sales. Even as HubSpot points out, businesses that post 20 times a month generate five times more traffic and four times more leads than those that only post a few times a month.

See that? Frequency is the easiest case to make about content marketing. Everybody ought to make more of whatever.

Except, burping out more content isn't a strategy. 

More doesn't always mean more. Sometimes more can help, but frequency is dependent on variables that are harder to pin down. It depends on who or whom is providing the more. It depends on what kind of more you want to provide. It depends on whether or not the content is sustainable or finite. It depends on your business objective beyond traffic and popularity.

Who will be providing more content? A single content creator ratcheting up from one post a week to five posts a week might pick up more traffic or, depending on the value of the content, could oversaturate the audience. For the creators specifically, it could also lead to burnout, writing posts with a diminishing value proposition as objectives shift from valuable to just getting something up.

The reality is that too much of one voice, especially if it wears a brand mask, can become a bit boorish. People appreciate diversity, which is how Facebook maintains a top traffic spot. Millions of people provide the content (with some content providers more appreciated than others). Imagine what it might be like if all the content was generated by Zuckerberg. Right. Crickets.

The takeaway? Every content creator has a unique carrying capacity, dependent on topic, content, ability, and presence. More content might mean more authors, but only if they can match the spirit of the niche publication. Too much deviation can carry consequences much like not enough diversity.

What kind of content will it be? One of the most written about YouTube success stories is Will It Blend? by Blendtec. It is referenced so often that doing so nowadays has almost become cliche.

However, Will It Blend? by Blendtec is worth mentioning here because more content wouldn't have helped. If it had became a daily episode, two things might have happened. The best of its content would have been buried before it had a chance to spread. And second, it could have potentially destroyed any anticipation people felt for the next installment. So, for the most part, once a month seems about right for Blendtec, even if some months never cross the million mark.

The takeaway? Some companies undo their own their impact by swinging wildly between market saturation and market starvation. But content marketing isn't suited to sprints. It's more like a marathon, with content being delivered consistently with purpose.

How consistently sustainable is the topic? When you look at website like TripAdvisor, which has become a top destination research site, content sustainability might be defined as the number of destinations that exist in the world, continually refreshed by the diverse perspectives from authors who visit and report on these destinations based on their popularity. Ergo, a hotdog stand in Nebraska is likely to receive fewer updates than a hotel in San Francisco.

So why would it be any different for the respective companies? If a hotdog stand in Nebraska and a hotel in San Francisco both had blogs, chances are that the hotel will generate more content than the hotdog stand. Sure, there are some exceptions. If the hotdog stand was managed by the Dalai Lama, it could sustain considerably more content. But then again, I doubt the content would be about hotdogs.

The takeaway? Consider sustainability based on how often there will be new content to share, which will usually be driven by how often there is something new to report within the context of the site. The concept harkens back to days when public relations firms used to promise a certain number of releases every month without ever asking the company if it could sustain that many newsworthy prospects per month. Many cannot, unless they happen to have a public relations pro digging for it.

What is the business objective beyond sales? As content marketing becomes important to marketers, marketers have to remember that content marketing is the means to an end and not an end to the means. The goal of content marketing isn't to make a website the most visited space on the Internet unless the business is a website (and even that might depend on what kind of business it is and what industry it operates in). So what is the end?

It really depends on the organization's objectives and communication plan, especially long term. While Apple always makes for an interesting example around innovation, an even better fit here would be the rock band Rush. It sounds silly, but the band isn't very different from a business.

Specifically, had Rush employed the same tactics that many social media experts do today, it would have debuted with a disco album in 1974 and not the blues-infused heavy metal that eventually evolved into progressive rock (with lyrics that draw heavily upon science fiction, fantasy, and philosophy). Of course, if they had done disco, it seems wildly unlikely that these invulnerable outsiders would have eventually sold the third-most number of albums in history, third behind The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

The takeaway? Rush stuck to its objective to make a certain kind of music while the rest of the world thrived and died by whatever trends seemed successful for the moment. The same thing happens within the rapidly evolving space of social media. Many people and companies thrive and die with whatever seems popular at the moment, only to be forgotten about the following year. Never change your strategy for something as fickle as popularity.

Friday, January 11

Developing A Professional Image: Experimental Class Ahead

A few months ago, I found myself in a semi-heated discussion with an image consultant (a.k.a. personal branding guru). There isn't any transcript of the conversation because it didn't happen online. It happened offline, where many conversations about what I write here sometimes occur.

The catalyst for the call was a post — Branding: Why I Stopped Worrying About Being Batman — and why I did such a great disservice the emergent field of image consulting and personal branding. The entire post, she said, was borderline hypocritical given that I had once hired an image consultant.

Out of context, she had a point. Within context, not so much.

I hired an image consultant a few years ago because I knew there is some truth to Color Seasons. Different skin colors and complexions look better with different colors and horrendous with others. And while I know a few things about design and fashion, I had no clue what colors worked for me.

So, I found someone better at this stuff than me to help figure it out. And for several hours, she held up a hundred colors in order to give me a palette to test against the next time I went shopping, which is pretty rare (and half the time I forget the palette anyway). But I drew the line on everything else.

The reason is simple enough. I have a difficult time reconciling the dress for success concept of personal branding, especially as it has permeated social networks with some personal branding folks telling people that their social network pics provide the first impression of who you are to the world.

This worry over first impressions doesn't end with fashion. It seems to encompass everything: what we write, like, share, read, see, comment about, respond to, how we respond, when we respond, and a long list of more indicators online and offline. It's not much different than those "tells" people warn you about — offline tips like shining your shoes or only salting food after you taste it.

Sure, I suppose I could argue that some personal branding concepts work to some degree, but one has to be careful. Not all, but many personal branding consultants forget that real "branding" is not about style. It's about substance. It's about self-awareness. It's about authenticity. And it's about you.

I believe this so strongly that when the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, asked if I could teach an experimental seminar that could help people with their professional development in order to gain a competitive advantage in the job market (or as account executives and salespeople), I said absolutely.

Projecting A Professional Image at the University Of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

The 3-hour class will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Jan. 31. The focus is on developing an authentic professional image for a competitive job market and economic marketplace, including the challenge that many people have with reconciling their so-called personal and professional separations, online, offline, wherever. Anyone attending can expect something different than the standard fare.

You see, it seems to me that you can wrap up any product in fancy packaging, but that doesn't make it effective in the environment where it will be used. This is the cornerstone of my Fragile Brand Theory, which suggests that brand failures or reputation crashes do not happen because of the nature of people, places, or things. They happen because persons, places, or things pretend to be something else.

This is why some executives give speeches wearing nothing more than pajamas and others put on expensive suits for the most casual of meetings. The notion that we must dress for success is somewhat of a misnomer. It's the substance, not the style, that drives reputation. Style merely helps convey it.

The class will help sort it out, including that style doesn't just say something about an individual. It says something about how we hope to connect with the anticipated audience. Ergo, construction workers tend to clam up on a construction site if you try to interview them in a suit and wedding guests would find someone wearing pajamas a bit too disruptive for an event celebrating someone else.

Right. Canned packaging disrupts as much as looking unkept. So this class starts where it counts.

• How an authentic professional image differs from personal branding
• How to develop messages that can set yourself apart from competitors
• How to maintain authenticity and empathy in differing environments
• How to reconcile who you are on social networks, without faking it
• How to feel good about who you are and add substance to the offering

Registration for the experimental class can be found here. I call it experimental because this one-time session will be used to gauge interest in a future 3-part workshop, with take home assignments and exercises. After the class concludes, at least one presentation deck will be published within a post.

Wednesday, January 9

Reporting Responsibly: The Psychology Of Rights

Sometime in the 1990s, I signed on to pen a few articles for the most aggressive First Amendment advocacy magazine I've ever read. The content was rough enough that I still sometimes question my decision to participate. I have and had mixed feelings for a couple of the columns I wrote, although they were nothing compared to some of material submitted by others. But that is why I wrote them.

I was challenging my own convictions. I was contributing to a publication Stephen King supported, which was how I discovered it. I had also just recently participated in a win the ACLU had over the old America Online's TOS, which included an aggressive censorship policy against its members.

After a couple of issues, I dropped any future assignments, but it wasn't the limits of the First Amendment that shook me off. The editor/publisher and I had a falling out despite our developing friendship. The argument that did it was over the Second Amendment. I couldn't fathom that a publisher might hold one inalienable right up high but dismiss another outright.

The lack of responsibility and hypocrisy of the Journal News. 

This previous experience was one of the first things that came to mind when I read about the Journal News publishing a map that included the names and addresses of almost 34,000 gun owners. The story, which began two weeks ago, has since escalated. In a case of tit-for-tat, someone decided to publish the names and addresses of the reporters and editors who work there.

Some of the editors are now unhappy and even frightened for themselves and their families. The newspaper has even reported that someone sent bags of white power to their offices, reminiscent of the terrorist scares several years ago. The paper's publisher, Janet Hasson, has hired armed guards for the offices.

Assuming the white powder reports are true, that is unquestionably over the line. But the rest of it, the publishing of names and addresses of reporters and editors, was fair. The paper's own blatant disregard for the responsibility that comes with the freedom of the press wasn't well thought out. The fear they feel isn't much different than the fear they instilled in gun owners and non-gun owners alike.

Perhaps one of my colleagues said it best, pointing out that at least some of those people on the list might be stalker victims or domestic violence victims, only purchasing a gun out of personal necessity. Or maybe there is even more to consider. Publishing the names of gun owners also gives criminals a potential list of gun-owning targets (or non-gun owning targets), gives neighbors a reason to be suspicious, frightens concerned seniors, gives prisoners the names and addresses of corrections officers and police officers, and invites everybody into everybody's personal affairs.

Incidentally, the map isn't even accurate. Many people listed have since moved or are deceased, making the map nothing more than an attempt to justify some notion that neighbors have a right to know who owns a gun or guns — an argument that suggests the public has a right to know which neighbors are journalists, people inclined to transform private lives into public affairs. It's all sad and silly.

The psychology of rights and press ethics.

Personally, it seems to me that there is a maturity in appreciating that the Bill Of Rights was included in the U.S. Constitution not because these rights were convenient or safe or popular. The Bill Of Rights are inalienable rights, meaning that they supersede the government's ability to grant them. They came about because it was the other way around. The citizens who made this government said they wouldn't give these rights up to the government.

Moreover, as inalienable rights, the expressed concept is that such freedoms are not granted by a majority at their privilege to a minority but rather owned and preserved equally by majorities and minorities alike, even when that minority consists of a single individual. In other words, we don't get to pick and choose which inalienable rights we want without the consequence of losing all of them.

That said, the Journal News might have been well within its rights to publish the map, but it doesn't excuse a blatant disregard for responsible news reporting. The same can be said for those who published the names and addresses of reporters and editors in an era where publishing is cheap and relatively easy, but I can't blame them. Equal opportunity sometimes breeds equal jeopardy.

What I do wish is that both publishers would have heard one of my former media professors challenge the ethical vs. free vs. responsibility perceptive of a free press in my media law class. He didn't speak about guns. Instead, he talked about the unwillingness of most newspapers and media outlets to publish the names of rape victims under the age of 18.

He proved his point by escalating the news value of the story, painting the progression that an editor might not publish the name of a 14-year-old victim, but would have a harder time not publishing her name if she was the daughter of a mayor, or if the mayor was responsible, or if other publications do. As he progressed, the hands of those who would not publish the name fell away with shattered convictions.

No, what the the Journal News did is not an exercise of two rights rubbing up against each other, creating the illusion that we have to make a choice. It is something much simpler. It is having the common sense to know that just because you can publish something, doesn't mean you have to publish it (or create laws to censor it). And maybe that is what the discussion ought to be about.

Monday, January 7

Overstating: Six Myths PR Brings To Social

As someone who works with one foot in public relations and the other in marketing/advertising (among others), I'm never surprised but always perplexed when one side attempts to trample the other. As communicators, we ought to be working toward integration while others don't think so.

Front and center on PR Daily was a post that screamed "6 Reasons PR Pros Should Manage Social Media." (Hat tip: Shelly Kramer. See her take on it here.) The article was written to prop up another article that carried much the same sentiment. Reading the original, however, was out of the question. The link was broken. Accuracy be damned.

Before tackling the six reasons, I ought to preface my position. Nobody owns social. In fact, I'm very much inclined to believe that anybody who claims "ownership" over the space demonstrates that they don't know much about it. Social media is an environment, one which not only helps integrate communication but will also increasingly converge with the real world. How can anyone own that?

Why Six Reasons For PR Pros To Own Social Are Really Six PR Myths.

1. Are PR Pros Experienced Storytellers? The claim is made that public relations professionals are experienced storytellers, mostly because many public relations professionals are former journalists. As experienced storytellers, they are naturally suited to manage social media.

This is a myth, four times over. The reality is that almost everyone in a communication-related field is an experienced storyteller, not just public relations professionals (and many public relations professionals are not great storytellers, which is why they pitch people who are). The only difference between these various storytellers is the medium in which they communicate and the creative restraints to which they are subjected.

Personally, I'm unconvinced that someone needs to be in a communication-related field to be a good storyteller or, for that matter, that all storytellers make good managers. Likewise, I don't believe there has ever been a study that proves 50 percent plus one of public relations professionals are former journalists, which even the public relations industry finds difficult to reconcile.

2. Are PR Pros Expert Communicators? The assertion is made that writing skills are essential to social media, which public relations professionals (as former journalists) possess.

Writing skills are essential to any position, but few people possess them. Not everyone in public relations (and maybe not many in public relations) are good writers. As evidence, visit PR Newswire. There you will find some of the worst abuses of the written language as supplied by the PR field.

3. Are PR Pros Are Always Relevant? The position is taken that public relations professionals are experienced in creating content relevant to a specific audience, which is needed for social media.

Most communicators, whether they are copywriters or marketers, are equally versed in demographics and psychographics. Many of them pore over data and establish connections with the same vigor. Unfortunately, for many public relations professionals, relevance is defined by whatever they think is important, which is why the field is sometimes subjected to public floggings.

More importantly, even if relevance can be important to social media, the concept of a specific audience is very different in the space. Social media simultaneously operates on a one-to-one, one-to-many and one-to-all scale, which is very different from the public relations world view of "publics."

4. Are PR Pros The Best Relationship Builders? The contention is made that public relations has always been better at relationship building and social media is all about relationships.

While social media is sometimes about relationships, it doesn't have to be. Many connections that people make online are relatively thin and a good majority of them occur based not the individual relationship between the social media manager and an individual, but the relationship between the individual and whomever pointed them toward some content. It's relatively complicated.

5. Do PR Pros Know Crisis Communication? The claim is made that public relations professionals are trained in crisis communication and issues management and are therefore equipped to handle things when something goes wrong.

There are scores of examples that both prove and disprove the claim. The truth is that most public relations professionals follow a standard step-by-step plan, which is better than nothing but not nearly enough. Risk management expert Dr. Thomas Kaiser said as much a few months ago. Crisis management and mediation require more than PR, especially as it relates to disaster planning.

Sure, some understanding of crisis communication is always a plus for anyone in social media. However, it's equally feasible for someone else to draft the crisis communication plan for a social media manager to follow in the event of an emergency. Every employee, not just those assigned to social media, needs to know about it too.

6. Do PR Pros Seek More Feedback? The claim is made that public relations has been charged with gathering feedback, but now they have the advantage of social media to collect and cull data 24-7.

Big data is certainly an evolving trend, but I think anyone would be hard pressed to prove that public relations has cornered the market. Marketers, researchers, and customer service managers have been working in the feedback arena too.

What is more frightening about this point is that the author went so far as to suggest that surveys and focus groups are largely absolute because of social media. It's not true. In order to make sense of big data, verification and additional insights are becoming more important, not less. It's all part of the changes and challenges sweeping communication today. Anyone in public relations should know it.

The net conclusion is pretty simple. Do you think public relations professionals are the right fit for social media? Yes, but not more or less than anybody in communication (or anybody outside of communication). And no. In some cases, they might not be the right fit at all.

What social media really needs is to be placed in a retrofitted and flexible communication model, with strategic planning at its core and tactical planning that can be executed across online and physical environments in such a way that people feel individually connected to a two-way communication stream that simultaneously reaches specific people and the public as a whole AND inspires internal spokespeople and brand loyalists to support it. (Yes, I purposely made that a long sentence.)

So is the person best equipped to head this up a public relations professional? I don't care. I'd be satisfied with whomever can get the job done and most executives would too. If that means the custodian who managed to create a 100,000 strong collation of good housewives and househusbands, so be it.

Why? Not a single skill set used as a reason for public relations to own social media is exclusive to public relations as a whole. Mostly, they are skill sets that come with individuals, not professions. And if someone happens to lack one of them, it's easy enough to enroll them in a class or two. What might be harder to teach, which is what the story seemed to lack, is empathy. You have to relate to people.

Friday, January 4

Advertising: It's An Invitation To Imagine

Expect to see plenty of communication foreshadows for the year ahead in January, but be wary of the ones that attempt to redefine terms. Advertising has an especially big target on its back this year, with some people calling it content, some people calling it mobile, and some people calling it a total failure. None of this is really new.

Advertising is an industry that has been driven by persuasion, awareness, branding, sales, and few dozen other terms since the 1950s. None of these starting points are wrong, per se. Advertising can be driven by all of these things, but ideally considers everything at once, within the context of a conversation.

“Copy is a direct conversation with the consumer." — Shirley Polykoff

Shirley Polykoff, who was the first woman copywriter for Foote, Cone & Belding, called it right in the 1950s and she is still right today. She based her career on it, with Clairol being her biggest success.

Did her advertisements sell too? Yes. She moved the hair color category from $25 million to $200 million. Did her advertisements persuade? Yes. She expanded the market from 7 percent of all women to 50 percent of all women in six years. Did she help the Clairol brand? Yes. It captured 50 percent of the market share, making it the clear leader in cosmetics for decades. She also told a story that sparked conversations, originally among housewives who wanted more glamour and independence.

Advertising was (and still is) a conversation, one that presents the possibilities. 

What some people squabble about today is what form that conversation should take, with most people leaning toward content marketing as a means to deliver it. I agree to a degree, meaning that I agree content marketing is where many people will set their sights. But I also temper the conclusion because if Polykoff wasn't engaged in content marketing, then what was she engaged in? Exactly.

Advertising isn't moving forward, it's moving backward with a few bright bulbs positioning themselves as the frontrunners of an old idea, repackaged. There is nothing really wrong with that. The circular nature of culture demands a certain degree repetition. And I can't fault people for claiming it's new.

But what I can do is help even smarter people understand why we moved away from conversation in the first place. Mostly, it had to do with the rapid advancements in visual communication — special effects and unrestrained cleverness — that became the conversation and made the brand promise and product possibilities secondary to the packaging.

The only problem with that stylish but less substantive trend, of course, was that social media amplified buyer's remorse by giving it a potential reach that could eclipse a media buy. Ergo, if a story leads someone to a conclusion that differs from the one they expect, then they tend to get pissed off.

Content marketing merely rolls the story telling back where it belongs. In today's world, Polykoff would still be revered a shining star in advertising because the content would remain the same while taking advantage of a better delivery system. Blondes, as her advertisements suggested, would still have more fun.

The only difference is that in today's communication environment, she could have had a platform to tell their stories along with the one that sparked their imaginations in the first place. Does that make sense?

Advertising is an invitation to consider an imaginary spark that allows people to explore the possibilities of something better, ideally defined as the product or service that can deliver it. Whether that means visual, audio, copy, online, offline,  or any combination is merely a matter of what best showcases the product (in the medium it is being presented in) and budgetary constraint. And everything else?

You are probably better suited to fill in the blank, especially as you review any campaigns this year.

Wednesday, January 2

Trending 2013: The Year Of Convergence

When people used to bandy about the term "convergence" as it related to media, they were mostly talking about broadcast and broadband. But nowadays, spend even a few seconds searching the net and you'll see that convergence in this niche has already happened. Almost anything and everything you can find on cable television has a connection to a computer screen, desktop or mobile device.

Sure, some organizations have a better handle on it than others, but digital is digital. The only barriers between television and broadband are the ones we create, clinging onto the past as if there are any real differences beside the screens we use to access them. Convergence means something else nowadays.

Convergence isn't between data 'types' anymore. It's all about merging the digital and the physical world.

While people still sometimes distinguish between "friends" and "friendz" on social networks, businesses have given it up. They don't have "customers" and "customerz" because they recognize that the same people online are the same people who shop in their stores or order services over the phone.

There is no difference. The medium will become increasingly indistinguishable this year, with the obvious exception of shaping its delivery. And any marketers who ignore this fact will be left behind.

It's easy enough to see convergence lurking around every corner. During the holidays, I was looking for a specific book to give to my son. A few people have read the heartfelt portion of the story (Dec. 17 post), which was recently republished by Aaron Johnston, one of the authors of the book. But there is the other half of the story that happened inside Barnes & Noble that relates to modern marketing.

It took a good half hour before I visited the customer service counter for help. I had already looked over the other possibility — from the science fiction section under Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston and new releases — and became nearly exhausted by the effort. With a couple of key strokes by the employee, she located the last copy of the book, which was sitting on a remote discount table.

It was the last copy in the store. I couldn't help but wonder why I couldn't have found it. And even if I couldn't do it using a desktop kiosk in the store, then why not my phone? Location-based technology (when I turn it on) already knows where I am. Why can't it help me find what I'm looking for there?

For that matter, why aren't books published with QR codes that automatically take you to an author page maintained by the publisher, author, or agent? Why isn't there an automated solution to pull up book reviews, recent articles, or content about the book, authors, etc. without any effort? And while I'm looking at all this content in the physical space where I can make a purchase, why doesn't the retailer give me an inventory of related books and products that are in the store (stuff I might never see)?

Who knows. Maybe I could hold a book in my hand and automatically access all of this, including any social networks where the author or authors have taken up residence. None of this is rocket science. The dots are there but we have yet to connect them between a virtual and physical world.

Moving beyond the bookstore would be simple enough. 

If this can be done with books, then other retail should be a snap. If I scan a code (or perhaps activate a proximity code on my phone) on a new car in a car lot, why can't I pull up every other car in inventory for price, gas mileage, and other comparisons? Why can't I consider every option beyond the one right in front of me or the one that the salesman decides to show me?

And if I really want to talk to a salesman, why can't I hit a call for service button on my phone instead of pushing him off when I'm not ready and struggling to hunt him down when I am ready? Who knows. Maybe I could prequalify myself for a loan right there or take in some of the sales specials that salespeople sometimes like to keep up their sleeves until they are sure you won't pay retail.

One would think that all of this ought to be second nature by now. It would be especially useful in sprawling stores like Home Depot or Walmart. It would be readily convenient if we need to find ingredient substitutes while shopping for groceries.

This is the kind of stuff that some B2B professionals have already integrated into their daily lives. (I never leave home without a digital portfolio, among other things.) But even as a consumer, I once resolved a customer service issue at Target by asking whether or not I would receive a better resolution by contacting corporate through Facebook. Where is the so-called boundary between online and off?

The first step is to stop thinking about social as a channel. 

Social networking is great, and I really enjoy that some communication work lets me operate in that space. But I'm much more fascinated with the next step, which integrates into our world as opposed to trying to prove that it has some independent value that can be measured in a vacuum. While it's possible to measure whether an organization is moving in the right direction; likes, shares, and so-called influence measures are meaningless and independent quantifiers of success. (More on that, much more, in the year ahead.)

Instead of thinking that social media and social networks can merely add communication value to the lives of the people we want to connect with, organizations need to start thinking about the technological advances that add value to the customer experience right there, right then, when they are engaged in retail space or wherever you might happen to meet. This is the kind of convergence we need in 2013.

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