Wednesday, January 30

Catching Catfish: Always Vet The Data

Some people never feel the need to be anonymous, online or off. But other people do, with their intent ranging from noble to malignant or their reasons ranging from convenience to pre-existing community standards (e.g., most people use creative avatars and punchy screen names). It's increasingly accepted.

So, it seems, is lying. As many as 25 percent of people admit they lie online (um, it's higher), citing security as the primary reason (um, it's not), and that doesn't account for the growing number of social network accounts that are partly or completely fabricated.

The phenomenon has grown up enough that it carries a better moniker than when Mackey or Chapel stole the show. Some people refer to fictitious and semi-fictitious accounts as catfish, named after the film-turned-television series. The series premiered on MTV in November 2012. It happens all the time.

The consequence of catfish in communication. 

Catfish are the bane of big data, enough so that some social networks are starting to do the unthinkable while ignoring the more obvious breaches like the one recently shared by Amy Vernon. In creating what is assumed to be a fictional account, someone hijacked Vernon's photos and started using them as his or her own under the name 'Melissa Dugan.'

And much like the new television series, Vernon's recent story sheds some light on the impact of catfish. There are personal and professional consequences. Fortunately, she is reasonably able to cope with it so far. But one can only imagine how long (if ever) Manti Te'o will need to fully reconcile the impact of having an online girlfriend — who died and was later resurrected — who was fabricated.

Much like the documentary Catfish, some people go so far as building an entire network of fabricated profiles to support their primary fabricated account, often grabbing up other people's pictures to do it. In the documentary, for example, an entire network of fake friends validated the fictitious account.

It's one step further than what married people who want an affair do on dating sites. Instead of making up one persona, catfish make up entire communities. What they do isn't limited to individual events.

Beyond individual masquerades and into public opinion. 

While some social media experts are quick to think about how fake accounts game popularity, some catfish are specifically set up to skew public opinion. Sometimes these efforts are harmless (such as casting a few extra votes for a favorite band on a survey). But others might not be harmless, given they are used to literally mask agendas by "washing" content through five or six profiles.

Three years ago, I tracked an unsupported news release that eventually became 'validated' by news. Public opinion catfish operate in much the same way, sharing volatile content across less-volatile social network accounts to create the illusion that whatever news is being shared is credible, sometimes rewritten to appear palatable. Or, in other cases, "washing" away geographical data is sometimes done to affect the perception of public policy (e.g., online politics frequently infuses outside interests).

Organizations are equally susceptible to such campaigns. It's not all that uncommon for some angry consumers to repost singular complaints across dozens of networks and review sites (and sometimes with more than one account) in order to disparage a product or service for whatever reason (justly or unjustly). There have even been cases where black hat competitors have driven up negatives, directly (fake reviews) and indirectly (propping up real negative reviews).

While there is a need to retain anonymity online (much like there is a need to preserve social satire), the rest of it — fraud and identity theft — is the leading unaddressed challenge within digital communication. And the best course of action today, although not foolproof, is to slow down, vet the data, and then vet the data again (even if you recognize the avatar, photo or logo as a trusted source).

Monday, January 28

Failing Forward: Debbie Millman At AIGA Las Vegas

Debbie Millman knows something about failure. Most people would never guess it nowadays.

Today, she is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and radio show host. Specifically, she worked in design for over 25 years and currently serves as president of the design division at Sterling Brands, a leading brand consultancy formed in 1992 with offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. She's held the position for 17 years. You know her work.

The consultancy’s client roster includes many international brands such as Procter & Gamble, NestlĂ©, Disney, Bayer, Google, and Visa. She has been personally responsible for working on the redesign of over 200 global brands.

While her position alone would be enough to scream success, she is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com, chair of the Masters In Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and hosts the award-winning weekly radio talk show “Design Matters With Debbie Millman.”

And yet, with all sincerity and despite the twinkle in her eye, Millman is among the first to say that her career never really took off until her 30s. Before that, she chalked up one failure after the next.

What does Millman think made all the difference? 

While Millman shared a top ten list of things she wish she knew before she started her career (a list that will be published on a transitionary AIGA Las Vegas site later this week), it took a question from the audience to pin it all down. When asked what was the catalyst for change, she settled on a single word after a long and thoughtful 30-second pause.

"Therapy."

The single word answer almost fell flat on the 200 or so attendees at the Jan. 25 event hosted by AIGA Las Vegas, Las Vegas - Clark County Library District and Library Foundation. Enough so, that as a speaker and instructor, I wanted to jump in and provide a greater context for what she meant. I got it, even if not everyone did.

Millman didn't mean that everyone needed to find a psychologist or therapist to find success. But what most people need to do, especially students on the eve of graduating who can't see a clear vision into their future, is to change their thinking. The greatest road block for success begins with giving ourselves permission to succeed, something Millman had admitted that she never really did until later.

"I started to choose a path that was failure proof," Millman said. "If there is such a thing."

Over the next half-hour of her presentation, she outlined a career path that chronicled one failure after the next. The worst of it included becoming the object of ridicule on one of the first design blogs ever created. The blog, Speak Up, attracted dozens of comments from designers she admired in the field.

Her revision of the Burger King logo was met with considerable scorn. But it was the blog's comments that drove the discussion away from a single logo design and defining Millman as a talentless hack.

Millman might have been able to weather the criticism had she not just recently been more or less shackled by the leadership of AIGA as not being progressive enough as a designer to hold a position on their board. (This was also despite finally finding her dream position at Sterling Brands.) Basically, it meant to her that neither AIGA designers nor anti-AIGA designers would accept her or her work.

But that was a long time ago. What really changed it for Millman was her ability to stop avoiding failures and start embracing them. In fact, Millman says that if you don't make mistakes, you aren't taking enough risks. And taking risks — not avoiding failure — is a critical step toward finding success.

You can't be successful by trying to avoid failure.

Many of Millman's life lessons are much like that. While some people might chalk it up to common sense, the truth of it is that most people are afraid to take risks, find excuses not to make them, tend to quit too soon in order to prove success is elusive, and never give themselves permission to live the remarkable lives that they dream of, assuming they ever open themselves up to dream them. I couldn't agree more.

Therapy is the right answer, but it doesn't necessarily mean hiring a a therapist. It means accepting who you are and changing your outlook about what's possible, especially if you have built a lifetime of resistance. Most people need help to do it. And it just doesn't matter whether that help comes from a teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, ideology, faith, or whatever because it sounds simpler than it will be.

We have to be open to the possibilities, work hard in actively pursuing them, and never give up in the face of failure. As Millman eventually learned, it was her failures that often opened doors for success and not the other way around. Or, as she so eloquently put it, she failed her way to a successful life.

Friday, January 25

Storytelling: Where Communicators Get Miffed

Since scheduling pushed back one of my creative projects this month, I had this idea to recycle some fictional content as a holdover until I had time to finish up something freshly original. The initial thought seemed smart. The story hadn't appeared since it was part of a juried art exhibit years ago.

It took some time, but I found the story, polished it up, gave it another read, and then decided I hated it. But undeterred, I passed it over to an editor anyway. She wasn't keen on seeing it republished either, which was secretly the affirmation (or perhaps anti-affirmation) that I wanted. Weird, I know.

The story didn't fit with my most recent body of work, and I was very curious why that might be. She offered some suggestions, but none of them felt right until it hit me. The only feeling that lingered after the last sentence was somewhere between nothing and cynicism. Everything recent hits much harder.

Yeah, but what does this have to do with marketing and communication?

It has everything to do with it, which is why I'm starting to believe that everything most advertising, marketing, public relations, and communications teachers taught you was wrong. Almost all of them miss one of the most important ingredients in content, and it's the same one clients most often miss too.

It's not their fault. Rubrics have a stranglehold on education. In the communication field, one of the most popular is the ADIA model — Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action — or any of its variations (CAB, ADICA). It's a fine model, but it just isn't enough.

There is something else at work that writers have to pay attention to. It's the ability to move beyond the call to action and connect with an emotion, which is what creates the illusion that content is a fulfilling conversation. Think of it as an epilogue of sorts that creates an emotional connection (and I don't mean a like, follow, friend, or retweet) that people will later identify with the brand.

This is why tapping into people's imagination is so important. It's also why two perfectly structured advertisements that follow ADIA or some other format are not always equal. One might follow the structure, but it misses this mysterious ingredient. (Heineken's recent viral The Date spot misses it.)

The missing ingredient includes two parts. One is an emotion. The other is fulfillment. While the former can be anything, the latter needs to linger on a universal truth. Even if not everyone agrees, it feels right.

This feeling, that the author reinforced or opened our eyes to something new but patently obvious, is what makes some storytelling work so well. Mickey Gomez really gets it, even if she hasn't analyzed it. Geoff Livingston mostly gets it because it is innate in him. Jennifer Lawson gets it, even when her technical skill sometimes slips. I get it on good days. Most writers really don't get it.

Clients don't get it either, but for a different reason. Most of them are too focused on the experience they feel, and not the consumer. In other words, they look at the content and get excited because they think it represents them. But trust me on this: Consumers don't care how good an ad is supposed to make the brand look.

The one question you should always ask about your content. 

It's not always easy because, just like clients, writers sometimes become consumed by craft. They are either taken by the cleverness of it (as in advertising), the 'sales' pitch (as in public relations), or how pretty the prose is (as in authors). All of that might help, but none of it matters.

Storytellers and content creators have to look at this stuff objectively and then ask themselves what is the feeling a non-stakeholder will be left with at the end of the story. And then they have to consider whether or not that feeling aligns with the brand and creates a connection (ideally one associated with the brand). This is where content marketing and customer experience connect.

Ergo, content is an experience ... but only when it fits. It's the lingering emotion that really counts.

Wednesday, January 23

Researching Colleges: Future Students Prefer Digital Stealth

Forget interviews. Forget phone calls. Forget campus visits. College bound students are researching future colleges with the click of a mouse or tap on a mobile application. Like many organizations are learning, the next generation of college student is more inclined to shop a future college online.

Almost 55 percent of prospecting students are investigating colleges every day, using social media networks and search engines over print guidebooks and direct marketing products. Almost 25 percent applied stealth to their searches, making it more difficult for colleges to pin down prospect interest or profile them based on any discernible psychographics or demographics. You know what that means.

Don't blink because your customer is invisible.

According to a new study conducted by Lipman Hearne, a national marketing and communications firm, and Cappex.com, a college search website, future students are researching schools online as early as their sophomore year in high school. And they are looking for very specific information, along with passive analysis, to determine what institutions might be a good fit for their college years.

1. Scholarship and financial aid packages.
2. Reputation in a major field of interest.
3. Affordable tuition and fees.
4. Strong academic reputation.
5. Job assistance after graduation.

In addition to prioritizing preferences, the report focuses in on prospect communication preference, noting that nearly half had visited a college's website on a mobile device (45 percent) and one in ten had downloaded an app from a college on a mobile device. What students are less interested in are text messages, unless they have an expressed interest in the school.

Students also turn to social networks as part of their research (85 percent reported having at least one social network account). And although most say that social media does not influence their decision, students frequently look for status updates, offerings, and even invitations. But what most won't do is use this information to start a conversation, poll, or ask friends for opinions on their school choices.

There is also some indication that colleges are over-marketing to students via email. The average prospect reported receiving as many as five emails from colleges that they have reached out to for information. The communication is intrusive enough that many have set a dedicated email specifically for college information. About 71 percent check this separate email account daily.

Not surprisingly (although surprising to some), more than one in three graduating high school seniors indicated that advertising influenced their application decision or influenced their enrollment decision. Students also identified online banner ads as more effective and easier to recall than other forms of advertising. Both of these statistics represent a dramatic shift in online behavior, which has previously suggested that social media is more influential than advertising. This might not be true in the future.

The Lipman Hearne study is available for a free download, but requires the typical form fill. It included more than 11,000 students as part of its survey process. It should also be noted that the research was conducted online, which sometimes skews data toward the medium where the survey was taken.

Looking beyond college bound applications and learning about consumers. 

While the study was conducted to better understand stealth applicants — students who investigate schools before and after applying to the school — it suggests that the next generation of consumers is already shifting their mindset. Specifically, more customers watch and listen to organizations without identifying themselves as potential customers. In essence, they are passive in their research.

Passive online participants (voyeurs) still represent a majority of online participation, even if many social media experts skew toward the more talkative and visibly engaged customers. But there is one difference between the voyeurs of the past and the voyeurs of the future. The voyeurs of the past were quiet because they weren't comfortable with the new tools. The voyeurs of the future know the tools and purposefully remain unengaged to avoid intrusive marketing efforts like emails and phone calls.

This could be a significant find because it seems that while the next generation of customer may be more reliant on digital research, they are also interested in remaining invisible to big data by giving off the appearance of disengagement. Note to researchers: Focus groups still require different formats.

Monday, January 21

Avoiding Stereotypes: The Color Of Ideology

No one really knows what Martin Luther King, Jr. would have thought had he lived to see the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom (Aug. 28, 1963). On one hand, Americans had not only elected but re-elected the first African-American President. On the other, it has created one of the most divisive socio-economic-political climates since President Abraham Lincoln.

I, for one, would like to think he would stand by the lines delivered in the I Have A Dream speech, holding firm to his conviction that people not be judged except by the content of their character. For although racism has largely been abolished in the hearts and minds of a majority, the propensity of humankind to divide has reached a crescendo on dozens of other fronts, ranging from the values people hold to the rights they are willing to defend as part of the definition of freedom.

Whereas in the era of Martin Luther King, Jr., people were unjustly and commonly segregated by the color of their skin, hate speech and stereotypes have found a new home that often ignores the color of our skin and ravishes us instead for religious views, political leanings, and urban-rural localities. While few people would defend hate speech aimed at racial heritage and cultural identity, it has somehow become accepted to characterize some religions as deserving censor, some political parties as callous, gun owners as redneck bigots, and even whether they take notes on a notepad or laptop. And today, rather than enacting segregation in schools, most of it takes place in news outlets and social networks.

So let's be clear. Stereotypes are ignorant, regardless of righteousness. 

A stereotype is a thought about a specific group of individuals that is used to forward the belief that a single commonality about that group can accurately define all characteristics about that group, usually intended to cause others to emotionally react to the naming of the group with good or bad prejudice.

In the past, it was most commonly associated with heritage. Today, it's most commonly associated with ideology and identity. But what hasn't changed is: they are almost always wrong, especially when they are used to dehumanize people; they are exceptionally damaging, especially if we accept derogatory stereotypes that other people assign us; and they are hardwired into our brains, which means we have to be ever vigilant in dismantling almost all of them.

Some people are surprised anytime it is suggested that we are hardwired to invent stereotypes; the truth to it is scientific. Our brains invent stereotypes in order to make our world less cognitively demanding. It's all tied to cognitive psychology, which was always my favorite sub-discipline of psychology (and one of the most useful for communicators and marketers).

Cognitive psychology delves into how people perceive, remember, think, speak, and solve problems. And one of the mental processes is how we categorize and compartmentalize information. For example, when we learn fire is hot, we categorize it as something that can burn us. Later, when we learn an oven or stovetop can be hot, we might put it into the same category. We need it to survive.

But then something happens sometime between junior high school and high school. Our cognitive processes begin to take on more abstract forms as we begin to define our world based on arduous notions not much better than The Breakfast Club, a film about five high school stereotypes — jock, geek, stoner, outcast, and socialite — who find temporary common ground around being detainees.

Unfortunately, few people ever really evolve from these baseless social roles. They simply trade them in for new ones, making the world easier to understand even if this understanding is flawed. Worse, we sometimes compound the problem by pursuing the characteristics of stereotypes that we want to belong too, making them seem all the more valid, and creating campaigns to prove they are true and desirable.

The evolution of cognitive thinking relies on individual character. 

There is one simple reason that I tend to attract diversity among friends and associates. Much like their heritage, their ideologies mean less to me than how they behave and treat others, especially those they seem ideologically opposed to across any number of socio-economic-political issues.

And for that, I grant them equal tolerance even as we disagree, especially if we can maintain a relationship without having to dress up in a costume and, most assuredly, if we can agree not to censor or subjugate other people's rights, property, and values. It's called respect. It's called refusing to drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred. It's called character, built on trust and understanding that all men and women are created equal without being forced to carry the loadstones of ancestry and stereotype.

That's my dream. And while I could be wrong, I would like to think it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream too — that the flaws of one character within a thinly connected group ought not be used as a weapon to vilify each and every perceived associate. This is, after all, America, a place where we are supposed to be uniquely accountable to our own behaviors and actions and deserve to be judged according to our character and not the behaviors or actions that people attempt to assign us.

That said, it is my dream that people think twice before embracing hate speech and stereotypes, carelessly sharing and spreading such messages across their social connections without any thought of the disparagement they might cause others because underneath it all, no matter how we divide people, we really are all brothers and sisters of the human race. And so, in observance of Martin Luther King Jr. day, good night and good luck.

Friday, January 18

Improving Press Releases: A Two-Part Social Test

People tend to give press releases plenty of flack. But in many cases, the problem isn't the tool but the practitioner who created it. If you want better release performance, start with the source — the author.

I'm not suggesting that public relations practitioners need to be canned. What I am suggesting is that public relations professionals test themselves by taking advantage of other in-house professionals and social media to see just how great (or not great) their press release (or social media release) crafting skills might be.

Pass a press release draft to a colleague, but not to edit. 

Rather than passing the press release to someone to edit, ask them to write a news story from the release as if they were a journalist working for whatever new niche the story is intended. The public relations professional might even be able to test themselves, assuming they're objective enough to do it.

This process will immediately reveal any flaws in the press release before it ever sees the newswire. It might even produce some new ideas for better leads, hooks, or angles that no one ever thought up.

1. Did the release pass the news test?
2. Did it offer enough hooks to inspire different angles?
3. Did the person acting as a journalist have to ask follow up questions?
4. Did the quotes stand out enough to be used or were they too canned and cut?
5. How hard did the person have to work to ferret out any story from the content?
6. Did the story turn out interesting enough to read or was it as dry as what was supplied?

Always keep in mind that the measure of a press release is not whether or not it will run as written. On the contrary, it needs to be written so that any journalist can immediately see the news value in it and feel confident that they can put their own spin on the story. Ideally, it contains the news they don't know.

Publish the story someplace like a blog; give it a social media test.

Make no mistake, journalists are under increasing pressure to prove their content is being read. And right or wrong (mostly wrong), more publishers are tracking how many hits, shares, and time on a story to determine whether or not people are interested in the content. (This data is then turned into ad sales.)

The only way to really know is to publish the potential content yourself. Publishing the story (not the release) on an intranet, website, or blog could provide some indication of its potential success. And in this case, the objective doesn't have to be viral as much as benchmarked for success.

1. Did the story attract more or less interest from intended readers?
2. How long did the average reader stay on the story page?
3. Was any of the content shared across social networks?
4. How did it compare to stories already published across the industry?
5. Was any of the content recycled or used for other story purposes?
6. Were there any patterns in terms of reader demographics or special interests?

The bottom line is that just like public relations pros ought to challenge themselves to find newsworthy content on the inside, journalists are challenging themselves to find newsworthy content on the outside. What they don't have is unlimited time. As newspapers and publications have scaled back on staff, the general function of a news release ought to make it easier, not harder, to get the job done.

Testing the potential of the news story that press release, internally and/or externally, can provide some insights to ensure you're on the right track. In fact, even if the stories are only tested internally (especially useful for larger companies), readership patterns will likely emerge. Some stories will sink, others will win interest. But more importantly, it will help improve the story catalyst — a press release that editors know has the potential to attract some interest and traffic to their publication and reporters know will make their jobs a little easier and, perhaps, more interesting.
 

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