Wednesday, May 29

Put People Ahead Of Platforms If You Want To Succeed

Modern online marketers fascinate me. They always say they want to connect with people online, but most of them are ultimately obsessed with platforms. They want to know which social network is popular, which platform is the most active, which network will deliver more referral traffic, how to make headlines buzz, and when to post content so the most eyeballs see it. So on and so forth.

I think you get the idea. They talk a good game about relationships, but funnel most of their energy into gaming the relationship, everything from search engine optimization (including competitor names and misspellings) to misleading headlines that don't deliver on the content they promise. It's all silly stuff.

There are no silver bullets. People are social nomads. 

It really is silly stuff, but don't dismiss it all outright. Those tips and tactics can be useful, provided you don't become too comfortable with last year's data or this year's predictions. Social media is the never ending story taking place in an always changing environment. The only certainty so far is nothing.

Examples abound. If you believe Facebook will always be the most popular place to connect, that Google+ is where tech savvy guys hang out, or that sales only happen after site visits, then you might be making the same mistake that people made when they thought Tumblr was a waste of time, Quora would be the next big social network (or down for the count), or that any service is too big or popular to shutter. Betting the farm on any one of those statements is akin to picking a single series for a media buy and assuming that it will never be shuttered.

Just as every television series on the planet will eventually vanish, networks will eventually vanish too. One of my favorite examples is par for the course as the case was made: Bumpzee will be the next Digg. The prediction was almost right, but in the opposite direction. Neither really exist (and many new social media experts haven't even heard of them). Nobody wants to save Delicious anymore either.

In fact, all this is why I've always found the tribes concept misleading. It wasn't because Seth Godin was wrong. He was mostly right, but without an emphasis on the idea that tribes are as temporal as communication. Modern humans do fall into them. But they fall out of them just as fast.

The ones you belonged to in high school aren't the the ones you belong to today. The ones you belong to today aren't the ones that you'll belong to in the future. They are tied to platforms, technologies, jobs, and marriages, and all sorts of other things that feel permanent in our lives but are not nearly so permanent.

Five areas of focus that will make you more people centric instead of platform reliant over the long term. 

Sure, people make up social networks and social networks can help you reach those people who have already pitched a tent. But that doesn't make the platforms more important than the people. Even inside most networks, any given community, page, or group can be completely different from another. The company needs to create it.

• Know what you are talking about. It doesn't matter what industry you work in or for. You need to know as much about it as you do marketing, advertising or social media. Even if you will never know more about it than the industry leaders (a few analysts come close), you need to know enough to have an intelligent conversation with anyone who asks.

Most people writing content don't know nearly as much as they need to, which is probably why only 37 percent of marketers would call their Facebook efforts successful when surveyed (they all say they're successful in person). You see, anyone can drop a discount, network quip or announce an event. But it takes someone who knows something to engage and keep them interested.

• Know the people you want to reach. If you have never spent time with customers and prospects (and make note of any differences between them), then you might not reach them anyway. Industry leaders and executives struggle with this as much as social media and marketing managers. They can tell you the demographics of their target audience, but few take the time to really get to know them.

Big data is great, but old school copywriters know that the secret ingredient inside all content has to do with understanding the customers as people and often visualizing a real person when they write to them. You have to get to know them. Shake their hands. Put yourself in their shoes. And then ask yourself how your social network messages look from their perspective.

• Make adjustments for platform constraints. With the exception of understanding the constraints that come with every platform, there isn't much more you need to know about them. It's more important to tie messages to the mission, vision and values more than the best practices of a social network. After all, best practices are almost never invented by anyone who follows them.

The better way to think about it is to craft a message and then see how it fits within a platform, much in the same way campaigns were made across radio, print and television. As long as it is strong and doesn't break any constraints, customers and prospects will not only find it but give it resonance. One step better than someone liking or sharing, resonance means they will remember it a week from now.

• Be interesting and enthusiastic about the topic. When I speak to students, I can never stress it enough. If you think the topic is boring, it will show up in the writing. There is nothing you can do about it. All the superlatives and exclamation points in the world won't save you. Those make it worse.

The most common excuse they offer up is that their clients, employers or bosses dictate the content thread. But I don't completely buy it. Putting in a little extra effort to show someone why something else might be superior can make all the difference.

• Know how much to say and when to shut up. I said something similar for marketers two weeks ago, but this advice is specific to social networks. The difference between a consumer seeing content value or spam is only one post, share or email too many.

Remind yourself and your employers that no one needs to be the center of attention all the time, unless the public wants to make something the center of attention. Give your messages, ideas and concepts some room to live before blasting away with the next. Instead of making conversations read like a group of people taking turns at a single microphone, nurture something that looks like community conversations.

While those five tips aren't even close to everything you need to know about social networks, they do represent a different direction than what has become the standard fare. Stop worrying about which social networks and start thinking about what will make people seek you out no matter the network.

Wednesday, May 22

Success Always Starts With Permission To Act On Big Dreams

Although Michael Port will be among the first to tell you that a client's urgent needs almost always overshadow long-term goals, Book Yourself Solid Illustrated is an exercise in the opposite direction. He asks people who want to succeed to put aside their immediate needs and focus in on big dreams.

He's smart to do it too. For the better part of 20 years, I've seen a relatively consistent and reoccurring life cycle among successful startups. Many take a year or two to establish themselves, make huge gains during the next few, and then slowly wind down until they eventually die.

It's painful to watch, especially because companies that can succeed during the first year or so experience something that those who don't try can only wonder about. Much like their success, their original mission and vision were tied to big dreams.

It makes sense that they would be. A startup is nothing less than someone taking a shot to shine. It doesn't even matter what kind of business it might be. Most cite big dreams as a common ground.

The bulk of them were started by people who wanted to do one of two things. Either they wanted to launch a new product, service or outlet that they are passionate about or they want to launch a business as an extension of their career by being their own boss. And contrary to popular myth, the majority of them will succeed (for a while).

The U.S. Small Business Administration estimates that seven out of ten business will succeed in the first two years before something unexpected happens. Only half them will survive a full five years.

Why do businesses that succeed in the first two years fail in the following three years? 

While there are many reasons that successful startups fail, almost all include a change in mindset. As business owners succeed, they are more likely to give up on big dreams and focus on urgent needs.

In other words, they give up on the very dreams that make them successful and start focusing on what they think they need with the operative word being "more": more revenue, more profits, more clients, more customers, more high profile accounts, more website visitors, more followers, more whatever.

As soon as "more" becomes the objective, these businesses start to shrink or sink as they take on the wrong kinds of customers or clients: those that take advantage of them (e.g., empty promises and slow payments), drain the life out of them (create frustration and negative relationships), or demand products and services that have little to do with the vision (diminish resources and reduce quality).

As the pressure mounts to maintain sales, problems materialize. Some owners might borrow to meet payroll while floating account debts. Others might waste time working for customers who will never be happy or refer any business. Some will substitute quality materials to push prices lower. Others will expand their offerings to appease an ever-increasing audience while watering down their uniqueness.

Worse, many successful startups won't see the root problem as they struggle to preserve these short-term gains. The fact is that they are much more likely to compound the problems as they trade in their permission to dream for protectionism — the fear of losing any revenue is so strong that they will defend their most detrimental clients rather then lose them.

Book Yourself Solid is a handbook for disciplined dreamers.

Although originally intended for advisers, consultants and speakers, Port's Book Yourself Solid works well enough for other kinds of startups too. And while some of the tools he and I use are different, the advice reads the same. It takes discipline to succeed. You have to commit yourself to looking for the "right" clients instead of "more," even if that means giving up some short-term gains.

He even goes one step further, starting with something many business owners will find startling. You have to dump "dud" clients, those who wear you down and take you further away from your dreams. As soon as you do, you can use the newly found time to pursue the clients you've always dreamed of working with or do more for the stars who are already part of your roster.

At the same time, Port dares business owners to stop giving others permission to punish them and start giving themselves permission to act on their dreams. Stick to the dreams that made your business work for you. Avoid the objectives that make you work for your business.

Any number of examples illustrate the point. An art gallery doesn't have to sell cheap prints just because some people complain about the price of the originals. A respected restaurateur won't serve out-of-season fish on the whim of a customer who doesn't know better. A reputable consultant won't rely on email spam or purchase back links to inflate junk traffic.

Instead, Port says it's much more important to be true to what you do than try to be true to what everybody wants you to you do. There are other people who might try to be all things to all people, but you don't have to follow their lead. If you really are a leader in the field, then not everyone is your customer. You know it. Your customers know it. And Port knows it too.

This may have even been one of the reasons that Port decided to make his system a little more manageable on his recently refreshed release. He teamed with Jocelyn Wallace to illustrate Book Yourself Solid. Although it is still hyped as the fastest, easiest and most reliable system for getting more clients than you can handle (even if you hate marketing and selling), there is something in this re-engineered book that will work for more businesses and independent consultants.

Whether you are starting a business, need to revisit and retrofit your vision or have recently noticed that you don't love your business anymore, Port provides enough tools to put you back on track. Perhaps more than anything else, he provides a series of exercises that are designed to remind business owners to stop chasing the daily chaff and start giving themselves permission to act on big dreams again.

So how do you know if you might need this kind of help? While I believe every business can benefit from an organization-defining communication plan, most people can start with two simple questions.

Has your happiness or employee morale faltered from the day you first started? And if so, are the challenges you face related to what you wanted to do, what you actually do, how you have to do it, or who you do it for? You might be surprised by the answers. And I'd love to know what you find.

Wednesday, May 15

Five Things I Wish Every Advertiser, Marketer, And PR Pro Knew

A few weeks ago, one of my recent students asked me if there is anything I wish I had taught but never got around to teaching. I thought the question was pretty funny. I told her I had ten years of material.

In truth, ten years of material is a pretty conservative estimate but not because of the quantity. The way I see it, there is never any shortage of material as long as the instructor continues to explore, learn and grow. Ideally, they will with one foot in academics and one in the real world but sometimes one or the other will suffice. No one ever wants to feel dusty or complacent unless they've given up.

Eventually, I settled on five things I wish every advertiser, marketer and PR pro knew because I think all of us, at one time or another, grows weary of watching people fail. That's the way marketing works. You can put in hard work or learn the hard way.

• A Content Strategy Is Not A Marketing Strategy. As content marketing has become a dominant digital marketing tactic, more businesses want to create elaborate content processes, build massive audiences, and become perceived as industry experts. But sometimes you have to ask to what end.

Dial back the meaning of a marketing strategy a few years ago and you might find a creative team tasked with expanding the dandruff shampoo market among men. You might remember how they did it too. The original advertisements showed men in dark suits with their shoulders dusted with flakes, creating a compelling reason to look for the problem and find a solution. Head & Shoulders.

• Breaking Through The Clutter Means More Than A Clever Message. Everywhere you look, marketers want to convince clients that brand visibilityoriginal communication, and writing tips are all they need to succeed. But sometimes marketing means innovation at the product and service development level.

If you operate a lemonade stand on a block with five more lemonade stands, sometimes you have to stop pushing the pink and break open a box of sugar cookies. That is how Federal Express got its start. It started as a small Memphis-based package handler that won with the promise of delivering parcels overnight. So while everybody else talked a good game, they went out and did something.

• Following The Leader Will Make You A Follower. There are plenty of reasons that marketers and advertisers are always looking for best practices, case studies and trends to follow. Sometimes people are looking for new ideas. There is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes people waste time on easy.

If you have ever revisited the book In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America's Best-Run Companies, you know what I mean. It used to be one of my favorite books. There are still some good ideas inside, many of those business aren't considered the best run companies anymore. While everyone was busy trying to follow their lead, someone else invented better operations and opened new markets.

• It's Not Who You Know, But Who Wants To Know You. Given some estimates attribute 60-80 percent of job placements to personal relationships, one might assume that the old adage that who you know really is more important than what you know. But that's not entirely true.

The key word in the compound phrase "personal relationships" is "personal" and not "relationships," which suggests the size of the network is less important than the depth of the connection. People who boast about being connected or treat their network like a commodity almost never come through. It's the people who don't talk about who they know that are more likely to surprise you.

• Stating The Obvious Is One Step From Redundant. Everybody loves to talk about elevator speeches and how to fix them. That might be reason enough to toss your elevator speech out the window. You can say something a million times and even lace all those SEO links with all the right terms, but so what?

Every time you introduce yourself as a noun, the person you're speaking to asks themselves if they need one. Do I need a plumber? Do I need a social media expert? Do I need an advertising agency? Maybe it would be more worthwhile to conjure up a different question inside their heads. Or, better yet, keep your mouth shut and let them tell you what they need.

Incidentally, Michael Port recently reinforced this last point in his book Book Yourself Solid Illustrated. He sent me a digital version a few weeks ago, but I felt it was too weird to publish my review while I was being swept away by life. The review is mostly written. I'll probably add it next week unless someone wants me to write about something else. Maybe I'll have time to make a new masthead too.

Wednesday, May 8

22 Staples And The State Of Two Internets

The first thing I saw when I woke in the recovery room were the curtains drawn around my bed. They were pale blue, I think. But I can't be certain because that memory is fleeting and already fading.

I only saw them for a few seconds before someone started to guide me out of the haze created by an anesthetic cocktail. It was one of two cocktails that the anesthesiologist let me call a few hours before.

"What's your favorite cocktail?" he asked.

"My favorite safe drink is gin and tonic," I said, because I wanted to be safe.

"That's what this is," he smiled, tapping the syringe. "Gin and tonic. Safe and good. I'll keep you safe."

There aren't any memories as much as fragments after that. I've sorted a couple that make me smile, but most begin in the recovery room. Someone started to ask me questions. She asked me the easy ones first and then worked up to something complex. It's a test to make sure my cognitive functions rebooted.

But I didn't want a test as much as a conversation. So I started asking her questions instead. I wanted to know how was her day was going, how long had she worked there, and why she chose medicine.

They were easy questions, but we eventually worked up to something complex. She was especially interested in my case because the chart made note of this surgery starting with an incidental finding. They found my cancer by accident.

Her husband wasn't so fortunate. His cancer wasn't discovered until he had blood in his urine. He was diagnosed with irreversible bladder cancer. The funeral was a few months ago, and it had deepened her resolve to help people.

"I'm sorry for your loss," I said, consoling her and asking more questions.

"Look at you, worried about me," she smiled. "It was meant to be, you know. It was meant to be that they found yours early."

It wasn't the first time nor was it the last that I would hear those words during my expedited hospital stay. I was scheduled for three nights. I only stayed one. And yet, within those 48 hours when you reflect on and remeasure life, some things make immediate sense like the duality of social connections.

There are two Internets, which is why marketers can't reconcile the space. 

In case you haven't noticed, there are two Internets. There is the one my friend Geoff Livingston wrote about yesterday, with marketers seeing the totality of social media like a very big fish pond and the goal to catch as much fish as possible. Hook, reel, and release. Some companies have teams that do it daily.

Most of them aren't even good fishermen because the only strategy they've come up with to catch more fish is to put out more bait. There is already so much of it floating in the water, untouched, it's a wonder anyone can breathe. And still they add more, daily. It has become so dense that it smacks of pollution.

I was nowhere near it in the first few hours of recovery. I was on the other Internet, which is the one that kept me breathing. I didn't see all the clutter because content surrenders to a shared experience.

Since my wife and I have two children, she couldn't stay in the hospital full time like many people recommended. So I sometimes turned to blog comments and social networks to read and reread the words left by family, friends, and colleagues. Their good thoughts, well wishes, and prayers gave me some added strength while I recovered. I can't thank them enough. Every one of them mattered.

Of course, I didn't just read the words they left for me. I read everything else they shared too. And even though my loosely connected groups of family and friends could be delineated by degree of relation, proximity, or whether we've met in person, not one of them looked like fish nor did any of them ask for bait. This was the Internet where every connection was important and every message mutual.

The intimacy is unmistakeable. The relationships are as real as the one forged between myself and the nurse in the recovery room (and many others along the way). We never met each other before that moment and may never meet again, but we made a connection without any coercion, conjecture, or content creation. By the end of it, I made several more connections too. We went through all of it together, something that even the best connection round ups forget.

Maybe those staples will come out this week, all 22 of them. 

Sometimes we're fortunate and find miracles in faith and modern medicine. While there is plenty more to be done, from my follow up and pending pathology to my recovery schedule and post-recovery rebuild strategy, I feel remarkably blessed to be sitting at my desktop writing something, anything. A week ago, even under the most optimistic scenario, no one could imagine an outcome this good.

Sure, there is some pain here and there and I do get tired as the day presses on, but such challenges seem like nothing compared to those in the first few hours of recovery. It was only a few days ago, my major goals were the kind we all take for granted — breathe without oxygen, drink water without issues, get out of bed with assistance. Nowadays, I'm more likely thinking about work, play, and life changes.

As I alluded to last week, I might be blessed with more time but there is none to waste. There are plans to be made and the more plans the better. But at the same time, I never want to lose sight of the fact that everyone has a journey too. They are all equally grand and challenging, hilarious and heartbreaking.

If you want to change the world you see, you have to start by changing the way you see it. Life is meant to be a shared experience because when we discover more about the people who cross our paths then our own experiences are enriched by them. In other words, my hospital stay is less significant than the hospital experience I took away with a few interesting and inspiring doctors, nurses, and medical technicians. This is how life works.

Online or offline, it hardly matters. But in sticking to the headline thread, suffice to say that this is the side of the Internet where I'd like to invest more time. The state of it is great. It feels good to be back. Nice to meet you, again. How great it would be to catch a movie this weekend. It's a little too soon, maybe.

Wednesday, May 1

Killing Me Softly: Cancer

Richard R. Becker, self portrait
I have said it in a dozen different ways before, but I have never said it more plainly. The quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. Write it down somewhere and tape it to your computer.

We always want for more of it. We rarely use it wisely. And most of us sell it for far too cheap.

For the last few months, I haven't been writing in this space as much. It was a decision I made back in February before I knew it in my head even if I already knew it in my heart. The incidental finding on a CT scan wasn't just a spot on my kidney. It was a mass. It was malignant. And I'm grateful, not regretful.

The remedy is straightforward. I start pre-op tomorrow and the surgery is on Friday. It won't be fun, but I'll find some fun in it anyway. The survival rate for radical nephrectomy is especially good. In terms of cancer, they say, it's the absolute best one to get. It's almost like hitting a jackpot. What does that mean?

There won't be any chemotherapy or radiation. The whole of it rides on one operation, and then a lifelong commitment to a different (but not debilitating) lifestyle with semi-regular followups, blood work, and scans to make sure there isn't any more of it lurking around somewhere. So seize the day.

The past 90 days have been fun. Thanks for sticking around. 

I really give a lot of credit to people like Leslie Lehrman and her daughter Jennifer Windrum. They saw cancer as a catalyst for something bigger. It takes real courage to do something like that. And I've met a lot of people who see it as a calling of sorts. We need more people like them. Cancer needs a cure.

I took a different path, more along the lines of Hazel Grace Lancaster in The Fault In Our Stars after her transformation. I lived a little more, only alluding to or mentioning surgery as necessary. It was the only way I could work, live, and play without it overtaking my life. I even pushed the surgery out enough so my family could keep our vacation, my students could keep their instructor, and clients and service commitments might have a few more hours of time. My wife hated the idea, but it's who I am.

I quit smoking (before the prognosis, ironically), worked out more, finished some home improvement projects, baked some desserts, made new friends, reached out to old ones, discovered some inspired talents, worked with amazing people across several dozen companies and nonprofits, pressed forward with plans to start a new agency with three other partners, promoted other people's causes and efforts, funded some ideas via Kickstarter, supported education by donating to schools, re-discovered some latent artistic talent, made a sketch at The Getty, stood by as my son received another star for his black belt, saw my daughter baptized because she wanted to be, and wrote fiction for the first time in years. As the log ride caption read on Instagram: This is life, baby.

Sure, there were a few disappointments too. My doctors wouldn't clear me for the Spartan Race so close to surgery. One promising prospect green lighted and then retracted a proposal because someone sold them snake oil, wasting several days of precious time. And occasionally, despite my best intent, the gravity of the circumstances sometimes made me too impatient for those closest to me. I'm sorry.

The next 90 days will be even better. Expect to see changes sometime soon. 

If those last 90 days had taught me anything, it was how working on the wrong accounts truly dragged me down last year. I wasn't always happy with some of the work, even if I was good at it nonetheless.

I had learned the lesson before, but obviously needed to learn it again. There won't be a next time. Beginning with my recovery, expect to see some changes in this space. Time is just to too short to be stuck in one niche for too long.

I really wish I could tell you some specifics, but none of the paragraphs felt right so I took them all  down. Let's save it all for a post-surgery conversation. And if we never have the chance to have one? Then the best way to think about everything is to reflect on a comment I wrote for a friend of mine.

When bad things happen, there is very little you can do except find solace in the storm. And in finding it, hold those close to you a little tighter, even if it is just for a little while. The importance of such things are not measured in minutes but by magnitude. Good night and good luck. It has been my pleasure.

Wednesday, April 24

Changing Creative: Did Fans Dictate Days Of Our Lives?

Ken Corday, son of the late Ted and Betty Corday (co-creators of Days Of Our Lives), recently allowed something he vowed would never happen. Characters Elvis J. (“EJ”) Dimera (formerly Wells) and Samantha Gene (“Sami”) Brady will have a second chance at romance.

Once considered a top daytime couple, the writers created an impasse that few ever thought could be overcome. Soap Opera Weekly even wrote an opinion in 2007 that largely condemned any reconnection by including them as an example of how soap opera writers treat rape as too casual.

Many fans saw it differently, specifically those who belong to the Forbidden Love EJami fan site, which has actively supported the power couple being reunited for the better part of six years. Two years ago, some of them asked me what I thought it would take for Corday to hear them out. I suggested five elements for the fan campaign. And while it might have taken two years to achieve success, the ratings have changed.

Days Of Our Lives sees its ratings rise on a storyline shift.

Despite being in an entertainment segment that some people considered in critical condition, Days Of Our Lives (Days) has recently generated a year-to-year growth rate of 14 percent among women 18-49 and 18 percent in women 25-54. More importantly, the show's ratings are up overall. It might not slow.

EJami fans are quick to attribute the ratings increase as a direct outcome from renewed interest in their favorite couple. They have every right to do so. The producers and publicity teams for the show have done everything they can to capitalize on their re-found star power. When actors James Scott and Alison Sweeney take to social media platforms like Twitter, #Days and #EJami start to trend.

The coordinated effort between fans, stars, and marketers are suddenly making soaps feel more accessible again. Maybe among specific demographics, they are more accessible than they ever could have been without social media. Some actors and actresses are not much more than a tweet away.

If the ratings hold, this could be a good case study in how one network is discovering that fan campaigns don't have to be a single-edged sword. Ergo, fan campaigns don't have to end badly.

They can transform cancellations into impossible success stories as Veronica Mars recently proved by raising $5.7 million for a fan-backed movie (stay tuned). Or, in the case of Days, they can create a sharable storyline that fans can promote and entice new viewers. As I suggested in 2007, passive viewers are now active consumers. It might have taken a few additional years for full fruition, but networks can't ignore it anymore. Fans want to be supportive of the right story lines, online and off.

The roses that Sweeney and Scott have in the hero shot above are real. EJami fans sent them to the network to celebrate what they consider a long overdue engagement. They have also been instrumental in writing the network, urging them to renew the contract. The network estimated the show had 2.3 million viewers at the time. Today, the show seems to be gaining with 2.5 million viewers. Time will tell.

After all, not everyone is happy with the EJami win. There have been plenty of other men on the show to solicit support for a renewed relationship with Sami. But so far, the numbers suggest this isn't murky.

The symbiotic relationship between series and supporters. 

While I'm someone who watches the program, I am familiar with soaps from years ago. They were a part of the culture as much as anything else on television. My parents were All My Children fans.

But my point is that you don't have to be a soap opera fan to see a bigger picture emerging for entertainment. Stories that can win supporters — people who share the show beyond a network site, who support the actors and actresses outside their roles, who are interested in different storytelling formats, and who are even willing to pony up production dollars — will eventually rewrite creator-producer-network-fan contracts. If one network doesn't want a show, creators will have more options. (If I can watch the Vikings via The History Channel app, why not any app?)

It's already happening in the book publishing world, with more writers (those with marketing savvy) willing to accept some publishing risks. While the results are still mixed, some of them have wins. In fact, there are enough wins that book revenue is up and e-books have captured 23 percent of the market.

Who is to say what the next generation of soap operas might be like? Chances are it will vary by audience. Some fans enjoy the unpredictability of shows like The Walking Dead, where leading characters are unceremoniously written off on a whim. Others, like Days, might deserve a second-chance romance like the one EJami fans have wanted for years. Interesting times, indeed. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, April 17

Writing Content: What Happens When PR Inherits The News?

When newspapers first began to appear in America, there wasn't much to them. Even in Philadelphia before 1730, there were only two news sheets being published there. One of them mostly published definitions from the dictionaries and nothing else.

When Benjamin Franklin took it over, he did away with all of it. He envisioned something else, and almost none of it had to do with news. Franklin made his newspaper a vehicle for instruction on moral virtues that often masqueraded as satire and mischief. General news was not on anybody's mind.

In fact, American newspapers wouldn't even pay much attention to general news until after 1750. And its use to spur and spurn politics would occur a few decades later, right in time for the American Revolution. And with politics, a tradition for including local items of interest took hold, one that isn't much more than 200 years old.

Where is all the news going and need we be concerned? 

When Bruce Spotleson, group publisher for Greenspun Media and an editor-at-large for the Las Vegas Sun, spoke as a guest in Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he raised several powerful and poignant points. Much like I wrote last week, he doesn't see print going away.

Niche publications are particularly strong. Special interest content can still find subscribers. But what he does see slipping is the notion that newspapers are important to a community. And this makes me wonder, what then?

After all, they alone publish local items of interest and record. They alone publish in-depth news stories that act as a community spotlight. They alone have the opportunity to make a last stand in favor of objective journalism, at least those that haven't already rolled over into the ranks of affirmation media.

Bruce SpotlesonAnd along with that, as Spotleson pointed out, the public has grown increasingly unaware of local news and community interest. Some of them don't know whether their police department is good or bad, beyond any personal experience or biased opinion. Many of them are too busy too keep up on government accountability beyond their front yards. Most, if pressed, wouldn't even be able to hazard a guess what the leading local headline might be today.

Spotleson knows. He's asked. Even people who are applying for a job, he said, tend to have the same answer. They haven't gotten to it yet. And in all likelihood, they never will get to it. They're too busy.

Unless it's a national headline, breaking news, or entertainment, people tend to skip the middle ground. They know what is happening from their front door to the sidewalk or their self-selected tribe, which means the group of people they pick on social networks.

The rest of it, unless it touches them directly, tends to be a question mark. The issue is compounded in transient communities too. In such communities, people are much more interested in their hometowns than towns where they own a home. And if these trends tend to hold, news will eventually be gone.

Television news won't fare much better. Unless they find a niche, it's all just more noise on the Web.

Public relations isn't free anymore. It's all about paid content. 

In the wake of unsupported community news, all that will be left is a steady stream of public relations perspectives. Take a recent NV Energy story as an example. Although only a few people are aware of the story, the lack of any reporting arm would only leave several dozen biased voices in its wake.

On one side, there is the utility. On the other, the gaming industry. There are dozens more, including government, consumer advocates, and the public (despite their apparent absence). Without a newspaper to organize the issue, the public would either be largely left in the dark or perhaps exploited by public relations, not with malice but with each representative's own preconceptions as the story shows.

And who would win in such a world? My guess would be the one with the better and heavily budgeted communication plan, especially if they have properly leveraged social media. Except that win isn't free.

While public relations as an industry has been clamoring to take over content marketing and social media, it will come with another cost. As outlets for free exposure continue to diminish, companies and special interests will have no choice but to ramp up direct-to-public communication programs so each interest can publish the "news" as it sees fit. Right. They will publish all the news fit paid to print.

While some might guess the result will be similar to the ever-increasing price to enter politics (with state senate races starting as six and seven digits), I'm not even asking whether it will be this good, bad or indifferent. I'm asking something else. Are public relations professionals even ready to get what they wished for and are we, as the public, ready for it too?

Wednesday, April 10

Rethinking Print: And How To Leap Beyond It

Now that most people are attempting to master the digital space, it's clearly time to think beyond it. That was the primary impression left by Dale Sprague, president of Canyon Creative in Las Vegas, while speaking to my Writing For Public Relations class at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last Thursday.

When Sprague, a designer and creative director who invested the majority of his career in print, product design, and packaging, said that print had largely become a support medium for digital marketing, the reaction was immediate and dramatic. Not only had everything advertising agencies been cautioned about for by people like me for a decade come to fruition, but it was time time to rethink what's next.

Everything you think you know about marketing is about to change. 

The changes ahead won't be confined to a medium, but message delivery in entirety. Much like Patrick Collings recently wrote, brands that fail to innovate will fill graveyards. Their names won't be remembered either. Instead, their tombstones will be decorated with the cliches that killed them.

You can see these changes taking place all around you. Signage has lost ground to environmental graphics. Branded giftware and novelty items are being supplanted with branded product innovation (actual products designed for marketing purposes, some of which are produced by 3-D printers). Glass is quietly becoming a new marketing canvas (projected holograms along with it). And print?

Print isn't as dead as people think. Much like public relations professionals always had to find new ways to reach journalists as news releases transitioned from mail to fax to email to social, marketers are best served when they start to ask themselves the right question.

Specifically, the right question isn't "where is everybody spending their marketing dollars?" The right question is "where aren't people spending their marketing dollars so my organization doesn't have to compete?" Ergo, the social-digital space has to be part of the marketing mix but it's also a very competitive, crowded, and cluttered place. It creates a market where a handwritten thank you counts.

Even online, people are finding that it's not enough to be everywhere because you put your content everywhere. Marketers need to be everywhere because they are part of what a public considers relevant. Ergo, real marketers aren't content trying to infuse their presence into a trending topic. They are the trending topics because they do things. They are top of mind because they made an impression.

Where does print stack up in a world that seems digital?

Print works were it always worked best. It is a high-touch medium that was temporarily downgraded because of the economics of junk mail with blow-in scrap paper and cluttered messages.

Before mail was loaded down with mainstream marketing, it primarily consisted of individual notes and invitations, niche newsletters that felt exclusive, and something thoughtfully sent through the mail because it might actually have value and you might keep it. It will in the future too, with specialty papers that capitalize on the one sense that consumers miss in digital — touch — and a message more memorable than a business card, even those that don't already have chips embedded in them.

Print won't be alone, of course. All of it will change and some of it for the better as marketers buy up space not because they want to fill it with 8-point bullet points and 140 characters of gratuitous interruption but clearly defined messaging with plenty of white/negative/neutral space to frame it.

What does that mean? Every year, when I teach any class, I make note of how the number of impressions has continued to increase before a message even has a chance to penetrate the consciousness of someone who is already receiving a novel-sized amount of information every day. What used to be three impressions now exceeds 300 — that means you need 300 impressions before something sticks.

But, you see, that isn't always the case. We've crossed a clutter threshold that makes some messages stick the one time, the first time. Ergo, if you show someone a Mona Lisa (the real one, not a facsimile),  they will never forget it. And maybe that is how we should see print and advertising going forward.

Print doesn't haven't to be a support piece to digital. Like any message delivery system, it only needs to break through the clutter of a message saturated world. Or, in other words, a message that feels immediate (purpose driven), individual (personal), and important (value driven) delivered by the most appropriate means given the context.

That is what print will look like. And marketing will too. You can wait for it to happen or you can leap ahead and start implementing these ideas today.

Wednesday, April 3

Climbing TheLadders: One Rung Short For A Lawsuit?

Some time back in 2011, then CEO and founder Marc Cenedella for TheLadders snuck in a brand reversal. Instead of focusing on premium jobs, the niche job listing site opted to expand its services to everyone.

“We’re expanding, and today we say ‘bye bye’ to helping only those over $100,000 and ‘hello’ to helping all career-minded professionals," he wrote. "TheLadders now takes all salary levels and shows the right jobs to the right person.”

Back when it happened, the announcement drew 139 comments. Most of them were negative. And the entire story, that TheLadders had decided to become another job site, was mostly over. Or was it?

TheLadders faces a lawsuit that could shutter it. We'll see.

Lurking largely behind the scenes was the next chapter in crisis for the company. TheLadders is now facing a class action lawsuit in New York federal court. Specifically, the lawsuit doesn't look at 2011 as a rebranding expansion. It looks at an old post as an admission by TheLadders.

According to the suit, many of the jobs offered on TheLadders were scraped from other sites with no attempt at verifying how much they paid or even if they were current before the company made the switch in 2011. You can read the complete lawsuit filing here, but the crux of it is that the company simply changed its language in 2011 to match what the service had been all along — a premium payment job site (and not necessarily a premium salary job site).

The suit, filed by the New York class action firm of Bursor & Fisher, was also reported by recruiting consultant and blogger Nick Corcodilos. I recommend this read, as Corcodilos has posted a summary. There is another interesting piece by the ERE here, especially because it reads like a foreshadow to the September surprise (even if David Manaster stopped short of calling the service a scam).

Loud complainers want to be customers. Watch out for everyone else.

Manaster then went on to dismiss the ruckus by saying something he has said before. "When people have a beef, they can be counted on to complain loudly. When people are satisfied, they tend to … well, be satisfied." He seems to have been wrong on that point then and remains equally wrong today.

When people have a beef, they tend to leave quietly because they've already given up. The complainers, on the other hand, tend to be people who still want to be your customers, even if your company is built on a questionable model. And then there are those who will be heard, not with words but with actions — like anyone who piled on with the class action lawsuit that alleges fraud.

Interestingly enough, it wasn't only the people who were paying for "hand-screened" job selection that have been frustrated by TheLadders. Employers weren't really happy either. Along with mapping out most of the history, the article sources a direct quote by Cenedella, admitting that as many as half of all listings were culled from the web. Basically, staffers guessed at salaries as opposed to verifying that the listings truly paid $100k or more.

Exposure is good, unless it leaves you exposed to unnecessary risk.

Several years ago, I wrote a story about a company that hoped to go head to head with TheLadders public relations machine. At the time, both wanted to dominate a subscription-based job site niche that focused on jobs starting at $100k. The other company, RiseSmart, eventually shifted its focus to outplacement because it couldn't really compete in a niche against a competitor that possibly cheated.

Those stories were written more than five years ago. Even then, people were saying what they are saying today. Most (if not all) premium job listing sites aren't worth the money they charge. Ironically, in one of the articles I sourced then, executives from TheLadders said that $100k jobs weren't listed on free sites but only premium payment sites like TheLadders. This "fact," it seems, couldn't have been true if 50 percent or most of the postings were culled. Culled jobs had to be listed somewhere.

And therein lies the rub. TheLadders unquestionably dominated the space and ran others businesses out of the niche with an overwhelming barrage of paid television commercials and public relations. But, at the same time, the crisis that TheLadders may face next is being framed up by all that coverage.

Every quote by company spokespeople that reinforces an overinflated marketing statement prior to 2011 carries the potential to become an exhibit. And although I'm not sure, the company seems to know it. Its current strategy seems to be burying lawsuit stories with anything and everything from Spring Cleaning job searches to launching a new ELITE program to JobMobile, an event that will bring industry thought leaders together in Atlanta, Chicago, New York City, and San Francisco.

That might not be all that surprising for the public relations heavy site. But what is surprising is that the company isn't talking about the suit. It hasn't made a statement anywhere on the site to date, but did issue a statement about the lawsuit to The Business Insider, making this a living case study.

Wednesday, March 27

Speaking Frankly: Five PR Topics From A Banker

Paul Stowell, senior vice president and marketing manager for City National Bank, will be the first to say he isn't a banker because his public relations experience is malleable to any industry. And yet, there isn't much he doesn't know about the banking industry. He makes it his business to know. 

Like many seasoned public relations and marketing professionals, he rightly believes that it is one of the most important lessons that a communication professional can learn. It's not enough to become an expert in the field of public relations or marketing, professionals have to understand the industry where their organizations operate.

This was one of several tips he shared with a handful of students in my Writing For Public Relations class  at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last Thursday. And while he gave them many more than five tips, these were among the ones that seemed to stand out the most. 

Five words worth focus for communicators, from a senior vice president in banking.

1. Awareness. Stowell doesn't pull punches. He quickly pointed out that being in the banking industry isn't always easy since 2008. Bankers, as a profession, have a lower likability than lawyers nowadays.

Not all of it is deserved. Politicians and critics frequently demonize and vilify the industry, even when it isn't warranted. Not all banks were part of the subprime mortgage crisis that contributed to the recession, including City National Bank. These banks weren't in the mortgage business and have since emerged from the crisis safer and stronger than ever. 

That doesn't mean City National Bank was exempted from the consequences of a crisis caused by others. As the crisis wore on, investors, customers, and journalists had questions. Stowell stressed that maintaining a conservative approach wasn't enough. The bank had to continually be aware and track public reaction to the industry and communicate how it was different from other banks. 

2. Relationships. One of the most important aspects of public relations and marketing continues to be relationships, even though Stowell sees relationships eroding under the weight of social media. No, he doesn't see social media as evil. On the contrary, he advises anyone who wants to enter any communication field to know it inside and out. 

At the same time, Stowell says that many students sacrifice too much one-on-one quality for the promise of quantity that social media provides. Not all of their personal or presentation skill sets are as strong as they need to be, he said. They tend to sacrifice real relationships too often. 

Stowell says they need a more balanced approach, taking the time to make in-person impacts both internally (with executives who will teach you the industry) and outside of the industry (journalists, customers, and investors) who want to trust the professional they are talking to as much as the organization.

3. Active. With journalists facing more time famine than ever before, public relations practitioners need to consider how to make the journalist's job easier, not harder. In addition to establishing a strong and worthwhile relationship, Stowell suggests that the best news stories aren't passive, but active. 

Companies that do things naturally make news. For example, in his industry, banks that host economic forecast panels and share that information are much more likely to earn media attention. Even if the focus isn't on the bank, journalists appreciate organizations that look beyond themselves. 

The same holds true within the community. Organizations that are involved within the communities in which they operate tend to outperform those that do not — not because of the bottom line but because the bottom line is that it is the right thing to do. For City National Bank, they work diligently ramping up support for education and literary.

4. Contrast. Although implied throughout all of the lessons, Stowell places an emphasis on finding contrast points that immediately identify an organization as different. Financial stability, relationship focus, and customer satisfaction are consistently listed among the top three for City National Bank (which earned it numerous Greenwich Excellence Awards over the years).

The reason is simple enough. If potential customers perceive several organizations as virtually the same in the marketplace, then there isn't a compelling reason to choose one over the other. Stowell says this is one of the reasons that many companies that attempt to follow the leaders or simply do what other companies do eventually fail because the point of contrast people will remember is who did it first.

Considering his point, communicators have a two-fold challenge. They have to identify what the company does consistently different and well and then effectively communicate it. Ergo, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk, not one or the other.

5. Measurement. It almost goes without saying, despite the number of the public relations professionals who seem to refute it. Communication is measurable and it must be measured. 

"When a story runs in the paper one day and the bank receives seven calls to open new business accounts, it's a measurement," says Stowell. "Everything is measurable and you have to measure or you risk being unable to prove the value of public relations to the organization."

The point hit home for many of the students. Many public relations firms attempt to place value on exposure whereas the real measurement is the result of the outcome. Sometimes those outcomes are measured in direct response. Other times they are measured in public or customer sentiment.

Combined, these five topics provide a direct contrast to what many marketing and public relations professionals tend to talk about online. And, if anything, these topics tend to be the conversations that executive management have when making marketing budget decisions. Are you on the same page?

Wednesday, March 20

Measuring Effectiveness: Coke Says Buzz Is Not Enough

Plenty of people have said it before, but Coca-Cola had invested hard dollars to prove it. Online buzz is not enough to have a measurable impact on short-term sales. Online display advertising works better.

While the concept seems to contradict what social media enthusiasts tend to tout, it's one of several studies that not only raise questions about the growing interest in online influence but also refute it. After all, if buzz doesn't drive short-term sales where display advertisements might, then what about influence?

Smart companies don't make decisions based on single studies.

Of course, according to the Adweek article, Coca-Cola isn't ready to toss out the baby with the bath water. Its digital media team points out that the findings were based on one study with one segment of one company that appeals to a particular customer. In this case, one with 61.5 million Facebook fans.

Instead, Coca-Cola will continue to look for ways to measure online buzz and other popular social media counts such as video views and social sharing. The company, one of the early entrants into digital media, wants to find a predictive measure that can pinpoint financial outcomes — at least so marketers may better understand the tradeoffs among media types.

Personally, I'm not sure they have to or that it is even possible. After all, no influence expert to date has considered that obvious problem with attempting to measure online influence. Much like social media, influence does not exist in a vacuum.

The psychology of a decision-making process is bigger than one trigger.

Most people aren't subjected to a singular influence that leads to a single action like influence scoring systems such as Klout suggest. On the contrary, most people are subjected to dozens or even hundreds of complementing and contrary influencers — ideas, people, personal experiences, and other variables — before they complete a multi-decision process that leads to a purchase.

Ergo, if a friend or "influencer" recommends a book, the suggestion is subject to all sorts of variables, ranging from what other friends and influencers have said, the largely random collection of reviews that might be found prior to purchase, any number of customer reviews at the point of sale, the propensity that they have made past book recommendations, whether or not you know the author, how far off it is from your preferred genre, whether or not you are reading a different book, etc., etc.

It seems amazingly silly to credit someone who might not even be the initial influencer with what is an infinitely grand process. But that is partly why all marketing is part art and science, not just science. The human brain doesn't merely string together 0s and 1s like a computer program. It's much more complex.

Keep watching Coca-Cola anyway. It finds out all sorts of interesting things.

While attempting to isolate the impact of social media, especially buzz, might not be possible given the magnitude of the variables, Coca-Cola is discovering some interesting data related to online advertising. According to the article, the company found online display ads could be considered about 90 percent as effective as television while search advertising is only 50 percent as effective as television.

Given the continued changes that Google is making to its search algorithm, this might surprise some SEO proponents because it runs contrary to what people like to think, unless we're talking about mobile. But the truth, I think, is even more surprising. One-off SEO has undermined search as some specialists attempted to divert unrelated searches to gain traffic. People trust display ads more than search because the ad is what it is — the search suggestions might not be what they want.

But it raises another wrinkle in most studies out there. The best marketing strategists — digital or otherwise — know that like all advertising, the operative word is sometimes no matter how hard naysayers try to steer people away from one or all facets of distribution. And that "sometimes" depends not only on the distribution method but also the timing, message, presentation, product, organization, audience, and a half dozen other things that most people don't know to measure.

Wednesday, March 13

Rethinking Content: The Same Same Everywhere Is Soup

There are some big trends in social media today. Maybe some of them are inspired by niche platforms, which were were reinvigorated by the sale of Instagram to Facebook and the rush to adapt Pinterest for marketing purposes last year. Just three of the newest dozen or so platforms include Path, Fancy, and Vine. There are plenty of people looking to make their own apps too. 

I've been watching a few people and businesses attempt to adapt these platforms for business purposes. It's common enough that they have made a business out of making social networks into marketing channels. Most of them dive in, review, and then attempt to reinvent whatever the space might be for marketing by creating catchy headlines and bullet lists. They have to be first because they want to own the search space.

There is nothing wrong with it per se. I do it to from time to time, assuming I can find something slightly more timeless in all the clutter. At the same time, there is also something sad about the state of things, given that not all of these new ideas will make it. The truth is that not all social networks need to be invaded by marketing. And companies that simply sign up to share their tired content aren't necessarily helping themselves.

Same same on every social network is not a communication solution. 

One of the easiest and most challenging prospects of my strategic work is attempting to convince clients that establishing the same presence with the same messages on every social network and social app isn't a communication strategy. In fact, I tell most of them that if they cannot distinguish a unique communication purpose in each space, then they don't need it.

Sure, sometimes it's difficult to resist the allure. Path, for example, is a beautiful sharing platform. Maybe it has a use for some. Maybe it does not for others. Like many platforms trying to gain a foothold, it attempts to establish itself as the first choice for uploading content that can then be shared to other social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, and Tumblr. (Think Plaxo in an app form with fewer connections.)

Fancy does that too, except it's packaged like a wish list. Vine is the most different, and possibly my favorite. It's the coolest because it has the unique function of editing together pics and video clips, turing them into mini movies. It's so good, I haven't made anything yet because if and when I make something there, it has to be good. Marketers will love it, even if most of them won't really belong there.

And that's the thing. Not everybody (especially not every company) needs to join every new space. And not everybody (certainly very few) needs to share the same content on every single social network they happen to join. (The only ones would be those that effectively develop completely different communities on each.) On the contrary, each social network is better served by a non-duplicated communication stream (with the exception of something exceptionally big). And again, unless you have a compelling reason, you might not a need an app. 

How I advised a designer to maximize his social content. 

Working in communication-related fields naturally connects me to many different kinds of creative and business people. As a member of AIGA, specifically, I know a few designers. One of them recently asked about networks because like many people, he joined more networks than he has time to create content for (without automating). 

I immediately asked him not to automate. It was selfish on my part because I'm connected to him on each network and I didn't want to read the same content over and over. So, I suggested he keep his personal Facebook account personal, use his Facebook page for design theory (almost like a blog, which he doesn't want), Twitter as a connection tool, Linkedin for client/prospect contact, and Pinterest as his portfolio or inspiration palette. He has Google+ too, but I was at a loss of what he can use it for, even if it is getting better. 

Although there will be times when one or all of those network connections will cross over (e.g., he writes a book about design), they all deserve a different approach with different content. I mostly do the same. For example, I generally only share posts here to Twitter (which I use mostly for professional connections), Linkedin (which is confined to business), and Google+ (because people still feel lonely there). It's rare I'd share it on Facebook. 

To share on my personal Facebook account, it has to include something personal too. To share on my Facebook page, it has to be associated with writing, fiction or other professional pursuits. Likewise, I don't share every Instagram photo on Facebook. I only share those I took specifically to share on Facebook. You get the idea.

The point is, despite my oversimplification, that it is boring to read the same update everywhere. If it is boring for individuals, it's a safe bet it will be boring for most companies too. It's selfish and borderline narcissistic. 

A few considerations for apps and trends in general. 

If your company is considering an app because someone said that all organizations need an app, make sure you understand why people want apps. In most cases, people download apps from businesses because they are tools. For example, if I can quickly do my banking online with the fastest and more secure connection, very cool. 

If it wants to send me advertisements, I'm not very excited. There are other considerations too. I jumped into the content-to-app market for a review site side project a few months ago. Based on downloads, Liquid [Hip] on iTunes is mostly successful as a third-party publisher/developer solution. It's available for Android too. It's free.

I'm glad we did it, but there were some consequences. Faster content access via an app resulted in less web traffic. While that's fine with me, it wouldn't be fine for everyone, especially if advertisers are buying display ads.

Maybe even more important, if the review site wasn't a side project and had a budget to develop its own app, then I would have to rethink everything. I would have to because the best apps are tools and entertainment.

Three questions to consider about content and social networks

If there is a better answer than "it depends" in determining how a business should use or consider a new social space or want to invest in one, then ask yourself or your team three questions. Any or all of them make a difference. 

1. What content can we offer on this network that we don't offer anywhere else? 
2. Do we have the time and talent to do it right and will anybody care if we do? 
3. Does all the content we create fit into our overall strategic communication plan? 

The reason these questions are so important is because organizations frequently blow one or all three. They share the same content on every network. They create self-interest content (what they want people to hear) more often than anything that people will find interesting or helpful (what people want to hear). And many of them adopt tactics that seem effective for the medium without considering the company's long-term brand.

Long term is key here. Social networks, campaigns, etc. all come and go. Brands need a longer shelf life. So rather than continuing to allow short-term social networks and search engines to wag the company brand around, it might be wise to spend more time on the strategic side again. It's where the real strength needs to be.

Thursday, March 7

Reinventing The Wheel: How To Think Forward

The expression is so common in communication, software development and some engineering segments that many people recognize it as cliche. And yet, there are those who still love to lean on it.

"Let's not reinvent the wheel."

The concept behind it feels right. The idiomatic metaphor warns people away from duplicating a basic method that has already been created and optimized by others. Thus, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

But is a wheel just a wheel? If you take some time to think about it, the real brilliance wasn't the wheel in 3,500 B.C. It was the fixed axle. Right on. It didn't take any talent to conceive the rolling cylinder, which has been reinvented a few thousand times to accommodate different applications. (One of my ancestors, in fact, very literally reinvented the wheel with the introduction of pneumatic tires.)

Anyway, the real scientific advancement was figuring out how to connect a stable stationary platform to the cylinder. Without the axle, the wheel is mostly useless. But I'm not suggesting we turn a more accurate phrase by saying "let's not reinvent the fixed axle." After all, even an axle can be reinvented.

"Let's reinvent everything."

The truth is that had automobile manufacturers took a bigger interest in hovercraft technology, wheels might feel as passé as cassette tapes today (except for specific applications). But automobile manufacturers didn't do it, begging the question: what has not reinventing land transportation cost us?

And this is something that business executives and communicators might start asking themselves more often. What is the cost of not reinventing something? And, if not cost, how about missed opportunities?

When you look at some of the most successful companies in history, almost all of them were in the reinvention business. Steve Jobs reinvented computers and phones. Henry Ford reinvented car manufacturing. Edwin Land reinvented photography. And the list continues, with history tending to remember those who invented or reinvented something over those who borrow against invention.

The same holds true for best practices too. In communication (and social media in particular), there are far too few developing best practices and far too many searching for them. In some cases, it has led to what some people call a follow the leader mentality in social media and communication. I'm not as generous. I call it follow the follower, which is what spawns marketing myths and strands communicators anytime a social network reminds them that best practices are short term.

Best practices are inspiration points, not shortcuts. 

The best communication plans for any organization rely on three concepts: temporal communication, adaptable contrasts, and best practice analysis for process adoption. The latter places a greater emphasis on evaluating best practices for possible adoption, but only after they are reinvented to fit.

It's somewhere in between the Not Invented Here (NIH) culture of some organizations and Not Anything New (NAN) culture of some organizations, with NIH assuming everything ought to be invented and NAN assuming everything that exists today is good enough. The people who subscribe to NIH frequently fool themselves into believing their ideas are new at great cost. And the people who subscribe to NAN were likely trying to find faster horses instead of building automobiles in the 1900s.

But what organizations really need are people who can research all the best practices and either reinvent them to fit or discover what no one else has done before. In the process, it usually results in something unique in its construction or an innovation that can change everything. In many cases, this is how some of the best and brightest companies started. And the same can be said for the best campaigns too.

Tuesday, March 5

Smoking Guns: Why Anti-Smoking Campaigns Fail

The best guess by Gallup in determining the number of people who smoke in the United States is 20-22 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this estimate fits. The CDC frequently cites that one in five people smokes cigarettes.

The number has mostly plateaued since 2000; slightly down depending on how it is sliced. But tracking the percentage can be a bit misleading as the population has grown too. In other words, the number of smokers in the U.S. is relatively constant (or may be increasing), which means it's time to face facts.

The four-decade long barrage of anti-smoking campaigns is no longer effective. 

The reason seems pretty clear. Most anti-smoking campaigns do not target smokers. They target non-smokers in an attempt to vilify people who smoke instead. And that's fine, as long as policymakers and nonprofit organizations want to spend millions or more on ineffective advertising campaigns or pass anti-smoking legislation and sin taxes to make themselves look like heroes.

I think we can do better, but it will take better campaigns. They have to be targeted and they can't all be negative. After all, there is psychological evidence that suggests negative messages produce negative results. That might be especially true for smoking — the ages most exposed to anti-smoking campaigns are overwhelming under the age of 18. Coincidentally, the majority of smokers start before they turn 18.

For many of them, it was never about smoking being cool as advertising censors claimed. It is about being defiant to authority, demonstrating a foolhardy sense of immortality, tempting fate by flirting with something potentially addictive, or being accepted by peers and adults (e.g., parents who smoke) like it was a private club. The campaigns all play into this notion.

Afterward, once someone becomes a smoker, anti-smoking campaigns take on a different feel. They either make smokers feel bad about smoking or convince them to light up in defiance. The messages aren't much different from individual abuse smokers receive on a daily basis — which is impossibly ironic, given how many states are passing anti-smoking laws but legalizing marijuana.

Creating a better anti-smoking campaign means a bigger focus on benefits. 

Many campaigns that are designed to help people quit aren't properly constructed. Most of them reinforce negative messages — how hard it will be to quit smoking, the impossibly low success rate (and significantly high relapse rate), and additional consequences commonly associated with quitting cold turkey or attempting to step down using gum, patches, e-smokes, or other nicotine replacements.

If you are are a non-smoker, think of any habit you have. If someone told you half of what they tell smokers, would you want to try to kick the habit? Probably not, especially if stress is a trigger.

A much more effective campaign would have a two-fold approach. First, it would help smokers stop smoking as opposed to quitting outright. Second, it would focus on the benefits and not the curse.

Don't quit. Just stop. 

Stopping could mean any number of things, all of which would eventually help any smoker stop completely. It could mean they stop smoking in certain locations (cars, houses, etc.), at certain times (immediately after meals, while drinking, etc.), in front of certain people (co-workers, clients, kids), etc.

With each successful 'stop,' smokers tend to become vigilant in controlling the addiction. Each 'stop' leads to another until the act of smoking becomes more annoying than pleasurable. Some people might be surprised how often they might put off smoking if it feels like a chore. At minimum, it will make them more aware of how often they smoke and what triggers (prompt to smoke) they might have.

Along with these 'stops,' many smokers have an easier time stopping after they switch to a natural/organic cigarette. While natural/organic cigarettes are not considered healthier alternatives, there may be truth to the idea that commercial cigarettes have more addictive ingredients. They most certainly have more additives, as many as 600. Nicotine is hard enough to give up. Don't risk other additive addictions.

The benefits of stopping.

The benefits of not smoking are easily undersold. When most campaigns talk about the benefits, they talk about long-term ailments (e.g., cancer) or use them to paint all smokers as an unhealthy, smelly group of vile people. That doesn't help smokers stop. What might are the immediate short-term benefits.

Stopping for even 20 minutes can lower your pulse rate and blood pressure. Stopping for eight hours will remove more than 90 percent of the nicotine from your body. Stopping for 12 hours will drop carbon monoxide levels to normal and raise blood oxygen to normal.

It only takes two days for smell and taste receptors to begin to heal. It only takes three days for the lungs to begin to heal. It only takes ten days before teeth and gums to begin to heal. Within a few weeks, the circulatory system and heart begin to heal. Even insulin returns to normal in about two months. Eventually, most damage can be reversed until even some risks return to non-smoker or even never-smoker levels.

The changes and benefits are dramatic. And while such benefits timetable lists vary (a few are paired with disturbing images), talking about them could significantly help a smoker find a short-term health benefit that means something to them — from their teeth and gums to shortness of breath after exercise.

The two times I stopped smoking. 

Even when I smoked, most people didn't know it. I seldom smoked in public and would mostly hide myself away if I did. Conversely, despite the habit, I exercised regularly, ate well, and established an aggressive teeth maintenance program. I never smoked in my house, car or in my office — always outside, rain or shine.

I stopped smoking last month. And unlike the other time I tried to stop, this time was relatively easy.

The difference was all in the approach. The first time, maybe eight years ago, I did it the way campaigns tell you to do it. I tossed out everything related to smoking. And much like they warned, I was irritable and miserable. And then I felt even worse, like I was letting everyone down. I lost.

This time was different because I had already stopped smoking 90 percent of the time. Then one day last January, I caught a cold and just stopped. I didn't tell anybody. I didn't throw anything away. I still have seven packs in the cupboard. They empower me more than tempt me. It's my choice to not smoke.

I initially made a choice that going outside in the cold was less desirable than just going to bed. When I woke in the morning, I decided to see how long I could wait. That wait never ended. Sure, there were some cravings here and there, but I already had a list of things that always made me not want to smoke — carrots, apples, cashews, sugar-free Jelly Bellies, gum, etc. (everyone has their own things). So, I would have one or two of those things instead. I was never irritable either. It felt easy.

While I would never suggest anyone take as long as I did to stop outright, I had to develop a plan that didn't exist — one that worked for me. Sure, seven years is too long, but my future self wasn't around to create a better campaign. A better campaign could have helped me stop sooner and possibly helped me avoid having surgery this year.

Unfortunately, I don't see many effective campaigns in the cards. Very few people in the medical profession want to embrace a step-down program without relying on prescription medication (all of which have higher relapse rates). Most anti-smoking advocates stress lifelong victimhood over willpower (because it helps funding). Most advertising agencies would rather have 80 percent of the population notice an ad than a fraction of 20 percent (because awareness is more valued than results). And the general negativity toward smokers is ingrained by a majority; it's as depressing as it is hypocritical (considering obesity rates and the recent legalization of marijuana).

Even some of the communication from trusted sources is off. The CDC, for example, estimates that 1 in 5 Americans dies from cigarette-related causes. Since they also say only 1 in 5 Americans smoke, the figure is either fudged or the government is suggesting that all people who smoke die from cigarette-related causes. Meanwhile, many cancer rates continue to rise anyway. Let smokers stop, guilt free.

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