Wednesday, July 30

What's In A Game? Maybe All The Creativity We've Lost.

Last week, one of my friends shared an article that appeared in The New Yorker and it made me smile. I've known him for almost two decades but never knew he felt nostalgia for a fantasy game that peaked in popularity during the 1980s.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is like that. It's almost akin to being or having been a member of a secret society that doesn't share its membership roster with members. Enough people played to transform this basement-made role-playing game into a multi-million dollar empire, but proportionately few ever talk about it. And even when some do talk, they couch their connection.

"I used to play until I started driving and discovered girls" is a common quip from those who still suffer from an almost inexplicable discomfort in having played it. Few games carry such a stigma.

Today, D&D still feels a bit saddled with its unfair share of stereotypes. Aside from being labeled as a flagship game for geekdom, there remains this lingering association with past religious objections and accusations that the game could cause psychological disorders. None of it was really true, but the outcry earned enthusiasts a sideways glance as being somewhat "weird" anyway.

When combined with several business disputes and trademark battles, the tabletop game was relegated to a niche gaming experience while its brand became a commercial success from extensive licensing agreements that included collectables, card games, novels, films, television series, computer games, online role playing games, and pop culture references. The outcome cut both ways. While the commercialization made the brand accessible, none of it captured the heart of the tabletop game.

At its heart, D&D is a game of imagination. The rules are just a framework.

Wizards of the Coast, which is currently launching the fifth incarnation of D&D, has taken to describing the game as collaborative storytelling. It's a fair description, given that every group of people who play have vastly different experiences. Some people like to play it like a board game with a finite timeframe. Others play it like an epic adventure without end.

The difference between the two play styles (and everything between) is dictated only by the limits of imagination — specifically, the imagination of a narrator (a.k.a. Dungeon Master) and the players (a.k.a. Player Characters). To help them, everyone follows a framework built upon descriptions, definitions, and computations (e.g., a sword with magical properties, provides +5 chance to hit something).

Proponents of the game have always highlighted this framework as the most redeeming part of the game because reading, writing, and arithmetic are at the core of it all. In fact, some would say that if creator E. Gary Gygax and his partner Dave Arneson deserve to be remembered for anything, it was in developing a game that encouraged kids to become immersed in all three areas, while picking up smatterings of science, history and literature alongside those core skill sets.

D&D also provided an effective venue to discover new hobbies and practice a host of other competencies. The game is loaded with problem-solving exercises, social dilemmas, leadership opportunities, conflict resolutions, team-building challenges, and ethical lessons. It reinforces the concept that individuals can strive for success if they are willing to work hard and take risks, but not alone. The best groups (or "parties" as they are called) consist of a mix of races and professions.

More importantly, Dungeons & Dragons nurtures creativity and imagination. It relies on the ability of the people playing to imagine an encounter, spontaneously embellish or add to that encounter, and then communicate their contribution so that other players can incorporate it into their version of the experience. And it relies on imagination, sometimes with an assist from prewritten game modules, to create those encounters. So why is that important?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” — Albert Einstein

It might not be a coincidence that the decline in U.S. education coincides with its decline in creativity and imagination. Since the 1990s, children in the U.S. have been subjected to more standardization in the classroom and outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent education structures (standardized instruction measured by the ability to provide one correct answer). Outside of the classroom, it comes in the form of convergent play (video games built on someone else's imagination or movie characters that children use to reenact television shows and movies).

The irony? Despite an increased need for creativity and imagination (leadership traits) in a workforce plagued by average worker syndrome, children are generally discouraged from creative thinking (the ability to think in novel and unique ways to create new solutions) and divergent thinking (the ability to think up several answers to the same question). People might deny it, but evidence bears it out.

Specifically, children who ask too many questions, embellish reality in their drawings, resist conformity, seek independence, display self-expression, dislike rote recital, or seek out solitary playtime — all of which are traits of highly creative minds — are more likely to be discouraged or even reprimanded (if not diagnosed as ADHD) than their peers. Even outside the classroom, most parents prefer their children to obey authority, achieve popularity, and seek social affirmation.

Consider Dungeons & Dragons a solid barometer for the times. Most parents won't pay any attention to a Dungeons & Dragons video game (or especially explicit video games like Grand Theft Auto), but seeing a 20-sided die, some graph paper, and a sketch of an umber hulk could prompt them to validate their concerns. What's the difference? Nothing, except whose imagination drives the story — a game developer/movie producer/etc. or the child who has to employ reading, writing and math to make it work.

Personally, I was very fortunate to have kept my now vintage Dungeons & Dragons materials. On occasion, my family has even dug out the well-worn manuals, dungeon modules, and an alternative timeline that I had superimposed on The World Of Greyhawk created by Gary Gygax. And while those occasions don't happen often enough, it's still fun to know that I've introduced them to a world shaped by dozens of friends, their characters, the descendants of their characters, and a smattering of embellishments such as "overmen" from a series written by Lawrence Watt-Evens or a ranger society based loosely on Arboria from Flash Gordon (but without the science).

If nothing else, doing so reminds me to balance the experiences my children have while growing up. Yes, I think it is important to strive for educational excellence and encourage participation in activities such as sports and social engagement. But I also think it is equally important to nurture their imaginations whenever possible. The world needs more individual creativity.

If Dungeons & Dragons can help them open their minds even a little bit, then I'm all for it. I wish more people would be for it too. And if a game with a fantasy setting akin to Lord Of The Rings doesn't hold any appeal? Then consider the setting. Tabletop role-playing settings include everything from the Old West to outer space. Or, if nothing else, look for other games or activities (like drawing) to keep their imaginations alive and creativity sharp.

That is the point. The world could use a little more imagination and creativity. If the contributions aren't coming from you, then perhaps you can inspire someone else to never give it up. To me, the greatest gift you can give anyone is the empowerment to never say "I used to do this [creative thing] .... until I got old [and boring]."

Wednesday, July 23

There Is No Such Thing As An Easy A/B Lunch

"It is perhaps an all-too-human frailty to suppose that a favorable wind will blow forever." — Richard Bode

In the context of his book, First You Have To Row A Little Boat, Bode was writing about how almost impossible it is to imagine what it might be like to be caught in a dead calm while there is a breeze blowing hard against your sail or in your face or on your back. It's almost impossible to imagine it because our brains are mostly predisposed to see the most fleeting moments as infinitely constant.

When things are good, we think the honeymoon will never end. When things are bad, we readily embrace the pain as permanent. Never mind that most of us have lived long enough to know that the evidence doesn't bear either infinity out. We're generally inclined to indulge ourselves in deception.

Social media is not a science. It only feels like one.

Sure, some applications of social media seem to fall under the banner of science. Marketers are indeed in the business of observation and experimentation. They do attempt to study the structure of online communities and the behavior of people on a one to one, one to some, and one to many scale.

Some applications even attempt to apply scientific method to the mix, with A/B testing among the most prominent manifestations. There is only one problem with it. While A/B testing sometimes leads to a product development or marketing breakthrough, the operative word is sometimes.

The wind doesn't always blow in a favorable direction and sometimes it doesn't blow at all. Never mind that more and more data scientists are attempting to decipher public manipulation, but they frequently fail to appreciate that data has the propensity to manipulate its handlers too.

The biggest problem today, it seems, is that many data scientists have studied statistics but relatively few are practiced at applying scientific method in the physical or natural world (or psychological and sociological worlds for that matter). If they were, they might better appreciate the incongruity of choice — six studies of which were recently shared in an Econsultancy article by Ben Davis.

While some studies are stronger than others, a fair encapsulation of the research concludes that the choices offered, number of choices offered, order of the choices offered, and order of emotional triggers all influence A/B testing. Or, in other words, if A/B both suck, you prove nothing at all.

If you ask people whether they like big keys or little keys on a cellular phone, no one innovates touch screen technology. If you ask people which cola they like better during an A/B experiment, someone will eventually rediscover the recipe for New Coke. If you always listen to prescreen tests, every movie will have a happy ending.

But those examples are only the most straightforward research failures. Some hiccups are caused by the most subtle changes. The order information is presented (shoes before or/after a new dress). The timing of an interruption (when most people are online or when they are more receptive to share). The influence of the last destination they visited (did they leave feeling elated or aggravated).

There is no such thing as an easy lunch in marketing.

There are plenty of people who will tell you otherwise, but it's simply not true. Marketing is not a science, even if marketers love to sell science. It can be an asset but only if you think and think deep.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of working on franchise collateral for Capriotti's Sandwich Shop. I can't really speak to what they are doing now in terms of marketing, but I still love their sandwiches.

The challenge they had and probably still do, had a lot to do with psychology. Specifically, one of the questions that needed to be asked was how could they become part of the lunchtime decision-making process? The answer isn't as easy as you think.

When most people make decisions about what to have for lunch at the office the first A/B choice they create is fast food or sit down. The primary influencer at this stage is time, but it quickly turns toward taste. If fast food wins the consensus, then most people will run down the big brand list (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, etc.) and make a decision based on preferences, experiences, and proximity.

Interestingly enough, KFC only gets a shot if someone says they don't want a burger. And other alternatives, like Subway, are added to the mix if someone insists on no fast food (a position thanks mostly to their Eat Fresh campaign). So where does Capriotti's fit?

A/B testing convinced some people that it fits everywhere because they consistently win on taste, but it really wasn't true. Sure, it won with loyalists, catering, or as a wild card but not where it needed to. To capture the average lunchtime customer, it comes down to the first round choice. Fast food or sit down? This sandwich shop is neither.

My solution was a bit different from the marketing firm that had contracted me onto their team. While they wanted to push award-winning sandwiches, I wanted to reframe the front end choice that there is lunch or Capriotti's, thereby pre-empting the fast food or sit down decision-making process.

But we didn't then and no one has since. So despite being voted the greatest sandwich in America, it's still niche and not mainstream no matter how many A/B tests they run. Why? As I said. There is no such thing as an easy lunch. Just because the winds of research keep blowing your organization in different directions doesn't mean it will always be there or push you to the destination you want. Someone has to aim for it.

Wednesday, July 16

Number Crunching Is Turning Marketers Into Tactical Bullies

A recent study that surveyed 380 American marketers reported 85 percent of its respondents are under increasing pressure to measure the value of marketing and its contribution to business (hat tip Danny Brown). But despite this increased press to measure, many marketers don't know whether or not their tactics are having an impact. Just one in four said they can measure their impact.

Even among those who do measure their impact, most of them don't know how to report on their findings. Many don't have a formal process to gather, handle, analyze, and report big data. And up to one-third of them don't know if their data is accurate or reliable. So what the heck do these people do?

No one is really sure, which increases the big data idiocy.

Most organizations are measuring something. Chances are they measure key performance indicators (KPIs), which is a fancy way of assigning any variable you want. It might be reach, impressions, qualified leads (which also has a broad definition), website traffic, click-through rates, conversions, direct sales, or anything really. Some people even count social scoring algorithms (sigh).

There is nothing wrong with all these numbers, really. But the sheer volume of data being lobbed at modern marketers is commoditizing the entire field while it distracts marketing from where its focus really ought to be, which is delivering a distinct brand promise to people who might care.

So while the right measures are important, they don't account for the customer relationship — need, desire, trust, presentation, value, reliability, ease of acquisition, satisfaction, market position, and so on and so forth. If any one of those qualities is broken, it doesn't matter how good your numbers are.

How marketing measures can be made quickly meaningless. 

Case in point. After returning from a family vacation that included a few hours of sports fishing off the coast, my interest in finding experiences for my children had piqued. But since fishing options are scarce in the middle of the desert, I decided to search for something else we've talked about doing.

We have an interest in horseback riding, but not just singular experiences. So rather than take a trail ride, I was especially keen to find horseback riding lessons so they could learn something about riding much like they learned something about baiting their own hooks when they went fishing.

Like many people, I started with a search and the engine delivered the usual list of trail ride suspects. There were a half dozen tour operators in the area, some of which I knew from my days as an eco-tour reviewer. I visited a few of their familiar sites. Almost none of them fit my criteria.

cowboysOf the few that did, some were priced too high, were located too far away, or had dismal reviews (including some that alleged animal cruelty). And, of course, there were plenty of third-party booking companies that offered these same tours with a prettier presentations (even the most dismal) to lure in those who don't know the difference. I do know difference. I readily dismissed them.

At the same time, I couldn't help but to make a few mental notes. All of these operators were winning on impressions, click counts, site traffic, and (perhaps) qualified lead generation depending on how they define that. Some might even have felt good assuming my lengthy visit was tied to interest (when it was really tied to not being able to find the right information). So what?

Most of them only succeeded by getting in my way. And a few of those, believe it or not, reinforced  the worst possible impression of their brand. After reading some reviews, I would have a hard time taking a chance with them no matter how many impressions, clicks, and site visits I left behind.

So, at the end of the day, I settled on the one operator I remembered from an in-person presentation I had seen a year prior and nothing from the search results. We'll likely hook up with them for lessons once our summer temperatures drop below triple-digits this fall. I also did bookmark a couple of other operators too. It's always good to have a backup.

The measurements marketers count is not what customers count. 

In this case, I was looking for reasonably-priced Western-style riding lessons that accommodated families and had generally positive reviews. Search, social, and content does not account for all of that criteria.

In fact, brands with better search, social, and content tactics were more likely to be in the way of providers who could meet it. And, as mentioned, some brands did little more than entrench a negative brand impression. They might not even know it. Numbers alone don't tell the story.

For some, they tell the wrong story. Looking at the data, they might be convinced that their content didn't connect or that they need to spend more on reach or their sales funnel needs improvement or that they have problems with their website layout. In reality, it wasn't any of those indicators that make numbers look like something you scoop off the shelf and put in a shopping cart.

They didn't offer what I was looking for. It was that simple (and honestly for the best).

Real marketing is more of an expertise and less of a commodity. 

Marketing from the ground up considers the market need (or desire), competitive price model, product or service mix, total customer experience, and how the marketing message is delivered so that it not only reaches people who care, but also manages customer expectation without complicating the package. In several cases, qualitative analysis not quantitative would have been the better teacher.

Just poking around, I could see many operators invest too much in capturing the wrong kind of traffic or creating content that is too broad for their offerings. Several are attempting to capture a low-cost lead position despite more market demand for a luxury ride. Only a few have figured out that the primary concern most customers have is for the horses, second only to their own personal safety. And meals, which are always touted as the best part of a package value, are the least appreciated and most often complained about aspect of any ride.

Marketing ought to consider all of this data and not just the growing list of marketing measures associated with maximizing impressions and conversions. If anything, the last thing any serious marketer wants is to increase exposure to an inferior offering when they have the means to make it right. Great brands are not made by exposing more people to an inferior offer.

They are made when you can deliver the right product or service to the right group of people. When that part of the equation is done right, the right numbers will follow and measurement will begin to shift from website traffic to something tangible such as public perception and customer referrals.

Wednesday, July 9

Separate Advertising And Pubic Relations At Your Own Peril

Advertising Or Public Relations? by Rich Becker
Every time someone attempts to divide advertising and public relations into two distant camps, it makes my skin crawl. They always make it sound like both fields have to be at odds with each other, with cliché conversation starters like advertising is paid and public relations is pray.

There doesn't have to be such a stark division. No one has to choose one over the other. After all, while it might be true that advertising and public relations have distinct world views, they essentially aim to fulfill a bigger organizational need — to meet organizational objectives through communication while reinforcing a brand that has (ideally) already proven its market differentiation.

It doesn't even matter what that product or service differentiation might be. It could be based on any number of tangible and intangible attributes — quality, price, availability, prestige, functional specifications, design aesthetics, corporate citizenship, and whatever else someone can think up or any combination of them provided there aren't too many to remember. One to three points is enough.

People don't see public relations or advertising. They see brands.

When people see an advertisement or article about Porsche, they don't categorize the communication into categories or departments. They only see stories that reinforce and expand on a single idea.

"In the beginning, I looked around and could not find the car I'd been dreaming of: a small, lightweight sports car that uses energy efficiently. So I decided to build one myself." — Ferry Porsche

To hear Porsche tell it, they have always strived to translate performance and speed — and success — in the most intelligent way possible. It was never about horsepower alone, but intelligent horsepower.

The medium doesn't matter. You will read the same story in every article or advertisement equally. This car is about a dream. And as each dream is realized, Porsche pushes the envelope even further.

PorscheIn being exposed to either the advertisement or the article, consumers don't score the credibility of one or the other because credibility is not created by the communication. Credibility is created by delivering on a brand promise. Advertising and public relations merely reinforce what is there.

And for Porsche, the principle they abide by isn't confined to ads and articles. They apply it everywhere — to customers who believe there is no substitute and to motor sports spectators who may never own a Porsche but are more than happy to share the dream conjured up in every piece of communication. It not only extends to their cars, but also to their corporate offices, environmental policy, employee responsibility, and long-term sustainability as well. You don't even have to like them to respect them.

More importantly, you have to appreciate that this kind of outcome doesn't come from advertising or public relations or word of mouth. It comes from a unified communication strategy, one that transcends the tactics chosen to deliver it.

So no, advertising or public relations isn't a valid conversation. What communication strategists need to ask is what is the organizational strategy and how do we best communicate it to those people to whom it will matter most with whatever budget is available. The answer to that question is as varied as the products, services, and markets served. Every communication budget mix is different.

Some professionals think it's all about persuasion. Stick with the truth.

The fundamental reason that no one questions a Porsche advertisement is that the brand has banked credibility. It is known for taking care of its customers. And in doing so, its relatively small customer base has worked with the company to create a public perception that extends beyond that base.

Sure, some people will mistakenly believe this is a phenomenon exclusive to luxury brands, but it really isn't. Walmart, McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble (various products) and Colgate (various products) all employ the same fundamental premise. Small marketers do too. The Abbey Inn in Cedar City, Utah, is one example. It's a 2-1/2 star hotel that consistently ranks as the number one place to stay in town.

There isn't big budget marketing behind it. It employs targeted advertising with some public relations support, with most media and social media exposure earned by exceeding expectations (including mine) rather than feeding journalist story pitches.

Abby Inn in Cedar City, Utah
Not all of the advertising is great, but it still succeeds in establishing a brand promise from a 2-1/2 star hotel (one that it can easily exceed with friendly service). In doing so, it achieves what other hotels — even big brands — cannot do. They has achieved and continues to have a market advantage along with repeat visitors and a strong referral base. And in some cases, it is this groundswell that earns it inclusion in other stories about the area — everything from the Utah Shakespeare Festival  to national parks like Zion and Bryce.

When considered as part of a comprehensive communication strategy — marketing, advertising, social media, public relations, customer service — organizations that can deliver the right concept with the right market differentiation across all of it win and those that can't struggle. And the only reason that more organizations don't employ such an approach is because most talk to one specialist or the other, with each attempting to maximize their budget rather than considering the overall mix.

It's something to think about. When was the last time your organization put the strategy ahead of the tactics? Considering what most professionals are measuring these days, I'd say not very many.

Wednesday, July 2

Welcome To The Petri Dish. A Great Big Thumbs Up.

Don't expect the fervor over what some people are calling a breach of trust by the social network Facebook to last very long. Despite the growing distaste that most people have for it, big data is here to stay and the abuse of it will always be a few clicks away. The Internet is a petri dish.

If you missed the story, Facebook (in cooperation with Cornell and the University of California) conducted an experiment involving almost 700,000 unknowing and potentially unwilling subjects. The study was originally designed to debunk the idea that positive social media updates somehow make people feel like losers. Instead, it affirmed something most sociologists, many psychologists, and a few marketers already know.

"Emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks," concluded the study. Negative and positive emotional content can influence our moods.

The significance of the study from the socio-psychological viewpoint. 

The summary of the study is clear cut. The researchers showed via a massive experiment on Facebook that emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness. They also provide experimental evidence that emotional contagion occurs without direct interaction between people (exposure to a friend expressing an emotion is sufficient) and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.

The experiment itself consisted of manipulating the amount of positive and negative content people received from their friends and relatives throughout the day and over long periods of time. Sometimes the test reduced users' exposure to their friends' "positive emotional content," resulting in fewer positive posts of their own. Other times, it reduced exposure to "negative emotional content."

The study confirmed that the changes to a person's newsfeed had the potential to alter their mood. While interesting, it's not surprising. Everything we let into our heads influences us.

The books we read. The television programs we watch. The news we subscribe to. The advertising we see. The people we hang around. It's human nature. We are prone to adapt to our social settings and seek out affirmation for acceptance or validation. And the only remedy is awareness — either the truth or sometimes the constant recognition that someone is attempting to influence you.

The ethical lines of emotional manipulation and big data have blurred. 

It is naive for anyone to think that affirmation media doesn't have an agenda much in the same way it is naive to think that marketers don't have a brand agenda (which can be much more powerful than direct sales). They do, much in the same way Facebook has an agenda. The more the social network understands where our new ethical lines are drawn, the more it taps any amount of data for anyone.

The only reason this experiment has touched a nerve is because the people were forced to look at what they don't want to believe much in the same way people who track down an online catfish are often disappointed. The truth isn't something people necessarily want. They want their truth.

As privacy issues have waxed and waned over the years, so has public tolerance. People are all too willing to opt in (or neglect to opt out) for the most marginal of benefits. And as they do, online and offline privacy will continue to erode. The only changes since some of the earliest online privacy debates have been around semantics. Consumer profiling has morphed into big data. Shaping public opinion has drifted toward mass manipulation. And all of it is covered in TOS.

At least, that is what some people think about privacy. What do you think? Is manipulation in the eye of the beholder? Is an apology enough? Would it be all right to promote one hair color over another without product identification just before introducing a new hair dye? Or maybe it is fine to dedicate more airtime to isolated tragedies in an effort to change public policy. The comments are yours. 

Wednesday, June 25

Having Engagement Problems? Make Your Audience The Content

It doesn't matter what study you look up. Marketers always struggle with the same measurements — engagement, lead generation, and sales. They aren't the only ones. Americans feel miffed too.

According to a recent Gallop poll, a clear majority of Americans say social media has no effect at all on their purchasing decisions. A whopping 62 percent say social has no influence over them.

Even when respondents were broken out by age, not much changed. Forty-eight percent of Millennials said that social media had no influence over them (43 percent said it had some).

Consumers are influenced by social media, but it has to be good.

The good news is that the consumer survey by Gallop doesn't prove much. Americans have said much the same about advertising for years. It's not a lie per se, but they are genuinely mistaken.

We don't always know which bits of information are from friends or pass through marketing messages. The same can be said for social and cultural shifts too. You would be surprised how many come from outside of the country before they are shared by Americans inside the country.

On the other hand, most marketers are still only marginally adept at social media because they tend to start out with the wrong intent. They are too "sales" focused, which generally produces a social media campaign akin to celebrating itself online. Nobody wants to visit a social page for push messages.

"How are you? Let's talk about me." It's true. Marketers don't use those words verbatim, but that is what most of the messages become. It's common for many social media experts to let you leave a page but not without pounding you to subscribe to an e-newsletter first. Never mind the risk associated with more studies that are veiled attempts for lead generation a.k.a. permission to spam lists.

The problem with all of it is pretty clear. If the intent is all about sales, then you can't expect the method to magically produce engagement. It's mostly the other way around. If the method produces engagement, then it is very likely the organization will experience incremental sales growth.

If you want better engagement, make your audience the content. 

This simple answer is only slightly deceiving in that the execution is complex. It's complex because every audience or public or group of people or whatever you call them have very different needs.

If you simply run from one organization to the next organization with a cookie cutter solution (or one stolen from a best practices SlideShare deck), people won't care about your content. The reason they won't care is because content creation that aims for engagement is not the same as content created for an editorial calendar. The content people want to read has to be about them, directly or indirectly.

What does that mean? Sometimes the answer can be exceptionally direct — a professional membership organization that focuses on its members and upcoming events (where members meet up) has a great opportunity to develop a vibrant community. Sometimes the answer is less direct — an organization that wants to establish itself on the cutting edge of an industry will seek out innovation (even if it is not their own). And sometimes the answer is in between — an event that brings together hundreds of authors and book enthusiasts makes it easier for the two to connect.

"How are you? Let's talk about you." It's the message that really matters. People mostly don't want to know about your organization, but they may want to know who attends your events. People mostly don't want to know about your program, but they may be fascinated by the advancements being made in the industry. People mostly don't want to know about your product, but they might want to know how to fix a problem or make their lives easier. If it happens to include your product, service or position, then it's win-win. Sales tend to be a by[product of doing everything else right.

In other words, maybe it's time to throw out your elevator speech and work on a deliverable instead. How can you better bring a concept, conversation, or community to your customers that they can actually be part of and care about? Good. Go do that. And once you do, never put it on autopilot.

What do you think? Isn't engagement what made the earliest forms of social media fly? People wanted to connect and the medium helped make it possible. The comments are yours.

Wednesday, June 18

Have Social Networks Become The Colosseum Of Our Times?

There are hundreds of news headlines that will break today. Some of them, such as extreme insurgents gaining ground on Baghdad, are important. Others, such as the giraffe gaffe made by Delta Airlines, are not. And yet, outrage over the latter easily outpaced the outrage over the former.

What did Delta do wrong? There isn't much of a story. In an attempt to bring visuals into its social media mix, Delta congratulated the United States for its win over Ghana with the Statue of Liberty representing the U.S. and a giraffe representing Ghana. The problem? Giraffes don't live in Ghana.

Immediately following the tweet, Twitter lit up with responses, ranging from those that aimed to poke fun at the company to those expressing true outrage and claims of racism. To compound its self-inflicted injury, Delta also followed the gaffe with a typo in the apology.

"We're sorry for our choice of photo in our precious tweet. Best of luck to all teams playing in the World Cup." — Delta

Delta meant to write "previous" tweet (which it eventually sent out as corrected), but that wasn't the only misfire. Identifying the "offensive" tweet as the "previous tweet" only makes sense if you leave it up. Delta Airlines had removed it.

The social media lesson isn't what you think. 

Some public relations professionals said the error is indicative of inexperienced communicators managing social network accounts for big companies. Others said it was an example of Americans being largely ignorant of Africa. And yet others pinned it to a lack of cultural sensitively training.

While any one of those speculations might be true, the better lesson slipped through the cracks. Sometimes a social media crisis is only what we make it. Delta chose to make it serious so it was.

Delta could have made fun of the company instead (which seems more appropriate given that the original mistake was one part ignorance and one part laziness) and followed it up with an image of something more representative of the country. Elephants, for example, do live in Ghana.

Then again, given how many people asked the airlines to avoid the stereotypical safari imagery, they could have chosen any number of other things to do in Ghana instead. They could have even encouraged people to find out what there is to do there with a one-time airfare reduction.

Why not? Delta already flies to the city of Accra, which is the capital of Ghana. There is nothing wrong with promoting a destination. It's what airlines do because every destination becomes their home.

Social media is sometimes akin to the Roman colosseum.

Almost two centuries ago, the Romans used chariot races, arena hunts, mock sea battles, and gladiator contests to entertain its population. The biggest of its arenas is the famed Flavian Amphitheatre, which is estimated to have held between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators.

The games were so successful that they were sometimes held to simply to distract the populace from other problems. It worked too. There was far too much to worry about — who sat where (social standing), what to wear (personal branding), and which gladiators were favored (professional prowess among those who weren't slaves) — to concern oneself with other political problems.

It remained a thriving industry in Rome for almost 300 years. Emperor Honorius had closed down the schools. The contests were finally banned outright when a monk leapt between two gladiators and the indignant crowd stoned him to death. Six years later, the city was sacked by the Visigoths.

Social media can have the same galvanizing effect, easily placing silly cat photos over social justice. There is nothing wrong with that. But then again, it's always smart to consider that social media is what we make it and, in some cases, maybe we're making too much of it like the colosseum as outrage is amplified and the participating crowd wants to extol a pound of flesh.

Sometimes that is a good thing. Sometimes that is not such a good thing. The best rules of thumb are to always check the facts, always consider the source (even friends are fallible), and never pile on the latest crisis just to score social media points for the quip. Save some energy for things that matter.

What do you think? Does social media provide more amplification or distraction in the world today?

Wednesday, June 11

Marketers Renew Their Interest In The Customer Experience

Content marketing might have a lion's share of the social conversation, but more and more marketers are starting to see customer experience (a.k.a. CX) as the single most exciting opportunity for business this year. According to one recent study conducted by Adobe, customer experience even edged out mobile by a narrow margin for the first time in recent years.

It only makes sense. Content marketing and mobile are both part of the customer experience, which includes all customer facing touch points (and I might argue internal facing touch points that can influence customer facing touch points). Ergo, the best lead generation on the planet is pointless if the only outcome is to target those leads with long-term loss leaders such as email spam or telemarketing.

"Every ad is an investment in the long-term image of the brand." — David Ogilvy 

Ogilvy had it right in that every advertisement, message, and touch point has a brand impact. It's only by mapping out the entire customer experience from the first touch point to post-experience that business owners and executives can begin to understand the relationship forged with customers.  

The customer experience concept goes beyond the sales funnel. A typical customer experience journey begins with a need, consideration, engagement, evaluation, purchase, receipt, usage, and post purchase. 

Need Awareness. The three most common types of need awareness are those that are externally generated (friends, influencers, or businesses pinpoint a known problem or unknown need), internally generated (an individual has a problem and is searching for a solution), or purposefully sought after (an individual who already knows what they need). All of them require a different approach. 

Solution Consideration. Once someone accepts there is need, brand loyalty tends to be the first consideration. People generally rely on brand familiarity and measured previous experiences before considering solutions from other companies with which they have had little or no experience. There are exceptions (such as price-motivated customers that never develop brand loyalty). 

Customer Engagement. As part of the decision-making process, customers will likely visit websites, social network pages, retail outlets, mobile apps, visit links, or engage in any number of other direct touch points. Always remember that even if the company is absent from the conversation (such as comments left on a review site), customers still consider the experience as a brand touch point. 

Customer Evaluation. Everything during the experience — from perceived need fulfillment and frontline staff to presentation and ease of purchase — may have an impact the brand relationship. This includes outside interruptions and messages intended to reach customers earlier in the sales cycle. In fact, this is one of the most neglected truths in marketing: the sales funnel is not linear.

Point Of Purchase. Even some of the best companies never consider how many negative impressions they introduce at the point of purchase. Anytime they include an additional charge (e.g., baggage claim), charge too much for shipping and handling, attempt to add on impulse offers or unneeded plus sales, make it difficult to claim a rebate, add unjustifiable financing terms, introduce post-purchase policies, etc., customers add it to the weight of their experience. 

Delivery/Installation. Many marketers consider the the point of purchase to be the end of the sales funnel, but the purchase is only the beginning of the customer experience. How something is shipped, the length of time required for delivery, the ease of installation, additional costs that were unintended or expected are generally attributed to either the manufacturer or retail outlet. 

Promise Delivery. If modern marketing has learned anything in the last century, it ought to be that the expectation marketing creates with a value proposition needs to be closely aligned with the ability to deliver on that promise. It's often the difference between the proposition and promise delivery that makes or breaks the company. 

Post-Purchase Satisfaction. Even after a purchase is made and the customer owns the product, post-purchase touch points have an impact. When companies send too many post-purchase incentives, any time the company is embroiled in controversy, or if the life cycle of the product or service fails to meet expectations (and sometime even if it does), post-purchase satisfaction remains ever-present.

Every touch point deserves consideration within a communication strategy. 

When you begin to think from the perspective of the customer's experience, things change. Retailers don't settle for a low price leader claim, they make lower prices part of the customer experience. Innovators do more than make a motorcycle helmet, they augment reality to make it safer and smarter. Shoe companies do more than tell you to just do it, they innovate the tools to help you get it done while considering the customer experience from introduction to the next innovation. 

At every stage of the customer experience, there is considerable room for communication. Marketers have an opportunity to express a need, help people find a solution, ensure the right message, make purchasing easy without being overbearing, create the first post-purchase touch point, reinforce the promise delivery, and continue to add value (not sales pressure) until the product or service life cycle is complete. 

Marketers desperately need to develop comprehensive plans that better address the customer experience with the convergence of next generation digital, engineering, and personalization. According to the same Adobe study that revealed CX is steadily gaining ground, nearly 75 percent of respondents recognized that marketing still doesn't have the skill sets needed fully realize tech.

While that may be true today, it won't be true tomorrow. The next round of communication convergence will come with an engineering edge — customer experience baked into the products we buy and the services we select. After all, isn't that the real reason companies like Uber and Lift disrupted the marketplace? Technology helped them change the customer experience.

Wednesday, June 4

The Written Word Is More Visual Than You Think

A recent article in The Guardian recalled a 1974 study conducted by Elizabeth Loftus and John Palmer. The psychologists asked students to watch a video clip that involved a multi-car pileup.

After watching the video, two-thirds of the students were asked one of two questions: How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?” or “How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The other third, the control group, wasn't asked a question after watching the video.

When the students returned to the lab a week later, they were asked if there was any broken glass around the accident. Surprisingly, students didn't recall what they saw in the video. Rather, more students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "smashed" had been used in the question. Less students recalled seeing broken glass if the word "hit" was used or if they were not asked a question.

"If you can't draw, you can't think."

The first time I heard the quote it was part of a presentation delivered by Josh Ulm, director of product design at Adobe, at a leadership retreat for AIGA. It wasn't until later that I discovered an earlier manifestation of the quote in an article written by Michael Gough, who also works at Adobe.

Where the quote originated doesn't matter, but it was one of several that really stuck with me. There is some truth in it, given that drawing acts as a bridge between the inner world of imagination and reason and the outer world of communication and sharing. But it's not the only bridge for our brains.

There is increasing evidence that writing helps us think too, but not always the kind we're used to in a post-penmanship world. Although Common Core is notorious for wanting to kids to rely on keyboards earlier, some studies suggest handwriting is extremely important to the learning process.

It makes sense. When we stop trying to divorce writing and drawing, we quickly remember that they are akin to each other. They are akin through handwriting, which opens the same cognitive thought process that drawing does. They are akin in graphic arts through typography. And they are akin in communication because they can both provide context or change our perception.

We don't even need to rely on a study to know it. If you ever had a friend call for a caption contest, you already know that whatever photograph is shown will adapt to whatever line of copy we give it.

The future of communication is a mixed medium

While there is an increasingly persistent conversation that attempts to separate language from art and art from language, the opposite holds true. The best artists know the title can be just as important as the painting. The best writers remember that the words leap off the page when they are vivid.

Just as it is impossible to pick between Sunflowers by Van Gogh over The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (or Pythagoras over Beethoven), it is impossible to separate art and language when they are so often the same. And in knowing this, we might work harder to teach our children the importance of writing and handwriting and drawing and painting and music and photography in the greater context not only of communication, but also in our ability to think and then share our thoughts.

It's only when writers recognize the structure of their content matters and artists recognize their work is a language or perhaps several languages that either elevate the experience, expression, or object of their communication. John Dewey once wrote (Art as Experience, 1934) about art by saying: "Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. Rather they are many languages. For each art has its own medium and that medium is fitted for one kind of communication. Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in any other tongue."

And the takeaway? Merely flipping the medium for more attention is not an answer. Sooner or later you have to pledge yourself to stop making boring art, whether or not that art is a vibrant painting or handful of words scrawled across the page. Sooner or later, we have to recognize that every skill set (typing and handwriting and drawing and coding) can be an important part of the experience — our own and the one we invite others to share as an experience or expression. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, May 28

How Social Connections Helped Save The Town Of Neptune

Veronica Mars
When Rob Thomas and Kristen Bell succeeded in raising an astonishing $5.7 million from more than 90,000 donors to produce a movie centered on the one-time teen private detective Veronica Mars, most people called it one of the greatest Kickstarter successes of all time. But much more than a crowd-funding platform success, the Veronica Mars movie marks a much bigger milestone.

As Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler called it, the Veronica Mars movie is one of the greatest fan stories of all time. He's mostly right. Kickstarter provided the platform, but it was the dedicated fan base of the cancelled television series that convinced Thomas and the cast to consider a revival.

Fans stuck with Veronica Mars for six years.

The fans didn't just promote the cancelled television series online. They promoted it offline too. And even after rumors that Thomas was making a movie in 2009 fell apart, few of them gave up hope. They continued to promote the series with contests, events, book clubs, and social networks.

"We were told that we made a difference in the decision to even launch the Kickstarter campaign," says Mark Thompson for Neptune Rising. "But once the the Kickstarter launched, we were just a pebble in the storm that represents the true fandom of Veronica Mars."

According to Thompson, he heard about the Kickstarter campaign in its seventh hour and Thomas had already raised his first $1 million for the film. Within 24 hours, the campaign raised $2 million.

At the same time, the entire campaign proved what the Neptune Rising team had said all along. The fan base behind Veronica Mars was much bigger than any social media metrics might demonstrate.

Even on the last day of the Kickstarter campaign, Thomas asked fans to meet him at an Austin bar. He anticipated 30-40 people. More than 700 fans showed up, including Jason Dohring.

Rob Thomas
"I always had high hopes," said Thomas at the campaign party. "And yet there was this little bit of doubt in my mind ... what if the people telling us to make a movie are the same 20 people?"

His one little worry is now long put to rest. Not only are there thousands of fans behind Veronica Mars, but they also represent the first wave of a shifting paradigm for television and film production that started in 2007. The size of an audience isn't the only consideration. Its passion is just as important.

Even after fans invested $5.7 million into what became a $6 million film, they also turned out to see it in theaters. The movie went on to earn another $2 million during its opening weekend. After earning its top ten release spot, it slowly tapered off and settled somewhere around $3.3 million.

Although it would likely take about $12 million for Warner Brothers to really consider a second movie, the fans who helped make the first one possible are doing everything to ensure their neo-noir detective won't slip away again. They're promoting DVD sales as well as a Veronica Mars novel.

You can stay up to date on the progress of the film via By The Numbers. While many fans already own a copy of the Veronica Mars DVD, it's not uncommon for fan bases to spike sales by purchasing an additional DVD and gifting it to a friend. They've also spiked reviews, giving the movie higher ratings on iTunes and Amazon than most mid-level releases (although critics genuinely liked it too).

If you haven't seen the film, suffice to say that diehard fans will love it as Veronica Mars resurrected. It takes place immediately after she finishes law school with Thomas and the cast planting plenty of insider tidbits and cameos to thank the fans for their long, hard fight. Unfortunately, everyone was so caught up in this as a labor of love, it wasn't as good as it could have been for a true introduction.

And this is the reason it didn't do even better at the box office. It felt too much like a reunion.

Fans are ready to stick with Veronica Mars for another six. 

Even so, does it matter? Warner Brothers could easily take the information it gleaned from this release and adjust for the next budget accordingly. Thomas could also pen a script that stays away from the reunion obligations and fights to make Mars into the neo-noir thriller she can be.

The fans, it seems, are already working to support such an effort. Not only are fans from sites like Neptune Rising promoting DVD sales, but they are also coordinating book readings for the first official Veronica Mars book, Veronica Mars: An Original Mystery by Rob Thomas: The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Vintage) with Jennifer Graham.

"As far as what's next, we'll have to see," Thompson told me. "But the fans of Neptune Rising plan on seeing even more of our favorite sleuth on either the big screen or the small screen."

There isn't any reason to doubt them. Years ago, when an entire season of cancellations happened to decent shows (The Black Donnellys, Jericho, Journeyman, and Veronica Mars), Veronica Mars landed in the uncomfortable position of being on the near-abandoned bubble. It looked like fan efforts were going to fail. Seven year later, there are more diehard fans today than there were then.

It's something to think about. In one form or another, Veronica Mars seems a long way off from solving her last case. And likewise, the movie proves that how networks and studios size up potential franchises is still evolving into smaller but increasingly loyal pools of viewers. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 21

Real Marketing Strategies Aren't Built On Search Or Social

The most common explanation for pushback related to changes to social and search platform changes is that people are resistant to change. Some companies have even mapped out classic reactions to it.

It follows a cycle. People deny the change will happen and then become upset when it actually occurs. This is sometimes followed by confusion, depression, and crisis. We're seeing it today.

Companies were laying people off after Google made changes to Panda. Companies used teams like reachpocalypse after Facebook became more like paid media. Both platform changes have been highly publicized as if they are unique, but it happens all the time — tweaks, adaptions, and deaths.

The Internet is in a constant state of change. Some people like to equate it to a world map, but it plays out much more like the chaos of a new cosmos. Every day, major players use their gravitational juice to expand, contract, and buy out other solar systems. It's a billion dollar game being played by titans who largely ignore the little people who worship or try to exploit them, except for the occasional swat.

"We're playing in their backyard but don't want to play by their rules - conundrum." — Shawn Elledge, Integrated Marketing Summit

My response? There are plenty of backyards. Problem solved. 

This isn't a new idea (and it doesn't mean that you abandon Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. outright). All it means is that anybody who has been deep in the social space for any length of time has learned a lesson or two about playing in other people's backyards with other people's sand. Just not en masse.

Sure, social and search can work wonders for some companies. But it doesn't work that way for all companies. It largely depends on who they are, what they do, and the kind of customer they reach.

For example, it makes sense for search and social to play a prominent role in the outreach efforts of an Asian restaurant in Las Vegas that derived most of its business from hotel deliveries. While the restaurant has a loyal customer base, its primary revenue was derived from hotel staff referrals and visitors searching for Asian takeout. It made sense because there are two primary search drivers.

1. People search for things because they have no idea what exists.

2. People search for things because they know they exist somewhere.

Content marketing and social media were mostly built to help capture the first kind of searchers while simultaneously engaging a few of those people enough to make them second kind searchers or, better yet, direct referrers who bypass searching all together. Ergo, sharing is an expression of gratitude that sometimes creates second kind searchers — people who have heard of you, your product, your service, your idea, your company. For a restaurant, it might mean someone saying "make sure you eat at >place< when you are in >city<" or it could manifest on any number of review and travel sites.

Conversely, a speciality commercial contractor may have have a presence on social networks and earn reasonable placement on search engines, but search and social are not primary drivers. Generally speaking, this kind of business isn't driven by first kind searchers. They rely on second kind searchers and direct referrers. As a result, the social and search portion of a marketing plan differ.

Instead of popularity, the company needed to engage decision makers within their space — designers, architects, and general contractors who would have a specific need for the specialty provided. And the best way to accomplish that as a new company (but veteran owners) not to load up on search and social, but to create content that featured the designers, architects, and general contractors they were trying to reach and thereby giving their target audience an opportunity to become direct referrers.

In both cases, while the restaurant clearly has some reliance on search (which was still eclipsed by hotel staff recommendations), neither company was overtly reliant on fleeting tips and tricks to gain temporary boosts from a search or social networks that are all too often treated as marketing channels. There are better ways to invest a marketing budget than website traffic or social network likes alone.

Put the power of choice in the hands of customers not the platforms. 

The point is that all marketing plans ought to revolve around your own backyard, where it can be much more effectively managed. This is accomplished not by understanding platforms so much as understanding your customers, what they need, and when and how to deliver on that need.

The more you understand about your existing customer, the more likely you will be able to expand that base by delivering on the value proposition and/or other closely content they will value. And this approach makes much more sense than what many companies do to inflate the appearance of success.

1. Companies spend money to rank higher across accidental and unrelated search queries.

2. Companies spend money to send people to social networks instead of their backyard.

3. Companies spend money to interrupt consumers at the wrong time and place.

The most important takeaway for any organization is that all platforms change and they change so often that marketing professionals ought to be weary about any ticks and trips related to those three tactics because today's boost will be tomorrow's penalty and today's best investment will be tomorrow's waste of time. Stay focused on the constants of your company and customers first.

Wednesday, May 14

Five Popular Content Writing Tips That Are Dead Wrong

With the proliferation of technology, some people assume that writing proficiency is increasing and not diminishing. This isn't the case. One recent OECD study shows that despite having higher than average educational attainment, adults in the United States are below average in basic literacy.

How low? The United States ranked 16th out of 23 countries in literacy proficiency, with one in six adults scoring below level 2 (illiterate) on the literacy scale. Perhaps more troubling, college graduates demonstrate comparatively miserable scores. This means that degrees are beginning to create a meaningless expectation that graduates possess basic skill sets.

"Moreover, the relationship between parents’ education and skills proficiency varies across generations," the study says. "In Korea and the United States, for example, the relationship between socio-economic background and skills proficiency is much weaker among younger adults than among older adults."

While some might not be surprised to see the study cite a decline in literacy, education is not at fault exclusively. Despite employers wanting employees with strong written and verbal communication skills, more and more professionals promote content tips that reinforce the idea that writing is less important than it was in previous decades. Here are five myths that demonstrate it.

1. Everything is trending toward less words so write less. While writing tight and economy of language are important objectives for all writers, writing "less" is always superseded by the idea that content needs to be as long as it takes to effectively communicate a point. More can be memorable.

Never mind what big brands do. Copywriters have long known that big brands have the advantage of product familiarity. It's easy for Coca-Cola to show a big picture of a polar bear and a can of coke and have people understand it. Coca-Cola literally leverages a lifetime of marketing about Coke, its taste, and its product distinction. They don't write "less." They wrote "more" in a very, very big way.

If you tried to launch a new brand of soda the same way, it would likely fail. New voices in social media and content marketing face the same challenge. Well-known names writing about social media can say something in a few sentences. Newcomers and less familiar voices have to provide proof.

2. Adding exciting words to marketing copy will jazz it up. The biggest division between advertising copywriters and less experienced marketing content writers is seen in their word choices. Many marketers think that people respond to "greatest," "most exciting," and "best ever." They don't.

People respond best to facts because they convey memorable bits of information while empty claims lack conviction. You can write that a car has "zoom" and possibly attract attention (even if it is cliche), but if you don't back it up with facts — 0-50 mph in 60 seconds — people will easily draw their own conclusions. They might even conclude that all your hype is really hyperbole.

The truth is that empty claims are as boring as cliches. They are also harder to remember because they blend into the background like other generalities. A restaurant that sells delicious chicken is much more forgettable than a restaurant that sells crispy fried chicken, oven-roasted chicken, or free-range chicken. While all of them could be delicious, facts help people make purchasing decisions.

3. Writing catchy copy takes almost no time at all. Real writers know that packing conviction into a few short graphs or a headline demands discipline. It requires editing skills, proofreading skills, cutting, rewriting, and then more cutting and more rewriting. Writing tight takes more time, not less.

If you ever study automotive marketing, you'll find that the best manufacturers tell different parts of a big story across several mediums. Television commercials and some print advertisements are often nothing more than invitations to the rest of the message. The bulk of the marketing message comes later, perhaps in a brochure or on a website where it makes sense to provide details for people who are actively purchasing a car.

The point? Looks can be deceiving. One ad with a 3-5 word headline has an entire novel of strategy, psychology, and content behind it. Very few good writers just jot down whatever comes to mind. For most, even if some spark did originate in the shower, the hard work happens before and after the fact.

4. Persuasion and believability comes from good writing alone. There is some truth to it, but not really. Even when writing is beautifully conceived and perfectly written, it still needs some help. This is especially true for advertising copy and marketing content because people know it is biased.

When facts alone are not enough, content writers can employ several dozen approaches to elevate content credibility. These can include any number of customer testimonials, third-party endorsements or research studies, independent case studies, organization success stories, performance tests, key performance indicators, objective measurements, and even guarantees (provided they aren't cliche).

Even marketing content writers can boost their credibility by providing links to other stories and sources. It demonstrates that the opinions, thoughts, and conclusions weren't generated in a closet but within a greater and informed context. Let readers know you've done some homework.

5. One medium will rule them all and in the darkness bind them. There is increasing chatter that visual communication is outpacing written communication on the net. It's true and untrue at the same time. Images can boost both attraction and retention but the notion that images beat words is fiction.

Good copywriters (and perhaps all writers) have always known not to think in terms of words alone. Most are taught or teach themselves to think about communication as a mixed medium and in multiple dimensions. Pictures, symbols, shapes, layouts, and different components like audio and video can all contribute something to whatever needs to be communicated.

The idea is to think visually, no matter what role writing plays as part of the communication. Ask good educators. They know it too. Teaching that includes audio, visual, and written communication creates powerful connections and increased retention. So don't expect writing to lose its luster anytime soon. It will only become more important.

The solution for a better educated work force is to stop making excuses. 

The current education system isn't exclusively to blame. All five of these "tips" indirectly contribute to the greater myth that the written word is an inferior form of communication. It's not. The written word in one of the most accurate and flexible means of communication ever conceived and we're living in an era where we can access more of it than ever before in human history.

As communication professionals, we ought to do everything we can to support the written word rather than dumbing down marketing communication to cover for the abundance of bad writing being produced on daily basis. It seems to me that overtly short content, marketing fluff, rushed content, unsupported claims, and pretty pictures aren't a solution to combat illiteracy but a contribution to it.

These topics and how to make a positive impression with clear, concise, and grammatically-correct personal or business writing will be part of a half-day program, Editing & Proofreading Your Work, on June 6 at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In addition to discussing current trends, the class focuses on common mistakes that writers make and how to assess your individual writing skills.

Wednesday, May 7

Anybody Can Sell Lipstick. Few People Can Sell Hope.

Sell desire.
If Charles Revson were alive today, I'm not convinced that the current state of cosmetic content marketing would impress him. Almost everyone in the industry is trying to sell makeup with it.

He might even find it ironic. Before he revolutionized the cosmetics industry starting in 1932, everyone counted the same measurements that social media experts count today — impressions, shares, leads, and sales. He never did. Rather, he was among the first to say he didn't sell makeup.

"In our factory, we make lipstick," Revson once clarified. "In our advertising, we sell hope."

Never mind that during his tenure Revlon went on to dominate market share, he never sold makeup. What he did instead was win over women by opening their minds to the idea that they could look as good as anyone. He helped turn makeup into a means of self-expression rather than conformity.

Somewhere along the way, after Revson was no longer part of the picture, the once major player in makeup began to lose steam. A few years ago, the company only made $1.4 billion in sales (half of that outside the United States). While that might seem respectable, it's 1/20th of what L'Oreal did.

So what happened? Revlon started selling makeup in such a mass produced fashion that it fell out of favor as the provocative brand it once was. Instead of women feeling like they could be as attractive as Revlon celebrities, they felt forced to conform to the standard set by those celebrities.

It's bad business, but it happens to brands all the time. Brands lose their way in the pursuit of sales over vision. And once they lose their way, it's hard to get it back (no matter how hard they try).

How to make the Revson vision relevant today in content marketing.

I once knew an advertising principal that prided himself on "not being in the advertising business but rather being in the check cashing business." He liked to cash checks. The quip sometimes lured sales-minded businesses in for the short term, but only the short term. It's hard to relate to people when they are always looking at your wallet much the same way it is hard to read sales-driven content.

What people want out of advertising agencies isn't a tax write off. Most of them want to grow their business by opening new markets, increasing market share, expanding distribution, etc. But what happens all too often is they get sidetracked because someone sells them on the ideal of making themselves (and their shareholders) rich in the short term by lowering costs and increasing sales.

Sure, the method works for some companies but not all them. When people want to look and feel their best, they don't necessarily think to search for "cheap lipstick" and then sort through reams of marketing content and purchased reviews. They search and look for something different. And once they find whatever that something might be, they might decide lipstick is part of the equation.

In other words, to be successful in content marketing today, you have to think beyond a dozen celebrity endorsements, a thousand posts about cosmetics, or a hundred different white papers on lipstick. What you need to ask yourself is how your organization can make a psychological connection to the right person (as opposed to as many people as possible) at the right time.

If Revson were alive today, he might support content marketing designed to add value to the lives of his customers but I doubt he would sell lipstick. It's very likely he would still sell hope but on a different canvas. Maybe your organization would be better off taking a page from this playbook too.

Instead of trying to move the sales needle, recognize that the best form of persuasion isn't built upon what you have to sell but what people perceive they need. And if you really listen to them, you likely discover that they only need lipstick some of the time while they need hope (or whatever might correlate to your product) almost all of the time.

Wednesday, April 30

Content Marketing Isn't Always About Content Creation

Given the number of public relations firms with their feet in social media and digital marketing, one would think more organizations could demonstrate content creation restraint. They don't.

Content creation continues to be the focus of most digital marketing and public relations campaigns and it's starting to backfire. There is so much being produced nowadays that some people are rightly asking how much is too much?

A few seem to think we've already crossed that threshold. Maybe so. The deluge is so huge that the quality of the content doesn't seem to matter as much anymore. The mantra of most programs can be summed up as: Create as much low value content as possible with tightly written link-bait headlines that can be distributed via incessant automation systems in order to inflate website traffic as evidence of causation for unspecified and erroneously labeled key performance indicators.

Sound familiar? It ought too. The vast majority of organizations approach content marking on measurable clicks (a.k.a. actions and conversions) that are overtly and painfully rewarded by online measurement systems. Entire books have been written about it. Frequency breeds familiarly, they say.

Too much frequency also breeds contempt. 

The real problem with more and more marketing programs is that content has become akin to being a house guest in someone else's online experience. Worse, this house guest has become so narcessistic that they act like they own the place just because they invested in a shiny new suit.

Sure, an organization might own the space where it publishes, but it doesn't own the stream most people subscribe to. They turned to digital mediums to escape interruption rather than be pummeled by them.

Unless more organizations wake up, it's very likely that the remedy for bad journalism and content shock is more and more of it until it becomes too expensive and ultimately people tune it out. It is an inevitable outcome, which is the same one that once caused direct mail houses to surrender 20 percent conversion rates for less than 2 percent between the 1970s and 2000s. They just sent more mail.

The alternative is to modify the content mix.

While some organizations are better suited to it than others, modifying content creation with content participation remains one of the most viable solutions. Rather than organizations expressing themselves with content creation, they can invite consumers or small business owners to contribute some of it.

The National Park Foundation, along with several partner agencies, is currently managing one such campaign. Outdoorsmen and amateur photographers provide photos and the foundation supplies the community and distribution.

Last year, nearly 20,000 photos were submitted between May and December. Winning images received cash prizes, outdoor gear, hotel packages, and an annual Federal Recreation Lands Pass.

Sure, Share The Experience is packaged as an annual contest that invites people to explore the nation’s federal lands and share their experiences with photography but it's more than that. While the prizes provide a gratitude-based incentive, they seem secondary to the primary participatory engagement.

At the same time, the photographs submitted by real people demonstrate the benefits of a federal parks program much more effectively than if these partner agencies produced and promoted 54 photographs every day. It's also more cost-effective than attempting to cover some 500 million acres of federal lands with professional photographers and park professionals alone.

Content participation is more structured than a crowdsourced contest.

A few years ago, we conceived a similar approach to developing content for early cause marketing campaigns, independent film releases, and startup social media programs. In essence, as long as the program structure guides participants (as opposed to runaway hashtag efforts, content participation efforts can have a dramatic and positive impact on exciting professional content creation programs.

Just keep in mind that running a "contest" on its own isn't enough. Effective campaigns are designed to place participants and stakeholders on equal footing. And any resulting exposure of a well-executed campaign will likely be a by-product of achieving larger objectives. In this case, it enriches the parks program, safeguards our national heritage, and inspires the next generation of parks enthusiasts.

What about your organization? What can you do to transform the "us and them" vernacular into a more collaborative "we" program? And if it isn't considering participatory efforts online and off, then maybe it's time to see how many counted clicks are destined to become disenfranchised customers or adversaries.

The kayaking photo above was submitted to Share The Experience by Courtney Kotewa. She was in northern Michigan near Essexville when she took the winning shot.
 

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