Wednesday, February 11

The Psychology Of Facebook Can Get A Little Bit Crazy

As much as marketers hold on to hope for the promised land of big data — one algorithm to rule them all and in the darkness bind them — the information they covet remains convoluted. Big data can't crack what consumers don't share because algorithms play by the program rules and people never do.

One such study making the rounds even proves the point in its attempt to demonstrate the opposite. Despite some headline capturing claims that Facebook "likes" can assess your personality just as accurately as your spouse (and better than your friends), most people were miffed when they accepted an open invitation to take the algorithm for a test run. It seems that results vary.

The algorithm developed by Michal Kosinski at the Stanford University Computer Science Department, for example, pinned me down as a 25-year-old single female who is unsatisfied with life (among other things). It wasn't the only data fail among other friends who tried it. The model missed and missed and missed. There are reasons why, with mine being the easiest to decipher.

My personal usage of Facebook is best described as treating a few minutes out of every day as casual Friday. My connections are mostly limited to friends, family, and long-time online acquaintances. My principal activities include catching up with what they are doing, sharing stories about my children, and posting the occasional baked goods pictures. Why? Because I don't really do that anywhere else.

I also make a conscious effort to avoid controversy, not because I'm "agreeable" but because that social network isn't a place I want to invite deep discussion, debate, or any drama. And what that means is, in sum, that only a sliver of my personality comes across on Facebook. For others, I'm told, the assessments are wrong for a different reason. Not everyone is completely honest on Facebook, not all profiles are complete, and people "like" different pages and things for reasons you never expect.

Why big data models miss the mark with psychological stereotypes. 

Beyond the most obvious — that any algorithm is only as good as the input it is allowed to compile — there is always unexpected trouble when stereotypes are introduced into a psychological test. According to the aforementioned model, the algorithm assumes people who like "Snooki" or "Beer Pong" are outgoing and people who like "Doctor Who" and "Wikipedia" are not. Men who like "Wicked, The Musical" were defined as more likely to be homosexual and those liking "WWE" or "Bruce Lee" were not. Those who like "the Bible" are said to be more cooperative while those who like "Atheism" are competitive. And so on, and so forth.

Says who? Says some of the data that came from the myPersonality project designed by David Stillwell, deputy director of the Psychometrics Centre at the University of Cambridge. Between 2008 and 2012, myPersonality users agreed to take a survey, which asked participants about their personal details and personality traits. Their answers were then assigned to buckets such as openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. (The new test delivers those results too.)

But no matter how those results are derived, the best an algorithm can do is capture a data point and put it in a bucket. It has a much harder time recognizing intent, realizing something a human might notice like, let's say, that Joey isn't pregnant but his cousin June might be. The baby shower is coming up and he has been searching for and liking pages that might give him an idea of what to buy.

Stripped of any overreach that would paint Joey as an expectant mother, there is one area where analytics sometimes succeed. It might recognize that Joey is in the market for some baby gifts (assuming this deduction is made before and not after he finds a gift). Or perhaps, if Joey has also liked certain television shows, then one might deduce that he would be interested in similar shows. Or perhaps, some data might be employed to fine tune the tone of a message much like direct mail writers once did using PRISM research data.

But even then, minor research advantages were tempered by Rule No. 7 in Advertising in the past. It's the rule that reminded commercial writers that people tend to lie. They are predisposed to "like" things (or even "list" things in a Neilsen ratings book) that make themselves look a little brighter, better, smarter, or savvy regardless of what they really watch, like, or do. They also tend to share more positive life events than they do negative ones, connect and disconnect with people more easily, and like pages that friends recommend because they think they are doing their friends a favor. Maybe.

The irony in that? Some studies suggest that social networks can unintentionally contribute to depression, indicate anxiety related to relationship insecurity, and become as addictive as cocaine.

And while all three studies might provide an interesting read, marketers could probably learn more about their markets from the SizeUp tool provided by the Small Business Administration; any number of other affordable data providers like SEC filings, BizStats, or even the United States Census, or proven research methods such as consumer interviews, focus groups, and tests with a control group.

Does that sound too time consuming, cumbersome, or expensive? Then just wait until you see how expensive a product or service launch can be based on social network data alone. It's a little bit crazy.

Wednesday, February 4

Anyone Can Hate A Press Release. You Need Courage To Love It.

News Release Struggles
If there is a single piece of public relations communication that everyone seems to loathe, then let it be the press release. Journalists hate them because they are often poorly written irrelevant non-news bites. Public relations practitioners hate them because they're boring to write, seldom read, and rarely get the job done. Business people hate them because they are at the heart of many PR nightmares.

It's true. One would be hard pressed to find a piece of short-form communication that has been blamed for more heartburn, headache, and hemorrhages than a press release. Averaging a mere 450 words, there seems to be nothing more vile. They are received with the same appreciation as an STD.

"Did you get what I sent you?" asks the practitioner forced to make the call.

"Yeah, I did. I'm seeing my doctor today," mumbles the journalist before hanging up.

This type of exchange is a far cry from where the press release started. The first modern press release is most often attributed to Ivy Lee, whose agency released information regarding the 1906 Atlantic City train wreck. The idea was to provide a statement to journalists ahead of rumors and conjecture.

From this, the release began its steady evolution at the hands of practitioners who used it brilliantly, not so brilliantly, and sometimes with unscrupulous intent. The most common problems include bad writing, inaccurate information, irrelevant content, and one of the most liberal definitions of what constitutes news in existence today with the some companies believing that a ribbon cutting for a new office water cooler might find some vacant space in a daily. Maybe it will. Don't count on it.

A few years ago, I rounded up the ratio between press releases and news stories on any given day. On any given day, there were 4.3 million press releases distributed to fill 1.4 million news stories, most of which never originated from a press release. The odds weren't great for a press release.

Nowadays, it can be even more challenging. Even when news stories do originate from a press release, the impact is considerably less than it was ten years ago. Most media outlets only have a diluted share of a shrinking readership/viewership, one that is plagued by content overload.

The media have a hard enough time soliciting interest in viable breaking news stories let alone trying to pitch something less ubiquitous like a ribbon cutting for an office water cooler. So why bother?

Why the press release is an underrated workhorse. 

From the perspective of the instructor, there isn't a better medium from which to teach students about public relations writing than a press release, even if I rarely call them that. I've always preferred the term 'news release' because it helps shape the content. News releases aren't about press plugs alone.

Determining News. Some practitioners think that pitches are enough. Sometimes they are. Sometimes they aren't. The difference is in the details. New releases challenge practitioners to determine the most viable news topics, find relevant data, and build a framework for something that can stand alone, be rewritten by the media, or spark a different approach to the story. Many pitches aren't news stories as much as they have the potential to be news stories. The legwork might not be complete.

Writing Stories. News releases don't necessarily feel like the most exciting assignments even if they require more strategic savvy and creative thinking to cut though the clutter. The structure, style, and format tend to be rigid without letting the writer off the hook of making the topic interesting. When you're only allotted about ten 2-3 sentence paragraphs, two of which are likely quotes, it requires considerable research, organization, accuracy, and clarity to get it right. Errors stand out easily.

Understanding Audiences. Public relations practitioners are mostly taught to think in terms of publics — various groups and stakeholders. But in order to write an effective news release they must not only consider whatever publics appear in their communication plan but also the audiences that subscribe to targeted magazines or media outlets and the journalists and editors (sometimes on a scale of one to one) who will ultimately decide whether a story that includes their organization will run.

Developing Relationships. News releases make for great introductions inside the organization while the practitioner researches subject matter experts and outside the organization while working with the media. Never mind the myth about public relations professionals who claim to have connections — any practitioner who takes press releases seriously can develop equally respectful media relationships overnight simply by providing what editors and journalists care about first — news.

The benefits, of course, don't begin and end with the practitioner. The organization benefits too.

Organizational Branding. Some marketing-minded practitioners might attempt to measure the outcome of every single release like an email blast, but the real value comes from the long-term game. The measure of your next ten or twenty or fifty news stories will tell the public (and your publics) about your organization than any single piece of content you produce. Ergo, what people hear about your company over the long haul will often determine what they say about you when it counts.

Content Testing. As mentioned earlier, news releases are an excellent medium to vet potential content. If it comes together in a release, internal content marketers and copywriters can extrapolate information to create content — blog posts that ring with a friendlier conversational tone or a visual exploration of the topic to share someplace like Instagram.

Professional Credibility. Even novice practitioners know that a third-party source, such as a member of the media, can elevate an organization's credibility. This is somewhat true today. But more than that, the press release itself (unless its news tone is abandoned for marketing fluff) has a broader reach than media. Whether published on a website or via wire services, analysts and other professionals pay attention to them too — especially in science, technology, and business.

The point is pretty simple — stop underestimating the news release and treating it like a throwaway plug that deserves about 15 minutes of an intern's time to toss together before firing out to a database of reporters who aren't the lease bit interested. Think of it instead like a content package written to get conversations started — inside and outside the organization. It's a framework for almost everything.

As such, if the news release can do it all when you do it right — achieve a short-term outcome, add to a long-term objective, brand and position, introduce and win over, spark conversation or create controversy, establish relationships inside and outside the company, raise questions and provide answers, establish credibility and record historical relevance, provide context and inspire content, feel official without being the final piece, and demonstrate a propensity (if not a passion) for solid communication — then why not love it? All it takes is a little bit of courage to expect better

Wednesday, January 28

What's All The Beef About The Naked Burger Ad?

With GoDaddy pulling its "Puppy Mill" ad, all eyes are now on Charlotte McKinney for Carl's Jr. to steal the top spot for most controversial Super Bowl advertisement this year. The advertisement, which will only run on the West Coast, features the top model bounding  through a farmer's market.

What makes the advertisement "controversial" is that McKinney appears to be naked in the majority of the spot, thanks to camera framing and prop placement. Feeding the fantasy is a series of gawking men who alternate between being distracted by the blonde beauty and fondling produce in front of her.

The commercial is supposed to sell a new hamburger for the quick service franchise, but mostly it sells McKinney. She usurps Paris Hilton and other socialites that Carl's Jr. has employed to sell food with sex. This time the caustic relationship is being all natural, alluding to nakedness and not altered.

Overall, the commercial does a great job at selling McKinney, but not such a great job at selling product. Most people struggle to remember the name of the new burger, a problem that isn't new for the fast food chain on the bottom of the big five burger businesses.


The problem isn't new. Most people don't remember what kind of burger Hilton or Heidi Klum ate either (and some can't remember the chain that supplied the sloppy eats). And even after doubling down on their decision to make premier hamburgers part of the product offering for Carl's Jr. and Hardees, the CKE business model has yet to eek out one percent of the quick burger market share.

To put that into perspective, its primary competition — Burger King, Wendy's, and Jack In The Box — have all captured 2 percent of the market. Meanwhile, McDonald's isn't even in the same category, owning 19 percent of the market share. The only reason it feels like the two compete for customers is that Carl's Jr. requires stores to spend about 5.8 percent of their sales on advertising to supplement regional advertising buys. In other words, the CKE sister chains tend to be more talk and less eat.

The Charlotte McKinney ad is less controversial and more boring. 

Let's be clear. McKinney is not boring. She does a fabulous job with a bad script and mediocre concept. Her presence in the spot is largely the freshest thing about it. The chain traded up in terms of spokespeople. It's a shame they didn't trade up their creative too.

The advertisement is a rehash of Benny Hill comedy with an Austin Powers twist. It pretends to be controversial, mostly because Carl's Jr. claims it is too hot for television, a boast that perpetuates some outdated masculine myth that women used to be sexually stymied but are now liberated, which is good news for men who love to objectify them.

Aside from that, it also perpetuates the myths that sex sells and attention is the end all of advertising. On the contrary, sex doesn't sell and publicity is cheap. Naked women aren't clever. They are a punt when every other play had failed and nobody in the room can come up with anything remotely clever.

This lack of creativity might even be contagious. Sex in advertising has been on a steady rise since the 1980s despite studies that show as many as 60 percent of consumers have a negative reaction to such advertising and women, specifically, are bored and disinterested in sex-infused advertising.

So where is the disconnect? Most people attribute it to the outmoded thinking of male executives who make the decisions and sophomoric creative types who lament that their best years were in college. I see it a bit differently, but only because I know hack creatives take most of their cues from television.

As television has become more titillating, they think advertising should follow suit. The only problem is that they never consider the context. Just because people tune into a sexually explicit show doesn't mean they want their advertisements to feature leering men and objectified women. The setup is done to death.

The push back that anyone who doesn't like it is a prude is banal.

All this isn't to say that sex ought to be excluded from advertising. There are plenty of treatments where it can work provided the creative doesn't eclipse the product. Consumers have a much more positive reason to like sex in advertisements when it's wholesome, sexily sensual, or smartly funny.

Those types of treatments tend to skip the stereotypes as they were defined in the 1980s. Nowadays, sexual liberation isn't defined by someone's tolerance for soft porn, but rather their maturity to see it as clean, consensual, and occasionally clever in its use of innuendo and humor. And unlike movies and television, copywriters and creative directors ought to remember that they have two jobs that fiction writers do not.

Modern advertising not only sells the product, but often holds up a mirror to its audience. So if the audience can't relate to the spot, don't expect them to respond to the product. They're much more likely to critique your ad instead, which is exactly what most people who have seen this ad have done. Hat tip to Geoff Livingston for the topic.

Wednesday, January 21

What To Do When Your Captive Audience Craves Escape

While prevailing marketing and public relations theories believe frequency and duration are among some of the best objectives in communication, car dealerships are learning the limits of a captive audience. According to AutoTrader Dealer Sourcing Studies, customer satisfaction is at its highest within the first 90 minutes on the day of a purchase and then steadily declines. 

Car dealerships that take longer than 2.5 hours to complete the transaction lose out on customer satisfaction. Dealerships saw customer satisfaction dip below average at the 2.5-hour mark. 

In fact, according to a Cox Automotive study, the amount of time it took to complete a purchase has taken the top spot in car buyer frustrations. It beat out negotiations, fair trades, salespeople, and even financing options. People, more than ever before, are equating customer satisfaction to time.

Time has become a priority in reducing customer friction. 

The sentiment isn't confined to car buying. It creeps into every consumer touch point. While email, for example, is still one of the most effective means of delivering content to people, nearly 60 percent of consumers won't read or open an email unless they are certain it contains relevant content.

Facebook has always been sensitive to this issue too. It developed its EdgeRank algorithm with relevancy in mind. How people react to the content you post determines how often and likely they will appear in your news feed. If people ignore or complain about the content, page managers begin to see a diminishing rate of return unless they pay to push their exposure.

That in itself makes for a standalone discussion, but the point for this post is clear: Customers don't want to waste their time. They want relevant on-demand and/or intuitive content, compressed purchasing cycles on everything they buy, and post-purchase communication with an emphasis on multichannel personalization over calendar sales and email spam.

Car buying provides an extreme example for marketers in every industry. 

As part of the cited white paper, Cox Automotive also conducted an in-depth analysis of four distinct dealerships to track actual cycle times across key processes and better understand the disconnect between customer expectations and the dealership experience. What they found is not only enlightening for car dealerships, but also every industry that cares about customer satisfaction.

• Sales Process. The average time it took to complete the vehicle sales process was nearly 53 minutes – more than half the desired ideal total customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• Purchase Negotiation. It took an average of 21 minutes and a maximum of 41 minutes, making it potentially the most time-consuming variable in the vehicle sales process.

• Vehicle Appraisal Process. The average time it took to complete the appraisal process was 43 minutes, nearly half of the total desired customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• Appraisal Negotiation. It took an average of 16 minutes and a maximum of 39 minutes, making it a significant time-consuming variable in the appraisal process.

• F&I Process. The average time it took to complete the F&I process was nearly 61 minutes – two-thirds of the desired length of the ideal total customer cycle time of 90 minutes.

• The F&I Paperwork. The process is often lengthened by requiring signatures on multiple paper forms, and filling out these forms took an average of 21 minutes and a maximum of 44 minutes, making it a significant time-consuming variable in the F&I process.

When you add up the amount of time that each process requires (including negotiations), it becomes clear that most car dealerships are unintentionally designed to deliver unsatisfactory experiences that don't meet customer expectations. But before you simply nod in agreement based on your own personal experience, ask yourself if your company is any better.

What steps have you made to ensure promotions are not only relevant, but also efficient in leading customers to a specific point of purchase? How easy is it to find a product, make comparisons, and complete a purchase? How easy is it to place an order on your website (or shopping app)? Has your company minimized any additional steps that elongate the purchasing process? How likely will customers have to re-enter, change, or update stored data for future purchases? Does your company have any appropriate/personalized post-purchase communication planned (without being intrusive)?

Ultimately, the car dealership study provides excellent insight into how time can influence customer satisfaction throughout the car buying process. And, along with that, it creates a framework to help other companies start asking questions about their marketing plans and purchasing cycles too.

The simple truth of it is that customers know their time is too valuable. And since they don't want to be held captive anymore, maybe it's time to invite them in and then let them go. They'll appreciate it.

Wednesday, January 14

Five Qualities That Set Successful Commercial Writers Apart

Not everything poured into the content marketing boom has been beneficial for professional writers. While the boom created increased demand, it was also responsible for the influx of amateur writers and marginally proficient executives (assigned writing duties) who inadvertently cheapened the craft while simultaneously flooding the market with barely legible content.

This isn't a criticism or complaint. It's a fact. There are more people who call themselves writers than ever before and those people are competing for an average rate that is about half of what it was ten years ago. It's more than the market can bear, but that might finally be good news.

As organizations learn that all content is not created equal, more of them will be looking beyond the price point for qualities that set successful writers apart. Here are five. Do you have them?

Five qualities for top writers.

• Invest In First Impressions. David Ogilvy once said that if a print advertisement cost one dollar to produce, then you better spend 80 cents on the headline. This thinking extends to the first sentence too, especially long-form content like articles, brochures, and white papers.

The premise is sound. If you don't capture them with the headline, they won't read it. If you lose people with the first sentence then you've already lost. There isn't any better place to make a great first impression than first line of written content.

• Think Visually. Great writers aren't content with copy alone. It's often their ability to pair strong visual content — which attracts attention across all demographics — with strong words — messages that can be understood by everyone and have an emotional appeal to a specific few — that determines the success of their content.

Even when the message has no visual components, think visually anyway. The reasons bullets, breakout paragraphs, and pullout quotes work is that they lend a visual structure to the prose. Consider it.

• Understand People. Experienced commercial writers know there are three kinds of research. There is market research, big data research and people research. The latter is the most important even if most organizations give it the least amount of attention.

Spend time listening to people. It might be online chats or focus groups or lifestyle interviews or even by visiting a location to observe people at the point of contact, but the end game is always the same. Before writing for an audience, find out their perceptions, motivations, and attitudes.

• Plan Strategically. Creativity has always been an admired trait among copywriters, but being clever alone won't pay the bills. The best writers think strategically, always checking their work to ensure they haven't lost sight of the principal benefit, key public or primary objective.

Generating awareness is a given. You need to focus on the fine points such as generating a favorable emotional disposition, implanting information about key features and benefits, and building brand familiarity, recognition, and recall (among other things) in conjunction with awareness.

• Love The Craft. Great commercial writers have to love the craft so much that they have to possess a passion for writing while voluntarily compromising their sense of self-expression. It's not easy. Not everyone can do it.

You have to write creatively within confined parameters, accounting for everything from the organizational voice to the arbitrary opinions of every stakeholder in the process — clients and creative directors to editors and other random and sometimes unqualified critics who are provided a sneak peak at your work. Suffice to say that some of your best work will never be published.

Do you want to develop these qualities?

If you have an interest in being a better writer or if you would like to brush up on your skills, I teach a half-day Editing & Proofreading Your Work session at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) a few times a year. The next session will be held from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, January 31. It would be great to see you there.

For something even more challenging, I will also teach Writing For Public Relations this spring. The 10-week course has an emphasis on public relations, but anyone who has ever taken it has come out a better writer on the other side of it. All classes run from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. with first class held Thursday, February 12. Assignments range from articles and press releases to advertisements and online content.

For more topics on writing here, visit the labels "writing" and "words." Many other topics touch on writing too. If you want to catch everything, about once a week, subscribe with a couple of clicks.

Wednesday, January 7

Research Says Social Media Is Slipping Toward The Sidelines

Social media and social networks aren't likely to die to this year or ever.  But there is much more than headline grabs associated with the growing number of articles that claim this or that is losing its luster or that what seems to be a decade old career is already on the chopping block. This story has history.

Radio, television, and web marketing all enjoyed honeymoon periods too as early adopters rode the wave of specialty into the mainstream. All three witnessed a short-term, one generation boom in agencies that specialized in radio advertising, television campaigns, and websites. And all three eventually saw a crash in specialization as marketing and advertising firms absorbed them.

Social media is being absorbed by marketers, communicators, and public relations professionals as a skill set rather than a career. And while it's likely some specialization will survive with increasingly generic titles for categorization purposes at bigger shops and departments (e.g., digital content), smaller shops will merely delegate the duties out to whomever seems suited to do it — to the delight of public relations professionals (perhaps) and chagrin of copywriters (perhaps). Of course, the medium will mostly survive even if the marketing designations do not. Social is not shiny anymore.

Does social media just barely deliver more benefits than consequences?

But then again, it doesn't make any sense to bemoan how marketers see social media. It's the public that counts in this space, not always the ones who are paid to provide content. So what do they think?

According to the newest poll by Harris, participants are seeing more tangible benefits from social media than they had five years ago. In fact, the finding almost comes across as celebratory overall.

• 50 percent of U.S. adults have received a good suggestion to try something (up from 40%).
• 21 percent of Americans cited receiving a job opportunity though social media (up from 15%).
• 11 percent of those surveyed found a new apartment or house using social media (up from 9%).

Not surprisingly, Harris reports that Millennials are more likely than other generations to benefit. The comparative numbers are compelling. There seems to be an advantage for so-called digital natives.

• 66 percent of Millennials received a good suggestion  (vs. 56% Xers, 37% Boomers, 33% Matures).
• 37 percent made a job opportunity connection (vs. 24% Xers, 10% Boomers, 6% Matures).
• 19 percent found a new apartment or home (vs. 11% Xers, 5% Boomers, 2% Matures).

At a glance, it almost sounds like a triumph until you dig deeper into the numbers. While the benefits of social media are improving, the negative experiences are growing right along with them. Look out.

• 51 percent of social media participants have been offended by content (up from 43%).
• 8 percent also say they have gotten into trouble with school or work because of online content.
• 7 percent have lost a potential job opportunity because of pictures or posts they've made online.

And much like Millennials and Generation Xers are more likely to receive benefits, they are more likely to feel some heartache too. Millennials are almost twice as likely to see offensive content than Matures. It's not necessarily just because they have thin skins. The potential correlated to usage.

Along with being offended, bullied, or generally made unhappy by the experience (regardless of platform), privacy confidence is slipping. Fewer people believe that privacy settings will protect them from potentially bad experiences. Some professionals will be surprised (maybe) that 71 percent still cling to this notion, which is down 8 percent.

When you summarize the positive and negative experiences among most participants, the general consensus seems to be that people have a 50-50 benefit-consequence ratio, which is probably one of the lowest benefit-consequence ratios among experiences that people seek out. Generally, consumers would avoid benefit-consequence this low unless the experience is considered mandatory.

Interestingly enough, most strategic communicators have their focus on enhancing customer experience touch points. And in some cases, a few of these senior professionals are looking for touch points by bypassing volatile platforms where consumers are already being influenced by negativity.

That doesn't necessarily mean they intend to abandon social media, but it does provide some insight into why some marketers are looking forward to enchanted objects where they can manage more of the customer experience and provide them outposts away from more lower benefit-consequence experiences. It makes some sense, with the takeaway being that social media is likely due for an overhaul in how it works for organization-customer experiences. What do you think?
 

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