Wednesday, February 25

Why Some So-Called Losses Are Really Wins In Disguise

My son had been staying after school for months, hoping to land one of 14 spots on the junior varsity volleyball team. It seemed like the ideal spring sport for him to balance out football in the fall.

He worked hard at it whenever possible, missing only one practice since the intramural pre-tryout program had begun. He was a dedicated player and progressed at a faster pace than most of his peers. When you asked any of them, they expected to be cut well before him. Except, they weren't cut.

In what seemed to be a split decision among the coaches, he finished one or two spots short out of the 30 some kids who were vying for a position. Even after one of the coaches told him coldly that he was "athletic, but not for volleyball," another coach openly disagreed and told him to come out next year.

Maybe he will. Maybe he won't. His more immediate challenge was that he had missed all the mandatory meetings for any other spring sports. It's a tough spot to be in, something long-time marketer and author Geoff Livingston described as being the "first loser." It sucks to be thisclose to a win.

Our compulsion to tally up wins and losses feeds an unproductive fantasy.

For some people, wins and losses can be very real. You either pass an exam or you don't. You win the state championship or you don't. You are hired for the position or you aren't. So on and so forth.

But mostly, our incessant need to make tally marks in the win/loss column is all a bunch of rubbish. One exam isn't a measure of subject mastery. The final score isn't an adequate measure of true performance. The position you're passed over for might be turn out to be your biggest win ever. 

The point here is pretty simple. Not only does our overemphasis on any given win or loss become a distraction from some yet-to-be-seen success, we tend to frame them all up with too much idealism. You see, winning doesn't mean everything will end well any more than losing means that you have something more to learn. Either outcome can produce the opposite of whatever it is you are looking for in the long term and you may never really know what that other outcome might have been.

As the old saying ought to go, the only thing worse than losing an account is winning a bad one. Bad accounts can burn up time with unrealistic service demands or relentless change orders, cost a company its solvency with late payments or by defaulting on any credit, and damage reputations by underplaying contributions or making vendors scapegoats for their bad decisions. They can make you crazy trying to keep them, sometimes at the expense of any underperforming but stable clients. So who knows? Maybe the universe did you a favor by spinning the wheel of fortune one spoke short.

As long as you keep doing, you will eventually have your fair share of wins and losses. And with any luck, the balance among all of them — and the real outcomes to follow — will one day amount to a legacy that you can pay forward. Because that, not any tiny win or loss, is what life is really about.

The best thing that never happened to my son was making that team. 

In less than 24 hours after being turned away from the volleyball team, my son received an unexpected text from one of his friends. While all the mandatory meetings for track had passed, the team was still looking for a few athletes to try pole vaulting. He was unsure, but undeterred.

When my son turned out on a day that the pole vaulting coach didn't make it, he asked to the practice with the shot put throwers instead. Three throws later, the shot put coach signed him to the team. Despite never having tried it before, the coach noted his perfect form and throwing potential. Now he's weighing whether he should focus exclusively on shot put or try pole vaulting too. 

Either way is a win-win decision for him. The fact that he has this decision to make tells a story that is very different from the one that opened this post. When he didn't land a spot on the junior varsity volleyball team, it opened up the opportunity for him to land a variety spots on the track team.

So was the set up really a loss? Or was it a win? Or does it merely prove one of my friend's favorite quotes that attitude is superior to circumstance? I don't know, but I'm leaning toward the latter. Losing assumes one has something to lose and most people don't. We either set out to win or merely break even. So just keep doing as long as you are happy in the pursuit of it. Being able to pursue it is the win.

Wednesday, February 18

Your Primary Objective As A PR Writer Is To Be Understood

clarity in writing
All writers share a common objective, regardless of their mission, medium, or industry. They all strive to convey a message that makes sense. And yet, very few of them really do.

Sure, some might nowadays argue that mission critical is to get clicks/eyeballs, generate leads, or miraculously prove their worth with direct sales. But while all of that sounds fine and good, such convoluted communication missions often get in the way of good business by scarifying clarity.

The truth is that it’s often those goals that get content into trouble. In an effort to attract more attention, sound like a subject matter expert, and push more sales, they say the wrong things, complicate their meaning, and destroy trust by selling too hard. In most cases, all these writers needed to do was one thing: to be better understood.

It works. You win anytime you can deliver the right message to the right audience in such a way that they readily understand it, remember it, and respond to it. Clarity comes first.

Five benchmarks for better clarity in writing.

Be Readable.
While anyone with an intense interest in a subject will read the worst writing (when there are limited sources), people generally ignore content that demands too much effort.

Be Conversational. While style ought to suit the medium and the organization, the most widely read content on the Internet tends to be human, fun, and informative. It reads like we talk.

Be Spontaneous. Much like music, movie, and media industries have discovered, formulas have a short shelf life before readers find them to be stale, uninteresting, and something to avoid.

Be Descriptive. Definitions can be useful, but descriptions are easier to understand and remember. They tend to touch our emotions in ways that definitions seldom do.

Be Focused. One point is always more powerful than 50. When you consider people are bombarded with more than 100,000 messages every day, having them remember even one is quite an accomplishment. Choose that point wisely.

Some of this might read like common sense, but most experienced writers will tell you that believing in these five benchmarks is far easier than executing them. All of us are guilty of cluttering our best content with clever writing, filler to flesh out the word count, or some lofty objectives that make clients happier than their customers at one time or another.

We might even pat ourselves on the back for a job that feels well done when we turn in or click publish. It might not even be until weeks or months later that we’ll stumble across the old content and mutter that for all the accolades we missed the mark. All people really want is a few paragraphs of honest prose that they can understand and appreciate for its value, significance, and directness as something they can apply to their everyday life or, at least, help them in making better decisions.

Even in this case, it all comes back to one thing. Clarity is the content that people remember.

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?

Wednesday, December 31

The Top Five Posts Of 2014 Mostly Focused On Writing

If there was any central topic that seemed to attract more people to Words, Concepts, and Strategies that any other this year, it would be writing. Much like many professionals see social media as being flattened — moving away from being seen as a profession and more toward being seen as a skill set employed equally by marketers, public relations professionals, and communicators — more and more of them want writing to be something that everyone can express as a proficiency.

It's possible, perhaps, as long as organizations don't under value those who have dedicated their careers to the craft. You see, it's one thing to write as proficiently as 25 percent of the population but it's another to write as impassioned as only 3 percent of the population. Still, there is something that everyone can do to improve their writing. Dozens of tips are in the top posts of 2014.

The top five posts of 2014, based on readership.

Writing Is A Process
5. Writing Is A Process That Starts Long Before The First Word. Despite recent trends in an attempt to commoditize it, writing requires hard work. In addition to knowing how to string words together so they have a maximum impact with minimal means, writers must master research techniques, organize for structure, edit for clarity, proofread for accuracy, and package the content for better retention.

In addition to highlighting a few of the challenges young writers face today, the piece includes a presentation deck that was created for a private education session about the subject. Everyone wants to become a better writer, but most aren't prepared to put in the work to make it happen.

Ten Questions For Better Writing4. Your Writing Is Almost Never As Good As You Think. Several studies have shown that there is a disparity between how well people think they can write and how well they can write. Despite what students think, only about one in four are proficient writers and less than three precent are great writers.

This article was accompanied by the top ten questions people can ask to assess their own writing abilities. Highlights include some of the most common problems encountered in various professions, especially communication and marketing, on a daily basis. The piece is interlinked with several other articles that provide additional insight and examples.

Social Media Marketing Is Wrong
3. Why Is Marketing Still Wrong About Social Sharing? On the surface, this story is about marketing and social media, but it bridges into other subjects like psychology and written communication. The short version is that the article explains why the over emphasis on measurement, search, and social platforms isn't necessarily a good investment if it is made at the expense of worthwhile content.

The article goes on to highlight five popular drivers behind the psychology of sharing, which seems to have very little to with how most marketers spend their budgets. The piece cuts both ways in showing how value is better than viral and how much content can become a slave to other factors.

Banned Books And What It Means
2. The Elephant In The Room Of Banned Books Is Gray. Rather than submitting a top ten books list for banned books week, the post highlights eight articles that tell stories about why books are being challenged in America today. The real purpose of the piece was to help people see that not all books are being challenged for the reasons one might think or that it is exclusive to one group.

Nowadays, books are challenged and "banned" for all sorts of reasons, many of which read like a snapshot of social issues Americans struggled with that this year. For my part, I don't share my own take on the topic but rather present a few questions that may help people see beyond the obvious.

What Not To Do As A Writer
1. Five Popular Content Writing Tips That Are Dead Wrong. The most popular post of the year pinpoints and dismantles five writing tips that are still being promoted around the web. They include the call for short content, spicing up word choices, rushing the deadline, fluffing facts, and transitioning to more pictures and less written content for the next trend in online marketing.

All of those tips are dead wrong. In fact, most of them can be tied to some of the reasons not everyone is excited to take a chance on content. Nobody really wants to click on an eye-catching visual that tricks them into reading a quickly written paragraph that boasts about some unsubstantiated claim being made by a product or service they don't need or want. Do they?

Happy new year and thanks for helping this space be the exception.

It seems to me that they do not. As part of a two-year experiment (and personal reasons), I opted to write significantly fewer posts (about one a week) that frequently sported higher word counts. The result is that while daily traffic dropped, the average number of readers per article is up (as well as overall readership) compared to the days when this space was a short-format daily.

While there are some other trade-offs (such as weaker reader loyalty on throwaway posts), I've found it to be more fulfilling to pick timeless topics as opposed to a couple of graphs on the topic du jour. And I'm happy to know that some folks have found some value in the topics I've taken up this year.

Thanks for reading and happy new year. And if you want to keep up weekly, subscribe here.

Wednesday, December 24

Yes, You Are Loved. Happy Holidays.

My favorite holiday story has always been the Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen. It's the story about a young, impoverished girl attempting to sell matches in the street. She is cold and alone, fearful of going home without a single sale as her father would likely beat her.

She eventually shelters herself in a small alley and lights a match to warm herself. In the glow of it and each match struck after, she sees visions of a feast, a Christmas tree, and eventually her grandmother. And it's with this last vision that the girl begins to light match after match — until all the boxes are ablaze — in a desperate attempt to keep her grandmother with her.

As the blaze dies, so does the girl. And her grandmother, no longer a vision, carries her to heaven. 

The story touched me then, as it does today, not in the beauty of a dying child clinging to hopes and dreams or only in the promise of a life ever after. Much of it had to do with living in a household with a grandmother who was dying of cancer. The story became her promise to me that she would always be there and that one day we would be reunited no matter what might happen in this life. 

A Little Match Girl, Revisited

Barefoot in the snow with blue and frozen toes, 
A match girl strikes a fire to ward away the cold. 
And in the sputter of the flame she seems to see
A stove to warm her hands; the comfort of a tree; 
A roast to heal her hunger; and arms of empathy. 

I wrote the untitled poem a few years ago for a Christmas card. And this year, I revisited my copy of the story to illustrate a scene from it. And on the back of the card, a few might notice the 13:7 verse reference. 

Any book will fit the meaning, but especially Corinthians with its gentle reminder that love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things ... love really is all there is and will be.

That is why my grandmother had always impressed this story upon me. She wanted me to know that even after she was gone, her love would carry on with me until the end. There is no greater gift than that.

And yes, you are loved. Happy holidays. Good night and good luck. 

Wednesday, December 17

A Little Diversification Doesn't Make Anyone A Dullard

Prevailing wisdom dictates that that professionals are best served by being topic centric. There is some truth to the concept for those who are building a career within a specific industry or central idea. It can be considerably more difficult for writers, especially those who find anything and everything of interest — because we understand there are no boring topics (just boring writers).

So while I have experience teaching people how to develop a professional image, I also stopped worrying about being Batman. Sure, I don't always talk about my other interests in this space, but I do have them. They are eclectic as my library and play lists. And sometimes they pop up as guest posts.

In recent months, I'm very grateful for a handful of sites that have asked me to submit guest content and I think the best way to thank the publishers are to list a few of them here. Give them a gander.

Five picks from a short list of stories that weren't published here.

The Future Of Content, Part 3 with Danny Brown. When marketing professionals think about content, they think in terms that have grown all too familiar. Most of them know its easier to follow in the footsteps of best practices rather than look forward, lead ahead, and innovate the industry.

So when Danny Brown asked me to contribute to his mini-series on content marketing, I wanted to move away from practices and focus in on possibilities. The Future Of Content, Part 3 was a sneak peek into a future that is much more reliant on multimedia content, non-linear data, individualized communication, and interactive technology that some people have taken to calling enchanted objects.

Other people know it better as augmented reality. Marketers ought to think about it now or they'll have to play catch up like they did with every communication innovation since the dawn of time.

Guyside: How To Diet And Exercise Like Your Life Depends On It via Flashfree. Every now and again, it's not uncommon for people to ask me "how are you doing?" It used to be they asked because they wanted to know what's new. Nowadays, their interest is linked to being a cancer survivor.

There is nothing wrong with that. Life deals up all sorts of experiences and you can use them as an opportunity to make yourself stronger if you survive them. This was also one the reasons my friend Liz Scherer invited me to write a set of guest posts for her long-standing blog. Fitness seemed like a logical place to start, given my rapid recovery and work to become a certified personal trainer.

Beyond the obvious tips about fitness, the article is mostly a lesson in doing. It applies to almost anything. Success is a by-product of doing the things you are inspired by or have a passion to do as often as possible until you can eventually do them well.

The Art Of Being Gender Ambidextrous via Tue/Night. The concept of being gender ambidextrous hit me shortly after my friend Amy Vernon told me that the publishers of Tue/Night were looking for a few stories about father-daughter relationships. But it wasn't my idea exclusively.

My daughter was the inspiration. She and sometimes her brother are often the inspiration when I write anything about one-off marketing and communication topics like leadership, psychology, or perception. It's easy to find inspiration in their daily activities because I've always taught them both that the only hurdles in life are what they think. And yes, I include gender on the long list of what doesn't matter.

The crux of it is simple enough. As parents, the biggest responsibility we have to our children is to keep their focus on what they can do instead of what anyone says they cannot do. No hurdles needed.

Guyside: Girls Deserve More Than One Way To Wear A Bow via Flashfree. Shortly after the Gender Ambidextrous piece broke, several people suggested I follow up the story with a second piece. The timing was perfect. I had already filed away an experience that seemed to fit the series.

My daughter didn't think twice when she dressed up as Robin Hood for Halloween, which seemed to mildly put some people off because she hadn't elected to pick any number of bow-wielding heroines. On the flip side, she didn't think twice about being Belle the year prior either. I can only hope she remains so free spirited all of her life — embracing her gender (or not) without ever being made a slave to it.

Freedom doesn't come from choosing between "this and that" or "red and blue." True freedom comes from choices that are only limited by your imagination and colors from every spectrum of the wheel.

Spotlight On Stefan Bucher via AIGA Las Vegas. Although the intent of the piece was to promote the AIGA Centennial Celebration in Las Vegas, there is significantly more value to the story than simply introducing speaker Stefan G. Bucher. Think of it as more of a gateway article to the land of inspiration.

Bucher, if you are unfamiliar with name, filmed himself putting a few drops of ink on a piece of paper and then transforming the random blot into a fully realized illustrated monster. He didn't do it once. He did it for 100 days. So if you need any additional validation for the lesson of doing I mentioned earlier, I submit that you'll likely find it on The Daily Monster.

Bucher is an extremely talented graphic designer and illustrator who has created a career out of remaining true to the principles of design and being a little less willing to compromise. Who knows? With a little luck, maybe you too will find some inspiration from a drop of ink.

What's coming in the months and years ahead for this site and elsewhere?

This space — Words. Concepts. Strategies. — turns 10 years old. And while I don't want to say too much at the moment, anticipate a little more diversification. Sure, communication is an excellent framework for anyone who craves diversity, but communication can feel constrictive at times.

I know I might lose a few people in the process of this gradual change and that's all right. If you fit in that category, look for the headlines that pique your interest. For everyone else, you can always subscribe or come by from time to time at your leisure. I do appreciate it, especially when someone tosses out a topic that they want to see covered. Anything goes. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, December 10

Why Picking A Fork In The Road Will Doom PR

Public Relations
Twenty years ago, most professionals agreed that public relations could be segmented into three basic disciplines — public relations, media relations, and publicity. All three saw some overlap, with only practitioners and amateurs confusing the terms outright.

Nowadays, it's shaping up to be considerably different. When public relations decided it wanted to "own" social media, it created yet another schism within the industry, with some hoping to define its practices as traditional public relations, advocacy public relations, and social media PR. And it's this split that could eventually doom public relations because none of them resemble public relations.

According to one Forbes column, traditional public relations can be defined as media relations, with the principal endeavor being the pursuit of media mentions in a world with an ever-shrinking pool of news outlets. Advocacy public relations can be defined as the heavy guns, where strategists fund research to support whatever message points were voted on by special interests a week prior. Social PR covers everything from the 19-year-old intern managing Twitter to more lucrative content creation and social network distribution models. And that's it?

All three forks lead to oblivion. Don't pick any of them.

As author Robert Wynne points out, traditional public relations (as defined by the article) has faced a market contraction. Traditional firms that focused primarily on media relations are seeing their monthly retainers shrink as fast the news outlets they once catered to. Some have even made the mistake of accepting "per placement" rates, which only reinforces the pursuit of publicity at all cost.

While it used to be considered a nobler pursuit than writing pitches and press releases exclusively, many advocacy public relations firms have been sucked down the black hole of propaganda. Wynne cites several political spin campaigns, ranging from health care to global warming, whereby organizations invest millions of dollars to prove their points of view rather than find the truth.

The third fork, social media PR, runs accompanied by the myth that anybody can do content marketing and then attempt to sway the masses direct by creating some sort of viral phenomenon online. It was also the cause of many public relations budget cuts. In their desire to "own" social, many firms missed the memo that it meant more work for less money.

If these are the three forks from which public relations professionals can choose, the field might as well fold today. The first is too narrow, relying too heavily on a single public to be effective. The second isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And the third has already been played out, with the next step in online communication being very different than what we know today.

Public relations desperately needs to get back to the business of outcomes.

The real problem with thinking of public relations as being split into three forks is that it misses the point. Public relations is not a process as much as it is a concept. It's fundamental purpose is to transform "us" and "them" into "we" by evaluating trends, making recommendations, forging relationships, and providing for communication that produces mutually beneficial outcomes. 

It doesn't matter how that communication is exchanged — through a news outlet or direct to public. But what does matter is that any content shared is authentic, accurate, and truthful in order to ensure mutually beneficial outcomes. Anything less isn't public relations as much as it is propaganda. And anything more tends to compound the challenges that the field has yet to adequately address.

Maybe it's time to reconsider the original three disciplines again.

Public Relations. The job is to provide counsel on the exchange of mutually beneficial communication.

Media Relations. The job is to maximize positive media coverage without paying for it directly through advertising.

Publicity. The job is the deliberate attempt to proliferate the public's perception of a subject.

With the original model, all anyone had to remember was that the world view of public relations and publicity was fundamentally different. It otherwise worked fine, even after social media arrived. It also produced more outcomes.

Wednesday, December 3

Social Media Has Grown Up. Maybe Your Marketing Does Too.

A few weeks ago, someone sent me a long list of advice on how to use social media to market an event. Suggestions included arbitrary hashtagslike and comment contests, and keyword bombs.

You get the idea. Someone surfed and scraped up a social media campaign. And who knows? Maybe some of their ideas would have worked a few years ago, given that their punch list read like 2009.

But I had to do something different. The tactics were summarily dismissed for something more strategic, given an impossibly short promotion window of just over two weeks. Along with adding an emphasis to organic offline promotions, the revised campaign delivered approximately 350,000 first round impressions and helped sell out the event. Everyone was happy, especially the sponsors.

None of it was that big of a deal, but it did make me think. Are social media novices that naive? 

Last week, social media fueled protests over Eric Garner, helped kids with with cancer find support from their peers, became a battleground against ISIS extremismcreated a firestorm about free speech, and proved that participants are culpable for what they say online in some countries. None of this is really new, but the cumulative tone marks a lead story maturity that hasn't always existed.

Social media has grown up. And while there will always be a place for silly cat photos and memorable hashtag moments, the balloon popping party your organization has planned for next month doesn't stand much of a chance to win over the top trending news story. To drive attendance, you have to do better than the top ten social gimmicks that most search engine queries will turn up.

Most organizations need to think locally before they ever take aim globally. After all, no one benefits from a global social media campaign that tries to sell out a local balloon pop party. To drive local or regional attendance, the campaign model would have to reach party prospects through various outreach efforts, which may include social but would never be limited to an online environment.

For many events and offerings, social media can be much more powerful as a secondary touch point after introductions are made via mail, email, word of mouth, direct contact, or co-op or partnership solicitations. As such, the campaign objectives can be effectively reverse engineered to worry less about exposure and focus more on reinforcing the value, momentum, and excitement of the event to those individuals who have already been exposed. And then, if the value proposition is proven, they will compound exposure by sharing their intentions to attend and/or all the assets that prove its value.

What kinds of assets help prove a value proposition? 

The trouble with far too many social media campaigns is that companies have been trained to click the boxes or go through the motions to garner results. Grown-up marketing adds value to the event.

• Articles and interviews about the guest speakers who will be present.
• Special demonstrations that highlight the skill sets of the presenters.
• Videos that provide an expose about the event venue or sponsors.
• Event pages where attendees can share their intent to participate.
• Twitter conversations with sponsors, speakers, and other attendees.
• New raffle and giveaway rollouts that add momentum to the offering.
• Sponsor highlights, especially if they can be integrated into the event.
• Event attendance updates that project an expected level of attendance.
• Special pre- and post-event opportunities, such as lunch with the speaker.
• The promise of live event updates and post-event recaps with pictures.

More importantly, all of these ideas provide organizations an opportunity to expand their online assets while creating a lasting legacy of successful event offerings or product launches. After all, nothing builds momentum for the next event like missed event regret — online or offline.

Wednesday, November 26

Thanksgiving Is A Good Day To Be Grateful To Be Alive.

"I did a bad thing and have to confess," read the text. "I snuck one cookie. I just had to have one."

"It's all right," I wrote back. "I made a double batch."

"So how is it possible that they're better and better every time you make them?"

It would take too long to answer that question in a text so I joked about not giving up any secrets. In reality, there are no secrets. My recipe has remained unchanged. It's everything else that is different.

I might mix up my Thanksgiving dessert list a little every year, but chocolate chip cookies have become a first string favorite. The same goes for other holidays and gatherings too. People like them.

As a first string favorite, I make them often enough that I've stopped tinkering with the recipe and started tinkering with everything around the recipe — the consistency of the batter before adding flour, the right size of the cookie ball before it is baked, the best temperature of my particular oven and the right rack to put the pan on, and a dozen other details that would bore most people. All of it matters if you want to make a great cookie. And the only way to do it is to practice making it perfect.

This isn't all that different from what I tell my daughter's softball team as one of the coaches. Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. So every time they step up to the plate or set their feet to throw a ball, they strive for perfection  — at warmups, practices, and ball games.

You can't expect to throw someone out at first or pick up a base hit if you slack in practice or goof around during warmups. In fact, it's improper practices that create bad habits and cause poor game performances. And this is so true, it seems, that no practice is better than a bad practice for many players.

The same thing goes for baking cookies too. If you're not willing to strive for a perfect practice, then there isn't any reason to expect better cookies. It's those simple things that make all the difference.

We tend to overlook simple things. But it's the simple things that make for perfect practice. 

In softball, the difference between a hard hit and soft hit can be attributed to something as simple as turning the back foot. With chocolate chip cookies, the difference between good cookies and great ones can be something as subtle as how cold the dough is before you put it in the oven. As a writer, the difference between informing or inspiring is often tied to sentence structure or even word choice.

It applies to anything and everything else too. You can't expect an organized pantry if you fill spaces as opposed to putting things away in their proper places. You can't expect to feel great more days than not if you aren't willing to make physical fitness one of your priorities in life. And you can never truly appreciate anything in life until you learn to be grateful for being alive.

At least that was my takeaway when my family and I celebrated my birthday last week. A friend of mine asked what my big plans might be for my birthday and I told him that I was cleaning out a closet and then cooking dinner — filets, bacon wrapped shrimp, double stuffed potatoes, and peas. He laughed and said that all sounded like a lot of work. Maybe everyone ought to do that for me, he said.

I laughed and joked that I would have to waste a wish when I blew out my candles to make that happen. But no, I don't think so. Birthdays aren't be about being spoiled. That's just icing on the cake.

Sure, five years ago or so I used to think that birthdays were about people spoiling me. Nowadays, I think about birthdays as a day to be grateful to even have a life. And for me, I couldn't think of a better way to celebrate having a life than by making a non-functional closet functional again and cooking an indulgent dinner to share with my family. I consider it a perfect practice for a better life.

Sure, there was a cake to enjoy after dinner. Yes, there were some gifts I really appreciated. But the real lesson learned can boiled down into appreciating that everything about a birthday is pretty amazing if you're grateful to even have one. The rest of it is a bonus, kind of like homemade cookies.

So if you really want to know why my cookies are better every time I make them, the reason is pretty simple. I've stopped chasing outcomes and started working toward perfecting practices. And that, more than anything else, has made me more grateful than ever — for my friends, for my family, for the few people who read this post, and for my very life.

Thank you for that and happy Thanksgiving. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, November 19

Word Of Mouth Doesn't Distinguish Between Online And Off

The decade-long era of marketers attempting to distinguish between online and offline word of mouth is over. As consumers have adopted small screen mobile technology and social networking tools, few people make the distinction. Most don't even remember when or where the conversation occurred.

All they remember is that the recommendation came from a friend or family member. The details of its delivery (text or network, phone call or in person) is largely lost to them. All they remember is someone close to them (not an "influencer" based on popularity but an "influencer" based on proximity) had something to say about a particular product, service or solution.

Word of mouth directly accounts for about $6 trillion in consumer spending, online and off.

And it is these conversations, which are personal and person to person, that account for as much as 13 percent of all consumer sales and as much as 20 percent among higher price-point categories. And the division between online and offline conversations just isn't there. It's no longer relevant.

This finding and others were recently published in a study organized by the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) in partnership with AT&T, Discovery Communications, Intuit, PepsiCo, and Weight Watchers. The study is based on the econometric modeling of sales and marketing data provided by participating brands (on a confidential basis) and conducted by Analytic Partners.

The results of the study may change the way some marketers think about paid and earned exposure, with about one-third of sales attributable to word-of-mouth conversations acting as an "amplifier" to paid media such as television. In sum, consumers spread advertised messages one-third of the time.

The rest of the impact is independent of advertising and tied to other influencers such as product or customer service experiences, public relations, owned and earned digital content, referral marketing, and related activities. These influencers work in tandem to shape overarching brand perceptions.

Other key findings from the study underpin the power of word-of-mouth marketing.

• Word-of-mouth impressions drive at least 5 times more sales than a paid advertising impression.

• Word-of-mouth impressions for higher price-point items are as much as 100 times more impactful.

• Word of mouth impacts tend to influence consumers closer to the time of purchase over media.

• Word of mouth amplifies the effect of paid media by as much as 15 percent.

"Intuitively, we know that a consumer recommendation is going to be a powerful contributor to brand sales, but this is the first time a rigorous study has quantified that impact across a range of product and service categories," said Suzanne Fanning, president of WOMMA. "We hope this research will lead marketers to elevate the role of word of mouth, both online and offline, in their marketing plans."

This study also reinforces the idea that marketers who are more inclined to communicate a clear contrast between their products and services will be more likely to have a message that consumers are not only able to remember, but can also readily share with friends and family members. And considering that the average consumer can only recall one to three messages about any paticular product or service (not all of which are written by marketers), it had better be something clear and compelling.

Wednesday, November 12

Did Millennials Change Advertising Or Just Roll It Back?

By some estimates, millennials now include about 74.3 million people in the U.S., which accounts for almost 25 percent of the population. They have between $125 and $200 million in purchasing power.

Advertisers are just now beginning to understand that millennials prefer friendly and funny brands over serious and stodgy. Two in three like smart and witty humor and about 72 percent consider being smart as one of their greatest assets. They still self-identify with some brands, but in slightly different ways. 


And if there is any irony to be found in that lineup of four advertising tips for millennials, it's that nothing has changed. Targeting the same age demos in the 1960s and 1970s called for the same four tips.

The shift everyone is talking about in advertising is circular. 

Advertisers of that era made them laugh, made it personal, made it social, and engaged them. And it wasn't until the 1980s that things began to change and brands suddenly became bigger than buyers with product glamour shots outweighing golden era advertisements at about 4 to 1.

The trend continued well into the 1990s and 2000s as advertisements became bigger, freakier, and more increasingly Photoshopped or loaded with special effects that were meant to wow every audience. Most of them got plenty of attention, which is what advertisers want to do, but it came at a cost. 

Some might even say they broke from the old Ogilvy tenet that advertisements ought not attract more attention than a product. He also commissioned research that found images can turn off interest.

The truth is that while most clients want great campaigns that ignite sales and the have the staying power to build a brand, most consumers want honest advertisements that tell them exactly why they might care to even consider the purchase. And if you can make them laugh a little too, even better.

The lesson advertisers must continue to learn here is pretty simple. Much like public relations professionals need to transform "us" and "them" into "we," advertisers need to push beyond attention-grabbing entertainment and create opportunities for millennials and others to participate and be part of whatever the marketer is hoping to achieve. Ergo, it's not about you or your product as much as them. But then again, maybe it never really was about you or your product. Don't be the star. Make some.

Wednesday, November 5

Yes Virgina, There Are Impassioned Objectivists

Anytime I mention "objective journalism," someone contests the concept. They consider it an idealistic pipe dream. They claim that all journalists are biased. And they say it lacks the passion of advocacy journalism. But more than all that, they say objective journalism is dead. Get over it.

Sure, there is some truth to the statement that objective journalism is dead, but we mustn't mistake its current condition as evidence that the idea is boorish, flawed, or impossible. As defined, objective is an individual or individual judgment that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts. And it's a quality that communicators ought not run from.

Objectivity comes with honesty and maturity. Grow up already.

The real problem it seems is that objective journalism allowed itself to be saddled with ideas that have nothing to do with objectivity — traits like fairness, indifference, and perfectness. Specifically, people expect that journalists (especially those who strive to be objective) must listen to both sides, transcend human frailty in hearing them, and then deadpan the facts for the public. But that's not it.

A working definition of objective journalism is more akin to how Iowa State journalism professor Michael Bugeja defined it: “Objectivity is seeing the world as it is, not how you wish it were.” The idea is that the communicator is willing to commit to the pursuit of truth, not what they hope is true.

People strive to be objective every day. A manager might like one employee better than another but promote the one with stronger skill sets. A coach might play the more talented player over their own child for the good of the team. A scientist might prove his theory wrong after reviewing empirical evidence. A judge might make a ruling that is right but weighs heavily on his or her heart.

So why would journalists somehow be incapable of striving to be objective (unless they don't want to be) where others have demonstrated the ability to succeed? It seems to me that all it would take is someone becoming impassioned to find the truth rather than promoting their own agenda or whatever agenda they have subscribed to believe. And it's in this passion for truth, rather than propping up fragile brands or frail ideologies, that deserves our respected admiration.

Forget balanced. A journalist might glean insight from different perspectives but truth doesn't take sides. Forget deadpan deliveries. Objectivity doesn't require anyone to feign disinterest in the face of outrage. Forget unconscious bias. The goal was never to transcend being human but merely to develop a consistent method of testing information, considering the evidence, and being self-aware of any personal and cultural bias. And all of these ideas were born out of a need for objectivity.

As as much as I have a fondness for Hunter S. Thompson, who had plenty to say about the objective journalism of his day, the lack of it enslaves us as the only "truth" that prevails is the one uttered with more frequency, more volume, and a more passionate will. And eventually, when the truth is no longer valued in favor of that "truth," it seems to me that we will finally find affirmation media to be an insult to our intellect and own sense of evidence.

Objective communication isn't limited to journalism. Stop saying yes. 

The Pew Research Journalism Project identified nine core principles of journalism, but I've always been partial to the idea that objectivity adheres to empirical standards, coherence standards, and rational debate. Empirical standards consider the evidence. Coherence standards consider how it fits within the greater context. Rational debate includes a diversity of views, but only gives merit to those views capable of meeting empirical and coherence standards.

In much the same way objective journalists strive to look out for the public interest, professional communications — marketers and public relations practitioners — better serve organizations (and the public) by applying objectivity to their situational analysis and measurements of outcomes. The stronger communicator is always the one who is objective as opposed to those who only aim to validate their actions or affirm a client/executive/decision maker's perceptions by saying yes.

Can we ever be certain? The answer is mostly no. While we can tear apart a baby's rattle and see what makes noise inside, we cannot see into the hearts of men and women to guess at their intent before there is any evidence of action. The best we can hope for is that those who have no intention of being objective wear the proclamation on their sleeves while others are given the benefit of the doubt until they prove otherwise. Let the truth lead for a while and see what happens.
 

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