Saturday, August 17

Sharing Shorts: Screen Door


Squirrel Lake


Screen Door
by Richard Becker

Every summer we migrated north with the birds, flocking to a family lake cottage deep in the woods. My Grandfather built most of it: thick logs fashioned into a home and painted green; big bay windows on the west side to catch the reflection of the sun off the waves; a screen door on the east with a squeak that said welcome home.

It was a retreat where family members gathered to remember some things and forget others, caught up in all the charm and challenge of living the moment. Who would win at penny-ante poker? Who would pull in the biggest fish? Who was old enough to claim their right of passage by plunging into the water and swimming a mile to the other side of the lake? Who would lose their marshmallows in the bonfire made from an old boat that had outlived its purpose?

It was a place with backwood rules. Flush for two but not for one. Flip the bail closed on the spinning reel before the lure touches the water. Never buy bait because it’s easy enough to dig up nightcrawlers in the morning or net minnows in the early afternoon. Expect to clean what you catch unless it’s a Muskie. Never let a screen door slam, and expect someone to call after you if you do. “Don’t let the screen door slam.”

The last time I shut it quietly behind me, my Grandfather was half the man I remembered. Lymphoma had stolen most of him. We didn’t take the boat out or pick wild berries or climb the watchtower. There were no accidents on my uncle’s radio to run to or trails to mark or gardens to tend. We settled on telling each other a few good stories before he lifted a broom above his head for exercise.

It was the last time I ever saw him, and the last time I ever walked through the front door again. The cottage was sold by his second wife a few years later, compounding everyone’s sense of loss with reoccurring emptiness that comes around every summer. Looking back, I should have slammed it.

***

Screen Door was not so much a short as it was a scrap — the first draft of a story that eventually made it into 50 States. For more first look shorts, scraps, and classes, follow my page byRichardBecker on Facebook or, better yet, subscribe to my quarterly newsletter. Goodnight and good luck.

Thursday, January 18

Reassessing Direction: Ask Yourself What’s Important

What’s important? It’s a question we have to periodically ask ourselves.

For the better part of 12 years, writing content that centered on communication was important to me. It made sense. Marketing, communication, public relations, and journalism was migrating to a digital landscape as people who didn’t necessarily have much experience in the field opened up new dialogues, discussions, and channels.

I knew something about marketing and communication and entering into discussion with content creators — professionals migrating to the digital space or people in the digital space who were learning communication and marketing skills — was an exhilarating experience. As an educator, it still is from time to time, even if many of those conversations have migrated to places like Facebook and LinkedIn (for now).

I’m glad I did. This blog houses a considerable amount of content that chronicles the evolution and growth of communication. The best of it, those posts that have a certain timeless quality, are still used in my classes today — both those at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and some private classes that I’ve taken to teaching from time to time. In fact, I do have a few new ideas I want to sketch out and share in this space in the near future too.

I may have done it by now, but somehow I was overwhelmed by attempting to reconcile what I know works online (writing niche subject matter expert content) and what’s important to me (which is a bit broader in scope). I’m not the first communication strategist to struggle with this idea and I am sure I won't be the last. Most of us know that toggling back and forth between personal interest and professional prowess isn’t the right formula to attract eyeballs, engagement, and reciprocal action.

Then again, what’s important? 

While the social media measurement models we establish for business make sense (aside from the over emphasis on eyeballs perhaps), there is always that other side of the coin. The best posts are those that tap into what’s important to you as a person — because the spark is more important than whatever formula or standard you set. 

Right now, there are a number of topics that are important to me. After seeing some shake ups happen at the City of North Las Vegas and City of Henderson, I am considerably more attuned to what is happening not only in my community, but also the communities around me. When you combine these stories with continued reports that our education system is still broken, it becomes clear that communication alone, or lack thereof, is not the answer.

We need solutions, ones where communicators in those government entities can support them by serving their organizations and the public and not whatever agenda has been drawn up behind closed doors. Reputation management, after all, is not about hiding what has happened. It's about making it right.

Along with my community, the work where most of my time is invested is important. In addition to my own firm, I am assisting the Council of Multiple Listing Services in support of its mission to build a better marketplace and developing content for an integrative oncology site to help people cope and better care for themselves before, during, and after cancer treatment, among other things.

I’ve also considered drawing more attention to where my interest in youth sports intersects with personal fitness, and the psychology behind it. And then there are those short stories I write from time to time, and my desire to develop courses beyond the university setting. I plan to launch one online pilot class this year.

So, at the core of it, I have been spending more time feeding my passion to work only with those who serve people, aspire to make the world a better place, and/or seek to advance humankind. And, in answering my own question, that is what is important. It seems to me that these are the words, concepts, and strategies I should explore more often. How do we do things better?

Maybe all we have to do is kick a few hurdles out of the way. Maybe all we have to do is ask what's important. Good night and good luck.

Friday, July 14

Writing Across Communication: Writing For Tomorrow

The writing you read today won't be the communication you need tomorrow. In a world where content can appear on any surface or no surface at all, providing consumers with real time intuitive assistance to find the right product, improve performance, or manufacture reality will require a different kind of thinking, planning, and promoting. The boundaries and barriers are gone.

Content will need to be versatile, portable, multimodal, and improve the consumer experience. Storytelling alone won't be good enough. Many stories will have to be told by the consumer, drawing upon a non-linear array of data capable of delivering visual, aural, written, kinesthetic content based on the platform they are using and their preference for learning, experiencing, and making purchases.

Logical or emotional, solitary or social, the words we write tomorrow will be blueprints that appreciate no one person is really the same — even if there are a few things that never change.

A sneak peek into the future with a predictive deck. 

When I needed a new deck to wrap up my final Writing Across Communication class last spring, I set an objective to help my writing students to appreciate the future as well as a few constants in that have always been part of human communication. It made for a worthwhile exercise in bringing consumer psychology and strategic communication together. They really do belong together.



While many writers spin their wheels trying to find the right way to spin their story, relatively few remember that most communication aims to motivate people. So if you don't know what motivates them, you are only operating with one-half of a two-part equation between the sender and receiver.

Three primary drivers for motivation. 

• Intensity of need or desire
• Perceived value of goal or reward
• Expectations of individual or peers

In order to start reconciling these drivers, it's generally a good idea to remember that humans are the only creatures on the planet that form perceptions based on objective and conceptual realities. We're also the only creatures who possess a capacity for cooperation that is both flexible and scalable.

As technology continues to blur the lines between these two realities, people will likely become increasingly responsive to conceptual influences, making the communication of tomorrow especially potent if the message is sent across multiple delivery methods, repeated across a multimodal spectrum, and delivered as non-linear content that allows the user to self-select the experience.

When done right, it will provide even more opportunities to change behavior, change perception, and change attitudes toward just about anything that doesn't oppose individual or cultural core values. Although even those are subject to change when communication is created from precise objectives.

Writing Across Communication will be available again at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas this fall. The class includes eight sessions from Sept. 21 through Nov. 9. I am currently developing an online version of the course for people outside Southern Nevada, independent of the university.

Thursday, June 1

Considering Education: More Choices Mean More Chances

The next couple weeks are a whirlwind. My daughter is graduating from elementary school this week. My son is graduating from high school next week.

Next year, he will be headed to the University of Nevada, Reno while she looks forward to starting her middle school years at Legacy Traditional School in Las Vegas. We’re grateful she was accepted by a charter school, as it seems like it will provide a suitable transition from the private school she has attended for the past six years. We never had to consider such a transition for my son. He attended public school from kindergarten through high school.

She might have attended private school from kindergarten through high school too, but school choice, a.k.a. Educational Saving Accounts (ESAs), continue to stall in Nevada. So while I helped campaign for ESAs, writing columns and comments, we also toured and applied to several charter schools where selection is determined by lotteries and waiting lists.

After she was accepted at Legacy, some people wondered why I continued to donate my time in support of ESAs even though my family would no longer benefit. My answer was simple enough. My support of ESAs isn’t about just about my family. It's about all families because I know school choice works. An early version of it changed my education experience and my life.

Affording more parents school choice will course correct more kids.

As one of those students who was mislabeled by the public system in first grade, I had already been ushered off to the school’s portable classrooms, dubbed the “barracks.” Out there, away from the other students, education was optional. Most kids so assigned would bide their time, failing forward.

My grandmother wanted more for me so she intervened. At the end of third grade, she pulled me from the public school system and enrolled in me a private secular school to repeat. While we were too poor to afford it, she somehow managed to secure a hardship grant. I’m grateful.

The new school reassessed the public school system’s perception that I wouldn’t amount to anything and discovered something different. I was only struggling with most subjects because I couldn’t read. They also determined I was gifted in math and art and provided advanced placement curriculum so I wouldn’t become bored with the standard lessons.

The change in classwork changed my outlook. Within the course of one year, I rose from the bottom percentile to one of the top in my class. And as my performance improved, my sometimes unruly behavior — the by-product of being teased in public school for being raised by grandparents and having a visible handicap — dissipated. School choice gave me a chance.

After that school year, my grandparents were no longer able to raise me so I was returned to public school in a different state. The foundation that the private school provided me, despite not being ‘held accountable’ by the state, placed me well ahead of my peers. This never changed.

Sure, I had some ups and downs across the entirety of my educational experience, but my love for learning always persisted. Not only have I become I a lifelong learner, but I also share my passion for education as a part-time continuing education instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas — an outcome that would have been an impossibility had some version of school choice not existed for me.

At the end of the day, no matter what political arguments people raise, ESAs come down to one thing. Different students excel in different learning environments. Knowing this, we should be doing everything we can to make it easier for them to be enrolled in the right environment and without any of the pervasive socio-economic and faith-based labels on students or the bureaucratic requirements that frequently restrain public schools from better performance. More choices mean more chances.

Friday, March 3

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

Anyone who has ever been introduced as a writer already knows the most common question that follows. In the thirty some years I've been introduced as one, it has never changed. It's timeless.

"So, you're a writer," they say, in admiration and sometimes skepticism. "What do you write?"

"Words," I would tell them. "And on good days, sentences."

I'd immediately follow up with a litany of audience-tailored examples that could be easily understood before settling on the umbrella concept as a commercial writer (copywriter isn't readily understood by people outside advertising and marketing) and occasional journalist. Later, I turned in the nouns for stylistic adjectives that ranged from strategic and interactive to gripping and zippy. I still do at times. 

Nowadays, I'm more likely to tell people that how we define writing really depends on whom we ask. Whereas Walter Lippman might define it as an opportunity to tell the truth and shame the devil, Stephen King is more likely to say that it's "the truth inside the lie." They're both right for their craft.

Bigger than that, writing is the process by which we translate our desired perception of objective and conceptual realities into a form that others may see, adopt, and act upon. It's one of the ways we exploit our extraordinary cooperative capacity as humans — agreeing or disagreeing that certain ideas, thoughts, and concepts have greater value than the objective, physical world in which we live — even if we don't personally know the person or group of people who put the words together. 

Regardless of what "kind of writer" someone is, the fundamental core of it remains unchanged, which is why I invested some time to design a class that could provide students with an understanding of how writing could be applied across communication — disciplines such a journalism, public relations, content marketing, advertising, and multimodal integration — with tremendous impact.

Writing Across Communication: An Introduction To Writing

This deck serves as an introduction to the class as well as some of the fundamental skills that can be learned by different writing disciplines. It also introduces writers to the changes taking place within the occupation as writers are being asked to specialize and generalize at the same time. So instead of learning how to write from within the silo of one discipline, they can learn from all disciplines: 

• Editors understand organization, structure, and universal ideas. 
• Journalists know how to find and define news and source information. 
• Public relations practitioners serve both organizational and public interest. 
• Crisis communicators possess empathy while managing a crisis and bad news. 
• Content marketers are experts in developing content that has customer value. 
• Copywriters are masters at developing creative stories that speak to people. 
• Writers of the future understand non-linear content, multimodal interaction, and UX design. 

The skill sets for modern writers don't end with journalism and commercial writing. Beyond the four primary approaches to effective communication (journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising), writing literature can help someone become more adept at storytelling, learning poetry more masterful at alliteration, and understanding psychology more attuned with the impact we impart on audiences. 

From script to screen and everything in between, getting it all right can be profoundly rewarding. The words and, on good days, sentences written for ourselves or our organizations have the potential to reshape how people see the world in small, almost unnoticeable ways and in grand life-altering ways that have shaped the course of world events. Nothing else is so important. 

What do you think? Where are the writers of tomorrow headed in terms of skill sets and craft? Are they really destined to be replaced in part by automation? And as an aspiring or working writer, would you want to take a class like the one being taught at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas?

Friday, January 13

Writing Occupations Are Changing. Are You Changing With Them?

As much as 75 percent of marketers may be increasing content creation, but the average job growth rate for occupational writers isn't keeping pace. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for writers averaged 2 percent, with exception to some specialized fields such as technical writers.

As more and more content is produced, organizations are relying on other occupations to produce material for their communication channels, including blogs and social media, while occupational writers are simultaneously being asked to specialize while overseeing generalized content being produced by their non-occupational peers. Specifically, it's not uncommon for a writer (or communication manager) to be assigned specific projects but also serve as an editor for the organization.

Likewise, other companies are growing content while charging occupational writers with other titles, such as coordinator or manager, and then making them responsible for a broad range of advertising, marketing, and public relations tasks. Interestingly enough, however, the integrated communication specialist track hasn't taken hold as an occupation path even if it has been adopted in practice.

Writers are being asked to review content well beyond their scope. 

Nowadays, it's not uncommon for marketing managers to write news releases or for public information officers to be tasked with writing advertisements. Both tracks ought to expect a heavy load of proofreading, editing, and rewriting too as more employees, managers, and executives write content.

There isn't anything wrong with the shift in work loads, aside from obvious time famine, but it does require professionals self-assess their abilities and continually strengthen their skill sets in areas where they are less familiar. Ergo, most copywriters are not familiar with news release writing and Associated Press Style guidelines, and most journalists or public relations specialists aren't always prepared to relax their desire to write with a certain literalness. (Some even struggle with relaxed blog content.)

The outcome can be found everywhere, as advertisements become boring and marketing puff pieces attempt to masquerade as news. As they do, ironically, outcomes begin to wane with the only solution offered up by some is to double down on the investment. There is only one problem with that. More lackluster communication doesn't produce results with luster. It exposes dullness to more people.

Stop trying to wear different hats and start writing from the inside out. 

One of my biggest issues with clients and so-called brainstormers who want steal everyone else's work is that it never produces anything that elevates the conversation. It's writing from the outside in, and only contributes to the communication overload suffered by more and more consumers today.

They don't need more content. They need the right content, written in a way that meets organizational goals and best suits the medium.

This is also why I transformed Writing For Public Relations at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas into Writing Across Communication. It's a better way to expose writers to different styles, formats, and techniques that used to be associated with specific fields. You see, I believe we have to start  teaching occupational writers how to write differently given we live in a world where copywriters are asked to write blog posts or white papers, public relations specialists are asked to write advertisements and 140-character tweets, and journalists are asked to be adept with social media and broadcast — all the while proofreading and editing everyone else's contributions too.

So rather than teach writers to form professional perspectives, they really need to understand the core communication components of an organization and various processes used in creating effective communication. After fundamentals, they can learn four primary approaches to effective communication: journalism, public relations, content marketing, and advertising.

While many writers likely find they are more suited to one approach over another, diversification also strengthens specialization. Even fiction writers can benefit from learning different writing approaches. Many fiction writers begin as journalists or copywriters before transitioning to the arts.

Friday, January 6

Hey Writer ... Why Do Think Your Words Are So Special Anyway?

As mind boggling as it seems, we will be exposed to more than a million words today. No, we won't see all of them, but they are there — framing webpages, breaking up social media updates, decorating walls, accompanying us to work on the horizon, and tucking us in when we go to bed.

Even those who didn't pick up a book this year — their lives are overflowing with words. In fact, this overwhelming volume of messages might even explain why the number of book readers has dipped in recent years. With as much content as people consume, voluntarily and involuntarily, it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom why anyone might want to add a few thousand more.

If you write, it ought to make you think too. What makes your words so special?

It doesn't even matter what kind of writer you might be. Literary writers have the seemingly impossible task of targeting voluntary readers to add more words to their lives, which is precisely why most authors never break more than $10,000 per published novel. Content marketers and copywriters have a seemingly impossible task too.

They target otherwise involuntary readers, using interruption, distraction, and attraction as tools of the trade. But even if they are very good at it, even great at it, most of them know that the number of times a reader has to be exposed to a message before it sticks has increased from three times in the 1960s to somewhere around 300 times today.

Even if it does stick, awareness is fragile. One typpppo, intentional or not, and even the best written message suddenly evaporates as our minds are attracted more to mistakes than best intentions.

Sure, some people argue that typos have become okay. They really aren't so okay when you realize they tend to attract more attention than the message.

Sure, we can all appreciate that the quantity of communication (how much we write) and the speed of communication (how fast we are asked to write it) has certainly contributed to the diminishing rate of quality — so much so that forgiveness is given much more readily than it once was. But does that make it right?

It depends, I suppose, on our expectation of outcome. Do we want people to remember our message or our mistake? If you want them to remember your message, then the error acceptance rate is zero.

If you want people to take the time to read your work, then take more time to write it.

In a few weeks, I'll be teaching Editing & Proofreading Your Work at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There are several takeaways from the class, including a better measure of how much time — from research to layout revisions — writing projects require (even if very few have such luxury).

It also includes some fundamentals on proofreading (the final polish) the work, start to finish:

1. Read the content out loud, slowly, with special attention paid to alliteration
2. Break up the content with a ruler, allowing you to see a line instead of a page
3. Start from the bottom up and backwards, seeing each word to check spelling
4. Print the content and, if you cannot print it, then change the font size and style
5. Set the work aside for a few hours or a day between writing, editing and proofreading

If you noticed that each of these techniques is tied to tricking your brain to see the content differently, you are right. The phenomenon that makes other people's writing errors stand out is the same phenomenon that makes ours so hard to spot. It's likely related to the Troxler effect, an optical illusion where unchanging stimulus away from a fixation point will fade and disappear.

Becoming a better proofreader of our own work often means changing the stimulus so our brain doesn't fill in details that don't exist after we've fixated on the work. Conversely, readers tend to spot errors much more quickly because the error disrupts the unchanging flow of content and our brains are programmed to see disruption. Never mind that our perception of authorship is the only change.

This isn't the only area where perception affects our writing. The value we place on it is based largely on perception too, unless we invest the time it takes to elevate the reader instead of merely informing them. Why bother? An article of 750 words is .00075 percent of the words someone will see today.

Wednesday, August 3

Educators See PR Trends From A Different Perspective


When the Public Relations Certification Program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) began experiencing a decline in enrollment several years ago, most people pointed to the economy as an explanation. I didn't see it that way. The decline in enrollment was the symptom of an ailing industry.

As the old business model for journalism in the digital age began to fail, so did public relations. Sure, some people might call me out with claims that public relations firms are booming. Maybe some firms are, but most aren't relying on public relations as much as content marketing anymore.

Forbes recently called it the devolution of public relations. And while Christopher Penn pointed out that public relations is not doomed, even he couched his assessment in the observation that the media landscape is more diverse than ever before and public relations is adapting to the media landscape. I think he is right, except that it seems public relations firms aren't adapting to the market as much as they are adopting more marketing.

You can see it in enrollment. In prioritizing their educational investment, students and working professionals are more inclined to take classes that seem better suited to integrated marketing communication (which includes content marketing) than public relations. In fact, it was for that reason I asked the university to develop an Integrated Marketing Communication Certificate instead, and include public relations under a new umbrella. UNLV met me halfway with two certificate programs.

Pubic Relations and Integrated Marketing Communication Certificate programs.

Although the complementing certificate programs are still in their infancy and without the marketing support that I hoped for, the concept has merit. The idea is to offer two programs with up to five concentrated core courses while the balance of the curriculum consists of transferrable elective courses.

These are the four classes that I have signed on to teach this fall. Although the descriptions for two of the courses were inherited, three of the four classes are being built from the ground up. The fourth, Editing & Proofreading Your Work, is my long-running class offered three times a year and always refreshed between offerings. Course descriptions follow:

Fundamentals of Public Relations - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Sept. 8

Explore the history, principles, procedures, and ethics guiding those who work in the field of public relations. You will also learn concepts, definitions, and techniques related to enhancing an organizational presence, elevating an organizational identity, and reinforcing an organizational brand by serving both the organization and public interest. The class is held Thursdays from Sept. 8 to Oct. 27 (with no class on Sept. 22 and Oct. 20). Course: 163PR6101

Editing & Proofreading Your Work - 9 a.m. to noon, Saturday, Sept. 10

Make a positive impression with clear, concise, and grammatically-correct personal or business correspondence. This half-day program will focus on essentials such as content, flow, mechanics, spelling and punctuation. You will leave the workshop with several editing exercises you may use to self-test and practice the skills you have learned. This class is an intensive 3-hour refresher for all writers, literary and commercial. Course: 163WR1150

Content Marketing - 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Sept. 26

Gain the insights, knowledge and skills you need to design, develop, promote, and manage digital, mobile, and social content as part of a successful marketing campaign. In this skills-driven class, you will learn some of the newest trends in the creation of compelling and engaging content that not only supports marketing but solidifies customer loyalty in marking them (and the media) as an important part of the campaign. The class is held Mondays from Sept. 26 to Dec. 3 (with no class on Oct. 17, Oct. 31, or Nov. 7). Course: 163MK2120

Crisis Communication - 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Thursdays, starting Nov. 11

Weather a natural disaster, accident, product recall, or other organizational crisis with a skillfully executed crisis communication plan. The class will take you through the process of developing a plan while minimizing legal liability, executing the media response, and managing key messages. The final project is to participate in an on-camera interview about your assigned crisis. The class is held Thursdays from Nov. 10 to Dec. 8 (with no class Nov. 24). Course: 163PR6103

Will the new curriculum work? I don't know. While public relations remains a critical component of any integrated marketing communication background and an important skill set, its overemphasis on media relations (for decades) has diminished its attractiveness as a standalone program. So, we'll see.

All of these classes also follow a traditional classroom model so you must be in Las Vegas to attend. In the future, there may be room to develop similar classes as an online alternative or, perhaps, private one-on-one instruction. Considering the direction of education today, it seems inevitable.

Monday, July 11

Never Mind The Cliche If Its Omission Is A Crime

Every now and again someone complies a list of words that need to be kicked to the curb because the list builder claims such words are overused, overblown, and otherwise tired. Sometimes they're right.

And other times? They aren't so right, at least not so right for everyone. Some people truly deserve the words that others dismiss as overused or in need of being avoided. Maybe you deserve some too. 

The real crime seldom has to do with a word being cliche, but rather the author or orator using a phrase or opinion that betrays a lack of original thought — power word and omit lists, inclusive. 

"The difficulty of literature is not to write, but to write what you mean." — Robert Louis Stevenson

The problem faced by many authors or orators isn't the word they choose but the way they go about choosing it. Instead of investing time to find the right word, they rely on tips and tricks that follow the pendulum swings between popularity and platitude. So rather than ever finding the right words to describe themselves, all they ever do is describe the trends that surround them. 

What they ought to think about instead is writing straight, honest prose that lends clarity to their meaning. A serial entrepreneur is something who has incubated a string of successful startups. A strategist is someone who envisions something new or at least reframes it in an unconventional way. Some of them might even be called innovative or collaborative, depending on their approach. 

The same can be said for any of the nineteen words called out for being hyperbolic. If they apply to you, continue to stand your ground and use them. But if you only grabbed onto to them because they looked good as part of someone else's message, then heed the warning and take the lesson to heart.

Skip manipulations, cognitive distortions, and pretend qualities that you or your company might profess and focus in on those qualities you really do have. That's all anybody really wants nowadays. They want the truth (or as close as you can come to it) with neither exaggeration nor omission.

Sunday, December 20

Once Upon A Red Rocket: A Short Story For The Holidays

Once Upon A Red Rocket
by Richard Becker

Lizzy Capland outflanked the outstretched hands of the man in the Santa suit and sat down on the bench beside him. She had turned 11 last June, far too old to sit on someone’s lap.

 “Too old to sit on my lap but not too old to see me,” mused Santa from behind the big white curls of his beard. “Well, hello there.”

“Yes sir, I’m too old. I mean, no sir,” said Lizzy. “I’m not here to really see you. I mean…”

Santa drew up an eyebrow, waiting patiently for her explanation.

“Well, I’m here to see you, obviously,” said Lizzy nervously, trying to find the words. “But I’m here to see you for my brother. He’s eight.”

 “Oh, I see,” said Santa Claus. “And what is his name?”

“Johnny,” she said. “Only he likes to be called John now. It makes him feel older.”

“Yes,” Santa said as if remembering something before offering her a wink. “He’s still Johnny to me too.”

“Then you probably know why he couldn’t make it here himself,” she said, breathing out the words in anxious desperation. “He’s terribly, terribly sick. He has leukemia.”

“It’s all right, child,” he said, putting a bear of an arm around her. “It’s all right.”

“Well, no sir. It’s not all right,” she fought back the tears. “But that is why I came to see you. I want to ask you for a Christmas miracle.”

“Oh, my dear, dear girl,” his voice dropping from merry tenor to a whispering baritone. “As much as I wish I could move heaven and earth to heal all children, it is beyond my powers.”

“I know Mr. Claus,” she said, regaining her composure. “I’m not asking for you to heal him.”

“Then what can I do for you?”

“There is only one present on Johnny’s Christmas list this year,” she said.

“Tell me what it is and I’ll do my best.”

“He wants a rocket ship.” “A rocket ship?” said Santa. “I can certainly do that. What kind would he like? A red one that takes his imagination to outer space or a blue one that can blast off because it’s water propelled or maybe something with a remote control?”

“No sir, you don’t understand,” she squirmed. “Johnny doesn’t want a toy rocket ship. He wants a real one.”

“A real one?”

“Yes, sir. We both know you can’t cure him,” said Lizzy. “But maybe you could build him a rocket ship so he can travel to someplace where he wouldn’t have to be sick anymore.”

“Lizzy,” Santa sighed.

“Please, Mr. Claus? You just have to do something for him.”

“You dear, sweet girl,” he said, shoulders slumped. “This isn’t something I can promise …”

“I know,” she said, defeated. “It’s okay. I knew you weren't the real Santa Claus anyway. What would the real Santa be doing in a mall a few weeks before Christmas?”

“What I was going to say, Lizzy, is that it isn’t something I can promise,” he continued. “But if you believe and I mean really, really believe with all your heart … maybe your wish will come true.”

“You really mean that?”

“It’s Christmas, Lizzy. We are celebrating the anniversary of the miracle of miracles.”

“Oh, thank you, Santa!” Lizzy exclaimed, turning to hug him. “I’ll believe. You’ll see. I’ll believe.”

“I have faith in both you and your brother,” said Santa. “In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the biggest rocket ship you’ve ever seen wasn’t waiting for you and your brother on Christmas Day!”

“Christmas Day? Oh no, that won’t do,” Lizzy said, pulling back. “That won’t do at all.”

“Why not?”

“They don’t know if my brother will make it to Christmas Day,” said Lizzy. “We need it much sooner than that.”

“I see,” Santa sighed again, cupping his chin in thought. “This really is a puzzle.”

“I know,” she said. “It isn’t something you can promise.”

“It doesn’t matter what I can or can’t promise, Lizzy,” said Santa, laying a finger to her heart. “All miracles start from the inside out. Don’t give up on your dreams.”

Lizzy didn’t say a word as she first stood up. The once short line to see Santa Claus had swelled from to two children to nearly twenty, ranging from toddlers being held by enthusiastic mothers and fathers to six-year-old kids with shopping lists spooling out of one hand while using the other to tug at their tired-eyed parents who had become far too practiced in the annual ritual to be engaged.

The length of this line, along with the growing impatience of those waiting, seemed to break Lizzy from her spell. Time was no longer standing still. The rest of the world was waiting.

“You’re not such a bad guy for a mall Santa,” she said. “Merry Christmas.” “Merry Christmas, Lizzy” he said. “Don’t forget. Miracles happen from the inside out.”

She didn’t say anything else nor did she look back over her shoulder as the merry tenor of Santa’s voice returned. He was asking the next kid in line a litany of questions with the same sing-song familiarity of seasons past. For weeks, she had prayed for her brother to be able to visit Santa and hear them too, but those prayers had gone unanswered.

“Did you tell Santa everything you wanted?” asked her mother. “Yes,” said Lizzy, avoiding eye contact.

“So what was at the top of your list?”

“Oh, you know,” said Lizzy. “I really want a gift card to Justice.”

 ***
This was the first part of a longer stand-alone story and I'm sorry I never shared the rest of it here. Nowadays, I'm sharing them somewhere else. You can get updates about them on any social network or subscribe to my quarterly newsletter. Good night, good luck, and Happy Holidays! 

Wednesday, December 2

The Accidental Hiatus After Ten Years. How Life Happens.

A few weeks ago, a long-time friend and colleague sent me a question via Facebook. It was startling to read but not because of the content. It was startling because my immediate response didn't feel right.

"Hey brother, did you quit blogging?"

"No" was my most immediate response but then I stopped myself from pressing send. I hadn't published a stitch of content in more than four weeks — my first sustained break from blogging in more than ten years. "No" just didn't seem to cut it, especially since I was asking myself the same question.

Did I quit blogging?

No, not really. It just happened. Life had become unexpectedly busy in the weeks leading up to my presentation at the NRPA 2015 Conference and never slowed down. It only accelerated. Between a whirlwind series of conferences and conventions, both parents having health scares, and a fully integrated work-life schedule, there wasn't any time left in the day. I decided to skip one week.

One week quickly escalated into two weeks. It was four weeks by the time my friend messaged me — an unexpected hiatus that I didn't have time to really address. Add four more missing weeks to it.

He didn't seem to mind. There may have even been a note of envy in the back of his head. He is coming up on the 10-year anniversary of his blog and thought giving himself permission to write and publish when he wants sounded pretty appealing. Never mind that my hiatus was never so intentional.

It will be going forward. Permission granted.

No, I am not going to quit blogging. I am, however, going to take a page from my friend's unwritten playbook to write and publish when I want without a second thought of maintaining a schedule. Sure, this might sound counter intuitive for anyone who knows anything about social media. Consistency, after all, is part of any well-executed communication plan (especially social media). I stand by it.

Except, here is the thing. My blog has never been part of a communication plan or distribution channel for my company. It could have been, but it wasn't. My goals were always more holistic within the context of education, experimentation, and engagement. Some of this still applies.

Some of it doesn't. While there will always be a place for articles and essays, the social media landscape has changed and it is on the verge of changing again. Social networks are mostly better places for engagement than blogs (even for those of us who lament the loss of long format thought exchanges that still happen but not often enough). Experimentation has mostly moved off blogs and onto other platforms and technologies (except for writing and thought exercises). And that leaves education, which is one reason why I'll never shutter the space. This has been and continues to be one of the best places to sketch ideas, receive feedback, and provide students of mine with extracurricular education — previews and supplements to material I've made part of my classes.

I'll likely spend more time in the classroom. Spring 2016.

Some of the best material I've contributed to the field for the better part of a decade has arguably come out my classrooms. Students bring in some of the most interesting case studies and questions — puzzles that inspire problem solving for the here and now or long-term future. And in the upcoming year, I'll find my feet planted firmly on two campuses.

I have four classes scheduled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, during what I hope will be an interim schedule before continuing to build out a new Integrated Marketing Communication certificate program — with more than 40 different classes that would appeal to both working professionals and career explorers. The time is really right to introduce this program, but students are welcome to take any of the following in the interim.

Editing & Proofreading Your Work from 9 a.m. to noon on Feb. 6. This half-day program continues to be a staple for anyone interested in refining the written word by it making clear, concise, and grammatically correct. It focuses on all the essentials associated with solid writing mechanics.

Writing For Public Relations on Thursdays from Feb. 18 through April 21. For ten weeks, students learn to master a variety of writing styles and understand how best to apply them to news releases, fact sheets, biographical sketches, feature stories, media kits, and social media. Expect to write.

• Editing & Proofreading Your Work from noon to 3 p.m. on June 6. This is an encore session of the February class, except offered in the afternoon for students unable to attend a weekend session. The format is the same, but every class is different as it adapts to new people and perspectives.

Shaping Public Perception: Next Step Social Media from noon to 3 p.m. on June 25. When Social Media for Strategic Communication began to feel too mainstream, I knew it was time to expand beyond the confines of social media being a communication "medium" into a fully integrated and incredibly immersive multimedia strategy for public relations, marketing, advertising, and human resources. In a nutshell, this class explores what is happening and what is happening next.

Along with these classes, I have also been invited to teach (and accepted) a full semester course at the College of Southern Nevada. This experimental class cuts to the core of where communication is headed today. Employers are looking for a new generation of multi-disciplined professionals.

Writing For Design on Tuesdays from Jan. 19 through May 15. Search for class 35048 to enroll in a course designed to help designers master several modern writing styles that are in demand — copywriting, content marketing, and self-promotion across social networks and other media. This lecture-lab class will help students become familiar with message development, product differentiation, and brand voice while learning to understand how words and design converge.

With these five classes already slated for the spring, there will never be any shortage of topics to revisit from time to time, even if I no longer intend to keep a schedule. It is part of a bigger change.

The not-really-so-accidental hiatus. How times change.

I alluded to a direction a few years ago and I've stayed the course ever since. It came from the realization that the quantity of time we have is not as important as the quality. The thinking applies everywhere.

As I started to remake my life and profession in a very different fashion, I decided that I only had time for a handful of the very best clients I could find and not just any client I could find. This might sound as counter initiative as my opening graphs to anyone who ever wanted to build a business.

Except, here is the thing. I'm happy helping a few people build their businesses or organizations and no more than that. I'm not really looking to build another business of my own anymore. And this realization provides me a luxury that very few people get to enjoy until they are almost worn out.

Nowadays, I have to love my clients or they are not my clients. There are no exceptions. At the first sign of angst, I resign the account with no hard feelings. And, not surprisingly, for those relative few I keep close — I am increasingly passionate and proficient in everything we do. It's magical.

As I've written before: Everyone is driven by something. We can choose what drives us. I'm driven by helping a few great people who lead some amazing organizations, teaching a few students with limitless potential, living my life surrounded by the people who matter most, and carving out a few more hours out of my week so I can write stories that have been held hostage far too long by a fixed schedule. That's all there is and it's enough to fill me up — it's more than most people ever have.

How about you? If you could be driven by something, what would it be? And once you've settled on a few ideas, give yourself permission to ask why you aren't letting that desire drive you as if all that time you think you have in the world has almost run out. It had run out. Good night and good luck.

Wednesday, September 16

The Future Of Marketing Is Smart For Consumers And Parks

Whether you know it as the Internet of things, enchanted items, or smart objects, the convergence of technology and marketing and customer experience will be a technological revolution. Call it smart.

It will be smart in terms of the technologies that are being announced and introduced daily — smart clothing, force touch, or innovative sports analysis tools — and smart in terms of the portable, multimodal (sight, sound, touch, readable), and interactive content that will be both functional and valuable to consumers. And it will finally drive home the idea that marketing and the customer experience is the same — from the very first touch point to the decision to upgrade or resupply.

Shaping Public Perception - The Next Step In Social Media 

For a few hours on Wednesday, the next step in social media was very much on topic for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) 2015 Annual Conference. It was one of the first opportunities I've had to share new insights into how marketers are going to adapt — and what they might learn from the psychological and sociological insights of Yuval Noah Harari and Donald Hoffman. Take a look.


While my published decks never contain all the content delivered during any educational session, one of the more theoretical premises I've been exploring to date suggests that if humans live with a dual reality (objective reality and conceptual reality) as Hoffman suggests and Harari alludes to as the fundamental skill set that allows us to cooperate with flexibility and in very large numbers, then it could be true that the marketing/branding/public relations (the conceptual reality of any product) of a product can account for as much as half the value (or perhaps more depending on the product).

I expect this will play out in the near future as new technologies, some of which are included in my deck, fuse communication efforts and customer experience. After all, value is rarely determined by the objective reality of an object. It is more often determined by a conceptual reality — the mythical made formula — that we collectively agree upon. Maybe. I'd love to know what you think.

A quick closing recap on the NRPA 2015 Conference. 

Aside from this theoretical thrust of my presentation, it's interesting to note that parks and recreation departments across North America are still struggling with the practicality and tactical ability of social media (like most organizations). Most questions during the Q&A portion of my session dealt not with what is next, but rather what could be done right now to address time famine, message mitigation, brand management, and the pressures of constant change.

I'll be giving each of these topics space in the upcoming weeks, providing more depth and resources than what I could provide in a few seconds from the stage. I hope this short series really helps.

Special thanks to the 250 professionals (and live streaming viewers) who attended my session out of about 7,000-9,000 conference attendees, NRPA, and long-time colleague Dirk Richwine. I had an absolutely fantastic time speaking at the conference and look forward to our next opportunity.

Wednesday, September 9

The Shrinking State Of Social Media

Since social media started to make a move toward the mainstream about ten years ago, the general direction was expansive. People wanted more of everything — more friends, more fans, more followers, and just more. In fact, 'more' is the model where most marketing plans are focused.

The market, however, has changed and the once ever-present quest for an expansive presence has already shown signs of contraction. As many as 36 percent of smartphone owners are finding smaller audiences with messaging apps such as WhatApp, Kik, iMessage, and Path. Snapchat and Wickr have seen an uptick in usage too — about 17 percent of smartphone owners use apps that delete messages.

Such platforms are especially more popular with young adults, ages 18 to 29. Among this group, almost half use messaging apps and 41 percent use apps that automatically delete messages. Even recently popular networks like Pinterest and Instagram have cooled off among social nomads despite marketers trying to retool social platform strategies. (Maybe they've cooled off because of them.)

More isn't much of an answer when most people want less. 

Sure, Facebook has become as innocuous as the Internet, with 72 percent of all adults with an account. (Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, and Pinterest all hover around 25 percent.) But look at the reasons. Facebook does an excellent job creating the illusion of privacy while simultaneously shortening any marketers reach through targeted delivery and exposure limitations.

One would think marketers might take note. It's less, not more that usually wins for them on this social platform. More only happens when it contains a concept built on attraction (as opposed to broadcast). Take a look at 30 different campaigns and the common denominators are there.

• Successful campaigns are tied to something beyond digital.
• The initial distribution method is aimed at customer attraction.
• Most campaigns are built on engagement and participation.
• The content has appeal beyond its narrowly defined audience.

The lesson reads like one of the rules right out of copywriting school — less is more. And in this case, less is more because attraction marketing continues to beat out interruption marketing on a regular basis much like most people (except celebrities) are shrinking their networks to include a much smaller circle of friends — those they happen to meet in person and see somewhat regularly.

Not that this should surprise anyone. The emphasis on 'social' over 'media' was always the intent.

Wednesday, September 2

Why Do Marketers Still Struggle With Decision Making?

By most accounts, CMOs are increasing their organizational spending on social, mobile, and analytics. One recent study places this budgetary increase at 12.2 percent over the next year.

The increase is in addition to social media spending, which already accounts for more than 10 percent of most total marketing budgets. In five years, this same spending will eventually account for about 25 percent of most total marketing budgets. And none of this news should surprise anyone at all, especially with the increased attention that marketers are giving to the growth of online video.

Digital marketing and social media are mainstream even if measurement remains somehow elusive to marketers. 

What should surprise people instead is that marketers readily admit that they don't really know how to measure the outcome of their efforts. In fact, only 15 percent of CMOs say they have successfully proven a quantitative impact associated with their social media efforts. Conversely, 41.5 percent of marketers haven't been able to show any impact from their social media efforts. The mind boggles.

This apparently nagging inability to measure outcomes is a symptom and not the problem. The problem is how many organizations lack a marketing or communication plan and, even more commonly, how many lack good marketing or communication plans. If they did have good plans, measurement wouldn't be a problem as the key has always been to set realistic and measurable goals.

It's almost impossible to measure outcomes that aren't tethered to objectives. 

Likewise, it's almost impossible to not be able to measure outcomes if they are tethered to realistic, measurable, and specific objectives. And ideally, those objectives will be drawn from the organization's mission, vision, and strategic plan.

Why is this important? Because specific business goals — along with considerations like product or service life cycle, market share, consumer base, competition, proximity, resources and self-imposed restraints — lead to very specific marketing and communication goals. Consider just a few of them:

• Introduce new products or services. While awareness is worthwhile, introducing new products and services means more than people knowing something exists. Communication objectives can be grounded in outcomes like market position, brand recognition, and value proposition retention.

• Capture market share. Given market share is a key indicator of competitiveness among competitors and market viability. Subway, for example, focused on market share when it stopped defining its market as sandwich shops and started attacking the quick service market.

• Become an industry leader. Most companies that strive to be industry leaders market the influence of the leaders and knowledge of their industry more than they do their products or services.  Becoming a trusted source increases credibility and results in significant market advantage.

• Improve customer loyalty. Organizations that want to increase customer loyalty invest in marketing that reinforces individual relationships, personalization, and the best possible customer experience. Some include incentives, but only those that reinforce positive customer experience.

• Increase product profitability. Sometimes reining in a marketing plan, pushing loss leaders, or reducing non-productive expenses can mean more to a company than expansion. The same objective can also include add-on items that require no additional marketing and well-timed follow-up sales.

• Increase gross sales or revenue. Increasing sales (units sold) and revenue (money made) can sometimes be likened to a throwaway objective in that sales and revenues are often the natural outcome of every objective listed. So if you include this objective, make it specific — X percent of increase in the marketing budget will generate X percent increase in sales within three or six months.

• Become a good corporate citizen. Responsible corporate citizens that support the communities in which they operate often benefit from increased visibility, credibility, and opportunity. Outreach programs can be especially effective when they lift up communities, creating the most potential customers.

• Foster a strong corporate culture. Whether the objectives is tied to acquiring top talent or is more market oriented in better meeting the needs of the customer, a strong corporate culture pays dividends by positioning the company from its people out. Allocating more to internal communication can help.

• Nurture ideas and innovation. When companies make this their objective, marketing enjoys a pretty clear directive that their content and creative ought to aspire toward the same goals. Apple used to be the best example in marketing innovation but not so much nowadays.

• Increase store or website traffic. If this is the objective, it almost always has to be tied to some residual effect such as lead generation, conversation, or community building. The challenge with the concept is to keep it relevant so the traffic counts don't lose customers for life in the process.

• Shape public opinion. If we remember that the primary objective of any marketing and communication program is to change behavior or public opinion, then it stands to reason our objectives ought to define what change we anticipate. Once launched, measure the change.

Naturally, these objectives (most of which would need to be fine tuned and more specific to work) only scratch the surface. There are dozens and hundreds of organization-specific objectives that could be taken into consideration, including proximity, community culture, competition, etc. (For example, a marketing plan for an Asian restaurant in China Town would look very different from a plan in a suburb without one or a farm town without many dining options.)

In fact, these variables (and marketing's unwillingness to accept they exist) are the primary cause for confusion. Too many marketers are looking for some holy grail of marketing plan and outcome measurement that somehow manages to cast the whole of marketing (and each of its tactics) into a plug and play template. But outside of making a few marketing consultants rich on 10-step books in the short term and shifting marketing budgets to social, they work for relatively few organizations.

So before your organization jumps on social, mobile, and analytics wagon, make sure any budget increases are tied to strategic objectives that can be readily measured. Who knows? You might discover a different communication vehicle for your company, one your competitors would never consider.

Wednesday, August 26

Psychology And Neuromarketing Can Be Fallible. So what?

There has been plenty of buzz up about the Reproducibility Project, which aimed to validate about 100 psychology science studies by attempting to reproduce the studies. Marketers should take note.

For those who place their faith in scientific-like testing (and big data), the findings of the Reproducibility Project ought to be astonishing. Two-thirds of the original studies tested proved fallible and even those that could be replicated demonstrated irregular statistical variations. Specifically, the magnitude of the effect tested was frequently half as small as the original finding.

Never place too much faith in any marketing formula. 

Sure, there is plenty to be gained by running A/B tests in an attempt to convert your business thinking from "we think" to "we know." There are many successful examples. But just because the results of testing turn out one way or another doesn't ensure success. A/B testing isn't a sure thing in marketing.

The truth is that we must stop treating single studies as unassailable truths, especially when other variables could be influencing the outcome of any finding, outcome, or assumption. True scientific thinking, after all, comes with a critical mindset rather than a yielding one. And we need to be more critical now than ever before, especially as people attempt to manipulate our thinking daily.

You can find evidence everywhere. Journalists are more likely to write attention-grabbing narratives first and then find examples to fill in the blanks than ever before. Scientists are more likely to build studies based upon biased theories than rely on objective observations. And marketers, whether they admit it or not, generally attempt to validate their work more than they produce better outcomes.

And no, it isn't always intentional. Anyone who has ever gone to an eye doctor only to be prescribed an inferior prescription knows how easy it is for mistakes to happen. No matter how meticulous the doctor or technician might be in the office, you eventually have to try it in the real world.

It recently happened to me. In the office, it seemed monovision — wearing a distance vision contact in one eye and a near vision correction in the other — was a suitable option for my slight presbyopia. In the real world, it didn't work at all. Too much of my interaction with the world relies on intermediate vision for monovision to be effective. The same thing can happen in scientific studies.

There are reasons humans are mostly unpredictable. 

If you truly want to understand psychology and sociology as it applies to marketing, you have to make a real effort to understand humans. First and foremost, you have understand that humans are the only creatures on this planet that form flexible and scalable cooperatives based on abstract concepts.

Yuval Noah Harari, author of the international bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, is especially intuitive on this point. As he explains it, bees and ants can form scalable cooperatives but aren't flexible in their ability to change their social structure. Whereas chimps and dolphins are flexible in how they cooperate, they are only able to do so in relatively small numbers.

The reason, it seems to me, it that humans are also the only creatures on this planet to operate with a dual reality, a perceptional concept studied in depth by Donald Hoffman, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. In sum, humans perceive an objective reality (what is true) and a conceptual reality (what we accept as truth) at the same time.

For example, the money in your wallet is a piece of paper. The concept that it has value is a fiction that we have collectively agreed to accept as truth. And, to be clear, it is this dual reality often discussed by Hoffman that provides us our unique ability to form flexible and scalable cooperatives.

Marketing and communication, at their core, only has one purpose: to change behavior. And as such, marketers usually try to change behavior by drawing attention to an objective reality or attempting to elevate (or diminish) a conceptual reality. And what makes this especially interesting is that in the last decade, especially with the advent of social media (and likely to become more prevalent with the rise of augmented and virtual reality), is that marketers spend more time targeting the conceptual reality.

So what? The greater the emphasis on conceptual reality, the greater the unpredictability of testing because humans, throughout history, have proven to be consistently inconsistent. And in knowing this, maybe it is time to treat your approach to the science side of marketing as an exercise in adjustment and not in the collection of unassailable truths that will one day be proven false. Good luck.

Wednesday, August 19

Everything Can Scale, Especially Mediocrity.

When marketers talk about automation, they don't always see the danger in it. Maybe it's because select benefits — lead generation, response counts, data tracking — outweigh most shortcomings.  But then when you move the principles of automation to something even more personal, like health care, it begins to feel frightening.

Health care professional Andy De Lao knows it. He warns that what we're scaling in health care isn't efficiency as much at it is mediocrity. Where care used to be extraordinary, he says, systems are making it "extra ordinary." You can even hear it in the vernacular. Terms like lean, defects, efficiency, output, capacity, scale, workflow, and productivity were all borrowed from industrial manufacturing.

Health care isn't alone. Those words creep up into almost everything nowadays — marketing, culinary arts, education. They seem to be everywhere. And sometimes, not every time, mediocrity follows.

Somewhere along the way, scalability becomes a setback. 

The last time I ate something from McDonald's (several years ago), I was keenly aware that it wasn't the restaurant that Ray Kroc built around the original quick service concept of Dick and Mac McDonald. Sure, phrase like quality, service, cleanliness, and value still exist, but with very different meanings than the original model.

Quality is now couched in comparison, the service is slower, the cleanliness sterile, and the concept of value somehow out of whack with the reality of the product. Half of the menu feels overpriced. Half of the menu feels cheap. What's worse is that the executive team can't seem to pinpoint the problem.

The problem isn't one thing that prevents McDonald's from getting its mojo back. It's everything. What we're witnessing almost every day at the chain is nothing less than a brand hemorrhage.

And the culprit? Scalability and mediocrity finally caught up with the clown. The systems that once made it a brilliant brand have crashed as it traded in a little on the phrases that made it famous.

Isn't this the same problem we're seeing with health care, where planning target volumes, designing intake forms, and timing medical consultations overtake the core function of patient care? Isn't this the same issue with education, where process is starting to beat out innovation? Isn't this the same challenge marketers have when attempting to understand the difference between automation and absenteeism in social media and content marketing?

I think Andy De Lao is right. There is some optimal point where art and efficiency can coexist. He applied it to his field of health care, but see it fits almost everywhere. Nothing great can scale forever.

The answer is simple: Automate the mundane, but not the art. 

Geoff Livingston gets it. He recently traded in writing columns for articles on his blog, noting that it helps set it apart from the more common opinion/posturing pieces that make up most blogs. And while that might seem like an odd analogy for health care, education, and culinary arts, it still fits.

There is nothing wrong with automation that schedules when you share articles, includes a stable of authors you really respect, or even makes you more efficient. But when you begin to phone in whatever if you are offering — blog post, patient care, or college class — mediocrity takes hold.

You see, there are some things that a restaurant kiosk or social scheduling or online class cannot replace. While all of them have merit, the real magic still happens with the human connection — spontaneous sparks that lead us light years away from whatever some mediocre outline prescribed.

Wednesday, August 12

Content Marketing Is Changing Advertising, Not Killing It

Ten years ago, ClickZ published an article that claimed advertising is dying. It's been a common theme there for the better part of a decade. The most recent claim was made just a few days ago.

ClickZ isn't alone. Fortune recently ran an article that cited the exponential growth of ad blocking and how some companies are trying to find workarounds that mitigate the impact (if you can imagine). Others are focused on specific networks where advertising is its own worst enemy, like Facebook.

These articles are all well and good to make you think, but most of them miss the mark in understanding what makes advertising work. Advertising isn't a medium or reliant on any particular media. Fundamentally, advertising is the art of persuasion and it has been around a very long time.

"Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art." — William "Bill" Bernbach, founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB).

As such, you can't kill advertising anymore than you can kill communication. All you can do is change its trust for the times — from attention grabbing special effects to emotionally authentic — and alter its distribution model — from mass media broadcast to social, mobile, digital, and environmentally interactive.

But hasn't the field always done that? The Golden Age of Advertising wasn't spurred on by the birth of television and mass media print alone. It was largely the result of the creative department becoming more important than account executives alone, with mass media serving as a spark only because it meant that a great concept had significantly more reach than any other time in history.

Given that digital has expanded the potential reach of mass media, a second Golden Age of Advertising could be pinned on content marketing, social media, and next generation technologies that will put digital at our fingertips almost everywhere. Maybe all advertising needs is to get back to its roots to be relevant and that means getting back to the creation of great concepts.


The M6 razor commercial is an excellent example. After being freed from the constraints of a 30-second television spot or a single page of print, the creative team behind the concept was able to tell a story that can hold the viewer's interest for three minutes while delivering two persuasive messages.

For my purposes, this 3-minute spot includes a third. While it's always easy to think content is king, it's really the great concept that remains sovereign. One unforgettable message has a real impact.

It also touches on what is wrong with turning out terabyte after terabyte of forgettable content. There is no great concept behind the bulk of content marketing and there needs to be if we want to benefit from the art of persuasion — the heart and soul of advertising. Without it, we're winking in the dark.

Wednesday, August 5

Are There Too Few Analysts In The Field Of Journalism?

There is one place broadcast news continues to beat out print journalism online and it's about time print-to-digital migrants took notice. People aren't looking for news outlets anymore. They are looking for informed experts — analysts, informants, and influencers — who add commentary and consult to their observations of world events and breaking news.

For many journalists, especially those hanging on to the last thread of objective journalism, the concept sends shivers up their spines. It's something different being a columnist or critic than a hard news journalist — writers who prefer to be seen not for their style but for the masthead they make home.

But that's not what people want. They don't want to find the same news in every paper. They don't want truth in media if that means vanilla reporting. And they certainly don't want forgettable bits of top-down information that can be spun out by anyone no matter how hard print tries to maintain it.

Print-to-digital migrants need people that the public can identify.

Sooner or later, print-to-digital migrants have to realize that their decision (some of them, anyway) to cut costs by letting all their veteran journalists go in favor of young, cheap, and desperate writers was a mistake. They needed to double down and transform those old school journalists into quasi-celebrities, a status once reserved for columnists, investigative reporters, and Gonzo journalists alone.

Except, unlike some of their more biased brethren, they need to usher in an era of impassioned objectivists — journalists who aren't afraid to look at the world the way it is (rather than the way they want it to be) and still turn a phrase that causes you to turn your head or wreck you gut or shake you awake. They need to write so well, in fact, that we want to know them by name and trust them to shape our brains.

By shape, I don't mean the advocacy and affirmation news that broadcast serves up on daily basis. What I mean is striving for stories that leave people so deeply informed about a topic that they can form their own opinions. What I mean is writing articles that aren't afraid to dig deeper into topics so we may transcend the tit-for-tat tactics of sourcing two opposing viewpoints who only talk around the surface of the subject. And what I mean is raising the bar rather than insulting the public's intelligence.

How to make print media relevant again with modern reporting.

Just as news publishers are learning in Pakistan, news organizations are learning all over the world: The "power of the press" shrinks exponentially when the public can buy digital ink by the barrel too. In other words, reach ceases to be a value proposition when companies and campaigns frequently beat out the circulation of most major news organizations. So maybe it's time to change it all together.

• Develop more specialists. Whereas news reporters used to be generalists, the public craves to get their information from specialists. This is one of the reasons some research firms have thrived in recent years — they publish content by passionate analysts who are informed, visible, and objective.

Journalists can easily take a page from their playbook or any number of 'new media' publishers that began delivering better content in some verticals than the dailies did, starting almost a decade ago. These people didn't just report the news and other people's views, they provided real analysis.

• Market semi-public reporters. Of course, content wasn't the only place new media started to crush some dailies. Almost every new media publisher and content provider won on personality too. Instead of providing authoritative reporting from under a masthead, the public was treated to a snapshot of the people behind the words.

Much like broadcast has known for years, the messenger can be just as important to the public as the message. In fact, most of the public will even forgive openly biased reporting as long as they feel like they know the person behind it. Ergo, the reporter IS part of the value proposition nowadays.

• Content needs to be intuitive. Ask most people about the ideal length of web content and most of them will skew short. It isn't really true, but plenty of people make a great case for short. Most folks only want a few graphs that sum up everything, they say.

What they really want is tiered content — short introductions that allow them to discern whether or not it's a topic that interests them enough to dig deeper. In fact, I've met more and more people who tell me they use media outlets like Newsy to scan the content and then turn to The New York Times or The Washington Post for in-depth coverage in an attempt to create a DIY hybrid of content agility.

• Multimedia wins the Internet. Sometimes people want to stream clips and other times they want to scan headlines with pics, but they want so much more from anything they decide to dig into deeper. Just as it is having an impact on content marketing it is true for journalism too.

Different people learn differently so they want their content to be visual (see), auditory (told), kinesthetic (touch), or language based (read/write) as it suits them. So knowing this, it only makes sense that digital journalism needs to be multimodal whenever it makes sense — reinforcing whatever story that happens to interest them with maps, infographics, interactive displays, video clips, animation, or anything that make sense.

Maybe all we need are authentic journalists with dazzling content.

While most newspapers have been busy chasing eyeballs to make themselves look more viable than they are, they should have be reinventing their value proposition instead. Consider the obvious.

What if more print-to-digital migrants hired authentic reporters that people could trust to deliver passionate stories that could help us better understand the world? And, what if they did it in such a way that we could preview the content before immersing ourselves in interactive multimodal content?

While no one can be certain, odds are that this kind of publication wouldn't have to worry too much about circulation. In fact, when you look at how people cobble multiple sites together to get the same effect, they wouldn't have to worry about revenue either. Journalism would become relevant again.
 

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