Audience Engagement, School Spirit Style

Purple versus Gold. Image by Vickie Bates.It’s such a small thing. Yet, when it comes to engaging your audience, it’s huge.

Did your alma mater have school colors? Did it divide the student body into Blues and Yellows or Reds and Greens? Were there points awarded all year for various activities – academic, athletic, volunteer work? Was there cause for celebration among fellow Greenies when your team won the end-of-year tally?

This type of thing was a big deal at my high school, culminating in Field Day – a full day of sporting competitions with the largest pool of points on the line.

So it baffles me why I should receive a request to donate to the annual fund accompanied by a photo of present-day students, grinning from ear to ear, like they’ve just emerged victorious from the traditional Field Day tug-of-war, adorned in Gold.

I was a Purple, you see.

It’s not like this should still matter some unmentionable number of decades later. And it doesn’t really. I’m long past reliving any high school athletic glory or Purple-Gold rivalry.

But engagement is all about speaking to your audience about what matters most to the audience. Not what matters to you or what’s convenient for you. How hard would it have been to line up four Purple kids and snap the exact same photo, then sort alums by school color, and send a customized appeal – Gold kids to Gold alums, Purple ones to Purples? With spreadsheets and mass email systems?

Easier than beating Golds at tug-of-war…

The Harlem Shake and Social Relevancy

Harlem ShakeThe Harlem Shake – oh-so-current or so over?

An intriguing debate takes place every time the Internet shakes loose a new meme. With so many social platforms available to share every newfound video, graphic or in-joke, we can quickly grow tired of ubiquity.

Right now, a Facebook group I’m a member of is debating whether to participate in a flash mob-style Harlem Shake event. The commenters are in three distinct camps:

  1. It’s so relevant
  2. It’s so over
  3. It’s so catchy, it’s re-trending

Considering this meme began Feb. 2, 2013, when, according to Wikipedia, five Australian teenagers uploaded a video of themselves dancing to the song by Baauer, it’s hard to imagine how it could be over so soon.

As I write this, a puppy version of the Harlem Shake has reached 1.8 million views on YouTube. There are penguin Shakes, baby Shakes, academia Shakes galore – all waiting to amuse you.

Hippy, Hippy Shake

The problem, it seems, among social media mavens is that they’ve spent almost a month watching their Twitter streams and Facebook newsfeeds overflowing with every Harlem Shake video uploaded to YouTube. The social maven has left Harlem Shaking far behind in search of The Next Hot Meme.

However, not every person on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and Google+ is a social butterfly. The average user’s reputation doesn’t rise and fall on meme discovery. (And what is a meme? It’s a fancy word for “fad,” but since fad hasn’t trended since the hippie era – and connotes something a bit old hat besides – the social world had to come up with a new word. Wired offers this fascinating origin story for memes via the social network 4chan.)

And, frankly, what the Vasco da Gamas of social trends are overlooking is the wholehearted engagement that something like the Harlem Shake has IRL. That’s “In Real Life,” where social mavens sometimes forget to tread (and trend).

One of the reasons for the plethora of Harlem Shake vids is the sheer fun of being part of something – trend or not. It’s no accident that schools are uploading classroom videos or that companies and nonprofits are doing the same.

It’s goofy, it’s good exercise, it exudes good will – all extremely important factors for improved morale and sustained collaboration among groups during tough times. And that’s what real engagement is all about.

So, don’t worry if something is so hot it’ll singe your eyebrows. Yes, there’s a point when every meme gets overdone, but as long as folks are still sharing videos and feeling positive about themselves in the process, don’t let a few naysayers, who only want to stand on the cutting edge, dull your enthusiasm.

Go on, Shake!

Where do you stand on the Harlem Shake? Have you tried it? Or do you find it as passé as the Macarena? 

AVEs and AVE Nots: Major PR Awards Programs Will Reject Entries Using Questionable Measurement Practice

Planning to enter your work in one of the major PR awards programs?

Then you’ll want to acquaint yourself with an important change in the rules, encouraged by the International Association for Measurement and Evaluation (AMEC), which has been endorsing the 2010 Barcelona Principles, new measurement standards for PR and social media.

Now that we have measurement standards, how do we get them adopted? That’s the question PR/social media measurement expert Katie Delahaye Paine posed in her most recent The Measurement Standard newsletter. Like the sponsors of some of the industry’s leading awards, Paine believes the answer is to bar AVE measurements from award programs.

The only way to prevent PR practitioners from falling back on bad measurement habits – like Ad Value Equivalency – is to use “fear, greed, or force,” says Paine in her post.

She was half-joking about force (I think…there is a reference to inventing a drone that could deploy “Shame on You” stickers when someone uses AVEs), but she talks tough when it comes to recommending that clients “shun firms that offered them” in measurement reports and “pushed for a rejection of any entry to an awards program that included AVEs.”

PRSA, AMEC and PRWeek now “categorically reject” entries that include AVE as a metric, she notes. Some refuse to give them up, but other distinguished programs, like the Cannes Lions Awards banished AVE measurement this summer thanks to AMEC.

Should AVE Known Better

AVEs (Ad Equivalency Value), like impressions, are considered by many leading PR and measurement experts to be an outmoded form of quantifying the success of a public relations campaign. Although AVE relies on a mathematical formulation – measuring the media coverage garnered on behalf of a client, frequently using a multiplier, and then calculating the value of coverage as if it were paid advertising – the data derived is viewed as unscientific and specious.

Why remove an established albeit old-fashioned measurement from an awards program?

In the past decade, the major PR industry awards programs having been moving toward a standardization of their own. It’s a lot harder to win an award just because the CEO liked your meeting-in-a-box. Judges review entries for quality of work and quantified successes, for content as well as results that link directly to the original objectives for the campaign.

The drive toward standardization is about promoting professional standards of practice in the PR industry, from accreditation to ethical behavior, measurement, and rewards.

If I Can’t AVE You

Now to the important part – what it means for you if you plan to enter 2012 work in a PR awards program that has disallowed AVEs. The good news is that you still have time to “measure what matters,” as Paine puts it.

This means gathering data about the program’s impact on the audience. You should be able to draw a straight line to the measured results from the original communications need through the strategy, objectives and tactics developed for your program.

Doing this kind of follow-up should be simple for corporate and institutional communicators (who tend to have direct access to the audiences they’re communicating with), but even agencies may be able to survey their clients’ audiences with the goal of gathering metrics on campaign effectiveness. There’s certainly an incentive for clients who want the kind of third-party endorsement that accolades offer: Spending a little extra on an audience survey could turn an unacceptable program into an award-winner.

I’ll AVE What She’s AVEing

Paine, CEO of KD Paine & Partners, a PR, brand relationships and social media research and measurement company, is a tireless advocate for accuracy and standards in measurement.

If you’re a “you do the math, I’ll do the words” kind of PR or communications person, you’ll love her take-no-prisoners approach to writing and talking about data. (“Clearly there are still a lot of PR pros clinging to AVEs as a measure of their success,” she writes in her post on adoption. “The best we can hope for in their case is early retirement, since sooner or later the C-suite will see behind the façade and fire them.”)

In just a few years, with the arrival of social media, we’ve witnessed the upending of industries and practices. Paine’s efforts – and those of the measurement brigade – are just as exciting and transformative.

“In reality, AVEs and multipliers won’t go away until clients demand a better solution,” says Paine. “The good news is that it is starting to happen. More and more clients are waking up to the silliness of a chart that indicates that the number of impressions you received last month is three times the population of China.”

We’re about to enter an era when PR measurement is transparent – far beyond impressions, AVEs, Likes, Smiles, and Hits on a newsletter article. Because the tools are already out there, and clients won’t need us to interpret data anymore.

No professional, ethical practitioner should fear this kind of openness. Having these “drill down capabilities,” as Paine calls them, will allow us to demonstrate the ROI of our programs, making our work and thought leadership even more valuable to CEOs and clients. Even more important, it will enable us to refine PR programs so they’re more targeted, effective and meaningful to the audiences we’re hoping to reach and engage with.

For more background:

Katie Paine’s “Everything You Need to Know about the Dublin Summit and the New Measurement Standards” shares tons of links, including one to a glossary of social media measurement terms.

Check out No Bad Language’s posts on writing competitive awards program entries.

The Top 6 Inspiring Things I Learned at BlogHer ‘12

Some 5,000 women, men and children attended BlogHer ’12 in New York City this year. This is the line for lunch…and Martha Stewart’s keynote on Friday.

I’m still processing everything I discovered at this year’s BlogHer conference, held Aug. 2 – 4 in Manhattan. I learned tons, met hundreds of amazing, talented, hard-working bloggers, gathered helpful tips and a bit of swag (I left a healthy selection of the better stuff for the chambermaid – now, there’s a hard-working woman!), and felt inspired by the sheer exuberance of the crowds and the willingness of everyone to share what they know.

For those who didn’t get to the conference this year or didn’t go to the same sessions, I wanted to share some of the most inspiring things I heard from panelists during my two days at BlogHer:

6. Blogging isn’t dead – a whole medium doesn’t die, notes Elan Morgan. Media evolve. But, if we don’t gather and talk about blogging, in the way businesses discuss strategy and the future, we lose community.

Soledad O’Brien (at left) moderated the keynote talk, “Women Influencers as Change Agents,” with Malaak Compton-Rock (right) and Christy Turlington-Burns (middle).

5. Children can become junior board members at age 12, according to CNN’s Soledad O’Brien while this may not be appropriate for every board or organization, imagine the eye-opening conversations about the consequences of decisions if board members had to think beyond the next quarter and out to the next generation.

4. Even in a world of Likes, Pins and Plusses, the best way to engage is still face-to-face – because then it’s not about “What can you do for me?,” but “How are you?” Real engagement happens when you’re ready to listen, says Doug French, founder of the Dad 2.0 Summit.

3. Respect your talent and price it accordingly – “I do not write for anyone for free,” states Cecily Kellogg, one of the panelists at the “How to Price and Value Your Services” session. “I support my family. I have to earn a living.” Fellow panel member Monica Barnett adds: “What you give away for free is rarely valued.”

2. If you want to work with brands, you must stay true to yourself – your credibility is based on your honesty and transparency on your blog. Smart brands want to tap into strong voices; they don’t want to change you or put conditions on what you write. Make sure you work with brands that want you to remain consistent with your values and voice.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask – virtually every panelist made this point. The social media world is incredibly open and forthright. What’s the worst that could happen? Someone says No? The next person will say Yes. If you don’t ask, you won’t know. If you don’t know, you can’t learn. If you don’t learn, you stagnate. Join in, ask, discover, and return the favor when you can!

6 Tips to Get the Most Out of Social Media Conferences

My new business cards surrounded by some of the dozens I’ve collected at BlogHer ’12.

Day One of BlogHer ‘12 is almost over. Here are a few tips I was reminded of today to help anyone learn more, network effectively and engage like a pro at social media and other professional conferences:

1) Break Out of Your Introvert/Extrovert Mold – I’ve written here before about my extreme introversion. Being an introvert isn’t the same as being shy; it has more to do with how much input you can take before you need to recharge your batteries in a quiet, secluded place.

Conferences present constant social and information overload for us “I” types. Normally, this much input makes introverts retreat into their shells or hide behind their smartphones. I’ve spotted a few of us today. Here’s the thing (and I say this with love), when we give off the Don’t Approach vibes, when we Cold Shoulder, when we give tablemates the Silent Treatment, it tends to make fellow conferees uncomfortable. Sure, it’s not our intention, but we risk being branded as standoffish, and we lose out on opportunities, like networking, meeting potential brand sponsors for our blogs, and hearing about job openings.

I have no idea what it’s like to be a social butterfly, but in the interest of equal time, if you’re drawn to the parties and after-parties at conferences, maybe this time set aside the final night for your Little Black Dress. On the first day(s) of the conference, take your social skills to the early morning networking breakfasts. Your extroverted self will shine like a star and, for the rest of the day, you’ll discover what it’s like to attend panels without a hangover. Who knows? You might learn something you otherwise would’ve missed while sawing logs at the post-lunch session.

2) Find a New Posse to Hang With – A VP at a former job was generous in sending her team to professional development conferences. She had one request: We couldn’t eat lunch with our colleagues. We had to wander the luncheons like nomads and join a table of complete strangers, network and learn and share. Long before social media – or the Internet – she understood the value of engaging. Sure, it was risky. We could have networked ourselves into new jobs for competing companies. But there was an equal or greater chance we’d return renewed and inspired and share what we’d learned, improving our own campaigns as a result.

3) Zip It – There’s an unfortunate trend among conference-goers that involves talking almost nonstop through sessions. There’s no question: This is utterly rude and disrespectful to the speakers and everyone else who’s paid a significant amount of money to listen and learn.

People who don’t have the capacity to sit silently through a 90-minute talk don’t belong there. Sure, there’s that last-minute presentation that needs to be multitasked during a panel discussion or the babysitter who has to be able to call no matter what you’re doing. Be graceful enough to recognize that this behavior is disruptive (and never, ever argue when someone asks you to be quiet). That work project, that ringing cellphone, that gossip about a brand that wants to sponsor your blog? As important as they seem, they’re relevant to you and you alone. Gather your things and leave as unobtrusively as possible, even if you just need to take a short phone call.

Conferences are places where you’re expected to bring your best professional self – along with basic manners. Manners aren’t some outmoded ideal, they’re about demonstrating respect for yourself and those around you. When you share your best self, you’ll find you’re the recipient of networking opportunities you never dreamed of.

4) Get Carded – Like a lot of BlogHer attendees, I got all hepped up about creating a new business card for the conference. You give away stacks of these babies at an event like this, and collect just as many.

Some are all business; many as glib as punchlines; others wonders of design. We spend hours fretting over how to present our personal brand, company offerings and blog personalities.

But, after I’d handed out a bunch, I realized I’d blown it. I’d shared my blog URL, my tagline, skill sets and contact info. What I should have done was talk about what I or my blog could do for others. Note the subtle distinction: I assumed I had the WIIFY covered by listing my skills like this: writing, social media, corporate communications.

What the people I’m meeting are really wondering, though, isn’t “What can you do?,” but “What can you do for me?” or “How can we work together?” or “Why should I take the time to read your blog?”

That requires more than a list of professional capabilities. It demands language that says something like: “I help writers develop confidence in their own writing skills.”

5) Learn Something Completely Unexpected – We were reminded today at the newbie breakfast that it can be more beneficial and inspiring to attend a session on a topic you know nothing about, that takes you out of your comfort zone, that throws you in with people whose ideas, skills and ways of working are nothing like your own.

You may feel lost, challenged, afraid someone will call on you, lonely, and/or confused, but you’ll emerge thinking about things in new ways and feeling renewed when you return to your own area of expertise.

6) Practice Real-World Engagement – All of these tips are about real engaging, not the type done behind laptops and mobile devices. They’re about approaching these amazing opportunities with your head up, hand extended, ears open, and eyes ready to make contact. They’re about intellectual and emotional connection.

Social media folks already spend enough time glued to the glowing screen. A conference is our chance to embrace and practice engagement for real. Who knows what exciting connections we’ll make in the process?

Bonus tip: If you’re attending a conference in Manhattan in the summer, don’t stand too close to buildings. Look up at almost any edifice, and you’ll notice a sea of air conditioners protruding from windows on every floor. Now you know where those mysterious drops of water come from when the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky…

Engaging Audiences with Storytelling

Running rings around Saturn. The Cassini mission explored the rings and moons of the gas giant.

Last week, I had the extraordinary opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., and hear from two of JPL’s master storytellers about engaging audiences’ imagination through the wondrous possibilities of space exploration.

My inner science nerd spent the whole time doing cartwheels while the professional me took lots of photos and some notes to share with you.

The organizers – the Los Angeles chapter of IABC – made the excellent choice to include both external and internal storytelling on the agenda, which opened up the topic and the perspectives in a big way.

Our speakers were Stephen Kulczycki, deputy director of communications and education at JPL, and Teresa Bailey, information science specialist and the JPL FIOA liaison in the Library, Archives and Records section.

Connecting with Hearts, Not Just Minds – Storytelling to External Audiences

Just as you’d imagine, we needed to submit our names to JPL several days prior to the event and there were security checkpoints throughout the Pasadena campus, which has more acreage than Disneyland.

The next Mars rover (which successfully landed Aug. 6, 2012) is Curiosity, and it’s the biggest machine in space. Curiosity reminds me a bit of WALL-E!

Still, there’s a large public-facing component to this organization, including a visitor’s center housing a museum on the history of space exploration. Thousands of students come through each year, learn and discover, and are treated to a number of communications designed specifically to encourage their sense of wonder about “amazing places,” as Stephen Kulczycki says.

His office produces short films about JPL’s work that have the quality of Hollywood trailers with quick cuts, dramatic orchestral music, and lively graphics. The scientific language is pitched to “smart 8-year-olds,” which makes these mini-movies perfect as press releases, for the general public, for online platforms, and as footage in science programs, such as PBS’s “Nova.”

“Every good story takes a protagonist with a dream and a set of obstacles they need to overcome,” Kulczycki says. “We get the mechanics and explanations out of the way and get to the heart of what people feel.”

“We’re creating relationships here, person to person, house to house,” he adds.

JPL has one of the Apollo mission moon rocks. Note the giant padlock (back, left) securing this sample!

If you work in an organization with plenty of proprietary information to protect, it’s possible to give in to the restrictions on information-sharing and lose sight of how you can use communications to create those relationships. The JPL storytelling event demonstrated that even in a restricted environment, you can find innovative ways to engage, educate and enthrall your audiences.

One of the coolest ways JPL involves children is in the naming of spacecraft. Schools across the country are invited to submit names and, in the case of the latest moon orbiters (now christened “Ebb” and “Flow”), the winning school gets to take the first pictures of the moon. Brilliant!

We saw a video of the Skype transmission from the winning science classroom in Montana. All the kids were cheering while the teacher beamed and jumped up and down. The 8-year-old in me, who spent most of her Saturdays at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, knew exactly how they felt. The communications professional recognized that one day, one of those students may grow up to become an astronaut, a spacecraft designer, an astrophysicist, or a politician who makes decisions about funding space exploration.

JPL uses communications and involvement to invest its audience. “The value we put on communication is the way it enables us to connect with the human soul and heart,” Kulczycki says. “We represent hope, otherwise we’d be machine-makers instead of dream-makers.”

Storytelling that Builds Community

Meanwhile, inside JPL, there’s been another kind of storytelling, and it’s been happening at the library for the last dozen years.

“Community-building is a common thing for libraries to be involved in,” notes Teresa Bailey, who developed monthly (now every other month) hour-long speaker programs after “puzzling over how to incorporate storytelling without making it sound like something happening at a children’s library.”

“Ground Control to Major Tom.” This is mission control at JPL, where they monitor all the data sent back from spacecraft studying the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and beyond.

But, she had a strong belief that the best way to transfer knowledge is face-to-face and launched the storyteller program in 2000. Bailey helped connect and engage her internal audience by encouraging speakers to share personal stories with insider details – “what makes your work meaningful to you? Only you have walked in your shoes.”

Scientists can discuss research from the past, current projects, even their dreams for the future.

Bailey preps the storytellers in advance, allows more than one scientist to share the stage (because research generally involves large groups of scientists and engineers), encourages the use of visuals, and handles internal publicity. The stories are filmed and made available on the intranet, as well as through the library’s archives site.

Bailey sees storytelling contributing to a knowledge-sharing culture. Storytelling, she says, supports:

  • mentoring
  • socialization of new employees
  • building relationships and bonding
  • learning lessons from past or present projects
  • organizational identity
  • community

“It’s very contagious being here because there’s always something new,” she adds. Storytelling spreads that “contagion,” enabling employees to learn, ask questions, get involved, be inspired, and reach for the stars.

Many thanks to our gracious hosts, speakers and tour guides at NASA JPL. You can check out the stunning videos and learn more on the JPL website.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Space. The final frontier.”
~ Gene Roddenberry, “Star Trek”

Employees on Social Media: Have Fun Storming the Castle

The following is a true story. Could this still happen in the age of social media? If your company wants to remain competitive, let’s hope not.

Once upon a time, a company was struggling to regain market share. After trouncing all comers for a decade, it lost its punch as new competitors and more exciting products entered the ring.

The entire company was reorganized to focus on marketing. Despite decades of award-winning work, the old advertising agency was let go. A hip new one was hired. Product lines were brought somewhat up to date, but they didn’t function as well as the market leaders. Consequently, they received poor reviews from press and consumers alike.

And what of employees inside the hallowed halls of this once-great company?

The daily grind was pretty grim. Employees coped as best they could with successive reorgs, changes in leadership, mission rewrites, OPEX reductions, and the launch of one new initiative after another. It was hard to generate excitement when every move the company made seemed to lead to a new round of layoffs.

But try they did. At employee meetings, they sat politely as marketing unveiled the latest products and plans. When asked for input, they gave it. Intelligently, clearly, poignantly. They wanted this stuff to work its magic and they were fully invested in its success. But, because they were closest to the front lines (manufacturing, quality, sales, customer service), they also knew it wouldn’t and, like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, they felt obliged to tell the truth before the company threw good money after bad.

What did they get in return?

They were told repeatedly that they didn’t understand all this newfangled marketing because they weren’t the right demographic. They didn’t like the new products because they weren’t the ones who were going to buy and use them.

And the “right demographic”? What did they think of the new products and marketing? They turned away in droves.

Was there a Happily Ever After for this company? Sadly, no. Remember, this is a true story, not a fairy tale.

The only thing that kept this saga from getting any worse was the fact that it took place in the days before social media. Imagine if employees – treated like that – had access to Twitter, Facebook and blogs!

What’s the moral of this story?

Dismissiveness discourages engagement (and encourages mutiny)
What exactly are employees supposed to do with insults, such as, “You don’t understand because you’re not the right demographic?” (A lot of them might think about taking their revenge on Twitter or Facebook or in industry forums.)

Effective marketing is all about relationships. Launching a campaign calls for engaging key stakeholders to help build enthusiasm. It starts inside a company before the very first ad airs on TV or the first tweet goes out. If a company can’t build solid, positive relationships with its own employees – natural allies because they share the same goals – how can it expect to create them in the world, where people are far more suspicious of brand messaging?

And if morale is bad inside a company, it’s only a matter of time before that negativity seeps into the social world where it influences key audiences and customers.

Employees aren’t the “right demographic,” they’re the “first demographic”
Engagement must start inside the gates with internal audiences because they are a company’s ambassadors during good times and bad.

“Your people are your best assets,” notes Christopher Barger in The Social Media Strategist. “In an environment in which trust is a key currency, it is your people and their personalities that will sell an audience on your brand as much as your product.”

In this age of social sharing, even with limited or no budget, a company can still create word of mouth around its products if its social media strategy includes having employees use their expertise and enthusiasm to engage customers.

This is doubly true in a crisis, when employee goodwill is shared in social circles, reinforcing official communications. Effective crisis communication is no longer simply about “putting a coin in the good karma bank in case you need to make a withdrawal,” as crisis experts used to describe it.

Companies that value employees and empower them to engage with audiences in social channels on a regular basis have a host of vocal advocates ready to put their influence to work on behalf of the brand’s reputation when barbarians are at the gate.

It’s important to understand how employees relate (and are related to) your customers
Think about a company that makes toys for toddlers. The employees probably range in age from early-20s to early-70s. Clearly, they are not the target user of the toys they manufacture.

But, do none of these folks have children? Grandchildren? How about parents who buy toys for grandchildren? And cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and professional colleagues they meet at industry conferences, etc., etc., etc.

Of course, employees are customers. And, if they’re not direct consumers, they encounter customers in all walks of life and have the potential to be ambassadors for the brand and influence purchase across networks of family, friends and professional associates.

Companies don’t own their “story” any more
Companies no longer control messaging about their brands, leaders or dirty laundry in social channels. (Just ask Yahoo!)

Sure, companies can restrict access to social platforms on the corporate network and create HR policies that forbid mentioning the company in social channels after work. But brands that want to excel take a different tack.

Christopher Barger recommends “teaching the organization to fish”: “Not every organization or company will empower all of its employees to engage in social networks. All the same, it’s a good idea to build a social media education program for all employees anyway.”

Barger’s approach enables employees to learn everything – from social media platforms to publishing tools and company policy. It also gives employees insight into how the company – both marketing and corporate – shares messages and builds relationships in social circles.

This kind of immersion in social media best practices, based on teaching and trust, goes a long way to building a strong base of employee ambassadors who understand the vision and strategy and are well-versed at engaging with the audiences companies most want to reach.

Companies don’t always know how to build a better mousetrap
“Great leaders…know that if they come up with all the answers, the chances of having anyone else buy into the solution are next to zero,” write Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas in Power Questions. “But if their employees come up with the answer – if they feel ownership of it – there is a good chance it will bear fruit.”

Many social media experts predict that smart companies will create iterative processes that allow feedback from social media fans and followers to inform the design of better and new products. Both consumers and employees are in prime positions to contribute expertise in this scenario.

Some companies are already doing this. So, when an employee figures out a whole new way to use a product, simplify consumers’ lives, solve a problem, streamline a service, or just make customers happier, give that employee a blog. Why restrict access to social media? Heck, let them share their personal story with as many people as possible, and watch how customers get engaged.

Now that gives employees and customers something to tweet about!

Do you have examples of companies that encourage employees to use social media channels? I’d love to hear about them in the Comments.

The Tweet of My Death Was an Exaggeration

Beyonce’s pregnancy. The raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. The arrival of the 7 billionth person on Earth. The passing of Steve Jobs.

What do these events have in common?

They were all considered major news on Twitter, driving exceptionally high traffic and retweet rates, which ultimately became more of a story than the original news.

Is this the Desperate Need to Be There First or the Desire to Try to Quantify Everything about Social Media in Order to Prove its Relevance? I think it’s a little of both, yet I’d argue that neither improves the quality of social media discourse.

I promise this isn’t one of those grumpy posts about social media. I think Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Cowbird, Digg and many, many other platforms are highly relevant, useful and engaging. They’re even great sources of news.

But, I’m suggesting that while there’s relevance to be found in studying social media content and usage, it’s not going to come from stories about who got there first or how much traffic is generated by a celebrity’s pregnancy – or divorce or death or Oscar win.

Here are four essential reasons:

First doesn’t mean best – The received wisdom is that “Twitter broke the news of bin Laden’s death” before traditional news media. If you look at what really happened the night of the bin Laden compound raid, what you get, according to this Fast Company article, is essentially Twitter-user Sohaib Athar’s account of a helicopter making a lot of noise over his neighborhood in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A helicopter circling overhead is not breaking news (especially if you live in L.A.), and it does not reveal what was happening in the compound, why, how, when, and to whom – the basic tenets of genuine news.

As the article continues, it reports Twitter’s attempts to quantify the tweeting as details of the raid spooled out. There’s even an update from Twitter, advising readers that while New Year’s Eve in Japan seemed to be more important than bin Laden’s death – in terms of tweet ratings – the news was more popular than similar news about Michael Jackson.

And, when it came to the 7 billionth inhabitant of planet Earth? We learned that the actual event and person was going to be impossible to identify, rendering social sharing on the subject moot.

Social media platforms are upgraded too frequently – Service improvements increase the speed of traffic, making comparisons of tweet rates (like Michael Jackson’s death vs. bin Laden’s) impossible.

These will always be Apples-to-Oranges comparisons – Since celebrities can’t die twice, or give birth to the same baby more than once, the Twitter counter is left to compare news about one person (who may or may not be popular among social media users) with similar news about another. Popularity contests of this sort will never generate information that allows you to draw meaningful conclusions about the social media platform or the value placed on news or human life.

This is counting not measurement –Counting just adds things up and gets a total. Measurement takes those totals, analyzes what they mean, and uses that meaning to improve business practices,” notes Katie Delahaye Paine in her groundbreaking book on social media analysis, Measure What Matters.

Steve Jobs was considered by many to be a cultural icon and technology hero, and it’s not surprising there were people who wanted to share their sense of loss with others using some of the very technologies that Jobs helped to invent. But, what exactly is the relevance of reporting the rate of tweeting following Steve Jobs’s death? Applying a number to it doesn’t make it meaningful or insightful; it makes it news from nowhere.

Avoiding the Echo Chamber Effect

In Delusions of Grandma, Carrie Fisher comments: “Talk show hosts interviewing other talk show hosts. Many held this to be one of the twelve signs that the world is ending.” What Fisher’s describing is a closed loop, and that’s exactly what’s happening with these so-called Twitter statistics.

So, next time you’re tempted to retweet one of these headlines that don’t add up to anything, take a moment to reflect before clicking: Does the world really need another tweet about Twitter traffic?

Trying to get there first with a tweet or clogging up the social media ‘verse with bogus statistics about social media statistics doesn’t create engagement or enlighten – and that’s really what being out there is all about. When you’re engaging with followers, customers, friends or fans on social media, you’re listening and sharing (not simply pushing) relevant content with the goal of encouraging meaningful dialogue and the exchange of valuable information that people need to know or find useful for managing their daily lives and workload.

Related post: Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers


Why I Was Afraid to Blog

Guess what? We’ve arrived at the first anniversary of this blog.

That’s a statement I never expected to write for any number of reasons. There’s the 15 students who signed up along with me for a spring 2011 blogging class in hopes of launching a blog, sharing thoughts, advice, creative endeavors, and, in some cases, products, and maybe, just maybe, making some money or getting a job or book contract the way Julie Powell did with the Julie & Julia Project. Only six of us actually “attended” the online class and created blogs. At last view, only two of us are still at it.

There may be more than 150 millions blogs – running the gamut from corporate to very personal – but, pro and amateur alike, many fall by the wayside after a season or two. They succumb to a dearth of content, time, resources, reader interest, or due to technical and legal snafus.

Strangely – and even though I’ve watched the blogs of companies and friends collapse for one or more of the above reasons – they weren’t why I didn’t expect to be celebrating a year of blogging.

A Painful Secret

I’ll tell you a secret I rarely share: I was afraid to launch a blog because I live in chronic pain. It’s taken me a year to feel comfortable enough in the blogosphere to let you in on this secret. One reason is that when I use the words “chronic pain,” I’m not referring to something that takes up a portion of my day; I don’t start out fine and then feel aches in the evening after I’ve spent hours at the keyboard; it isn’t about a stiff neck or a sore shoulder. What I mean by “chronic pain” is that I am in excruciating pain on the right side of my body, from the top of my head to the tips of my toes, and have been every second of every minute of every day for the past 12 years.

What began with a mountain-biking accident in Costa Rica, when I hit my head, neck and lower back on a boulder and suffered a mild concussion and multicolored bruising, morphed into an all-encompassing condition that frequently reaches over to the left side of my body, as well.

There’s no specific diagnosis for what happened during and after the accident and no effective treatment. The first (and often only) thing most doctors offer is painkillers, which I reject out of hand since they aren’t a cure. Plus, I can’t imagine trying to think, much less write, through a fog of barbiturates.

Blogging done right requires stamina. It’s not just the writing – there’s editorial planning, research, fact-checking, editing, and, most important, engaging with readers. I expend much of my energy every day dealing with pain that is inescapable, that can’t be isolated because of its enveloping nature. There is no time off and there are many days when pain feels like it’s made a coffin of my body.

I do as much as I can to contain this and keep it from the people around me, but in the often cruel irony of affliction, pain can affect the way I communicate. It’s a bit like that episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” the one where she tries to save people by slaying a monster and winds up with an aspect of the demon instead. In my case, the pain builds up so acutely in my neck and jaw that it comes out of my mouth, impatient and snarky. That is something I adamantly never want to happen when I blog or interact with the people who read my blog. And it’s a pledge I intend to observe with you, my readers, who’ve taken this journey with me for the past year in this blog.

My Shiny New Monster Part

These last dozen years have made me acutely aware – especially at the office, in high-stress situations – that everyone has their own personal demons and aches and pains. And, like Buffy’s aspect of the demon, which arrived in the form of mind-reading, not every problem is visible or obvious. Living with chronic pain has helped me to give people a break because you never know what others might be dealing or struggling with on a particular day, and it would be terrible to write off someone who may very well be in the same boat as I am and not be able to help themselves.

I’ve lost enough of my life to chronic pain that I don’t want to lose out on the wonderful things that other people have to share. What’s that line of Katharine Hepburn’s at the end of “The Philadelphia Story”? “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” That’s been a valuable lesson of the past 12 years, living with this secret, and one I wouldn’t have wanted to miss.

Travel writing and photography that inspires me each and every week:

Rita Wechter’s “One Day in America” blog

Madonna on Twitter: 24 Hours to Express Yourself

In a move that seems more like a misstep, Madonna’s promotion for her new album, “MDNA,” includes a brief encounter with fans on a one-day-only Twitter account, @MadonnaMDNAday, starting tonight at 10 p.m. (EST).

For many years, since she first appeared on the scene in the ‘80s, Madonna seemed especially connected to her fans through new mediums, like music videos. Madonna’s music transcended her talent and engaged fans in powerful and empowering ways. Which is why I’m surprised to find the singer making such a token effort at outreach in this era of proven social media campaigns, whether they be for Lady Gaga or for films like “Hunger Games,” which rallied fan support on social media channels for a full year before its successful opening weekend and wound up spending a fractional amount of the millions doled out to push Disney’s bomb “John Carter.”

Queen for a Day

What Madonna’s doing feels more like descending from the throne for a day to mingle – at keyboard’s length – with the little people. It might be the kind of thing a real queen could get away with, but not an over-50 pop star whose records need to reach the lucrative teen and tween audiences.

I was going to suggest perhaps true Hollywood royalty could be forgiven this type of obvious promotional approach – someone, say, like Elizabeth Taylor – but Dame Elizabeth had a Twitter account and did engage her fans on a regular basis for several years before she died.

Yoko Ono – artist, musician, mom, peace activist, and keeper of the Lennon legacy – is another public figure who, by all lights, probably doesn’t need to involve herself with Twitter. Yet she’s an active tweeter, keeping fans up-to-date on her latest exhibitions, music remixes, philanthropic efforts, and news related to John Lennon’s vast musical oeuvre. She also uses social media to gather and answer fan questions about any subject under the sun every single week, not once every few years when a new album drops.

Lady Gaga engages her Little Monsters in much the same way on Twitter. These are great examples of utilizing social media rather than cynically using it.

I thought we’d reached the point where it’s understood that social media can’t be an afterthought or glued onto the back end of traditional marketing efforts. One-time social media outreach isn’t community-building. While existing fans may take advantage of such singular offers to see if, in her meager time online, Madonna will deign to answer their questions, a short Twitter Q&A isn’t the way to draw new fans and build a committed community. That takes time and transparency and, frankly, responsibility, because once you’ve grown a community, you are to an extent responsible for it and accountable to it.

If you’re in it for the long haul, you’re going to behave in a way that isn’t just about self-promotion and personal benefit, you’ll want to be friends and an advocate and a news source, and be receptive to all the same kinds of input from your followers. And isn’t that what makes these communities so much more rewarding (and not just in the monetary sense) and meaningful over the long run?

What do you think? Is this a brilliant marketing move that makes fans crave more or a social media misstep? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Everybody’s talking and no one says a word.”
~ John Lennon, “Nobody Told Me”