Professional communications is about change. Or rather, it is about a change in the market we are trying to create through our words, sounds and imagery. That’s such a simple and self-obvious thing that it is actually very easy to lose sight of. Over the years, marketing and public relations have come up with elaborate ways to break past the gatekeepers, to capture people’s attention, and hold it long enough that we can try to introduce a thought or change their mind.
It is very easy, especially when deep in the slog of it, to lose sight of the end goal and get fixated on one of the steps for getting you there. If the goal is to travel to Disney, most marketers are high-fiving one another at the airport as a job well-done and the bulk of PR folks are patting themselves on the back for having written ‘go to Disney’ on the calendar. You can see it all the time where someone has devised an effective way of getting your attention, but then had absolutely nothing to say.
We fall into the trap of issuing press releases with no news because someone along the way forgot that it’s not seeing the company name in the Globe & Mail, NYT or evening news that matters, but bringing information to an audience that changes their behaviour in a manner that is beneficial to the company.
Every communications plan should begin by asking, “what change do we need to make?” and everything that follows should be judged against its ability to bring about that change. Otherwise you are just making a lot of noise.
According to a story in the WSJ, in China the curious practice of hiring exotic dancers to perform at funerals has escalated to the point where authorities need to clamp down. The intent is to attract a sizable crowd graveside to mourn, as an effort to save face. “Otherwise no one would come,” explained one villager.
Now, I will freely admit there are likely cultural and religious nuances that are sailing well over my head here; but from where I’m sitting this practice misses the point. A crowded funeral hall is a mark of a life that made a difference, that touched others in a meaningful way, a sign that others are moved by the passing and wish to participate in the moment. It is a byproduct. A symptom. A consequence. Not the goal to be chased.
You can not earn a meaningful life by packing people into the funeral parlour so that it is standing room only. The people attending your grave to see the dancing girls are there to see the dancing girls and not to attend your grave. One of the comments I saw tied to this story was, “well, that’s marketing for you.”
But that’s NOT marketing. Only, sadly, in many cases it is.
How many strategy briefs have you come across that amount to little more than a pole dancer in a graveyard? Because many of our performance measures in marketing and public relations focus on the number of eyeballs in the room, it becomes easy to lose sight of what actually matters… the measure of the brand. You can pack the room to the brim but if they are not thinking about your brand in the right way, or even considering the brand at all, then you may as well have nobody there.
What’s the last campaign that crossed your path that undoubtedly packed the room full of eyes but did absolutely nothing of benefit for the brand?
Once upon a time, I illustrated comics. The combination of words and imagery to tell a story was both powerful and compelling. So I’ve been watching with great interest as the animated GIF slowly wormed it’s way into the communication between people on social media.
They say an image is worth a thousand words, so in a medium often constrained to no more than a couple hundred characters, it makes sense that the animated GIF would rise as a visual short-hand to make a point.
Communicating a moment of introspection that led to a startling revelation, only to be told to hold your horses and chill? Then simply toss in a Breaking Bad GIF,
followed by a GIF of an old Internet meme,
rounded off with an IT Crowd GIF.
Those unfamiliar with the pop-culture references will still get the general emotions being conveyed, but to those in-the-know it provides an additional layer of understanding and an instant sense of connection and belonging. A nod and a wink that you’re part of the same cultural tribe.
GIFs as part of the way we communicate in social media, simply makes sense. But I have to admit that I was taken by surprise when it slipped into formal corporate communications last week.
A news site on Internet culture, The Daily Dot, was doing a story about live-streaming via YouTube. Richard Lewis contacted YouTube for comment and received as a reply an animated GIF. Naturally, he took it for an informal communication; an off-the cuff form of ‘no comment‘. But when the story ran, Google contacted the publication and insisted that it was, indeed, their formal response and to please make sure it’s part of the story. This is Google’s official response to the story:
It appears that this wasn’t a one-off, but is starting to become common practice for Google. While I celebrate the playfulness of this, I am going to toss myself into the stick-in-the-mud camp and say this is not best-practice for a formal corporate communication.
First there is the potential copyright fallout that could occur… Disney lawyers may turn a blind eye towards fans passing that clip from Good Luck Charlie back and forth among themselves, but when companies with deep pockets begin inserting their intellectual property as official corporate statements you can expect the gloves to come off in quick order.
But setting aside the potential fisticuffs between retained counsel, it is simply poor communication. Professional communication is about ensuring that information is fully and accurately relayed. When you’re talking about a publicly traded company, the actions of which impact hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of lives, you want the statements of that company to be clear, precise and leave no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding.
What exactly is the GIF Google offered saying? Is it saying the story is wrong? Is it a statement of surprise? Is it a no comment?
Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but those thousand words are provided by the beholder. The subjectivity of an image makes it unsuitable for formal corporate communications save for the most clear of messages. And even where the message is unassailable specific, like this other GIF offered by Google:
it would have been more to the point and straightforward to just say ‘yes‘.
As a strictly visual medium, the animated GIF is inherently exclusionary to the close to 7 million people in North America who are visually impaired, and as Wired points out in their coverage, the GIF only works in an online medium.
Most companies I know seek to have their message delivered as wide and as intact as possible. In cases where a material change is involved with a publicly traded company, there is a legal obligation to achieving that.
Choosing a means of communication that is immediately going to exclude people from receiving your message and understanding your meaning, preventing entire mediums from accurately relaying your message; this seems to me a very poor practice to adopt.
When it comes to marketing and communications, information has a value that is very straight forward to calculate. All too often the cost to retrieve and share that information exceed its value, leading to a general consensus that measurement is expensive; a luxury that may fit in someone else’s budget but, with the limited resources in your hands, the money is better spent doing something rather than observing something.
Measurement shouldn’t be breaking the bank. If it is, then you are making one or more of the following mistakes.
You’re measuring and reporting too frequently
Those of you who are continually refreshing your social news feeds and compulsively checking your emails will understand what I’m talking about regarding the fear of missing out. There is an underlying anxiety that builds when we don’t know something and the need to check and check and check can be overwhelming. All the worse when this desire for an update is coming from several rungs up the ladder. This continual call for a report is being done to satisfy a curiosity rather than accomplish anything and it churns quickly through the dollars.
Your data retrieval ought to occur at an interval in which meaningful change will have occured. Rather than asking, are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet? “No.”are we there yet? “No.” are we there yet?
…it would be better to ask at the start, how long do we expect this trip to take? What’s the next turn? What’s the next stop? At each turn of the road a quick exam as to the conditions ahead. At each stop a quick view as to whether you’re making the time you thought you would and is there a change in route necessary? A few checks when they’re actually needed instead of an exhausting litany that can’t help but become just a droning background annoyance.
While your cadence for measuring should match the rate of any significant change occurring, your reporting should come in advance of any decision making process. That is when the information is actually needed. It makes no sense for hourly reporting to be going on through the wee small hours of the morning if everyone who could reasonably do something with that information is fast asleep. Better a single report timed to arrive as the decision makers are starting their day. Better yet, timed to arrive a few hours in advance of the weekly meeting where they make the actual decisions.
You’re being too precise in your measures
Do not forget why you are taking these measures. You are trying to make better decisions and this is the information that will help you do so. A lot of people end up chasing the numbers and losing sight of the decision.
Let’s say you are testing messaging in a new market in advance of a large campaign, and a quick poll of a few dozen people shows that 90% find your phrasing offensive. Well, a quick poll’s not very precise, is it? So let’s do some more formal focus group testing of a couple hundred people. From that testing, 85% found it offensive. That number’s different from the poll, and how precise are focus groups anyways? This campaign is important, and you really want to be sure, so you splurge on a large, random telephone survey of over 10,000. Now you have a really precise number. You know with 95% confidence and a small margin of error that the number who find your messaging offensive is 72.43%.
What was the acceptable number? Maybe you’re an edgy brand that embraces controversy and you’re willing to accept a number of people being turned off in exchange for the exposure. Most brands entering a new market want to be putting their very best face forward and would have little to no tolerance for offending potential customers.
Before the random survey, before the focus groups, before all of that additional expenditure chasing after a more precise number, it was obvious that there was a problem. The difference between 95% and 85% and 72.43% were not going to change that.
You are collecting information in order to make a decision. Once the decision is clear, you have all the information that you require.
You’re not measuring against your objectives
What are you trying to achieve? What is the change in the market that your actions are intended to make? What decisions need to be made? If you don’t know the answer to these, you will not know what you need to measure.
Not knowing what to measure leads people to try and measure everything in hopes that they will capture something of value. The resulting reports are number soups filled with some information that’s interesting and a great deal that is irrelevant. But without knowing your objectives, there is no way to know what information is important.
It may be interesting to know that 5% of your website visitors are using their mobile device from the bathroom: an odd factoid. However, if you’re in the middle of a campaign and you know that 30% of your visits are coming from a single media market where you’ve been doing a heavy push on daytime radio, that’s important. That will help you make decisions as to what to do next and where to push your resources.
Much as there’s always more precision to be had, there will always be more information to be had. You could keep at it until you’ve burned through the budget ten-fold and still have new avenues to chase down for more information. So to keep from breaking the bank, you want to focus your measurement on the important over the interesting.
Start from a solid objective and ensure your measures are against that objective.
Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Choose your tools and methods so that you get enough information to make your decisions accurately.
Set a cadence in lockstep with the precision you need and report on it as the decisions need to be made.
Follow those three steps and you’ll not only have the information you need to make better decisions, but the extra dollars in the budget to act on that information.
One of the keys to understanding social media is context.
Although social media has been with us for more than a decade, in a business setting it is still quite new, and as such there is a tendency to inflate the importance of messages on these digital platforms because of that very novelty.
Anyone who has been in digital communications has, at one point or another, had to talk an executive off the ledge because they were out of their minds with what was said on a single blog. Rantings on a scraped together blog that’s read by the author and his mom, have your exec over the moon and demanding somebody do something right now! Yet, had the very same words appeared in a small town newspaper they would have shrugged it off.
It is fair enough because without any reference you could mistake any molehill for being a mountain. Having seen a lot of kerfuffles on the webbernets over the years, let me share with you the three points of reference that I use for context.
Where’s the hate coming from?
Even the most loved brands have a steady contingent of naysayers pumping out negative commentary. Or in Internet parlance, “Haters are going to hate.”
The more recognized your brand is, the more it becomes something that people adopt as a reflection of their own personality and beliefs; the more persistent and steady the stream of hate from those who are not your customers. Passion goes both ways; as much as your brand stands for something your customers are, for these people your brand stands for something they are not.
This hate-on will ebb and flow over time, dependent on how often your brand crosses their paths. This is one of the reasons that poorly targeted social ads usually bring with them a glut of negative posts. It’s important to realize that this doesn’t constitute an actual change in opinion, just a change in the engagement of that opinion. You crossed the paths of the haters and they’re going to remind you of that hate.
However, if the current displeasure is originating among those who were previously positive towards the brand, then you may have a serious problem. Keep handy a list of the authors of positive brand sentiment and start with a quick cross-reference to see what proportion of them are jumping into the fray.
Jumps from social to any other stream of media
If you review the news feeds of Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn, you will see that a significant share of brand related content is linking to something. A video. A blog article. A news story. Especially a news story. Headline sharing is going to be a large chunk of what’s happening in social that day.
The moment a story jumps from social to the mainstream media, it will amplify the issue ten-fold and solidify what that message is.
Of course the idea is to try and mitigate before the jump occurs. So know and pay attention to where the analysts, journalists and people who cover the beat around your brand congregate.
Kerfuffles of Future Past and the Velocity of Content
Hindsight is 20/20. So knowing what issues in the past have had an actual impact on reputation and business, use that as the benchmark moving forward. Knowing that the current event is only one-tenth the reaction of your last online issue, and that there was only nominal impact to the brand from that, gives you clarity as to just how strongly you should react.
I would strongly recommend not benchmarking just the totals, or looking solely at the peaks. What your really need to know is the velocity of reaction. If the speed at which new content is being issued remains constant, how soon will you hit, or surpass, that peak? If the rate of new posts is increasing you will surpass that peak even sooner and you need to react faster. If the rate of new posts is decreasing then it is quite possible that the issue is already past and any action on your part risks blowing on those embers and rekindling the matter.
If your brand has been fortunate enough to not yet face a crisis moment online, you can use other brands experiences to inform your own. It’s all publicly available information, after all. When everyone around me is insisting that it is the end of the world, I like to use what I refer to as the Z-index as a point of reference. It’s real easy. Using Google Trends, which provides a normalized measure of search traffic, I compare against “walking dead”. Seeing how deeply your issue penetrates into the minds of the general population in comparison to a fictional zombie apocalypse helps keep things in perspective.
Long Story Made Short
Take the time and collect your points of context.
Know who your promoters and detractors are.
Figure out where the journalists who write about your brand are congregating.
Use past events to better understand today.
Having context will save your blood pressure from spiking with each and every grumble or mutter on the Internet. You can be clam in the face of adversity, knowing that today’s tempest belongs in a teapot. More important it will free your time and budget to focus on proactive versus reactive measures and let you focus on what really matters.
Most of us have been in a meeting of this sort. You’re working out the details of a program and the conversation turns towards metrics and the need for KPIs. By the end of the meeting you have a list, somewhere between thirteen and twenty-seven different KPIs. Someone is tasked with putting together an excel sheet to track everything and you commence an ongoing saga of trying to visualize the results onto less than three slides in a PowerPoint deck.
Drop the PowerPoint and step away from the Excel file.
I don’t need to know your brand, or your tactic or the planned executions.; but I can tell you right now that you’re doing it wrong.
If you’ll let me help you, it’s time to stop the KPI insanity.
All KPIs are metrics, but not all metrics are KPIs
Or put another way; not all things that can be counted, count. KPI is an acronym for Key Performance Indicator. It is the one measure that shows that you have achieved what you set out to achieve.
It is natural for people to want to include more. When you see that jam-packed PowerPoint slide filled with charts and graphs and tables filled with numbers, it feels all very impressive.
Look at all the numbers! Everyone must have worked ever so hard for there to be this many numbers and charts moving up and to the right.
But it’s all just surface razzle dazzle. Those that know what they’re doing are going to be less than impressed by attempts to baffle your way through the numbers. And those people tend to be C-suite execs with their fingers on the purse strings for next quarter’s budget.
You can’t set your KPIs before you set your objectives
Most people don’t realize this – as everyone tends to skip past terms of service and just check off ‘OK’ – but it is a basic part of every single employment agreement that anyone who recommends setting KPIs before objectives are identified must go up to the rooftop on a rainy day and run forty laps around the circumference of the building.
Okay. So, maybe not. But it would certainly stop short the useless exercise of defining what success looks like in advance of defining what you’re trying to do.
A KPI is a metric that the program hinges on; a metric inexorably linked to your objectives. When you look at your KPI it is a no-brainer as to whether you achieved what you set out to do.
Your KPI is a unit of measure, not a specific measure
When asked, “What are some good marketing KPIs if the objective is to create a positive association with our brand?” you will never find that the answer is 27. Or 1.32. Or 1,589.
Your KPI will always be a unit of measure, and not a specific number. The specific number is your target or goal.
For example, if you ran a shop, your KPIs might be cash flow and net profit. These are the indicators that your business is thriving or not. Within cash flow you would set a specific number that ensures you can maintain operations as a target. If you have an eye on expansion you would set a goal within net profit that will allow you to achieve that expansion.
You should be able to count your KPIs on one hand
If you need more than one hand to count your program’s KPIs, then you have let a metric slip in masquerading as a KPI. You need to be ruthless with respect to KPIs and slice out measures that people toss in because, “wouldn’t it be interesting to know?”
Your KPIs should all fall into the category of, “we absolutely have to know.” Rare is the program that needs more than one measure to determine pass or fail. I’ve yet to encounter a program that truly required more than a half-dozen measures to track performance.
The easiest way for you to suss out the frauds is to honestly ask yourself and your team, “If this KPI came in really high, or came in ridiculously low, would it change our reaching the objective?” If it doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t be counted.
Why does it even matter?
Why get picky about what’s a metric and what’s a KPI and if they ought to be numbers or not? What’s all the hub-bub?
Information is vital. If your information is poor, then your decisions will likewise be poor. If you end up, like all too many of us do, tossing aside all of the information because it’s just a hodge-podge of number soup you end up acting purely on instinct and gut-feelings.
Steering the ship based on your gut may keep you free and clear of the rocks most of the time, but the bigger your ship and the more people you carry along with you, the more tragic a single misstep can become.
As vital as information is, however, every dollar spent on watching what you’ve done is a dollar you can’t spend doing something.
Instead of measuring everything, the smart business person looks to what they are trying to achieve and focuses their resources towards measuring that and measuring it well.
When it comes to public relations and marketing, there is a lot of focus on determining the return on investment (ROI) of tactics, campaigns and strategies. But what is often missing is the ROI for the measurement itself.
As a brand manager, you can feel pretty burnt when you’ve devoted thousands of your budget this quarter to research and what comes back is a spiral bound pamphlet of a PowerPoint deck spewing a lot of things that you already had a strong gut feeling for.
It can be pretty daunting when your agency recommends a measurement approach that’s in the tens of thousands. Those are dollars that could be directed towards additional tactics.
How do you know that your research has any real value? How do you know that the information is worth what you are paying for? What is the ROI for having research and measurement in place?
This is actually a very straightforward calculation to make. You simply need to answer:
How confident are you that you are making the right decision?
How much do you stand to benefit from being correct?
What will it cost you if you are wrong?
Say you’re running a million dollar campaign to drive trial of a product; the goal being to bring in new customers. You’re targeting a demographic several steps removed from yourself and so while you are liking the direction that’s being taken there is some doubt whether it will resonate with your intended customers.
The value of having perfect information, of making all the right decisions and no strategic missteps is the sum of the costs and the gains:
The cost of being absolutely wrong is $1M: the cost of your campaign. You spend your money, keep yourself, your team and your agencies busy for a couple of weeks and change nothing.
With the lifetime value of a customer and knowing the intended goals for reach and conversion of the campaign you can estimate what you stand to gain if your decisions are right. In this example, we’ll say that comes to $5M.
Suddenly the value of information becomes very tangible in dollars and cents and you can begin to make informed decisions as to whether it is worth the cost to pursue.
There is no such thing as perfect information. But we all have a solid sense of how confident we are before pulling the trigger.
If you were 95% certain that you were making the right call, then there is very little value in further validation. But if you’re making a call that will determine millions of dollars and you’re feeling it’s a coin toss as to whether you’re right, suddenly a few thousand to validate those decisions becomes the bargain of the century.
Brands would do well to take note of the dust-up between large network FOX and Jonathan Coulton.
Glee is a musical comedy-drama about a high school glee club. The characters of the show are often at the bottom of the pecking order among the student body, being tossed into dumpsters or having slushies thrown in their face are frequent occurrences Key themes of the show are overcoming bullying and choosing to do the right thing despite all adversity. The show features covers of songs across a wide range of musical genres, and often features covers of mashups or a cover of a cover.
Jonathan Coulton is a singer and songwriter whose music is primarily about geek culture and has made use of the Internet to build an audience. If you’ve heard his work it was likely in the end credits to the Portal games or one of his thing-a-week songs like Code Monkey or Re: Your Brains or his unique cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back. And it is that cover where Jonathan and Glee cross paths.
Jonathan learned that episode 4×11 of Glee would be featuring a cover of his Baby Got Back. It would seem more than a cover, though, as the timing and instrumentation of Glee’s version seems to mirror Coulton’s almost exactly; suggesting that the original recording was appropriated. The song aired and FOX through the Glee Facebook page began promoting the sale of the music on iTunes where, collectively, Glee track sales are in the millions of dollars. It’s important to note that outside of any question of financial compensation, Jonathan was never contacted and although one report has the script actually saying “Jonathan Coulton’s Baby Got Back” there has been no credit on the show or public acknowledgement by Fox that the arrangement was Coulton’s. Without any credit or even a link pointing to his site, Jonathan is told through back channels that he should just be happy with the exposure he’s getting.
Now, FOX is within their legal rights to have used the song, and there was no legal obligation to involve Jonathan in any way. there is a question as to whether the recording is Jonathan’s or not. In all likelihood it is, but the time, expense and aggravation of going toe to toe with the stable of lawyers make it an unlikely pursuit for an indie artist. So effectively FOX is on firm legal grounds. The legal department would be rubber stamping this as completely kool and the gang. But the actions were not that of a good citizen. The actions did not reflect the brand of the show. FOX played the role of large burly jock throwing a cold slushy into Coulton’s face.
FOX has been taking a keep quiet and ride it out approach, but Coulton’s fans are not forgetting. Posts to the Glee Facebook page calling for recognition and apologies to Coulton continue. Coulton himself has shown himself to be a class act. First by calling for restraining by his fans, and insisting this not be a war between his audience and Glee’s. Second, by releasing a Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee), a cover of Glee’s cover of his cover on iTunes, with a promise to donate the proceeds to charity. The story reverberates through the geek and Internet press and is filtering its way into the mainstream.
FOX can hope to ride out this media cycle and hope that it’s forgotten, but there are a number of events that will keep this story recurring. Jonathan has not yet determined if he is going after FOX legally for the appropriation of the recording. It’s my hope that he doesn’t, because we’re all better off with Coulton making and recording songs as opposed to wasting away hours in meetings, depositions and hearings. But whichever choice he makes dredges the story back to the forefront. Then there are the results of his clever cover of the cover of the cover. If it surpasses the Glee recording in sales, if it makes any significant amount of money, it becomes a story with further amplification by way of the charities being supported. FOX is painted as the money grubbing thief and Jonathan as the hero artist. It’s a David and Goliath story to fill empty column inches pretty much any point. Never mind what will happen if this season features another legally appropriate but ethically sketchy use of an artist’s work.
FOX may try to issue a non-apology. We’re sorry you’re offended but we didn’t do anything wrong. That works when you’re on a firm foundation of trust with your intended audience and are standing with the angels, and I don’t know if either is the case when we’re talking about FOX. In this case it will merely fan the flames.
You can be legally right in a court of law, but it won’t help you in the court of public opinion. And at the end of the day, it is that court of public opinion that is the make or break for a brand. A brand is nothing save for the perception of what it represents.
What should FOX do? If I were driving the ship, here is what I would recommend:
Issue an apology. A real apology that acknowledges that what was done in the past was wrong, and will not be repeated. This apology should be issued not just to Coulton but to all artists whose works have been pulled into the show. Make it clear that while within the legal rights to act as it has, the show has a responsibility to do more than just the minimum legal requirement.
Show how things will change. I would make it a written policy that all artists permission is sought before the use of a cover, that credit is given both in the show itself and on the tracks via song title or other metadata, and include base financial compensation.
In my opinion those are the only moves FOX can take that will do away with the stream of displeased fans who are having trouble reconciling the brand of their favourite show with the behind the scenes actions. What’s more it will completely win over those who have turned away and possibly win over new fans.