Archive for August, 2012

Image from “GOP 100 – Deconstructing Dumbo” (Thomas Fuchs & Felix Stockwell)

How do I write a piece that addresses a political party’s branding problem in the heat of one of the most partisan national elections in my lifetime without coming across as partisan myself? The only way I know how is to do it the same way I would write a brand audit brief for a company with a similar problem:

1. By acknowledging my own biases so that I can look out for them should they decide to pop up in my analysis.

2. By distancing myself from my own biases for the duration of the exercise.

3. By making sure that the purpose of my analysis is to help, and not criticize or throw stones. Even the political cartoons borrowed to illustrate some of the points in this post are there as illustrations only. They don’t necessarily reflect my opinions.

(And don’t worry, we’ll do one of these for the Democratic national Convention as well.)

If you’re level-headed, carry on. If this is a hot-button issue for you, take a deep breath and try to keep cool. Okay? Ready? Here we go.

1. There’s no problem with the logo.

Most of the time, when the general media talks about a branding problem, they are talking about one of two things: a PR problem, or a logo problem. Let me just get it out of the way right now: although the GOP doesn’t technically have a logo (it has a symbol – the elephant), its symbol is fine. There’s no need to change it. There’s also no problem with the color palette, with the trade dress, or with any of the superficial elements (the aesthetics) of the brand.

Nb: By the way, if you like that image up there at the top, you can thank Tomas Fuchs and Felix Stockwell by buying their book: GOP 100: Deconstructing Dumbo.)


2. The GOP’s identity is no longer clear.

What is the GOP? What does it stand for? Whenever I ask a Republican, the answer I get is this: conservative values. At face value, that’s great. It’s concise, it’s consistent, and it’s simple. But once you start to scratch the surface, two problems very quickly pop up. Let’s look at what they are:

A spectrum of gradients: First, conservative values come in degrees. Someone may be mildly conservative (or as some of the people I chatted with put it “conservative by default”). This would make them what most would call moderate Republicans (or even independents with Republican tendencies). On the other hand, their neighbor might be so conservative as to believe that anything that even resembles compromise with Democrats is somehow akin to treason.

Big difference there. Completely different points on the spectrum. These two types of folks are going to agree on a few things, like perhaps less taxes and less government spending, but they are also going to disagree on a lot of issues, starting with practical discussions about how much to cut and where, and eventually growing into fundamental disagreements about gay rights, religious freedom, and perhaps even defense spending. So in and of itself, the breadth of the spectrum of conservatism makes the term too vague to serve as an adequate definition of the GOP’s identity – and that’s assuming that the differences between mild and severe conservatives are linear. They aren’t. Which brings us to the next point…

The spectrum of meaning: Second, conservatism means different things to different people. For instance:

To some Republicans, conservative values may reach back 3,000 years and find their essence, at the core, in Biblical (Old Testament) law. For them, the divine word always supersedes the word of man, the Founding Fathers were Christians whose intent was to create a Christian nation based on Christian values, and the federal government has worked against that intent over the last two centuries to create instead a secular state that is, at the very least, passively hostile to their particular Christian views.

To others, conservative values may have absolutely nothing to do with religion, and may instead simply focus on fiscal responsibility – governmental: a belief that a smaller (or at least more financially judicious) federal government’s primary mandate is to carefully weigh serving and protecting the people against keeping its expenses as low as possible; and personal: a belief that success is up to individuals, and that they, not the government, are to be the architect of their own success (through courage, discipline and hard work). In other words, whatever the opposite of tax and spend is.

These two versions of conservatism are hugely different. Proponents of the first version of that definition may find themselves focusing more on issues like banning abortion, most forms of contraception and gay marriage, while pushing for more religious education in schools, denying the legitimacy of the scientific theory of evolution, and imposing religiously based standards of decency on art, literature and certain types of speech. Proponents of the second version of the definition may be be completely at odds with the first group’s agenda and simply demand smaller government, less spending, and lower taxes.

Digging a little deeper, for others still, conservative values may refer to a return to the gold standard, either military non-intervention or military expansion (even there, conservative values may be in contradiction to each other), the privatization – if not the outright elimination – of certain government-managed programs like medicare and social security, or an expansion of the definition of state sovereignty. For others still, the term may simply refer to common-sense values like work hard, live within your means, be responsible in all areas of your life, be honest and ethical, be kind to your neighbors, etc.

Internally, it seems that fiscal conservatives increasingly find themselves scratching their heads at the religiosity of evangelical conservatives, and the subsequent side-tracking from what they perceive as being the fundamental mission of their political party. The most recent illustration of this problem is the split within the GOP about Missouri representative Todd Akin’s recent statements about abortion rights and the biology of rape. Many conservatives immediately sought to distance themselves from the man, his politics and his statements (the Romney campaign, for instance), but others quickly rallied to support him and what he stands for. More on that here.

The GOP’s identity problem, at the core, is that it can’t decide what kind of conservatism it wants to adopt, moving forward. Realistically, it needs both. But the threat here comes from the zealous nature of the evangelical portion of the party: to them, fiscal conservatism is secondary to their religious beliefs. And so in the absence of a clear path, religious conservatism has begun to take over the GOP platform at the expense of fiscal conservatism. That would be neither here nor there, but a shifting, out-of-balance identity is liable to derail a number of things that the GOP has always had going for it:

– A solid base.

– A clear identity.

– A clear message.

– A unified front.

What is happening now:

– Fiscal conservatives may start getting turned off by the increasing religiosity of the GOP and will begin to label themselves independents. I know quite a few folks who have come to this crossroads in the last couple of years (some have even rather publicly stated that though they were still Republican at the core, they could no longer, in good conscience, vote for religious conservatives). Welcome to core erosion.

– Undecided and swing voters may find themselves increasingly turned off by the GOP’s new religious rhetoric and the faith-based legislation it seems to be focusing on.

Externally, the vagueness of the term conservative values and the breadth and types of division that vagueness creates is confusing to the public at large, particularly undecided voters and moderates, which, in terms of business terminology, you might think of as potential customers. For them, the question regarding the GOP’s identity is simple: is the GOP the party of fiscal conservatism, or is the GOP the party of religious conservatism? In other words, is the focus of the GOP truly to jump-start the economy, boost job growth and fuel prosperity, or is it the establishment of a Christian, evangelical state?

This confusion is at the heart of the GOP’s current identity problem, both internally and externally. Until it can be clearly answered, the party’s very identity (and growth) will be in question.

3. Message confusion.

In a presidential election year, a party tends to articulate its platform by projecting it onto its presidential campaign. Product marketing equivalent: every advertising campaign aims to raise awareness for a product or brand, articulate value to the market, and hopefully trigger a purchase reflex somewhere down the line.

In other words, a campaign is the vehicle through which need, desire, and preference are created, and clarity, identity and value are communicated. Whether you are selling a smart phone, a car, a burger, a candidate or an ideology, it’s all basically the same thing.

Consistency of the message here is crucial. People want to be able to form an opinion about what you’re selling that fits neatly into their world. This isn’t to say that the brand, product, message or value can’t evolve (it can and should), but it shouldn’t create confusion. Unfortunately, there has been quite a bit of confusion in the GOP’s messaging lately, and this is a problem.

Example A: Obamacare vs. Romneycare.

Up until now, the GOP has taken a very hard stance against the Affordable Care Act (dubbed “Obamacare”), and the party leadership as a whole had sworn to repeal it at the first opportunity. Former governor Mitt Romney, now the front-runner in the national election, has been consistently on message about repealing “Obamacare” if he is elected President.

Problem 1: Mr. Romney is well known for having created the precursor of “Obamacare” in Massachusetts when he was Governor there. The similarities between “Obamacare” and “Romneycare” are such that many Republicans were reluctant to support Romney during the primaries this past spring, and even went so far as to paint him as being too liberal. It is important to note that Mr. Romney (and a significant portion of the GOP) stands for less government involvement in the people’s affairs, and more free-market solutions.

There is no fundamental difference between a (state) government managing healthcare and a (federal) government managing healthcare. We are still looking at a government bureaucracy managing healthcare and a good portion of the funding for it coming from our taxes. The argument that the federal government is patently evil whereas state governments are more trustworthy will be argued ad nauseam by some, but the fact remains that government-run healthcare, whether at the state level or the federal level is still considered by many to be socialism. Socialism, as we know, is at odds with basic Republican ideology.

Because of “Romneycare,” the GOP and the Romney campaign find themselves in the awkward position of having to stand against “Obamacare” while having to also defend “Romneycare.” The strategy until now has been twofold: a) Attack “Obamacare” but say as little as possible about “Romneycare,” and b) create a distinction between federal intrusion (“bad”) and state-level solutions (“good”). Note the specificity of the language in that sentence. Unfortunately, even if the wording of the argument is clever, the core of the argument is fundamentally flawed, and that messes with the overall message’s clarity and legitimacy.

Problem 2: Governor Romney himself can’t give up one of his greatest successes as a political figure so far. “Romneycare” is one of his greatest achievements, and he knows it. In fact, in an interview given to Fox News just before the GOP’s National convention, Romney spoke proudly of his healthcare record, drawing some surprise from his interviewer:

During an interview that aired on Sunday, Fox News host Chris Wallace asked Romney why women should vote for him after a fellow Republican, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), suggested that women could not get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”

“Look, I am the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women — and men — in my state,” the former Massachusetts governor explained. “There was talking about it at the federal level. We did something.”

“So, you’re saying look at Romneycare?” Wallace wondered.

“Absolutely,” Romney replied. “I’m very proud of what we did, and the fact that we helped women and men and children in my state.”

(Source: The Raw Story – link)

Again, the fundamental problem is that there is virtually no difference between Romneycare and Obamacare. (This piece from Politifact.com takes a closer look at the similarities between the two programs.) So how can the GOP’s entire platform be against one government-managed program but at the same time have a portion of its leadership (namely its front-runner) tout the benefits of another very much like it?

No matter where you happen to stand politically – Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, independent or undecided – the issue here is one of message confusion: can anyone really be for “Romneycare” but against “Obamacare?” Can anyone be fundamentally against government-run healthcare but somehow in favor of it when it occurs at the state level rather than at the federal level? Is government-run healthcare okay when a Republican supports it but wrong when a Democrat does? These are legitimate questions which take away from the clarity and simplicity of what the GOP’s message should be.

Example B: Abortion.

Following the widely unpopular statement made by Rep. Todd Akin in regards to “legitimate rape” and the risk of pregnancy, the Romney campaign immediately sought to distance itself from Akin and his beliefs by issuing this statement:

“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape,’’ a Romney campaign spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg, wrote.

(Source: The New York Times – link)

But several days later, the GOP announced once again that it would continue to push for a Constitutional ban on abortion.

Furthermore, Romney’s choice for a running-mate (Paul Ryan) sends mixed messages as Ryan has made no secret of not only supporting anti-abortion legislation but also going as far as to work directly with Rep Todd Akin (him again) on legislation that aims to narrow the definition of rape (presumably to further limit women’s access to abortions should abortion ever be restricted to instances of rape and incest).

And yet, in his interview with Fox News (see link above), Mr. Romney speaks of the abortion issue in these terms:

““Look, I am the guy that was able to get health care for all of the women — and men — in my state. […] With regards to the issue of abortion, that is something where men and women have alternative views on that or different views.”

So… are we talking about a constitutional ban on abortion here (GOP platform), a partial ban on abortions (Romney platform), or a signal to swing voters that in spite of all of the current rhetoric, a Romney administration would adopt a laissez-faire attitude towards abortion, much like the Bush administration before it?

It’s easy to see how the general electorate might be confused. It keeps getting mixed signals from the GOP.

To be fair, moderate message confusion like this might be a little distracting, but there’s room for nuance there. Just enough to make people a little uncertain about voting, but not a deal breaker by any stretch of the imagination where abortion isn’t a hot-button issue. Severe message confusion, however, looks like this:

The GOP stands for less federal government intrusion into our lives and supports more personal freedoms.


The GOP stands for a federal ban on abortion and will not support certain types of medical care relating to female reproduction (results in more government intrusion into our lives, and therefore fewer personal freedoms).

Or even…

Government-managed healthcare enacted by a Republican (“Romneycare”) = okay.


Government-managed healthcare enacted by a Democrat (“Obamacare”) = not okay.

Contradictions both in the messaging itelf and in the relationship between some of the messaging and some of the actions taken by ranking members of the GOP are causing enough dissonance in the general electorate (the market) that the GOP’s message is neither clear nor credible to a significant portion of its audience. This is a problem. Imagine the message confusion of a militant 100% organic food brand defending its choice to start selling GMO products under a different label, or a self-professed eco-friendly brand that donates millions of dollars every year to super-PACs that support the elimination of the EPA. Same kind of dissonance.

4. Who’s in charge? The leadership vacuum.

With most brands, a clear hierarchy shapes the vision, sets the direction, drives forward momentum, and controls (at least to a point) the messaging. At the top is the CEO. Below the CEO are the CMO, the PR and communications teams, legal, customer service, etc. Messaging might not always be 100% consistent across all touch-points, but it is usually mostly consistent. Why? Because the direction is agreed upon by the leadership, and an appropriate hierarchy then approves brand communications practices, creates the brand’s architecture, crafts the messaging, and controls the approval process.

Look at how structured messaging is for brands like Apple, Starbucks, Microsoft, Ford and Nike. Clear, simple, consistent.

Now let’s turn our attention to the GOP. We have already touched on the GOP’s identity crisis and some of the inconsistencies in its messaging. Would you like to know why this is happening? Every organization is the same: whenever an issue of systematic confusion arises in the identity of its brand or its messaging, you can almost always trace it back to a leadership problem. The question that helps you begin to resolve the problem is this: who’s in charge?

Who is the GOP’s CEO? Who is the GOP’s CMO? Who controls and manages the GOP’s message today? Who controls the vision? Who sets the direction? Who has ownership of the GOP brand? Can you look at the following image and point to the person in charge? Can you map out the hierarchy?

In the absence of clear leadership and hierarchy in an organization, what you end up with is confusion and uncertainty. The alphas compete for the spot, and each one of them comes with his or her own little tribe of followers. Welcome to infighting and confusion 101. It isn’t that the GOP lacks leadership. The problem is that it has too much of it. Too many chefs in the kitchen, in other words. It needs one. Just one. Not five or twenty or 300. Until the GOP solves its leadership issues, it will not have a clear brand or a unified message. It’s hard to evoke trust and enthusiasm with that degree of uncertainty hanging over your head.

5. If you don’t control the message, someone else will.

Remember the Apple vs. Microsoft ads? What happened there was Apple took control of both Microsoft’s image and message. Apple gave Microsoft a face, a suit, a personality, and a voice. In essence, Apple hijacked the Microsoft brand and reinforced existing biases to create a simple, visceral message about the value of one brand versus the other.

Leadership and ownership are common topics for me whenever I wrestle with organizational dysfunction. Without some clarity about both, organizations of any kind (even flat, loosely federated organization) cannot properly function.

Group dynamics 101:

– There is always a hierarchy. Find it.

– Power vacuums will be filled.

– There can be only one project manager, one CEO, one leader. Either you’re it, or someone else will ease into that role.

If you don’t shape the identity of your brand, someone else will. If you don’t control the message, someone else will.

If this point seems like a repetition of item #4 on this list, you aren’t wrong. In many ways, it is. More specifically, it is the direct effect of a leadership/ownership problem: no clear leadership = a free-for-all of messaging. What does a free-for-all look like? It looks like a soup of conflicting religious beliefs, conflicting economic theory, paradoxical legislative intent, and even in some cases hate speech (characterized by the bizarre resilience of the birther movement, for instance).

Internally, everyone vying for the leadership spot will bring his or her own rhetoric, beliefs, language, and vision to the table. The result is a mess of view points, of conflicting egos and infighting that will a) polarize rather than unify the organization, b) turn a lot of conservatives off from the internal politics of the organization, and c) ultimately disenfranchise a portion of the organization when, once polarized, their “side” doesn’t get what it wants. (Where do you think that the Tea Party movement came from?)

Externally, the result of not owning your own message opens you up to the same kind of hijacking by the competition that Microsoft suffered at the hands of Apple: existing biases against conservative views are amplified and turned into caricature. Through repetition and carefully selected examples (quotes, memes, soundbites and video clips) conservatives slowly become hateful under-educated, xenophobic, nativist, anti-gay, anti-women, science-hating buffoons who can’t seem to understand that the world they live in has changed since the late 1800’s.

Impact: if you’re a radical or ardent Democrat, you probably already thought that, so nothing’s changed. You just feel that “what you’ve been saying for years” has been validated by the news you watch and read. If you are a moderate Democrat – even one who, under normal circumstances, might not feel the need to vote – you saw that fringe as a possible threat, but as a result of this messaging, now see the entire GOP as being taken over by it. The result: fear. The outcome: higher chance that you’ll actually vote this time around. If you’re an undecided fiscal conservative or swing voter, the process is the same: given the choice between an ineffective Democratic party and a xenophobic, anti-science, anti-women, anti-civil rights party, you will either a) not vote this time around, b) vote reluctantly but it might be the last time if something doesn’t change soon, or c) actually vote Democrat.

Remember the point made in item #1: If the identity of the GOP isn’t clear, you’re going to have trouble selling it to anyone who isn’t part of the core tribe. If you don’t control your own message, you have no chance of articulating who you are to undecided and swing voters.

6. Too thick a brand bubble = Koolaid overload.

When an organization focuses exclusively on listening to its own sources at the expense of listening to other opinions, it enters into its very own feedback loop of cognitive bias. I cannot tell you how many people I run into in the GOP who absolutely refuse to read the Huffington Post or watch MSNBC because they are patently liberal media organizations. (And by all accounts, they seem to be.) To an extent, that’s fair. The same could be said of Democrats who refuse to watch Fox News and read Fox Nation. We’ll come back to that.

What’s strange to me, however, is that the fat middle of the news media world has been shunned by many conservatives as well: CNN, the BBC, the Associated Press, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, the New York Times, etc. All of it has been rebranded “the liberal news media” by many influential voices in the conservative movement (I refer you to item #4 above: Who’s in charge?).

Blocking out critical and dissenting voices may be a comfortable way to spend your day, but it keeps you in the dark about what the rest of the world (or in this case the rest of the country) is thinking, saying and doing. It may also shield you from the opinions of dissenting voices, many of them valuable, within your own organization.

Imagine of you were a product manager for a major brand, and the company’s leadership made it clear that any kind of data or consumer insights you garnered outside of your own channels, particularly when these data and insights didn’t paint as rosy a picture as you’d like, were to be thought of as corrupt and biased against you: weakening sales? Not true. The source is working for the competition. Frustrated customers? Not true. The source is biased against us. And on and on and on. Over time, the distance separating the inside of your organization from the reality of the outside world would grow. One piece of positive, pro-brand news at a time, and one piece of rejected criticism at a time, the bubble would thicken until any news, data and insights not produced by the brand’s own approved sources became immediately suspect.

One of the most dangerous things a brand can do is to shun significant sources of data and market insights that it anticipates won’t be positive in favor of data that tells a more positive story. What brands need to to is analyze the full spectrum of data and market insights and determine objectively, pragmatically, what areas they are doing well in and what areas need more attention. Once an organization becomes so focused on itself that it shuns outside points of view, it becomes insular and so detached from the world around it as to lose its value, relevance and competitiveness. I have personally seen moderate Republicans being attacked by more religiously conservative Republicans for “letting the liberal media get inside their heads.” Their advice: don’t watch CNN or network news.

Sorry, but that isn’t a healthy world view. It isn’t healthy, period.

My advice: watch CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Read everything you can get your hands on. Get a full sense for the breadth of the opinion spectrum and let the chips fall where they may. Study the narratives that your competitors build around your brand. Study the shifts in opinion in the market about not only your brand, your products and your industry but others as well. Look for patterns, for changes, for insights, for ideas. Keep your ears and eyes, and most importantly your mind open. Don’t retreat inside a bubble. Break that bubble apart, shatter it, and look for answers and insights everywhere you can.

7. Focusing too much on the core tribe and not enough on potential customers.

Imagine if you were a brand of soda or men’s underwear, and these were some of the numbers you were seeing this month:

Market penetration nationally, 18+: 47% (Source:  Washington Post/ABC News)

Competitor’s penetration nationally, 18+: 46%


Market penetration among African Americans, 18+: 0% (Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal)

Competitor’s market penetration  with African Americans: 94%

Wow. 0%.

Assuming an error in the polling, let’s make it 3-4%, which is what it was in previous polls. Even that is a staggeringly low number.

What if you dug deeper and found out that 89% of your customers turn out to be white? What would that mean in terms of who your tribe is, who your tribe isn’t, and how you might be able to change that? What would it tell you about not only your positioning and messaging, but your culture as an organization and your identity as a brand? Personally, those numbers would give me great pause. They are rather shocking. (And here, I refer you to item #6: The Brand Bubble.) You don’t want to start becoming this:

Let’s look at another data set:

Women  national market penetration, 18+ nationally: 47% (Source: Washington Post/ABC News)

Competitor’s national market penetration, for the same demo: 46%.


Women market penetration, 18-50 in swing states: 30% (a drop of 14% since last year) (Source: USA Today/Gallup)

Competitor’s market penetration for same demo in same markets: almost 60% (compared to <50% last year).

What might have caused the change? In the case of the GOP, the answer comes from Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist and former political adviser to President George W. Bush:

“The focus on contraception has not been a good one for us … and Republicans have unfairly taken on water on this issue.”

Unfairly? Perhaps. But fairness isn’t something you can count on. Decisions and market trends are shaped more by bias than fairness. And saying “no fair” will only turn you into a victim. Beware the comforting lure of tribal mentality. Combined with a shunning of outside viewpoints (see item #6 above) it can skew your perception of the world and change your outlook on the role that you have yet to play in it. You may become more focused on “being right” and proving your position’s argument than on listening and adapting to what your market is telling you. That subtle shift in intent might contribute to your missing legitimate concerns voiced by disenfranchised insiders and undecided outsiders.

In this instance, the GOP’s identity, messaging and value proposition might have recently grown too focused on the needs and biases of the predominantly male, and 50+ customers which constitute the nucleus of its tribe at the expense of other members of that same tribe (namely women). Right or wrong, fair or not, that is what the public is telling the GOP. So now what? Stand your ground, or listen?

Now don’t get me wrong: focusing on your core customers first is great, and there, Seth Godin is right – focus on your tribe first – but too much focus on your tribe can come at the expense of alienating everyone else, especially if it is physically impossible for them to become white or male – or over 50 (at least right this very minute). If you’re a brand, that will cost you significant chunks of potential customers. If you’re a political party (or candidate), those are swing, undecided and moderate voters that you are excluding from your ecosystem. If growth is what you’re after (or at least market dominance), it’s a problem.

Taking a step back: if you want to be a niche brand, focus on your core tribe and don’t worry about having broad appeal. But if your brand wants to have broad appeal and dominate its market (score 51% of the vote), you have to be careful not to systematically alienate chunks of that market.

Again, not a critique. Just an observation – and a kind word of caution.

Okay. I’ll stop here. If this post generates enough comments, we’ll do one of these for the Democratic party as well, just before its convention.

Feel free to add what I might have missed in the comment section below. Oh, and please, let’s try to keep the comment section from becoming a political discussion between Republicans and Democrats. If you disagree with my analysis, great. I want to hear from you. But try to focus on the brand management, business development and marketing communications side of the discussion rather than on political rhetoric. Take a step back from your political beliefs and look at this as if you were apolitical and the GOP were a client. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I miss? How could the GOP do better? Those are the types of comments I look forward to.

And if you want to follow the buzz around Republican National Convention the way digital monitoring agencies do, I built you a Tickr page just for the occasion.

And um… don’t go building your own digital mission control center just yet. We’ll be taking a closer look at how some brands and agencies are doing that very soon. (Disclosure: Tickr is a client.)



*          *          *

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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Here’s the question that most companies still don’t ask themselves at the start of a project: what problem am I trying to solve?

Start with that, and you’re 80% of the way there. Blow it off, and you can be sure that you and your organization will waste a shit-ton of time and resources on something that won’t yield any concrete results.

For instance: discussions at planning & management meetings increasingly point towards three “projects” that seem increasingly inevitable – Your CMO wants to revamp the logo. Your CEO wants to get into social media. Your SVP Digital wants to redo the website.

Now what? Well, now begins the process of getting the projects approved. What questions will be asked? Well…

Why are we doing this?

How much will it cost?

Who will be in charge?

Who will do the work?

And that’s about it. That’s as far as it goes.

Why are we doing this? Because it’s been a while. Because it’s time. Because we need change. Because our competitors are doing it. Because it will improve our image.

How much will it cost? Somewhere between $x and $y.

Who will be in charge? Fill in the blanks.

Who will do the work? Fill in the blanks.

Except here’s the problem: companies have limited resources. When you think of resources in terms of money, talent, technology and man hours (and you should), you quickly come to realize that focusing a significant percentage of those resources on Project A rather than Projects B, C, and D means that you’ve just introduced an opportunity cost into your planning. In other words, choosing to monopolize these resources on Project A could limit your ability to really kick ass with Projects B, C and D.

If Project A is necessary or really smart, that’s probably a good thing. You’ve prioritized possible outcomes and you’ve decided that Project A has a high potential for ROI or impact on x, or whatever it is you’re after.

But of Project A isn’t necessary, what you’ve done is you’ve just taken essential resources away from essential projects… to feed a wasteful endeavor that won’t yield a whole lot of benefits to your company.

You know what question helps determine whether or not a project is worthwhile? This one: what problem am I trying to solve?

A practical overview: new logo.

We need a new logo. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If you can show that your old logo is hindering your sales, you might be on to something. Do your customers complain about it? Do your competitors’ customers make fun of it? Okay. Time to consider an upgrade. In your considerations, ask yourself this: will the new logo solve a real problem for consumers? Will it solve a real problem for us?

If the answer is yes, and you can identify these problems clearly, move forward.

What problems will the new logo aim to solve?

If the answer is no, or you can’t quantify the “problem,” consider what else you might be able to focus on this quarter or this year that will solve a real problem. (Like customer service, R&D, packaging, messaging, shopping experience, etc.)

A practical overview: new website.

We need a new website. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “It looks like it was designed in 1995, the UX is horrible, it uses flash, it’s horrendous on mobile devices, our customers complain about it all the time,” then you’re good to go. Dig deeper and move forward. What is it that your customers complain about? What can we improve in terms of user experience? What do we wish the site could do that it can’t in its present form (and why)? What kinds of functionality would we like to build into it (and why)?

What problems will a new website aim to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “It’s been two years since we redesigned it, and I want to rebuild it in Drupal,” then that meeting is adjourned. (No offense to Drupal. I just needed to throw something in there real quick.)

A practical overview: new social media strategy/program.

We need a social media strategy. 

Yeah? Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

If the answer falls along the lines of “we physically can’t continue to do business without it anymore,” then you’re on to something. Dig deeper. Your next conversation should include items like these:

47% of our customers prefer to engage CSRs through Twitter and Facebook than by calling a toll-free number now. We can also serve 5x more customers per hour via these channels than we can via traditional call centers, so we’ll even save money that way.

We’re losing traction in category and keyword searches because we have no fresh content for the Googlenets and the Bingwebs to index. If we had a blog and some social media properties, we could potentially double our web traffic and digital exposure.

We can’t really get into mobile commerce without it. It’s already costing us $23,000,000 per quarter, and we’re even losing customers and market share as a result. if we keep operating like this, we’ll be out of business in 5-7 years.

We’re spending $12,000,000 on outsourced digital marketing research every year that we could do ourselves if we just assigned two people to monitor the web using social media monitoring platforms.

Our PR department can’t anticipate, monitor, respond or manage PR crises without it. The cost to the company each year in lost revenue is $x, and our brand image is suffering more and more each year as a result.

40% of our net new customers leave us after 12 months. We think we can use social media to engage them, find out why they’re think of  leaving, and give them a reason to stay. Potential impact on the business: an additional $xM per year.

Social media can help drive word-of-mouth recommendations. We want to use social media as an in-network lead generation engine. The impact we expect: a) more leads. b) more qualified leads. c) a higher conversion rate (prospect to customer).

It will help us recruit better talent. Period.

It will amplify our advertising’s reach and make it stickier. Look at the numbers that Coca Cola, Pepsi, Ford and Old Spice have been getting against companies that only use traditional (paid) media.

If done properly, engagement = loyalty. Right now, only 23% of our customers consider themselves loyal. We want to bring that up to 60% over the next four years. Some of it will be offline, but we need an online piece as well.

69% less expenditures on each new product launch.


All of these suggestions solve one or more of the following problems:

1. Not enough leads? Doing this will attract net new potential customers.

2. Not enough new customers? Doing this will convert net new prospects into net new customers.

3. Short term customer attrition? Doing this will develop net new customers into returning customers.

4. Long term customer attrition? Doing this will develop returning customers into loyal customers.

5. Budget cuts getting in the way? Doing this will cut costs while delivering equal or better outcomes.

6. Frozen budgets getting in the way? Doing this will keep costs level while delivering better outcomes.

7. Wasting money on outdated services you feel locked into? Doing this will help you free your operation from unnecessary burdens.

8. The chasm between you and your customers has been widening? Doing this will shrink it.

9. Feeling less relevant than you were 10 years ago? Doing this will help you find your way again.

10. Shrinking profitability is an increasing concern? See 1-9 (above), particularly 5 and 6.

11. Not reaching enough potential customers? Doing this fixes that. See 1 (above).

But if the answer to “what problem are we trying to solve with a social media program” is never asked (or worse, answered incorrectly,) then you will basically end up with an endless churning out of cheaply produced, keyword-optimized “content” that will vaguely boost web traffic and online mentions without ever yielding particularly helpful results. Say hello to crap metrics like “likes, Return on Influence, and all of the rest of the bullshit that still plagues the digital world and social business these days.

Because… we need to be on Facebook so we can engage with people and have conversations.

Because… we have to have a social media strategy.

Because… “content is king.”

Because… our competitors are doing it.

Because… our agency told us we should be in social media.

Because… something about owned, paid and earned media.

Because… we need followers and likes.

Because… we don’t know, but we’ll eventually figure it out.

Okay. Good luck with that.

The reason why snake oil, incompetence and irrelevant metrics are still so prevalent in the social business space is because they fill the gap created by the absence of proper questions and answers at the start. Starting with: what problem am I trying to solve?

Which is to say: what is the purpose of doing this in the first place?

New product feature? What problem am I trying to solve?

New packaging? What problem am I trying to solve?

New logo? What problem am I trying to solve?

New branding strategy? What problem am I trying to solve?

New campaign? What problem am I trying to solve?

New Facebook page? What problem am I trying to solve?

New blog? What problem am I trying to solve?

New hire? What problem am I trying to solve?

Don’t just go through the motions of doing something or going somewhere just because the rest of the herd is shuffling that way. I know it might make you the annoying guy in the room to be the one who asks the question (so… do so judiciously), but the question MUST be asked by someone. And more importantly, it must be answered. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting resources and a chunk of your potential for real success.



*          *          *

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

Read Full Post »

Yesterday, I promised you a post that would help hiring managers identify key skills and abilities needed in a prospective hire looking to fill a social media manager role. Note that we are talking about management, not just content creation or community relations. Before I get into it, a few considerations:

1.  This list isn’t complete. It is meant to help guide you and point you in some key directions, but you’re going to have to add a few requirements of your own and ignore the ones that don’t apply to your specific needs.

2. Every company has different capabilities and objectives. Every company will also look at social media’s role in a  completely unique way. Some will see it merely as a digital marketing function while others will see it as a fully integrated component of an organization-wide communications ecosystem. Because every company is unique, every social media management position’s requirements will also be unique. Keep that in mind.

3. Are you hiring someone who will help you build a social media program from scratch, or are you hiring someone who will manage an existing social media program? Because the requirements for each won’t be the same.

4. Are you a small, medium, local company, or are you a global consumer brand? Because again, the degree of complexity (internal to the org and external to the org) will require completely different types of resumes.

5. Are you looking to fill a strategic role or a tactical role? Strategic = more vision and planning oriented. Tactical = more day-to-day, operationally oriented.

6. Are you a niche or specialty brand in an obscure industry, or an international superbrand? Because again, the req is going to look different based on that.

7. Is your social media program purely internal or are you working with one or five or twenty agencies as well?

8. Is your social media program focused on lead generation and fan acquisition, or is it also focused on customer development, customer retention, and/or organic WOM? Again, huge differences in skill-sets and abilities to consider there.

9. How many departments will this role be working intimately with? Mostly digital marketing, or also HR, Customer Service, Product Management, Technical Support, PR and R&D?

10. Is your brand a challenger? A rebel? Conservative? Academic? Irreverent? Political? Apolitical? These things matter. Hire someone who understands who you are and will fit within your culture and brand ecosystem.

Right off the bat, you kind of have your work cut out for you. Building out a req for your social media management role is going to require a little more work than just throwing together some bullet points and filling the blanks on a standard x years of blogging experience bullets. This is not an exercise in generic job req design. There is nothing generic about this hiring process.

Here are a few bullets for you:

Basic skills & qualities:

  • Applicant has had a continuous professional presence in the Social Media space (via blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Ning or other platforms) for at least two years.
  • Applicant has managed a business blog and/or business community for a minimum of one year.
  • Applicant has built or managed a community for longer than one year. (This could be as a product manager or customer service rep, for instance.)
  • Applicant demonstrates a thorough knowledge of the Social Media space, including usage and demographic statistics for the most popular/relevant platforms as well as a few niche platforms of his/her choice.
  • Applicant demonstrates a thorough understanding of the nuances between Social Media platforms and the communities they serve.
  • Impeccable communications skills.
  • Applicant understands the breadth of tools and methods at his/her disposal to set goals and measure success in the Social Media space. (Applicant’s toolkit is not limited to Google analytics.)
  • Applicant has been active on Twitter for more than two years.
  • Applicant knows who Scott Monty, Frank Eliason, Jeremiah Owyang, Porter Gale and Christopher Barger are, and can explain why these names are important to the social media profession.
  • Applicant can explain succinctly why buying followers and fans is both unethical and counterproductive.
  • Applicant demonstrates a high level of proficiency working with popular Social Media platforms and apps such as FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, Ning, Seesmic, YouTube, FriendFeed, WordPress, Pinterest and Tumblr. (As applicable.)
  • Applicant is capable of mapping out a basic Social Media monitoring plan on a cocktail napkin.
  • Given 5 screens to play with, applicant can build you a social media monitoring control center in just a few days.
  • Applicant can cite examples of companies with successful social media programs and companies with ineffective social media programs. He/she can also argue comfortably why each was either successful or unsuccessful.
  • Applicant has spent at least one year working in a customer-facing role, preferably customer-service related.
  • Applicant is more excited about engagement, building an internal practice and finding out about your business’ pain points than he/she is about firebombing you with the awesomeness of their personal brand.

Advanced skills & qualities:

  • Applicant has developed and managed marketing programs before. Not just campaigns but programs. Find out about them. What worked? What didn’t work? Lessons learned?
  • Applicant has at least two years of experience managing projects and working across organizational silos. What worked? What didn’t? Etc.
  • Applicant has managed a brand or product line for more than one year.
  • Applicant has demonstrated a strong ability to forge lasting relationships across a variety of media platforms over the course of his/her career.
  • Applicant understand the difference between vertical and lateral action when it comes to customer/community engagement – and has working knowledge of how to leverage both.
  • Applicant has managed national market research projects.
  • Applicant is comfortable enough with business measurement methods to know the difference between financial impact (ROI) and non-financial impact. He/she also knows why the difference between the two is relevant.
  • Applicant demonstrates the ability to build and manage a Social Media practice that works seamlessly with PR, product marketing, event management and customer support teams within the organization.
  • Applicant has managed a team for more than one year. He/she was responsible for the training and development of that team.
  • Applicant has spent at least one year in a project management role outside of an ad agency, PR or other Marketing firm.
  • Applicant has been responsible for managing a budget/P&L.
  • Applicant already has the framework of a Social Media plan for your company before he/she even walks through the front door, and thankfully, it doesn’t involve setting up a fan page on FaceBook.

Enterprise & Global CPG skills:

  • All of the above, but with 5 – 10+ years of experience instead of 1 – 3.
  • For everything else, scale up.

What you shouldn’t waste a whole lot of time worrying about:

  • The applicant’s age.
  • The applicant’s Klout or Kred scores.
  • The applicant’s number of followers on Twitter or fans/likes on Facebook.*
  • The applicant’s SxSW or blogworld stories.
  • How many Top 10, 15, 20 or 100 lists the applicant is on.

* Less than 1,000 Twitter followers is suspect. Unless they are a media celebrity, more than 75,000 Twitter followers is suspect as well.

All right. You still have some work to do, but that ought to get you started.

Other sources:

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your OrganizationParticularly Chapter 6 (pages 73-82).

The Social Media Strategist: Build a Successful Program from the Inside Out – by Christopher Barger

Smart Business, Social Business: A Playbook for Social Media in Your Organization – by Michael Brito

I hope that was helpful.



*          *          *

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

Read Full Post »

So evidently, the ideal age for a social media manager is under 25.

Wait… no… the ideal age for a social media manager is over 25.

Are you kidding me? Age? We’re talking about age? Like… the ideal age to be a CEO is 45-65? Or the ideal age to be an HR manager is 43-52? Would anyone with the slightest bit of credibility ever write a piece like that? No. Not without concrete research to back it up, at any rate. So why is it acceptable when it comes to social media? Why? Because it’s still en vogue to write complete nonsense about social media management?

There is no ideal age to manage a social media program, just like there is no ideal age to manage a PR or marketing or HR campaign, program or department. Unless you’re a professional athlete, age is pretty much irrelevant when it comes to your ability to do a job. Any job. Some people are already good at 20. Others still suck at 40. There is no magic formula. What you are looking for is competence, professionalism and a sharp, agile mind. That is what you should focus on. Not age.

Let’s take a look at this piece published by Inc. just a few days ago: 11 Reasons a 23-year-old Shouldn’t Run Your Social Media, by Hollis Thomases.

So first… who is this Hollis Thomases person, and more importantly, why does Inc. feel that she is qualified to write an article on this topic? Well, there’s this:

Hollis Thomases is the President & CEO of Web Ad.vantage, which provides outcome-based digital marketing and advertising services to up-and-coming brands. She is also the author of Twitter Marketing: An Hour a Day, a contributing expert to Social Media Marketing Magazine, and has been a Media Planning columnist for ClickZ since 2005. She has taken her subject matter expertise to television, radio, and trade conferences. Here is her Twitter account: @hollisthomases (6,820 followers).

Note the url, by the way, which is different from the title Inc. eventually went with: http://www.inc.com/hollis-thomases/social-media-dont-put-intern-in-charge.html – don’t put intern in charge. Ah, well. We’re already off to a killer start: what’s a 23-year-old good for? Being an intern. Great.

Now don’t get me wrong: anyone who puts an intern in charge of their social media program is clearly being negligent. But we aren’t talking about interns here. We are talking about 23-year-olds and “young hires.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that hoodied 23-year-old you just crossed in the hallway might not be the intern anymore. In this day and age, he or she might be the CEO, and a solid one at that. There are “kids” right now building  companies at 23 that will reshape the face of business, technology and communications in the next ten years. There are guys leading combat teams at 23, and I can tell you from experience that they are supremely competent and plenty mature. There are young women right now, today, already on their way to revolutionizing dozens of fields, from particle physics and presidential campaign strategy to industrial design and popular fashion. A few of them even won Olympic medals in London over the last few weeks. So how about this: instead of discounting young twenty-somethings as quasi-worthless, not particularly dependable assclowns, why not get to know them instead?

But no. It’s much easier to fall back on crap stereotypes to write a poorly researched article, and then somehow get Inc.’s editorial staff to give it the go-ahead. And thus begins an 11-point exercise in shameless clichés and assumptions. Let’s have a look-see:

  1. They’re not mature enough.
  2. They may be focused on their own social media activity.
  3. They may not have the same experience – or etiquette.
  4. You can’t control their friends.
  5. No class can replace on-the-job-training.
  6. They may not understand your business.
  7. Communications skills are critical.
  8. Humor is tricky business.
  9. Social media savvy is not the same as technical savvy.
  10. Social media management can become crisis management.
  11. You need to keep the keys.

Where do I begin? Do I even need to explain how absurd this is? It seems that professional, capable twenty-somethings have suddenly become as immature as ninth-graders on a school field trip.

1. They’re not mature enough. Right. Based on what data? And compared to whom?

I have a friend. Let’s call him Tim. Tim is 48. Tim has been going through a mid-life crisis for the last four years. You want to talk to me about the maturity level of a 23-year-old? You don’t get to unless you’ve spent a Friday evening around Tim. Tim is a CEO, by the way.

But that isn’t even the point. The real point here is this: if someone isn’t mature enough to manage your social media program, regardless of their age, don’t be an asshole and put them in charge of your social media program. Instead, hire someone who is qualified and well-suited for the job. Is that too simple? Too obvious maybe?  Or should we keep going on the stupid stereotypes?

Okay. Let’s keep going then.

2. They may be focused on their own social media activity. Yeah, and they also may not. Because age has not a damn thing to do with that.

Not hiring unprofessional assholes usually takes care of that problem.

3. They may not have the... oh, whatever. If they don’t have the experience or etiquette, why did you hire them to manage anything, let alone your social media program? Regardless of their age, if they don’t have the skills or experience or etiquette, don’t put them in charge. But if they have the experience, skills and etiquette, and they happen to be 23, don’t be stupid: hire the shit out of them before someone else does.

I know. This stuff is really hard to grasp.

4. You can’t control their friends. Really? Is that because 23-year-olds are just party-going loudmouths who will post obnoxious updates on Facebook? So naturally, yeah… a 23-year-old is going to be a liability to your brand, right? Nice!

Except, no. Show me the data that supports your theory. What… no data? Hmmm. That’s too bad. My next question would have dealt with how you intend to “control” angry customers and trolls.

Ms. Thomases, your personal prejudices against this age group suck.

5. No class can replace on-the-job-training. I have no idea what that even means or what it has to do with age.

6. They may not understand your business.

This article is starting to give me a headache.

What if that 23-year-old has been a fan of your business since they were a kid? Say you’re Nike or Disney or Nintendo, you really think a 23-year-old managed to live their whole lives without knowing what you do and how? Why do you think they’re applying for a job at your company in the first place?

Here’s another one: a 40-year-old new hire and a 23-year-old new hire are going to go through the same onboarding process. Why would the 23-year-old be somehow less qualified than the 40-year-old to manage the company’s social media program solely based on “not understanding the business?” Is there something physiological about 23-year olds that makes them incapable of learning your business model?

If you are hiring someone to manage your social media program, they’ll need to understand your business, regardless of their age. Train them. Get them ready to manage that function. This is not an age issue, it’s a preparation issue.

This argument is invalid.

7. Communications skills are critical. I can’t even wrap my mind around this. Let me just quote the writer and see if you can make any sense of it:

“Communication is critical to solid social-media execution. Before you let a young hire take over your company blog posts, take stock of his or her writing skills. Also: Many young people have not yet learned the “art” of communicating. Make sure they know how to read between the lines, rather than taking things too literally.”

That’s it. That’s the whole explanation.

Between you and me, I have no idea what half of that means. “Many young people have not yet learned the ‘art’ of communicating?”

“Make sure they know how to read between the lines, rather than taking things literally?”

Let that be the point: communication is indeed critical to solid social-media execution. Which is why social media professionals who write expert commentary for Inc. should learn how to express themselves clearly. “Make sure they know how to read” between what lines, exactly? Is there something about 23-year-olds that makes them read everything literally? And can we at least get some kind of idea as to what the “art” of communicating is? I wonder if it involves learning proper comma usage. Here’s an example: “Make sure they know how to read between the lines rather than taking things too literally” instead of “make sure they know how to read between the lines, rather than taking things too literally.”

I know a bunch of young 20-somethings with terrific communications skills and a shit-ton of people my age with horrendous communications skills (and many of them are in PR and marketing). So can we please stick to competence and skill instead of crapping on young twenty-somethings for the sake of it?

8. Humor is tricky business. Let me guess… because young twenty-somethings are incapable of understanding the boundaries and cultural nuances of certain types of humor… As opposed to 35-year-olds or 50-year-olds?

You’re right. Humor is tricky business. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with age. Not one thing.

Something just occurred to me: if you took that piece and replaced “young hire” with “women” or “old people,” it would be taken offline immediately. Prejudice is prejudice, and the opinions listed in these eleven points reek of it.

9. Social media savvy is not the same as technical savvy. Excuse my French, but… (cover your ears) what the fuck does that have to do with age?

This argument is invalid.

10. Social media management can become crisis management. Yes. It can and it does. What does that have to do with age? Do you want me to list every PR crisis in the last ten years that was completely botched by people over the age of 25? Here’s a taste: BP, Nestle, Enron, Toyota, Southwest Airlines, Chic-Fil-a, United Airlines, Eurostar, FEMA… We could be here all day.

This argument is frightfully invalid.

11. You need to keep the keys. Yes. That’s a basic social media program management 101 lesson that is applicable regardless of your social media manager’s age.

This argument isn’t just invalid, it isn’t even an argument.

Here’s an idea: instead of writing (and publishing) pointless pieces of hateful, misinformed garbage that fail to a) offer relevant reasons why young professionals under the age of 25 are somehow not qualified (or under-qualified) to manage a social communications program, and b) provide evidence to back up the writer’s opinion, why not write a piece that outlines the qualities and skills you should look for in someone who will help you build and manage a social media program? You know, things like competence, skill, talent, personality, adaptability, resourcefulness, even cultural fit with the company, for instance?

But no. Let’s focus on age instead. Let’s talk about age as a qualification to run a social media program… Good grief. How did we even get here? Really. WTF.

I can’t leave you like this though, so here’s basically all you need to know about the ideal candidate for your social media management job. Are you ready? Here it is:

Hire someone wonderful and competent. Who gives a shit how old they are?

Okay? And if you want some pointers on what to look for, I’ll be back tomorrow with a few.



*          *          *

As an aside, you can find some pointers on how to hire (and train) a social media manager in Chapter 6. (Pages 73-82.)

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in yourOrganization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

Read Full Post »

Arles. Detail.

See what I did there? That’s called linkbait.

It doesn’t matter what I write down here in the body of the post. It could be three paragraphs of complete nonsense. It could be recycled BS from some lame e-book I am trying to push. It could be page after page of stock photos with lame captions nobody bothered to fact-check or spell-check. All that matters is you saw that interesting looking title and you clicked on the link, and now here you are.

Don’t worry, I haven’t suddenly decided to join the snake-oil machine. I just wanted to bring your attention to something that has been bothering me for a very long time and is still going strong. Certain types of bloggers use this trick almost every day to pull traffic onto their sites. Not to educate you or hand over insights that will help you solve real problems, but to pull you in and trick you into giving them a bit of your attention. Why?

1. Too boost their blog’s search engine and technorati/Ad-Age/etc rankings, which in turn a) brings in more visitors and b) boosts their ego.

2. Because more visitors = more ad revenue. ($$$)

3. Because more visitors = more click-throughs on affiliate links. ($$$)

4. Because more visitors = higher “influence” scores, which can be turned into higher speaking and consulting fees, regardless of whether or not they actually have anything relevant to say.

It’s just a numbers’ game. There doesn’t have to be an ounce of real insight in the post. SEO-optimization? Yes. Well-placed links and ads? Yes. A well-placed share button so “readers” can push the piece back out to their networks without necessarily having read it? Yes. But relevance or expert commentary? Nope. That’s optional. Just bring them in.

“Content is king?” Bullshit. Traffic is king. “Content,” or rather the promise of content is just the pull, the pitch, the promise. The real carrot is the revenue from that traffic. When you feel about it that way, quantity quickly begins to trump quality. Blogs become automated cash machines. And because conversion rates tend to be mostly inelastic, that pushes the need for more inbound volume. So you start drafting titles you know will make people want to click, and what they read will have taken less than five minutes to write.

These guys don’t want to be boutique brands anymore. They want to be WalMart. What they give up in quality, they will make up in transient, commodity visitors. In spite of all that talk about humanizing the web and being authentic and having conversations, that’s the relationship model behind linkbait blogs.

So for the next two weeks, every time you see a title like this one, give some thought to why it was chosen, how the “content” of that blog post has anything to do with the Games or business lessons, whether or not it really taught you anything. Some will. Most won’t. It’s up to you to decide what’s what. The litmus test is simple: read the title and the post, then ask yourself what the writer’s intent really was when he (or she) wrote that piece and chose that title. Then go back in their archives and see how often they use that trick. It will give you some idea of whether or not the manipulation was a one-time thing or an M.O.

Intent matters, by the way. Intent is everything. Intent is the very foundation of trust between people. The question is always this: “does this writer really care about helping me out with something, or is he just using me to fluff up his numbers, with no consideration whatsoever to the value it brings to his audience?”

5 Essential Social Media Lessons from the Olympic Games

10 Digital Strategy Insights from NBC’s Olympic Coverage

15 Business Management Lessons from the London Olympics

The Olympic Games Top 20 most retweeted tweets.

25 Inspiring Facebook Updates from the Olympic Games

30 Ways of Bringing Olympic Excellence To Your Digital Practice

35 Brands Using Social Media at the Olympics

2012 Olympics: 40 Gold Medal Social Media Strategies You Can Implement Today!

… and on and on and on.

How about Top 10 Ways to erode Trust and Relevance on the Interwebs? That’s one that might actually be worth reading.

Today’s lesson, if there is one: respect your readers.

There is nothing wrong with making money off affiliate links and traffic, but don’t trick your readers. Don’t promise them relevance or expert analysis and then slap them with lazy, useless bullshit you wrote between brushing your teeth and checking your Klout score.

Remember that blogs are commodities and opinions are even lower in the totem pole. Self-serving schemes might work pretty well for a while, but they all lead to the same orbit decay. Sooner or later, you will have to work harder and harder to trick people back into coming to your blog. Instead of a healthy community of readers, you will have to cast your net wider and wider into the busy waters of digital attention. And what you will discover out there is that bloggers and writers who take the time to produce helpful, relevant content will almost effortlessly pull all that traffic you used to take for granted. Good luck rebuilding your reputation after that. The most painful part: You will have no one but yourself to blame.

The guys who bring the most value to the table win. Be on that team, if not out of self-respect and professional courtesy, at least out of self-preservation.



PS: Sorry for the necessary subterfuge. I hope I made up for it by giving you something of value.

*          *          *

And now, for a little light reading…

Social Media ROI – Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in your Organization was written specifically to teach managers and executives how to build and manage social media friendly business programs and incorporate social technologies and networks into everyday business operations. The book is divided into four parts: social media program strategy & development, social media program operationalization, social media program management, and best practices in measurement and reporting. If your boss doesn’t yet have a copy, time to fix that. If everyone on your team doesn’t yet have their own copy, fix that too. It makes for a great desk reference.

(Now available in several languages including German, Korean, Japanese and Spanish.)

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

Read Full Post »