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A few weeks ago, social media “personalities” and tech gurus were so busy trying to out-swoon each other over Google Glass that no one seemed to want to ask the most obvious question everyone should have been asking about Google Glass: Why should I care?

No, I mean seriously. Why should I or anyone care about Google Glass?

1. The Emperor’s New Clothes: Tech Edition

In order to understand the problem, you have to go back to its source. Let’s do that.

The review that earned Google Glass the most attention was one put forth by “tech guru” Robert Scoble, even though it basically boiled down to paragraph after paragraph of mostly vacuous and at times incoherent babble. You can go read the entire thing here. I hope you won’t mind that I cut and pasted it here as well (to save you the trouble):

Here’s my review after having Google Glass for two weeks:

1. I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor). It’s that significant. 
2. The success of this totally depends on price. Each audience I asked at the end of my presentations “who would buy this?” As the price got down to $200 literally every hand went up. At $500 a few hands went up. This was consistent, whether talking with students, or more mainstream, older audiences.
3. Nearly everyone had an emotional outburst of “wow” or “amazing” or “that’s crazy” or “stunning.” 
4. At NextWeb 50 people surrounded me and wouldn’t let me leave until they had a chance at trying them. I haven’t seen that kind of product angst at a conference for a while. This happened to me all week long, it is just crazy.
5. Most of the privacy concerns I had before coming to Germany just didn’t show up. I was shocked by how few negative reactions I got (only one, where an audience member said he wouldn’t talk to me with them on). Funny, someone asked me to try them in a bathroom (I had them aimed up at that time and refused).
6. There is a total generational gap that I found. The older people said they would use them, probably, but were far more skeptical, or, at minimum, less passionate about the fact that these are the future, than the 13-21-year-olds I met.

So, let’s cover the price, first of all. I bet that +Larry Page is considering two price points: something around $500, which would be very profitable. Or $200, which is about what the bill of materials costs. When you tear apart the glasses, like someone else did (I posted that to my Flipboard “Glasshole” magazine) you see a bunch of parts that aren’t expensive. This has been designed for mass production. In other words, millions of units. The only way Google will get there is to price them under $300.

I wouldn’t be shocked if Larry went very aggressive and priced them at $200. Why would Google do this? 

Easy: I’m now extremely addicted to Google services. My photos and videos automatically upload to Google+. Adding other services will soon be possible (I just got a Twitter photo app that is being developed by a third party) but turning on automatic uploads to other services will kill my batteries on both my phone and my glasses (which doesn’t have much battery life anyway). So, I’m going to be resistant to adding Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Evernote, and Tumblr to my glasses. Especially when Google+ works darn well and is the default. 

Also, Google is forbidding advertising in apps. This is a HUGE shift for Google’s business model. I believe Larry Page is moving Google from an advertising-based company to a commerce based company.

The first thing I tried that it failed on was “find me a Sushi restaurant.” I’m sure that will get fixed soon and, Google could collect a micropayment anytime I complete a transaction like reserving a seat at a restaurant, or getting a book delivered to my house, or, telling something like Bloomingdales “get me these jeans.” 

There is literally billions of dollars to be made with this new commerce-based system, rather than force us to sit and look at ads, the way Facebook and tons of other services do.

When you wear these glasses for two weeks you get the affordance is totally different and that having these on opens you up to a new commerce world. Why?

1. They are much more social than looking at a cell phone. Why? I don’t need to look away from you to use Google, or get directions, or do other things. 
2. The voice works and works with nearly every one and in every situation. It’s the first product that literally everyone could use it with voice. It’s actually quite amazing, even though I know that the magic is that it expects to hear only a small number of things. “OK Glass, Take a Picture” works. “OK Glass, Take a Photo” doesn’t. The Glass is forcing your voice commands to be a certain set of commands and no others will be considered. This makes accuracy crazy high, even if you have an accent.

I continue to be amazed with the camera. It totally changes photography and video. Why? I can capture moments. I counted how many seconds it takes to get my smartphone out of my pocket, open it up, find the camera app, wait for it to load, and then take a photo. Six to 12 seconds. With Google Glass? Less than one second. Every time. And I can use it without having hands free, like if I’m carrying groceries in from the car and my kids are doing something cute. 

I’ve been telling people that this reminds me of the Apple II, which I unboxed with my dad back in 1977. It was expensive. It didn’t do much. But I knew my life had changed in a big way and would just get better and better. Already this week I’ve gotten a new RSS app, the New York Times App, and a Twitter app. With many more on the way.

This is the most interesting new product since the iPhone and I don’t say that lightly.

Yeah, we could say the camera isn’t good in low light. We could say it doesn’t have enough utility. It looks dorky. It freaks some people out (it’s new, that will go away once they are in the market). 

But I don’t care. This has changed my life. I will never live a day without it on. 

It is that significant. 

Before I go on with the actual point of this post, let me share a few observations:

Scoble opens his review with: I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor). It’s that significant. 

What’s bizarre though is that Robert Scoble never actually explains why the product is so significant or why he will never live a day of his life from now on without it. I looked for a reason. Any reason. All I could find was this:

There is literally billions of dollars to be made with this new commerce-based system, rather than force us to sit and look at ads, the way Facebook and tons of other services do.

When you wear these glasses for two weeks you get the affordance is totally different and that having these on opens you up to a new commerce world. Why?

1. They are much more social than looking at a cell phone. Why? I don’t need to look away from you to use Google, or get directions, or do other things. 
2. The voice works and works with nearly every one and in every situation. It’s the first product that literally everyone could use it with voice. It’s actually quite amazing, even though I know that the magic is that it expects to hear only a small number of things. “OK Glass, Take a Picture” works. “OK Glass, Take a Photo” doesn’t. The Glass is forcing your voice commands to be a certain set of commands and no others will be considered. This makes accuracy crazy high, even if you have an accent.

Once you get past the 5th grade sentence structure and grammar (or lack thereof), what Scoble tells us is basically that this amaaaazing product he will never live a day of his life without ever again is awesome because…

a) Billions of dollars can be made from its mobile commerce system. Okay… Except this is identical to mobile commerce on smart phones. The goggles don’t actually offer a new model of e-commerce or m-commerce. It’s the same exact shit, only with an interface that you wear on your face instead of one you hold in your hand. Also, as a user, why should I care about the billions of dollars retailers and tech companies will make from mobile commerce? It isn’t a benefit to me as a consumer. So… we haven’t been presented with any concrete consumer value for Google Glass yet.

b) It can’t find sushi restaurants for you, but it will someday. Yes. Amazing. Siri can do that now. So can pretty much any car equipped with a GPS system, any smart phone with a browser, and every tablet connected to the interwebs. Moving on…

c) They are much more social than looking at a cell phone? Um… no. Browsing the web and reading emails while you pretend to pay attention to someone while they talk to you isn’t “more social”. It’s the epitome of tech douchebaggery, actually. It’s both rude and antisocial, which is the exact opposite of social. Turn the goggles off and actually participate in the conversation. Make eye contact. Give a shit about someone other than yourself for just five minutes. That’s what “social” actually means in the real world. So… no. Again, zero concrete reason to not go a day without Google Glass has been presented as of yet.

d) I want you to consider the following passage for a minute. Are you ready? Here we go:

The voice works and works with nearly every one and in every situation. It’s the first product that literally everyone could use it with voice. It’s actually quite amazing, even though I know that the magic is that it expects to hear only a small number of things. “OK Glass, Take a Picture” works. “OK Glass, Take a Photo” doesn’t. The Glass is forcing your voice commands to be a certain set of commands and no others will be considered. This makes accuracy crazy high, even if you have an accent.

Once you have gotten over the suspicion that this entire review was either written by a non-English speaking intern or generated by the same Chinese algorithm that sends SPAM directly into your inbox 139 times per day, what you garner from that paragraph is this: Google glass is voice activated but it isn’t super intuitive. If you don’t know the right commands, you’re kind of screwed.

Well, hot damn! Why didn’t you say so? You can sort of talk to it, and sometimes, it does what you tell it to? Sign me up! Unfortunately, just as we were starting to get somewhere, Scoble adds a little more magic to his sales pitch:

Yeah, we could say the camera isn’t good in low light. We could say it doesn’t have enough utility. It looks dorky. It freaks some people out (it’s new, that will go away once they are in the market). 

Oh. Shit. Just when I was getting excited about yelling into a pair of goggles with a comprehension problem. So… the camera kind of sucks, it doesn’t really do anything yet, it looks dorky and people who aren’t trying to be quoted by Wired or Mashable or score a pair to review on their blog are suspicious of it to the point that they will run away if you even start walking in their general direction (especially when you happen to be trolling public bathrooms in search of cool photos to post to your Google Plus stream). Awesome.

So now I have even less reasons to go out and buy Google Glass than when I had zero reasons to go out and buy Google Glass. Fortunately, our favorite Tech Guru du jour attempts to redeem himself in the end with this eloquent and deeply thought out breakdown of why Google Glass is the best thing since the invention of fire:

But I don’t care. This has changed my life. I will never live a day without it on. 

It is that significant. 

Ah. Well, okay then. I can see why so many people swooned over this thing as soon as Robert Scoble professed his undying love for a product he couldn’t quite manage to talk about coherently.

Excuse me but what a massive crock of shit. Tech guru my ass. How about we start over, starting with this:

1. Before you can really be any kind of guru, learn how to string two coherent thoughts together in a cohesive sentence. Or don’t. Whatever. Evidently, nobody bothers to read any of this shit before sharing it and retweeting it anyway.

2. Stop blowing smoke up our asses for just ten minutes and look at tech products objectively, starting with Glass. If they’re great, explain why. If they aren’t, explain why. Is that really so hard? This whole social media/guru/pseudo-futurist-douchebags-spewing-bullshit-all-day-long culture of manufactured “influence” needs to come to an abrupt end. It isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy for companies like Google, for VCs, for startups, for product managers, for marketing, for journalism, and it sure as shit isn’t healthy for innovation either. We are so busy trying to find ways to reward well-funded mediocrity that we completely overlook real successes in innovation. We are celebrating all the wrong things.

2. Product Management is about more than buzz and “influencer” marketing. It’s about 360 degree execution

Don’t get me wrong. Google Glass might be a great product someday (and I hope it is) but right now, it isn’t much of anything. It’s barely a prototype. It’s a first stage proof of concept. It is not a product. Not yet. The worst thing Google can do is believe its own PR. This product isn’t ready. Period.

Incidentally, if I hear one more tech writer or guru compare Google Glass to the iPhone launch, I am going to start getting angry. Here is a little dose of reality: when Apple released the iPhone, it wasn’t a barely functional prototype. It was a working product. It did things. People understood what it was. Its value was crystal clear. Google Glass as it exists today isn’t even remotely comparable to the state of the iPhone when it launched.

If you want to pinpoint the moment that Google Glass will truly become a product, look towards the day when Google finally figures out what Google Glass is. (If Google’s “let’s build something and figure out what it is later” pattern of behavior feels like a recurring theme, you aren’t wrong. Google+ is still trying to figure out if it’s a social network, a collaboration ecosystem, or a dozen other things. Google Wave was… oh, never mind.)

Even Robert Scoble wasn’t able to figure out exactly what Glass is or why he liked it so much, and Google certainly isn’t helping consumers figure it out yet either. Okay, sure, it’s a wearable computer. Awesome. IBM introduced the idea back in 1997, then again a decade ago in this commercial;  and I am pretty sure I have seen versions of this in a dozen sci-fi movies. So this isn’t exactly earth-shattering innovation yet. Right now, it’s more of a voice-activated camera glued to cheap eyeglass frames with limited computer-like interface capabilities. In other words, it basically takes some of the basic things your smart phone can do and repackages them into a shitty looking eyeglass gadget that doesn’t really do anything novel but costs twice as much.  Not exactly the game changer we keep hearing about from the tech gurus.

Let’s recap. Right now, Google Glass does this:

And this:

And this:

And as far as messaging goes, this is the most significant review of the product so far:

It’s the first product that literally everyone could use it with voice. It’s actually quite amazing, even though I know that the magic is that it expects to hear only a small number of things.”

Awesome. I raise my glass to that, sir. Mark Twain would be proud. Maybe Google might want to look into hiring product development and product management folks from companies like Nike, Oakley, Sony, LG and Rudy Project at this point, because this smells like amateur hour. Sorry. Glass deserves better than this.

3. First to market is not the same thing as first to scale: how Google could lose its grip on the wearable computer market

I really hope that Google’s product management team figures out what they want to do soon, because right now, outside of the tech hype bubble, no one is super impressed. The Glass team needs to find its legs fast, and here is why: other companies are already taking the wearable computer concept and actually moving forward with the development of real products. Cool products. Products with utility and a point.

Here are two of them that you guys should pay attention to:

1. Oakley Airwave GPS-enabled goggles: If you’re a skier, snowboarder or a downhill mountain biker, the Airwave’s heads-up display already allows you to track speed (GPS integration can accurately measure how fast you are moving down a slope), jump analytics (measures and tracks distance, height and airtime of your jumps), vertical travel (measures your vertical feet by run, by day and over the course of the season), and navigation (pinpoints your location on a map and finds the run or points of interest you’re looking for).

It is also equipped with trip viewer capability (it lets you review your performance stats like max speed, total vert and max air, in detail, run by run or for the whole day), and has a buddy tracking system (helps you locate and track friends that have the Oakley Airwave goggle or App on their smartphone). Last but not least, the interface lets you control your music, monitor incoming phone calls and text messages while you’re on the slopes.

Here’s a quick video of what it can already do:

For more info, check out Oakley.com/airwave.

2. Recon Jet: a heads-up display for cyclists, triathletes, runners, and so on. As a triathlete myself, I immediately see value in this technology for me. The idea that I might as some point be able to move my bike computer’s data to a heads-up display is genius. One aspect of this is safety: I like the idea of being able to keep my eyes on the road at all times. Every time I have to look down at my bike computer, I run the risk of touching someone’s wheel or hitting a pothole. Also, if an aerodynamic tuck, not having to look down to see how fast I am going or what my wattage is can save me precious seconds over the course of a race. Add to that the possibility of adding biofeedback (like heart rate) to the display and even GPS features (like course maps and elevation), and you really have a product that most competitive cyclists will gladly spend upwards of $300 on. There is real functionality there. Ergo: real purpose and value.

Bonus: We still aren’t looking at the style and elegance of Oakley or Rudy Project competition eyewear, but the frames don’t look like something out of a skymall catalog from 2003 either. They’re actually wearable.

For more info, check out jet.reconinstruments.com.

Do you see the difference between Google Glass and these two products? While Glass still struggles to figure out what it wants to be and relies on “tech gurus” to help them find their way (sorry but recording the moments of your life isn’t enough unless you’re Canon or Nikon), Oakley and Recon Instruments have already identified markets, purpose, and specific features and functionality to answer the needs of those markets. It won’t be long now before you start seeing other applications pop up specifically for law enforcement, military personnel, hospital workers, retail sales clerks, hotel and restaurant staff, automobile drivers, customer service reps, educators, students, tourists, and so on.

Do you know what the difference is between a gadget and a product? It isn’t features or branding. It’s purpose. Purpose matters. It strikes to the very identity of a product. “What is this?” is as important a question as “what is it for?” and “what does it do?” These three questions form the basis for “what will this do for me?” If you can answer neither, you don’t have a product. You still only have an idea, and at best, a prototype. If you can sort of answer it but not completely, what you have is a gadget. You’re in infomercial territory. That’s where Google Glass is right now. (“I can wear Twitter on my face? Awesome!!! Here’s my money!” Good luck with that.)

Unfortunately for Google, if you really want to see where this technology is headed, you may have to start looking outside of Google for the next year or two. If Oakley and Recon Instruments are already developing cool heads-up display products with a point, it’s probably a safe bet to look to companies like Bolle, Smith Optics, Nike, Rudy Project, Garmin, Polar and Specialized to follow suit. Basically any company that makes pro-quality athletic eyewear, GPS devices, heart rate monitors and head protection will find a reason to get into this tech. They will be the first to put these types of products on the shelves and see commercial success.

The second wave will come from startups and communications/data companies that plug into government and service industries, especially those that rely heavily on CRM technologies. The big question mark will be whether tech companies like Apple, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo, LG and even the Nokias of the world will get into the wearable computer game as well. If they do, assuming they care to invest in what is currently at best a niche product category, what will be Google’s answer to their slick design, smooth interfaces, purpose, image, utility, device functionality overlap and cross-compatibility? It’s a real question.

Google may be one of the players in this emerging market, but it certainly won’t be the leader if it doesn’t quickly start focusing on a) creating interfaces for specific verticals to create clear value props, scale and renewable revenues and b) developing designs that don’t look like something out of a K-mart version of a Star Trek prop that only a middle-aged tech geek would be caught wearing in public.

There is a market development model for this type of tech that, while complex, isn’t rocket science to figure out and put into play, but… well… right now, let’s just say that Google doesn’t really seem to be moving in that direction. It’s a shame too, because with the right team leading the charge, Google really could do something amazing with this. It’s kind of sad that it might all slip away for no other reason than a lack of direction, or an absence of product marketing leadership, or both.

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Olivier Blanchard is the author of Social Media R.O.I.: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization. (You can sample a free chapter at smroi.net.) If English isn’t your first language, #smROI is also available in Spanish, Japanese, German, Korean and Italian now, with more international editions on the way.

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

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You know how legitimate social business case studies are sometimes hard to come by? Well, Tickr (client) is looking to remedy that with a little contest for the next two months. And the deal only gets sweeter from here. In their own words:

The rules are simple: You sign up, we grant you access to Command Center for a little while, and you submit a cool little case study by March 15, 2013. Whoever comes up with the best case study in each of three categories listed below will win a year’s free access to Command Center, bragging rights, and maybe even a little extra swag. 

The three categories of entries are:

    • For-profit
    • Non-profit
    • Journalism

The case study doesn’t have to be centered on Command Center, but it has to show how you used Command Center to do something. (Read more about that here.)

What’s in it for you?

  1. Free Beta: You get to beta-test the pro version of Command Center for free. (Usually, the free trial version is a throttled-down version. Not this time. You get to use the real thing.)
  2. Case Study Support: Tickr will help you build your case study. I’ve agreed to help out as much as possible, so if you need help with formatting, measurement, process, strategy, etc., it’s likely that I will be assisting you in some way. If you’ve ever wanted to work with me on something, it won’t be exactly like that, but it’ll be close. I only have so many available hours in my day, but I’ll do what I can to help.
  3. Eyeballs, Eyeballs, Eyeballs: If you want to draw a lot of attention to a project, cause or campaign that you’re working on, this contest will be a good way to do that. Solid case studies collected as a result of this contest (whether they win anything or not) will get a lot of mileage out of this.
  4. Street Cred: Impress the world with your social business savvy. Whether you are looking to impress your boss, your peers, your rivals or recruiters is up to you. Just give us your best, show us something real and valuable and clever, and you will be amazed how much you and your project will get out of the process.

Agencies, brands, small organization, big organization, journalism students, consultants, newbies, veterans: all are welcome. The more varied the contestants the better. You can create a completely new project/case study specifically for this contest or you can incorporate the contest into something you are already working on. It’s 100% up to you.

To read a little more about the contest, click here.

To register for the contest, click here.

Note: Once you register, Tickr will send you all the info you need to get started. No strings attached and no obligations. If half-way through the process, you decide you don’t want to submit a case study, no one will hold that against you. The folks at Tickr will do whatever they can to make sure you get all the support you need though, so I hope everyone will complete the process.

My advice: Simple is good. Simple is easy. Simple often wins. This doesn’t have to be a huge time-suck unless you want it to be. It is something you can easily incorporate into your daily routine. The case study submission process amounts to filling out a submission form at the end of the contest. You can do more if you want (videos, presentations, white-papers, etc.), but you don’t have to. The contest is supposed to be really easy. The idea is to make your job easier, not harder. Keep that in mind.

Okay, that’s it. Pass it on, have fun, and let me know what you think of the new Command Center. (Here’s a 1-minute tour, by the way.)

This is going to be pretty cool. I can’t wait to see what you all come up with.



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Looking for straight answers to real questions about value, process, planning, measurement, management and reporting in the social business space? pick up a copy of Social Media R.O.I.: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization. The book is 300 pages of facts and proven best practices. (Go to smroi.net to sample a free chapter first, just to make sure it’s worth the money.)

And if English isn’t your first language, you can even get it in Spanish, Japanese, German, Korean and Italian now, with more international editions on the way.

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

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Merry Christmas, everybody. Be safe out there.

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Last week, in honor of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, we took a concise look at some of the issues facing the Republican Party’s brand, going into the upcoming presidential election in November. This week, in conjunction with the Democratic National Convention being held in Charlotte, North Carolina, we take a similar look at the Democratic Party.

Before we begin, let’s get a few things out of the way:

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.

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 is a problem with the logo. Well… kinduv.

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. And although the Democratic party doesn’t technically have a logo (it has a symbol – the donkey), that symbol isn’t great. Let’s see… a donkey. What are the attributes of a donkey? The intelligence of the elephant (the Republican symbol) doesn’t exactly come to mind. Grace? Nope. It’s a donkey, not a stallion. Strength? Not really. Courage? … Anything?

Unless you happen to own donkeys and understand all the ways that they are cool, the donkey comes across as being kind of a useless, awkward animal. Not quite as useful as a mule. At best, it’s the ideal sidekick for an ogre in certain animated movies produced by Dreamworks.

Why not change it to a lion or a humpback whale? A wolf? An owl, even. Okay, a liger. Anything with some kind of positive attribute, right? Some kind of animal that we can draw inspiration from in terms of strength, nobility, courage… but no. The Democrats are stuck with the donkey, and it all started with a cartoon many, many, many years ago.

Donkey (“Shrek” – Dreamworks)

On the other hand, there’s no problem with the color palette, with the trade dress, or with any of the superficial elements (the aesthetics) of the brand. We’ll come back to that in a minute. First, let’s take a quick look at where the elephant and the donkey came from, courtesy of William Safire’s New Language of Politics, revised edition, Collier Books, New York, 1972, via freerepublic.com:

The symbol of the party (the elephant) was born in the imagination of cartoonist Thomas Nast and first appeared in Harper’s Weekly on November 7, 1874

An 1860 issue of Railsplitter and an 1872 cartoon in Harper’s Weekly connected elephants with Republicans, but it was Nast who provided the party with its symbol.

Oddly, two unconnected events led to the birth of the Republican Elephant. James Gordon Bennett’s New York Herald raised the cry of “Caesarism” in connection with the possibility of a third term try for President Ulysses S. Grant. The issue was taken up by the Democratic politicians in 1874, halfway through Grant’s second term and just before the midterm elections, and helped disaffect Republican voters.

While the illustrated journals were depicting Grant wearing a crown, the Herald involved itself in another circulation-builder in an entirely different, nonpolitical area. This was the Central Park Menagerie Scare of 1874, a delightful hoax perpetrated by the Herald. They ran a story, totally untrue, that the animals in the zoo had broken loose and were roaming the wilds of New York’s Central Park in search of prey.

Cartoonist Thomas Nast took the two examples of the Herald enterprise and put them together in a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly. He showed an ass (symbolizing the Herald) wearing a lion’s skin (the scary prospect of Caesarism) frightening away the animals in the forest (Central Park). The caption quoted a familiar fable: “An ass having put on a lion’s skin roamed about in the forest and amused himself by frightening all the foolish animals he met within his wanderings.”

One of the foolish animals in the cartoon was an elephant, representing the Republican vote – not the party, the Republican vote – which was being frightened away from its normal ties by the phony scare of Caesarism. In a subsequent cartoon on November 21, 1874, after the election in which the Republicans did badly, Nast followed up the idea by showing the elephant in a trap, illustrating the way the Republican vote had been decoyed from its normal allegiance. Other cartoonists picked up the symbol, and the elephant soon ceased to be the vote and became the party itself:the jackass, now referred to as the donkey, made a natural transition from representing the Herald to representing the Democratic party that had frightened the elephant.

Now you know.

Interestingly enough, Democrats happen to have a secondary logo now. One they use quite a bit as it obviously has broader appeal than the jackass symbol:

Here is the 2012 Democratic National Convention’s variation on the theme. Note the obvious similarities:

Why the need for a logo that inspires a little more passion, forward vision and hope from voters than the tired old 1874 jackass? The question kind of answers itself. So… thumbs down on the party’s symbol, but thumbs up on the Obama campaign logo. It’s brilliant.

2. The Democratic Party’s identity is fairly clear.

Unlike the GOP’s somewhat confusing identity (details), democrats have managed to cement their identity pretty well. That can be both good and bad, depending on where you stand politically, but I have to give democrats higher marks than Republicans on this issue.

a) The Democratic party is, at its core, the party of social justice. It fights for women’s rights, gay rights, minority rights, immigration rights… Virtually every group that finds itself oppressed or discriminated against, the democratic tends to represent their interests.

b) Like it or not, the Democratic party is (at least statistically speaking) the party of minorities. Look at the difference in favorability in regards to Presdient Obama vs. mitt Romney (the Republican candidate) among African American voters earlier this year (in April 2012, before the Presidential campaign really began):

That trend has since widened. A recent poll notoriously reported that Mitt Romney had dropped to 0% support from the African-American voters, which is fairly telling of where the racial lines lie between the Republican and Democratic parties. I don’t know if that was a statistical anomaly, but whether the number is 0% or 4% is kind of moot. Democrats do seem to be polling significantly better with minorities than the country’s white majority (where Democrats are tied with Republicans).

The same divide doesn’t exist with Latinos, but there’s this:

By the way, here is the current trending in the USA in terms of ethnicity:

If the Democratic Party stays true to its identity and mission and the Republican party doesn’t evolve to address this shift, that could mean good things for Democratic political candidates in the next few decades.

c) The Democratic party is the party of social safety nets (which many might call “socialism”). It has, for instance, been the leading force behind the creation of Medicare (you can thank Presidents Truman and Johnson – both democrats), which gives some measure of social security to senior citizens.

You can also thank the Democratic party for the broader-reaching Social Security Act of 1935 (and particularly President Roosevelt – you guessed it, a democrat).

And of course, the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which, among other things, made health coverage more affordable for poorer Americans, ended insurance companies’ ability to turn patients away for so-called “pre-existing conditions,” and ended lifetime “caps” on coverage spend, was signed into law by President Obama (a democrat).

Note: Republicans deserve their fair share of credit for being behind crucial steps in the history of social safety nets in the US. Two quick examples: Then-president George W. Bush added an outpatient drug benefit provision to Medicare in 2003 and thengovernor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care insurance reform law of 2006 turned out to be the template for President Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Labor unions (which gave the US things like the minimum wage, the 8-hr work day and child labor laws) tend to operate mostly inside the Democratic Party’s political ecosystem (if the Republican Party’s war on unions is any indication).

The negative side of that identity is that for many conservatives, the Democratic party is simply the party of Socialism. This is actually incorrect. According to Merriam-Webster, socialism is:

1. any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods.

2. a system of society or group living in which there is no private property and/or a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state

3. a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done.

Throwing a few social safety nets into the mix to combat poverty and help improve (or preserve) the lives of either poor or otherwise oppressed citizen isn’t socialism any more than having tax-financed fire departments and school buses is socialism. Having said that, neither facts nor accuracy are always at the root of political belief systems. So deserved or not, the socialism stigma has stuck, and Democrats have been either unable or unwilling to completely shake it off. We’ll come back to that in a few minutes.

d) The Democratic party is the party of ecologists. It accepts climate change and seeks ways to protect the environment, cut back on pollution and CO2 emissions, and conserve natural resources. It often gets tagged cynically as the tree-hugger party. There isn’t a lot of negative there, but some environmentalist can come across as being too militant and too anti-business for much of the mainstream. There is a balance to be struck there, but overall the positives and negatives seem evenly matched.

The Democratic party’s identity stands in stark contrast with the Republican Party’s platform, which tends to be dismissive and at times hostile to the notion of environmental protection, aims to cut funding to social programs, shift Medicare and Social Security to a privatized model, opposes gay marriage, and has historically had a difficult time reaching out to minorities. Democrats are clearly the opposite of Republicans, and vice versa.

3. But some message confusion does exist.

Generally speaking, Democrats don’t have a message confusion problem. Because their identity is clear, their message is clear: the message is one of social justice, racial equality, gender equality, economic equality, freedom both of and from religion (the latter being distinctive of the democratic platform). They seek to eliminate all forms of gender, religious and racial discrimination, eradicate racially charged “show me your ID laws,” preserve the rights of women to make their own decisions regarding their own bodies, and enact tax laws that divide the country’s tax responsibility equitably across all income levels. Typically, democrats are inclined to spend less on defense than Republicans and shift that funding to social programs and education.

Having said that, something came up this week that I have to mention, because it is relevant to this topic. As the defining question of the 2012 presidential election emerged from the Republican National Convention, several key Democrats initially failed to answer it properly. The question (a throwback to a Ronald Reagan campaign gold nugget): Are we better off today than we were four years ago?

The answer should be simple: Yes. An emphatic, resounding yes, followed by reasons why. To echo the Obama-Biden 2012 campaign slogan of Yes We Can, the answer should have been Yes We Are. Across the board.

Here are some of the things that Democrats could have (and should have) pointed to (and here, let me assume the perspective of a Democrat so I can give you some sense of what the message should have sounded like):

a) The stock market is doing a lot better:

Look at where the Dow Jones was in 2008. That crash didn’t happen on the democrats’ watch. The policies that caused that crash were not those of a Democratic administration. On the last market day before President Obama took office and Democrats effectively took control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, the Dow Jones closed at 8281.22. On the day that the 2012 Democratic National Convention opens, the Dow Jones was at 12,999.43 around mid-day.

Quick math: The Dow Jones has risen +4,700 points to what is essentially a pre-crash, pre-recession numbers. The stock market isn’t completely back, but it appears to be getting there fast.

Verdict: Better off.


NASDAQ closed on January 16, 2009: 1529.33

NASDAQ mid-day on September 4, 2012: 3048.19

Verdict: Better off.

S&P 500 on January 16, 2009: 850.09

S&P 500 mid-day on September 4, 2009: 1398, 91

Verdict: Better off.

(Source: 2009, 2012)

b) Jobs, jobs, jobs:

While the US still has a long way to go to improve its unemployment problem, let’s look at where the US was four years ago versus where it is today in terms of unemployment:

Above: macro of job growth for the the last year of the Bush administration vs. the entire Obama administration.

Below: macro of job growth during the Obama administration.

Four years ago, the economy was bleeding almost 800,000 jobs per month. Four years later, the US is looking at over 20 month of consecutive job growth.

Verdict: Better off.

c) Healthcare:

5,000,000 kids with pre-existing conditions can now get medical coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act. (Some fact-checking on that number: it could be argued up or down a bit, but it seems to check out.)

Verdict: Better off.

d) Terrorism:

Osama Bin Laden is dead. Al Qaeda’s leadership is being systematically hunted down and eliminated. The Iraq war is over and the war in Afghanistan is coming to a close. Special forces, drone strikes and counter-terrorism units have become a lot more effective at dealing with terrorism than they once were.

Mostly though, Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Speaking of the current state of Al Qaeda, here is a report you might be interested in reading.

Verdict: better off.

We could go on and on with positive stories and evidence that we are in fact better off today than we were four years ago. So… why the hesitation? Why the disjointed message? Because we aren’t out of the woods yet, and not everything is better yet. Let’s take a look at that:

a) Unemployment is still high. Although the job creation trend has been positive and healthy for 20+ months now, unemployment is technically higher today than it was four years ago. That’s because we lost jobs so fast in the wake of the financial crisis that organic growth rate in job creation hasn’t yet caught up with the initial scope of the job loss. Note that the job creation curve took a full year to trend out of the negative and finally hit positive numbers in President Obama’s first year.

What’s important to note is that the trend began to improve immediately after President Obama was elected. So in spite of the net numbers, something has been working. It’s undeniable. having said that, it’s easy to look at the net numbers, ignore the trending context, and make the case for higher unemployment today than four years ago. Fair or unfair is irrelevant. Numbers are numbers, and Democrats know what the numbers are. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Democrats however should be quick to bring up the opportunity cost question: the last 4 years haven’t been easy, they haven’t been perfect, but how much worse might things have been, how much worse would they have been, if GM had been allowed to fail, if financial institutions had been allowed to fail? How much worse would things have been? How much worse off would we be today? It’s a relevant question given where we are trending to be four years from now vs. where we could be going back to.

b) Not everything is better yet:

Average price of a gallon of gas on inauguration day 2009: $1.83.

Today: $3.82 (source)

Not better off yet.

Poverty rate on inauguration day: 13.2%

Today: 15% (source)

Not better off yet.

 Number of food stamp recipients on inauguration day: 31.9 million

Today: 46.7 million

Not better off yet.

The tendency for a number of Democrats to waffle on the question is due to the complexity of the question.

The honest answer is “it depends.”

The politically expedient answer is “yes, we are.”

The politically savvy answer is “yes, but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Democrats need to figure out where they want to be on this question, because it is 100% at the heart of the conversation they need to have with voters. It also helps clearly define the road map for their recovery plan, going into 2016.

4. Who’s in charge?

There is no leadership vacuum for a party with a first term president running for a second term. The hierarchy in the democratic party is currently very clear, and so the message and overall vision tend to be somewhat uniform. Aside from a few radical left wing blogs, the message is mostly consistent across all channels.

Caution ahead: Who are the superstars of the 2016 election? Aside from Hillary Clinton, who will help define the future of the Democratic party? Democrats need to make sure they have strong leaders in the pipeline. If they don’t start developing them now, 2016 will be too late.

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

Democrats suffer from the exact same problem as Republicans: they often allow their opponents to control their message, and therefore their brand.

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.

Here are some examples:

Affordable Care Act vs. “Obamacare.” (The ACA clearly communicates what it does: it makes healthcare more affordable and accessible. Calling it “Obamacare” makes the program vague and ads a layer of “nanny state” cynicism to what it is and what it does.) Point: Republicans.

Social safety nets vs. “Socialism.” (Republicans have managed to paint every single federal social program as “socialism” even though they technically are not. Surprisingly, Democrats have not fought against this effort to shift perceptions. Big mistake.) Point: Republicans.

Marriage Equality Act vs. the “war on marriage.” (Semantic combat). Point: Draw. No one wins this one.

No more pre-existing condition exclusions vs. “death panels.” (Although technically, the Affordable Care Act eliminates what might be effectively argued are “death panels,” the notion of death panels stuck with many conservatives who also see “Obamacare” as a move towards socialism.) Point: Republicans.

“Pro-choice” vs. “Pro-Life” (This implies that anyone who isn’t “pro-life” is in fact “anti-life.” It’s a subtle distinction, but one that Democrats have not addressed. In recent months, Democrats have also failed to defend the pro-choice position beyond the issue of rape and incest, allowing conservatives to move the discussion from a pro-choice vs. pro-life position to a pro-life by default position, with exceptions for rape and incest.) Point: Republicans.

Other areas where Democrats have failed to control their own identity and message. You could argue that these are common myths and misconceptions about Democrats that still stick:

Myth 1: Democrats are weak on defense.

Do democrats spend less on defense? Sometimes. And they seem to certainly want to. But one could argue that democrats haven’t technically been weak on defense. They just haven’t been as eager to spend as much on Defense as Republicans to achieve positive results (and yes, there is a difference).

Exhibit A: A refocus of US troop usage and new strategies severely weakened Al Qaeda. More on that here.

Exhibit B: Public Enemy #1, Osama Bin Laden is dead.

Myth 2: Democrats are the enemies of business.

Fact: GM, its suppliers and distributors are alive today because of a Democratic president.

Fact: Most investment banks and the millions of businesses they support are alive today because of a Democratic president.

Fact: Trade unions, which tend to be lean towards a Democratic world view, are not anti-business. They are pro workers’ rights. (No business = no workers. Think about it.) A business shouldn’t be against workers’ rights. Happy, engaged workers are highly productive workers. So… the argument that Democrats, because of their association with trade unions, are anti-business is, and has always been a little bizarre. And yet, it sticks.

Fact: Don’t ignore the Obama $15B initiative to increase lending to small businesses.

Fact: The Obama administration created business.USA.gov, which connects small businesses to experts in business management.

Fact: Contrary to certain rumors circulating on conservative blogs, domestic oil production under the Obama administration has increased since the Bush administration (Source: Energy Information Administration). Democrats have promoted renewable energy research and production, but not at the expense of fossil fuel production. So… the “drill baby, drill” crowd needs to fact-check a little. Conversely, Democrats need to talk about this more.

Myth 3: Because Democrats believe in an irresponsible tax & spend style of government, they are bad for the economy.

You would think so, but that’s actually not true (surprisingly). As it turns out Republican presidents also tend to favor tax & spend policies (and in some cases, don’t tax but spend anyway policies). First, let’s look at recent presidents and their impact on the federal Budget:

Note that President Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush didn’t exactly cut federal spending compared to, say, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. In regards to this chart, the case could also be made that the Obama administration is being unfairly saddled with deficit figures since TARP repayments in 2010 and 2011 were retroactively subtracted from George Bush’s deficit spending numbers.

The financial crisis also created a unique situation that calls for a bit of context in an apples-to-apples comparison.

Below is a chart showing recent Presidents’ impact on the national debt:

How about job growth? If you subscribe to the notion that Presidents and their policies can, in fact, create jobs, then Democratic presidents seem to be historically better at creating jobs than Republican presidents (Source: Dept of Labor Statistics):

Verdict: Democrats may indeed favor a tax & spend style of government, but the assumption that they are bad for the economy, create enormous deficits or increase the debt more than Republicans is not historically accurate. Strangely though, democrats have not effectively managed to erode that misconception.

Myth 4: Democrats are controlled by trade unions and secret socialist cabals who seek to take from the rich to give to the poor and destroy the American way of life.

It’s a preposterous, pseudo-apocalyptic assertion, but the myth persists in conservative pro-conspiracy theory circles. Looking back on the first four years of the Obama administration and the administrations of every Democratic president in the history of the United States, there has been absolutely no credible evidence of that. No Democratic president has ever attempted to weaken the country or destroy the American way of life in any way.  Quite the contrary.

And yet, that particular myth is as prevalent as ever.

Myth 5: Democrats are pro-gay and anti-family values.

Pro gay-rights, yes. Pro freedom of and from religion, yes. In other words, pro civil rights. Anti-family values though? Anti-marriage, even? Absolutely not. think about it: if Democrats seek to expand the definition of marriage so the institution of marriage can grow, are they fighting a war against marriage? Wouldn’t an attempt to limit the definition of marriage and restrict it not qualify more as a war on marriage than an attempt to help it grow? And yet, the myth persists in many conservative circles.

So… all in all, Democrats have not been effective at controlling their message and in some case effectively sell their political brand, and that’s a problem.

Ironically, Democrats seem to be pretty good at creating content that communicates their achievements and crafting clear messaging around them, but in spite of their advantage in social media adoption, haven’t been very good at communicating these achievements outside of their core. Let me illustrate:

a) The White House’s website is brilliantly designed. It’s beautiful. Everything about it is pretty much perfect in terms of proportions, color, photography, ratio of images to copy, usability, content, archives, access to information and data… it’s pure digital genius. And yet… it hasn’t been successful at helping spread its content. It seems to have relied more on a build it and they will come strategy than a let’s focus on sharing this with as many people as we can strategy.

b) Healthcare: Check out whitehouse.gov/healthcarereform. How many times have you seen any of this data and associated infographics? Probably never. How many people have read their myth-busting page? Not many. That’s bad.

Tip: Add a “share” button to EVERY page containing data, charts and graphs. You’ll see a difference in how the message spreads immediately.

c) Energy Independence: Look… just check out this page. Why is this data not making the rounds? This should be all over Facebook walls and Twitter feeds.

d) The economy: Here is a comprehensive list of everything the Obama administration has done for the economy in the last 3+ years: http://www.whitehouse.gov/economy/jobs/we-cant-wait

Here is the page that focuses on the Obama administration’s pro-business focus: http://www.whitehouse.gov/economy/business

Furthermore, the stimulus was a success:

What the recovery actually looks like: Recovery.gov and some resources on the Recovery Act.

To provide further context, let’s flashback to February 23, 2010 (source – Reuters):

The massive stimulus package passed last year to blunt the impact of the worst U.S. recession in 70 years created up to 2.1 million jobs in the last three months of 2009, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said on Tuesday. The package boosted the economy by up to 3.5 percent and lowered the unemployment rate by up to 2.1 percent during that period, CBO said.

“In CBO’s judgment, that outcome reflects greater-than-projected weakness in the underlying economy rather than lower-than-expected effects” 

I could go on for hours. This should all be a slam-dunk in terms of communications.

Strangely though, this information is just not getting out to voters. This inability to push its message, control its message and sell its message is a systematic weakness with the Democratic party.

6. Democrats don’t play offense very well.

See 4 and 5 above.

This isn’t to say that Democrats are any less militant than Republicans when it comes to their core issues. They just aren’t very good at pushing the message, at driving it forward, at really making sure that everyone knows what they want them to know.

By the way, the Occupy movement is not what I have in mind when I think of an effective offensive game. It’s aggressive all right, but not exactly a success. Democrats could do with a little more testosterone though. The story is there, waiting to be told. And yet… crickets. At least until now.

Much of the disappointment in the Obama administration by Democrats in the last few years has been due to this softness. Primarily when it comes to not having taken advantage of the political high ground Democrats held in the first two years of the Obama administration (wasted opportunity to pass sweeping legislation) and second: not sharing effectively all that actually was done. Brag a little. You have to. People want to know what’s being done. They have no idea. You can’t wait for them to come look for answers. You have to talk about it. You have to report to them regularly.

7. But Democrats have a great ground game.

I am not talking about the community activism type of ground game. I am talking about Democrats’ ability to use their opponents’ mistakes on the field to win key plays. To borrow from sports analogies, Democrats are good when it comes to leveraging rebounds and interceptions.

– Take the war on women, for instance. Look at the political capital gained by Democrats over comments made by republicans like Todd Akin and Rush Limbaugh, and how they so easily connected Paul Ryan to that narrative. As a result, the gender gap is increasing in favor of Democrats. Well played.

– Marriage equality and gay rights as well: it wasn’t initially a democratic initiative. Democrats simply leveraged a miscalculation by religious conservatives, and connected their default stance on marriage equality to a narrative that began with repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Democrats waited for the right moment and used social conservatives’ momentum against them.

– Fact-checking and outrage grenades: The process is simple. You wait for the other side to say something that is either factually incorrect or patently offensive, and you throw it back at them for a week straight . When it comes to this strategy Democrats have no greater friends than Todd Akin, Rush Limbaugh, and Paul Ryan (already dubbed “Lyin’ Ryan” on the twitterwebs for the mounting number of fibs and deliberate inaccuracies in many of his recent statements). Recent dubious comments and assertions from key Republicans (Paul RyanHogan GidleyMitt RomneyRick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann, among others) have allowed Democrats to progressively brand themselves as the fact-checker party versus… an increasingly factually incorrect party, or worse, the party of spin.

– “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” will turn out to be the defining question of this election, just as it was in 1980 when Ronald Reagan ran against Jimmy Carter. Republicans dusted it off for what they hope will be a long awaited sequel. My bet: Democrats will intercept that ball and turn it to their advantage. In spite of the initial fumble, it will finally give them what they have lacked for decades: a deliberate, coherent, effective vehicle with which to tell their story and sell the effectiveness of their policies.

But can your whole strategy be to wait for the competition to say something stupid or untrue? It doesn’t need to be. It shouldn’t be. That should just be the frosting on the cake, not the whole cake.

As I write this piece, the Obama and Romney campaigns are tied in the polls. If Republicans hadn’t handed Democrats a few gimmes with the war on women, marriage inequality, racially-tainted rhetoric and its serious credibility issue, where would the Obama campaign be? Ten points behind? Whether you like Democrats or not, given the story they could be telling, the Obama campaign should be ten points ahead, not tied.

8. Looking at a few key Challenges for the Democratic brand:

Can democrats be both pro-labor and pro-business?

Can Democrats be both pro-environment and pro-industry?

Can Democrats be both pro-choice and pro-life (or rather… “pro-birth”)?

Can democrats be pro-social safety nets and pro-capitalism?

Can democrats increase taxes on the rich and be good for the economy?

The answer is yes. The Clinton and Obama administrations showed that to be true. Its two problems are that a) that duality hasn’t been clearly communicated, and b) the Democratic party has itself been reluctant to let go of its pro-labor, pro-poor, pro-environment image. Just like the Republican, it is afraid to lose its core, and therefore its core message. (Could there be a left wing version of the tea party? Certainly.) But in order to get anywhere in the next decade, Democrats are going to have to earn the trust of the business community (big business and SMBs) without appearing to sell out to the labor-friendly crowd. They have a story to tell there, and results to show; it won’t be easy to talk over the noise from organizations like the US Chamber of Commerce, but it needs to happen. They are going to have to change their image and drive its evolution. There is no way around this. The 20th century biases still crippling Democrats have to be replaced by something else.

Specifically, the Democratic Party has to change perceptions from an either business or labor, either ecology or energy independence, either religious freedom or civil freedoms. The either/or distinction drawn by old thinking needs to go. Instead, the message has to be one of business and labor working for each other to produce better results and prosperity for all. It has to communicate the shift to the vital role that ecologically-friendly energy solutions have to play in any credible discussion we have about energy independence. It has to do a better job of showing that civil rights and religious rights are precisely the same thing rather than opposing views. It has to convince fiscal conservatives that prosperity is a lot easier to engineer when businesses and governments partner on building a stronger economy. It has to help everyone move beyond ludicrous capitalist vs. socialist modes of thinking. Well… maybe not everyone, but centrists and moderate Republicans who might not be very excited about too much conservatism on their side of the aisle.

One last comment: if the Democratic party wants to successfully paint itself as the party of the future (and paint the Republican party as the party of the past), it has to be willing to a) let go of the past and allow itself to grow into an identity that is relevant to the 21st century, that isn’t as militant, and that (and I know this is dangerous) is a little more center than left-of-center, and b) effectively communicate that change and what it means. The Obama administration seems to be on the right track with the first half of that mandate. It just needs to get better at the second.

Don’t just do. Tell us.

Don’t just tell us. Show us.

If you want to follow the buzz around Democratic National Convention the way digital monitoring agencies do, check out the DNC Tickr page I built for you. (Disclosure: Tickr is a client. I just happen to use their product.)

As always, I welcome your comments. Thanks for sticking with this piece until the end. I tried to keep it as short as possible, but you know how that goes. 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 Democrats were a client. What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I miss? How could the Democratic Party do better? Those are the types of comments I look forward to.



*          *          *

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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

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 »

Maybe I should just republish this post every day for the next ten years (or however long it takes for content bloggers, social media “gurus” and marketing authors/speakers to get this).

With a little repetition – and surely with enough time – even the dumbest and most obtuse of them will eventually get it.


As annoying and curious as it was, back in 2009, when so many so-called “experts” and “gurus” couldn’t figure out how to explain, much less determine the ROI of anything relating to social media, it is inexcusable today, less than a month from 2012. We’ve talked about this topic how many times? I and others have presented on the topic in how many countries? On how many continents? For how many years now? How many times has this simple business 101 topic been explained and explained and explained? Even if somehow, some social media “experts” have managed to miss the presentations, the conversations, the podcasts, the interviews, the decks on slideshare and the blog posts, there’s a book now that spends 300 pages on the topic. At the very least, they should have heard a rumor that the “question” had been answered. Right? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?

What else can we do? Take out full page ads in the New York Times? Take over Mashable for a month? Buy a banner ad on Klout’s home page? What will it take for the asshats pretending to be experts to stop talking about ROI as if it were some arcane mythical metric?

Seriously, you have to be either completely disconnected from the channels you claim to be an expert participant in, or purposely avoiding this stuff to still get it wrong. Is social media ROI to be the the clitoris of the “guru” world then? Will some so-called “experts” really live out their lives without ever finding it? If so, isn’t that a sign that perhaps they need to go try their hands at being experts in another field?

It makes you wonder about these people’s qualifications, doesn’t it? What makes them experts again? A few hundred blog posts and some keynote presentations? A “personal brand?” A lot of followers? Is that all it takes now?

Here’s a simple litmus test for you: Experts know their shit. A self-professed expert who doesn’t know his shit is just a windbag. If you don’t want to be categorized as the latter, immerse yourself in the field you aim to be an expert in. Commit to it for years and years and years. Writing a few blog posts about something doesn’t make you an expert in it, no matter how hard you want to believe it does.

Utterly ignorant nonsense: The battle-cry of new religion of digital windbags?

First, this gem from @CopyBlogger‘s CFO, Mr. Sean Jackson. (A few of my favorite quotes from that post):

“Marketing ROI has become so important that no one questions its validity, but the truth is, marketing will never produce an ROI. […]  The problem for marketing professionals is that marketing activity is not an investment. An investment is an asset that you purchase and place on your Balance Sheet. Like an office building or a computer system. It’s something you could sell later if you didn’t need it any more. Marketing is an expense, and goes on the Profit & Loss statement.”

WHAT?! Are you kidding me?!

And yet in the same interview, Mr. Jackson continues with this:

“Sales generate revenue. Marketing generates profits.”

WHAT?! Sure, it sounds pretty, but how does that work, exactly? How do you calculate profits if… Oh, never mind…

“Marketing, including social media marketing, is about efficiency. Marketing is a process of decreasing the time, money, and resources required to communicate with customers and make it easy for them to buy products and services. The more efficient your marketing is, the more profit you make. That’s what you want to optimize for. By defining marketing as a function of profits, you create a new perception within your organization about the value of marketing.”

Since Sean is a CFO, I have to assume that he knows how to calculate profit on a balance sheet. … The very balance sheet as the one on which Marketing is nothing but “an expense”?

Look, if marketing can’t produce ROI, then it can’t generate a profit. A profit is a function of ROI. Profit is the very manifestation of the expectation of ROI: You invest in something, use it, and hope it generates enough revenue to cover your investment and other operational costs, and… wait for it… turn a profit.

This is Business 101 stuff. Seriously, it is. Little kids running lemonade stands know this.

If you are going to claim that marketing is about profits, then you have to concede that marketing plays a part in cutting costs or generating revenue. Once you realize that, ROI becomes obviously relevant to marketing spend. Marketing does generate ROI, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out. And yet, shit like this gets published. (Yes, shit.)

Example #2: David Meerman Scott’s piece entitled “Social Media ROI Hypocrisy.”

The post’s elegant tag-line:

“New research – published here for the first time – proves that executives who demand that Social Media ROI be calculated are hypocrites.”

Nice. Here’s more:

“It’s ridiculous that executives require marketers to calculate ROI (Return on Investment) on one form of real-time communications: Social media like Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube. Yet they happily pay for other real-time communications devices for employees like Blackberrys, iPhones, and iPads without a proven ROI.”

And my favorite:

“My recommendation to you when faced with executives who demand that you prove social media ROI is to point out the hypocrisy by asking them to show you the ROI of their Blackberry.”

Here’s my recommendation to you: Don’t answer an executive who asks you about ROI with “what’s the ROI of your blackberry?”

Why? Because it’s rude, unprofessional, and it only serves to prove two things: 1. You’re an asshole, and 2. you have no idea what you’re talking about.

Here’s a better way: If an executive bothered to ask you a question that matters to his or her business, answer it. If you can’t, recommend someone who can. It’s the least you can do. The idea being to help the client, not show him how much of a smug smartass you are.

Speaking of questions: Either answer them or go home.

I have heard it suggested that many corporate executives use the ROI “question” as an excuse to object to social media spend. Let’s talk about that for a minute.

Corporate execs have very busy schedules. Believe it or not, they don’t waste their time listening to your sales pitches knowing, before they walk into the room, that they are going to turn you down. Do you really think they sit around all day hoping someone will come in to talk to them about social media just so they can use their favorite “ROI objection” trick on them? They have companies to run. Either  produce a way to help them do that or stop wasting their time.

Here’s a double dose of reality for you: When corporate executives ask you about ROI with respect to social media, they are motivated by 2 things:

1. They want to know how social media spend will benefit them so they can justify the expense. Understanding the potential value of an investment is pretty basic business practice, and a sound one. What did you expect? A blank check and a 5-year consulting contract just because you spoke at Blogworld and your Klout score is awesome? What world do you live in?

2. They want to know if you know your shit or if you are just another windbag blogger “guru” with no business management acumen. They get pitched by two dozen bullshit social media experts per week. This is their test. Either pass it or fuck off.

Four final thoughts:

1. When business executives take the time to meet with you, reward their time investment by not being an asshole. (i.e. Not asking them about the ROI of their blackberry is a good start.) Answer their questions. That’s why you’re there in the first place.

2. If you don’t know how to answer an executive’s ROI questions, guess what: You aren’t qualified to advise them on the matter. Sorry. Admit it and carry on.

3. Whether or not you believe that ROI is a relevant topic of discussion when it comes to integrating social dynamics and platforms into a business doesn’t matter. You are mistaking a philosophical discussion with a practical one. Explain the principles first. Answer their questions. Help them get through that first phase (justification). Once the ROI question has been laid out and everyone gets it, THEN discuss with them the positive intangibles of building a more social company (see #6 below). They are testing your knowledge, not your religion. Stop evangelizing and start getting down to brass tacks.

4. If the same executives aren’t measuring the ROI of other things (like advertising campaigns, product development, websites, or even marketing in general,) show them how. It’s a hell of a lot more valuable than calling them hypocrites for not having done it until now. Be a positive agent of change, not just another smug asshole trying to weasel his way onto their payroll.

Doing something a lot teaches you how things work and don’t work. So do more. Talk less. You want to advise companies on how ROI fits into the social media world? Learn how to connect spend to outcomes (results). Once you grasp that the way a baker grasps the baking of bread, then you’ll be qualified to advise companies and other professionals on the matter. Not before. This isn’t theory. It isn’t about opinions. It’s practical everyday business knowledge. You either have it or you don’t.

Moving on…

The rest of this post won’t make you an expert, but it will at least give you the basics.

If you are still having trouble explaining or understanding the intricacies of social media R.O.I., chances are that…

1. You are asking the wrong question.

Do you want to know what one of the worst questions dealing with the digital world is right now? This:

What is the ROI of Social Media?

It isn’t that the idea behind the question is wrong. It comes from the right place. It aims to answer 2 basic business questions: Why should I invest in this, (or rather, why should I invest in this rather than the other thing?), and what kind of financial benefit can I expect from it?

The problem is that the question can’t be answered as asked: Social media in and of itself has no cookie-cutter ROI. The social space is an amalgam of channels, platforms and activities that can produce a broad range of returns (and often none at all). When you ask “what is the social media or ROI,” do you mean to have Facebook’s profit margins figure in the answer? Twitter’s? Youtube’s? Every affiliate marketing blog’s ROI thrown in as well?

The question is too broad. Too general. It is like asking what the ROI of email is. Or the ROI of digital marketing. What is the ROI of social media? I don’t know… what is the ROI of television?

If you are still stuck on this, you have probably been asking the wrong question.

2. To get the right answer, ask the right question.

The question, then, is not what is the ROI of social media, but rather what is the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media?

To ask the question properly, you have to also define the timeframe. Here’s an example:

What was the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media for Q3 2011?

That is a legitimate ROI question that relates to social media. Here are a few more:

What was the ROI of shifting 20% of our customer service resources from a traditional call center to twitter this past year?

What was the ROI of shifting 40% of our digital budget from traditional web to social media in 2011?

What was the ROI of our social media-driven raspberry gum awareness campaign in Q1?

These are proper ROI questions.

3. The unfortunate effect of asking the question incorrectly.

What is the ROI of social media? asks nothing and everything at once. It begs a response in the interrogative: Just how do you mean? In instances where either educational gaps or a lack of discipline prevail, the vagueness of the question leads to an interpretation of the term R.O.I., which has already led many a social media “expert” down a shady path of improvisation.

This is how ROI went from being a simple financial calculation of investment vs. gain from investment to becoming any number of made-up equations mixing unrelated metrics into a mess of nonsense like this:

Social media ROI = [(tweets – followers) ÷ (comments x average monthly posts)] ÷ (Facebook shares x facebook likes) ÷ (mentions x channels used) x engagement


Equations like this are everywhere. Companies large and small have paid good money for the privilege of glimpsing them. Unfortunately, they are complete and utter bullshit. They measure nothing. Their aim is to confuse and extract legal tender from unsuspecting clients, nothing more. Don’t fall for it.

4. Pay attention and all the social media R.O.I. BS you have heard until now will evaporate in the next 90 seconds.

In case you missed it earlier, don’t think of ROI as being medium-specific. Think of it as activity-specific.

Are you using social media to increase sales of your latest product? Then measure the ROI of that. How much are you spending on that activity? What KPIs apply to the outcomes being driven by that activity? What is the ratio of cost to gain for that activity? This, you can measure. Stop here. Take it all in. Grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and work it out.

Once you grasp this, try something bigger. If you want to measure the ROI of specific activities across all media, do that. If you would rather focus only on your social media activity, go for it. It doesn’t really matter where you measure your cost to gain equation. Email, TV, print, mobile, social… it’s all the same. ROI is media-agnostic. Once you realize that your measurement should focus on the relationship between the activity and the outcome(s), the medium becomes a detail. ROI is ROI, regardless of the channel or the technology or the platform.

That’s the basic principle. To scale that model and determine the ROI of the sum of an organization’s social media activities, take your ROI calculations for each desired outcome, each campaign driving these outcomes, and each particular type of activity within their scope, then add them all up. Can measuring all of that be complex? You bet. Does it require a lot of work? Yes. It’s up to you to figure out if it is worth the time and resources.

If you have limited resources, you may decide to calculate the ROI of certain activities and not others. You’re the boss. But if you want to get a glimpse of what the process looks like, that’s it in its most basic form.

5. R.O.I. isn’t an afterthought.

Guess what: Acquiring Twitter followers and Facebook likes won’t drive a whole lot of anything unless you have a plan. In other words, if your social media activity doesn’t deliberately drive ROI, it probably won’t accidentally result in any.

This is pretty key. Don’t just measure a bunch of crap after the fact to see if any metrics jumped during the last measurement period. Think about what you will want to measure ahead of time, what metrics you will be looking to influence. Think more along the lines of business-relevant metrics than social media metrics like “likes” and “follows,” which don’t really tell you a whole lot.

6. R.O.I. isn’t always relevant.

Repeat after me: Not all social media activity needs to drive ROI.

Technical support, accounts receivable, digital reputation management, digital crisis management, R&D, customer service… These types of functions are not always tied directly to financial KPIs. Don’t force them into that box.

This is an important point because it reveals something about the nature of the operational integration of social media within organizations: Social media isn’t simply a “community management” function or a “content” play. Its value to an organization isn’t measured primarily in the obvious and overplayed likesfollowers, retweets and clickthroughs, or even in impressions or estimated media value. Social media’s value to an organization, whether translated into financial terms (ROI) or not, is determined by its ability to influence specific outcomes. This could be anything from the acquisition of new transacting customers to an increase in positive recommendations, from an increase in buy rate for product x to a positive shift in sentiment for product y, or from a boost in customer satisfaction after a contact with a CSR to the attenuation of a PR crisis.

In other words, for an organization, the value of social media depends on two factors:

1. The manner in which social media can be used to pursue a specific business objective.

2. The degree to which specific social media activity helped drive that objective.

In instances where financial investment and financial gain are relevant KPIs, this can turn into ROI. In instances where financial gain is not a relevant outcome, ROI might not matter one bit.

Having said that, you still need to understand these mechanisms in order to make good business decisions, so learn them.

*          *          *

By the way, Social Media ROI – the book – doesn’t just talk about measurement and KPIs. It provides a simple framework with which businesses of all sizes can develop, build and manage social media programs in partnership with digital agencies or all on their own. Check it out at www.smroi.net, or look for it at fine bookstores everywhere.

Click here to read a free chapter.

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