09/21/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are six communications stories of note from the recent past.

Delivering on Thought Leadership by Harrison Wise, on PRWeek’s website, August 23.

For much of my work, I write white papers and bylined articles that help executives establish their thought leadership, and I know how important it is to provide readers’ with valuable content. I agree with Wise’s comment that “No matter how you look at it, the people or businesses that lead with regular advice, useful information, and provide helpful tips get more traffic and more business.”

In this piece, Wise, who is president of Wise Public Relations, states that a thought-leadership position in today’s socially connected world delivers authority, social proof, scarcity and influence. He provides five ways to develop a plan that positions a business executive as an industry thought leader.

Putin Op-Ed: Good PR or a Betrayal of Nation? By Steve Barrett, on PRWeek’s website, September 13.

In this piece, Barrett, editor-in-chief of PRWeek, discusses PR agency Ketchum’s role in placing Russian president Vladimir Putin’s recent Op-Ed about Syria in The New York Times. He considers whether Ketchum should include Russia as a client—the kind of issue faced by many global PR firms—as well as whether the agency might actually have written the Op-Ed—a common practice agencies perform for their clients.

What Businesses Need to Understand About Big (and Small) Data by Danny Brown, on arcompany.co, September 12.

“Big data” is all around us. And whether or not marketers today are aware of it, they “constantly work with data so of course they should know what ‘big data’  is and how it differs from ‘small,’ says Brown, vice president of marketing and technology at ArCompany. He provides a quick background on how data became big data, how big data differs from small data, and why big data is important to marketers.

Who Says the Traditional Storytelling Arc Can’t Work in Business? by Lou Hoffman, on the Ishmael’s Corner website, September 19.

The traditional storytelling arc—which starts with an opening scene and goes through a number of crises before reaching the climax and denouement—often takes too much time for storytelling done by most PR and marketing practitioners. In this piece, however, Hoffman, who has written about storytelling for some time, gives a good example of how this technique can be used in business communications.

His example is from True Move, a telecommunications company in Thailand. The company’s three-minute video “jumps right into the bad stuff,” shows things get worse, and then ends on a happy note. Filled with humanity, it grabs the viewer’s attention right away and keeps it until the end.

Storytelling Ads May be Journalism’s New Peril by David Carr in The New York Times, September 15.

Carr, who writes a regular Times column on the media, says in this piece, “Now the new rage is native advertising, which is to say advertising wearing the uniform of journalism, mimicking the storytelling aesthetic of the host site.”

This content is usually labeled as advertising, but it frequently looks very much like the news pieces that surround it, often with the same “headline, art, and text configuration of an editorial work,” Carr says. While native advertising (sometimes called sponsored content) provides a new advertising medium for companies and a new revenue stream for media outlets, if not done right, it can confuse readers and diminish the outlets’ credibility with them.

Carr quotes Joe McCambley, whose company helped build the first of the now-ubiquitous banner ads for websites: Native advertising “has to stand on its own as good journalism. Bad native advertising is destructive for the publishers that host it.”

Social Media, Big Data and Visualization by Cameron Uganec, on blog.hootsuite.com, September 20.

Here’s another take on big data. In this post, Uganec, Hootsuite’s director of marketing and communications, offers this clear definition of “big data”: “If a traditional database is a collection of data, then big data is a collection of collections of data. Usually, those different collections are in totally different formats, and it’s not obvious how to fit them together in a way that makes any sense.”

Although he does not show how to fit the data collections together, he does discuss how to get started with big data, and then he focuses on how big data can provide great social-media storytelling, especially when told with visuals. He provides a great visualization of Twitter data showing the progress of power outages occurring in the Northeast during Hurricane Sandy.

Do We Buy Brands or Products Today?

IMG_0510Recently, I read a statement by a marketing professional who stated bluntly that people today buy brands, not products.

This pronouncement seemed wrong, like wishful thinking, a little ahead of itself. Regardless of what that writer and other marketers will tell you, people still mostly buy products, not brands.

When people buy brands, they do so because they relate to the company in a way that goes beyond just the function of its product. Cars made by both BMW and Toyota will get people where they want to go, for example. But some of us buy BMWs because this brand makes us feel good about ourselves, perhaps as a reward for years of hard work or for landing a coveted first job. Others buy Nike sneakers because we share this brand’s commitment to achieving excellent athletic performance.

On the other hand, people buy products, regardless of who makes them, because of their function. They provide what the buyer wants. Post Raisin Bran tastes good today, but maybe tomorrow, Kellogg’s Raisin Bran might taste better or might be on sale when the consumer is at the store. Pepsi and Coke might be interchangeable, depending what’s available at the restaurant or from the vending machine. Consumers subscribe to Comcast because it’s the only cable service available in their community, but they wouldn’t really care if AT&T were their cable provider.

Marketers are correct in saying that people are loyal to brands. But, it seems to me, their lack of loyalty to products is what’s really behind most of their purchases.

Some people may always buy Toms shoes because they are committed to the brand’s philanthropic goal of giving one free pair of shoes to someone who needs them every time the company sells a pair. But I believe most people, when they need a pair of shoes, buy the pair that looks best and feels best within their budget. They may occasionally buy Tom’s shoes, but only if the shoes meet these criteria.

Except for one period in the ’90s, I have bought Apple computers ever since my first Mac in 1985. I’m a pleased supporter of Apple, now buying iPhones, iPads and iPods exclusively. I believe in the company and its approach to building products, as Steve Jobs expressed in Walter Isaason’s biography of the Apple co-founder and former CEO:

When you’re a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you’re not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You’ll know it’s there, so you’re going to use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.

Clearly, I buy the Apple brand, not just Apple products.

But Apple is about as far as I go in buying brands. And I don’t think I’m alone. It seems to me that most people still buy products today, buying brands only in a limited number of categories, perhaps only makeup or designer clothes. Certainly we don’t always—or even mostly—buy brands, regardless of what the wishful marketers may want to believe.

We buy products—not brands—because most companies’ storytelling doesn’t create for us an emotional attachment that goes beyond their products’ functionality. The narratives may honestly represent the beliefs and philosophies held by these companies, but we’re not relating to them, and we are not forming strong relationships with them. As a result, most companies still remain product makers, rather than brands that we feel represent us and our lifestyles.

(Note: I used the quote from Steve Jobs in an earlier blog “The Purity of Simplicity” on craftsmanship, which you may read here.)  

O6/22/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are four recent noteworthy communications stories.

Washington Post Opens Online Opinion Pages to Sponsored Content by William Launder, on the Washington Post’s website, June 12.

In this article, Launder points out that the Washington Post is now accepting branded content from trade groups, lobbying firms and companies as responses to the paper’s editorials. This action by the Post further widens the opportunities for marketers and others to deliver their specific messages to targeted audiences without relying on traditional advertising or earned media coverage. Several other publications also are moving into sponsored content in their printed editions as well as on their websites.

Social Stories: How to Use Storytelling on Twitter by Shanna Mallon on Spin Sucks, June 17.

Mallon writes, “The limitations of Twitter are no excuse for not putting storytelling to work, especially when you consider the ways others are turning it into a powerful tool.” She offers a few helpful tips on sharing your company’s narrative or your personal story on Twitter, even within its limit of 140 character per tweet.

What Is Brand Journalism? Get the Answer in Fewer than 3 Minutes on Ragan’s PR Daily website, June 18.

In this short video, Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, and Jim Ylisela, head of Ragan Consulting, provide a clear definition of the term brand journalism and explain the idea of “a company as a media outlet.” While neither the term nor the idea is new, PR people just being introduced to them will find this discussion valuable.

Avoid Social Media Slipups the Dunkin’ Donuts Way by Dave Johnson on CBSNews.com, June 19.

Johnson writes that when confronted by an angry customer wielding a smartphone with video rolling, a Dunkin’ Donuts salesperson handled the situation appropriately, perhaps avoiding a viral video that would be damaging to the company. He says the salesperson acted “calm, cool and polite through the entire TV ordeal,” and in the end the customer came off looking like the villain. Johnson provides lessons other companies can learn from the situation.

Q&A on Long-Form Content with Jennifer Kane

Recently Jennifer Kane, a marketing/communications strategist and principal at Kane Consulting, wrote an important blog post about long-form content on the Web.

Jennifer Kane

Jennifer Kane

She starts Five Secrets Behind Effective Long-Form Content by stating a fact that is often overlooked: Long-form content is not dead or dying, although it may seem that way because so much of it is “weak and boring” and, therefore, not read. She adds, “in-depth content must adhere to a different set of rules to be seen and consumed.”

Then she provides some of these rules, which make a good starting point for anyone wanting to develop long-form content for the Web. These tips do not focus on how to write a better document but rather on how to make the content more presentable on the screen and, therefore, more easily and enjoyably read.

Since her “secrets” in this post are so accurate and helpful, I decided to ask her what other advice she might have for someone interested in writing and presenting better digital long-form content.

Below are her answers to my questions:

David: How narrowly or broadly do you define “long-form content?”

Jennifer: I define it pretty broadly because it really seems to be up to the reader what they consider to be “too long.” On a really basic level, if it’s a video over 5 minutes or written content that the person cannot see the end of even after scrolling down from the first view of the page to a second view of the next segment, I think most people consider that to be “long.”

Even if it’s easy to read or simple to view, if there is no easy end in immediate sight, people can be quick to make a judgment that this is going to take too much time to consume.

I wrote this post because I got trapped inside a number of long pieces I enjoyed, but wasn’t sure how long I was going to have to enjoy them.

If I left to tweet about the piece, I’d have to scroll down and find my place. If I scrolled to the end to see its full length, I’d lose my place. I basically felt stuck within the content’s awesomeness—which is lovely because it was well written, but also annoying because I, like all audience members, wanted to manage my time.

David: Does long-form content have a minimum number of words?

Jennifer: From the guest posts I do on multi-author blogs, it seems like a post that is “long” by their definition is one that is over 900 words. That’s kind of an arbitrary number, but one I keep running into.

David: Do you think that for something to be “long-form content” it must fall into a specific category of documents?

I know you consider narrative journalism as long-form content because you mention The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek as a good example. But do you consider a white paper, a bylined article, a speech, or an annual report as long-form content?

Jennifer: I think this applies to all online content—fiction or non-fiction, educational or entertaining. I do consider white papers, most bylined articles, and speeches to be long-form content.

I don’t know that I’ve ever read an annual report on line. Due to the fact that they’re graphic heavy, they seem to always be downloadable PDFs—which I think people have an easier time processing because they can view, assess and navigate the total breadth of it pretty easily.

I guess I would always define this based on how people are currently defining “average” length. If the average video is 2-5 minutes, and the average blog post 500-750 words, then “long” would be anything longer than that.

I also think this average is becoming shorter consistently over time. People have shorter attention spans, so what constitutes “too long” is always changing.

David: Finally, besides “Tunnel Creek,” would you recommend other examples of long-form content that are easy to read and follow because they are well written and well designed?

Jennifer: Here are some very good ones:

1) Most recently, the Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Usfeature in TIME. (24,105 words—amazing info).

2) I think some of the most consistently amazing long-form stuff I’ve read lately is in WIRED. Every month, they’ve usually got a whopper of an article (often not the feature) that’s a jaw dropper. For example, the recent article Kill the Password: Why a String of Characters Can’t Protect Us.

3) This LEGO video is well done (a little long for me, but I’m not the target audience) and is a great example of company storytelling to boot.

4) And, then in my industry if I mention a tool/technique in a post I’m often hyperlinking to articles from CopyBlogger, ProBlogger, and Social Media Examiner because they post a lot of “definitive guide” kind of posts as well as exhaustive lists of ideas. For example:

My thanks to Jennifer for taking the time to answer these questions and providing her expert advice.

02/23/2013 Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five notable communications stories from the week ending February 22, 2013.

“Tech Predictions for 2013: It’s All about Mobile” by Claire Cain Miller, in The New York Times, February 18.

In this post, Miller discusses some of the findings from the recent ComScore report on Web and mobile usage in 2012 and expectations for this year. The report, she says, “shows that the effects of a movement toward mobile are everywhere, from shopping to media to search” and that “businesses will have to scramble to stay ahead of consumers’ changing behavior.”

She shares a few of the “interesting tidbits” from the 48-page report, beginning with the observation that “The mobile transition is happening astonishingly quickly.”

“The Dirty Secret about Online Content and Shrinking Attention Spans” by Eric Kokonas, on Ragan’s PR Daily, February 20.

In this thought-provoking post, Kokonas provides more details than are usually given to why our attention span is getting shorter and shorter as we become consumed with Twitter, Facebook, and other online media. And he turns on its head the argument that online content “sucks” (to use his word) because of the shortened attention span.

Kokonas says, for example, “The problem is that digital media is designed to be clicked, consumed, and spread as quickly as possible.” Then he adds, “The goal for digital content is not to produce well-written, thought-provoking articles and videos, but to create content that can be spread quickly and easily” because when someone takes the time to read, ad dollars are not generated.

He also points to evidence of a growing demand for better content and to examples of excellent long-form content being posted regularly on a number of websites.

“Fortune Journalist Cuts to the Core of Storytelling in Business,” a blog post by Lou Hoffman, on Ishmael’s Corner, February 21.

In this post, Hoffman, includes a short video in which Pattie Sellers, senior editor at large for Fortune magazine, discusses storytelling and its importance to entrepreneurs. He provides a graph explaining Sellers’ description of what she thinks the best stories must contain.

Key among these elements is failure. “If failure isn’t part of the story, I’m not that interested,” Sellers says in this informative video.

“Bookish Aims to Grow Book Market,” by Brittaney Kiefer, on PRWeek, February 21.

Kiefer discusses the newly launched Bookish, a book review and retail website, and its goal to connect readers with books and authors and to expand the book market.

Besides recommending books, the site provides author interviews and videos, as well as book reviews and reading lists. “We’ve tried to create more depth of content and information relating to books and authors than you might get in most places online, as well as bring in the independent expert point of view,” Keifer quotes Bookish’s CEO in this post.

“Images for Wine in Down-to-Earth Designs” by Julia Flynn Siler, in The Wall Street Journal, February 23.

Whether we work in PR, advertising, design or any other endeavor that helps our companies or clients better market their products, each of us must rely on his or her own creativity to execute the best work possible. And we each must address this creativity with an individual approach.

In this article about creativity, Siler discusses the way Susan Pate, a wine-label designer, gets ideas for her designs.

Pate starts, says Siler, by examining the “environment in which the wine is produced, including soil, topography and climate.” Her research helps her choose appropriate color palettes and often leads to images based on found objects, such as twigs or vines.

This approach has worked very well for her. For many years now, she has designed labels—as well as helped name wines and select the shape, type of class, and color for wine bottles—for estates and celebrity winemakers in the United States, Italy, and France.

She prefers to work with clients who are passionate about their wines, people who are not too literal-minded and will appreciate her evocative images.