Twitter is in Trouble

Twitter isn’t growing its user base, is losing money and has seen its stock price stumble, but the social network is still a direct, powerful, real-time way to share the news.

Twitter isn’t growing its user base, is losing money and has seen its stock price stumble, but the social network is still a direct, powerful, real-time way to share the news.

Is Twitter a digital 140-character dead letter? Maybe not yet, but it faces a major challenge from Instagram, Snapchat and a new digital platform called Peach for the right to be called the news bureau of social media.

Writing for The New Yorker, Joshua Topolsky says Twitter, which once seemed unassailable, now seems confused and vulnerable. Twitter's original appeal as a forum for “raw, streamlined” citizen journalism has turned into a company without a compass.

"Changes to the product made it hard to follow conversations or narratives,” wrote Topolsky, co-founder of Vox Media. "A lack of rigor in verifying reliable sources made information suspect or confusing. More troubling was the growing wave of harassment and abuse that users of the service were dealing with – a quagmire epitomized by the roving flocks of hateful, misogynistic, and well-organized “Gamergate” communities that flooded people’s feeds with hate speech and threats. The company seemed to be wholly unprepared to handle mob violence, with few tools at its disposal to moderate or quell uprisings.”

Perhaps most troubling are reports that Twitter will lift its 140-character limit and allow tweets with as many as 10,000 characters. Topolsky mockingly called that change an attempt to compete for the “short- and long-winded alike.”

There is objective evidence Twitter has hit a digital wall. Its user base is stagnant. It is hemorrhaging money and has watched its stock value tumble by 50 percent. The company has also lost a bevy of top executives, some of whom have gone to work for Twitter competitors.

Worse yet, Topolsky says, Twitter could be on the verge of irrelevance. Millennials employ Instagram and Snapchat for quick, real-time news-sharing. Instagram, WhatsApp and WeChat now have as many individual users as Twitter, and Snapchat is gaining ground fast.

Many young social users also have abandoned Facebook, Topolsky notes, but Facebook has adapted and kept growing. He says Facebook has “come to dominate and define the concept of social conversation” by dealing aggressively with online campaigns of “noise and intrusion.” Requiring people to use their real names, according to Topolsky, "has certainly made Facebook a much safer space in which to engage.”

Topolsky, who counts himself as a committed Twitter user, hasn’t given up hope. "The core ideals that made the product great are not lost, yet, even if they’ve been obscured," he says. "The directness and power at the heart of Twitter – short bursts of information that can make you feel that you’re plugged into a hulking hive mind – are still its greatest asset.”

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey has returned to lead Twitter through its difficult patch, much like Steve Jobs was summoned to revive Apple. Meanwhile, Twitter users will keep their fingers crossed for the social media platform that is a perfect for newsjacking, crisis response and story-sharing. For busy people interested in what’s going on, it is an invaluable tool. The question is whether it will remain relevant.

The Case for the Press Release

The press release, despite a checkered past, remains a valuable tool in the digital era to tell a good story.

The press release, despite a checkered past, remains a valuable tool in the digital era to tell a good story.

The press release has been a public relations staple, a pariah and a candidate for burial. But it is still around and, in the digital era, may be enjoying new life.

Ridiculed as self-promoting puffery, press releases don’t have to be stuffed with smarmy statements by company executives. Instead they can be engaging storytelling platforms. 

With slimmer news staffs, credible, well-written press releases can tell an entire story for a news reporter or producer and entice them to pursue it. Or, in some cases, they can use the press release as the stem for their own story.

See one of our recent press releases, and then check out how it translated into a story in The Oregonian

The storytelling press release also can be original content placed on your own website or online newsroom. Your online newsroom can and should be designed to look and feel like a “news” site. And your content, including press releases, should resemble the news.

Some good uses of press releases include:

•  Distilling a story with complexity to its comprehensible essence.

•  Highlighting elements of a story that have human interest and are entertaining or unusual.

•  Conveying meaningful, on-point quotes without an in-person or on-camera interview.

•  Providing the backstory to an event or milestone.

•  Calls to action that drive trackable traffic to your website or online newsroom.

•  Offering background information, visual assets, links and contact information that make following a story easier.

•  Gaining wider exposure than a single channel.

A rule of thumb is that the newsier a press release reads, the more likely it will gain some traction in a newsroom – or on your own online newsroom.

Vanity press releases have less appeal to the media – and readers – than press releases that are audience-centric. The key is providing quality content that is readable and even enjoyable.

Call it brand journalism or anything else, your press release can do the job if it’s clear, clever or convincing and it’s credible. If you want to make the news, your press release needs to be newsworthy – in content, approach and style. It needs to tell a genuine story.

Even More Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul serves up stories that motivate us, and it has used that core brand value to expand its brand universe.

Chicken Soup for the Soul serves up stories that motivate us, and it has used that core brand value to expand its brand universe.

The road to market is littered with brand extensions that crashed. Chicken Soup for the Soul, on the other hand, has a track record of brand extension success, including a new TV series, that offers insights on how to do it right.

The iconic motivational book series about people and pets has borrowed a photo from “Candid Camera” to launch “Hidden Heroes,” a new weekly TV series that features people doing good things. In the most recent episode, a grandfather stymied by his laptop asks for – and receives – help from random people on how to dial up his grandchildren online.

Small story, big-picture kind of stuff. That’s how Chicken Soup for the Soul got its start as a brand. Motivational speakers Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen dotted their presentations with engaging, inspiring stories. When audience members asked to read more stories, Canfield and Hansen decided to write a book with 101 of their best stories. They came up with the idea of Chicken Soup for the Soul because it reminded them of the comfort kids get – and they got – from their grandmothers’ cooking.

No major publisher expressed interest in the original book. It took a small health and wellness publisher in Florida to give it a chance. There have been 250 Chicken Soup for the Soul books published and 11 million copies sold, making the series one of the most popular and beloved brands in the world.

The secret recipe for the success of Chicken Soup for the Soul is “people helping others by sharing stories about their lives.” That still drives the organization, which was sold in 2008 to Bill Rouhana and Amy Newmark, a husband-wife team that has led a spurt of brand extension beyond the bookstore.

There are now Chicken Soup for the Soul lines of food for people and their pets, online forums, apps, a motion picture and even a Chicken Soup for the Soul YouTube channel. Meanwhile, the organization still publishes a new book every month.

As befits its image, Chicken Soup for the Soul is socially conscious. It contributes a portion from all sales to the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a nonprofit started by Chicken Soup’s CEO, that attacks worldwide illiteracy, addresses hunger and promotes animal welfare. Proceeds from food sales support free school breakfasts. Royalties from some books go to the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Human Association and A World Fit for Kids.

So, the formula for Chicken Soup for the Soul’s success rests on sharing user-generated content across as many platforms as they can imagine and shaving off some of the revenue for causes that relate to the brand’s identity. Viewed another way, it offers a product or service people find useful, and keeps feeding that appetite and sharing the success, both through content and resources.

A lot of executives get embarrassed by thinking people buy into their brands instead of the values of their brand. Chicken Soup for the Soul understands its brand value, which is a true guide on brand extensions.

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.

Reader Ideas to Meet the #ChipotleMarketingChallenge

Faced with a series of high profile food safety mishaps over the past several months, Chipotle is on a daunting mission to restore its image. 

Faced with a series of high profile food safety mishaps over the past several months, Chipotle is on a daunting mission to restore its image. 

Based on the ad hoc advice we got, Chipotle may have a tough time convincing wary customers to return.

The Mexican restaurant chain – which built its fast casual brand on quality, locally sourced food – faces the challenge of wooing back customers after at least three separate food safety incidents across the country. One source reported Chipotle’s revenues – despite reopening its previously closed stores – dipped 30 percent in December.

We asked people to pretend to be the chain’s marketer and meet what we called the #ChipotleMarketing Challenge,” an open-ended strategy session about how you would repair the damage. Here’s a sampling of comments, without attribution, that we received:

“I never went back to Sizzler or Jack in the Box after their troubles.”

“They’ve given an edible plant a bad name. I guess they could work on another one.”

“No kidding! Been wondering how they will rebuild the Grand Canyon of public mistrust."

“Chipotle = Corvair. It will be over very soon.”

One commenter threw up his hands and said the best thing Chipotle’s marketing director could do is look for a new job.

Not everyone was fatalistic, though.

“Challenging situation, but Chipotle is not Enron.”

“Try explaining what happened and how it’s been fixed. How about treating customers like intelligent beings. Then suck it up and take a hit on profits for a little while trust is rebuilt.”

“Rename and rebrand. Not that hard if you do it the right way. But you can’t polish a turd.”

“They could start by foregoing all the healthy positioning of food that isn’t healthy. Hello to the 1,200-calorie burrito.”

“Maybe divide local sources of food into distinct local brands featuring regional specialties based in part on what is in season locally. Emphasize freshness and a lower carbon footprint from transportation.”

“Food safety is obviously essential. Overhaul safety procedures in a transparent way. Open up the facilities with web cams and implement a pioneering food handling effort.”

“Have a long view and don’t attempt to rush to a quick fix (like losing all brand equity). Execute. Execute. Execute. This is a process issue and can only be fixed through years of excellent in process improvement and execution.”

"I believe in second chances. What about a 'Great Reopening' campaign. A day of free samples of food? Coupons and food prize give-aways. Everyone likes free stuff. Have each location give away one free meal an hour. Must make a purchase to qualify for the hourly drawing. Have one big grand prize at the end of the day. Good luck!"

There were also some more entertaining suggestions, like following the example of “The Worst Hotel in the World,” where you warn patrons up front. Here are some more quirky marketing ideas.

“Hire Martha Stewart and Snoop Dog, who have great chemistry on her talk show, for a series of cute ads.”

"Have Morgan Spurlock (a documentary filmmaker and humorist known for producing “Super Size Me”) eat at Chipotle for 30 days, then follow him with cameras to see what happens. The toilet experience might be too graphic.”

On the other hand, maybe Chipotle doesn’t need a big marketing campaign to restore its image after all, which one commenter pointed out. “A large number of their customer base are high school students who don’t care and have continued to eat there three or four times a week through all this."

#Chipotle Marketing Challenge

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

After a number of outbreaks of food-borne illness at Chipotle restaurants around the U.S., the company is launching a massive marketing campaign to restore its image. 

Chipotle, which has faced dozens of food safety problems across the country over the past several months, is launching a massive marketing campaign to woo back its customers.

The company is closing its doors at each of its locations – there are more than 1,900 in the U.S. – for a few hours on February 8 for a food safety discussion with all Chipotle employees. This is a respected brand, but what will it take for you to walk through Chipotle's doors and order a burrito?

Share with us your marketing strategy for Chipotle. Comment on this blog or share your thoughts on Twitter at #ChipotleMarketingChallenge.

We will share what we learn in a future blog.

Bowl Season TV Ad Winners

Samuel Adams, known for its wide range of beers, produces a holiday TV ad that offers a perfect visual explanation of seasonal brews.

Samuel Adams, known for its wide range of beers, produces a holiday TV ad that offers a perfect visual explanation of seasonal brews.

The Super Bowl usually draws attention for creative TV ads, but this year a couple of gems emerged earlier during the college bowl season – one by Samuel Adams, the other from Taco Bell.

Boston beer maker Samuel Adams served up a perfect example of a visual explanation in an ad, while Taco Bell used 60 seconds to tell a story about scholarships for young dreamers and innovators.

The Samuel Adams ad answers the question, "Why seasonal beers?" by explaining the characteristics of spring, summer and fall brews, then finishing by featuring its winter lager. The explanations were visual, tasteful and informative.

The ad informed without selling. The brewer's commitment to diverse beers and styles was underscored, but unstated. Like a good beer, the ad was satisfying even as it subtly reminded you of the Samuel Adams brand value.

This isn't an aberration for Samuel Adams, which routinely offers up ads that respect viewer intelligence. Its messages are aimed at more discerning beer drinkers, or at least people who want more than a six-pack to guzzle at a frat party.

Taco Bell veered away from its normal advertising to describe the need to encourage dreamers and innovators through its new Live Mas Scholarship.

Taco Bell veered away from its normal advertising to describe the need to encourage dreamers and innovators through its new Live Mas Scholarship.

The Taco Bell ad was more surprising, since the fast food giant's normal fare appeals to a lower common denominator. Instead of extolling the "fourth meal" or extreme tacos, in this ad Taco Bell says it's time for young people to receive scholarships for more than academics or athletics.

The Taco Bell Foundation calls the Live Mas Scholarship a "passion-based" scholarship for innovators and dreamers. With awards ranging from $2,500 to $25,000, a total of $1 million will be given to 220 students in 2016 to attend accredited colleges and vocational schools.

The ad shows young adults engaged in a variety of innovative activities. "The Live Más Scholarship is not based on your grades or how well you play sports. No essays, no test scores, no right or wrong answers," Taco Bell says. "We’re looking for the next generation of innovators, creators and dreamers – whose post-high school education we will help fund. This is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for the next generation.

We can look forward in a few days to Super Bowl ad blitzes, which hopefully will match or exceed these two ads.

Cause Marketing Gains Popularity, Maturity

Cause marketing campaigns are becoming more sophisticated, such as Nationwide's "Make Safe Happen" campaign to reduce childhood injuries at homes.

Cause marketing campaigns are becoming more sophisticated, such as Nationwide's "Make Safe Happen" campaign to reduce childhood injuries at homes.

Cause marketing continues to gain in popularity and recent examples have moved substantially beyond co-promoting a company and a worthy cause by asking for a donation or signing a petition.

A great example is Nationwide's "Make Safe Happen" campaign to reduce childhood injuries at home. The insurance company's choice of a safety program aligns with its business. Instead of teaming with a single organization, Nationwide reached out to a hospital, pediatricians, parents, caregivers and toy manufacturers to identify sources of injury that could be prevented.

David Hessekiel, founder and president of Cause Marketing Forum and author of "Good Works!" says companies are pursuing more sophisticated and creative approaches to address nagging social problems. Some, like Nationwide's campaign, hitch together "complex, multi-player coalitions."

The "Make Safe Happen" program scores well on another pair of important virtues – usefulness and relevance, both key components of successful content marketing strategies. The program isn't just about doing good; it's about helping to avoid an injury to your child or grandchild.

To ensure the campaign was useful and relevant, the techniques used by Nationwide zeroed in on firsthand, frontline sources, such as partnering with Safe Kids Worldwide to "engage caregivers in real time," explained Hessekiel.

In an article written for Forbes, Hessekiel cited other significant cause marketing trends in 2015:

•  Using iconic branding to make a point (Coca-Cola replaced its trademark logo with "Labels are for cans, not people" to promote acceptance of cultural differences).

•  Promoting behavior change (AT&T's It Can Wait pledge to persuade motorists to stay off their smartphones while driving).

•  Educating younger generations (H&R Block's Budget Challenge initiative to teach financial literacy).

•  Creating multi-channel experiences (Coke's #MakeItHappy campaign to encourage positivity).

Cause marketing examples involving large companies can be intimidating for small and family-run businesses. But it would be a mistake to see cause marketing as only the purview of the big brands.

Micro-volunteering is one of the more interesting tools that smaller companies – or nonprofits and public agencies – could exploit in a cause marketing effort. Micro-volunteering involves bite-sized chunks of time that employees can give at work, home or almost anywhere in support of a wide range of causes.

NPR recently featured a micro-volunteering effort to aid blind people who live at home. In the story, a blind woman who needed help in identifying the ingredients she would use to prepare a meal hooked up online with a micro-volunteer. The volunteer, who in this story happened to be in a different city, and the blind woman connected via live streaming so the volunteer could read the ingredients of various bottles. The volunteered assistance took only a couple of minutes.

According to the website helpfromhome.org, popular micro-volunteer causes include animal welfare, environmental watchdogs, health, poverty and scientific research. The website says micro-volunteering opportunities let people "make a difference on their lunch break."

More than Cell Phones and Selfies

As the Millennial population outnumbers previous generations, it is increasingly important to know how to engage with Millennials.

As the Millennial population outnumbers previous generations, it is increasingly important to know how to engage with Millennials.

Contrary to popular belief, Millennials are a lot more plugged in than you think.

You can point to individual Millennials who seem narcissistic, lazy and addicted to smartphones, just as you can find stereotypical behaviors in older generations. However, if marketers believe these stereotypes, they won't have much success communicating and engaging with Millennials. 

As a Millennial myself, I urge you to consider my generation as highly innovative risk-takers and leaders in social, political and technological change.

Here are some specific recommendations for getting past stereotypes and onto engagement:  

1. Millennials are empathetic and aware.

Millennials may seem narcissistic, but we are actually highly empathetic. We are aware of what is going on around us locally and globally.

Don't assume that we are culturally and politically unaware just because we are too busy taking selfies and sharing photos of what we ate for breakfast. This stereotype ignores how Millennials put social media to good use by sharing relevant news articles, making professional connections and using their online influence to facilitate social change. While we are less likely to pick up a newspaper, social media allows us to consume a wide array of news at a fast pace, every day.  

2. Millennials work hard. 

The Millennial generation faces a rapidly changing job market that demands increasing amounts of education at a time when college tuition and student debt has skyrocketed. To succeed, we have to work hard and perhaps smarter than previous generations. 

More and more entry-level jobs require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Rising tuition costs force Millennials to take on a huge risk in acquiring thousands of dollars of debt to get advanced education. As a result, many Millennials are highly educated and have a strong work ethic to compete in an ever more competitive job market.  

3. Millennial’s know how to communicate.  

Many articles have been written about the digital age and how Millennials are unable to form coherent sentences because of our love for texting and tweeting. However, Millennials are far more equipped to communicate in the fast-paced world in which we live.

Texting and tweeting allows us to get our point across quickly in a few words or through pictures or videos. Research shows this is actually the most effective way to communicate, and Millennials are experts at it.  

4. Millennials do have a short attention span.

While I hate stereotyping, I have to admit Millennials experience a huge amount of stimulation, which can lead to short attention spans. That said, when addressing Millennials, you should use short, memorable phrases to get your point across clearly and use a variety of platforms.  But that's also true when communicating with any generation.

5. Be quirky and innovative. 

Generic ads simply don't work. You would have better success with quirky ways to get your point across to Millennials.

For example, BuzzFeed was hired to promote Fur Baby Rescue, a pet shelter based in Los Angeles. Rather than dragging out the stereotypical Sarah McLachlan song and bombarding you with images of sad puppies, BuzzFeed took a different approach. It hosted an open-bar reception for female employees, then surprised them with puppies and filmed their reactions.

What followed was a hilarious account of crying, hysteria and genuine happiness. At the end of the video, BuzzFeed thanked Fur Baby Rescue and promoted its website. The video received more than 575,750 shares on Facebook.

Long story short, you need to think outside the box in marketing yourself or your company, or else Millennials won't notice. We want to see something we have never seen before.

6. Pay attention to media that receives the most "likes" and "shares." 

Be attentive to what Millennials share on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Are there common themes and topics that are shared more than others? What exactly are Millennials responding to? Apply these themes and topics when you attempt to engage us.

7. Millennials are highly optimistic and starving for change – and you should be, too.

Millennials are largely concerned with human rights issues, specifically black rights, LGBTQ and feminist movements. We are making headway in changing social norms and views through protests, representations in the news and social media and stepping up the demand for political reform. 

For the most part, we believe we can change the world and we are willing to work hard to achieve it. Be open to our ideas, listen to what we have to say and embrace it.

(This is a guest blog by Sophia Meyer, 20, a sophomore at the University of Oregon in its School of Journalism and Communication. She was asked to write about communicating with Millennials.)

The Art of Engagement and Spam

Online engagement isn't a choice between what is and isn't spam. Online engagement is all about what works.

Online engagement isn't a choice between what is and isn't spam. Online engagement is all about what works.

The point of social media is engagement, but a lot of engagement resembles spam. Cory Torella says it doesn't matter.

Torella – the founder and CEO of Better Auds, a social media marketing firm – says most posts on social media sites seek to engage other people. He calls that "strategic, purposeful conversation." You may be sharing a video of your dog refusing to go out in the rain or inviting people to participate in a contest. Torella says at some point "spam is no longer spam."

"If you guessed that the amount of spam that I receive on a daily basis is fairly high, you are correct," says Torella. "However, I love reading spam…. I read every single word of it."

Most social media users don't share Torella's enthusiasm for spam, but they may unknowingly share his habit of reading it. Especially if the "spam" has strong visual appeal and an irresistible hook.

Torella's business is all about cultivating an audience online without trying to buy followers. Earning an audience on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest or Instagram is all about content that engages people.

As individual users, we seek to engage our circle of friends by sharing experiences, pictures and thoughts. Corporate, nonprofit and pubic agencies seek to engage target audiences to sell a product, ask for a contribution or change a behavior.

The social media strategy for individuals may be as simple as connecting with "pals." The strategy isn't that different for organizations, except they usually want their "pals" to connect with their websites.

Torella's zest for consuming spam posts is tied to his interest in finding what works, what appeals to certain audiences. In effect, he is looking for how users segment social media.

One of the most vexing problems for organizations that have worked to accumulate a large number of "followers" is to keep them engaged. Many people "like" a company or organization, then never go back to the Facebook page. Sustaining engagement takes energy, creativity and perseverance. You have to work at it constantly.

Torella views spam as a form of lab mice. By trial and error – and, in his case, careful observation – you see what works and what doesn't. "I determine if there's anything I can take away from [spam]," Torella explains. "If it's good, I will write it down or screenshot it. If it is bad (and I mean really, really bad), I will write that down, too. So while most [people] see spam, I see art."

Engagement, spam, good art, bad art all may make no difference. What counts is what works – to gain clicks, conversions and customers. The only way to find out what works is to experiment. That is a lot easier and cheaper to do on social media than paid media. You simply have to be willing to engage and let that lead you where it will.

Doing Good and Getting Noticed

Encore careers can be rewarding and high-impact, aiding struggling nonprofits and helping smaller businesses gain notice and respect.

Encore careers can be rewarding and high-impact, aiding struggling nonprofits and helping smaller businesses gain notice and respect.

Cause marketing is usually reserved for the big rollers, but there are ways small and medium-sized companies can team up with worthy nonprofits to do good and be noticed.

One way is through Social Venture Partners (SVP), which serves as a matchmaker for companies that want to contribute and nonprofits that need the help.

SVP – which operates in Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and Calgary – sponsors a program called Encore Fellows. The idea is to connect seasoned private-sector professionals with nonprofits with specific resource deficits in areas such as human resources, organizational design, financial management and marketing communications.

Encore Fellows agree to provide 1,000 hours of their time over a six to 12-month period. Fellows receive a stipend – typically $20,000, which can be paid by the employer, the nonprofit, SVP or some combination.

While this may not seem the equal of glossy relationships with more of a retail edge, the fellowships can mean life or death to a promising, but struggling nonprofit doing good work.

One of the fellowships featured on the SVP website involves semi-retired Portlander Wendy Weissman, who has worked at General Electric and Hewlett-Packard. She teamed up with Friends of the Children, a youth-mentorship nonprofit, lending her HR expertise to assist with leadership development and process-improvement programs.

Even though Weissman completed her 1,000-hour fellowship, she is volunteering additional time. "My heart got hooked," she says. "It's a dream come true."

With the growing number of Baby Boomers retiring or moving toward retirement, they afford an ample supply of talent to tap and a pool of people with a strong desire to put their talents to good use in the twilight of their careers. Many nonprofits have gaps or challenges they can't afford to fill with a full-time employee or an expensive outside consultant. It is a perfect and fairly obvious match.

For a relatively small investment, a small company can loan one of its senior people – or a recently retired employee – to a nonprofit, creating a beneficial partnership with tangible, local outcomes.

SVP has placed more than 250 senior professionals in high-impact nonprofits, according to Jim McGinley, the director of Seattle's Encore Fellows program. He expects that number to grow dramatically.

"Finding quality candidates who are looking for a second act in their careers is the least of our problems," McGinley says. "The focus now is on finding the right companies."

It is a perfect set-up for companies that want to make an impact in their community – and in the minds of their customers.

Design Online Content for Skimmers

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

People do more skimming online than reading, so you need to design and package your content to convert skimmers into readers.

Content providers beware. The explosion of online content has turned readers into skimmers. We still read what interests us, but we typically skim over most everything else.

Say what you want about shrinking attention spans or rising visual IQs, the evolving patterns of viewership have less to do with verbal and visual intelligence and more to do with survival. There is simply no other way to cope with masses of online material than to skim.

Developing content creation strategies that recognize our reading/skimming habits is essential if you want to be noticed. Here are some suggestions:

1  Create online content that people can skim. Design content with concise verbiage, good imagery and clear packaging that makes it easy to get the point even when skimming.

2  Include more visual content. Not pictures for picture’s sake, but quality visual content that tells your story better and more quickly than words. It can be photography, video, a chart, an infographic or a doodle that grabs the eye of a skimmer. Take consolation in data suggesting people remember more of what they see than what they read.

3  Place content where skimmers congregate. User data shows social media sites such as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram are growing rapidly because they cater to cursory readers.

4  Leverage the online capability of layering content. As people skim, they look for what interests them, which they read more intently. Online architecture and links let people drill down on what interests them, even as they skim. Embedding links needs to be an integral part of content creation.

5  Offer content that answers questions or solves problems. Readability assessments reveal people will read content that answers their questions or offers problem-solving assistance. This requires sharp targeting, drawing on credible research, to find who is asking the questions you answer and problems you solve – and where they go to find reliable information and advice. People are more apt to read your content if they trust it.

6  Provide content that is pleasurable to read. Evidence indicates people take more time reading – or actually reading – material they enjoy. You may have to tell the boss to deep-six his merchandising message and substitute other content, perhaps content generated by other consumers or site users. Instead of describing the features of your product, show how a consumer can enjoy it.

7  Think about riding a bus. This is a useful metaphor for designing content aimed at increasing numbers of mobile users. If you can find ways to stick out as someone thumbs through sites amid jostling and looking for your exit, then you are probably creating content that is tailored to skimmers.

8  Make your content appealing to share. Sharing is a trait of skimmers. They assume other skimmers may miss something they should see. Don't get your heart broken if sharers haven't read your entire content. Getting into circulation is a form of validation of your content that will impress some skimmers to treat it as trusted content – and actually read it.

If this seems a little discouraging, don't let it get you down. You have to walk before you can run, and you may have to abide skimming to convert scanners into readers.

Earning Clicks and Much More

If you want to be heard, be seen.

If you want to be heard, be seen.

Images improve the chances of connecting your customers with your content. If you catch their eye, you can earn a click.

However, images can do much more than just earn clicks. They can deliver useful information, answer common questions and provide clear explanations. 

Visual content works because our brains are wired to process images much faster than words. That's why a good picture is worth more than a 1,000 words.

Images have other virtues, too. They can simplify, symbolize and sequence information in ways that are familiar, comfortable and nearly automatic. It takes far less effort to look at a picture than to read a paragraph.

Capitalizing on visual content requires the same care, thought and editing as writing an effective paragraph. Sticking a picture into the middle of a mound of words won't cut it. We use the phrase "information design" to describe the process of determining how to meld words and images into a cohesive communications unit.

Here are some tips about finding and using visual content successfully:

1  All pictures aren't created equal. You need to choose pictures that grab attention and tell your story. We have moved past the Polaroid era and people expect higher quality imagery, which they see everyday, all day on television and the Internet. If you can't discriminate between a good picture and a bad one, get help so what you choose does the job.

2  You don't have to be a world-class photographer. Some of the most powerful pictures are ones taken in the moment on smartphones. The pictures you want to use should be judged by their effect on your customers, not based on the credentials of who shot them. 

3  Images don't have to be pictures. Some of the best, most shareable visual content comes in the form of charts and infographics, which are cleverly packaged and logically sequenced information delivery vehicles. Charts are especially good ways to show contrast. Infographics work well to explain a complicated piece of information in a simple, digestible fashion. They also are powerful ways to show causal relationships.

4  Video counts as visual content. Video gets discounted because of a perception that it is too hard and too expensive to develop. That's yesterday's news. Short videos can be easy to produce and are an effective way to show how something works or share a testimonial.

5  Seek and use customer content. A great way to generate images is to ask your customers to send them to you. You may receive a lot of unusable stuff, but all it takes is a few gems to add value to your communications. Customer-generated content is also a great way to engage your customer base.

6  Little pictures matter as much as big ones. No question a large, dramatic picture can be spellbinding. But smaller pictures can be appealing, too, such as photographs of the staff member who writes a blog. Think both big and small when you search and select images.

7  Don't overlook the element of surprise. Pictures, unlike words, can make people do a double-take. Visual surprises pull the eye toward them because they conflict with our sense of the familiar. They cause us to take a second look, which increases your chance of getting someone to spend more time with your content.

8  Be careful with stock photos. Stock photography can be a short-cut to getting a relevant, eye-fetching picture. It also can be a can of worms. First off, make sure you purchase the stock image you use for the purpose or purposes you intend. Second, be mindful of whether a competitor has used the image, which can be very embarrassing. Finally, stock pictures are just that. They are generic, not specific. If you are going for authenticity, look somewhere else than the online galleries of stock photography.

9  Insert personality into your visual content. Selfies are popular because they are personal. Inserting some personality into your pictures, charts or infographics underscores authenticity and can reinforce your branding. Be careful not to inject a tone that is inconsistent with your message.

10  Leverage familiar patterns. Infomercials can be effective by relying on tried-and-true patterns, such as "before" and "after." Visuals that are basically doodles work because most people doodle. A familiar picture with an odd twist can be turned into a meme that results in shares and comments online. Be a good observer and follow your own visual instincts.

How to Make Your Thank You Stand Out

How to make your thank you stand out

Next time you want to make an impression, consider taking a cue from an earlier time. Send a handwritten thank you note. 

While it might seem old-fashioned, a handwritten thank you note can make an excellent impression. While it’s much easier to send a quick email or tweet, a thank you note cuts through the digital clutter. Think about the last time you received actual mail that wasn't clearly mass produced.

Here are a few tips to make your thank you note stand out. 

1. Create personal stationery: While it may be easier to purchase a box of thank you notes, having your own personalized stationery feels more genuine. One easy way to make personalized stationery is to divide a piece of paper into four sections using a program such as Apple Pages or Adobe InDesign. You can either print the thank you notes yourself or go through a professional printer. Be sure to see and touch an example before you purchase or print a large amount. Include your contact information on the stationery, as recipients are more likely to keep a handwritten thank you note. 

2. Use quality paper: Quality paper demonstrates a clear tactile difference. When selecting a paper, be sure to touch and feel it before purchasing. Many office supplies stores will allow you to bring your own paper to be printed. Paper Source is an excellent place to purchase high-quality paper for making your own personalized thank you note. 

3. Consider colored envelopes: Using colored envelopes is an easy way to make your thank you note stand out. Make sure you’ve already designed and printed your thank you notes so that you can select the correct size. If you’re planning on hand-addressing your envelopes, make sure the color is light enough to write on. Paper Source also an excellent source for high-quality colored envelopes. 

4. Make sure to actually write and send your thank you notes: This step might be the hardest of all: sitting down to actually write the thank you note. Designing stationery and selecting envelopes may be fun, but follow through is the most important step. 

Advice for Aspiring PR Pros

Dear PR Student:

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

The best advice for would-be PR professionals is to learn as much as you can about as many subjects as you can, starting with journalism.

Congratulations. You are embarking on a fascinating career ride in public relations. Here is some unsolicited advice that may come in handy.

1. Take journalism classes. You very likely will be asked to write press releases. You should know what it's like to receive one.

Understanding news media needs and demands puts you in a better position to help, not just send an email with a news release. The goal is to get your client's message into print, online or on air. Having first-hand knowledge of how news is identified, researched, prepared and delivered can guide when and how you approach reporters and editors, as well as what you serve up to them.

Volunteering to work for a student newspaper is a great way to get experience. It will ground you in basics such as Associated Press style and serve as a reminder of grammar. It also will force you to write with the reader, not a client, in mind.

2. Be a liberal arts student. PR clients come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Their needs will stretch your knowledge. There is no way to know in advance everything you will need to know. The best you can do is to learn how to learn — fast.

Luckily, that is what a liberal arts education is intended to provide. All those non-major requirements may seem like boxes to check en route to a degree. In fact, they are important way stations to widen your horizon, to open your mind to knowledge you may have had no idea how to acquire or assimilate.

Take a physics class. You will be surprised how valuable it can be in understanding new technology. Take an economics class so your client's business plan doesn't look like gibberish.

3. Learn the tools of the trade. One of the exciting dimensions of public relations is that it deals with an environment that changes at the speed of light. Ten years ago, designing and building a website was a rarity. Today it is an imperative. Five years ago, people thought social media was a fad. Now it is viewed as an important communication channel.

The PR world five years from now is likely to be very different. However, you won't be able to leverage what's new if you aren't rooted in what's worked for a long time. A great example is how to fashion an effective presentation. The software may change and the animation may be cooler, but the fundamentals of a presentation that does its job won't be all that different.

You may write on an iPad or dictate into your Google glasses, but solid writing transcends the tools. Knowing how to tell a story and basic principles of design, which are universal, are foundation skills you should develop.

4. Know your chosen profession's history. PR professionals in the future will face an increasingly complex set of challenges in choosing the best platforms and the most resonant channels. A knowledge of how PR professionals in the past innovated is invaluable.

The use of events, contests, third-party validation, outrageous stunts, clever ads, smart writing and guest columns were all new in their time. Study to see how these ideas evolved so you understand, with some helpful perspective, how you go from problem to solution with creativity and élan. You don't need to discover gravity or reinvent the wheel. You can learn from your peers how they did it, so you can do it, too.

The Picture of Opportunity

Pope Francis blesses a baby at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26. The pontiff visited Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

Pope Francis blesses a baby at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Saturday, Sept. 26. The pontiff visited Philadelphia as part of the World Meeting of Families. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chief Petty Officer Nick Ameen)

The whirlwind U.S. tour by Pope Francis should convince every marketer of the power of photo ops to reinforce key messages.

Pope Francis departs the U.S. Capitol after his address to Congress. (Photo Phiend)

Pope Francis departs the U.S. Capitol after his address to Congress. (Photo Phiend)

From riding around in a tiny Fiat to having lunch with the homeless to meeting with prison inmates, Pope Francis exhibited what humility means in practice and underscored his pleas not to forget society's downtrodden souls.

The imagery from his trip was searing and kept most of the nation spellbound. The Pope's insistence to stop his car to bless a child provided a viral visual witness to his words.

The papal visit is a reminder that imagery can tell a story in a way words never can. Yet so much time is spent on words and too little time on actions that could convey your message in a genuine, impactful way. Even when visual communications are considered, choices often boils down to a video or an infographic, which can lack the raw appeal of an opportunistic photograph.

Photo ops have earned a bad name as manipulative ways to make a point in front of a camera. That bad reputation is deserved for the most self-serving "shots," such as the grip-and-grin pictures of someone handing an oversized check to a charity.

The art of the photo-op is to avoid making it look phony. That usually requires making sure it isn't phony.

Pope Francis is a media-savvy guy who keenly understands the value of walking the talk. He knows he is photographed constantly whenever he steps outside. But his actions that generate endearing images appear spontaneous. There is nothing forced or phony about them.

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama are greeted by Catholic school children on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 22. The children are local to the National Capital Region and presented the pope with a gift of flowers. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

Pope Francis and President Barack Obama are greeted by Catholic school children on the flightline at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Sept. 22. The children are local to the National Capital Region and presented the pope with a gift of flowers. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

While Pope Francis is a hard act to follow, his ability to curry powerful imagery is something everyone can emulate by following his example.

First, the Pope looks for moments that can crystallize his messages. After a wedding ceremony at the Vatican, Pope Francis donned a red nose like the ones worn by the bridge and bridegroom, which was captured by the wedding photographer. He enabled a photographer during his visit to a prison to capture his arm in the papal robe firmly in a handshake with a heavily tattooed inmate's arm. Francis kissed, hugged and fawned over children with grandfatherly naturalness, with iPhones clicking madly.

Second, the images we saw on TV, online and in social media were all captured and shared by journalists and onlookers, not a Vatican production company. They were in many cases crowdsourced, which attested to their authenticity, even if in some real sense they were stage managed.

Finally, the Pope evaluated his schedule on its symbolic qualities. He insisted, for example, to go to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, not just to be photographed paying homage to the dead, but to participate in a live inter-faith service. The service delivered some of the most emotional imagery of his trip, which never would have been filmed if he hadn't gone there.

Incorporating photo opportunities into marketing PR plans requires a lot of creativity and hard work. But an image that takes seconds to comprehend and embeds itself into memory is worth the effort.

Deception = Dumb Business Practice

VW rigged its software to allow cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

VW rigged its software to allow cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

While the CEO of General Motors was apologizing for cars that killed people, the CEO for Volkswagen was scribbling notes to explain the carmaker's admission that it installed software that lied about its diesel car's carbon emissions.

VW, which has been venerated for years for its reliability and quirky styling, now has to contend with a reputation-busting revelation that it sandbagged U.S. environmental regulators for years. And not just a little bit. The rigged software allowed VW cars with diesel engines to pass emission tests, but actual emissions were 40 times more polluting.

Granted the higher-than-reported emissions levels didn't directly kill anyone, but it demonstrates the same indifference and above-the-law attitude that plagued GM on its faulty ignition switch.

GM's Mary Barra has apologized for the company's incompetence and reluctance to own its problem. What is Michael Horn, president and CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, going to say about his company's problem?

Horn's initial comment was, "We have totally screwed up." Martin Winterkorn, the top boss at VW, has said he was "utterly sorry." Meanwhile, European Union and other nations are checking under their regulatory hoods to see whether emission cheating occurred in their jurisdictions. Company officials said as many as 11 million VW vehicles worldwide could be involved.

Apologies won't be enough in the VW scandal. Just as Barra had to take steps to change the culture of customer indifference at GM, VW needs to root out organizational behavior that enabled gaming the law and thought it was an okay business practice. GM is guilty of an omission of action. VW may be guilty of committing a crime.

Horn pledged, "We are committed to do what must be done and to begin to restore your trust. We will pay what we have to pay."

Not surprisingly, the VW scandal has taken its toll on its stock price. The company faces stiff potential fines.  There are more than 480,000 VW diesel cars in the United States that could be subject to a Clean Air Act violation fine of $37,500 each, which could total $18 billion. That's a hit, even for the world's largest carmaker with annual global sales in the neighborhood of $200 billion.

The VW scandal should go down as more than just a crisis. It should serve as an example of why deceptive practices, however justified at their inception, prove to be stupid business decisions.

A simple sniff test on the tricky VW software would have told the tale of how dumb this idea would turn out to be. Every product designer and manufacturer should give their nose a tune-up after the VW scandal.

Personalizing Products Through Engagement

The Player Pick engagement tool allows fans in a stadium or arena to select a player whom they believe will score a goal or basket during the game. It is similar to one-week fantasy sports experience.

The Player Pick engagement tool allows fans in a stadium or arena to select a player whom they believe will score a goal or basket during the game. It is similar to one-week fantasy sports experience.

Engaging customers is never a slam dunk, but a Portland-based company has come up with a way to engage sports fans while they are watching a game. It may offer a lesson for other brands, even if they don't have captive customers seated in a stadium.

Pick6 established proof of concept last season with the Portland Winterhawks for its engagement tool that gives fans in a stadium a fantasy sports experience, along with a more personal touchpoint for the team and advertisers.

The technology is undergoing a second maiden voyage this season with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, says Nick Lawson, who turned an observation at sporting events into an innovative start-up.

The Portland Business Journal featured Lawson, his co-founder Lee Jorgensen and their company, Pick6 Sports Solutions LLC. Before launching the start-up, Lawson did sports marketing for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. He sharpened the business plan for Pick6 in a paper he turned in as a student in Willamette University's Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

The Player Pick engagement tool allows fans in a stadium or arena to select a player whom they believe will score a goal or basket during the game. Lawson said it is similar to one-week fantasy sports experience.

The advantage for sports teams is to give them control over at least one aspect of the burgeoning fantasy sports market, which Lawson says has grown into a $3.6 billion industry. Pick6 would have access to fans through the teams it partners with, lowering its customer acquisition costs. It would take a cut out of sponsorships and coupon sales associated with the Player Pick tool.

It will be fascinating to see how Pick6 uses the data gathered through its app. Determining what players are most popular and what games garner the most engagement could be very useful for sports teams. 

Additionally, it’s easy to imagine prizes beyond just cash. Special meet-and-greet sessions with chosen players, tickets and special events could all be used as incentives to keep fans of the app engaged and excited. 

The underlying concept of engagement within an experience should send lots of brands to their bean bag chairs to figure how they could achieve interaction while their product is being used or consumed.

Cereal brands and Cracker Jack engaged youthful customers with toys in their packages.  Nowadays engagement must be interactive. You wear a watch that provides workout analytics and allows you to pay for stuff. However, the instinct is the same – how to personalize a product or experience.

An app, like the Pick6 Player Pick tool, can be an affordable technology tool that enriches your customers' experience and deepens their brand loyalty. Plus, it will add some gusto.

Thought Leadership Can't Be Delegated

Handing over your thought leadership blog to a ghostwriter diminishes the authenticity of your thought and the genuineness of your leadership.

Handing over your thought leadership blog to a ghostwriter diminishes the authenticity of your thought and the genuineness of your leadership.

Professional writers can add polish and zing to your content, but when it comes to thought leadership, the words should come from you.

Demonstrating thought leadership demands more than just coming up with a thought. How you articulate that thought is where the leadership part. Relying on someone else to craft and organize your words leaves you as merely someone who has a thought, not someone who can marshal that thought into actionable language.

Many writing assignments can and should be delegated such as press releases, backgrounders and marketing copy. Professional writing skills and experience can make a huge difference.

When it comes to a blog intended to show you know your stuff, it is disingenuous to hand off the job to someone else. Even if you rattle off a few key points, the final words are someone else's, not yours.

Typical reasons for delegating include a busy schedule, other pressing duties and writer's block. Those all could be true, but step back a moment and imagine an honest beginning to your "thought leadership" blog:

"My ghostwriter wrote this blog because after I had a bright idea in the shower, I didn't have time to expand on it or write it down. Thanks for reading."

Sound like thought leadership to you?

If your thoughts are important enough to think, they deserve the time and attention to write about. Your words make your thought authentic and your leadership genuine.

Readers, especially the ones you want to influence, will be keen enough to tell.

The Overlooked Virtues of Direct Mail

Using direct mail can help you get into people's homes unlike any other communication tool or channel.

Using direct mail can help you get into people's homes unlike any other communication tool or channel.

Snail mail has gotten a bad reputation, even though it is often the most direct, cost effective way to deliver your message to someone's doorstep.

In fact, one of direct mail's primary virtues is that it goes to people's doorsteps, so you have a higher level of certainty someone will pluck it out of the mailbox and give it at least a cursory glance.

That is more than you can say for a TV ad people don't see while fast-forwarding pass it or a radio ad people don't hear while stopping to get gas.

Yes, many people don't read what comes in the mail. They quickly toss into the trash or recycling bin. But that's where creativity comes into play to catch someone's attention and persuade them to take a closer look.

One of direct mail's secret weapons is the ability to personalize the mailing. People tend to pay more attention when mail is addressed to them by name. Again, creativity is needed to use this moment to grab their eye, but you have this moment to work with, which is not always the case with other forms of paid media.

Another plus for direct mail is its familiarity. Going the mailbox is a routine. Opening mail, even junk mail, is usually a pleasant experience, except perhaps for bills that are due.

The formats for mail are also familiar. We recognize letters, postcards, brochures and flyers. Generally, we associate them with information. They tell us about important meetings, new restaurants or serious issues that affect us.

Unlike a TV or radio ad that is here now and gone, mail is, well, tangible. It is right thee in your hand. Direct mail is also fungible. You can read it now or read it later. You can even retrieve it from the trash. And mail doesn't shout at you, like the rabid-looking car salesman on billboards or late-night television.

Another virtue of direct mail is its shareability. Before Facebook and other social media, people shared mail. "Hey, did you see that postcard announcing a new development in our neighborhood?"

Marketing these days is all about segmentation. Direct mail is the best choice when you are trying to reach a geographic segment – a neighborhood, a part of a city or a region. Electronic media may boast about multiple impressions and a newspaper placement ad may have considerable reach, but only direct mail can target specific mailboxes

Online ads can be aimed at certain demographics or buying habits, but they can't force an interaction as personalized as opening a piece of mail. Direct mail also can be sent to targeted names on a database.

Direct mail is a great companion to larger marketing campaigns, especially ones involving contests or coupons. Success is easy to track because you can count entries or redeemed coupons.

Even with all its benefits, direct mail isn't the right answer to every marketing challenge. But it shouldn't be haughtily dismissed just because it relies on snail mail. Mailboxes remain one of the most constant and reliable channels to deliver your message.