Content Marketing

Missing a Newsjacking Layup

When Villanova's men's basketball squad made it to the Final Four, the university seized upon the chance to show off its academic prowess on LinkedIn. But the execution fell flat, as Villanova failed to capitalize on an easy newsjacking opportunity.

When Villanova's men's basketball squad made it to the Final Four, the university seized upon the chance to show off its academic prowess on LinkedIn. But the execution fell flat, as Villanova failed to capitalize on an easy newsjacking opportunity.

 

Villanova University turned a sure newsjacking score into a flubbed layup.

After Villanova's basketball team made it to the Final Four, the university turned to LinkedIn to tout its players’ 100 percent graduation rate. Smart. However, the link attached to its intriguing newsjacking post took viewers to a stale college catalogue explanation of Villanova and its virtues. Informative, but hardly a match for the newsjacking tease.

Newsjacking is the slick pass to capitalize on news events to grab attention. But that's only half of the play. You can’t just dribble the ball, you need to take the shot and score points with the audience you attracted. 

Obviously overlooked were short video vignettes from the Villanova players about their academic experience. Other options might have been a snappy video tour of the campus, showing off what makes Villanova different and its academic atmosphere, or testimonials from successful Villanova alumni.

Almost anything would have been better than a page ripped from the college admission handbook, which came across like a two-handed set shot.

They clearly missed a clear-court layup, but after Villanova’s scorching, historic victory over Oklahoma in the semifinals, it has another chance in the championship game. They have great footage from the basketball court. They need to team it with some compelling off-court footage, which shouldn’t be too hard. After all, it’s just a layup.

 

Content Marketing Personas

Content personas are similar to buyer persons, but add emphasis on preferred information channels, content consumption habits and frequency of content acquisition.

Content personas are similar to buyer persons, but add emphasis on preferred information channels, content consumption habits and frequency of content acquisition.

Buyer personas are established elements of marketing plans, so why shouldn’t a content persona be appropriate for a content marketing plan.

Buyer personas show how existing or potential customers think, their perceived needs and where they get information. A content marketing persona is similar, but it zeroes in on what kind of content customers view as useful, informative and entertaining.

Buyer and content personals all have the same objective – to convert someone from a viewer into a customer. They both search for triggers for that conversion. They seek ways to establish a bond of trust between brand and buyer.

There are subtle differences. A content persona places more emphasis on preferred information channels, content consumption habits and frequency of content acquisition.

Marketing personas are ways to humanize customer statistics. It is hard to conjure a marketing plan for metadata. It is easier to envision a plan that addresses people with certain kinds of common characteristics. 

Personas reveal "pain points,” “priority initiatives,” “perceived barriers” and “decision criteria.” Marketers like to track the “buyer’s journey” and “success factors.” Content marketers must be mindful of all that within the framework of creating content.

A pain point could involve finding a way to get rid of mold in the shower. A buyer persona might focus on a product. A content persona would show the process of how to use a reputable product to scrub away the mold. It is the difference between promoting a product directly or demonstrating how your product works.

This example illustrates that some “buyers” just want a solution, while others want to be involved in the solution. That oversimplifies the difference between buyer and content personas, but it does show how they differ.

Another key difference is perspective. A buyer persona is intended to mark the path to a sale. A content persona is a roadmap to winning the customer’s trust and, ultimately, loyalty.

Many companies have shifted marketing dollars to content marketing because it matches well with customer relationship management. If all you do is pitch products, you aren’t distinguishing yourself from competitors. If a competitor comes up with a snappier, cooler and cheaper product, your buyer persona is hasta la vista. Competitors have a tougher time busting through the rapport you establish with layers of successful content marketing that deliver continuing value.

Content marketing and personas don’t require throwing away all you know about marketing or buyer personas. They do require a marketing master's degree in how to generate content from the vantage point of a helpful neighbor with a garage full of unbelievably useful tools.

Ten Essential Skills for Digital Marketing

The rise of digital media reinforces marketing skills such as clear writing and visual communications and requires new skills ranging from using digital analytics to working productively in virtual teams.

The rise of digital media reinforces marketing skills such as clear writing and visual communications and requires new skills ranging from using digital analytics to working productively in virtual teams.

As we plunge deeper into the digital age, some old skills take on greater value and new skills are required to remain top of mind, convey brand value and get work out the door.

Arik Hanson, in his blog Communications Conversations, offers what he calls 10 essential skills for the future of public relations. The skills could just as easily apply to the future of successful communications for brands, nonprofits and public agencies.

Video and audio production and advertising copywriting skills top Hanson’s list. He might have added animation skills. The tools to produce compelling video and audio content have become vastly more accessible to everyday users, who face growing demands to generate visual content. Advertising is expanding to social media, which demands knowledge of how to write snappy copy, even if you aren’t an “advertising creative.”

Another emerging skill set, Hanson says, is the ability to create social media content and manage social content systems. Some still cling to the view that social media is all about dog pictures and people describing what they ate for dinner, original content that is useful, relevant and entertaining has become a staple of marketing programs, especially for nonprofits and public agencies. Curating and stockpiling content, as well as making it searchable, has become a fundamental marketing ground-game skill.

Writing clearly for external and internal audiences isn’t a new skill, but Hanson insists its role is growing. With information overload and a casual attitude about writing, those who can communicate clearly in words will be highly regarded – and perhaps in short supply. Writing for internal audiences involves “understanding what motivates employees,” Hanson says, “as well as having solid writing skills.”

Visual communications dominate on digital media, which means organizations and their PR counselors must “develop a visual style” for their online presence. It’s not enough to be online. You need to stand out online.

Another reality of digital media is the power of influencers. Hanson says collaborating with influencers is a whole new ballgame. "Four to six years ago, everyone was talking about blogger outreach, and with good reason: Blogs were the dominant cog in the social media machinery. Fast-forward to 2016, and there are now platforms such as Instagram and Snapchat – with people on those networks who command significant attention.”

Satisfying clients remains a priority, but Hanson says it now requires a “deep understanding of traditional, digital and business analytics.” It also requires, he adds, an “understanding of how to produce reports that make sense to clients.” “Provide relevant context, provide ideas as outcomes of the data and always cull the data and present them in terms the client can understand.”

The final skill Hanson points to is the ability to work in virtual teams. “I see virtual work environments as a huge trend over the next five to seven years,” he says. That involves understanding virtual team workflows and investing in tools that work in virtual team environments.

Hanson, who is the principal for a Minneapolis-based marketing firm, wrote a similar list of 10 essential skills in 2012. The list changed significantly in just four years. It is highly likely to keep changing rapidly into the future, which means organizations need to adopt an attitude of continuous improvement and a willingness to learn and embrace new ideas.

Making Corporate Candor Funny

Little Caesars spoofs corporate scapegoating by having intern Chet Wallaby take the rap for dropping the chain’s popular back-wrapped deep dish pizza from its menu.

Little Caesars spoofs corporate scapegoating by having intern Chet Wallaby take the rap for dropping the chain’s popular back-wrapped deep dish pizza from its menu.

Little Caesars is running a TV ad in which intern Chet Wallaby takes the blame for the inexplicable disappearance of the wildly popular Bacon Wrapped Deep! Deep! Dish Pizza from the chain’s menu.

The tongue-in-cheek bit, which features a corporate big-wig thanking the scapegoat intern for his honesty, works because it mirrors reality. A lot of C-suite executives designate someone else to convey the bad news or to take the spears for a corporate misstep.

The ad fits Little Caesars quirky brand personality, founded in 1959 by Mike Ilitch, a Detroit Tigers farm club shortstop. Ilitich’s wife, Marian, affectionately called him her “little caesar,” which became the chain’s name. What started as a single store has become an international food services company, known for filling the largest pizza order in history – 13,386 pizzas – and renowned for setting up Love Kitchens on wheels to feed victims of natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

The bacon-wrapped pizza – a deep-dish pizza with 3.5-foot-long belt of bacon – was introduced in 2015. It drew the expected critical hazing for excess, but apparently it was popular with Little Caesars patrons. When the pizza slid from view on the menu, customers complained. Then, the TV ad announced its bacon-wrapped return.

Wallaby, the awkward, disingenuous scapegoat in the TV ad, is a perfect representation of other designated fall guys. Scapegoating is far too common, which makes the spoof funny and memorable. In real life, scapegoating is less funny and hard to forget. It can even be a brand killer.

Domino’s rebranded itself around a new pizza “from the crust up,” with ads that admitted its previous pizzas tasted like cardboard. The “Our Pizza Sucks” campaign was plaudits for “corporate candor."

Most brands may not need to go as far as Domino’s, which dropped “Pizza” from its name and ran a series of ads showing its signs being pulled down. But some – take note, Chipotle – might consider it.

Whether a brand is remade or not, owning reality is a quality that usually resonates with customers. And as Little Caesars shows, owning reality can be funny as well as serious. 

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.

From Brand Journalism to Branded Entertainment

Tonight’s "Late Night With Seth Meyers” show will feature an extra comedy sketch paid for by American Express in a slot where traditional TV ads would have appeared as part of an experiment involving branded entertainment.

Tonight’s "Late Night With Seth Meyers” show will feature an extra comedy sketch paid for by American Express in a slot where traditional TV ads would have appeared as part of an experiment involving branded entertainment.

First came brand journalism. Now we have branded entertainment. 

Tonight’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” show will feature an extra sketch sponsored by American Express. Other shows such as “The Voice,” “Blindspot” and “Today” have slipped sponsored content into slots normally occupied by traditional advertising.

Branded entertainment, in the form of comedy sketches, extra interviews or extended segments, reduces the amount of advertising while still making the cash register ring. It is a response to more viewers moving to services such as Hulu that offer content without advertising breaks. TV networks are banking that fewer advertising slots will fetch higher prices and different kinds of slots will appeal to gold-star advertisers like American Express.

The notion of branded entertainment is as old as radio and television. Way back when, individual sponsors were associated with shows. The Jack Benny Show was originally called “The Lucky Strike Program.” Ed Sullivan’s Sunday evening variety show was primarily sponsored by the Lincoln-Mercury Division of the Ford Motor Company. 

Native advertising, where the ads look and feel like the content or medium they appear with, has been gaining in popularity. But it is still advertising, which some readers and viewers want to avoid. Branded entertainment, which involves sponsorships, is an attractive alternative.

National Public Radio has a form of branded news and entertainment, with sponsors that receive Twitter-size acknowledgements. Weather and traffic reports on radio and TV are another common form of branded content.

According to The New York Times, American Express approached NBC last December about its branded entertainment idea, which it will use to promote one of its credit cards. An American Express spokesman called the partnership with NBC an opportunity “to create a different kind of paradigm” for TV advertising in an increasingly segmented market. 

If the experiment works, expect to see it replicated on more than TV shows as well as promoted on popular online news sites. NBC invested $200 million in BuzzFeed, which “will produce online posts related to sponsored programming,” the New York Times reported.

Avoid Snap Judgments about Snapchat

Snapchat is no joke with more than 100 million user visits and 7 billion video views per day and a user base heavily weighted with Millennials.

Snapchat is no joke with more than 100 million user visits and 7 billion video views per day and a user base heavily weighted with Millennials.

If you want to direct a message to young adults, consider delivering it on either Instagram or Snapchat. Yes, that Snapchat. 

For many people, Snapchat, which launched in 2011 and was originally called Picaboo, is a quirky social media platform where you post something, then it goes poof. Well, that impression is so yesterday. Almost literally.

In the last two years, Snapchat has added new functionality that allows users to tell more complex stories that hang around longer, send direct messages and conduct video chats. Snapchat’s popularity has exploded, with 100 million user visits per day, a user base nearly the size of Twitter’s and 7 billion daily video views. That is close to Facebook’s 8 billion daily video views, but Facebook has an audience 15 times larger than Snapchat.

If you want to reach young people in the 18-24 age group, Snapchat is a good choice. It has more than three times the following in that cohort than Facebook or Twitter and more than twice Instagram.

If you want to reach young people in the 18-24 age group, Snapchat is a good choice. It has more than three times the following in that cohort than Facebook or Twitter and more than twice Instagram.

Snapchat appeals to young adults because it is relatively frictionless. Tap and shoot. Hold the button down for video. Snapchat is more personal than Instagram. You can share with a chosen group, not broadcast to the world. For the impulsive, Snapchat offers nearly guilt-free, real-time sharing, with the knowledge that the post will soon disappear. (After a run-in with the Federal Trade Commission, Snapchat settled and admitted that posts aren’t absolutely deleted and in some cases can be retrieved with the right forensic tools. For intentional users, this is a meh moment.)

Writing for socialmediaexaminer.com, Suzanne Delzio says Snapchat’s audience is growing and highly engaged – appetizing metrics for advertisers and anyone who needs to reach a young adult audience. For example, Snapchat could be a perfect crisis response vehicle to tell college students about an infectious disease outbreak and the steps to combat it. Snapchat might be the right vehicle for a continuing campaign to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse on dates.

Delzio says Snapchat endured early criticism for its vertical-only video format. However, data indicates mobile device users strongly prefer vertical versus horizontal video formats. Score this as a built-in advantage for Snapchat. The video completion rate, Delzio adds, on vertical formats is nine times higher, which is good news for marketers who often place their calls to action near the end of a video. Think of how this might work with a video about a car or car insurance aimed squarely at young adult consumers.

Instagram has staked out a strong position with Millennials, but Snapchat is catching up. Delzio reports that a study of Millennial smartphone users shows they spend 5.9 hours per month on Snapchat versus 7 hours on Instagram. Millennials spend almost 26 hours per month in Facebook, but it is a different experience. The key takeaway, Delzio writes, is that 76 percent of Millennials are already plugged into Snapchat.

The network that started in a Stanford classroom may be ready to dress up and go out on the town. Delzio says advertising rates have been lowered on Snapchat to sweeten its appeal for a broader group of advertisers.

In the world of social media, yesterday’s news is ancient history. Snapchat may have been a punch line, but it has quickly grown into a significant network for a key demographic group. Reconsider any snap judgments you may have made about Snapchat and consider how you can put it to work. 

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.

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.

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."

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.

Trust = Barrier to Earned Digital Media Coverage

Digital media outlets are more open these days to content supplied by PR firms. At the same time, reporters remain highly skeptical of PR professionals who they claim too often provide misleading information.

The findings come from the 2015 Media Influencers Report prepared by D S Simon, a digital video communications firm. "Communicators are missing out on significant opportunities to earn media with their content in the digital space," the report says.

More than three-quarters of producers and journalists who responded to survey questions indicate they have used video they didn't produce. Almost the same percentage expressed willingness to post links or entire videos to digital outlets affiliated with television and radio stations, newspapers, magazines and blogger sites.

"This provides an unequaled opportunity for direct communication of the entire PR or marketing message to consumers," says Doug Simon, CEO of D S Simon.

However, PR professionals need to be careful not to foul their own nest. Ninety percent of producers and reporters say they have been misled by PR professionals, with a quarter of them saying they are misled often, which means there is an underlying lack of trust. A common problem is the failure to include proper disclosures on submitted video content.

There also is a gap in taking advantage of opportunities for "brand integration," which involves combining earned and paid media in a communications channel. Simon says it is easier for marketers to go for paid media instead of scratching a little harder for ways to earn media coverage.

The voracious appetite of media for fresh or compelling content, especially video content, is what has wedged open the door for third-party submissions. TV stations simply don't have enough film crews to fill up all the time slots devoted to news, which is why, according to the report, 93 percent of them accept third-party video. More than 80 percent of website producers, 78 percent of bloggers and 73 percent of magazines follow the same practice.

While B-Roll (pre-filmed material that often serves as background) is the top source of third-party digital content for TV stations, website producers and bloggers depend on it for infographics. Virtually all media outlets use images supplied by third-parrty sources. Newspapers, magazines, websites, bloggers and even radio stations will link or include entire videos on their online platforms.

The report suggests digital platform managers look for news ideas on social media. Facebook and Twitter are by far the greenest pastures for producers and reporters, but there is significant attention paid to LinkedIn, YouTube and Instagram.

Television producers and newspaper assignment editors are the most likely to accept a story pitch via social media, but you can get luck with radio and website editors and bloggers, too.

As barriers have crumbled between public relations, marketing and advertising, new opportunities have risen for brand integration. Simon says this is still an emerging arena in which 50 percent of the PR professionals who inquire about it are shuttled off to news outlet advertising departments.

"Improving the quality of your creative content, pitch angles and relationships with the media increases the percentage of media you earn rather than pay for," says Simon. "While brand integration has a role, earning digital media is a more credible and authentic way to communicate with your key audiences."

Tuning Content for Your Audience's Ear

Content marketing is more than blasting content through a megaphone. It involves finding out what your audience wants and giving it to them.

Content marketing is more than blasting content through a megaphone. It involves finding out what your audience wants and giving it to them.

The secret to content marketing lies in knowing your audience, not someone's formula for success.

Neil Patel, writing for ragan.com, says too many content marketing initiatives go down in flames because they follow so-called best practices rather than the clues provided from target viewers.

"Take every best practice with a grain of salt. Do the one thing that matters: Know your audience," Patel urges. "Your form, method, frequency, length, style, approach, tone, structure, images should depend on what's best for your audience."

Content marketers are discovering what ad agencies have discovered – connecting with audiences requires more than shouting through a megaphone. Writing a blog that no one reads is just as much of a misfire as producing an ad that no one believes.

The "best practices" that Patel spears aren't necessarily bad practices to adopt. Snappy headlines, brisk copy, blogs, infographics all can be effective tools. But that's what they are – tools, not ends.

One clue to what your viewers are looking for is what they click on in your website. Typically, the most clicks are for team biographies and case studies. That suggests content centered on your team members and stories about your work.

Another way to ferret out what your viewers want is to ask them. Periodic surveys can combine a little fun with serious questions. This might lead to producing content, such as an informative Ebook, that responds to interests or needs that are expressed.

Tuning into online conversations is yet another way to hear what is on the minds of your audience. Creating content that follows – or bucks – trends could be a great way to capture attention.

One constant in content marketing that shouldn't be forgotten is the need to provide something useful. Usefulness could mean content that is entertaining, informative, relevant or eye-opening.

Another content marketing maxim is letting the form follow the function. Your content must be created, packaged and delivered so it arrives at the doorstep of your audience, whether that doorstep is a desktop, tablet or mailbox.

Many content marketing best practices have value and reflect track records of success. But Patel is right – they aren't where you start in designing an effective content marketing campaign. The place you start are the persons you want the message to end with – your audience.

Package Your Information Like a Gift

Make sure your information is a gift your customers can't wait to open. 

Make sure your information is a gift your customers can't wait to open. 

Everyone likes to receive gifts, especially when they are packaged neatly with a card and wrapped in brightly colored paper and a pretty ribbon. You should think about packaging information the same way.

It’s not just about making things look pretty. The way you present your information directly impacts how likely your target audience is to hear what you're saying. You can make your information inviting by following the basic steps of wrapping a gift.

  1. Pick the right size box – The size of the box should match the amount of information inside. While little kids get excited about big packages, most people appreciate a box they can get their hands around. Some of the most excited reactions come from opening small, ring-size boxes. Skillful editing will help your viewers focus. Only include your most interesting informational gems and put aside less important items. 
  2. Choose your paper and ribbon carefully – Don’t forget about the visual way you present your information. Make sure the layout you choose draws in your audience. A bright headline and smart copy also attracts attention. You want to make the wrapping so inviting that viewers cannot resist opening your package right away.
  3. Protect the contents in the box – Just as you would place protective material to secure a gift, surround your valuable information with supportive material – links, video, SlideShares, podcasts and images. You want your gift recipients to rush to open the box, but to notice the care by which you packaged it. Providing supportive materials makes it easy for them to go back and find useful context or more deeply layered information.
  4. Deliver the package in person – While it is fun to see a package waiting by your front door when you arrive home, nothing compares to the impact of a friend handing you a gift. Building a relationship with your customers means they are hearing from a friend, not a stranger. Further personalize your information-sharing, through including a personal greeting, customized content or an offer for interactivity.
  5. Give a gift that's useful – The gifts that are most welcome are ones that fill a need. Make your information useful and relevant to your audience. Engaging your audience regularly will ensure you know what is at the top of their wish list. 
  6. Make your gift a party – Gifts are most fun when they are given at a party. Create some excitement around your information with an event, a contest or a milestone celebration. 

As with any gift, it really is the thought that counts. Always keep your customers in mind when creating and packaging your information. 

Top of Mind: Key to Being Remembered

Remind people that you exist and do quality work.

Remind people that you exist and do quality work.

You may be someone's best friend, but they still could forget you if you aren't doing what it takes to remain top of mind.

For example, we never got a chance to pitch a project for a former client, who when asked why sheepishly said he forgot about us. 

On the other hand, a long-time colleague invited CFM to be part of his proposal after he read one of our blogs that touched directly on what the potential client wants.

If you are sitting on the sidelines, don't blame your clients or colleagues. Look in the mirror, then get out of the bathroom and remind people that you exist and do quality work.

How you stay in the line of vision of potential clients can take a lot of forms. Give speeches, write blogs, keep up regular correspondence, share a white paper, take people out for coffee or do someone a simple favor. 

Success is less about what you do than whether you do what it takes.

Integrated approaches to networking work best. Take an idea and turn it into a blog. Promote your blog on your Twitter feed and ask for feedback on your LinkedIn page.  Self-publish press releases on your website. Start a conversation that attracts the eyeballs of your target clients – and your existing ones, too. Let them see you are thinking and offering ideas.

The best posts, speeches and coffee chats center on sharing something useful. It won't seem as much like a sales pitch if you offer information or a tip clients can use. It will remind them of your value and relevance.

You can't stop with a single outreach effort. People are busy and can overlook your post or miss your speech. It may seem like you are saturating your communications channels, but that is unlikely unless you screw up like Justin Bieber. Staying top of mind demands being a regular part of the thought leadership landscape.

As a colleague once said, professional networking is a contact sport. No contact, no client, no gain.

The Marriage of TV Ads and Content Marketing

American Family Insurance's retro Super Bowl ad featuring Jennifer Hudson shows the power of combining paid media with online content marketing.

American Family Insurance's retro Super Bowl ad featuring Jennifer Hudson shows the power of combining paid media with online content marketing.

American Family Insurance splurged on a high-profile Super Bowl ad to launch an online campaign to encourage people to pursue their dreams fearlessly.

A singing Jennifer Hudson headlines the 60-second TV spot, which is set in a retro scene taken from the 1942 Edward Hopper painting called "Nighthawks." The ad is impressive, but what separates it from the average big-money spot is its social engagement component.

Clearly, American Family Insurance wants people to click on its website and get quotes for car or home insurance. But the website also contains a nicely designed "Dream Bank." "Every dream deserves the spotlight. Which is why DreamBank by American Family Insurance is using the biggest game of the year to give the spotlight to hardworking dreamers who have the courage to dream fearlessly."

After tripping through a section devoted to the aspiring actors who appeared in the Super Bowl ad with Hudson, you come to a section aimed at helping everyday dreamers. "Every dream starts with the dreamer," the section begins. "By understanding your strengths, motivations and fears, you can better focus on your dream and the path to get there." 

Dreamers are then led through a series of questions about what propels their dream, followed by a set of online resources, including 26 books to inspire kids to "dream bigger." Viewers are asked to sign up for updates as more content is posted.

In all, it is a worthy effort to get people's attention with an ad and then to sustain that attention online by offering something of value.

Without question, the emphasis on this project was the splashy ad. The Dream Bank is mostly a nascent idea with a trickle of content. But the concept is solid and shows the importance of interconnecting paid media and online content marketing. This is a strategy that can be pursued without a multi-million dollar advertising budget.

There are lots of ways to pique people's interest — through contests, events, direct mail, posters and storytelling — that gives them enough reason to follow-up online. The online material's job is to give a quick and positive first impression, then to offer well-packaged, accessible content that is informative and useful. 

Quality content will keep people coming back, so you get a chance at more than a one-time encounter. American Family Insurance undoubtedly hopes it can stay in touch with people who sign up as dreamers, with the hope their dreams will lead to the need for more or different insurance. Hopefully, the company will see beyond mere clicks for quotes to the possibility of building an online community centered on empowering and realizing life dreams. Being associated with that social enterprise will bring richer dividends than a few new auto insurance policies.

You know content marketing is catching on when even big-league ad agencies find ways to promote it. Just remember, you don't need a big-league ad agency to launch your own combined campaign of outreach and engagement.

After the Super Bowl Ad Hoopla

Marketing PR has always been aimed at forging relationships and many of its techniques are designed to be useful as well as clever.

Marketing PR has always been aimed at forging relationships and many of its techniques are designed to be useful as well as clever.

Reaching your audience through a 30-second, $4.5 million Super Bowl ad may not be in your budget. Luckily there are many other, more affordable ways to make a connection. 

For Budweiser, it may make sense to spend millions on a commercial about a horse and a dog so it can remind people it still sells beer. For the vast majority of brands that operate on tighter budgets, marketing efforts have to be more focused and targeted. Those brands need to rummage through the marketing PR bag of tricks.

Events, user-generated content, contests, earned media, open houses, op-eds, YouTube videos, white papers, Facebook fan pages, consumer summits and garage meet-ups are the stuff of marketing PR. They can be just as entertaining as ads, but cost far less and often have much longer retention value. Most important, they zero in on your audience. 

Mass appeal gave way to targeted outreach some time ago. Now the premium is on building relationships with target audiences that provide useful information for consumers and stakeholders. Marketing PR has always been aimed at forging relationships and many of its techniques are designed to be useful as well as clever.

Advertising remains an important ingredient in marketing efforts, and it also has become more user-friendly. Ads can be targeted, consumers can help generate their content and editing and production can be accomplished on a laptop instead of requiring a studio.

So if your budget doesn't have a spare $4.5 million rattling around, don't despair. There are plenty of ways to get across your message to the people you want to hear it.