The Delicate Art of Letting Sacred Cows Go

Forced change is one of the hardest aspects of communications today. With consistent technological evolution and its impact on the Internet and media, change we must. Often change requires letting go of sacred cows, meaning those marketing and communications initiatives that are important to us or the company yet we know their not working.

Why would a company continue efforts that produce little or no results? Precious “must have” initiatives can pale in comparison to other efforts when it comes to delivering actual results. Still internal stakeholders feel these programs are the way business should be done.

External perception and trends can provide as much if not more peer pressure. You need look no further than the perception that every business and nonprofit should be active on Facebook.

This is where data can offer a great marinade, the evidence that helps spur a conversation about change. But you need to have that conversation, probably many of them to get an organization to let go of its sacred cows. The process of helping people move beyond set beliefs also requires a deft hand that allows them to save face.

Begin with Clarity

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Every organization should have a mission that helps the company or nonprofit determine its communications goals. When you understand where you are going, you can build key performance indicators (KPIs) that clearly show whether or not a particular tactic or initiative is meeting its goals.

KPIs are a black and white type of measurement, specific in their intent. You may even want to break goals into types of actions. Consider some of these possible KPIs:

  • Engagement will be determined by the amount of website traffic referred from each social network (branding). A successful social network post will yield 5% click through.
  • Successful website content will be determined by a) amount of shares, totaling 10% of visitors (branding) and/or b) amount of email sign ups, a goal of 5% (lead gen)
  • Successful social network communities worth investing in will produce lead identification through email sign-ups, online chats and contact forms. Five percent is the target for all social networks (lead gen).
  • Eventually customers should be produced by identified leads. We expect a 10% conversion rate for identified leads (ROI)

It’s fairly easy to set up these types of goals with a combination of web analytics and CRM. Almost every marketing automation system empowers this type of tracking.

However, the real yield in these efforts is gaining clarity about your customers. While your sales people may understand customer profiles in general, data yields exact profiles. For example, they work in mid-cap companies and are either directors or vice presidents. They tend to work in technology or security concerned industries. You may be able to determine gender and age. Sixty eight percent are women aged 30-49.

In addition, you can map customer behavior. They interact with us on Twitter, but share our content on LinkedIn, too. Those that like our page on Facebook never share the content, nor do they click through.

What Your Data Allows You to Do

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Suddenly, you have a clear picture of how your customer interacts with you and who they are. It is important to identify what is working and what may be failing, including your sacred cows.

I think its critical to look at the data with an attitude of discovery. If you go in and say this isn’t working, then people act out of fear. Covering up and saving face becomes more important than changing. This is the conversation to have: Look at what this data is showing. Maybe we can better meet our KPIs if we tweak our current outreach. What do you think? Make it a safe conversation where everyone has a voice.

Don’t push to cut things unless everyone or a majority of your team is in agreement. You may need to go through a cycle or two in your program before prescribed change is agreed upon.

Perform an audit of your communications and content. Experiment to see if you can get more yield on social networks, email, ads, etc. Instead of generic content, you can now drill down and offer specific content that may be more compelling (e.g. contextual). For example, instead of offering photos of men at work, show pictures of women at work. Perhaps offer custom content for your top industries as the reward for signing up for emails.

If getting authorization to experiment is difficult, data should help to justify A/B tests. Try it once and see if the results are different. What CMO won’t give something a one-time try to see if they can get more engagement, leads, and potential customers?

As you experiment, you learn more about the role of each medium in your networks. Poorly performing sacred cows continue to stink. Each time you present the data about which actions are meeting KPIs and which ones aren’t, it becomes clearer that some initiatives must go. The question may be changed to should we cut this? And then when should we cut this?

The process of experimentation helped vested internal stakeholders see the poor performance, try to save it, and realize it was simply no longer a viable communications path or method. You may have known through this whole process that your sacred cow needed to be cut. Going through the process was necessary to create palatable change within your organization.

Usually, we see change as a moment in time. But in reality change is often an evolutionary process. This was the case when Tenacity5 announced its stance towards Facebook marketing last week. We experimented and changed approach a couple of times before letting the overhwelming and consistent data inform our decision.

What do you think?

Future Media Success Is More than a Path

Immersive technologies offer incredible new media experiences. These paths give us the opportunity to develop new ways of interacting with our communities.

We will create incredible experiences that alter the very fabric of our lives. As the media we use becomes accepted, case studies will emerge showing how brands compelled people with remarkable moments and applications.

Consider the movie Her and the role of personal artificial intelligence avatars in society. You may think it’s far off, but the MIT Media Lab is already working on a similar project involving personal robots. Perhaps social validation via Facebook won’t mean much when we can simply ask our own personal Carla Jung what she thinks about our deepest fears.

Whatever you think of personal AI, we are entering a time when rich media will be served to us in cars. We’ll receive directions, have tweets read to us, view overlay screens, place entertainment consoles in the rear seat and more. Watches empowered with technologies like Google Now already prompt us in our ear buds that the subway stop is just two blocks to the right, and that waiting for the third train will actually save us time.

Those are just two obvious examples of the near future or the not-quite-adopted now. Yet, these portable media offer brands and content creators new paths to explore. It’s always been this way.

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During Halloween 1938, the United States experienced the incredible impact of radio drama via The War of the Worlds. No one expected such a captivating tale. Radio moved from a medium to gather around and became an incredible, dynamic imagination machine. Broadcasters were outraged, and Orson Welles became one of the world’s great dramatists.

Every entertainment podcaster today and every bad alien movie (Cowboys and Aliens comes to mind) can thank Orson Welles and CBS for breaking new ground and creating a compelling experience with an already established medium. Welles and CBS in turn surely thanked H.G. Wells for his brilliance in novel form, all the way back in 1898.

Data and Visual Media Offer Paths

I am struck by two common themes in online marketing today: the overwhelming movement towards analytics and the increasing drumbeat of visual media. Both are necessary movements — ones I have touted, too — offering paths that lead to better relationships with customers.

Paths are important, but you need levers. That is the issue with today’s data and visual media conversations. They fail to blend levers with paths.

Data points the way to better engagement or more conversions, but you need to compel people. Data only gives us the preferences of the moment and an understanding of community needs. If we fail to build strong levers, people look for a different resolution to their needs.

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Today’s marketing experts talk about visual media, but often don’t know how to develop and use illustrations, graphics, photos and videos. So we hear a lot of chatter about visual media but see few levers. If there was ever a medium in which to show and not tell, this would be it. Instead, we have road signs in the form of blog posts that point out paths, but don’t compel people.

Boring “me, too” campaigns ensue. The first ones work. But as the signal gets noisier, common content approaches fade to black. While the path is correct, the levers are weak. They lack creativity.

What’s another store selling its wares on Halloween? How about flipping the paradigm and making fun of your overwhelming box store experience with a Shining tribute, one that speaks to your target customers (30- and 40-something families with kids)? Marketing paths need creative levers.

Compel Us

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Levers compel us. Paths give us a means to create levers, but we need to do more. We have to tell interesting stories and innovate upon the current level of useful content.

Shooting photos in Washington, DC can be tough. Some subjects are so well photographed you really have to look for a different perspective. I often look for a high or low point of view, or shoot at night, or use a long exposure.

A common subject becomes compelling, more interesting. The Washington Monument takes on a different look in the fog with a long exposure. It’s spooky! A fitting shot for a Halloween week.

You’ve got data. You know you need to become more visual. What are you going to do to compel people?

5 Tips to Liven Up Long Stories

We live in the tl;dr (too long; did not read) era of the Internet. How do you make traditional text stories and content succeed in an online world where attention spans are dwindling and success necessitates visual media?

Over the past year at Tenacity5, we’ve learned a few tweaks to drive more traffic to text heavy copy. Here are a five formatting methods and writing tips to liven up long stories.

1) Build Modules

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We know stand-alone long copy doesn’t perform well. Instead of writing essays, build out posts and white papers with sections or modules. In the old day this was creating subheads to break up a story. In a well engineered content piece for the current visual media era, I would say each section must be its own multimedia module.

Each module has its own mini-thesis or message and can stand alone as a small content piece on the Internet. Modules have both a visual communication of that message and supporting copy. Every module works together to tell a story or support an overarching thesis. Individually, they are unique. Together, they stand as a powerful piece.

Note the architecture of the visual in context with the text. Ideally, the picture, video or infographic can serve as the lead for the story or even tell it. They should work hand in hand. Do not make “snacks” here. There are many resources on the Internet to find free pictures.

Bleacher Report does a really nice job of building module-based feature stories.

2) Architect Visuals from the Beginning

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One of the biggest issues with content today is simply slapping on visual assets to create a multimedia or rich media post. There’s more on content strategy in point five, but when you add visuals after the fact, you are creating content that serves the words. And that may be OK if you are great photo researcher and can clearly understand your thesis and message.

However, more often than not when visuals are added after the fact, they have tangential meaning. When visuals are bolted on haphazardly, they don’t help content discovery and the overall meaning is less understandable.

When you know what you want to say, figure out what the right visual media is from the beginning and build it with the text in mind.

In some cases, you may illustrate points in the text after the fact, like Gaping Void did with Brian Solis’ What If PR Stood for People and Relationships. Nevertheless, GapingVoid was part of the content from the very beginning, and the content was created knowing that we needed sound bites that could be illustrated.

If you don’t already have a visual media library, start building one or research photo libraries for relevant images before you begin creating content. Drawing from a wide variety of assets makes life easier.

3) Use Lists

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When building modules, or at least creating subheads and sections, number and title content with a list. A list signals an easier more digestible content experience to your reader. Should every piece of content you write be a list? Probably not, but lists make long content pieces much more likely to be viewed and read

I used to sneer at list posts as the “BuzzFeedization” of the Internet. That was until I dug deeper and started re-engineering BuzzFeed posts. Then I built a few of them. I titled some with the numbers and others with a traditional headline. Then I watched the numbered post traffic go crazy.

I was little disappointed in this, but the fact of the matter is we are living in the tl;dr era. Breaking up long content into digestible lists and bullets just makes it easier. Or, you can run the gauntlet and try to architect the perfect long business essay that will actually be read.

(Original image by Ian Muttoo)

4) Write Ad Copy

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A writer with advertising training will fare better in the current content environment than a PR or literary writer. Ad writers focus on tight punchy headlines, snappy subheads (or module titles), and short compelling short body text.

If you go my the maxim, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter” then your copy is going to fail more often than not. People don’t have time for long blathering posts. Write short, tight compelling copy.

When I analyzed Buzzfeed’s style, more than anything it read to me like ad copy. In that regard, it is concise and brilliant.

In the same vein, do your readers a favor and edit the bejesus out of sections. Make all copy as tight as possible.

5) Composition

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Last but not least, composition is becoming a critical focus for communications, in my opinion. Some would say it always has been. In large part this is because of data. We have so much data, we are either lost in it and don’t know what to communicate or we are over-informed by it, allowing our communications to become scientific and lifeless.

When we have more data — or even better — precise data, we can inform composition. Creativity infused outreach provides the opportunity to wow people. Or we can fail, amused with our data-inspired bells and whistles. Let me give you a photographic example.

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I liked the above photo when I took it. I thought it was so cool to get all of the Cleveland Flats industrial grid iron works AND also include the bright fountain, too. After all, people love bright colorful lights in night settings.

Except one thing: Though it hit all of the data points that I know people love in night shots — long exposure, color, industrial details, bright luminescent orange fountain, etc. — the composition sucked. The fountain overtakes the rest of the photograph, and because the fountain is not well placed in the image, it doesn’t work. The composition failed in spite of the elements.

We cannot fly blind with our communications just because we know people like certain aspects of them or because we satisfy some data requirement or messaging requirement. Any communication — written or visual — must have meaning. That is why we must be intentional about composition.

What is the thesis — the message — of the conent? What are we trying to achieve with our outreach? How are we accomplishing that goal? Does the data we have support that the approach will work? Does the approach inspire our intended recipient? Composition is an area that can always evolve and improve.

What tips would you add?

Other posts you might like:
4 Storytelling Methods
12 Ways to Boost Your Visual Media Performance

The Snackable Misnomer

Throughout the social media marketing web, photos and video and infographics are often discussed as “snackable” content. Calling rich media snackable is a big misnomer (Image by decipherment).

Bloggers began using the term in the late 2000s as a means to describe short content. However, since then the mobile web dominates online media consumption and the sheer volume of blogs and print content has increased. As a result, visual media has become more than a cute hors d’oeuvres to augment online media offerings. Instead, visual media have become the necessary hook to capture customer interest.

Calling rich media snackable is a failure to see the dynamic draw of visuals, and how they serve as an essential first step to engaging others in a possible customer journey. Rich media often serves as the first touch, the means to draw interest and start someone on their web journey. Using my former colleague Beth Kanter’s Ladder of Engagement metaphor, today’s rich media often serves as the first step on the ladder.

What was considered primary media is rapidly becoming boring and unreadable to more and more causal web users. Many consumers won’t dig deep without a clear interest.

Rich Content Creation Takes Time

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Creating rich media that is easier to consume is just as time intensive as text, if not more so. Setting up a professional video or photo shoot takes hours, not minutes. That doesn’t even include editing time. Yet bloggers who think they can run a corporate Instagram account with casual one-off “snacks” shot on their smartphone wouldn’t know that.

Graphic design is also time intensive.

Then consider the amount of time it takes to write and produce scripts, and short but powerful captions. These things need sharp catchy text and strong calls to action, if the ladder is to be climbed. I used to dismiss BuzzFeed until I dug a little deeper into its format. I realized how much effort goes into each article.

When rich content is created, you need a method to disseminate it. Whether through an organic community or a paid one through native advertising or earned media through pr mechanisms, you need a community to serve your time-intense rich media.

It’s In the Way That You Use It

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So you can see rich media is not really a snack, unless you deploy it strategically in that manner. More and more brands are meeting the mobile trend by using rich media as the first step on their ladder of engagement.

If you are operating from the standpoint that print is the center of your content offering, then it makes sense to treat rich media as snackable. But the sea change that is occurring in online media consumption may force a strategic shift.

More online content leaders and increasingly the agency community are coaching their colleagues to use visual media as a primary vehicle. In that vein, Tenacity5 is releasing a blog post, slideshare deck and eBook tomorrow filled with simple tips on how to use visual media on a variety of networks.

One of the reasons we engaged in the effort was the snackable issue. We see the concept of using rich media as window dressing or secondary content as a strategic error. And we are seeing the shift in the marketplace, too. Tenacity5 is only one year old, but three of our six clients are leading with visual media as primary assets. It’s time to educate the sector about this shift.

What do you think?

7 Signs of the Post Social Media Era

Social media is not a new driver of the Internet, relatively speaking. At best, social data is harnessed to serve larger technology trends like contextual media, marketing automation, and more. In turn, social media and related marketing conversations are no longer groundbreaking. The larger business world has moved on to the next thing.

This “post social media” trend crystallized for me at SxSW V2V last week. Start-ups were working on new technologies and approaches, but they widely ranged from space start-ups to Shinola (CEO Jacques Panis pictured above), a Detroit based maker of high quality wrist watches. What wasn’t central to the V2V conversation was social media. At most, start-ups discussed social as a means to include customers in conversations and innovation, but not the end product of their innovation.

Several larger stories and trend corroborate this post social trend. Here are seven signs that the U.S. social media era of innovation is coming to a close:

1) The Medium Changed

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Internet media evolved and became more mobile, visual and data-centric, and the dollars and associated conversations followed. If you look at what Internet start-ups are focusing on today it tends to be mobile-centric, automation, data applications, contextual use, location media and other types of applications.

New social networking apps, while still developing, are not generating huge investment rounds or attention anymore. Heck, even the most mainstream of social networking apps are retooling to meet the new mobile visual Internet. As the old adage goes, follow the money.

2) Wall Street IPOs Are Waning

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In that vein, the social media IPO craze — led by LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter — looks like it may be coming to close. This year’s biggest social media IPOs are coming from Chinese start-ups Line and Alibaba. No big U.S. social media start-ups are on the horizon with the exception of Pinterest.

3) The Rise of “Dark” Social

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Original image by Blake Herman

Dark social is the movement towards conversations that are not public anymore. Private social network communities and newer networks like WhatsApp and SnapChat thrive on people saying what they think without the repercussions of public data, ad retargeting, attention from customer service nazis, and helicopter actions from bosses and parents.

The movement away from public conversation is a significant loss for social media in the conventional sense. People are no longer willing to be transparent because the repercussions of public discourse are too high. Eventually, even those private conversations will become dangerous (like texts and emails that end up in court) causing more off-line dialogue.

4) Thought Leadership Vacuum Appearing

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When my friend Jeremiah Owyang started focusing on collaborative economy models instead of social media, I was really happy for him. At the same time, I could not help but note that another thought leader had moved on from the general social media discussion. With each passing month another member of the old guard stops blogging or moves on to a new venture.

Those that remain — new and old — seem challenged to offer a new conversation beyond Facebook and Twitter dalliances, influencers, and content marketing. While there may be new wrinkles every now and then, I see granular progress compared to the advancements made a few years ago.

5) The Commoditization of Social Media Content

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Original Image by the Foodie Buddha

When discussing the above thought leadership trend with Rich Becker last week, he said one of the primary drivers is the commoditization of social media content. I had to agree with him. To be clear we’re not talking all content, rather content about social media and how to use it.

There are so many people producing social media marketing and trend blog posts that even when a thought leader writes something original, their content fails to stand out. The growing crowd of social media experts — from AdAge beat reporters to mom and pop bloggers — is an underlying cause of today’s content shock conversation, too. A gourmet burger is still just a burger in an online world with a chain on every corner.

6) Gaming Google with Social Gets Harder

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It used to be that social media was a primary way to drive SEO for topical issues. Brands and SEO experts figured out how to use social updates and content to achieve top rank, and the games began. But Google has responded with a series of initiatives — Panda, Penguin and eliminating keywords — that are effectively dampening and possibly even eliminating the SEO industry.

Online word of mouth is still used as a search algorithm signal, but increasingly it must be organic and earned, something many marketers won’t invest in. It’s much easier to buy access with ads and other tactics. As a result, those people and brands not truly vested in social communities are moving on.

7) The Biggest Trend in Social Is… TV?

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Original Image by CBS LA.

Today’s biggest advances in social media marketing seem to be the integration of traditional television programming (live and on demand), native advertising, and visual social elements in a cross-screen smorgasbord of transmedia delight. Even social TV and transmedia not new trends. Rather, this is the maturation of media and technology to serve the advertising industry.

So those are the seven signals that are making me think we’ve quietly entered a new era in Internet marketing. What do you think?

Want more? Read 12 Ways to Boost Your Visual Media Performance.