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Business communication insights, innovations and perspectives

The workplace can be a serious environment. Deadlines, mounting responsibilities and anxious stakeholders can result in a professional world that isn’t always open to fun and games. But that might be just what your organization needs to increase engagement, productivity, innovation and profits.

More and more research is showing that gamification—the process of using game elements to influence employee or audience behavior—can improve organizational productivity. Marketing magazine recently highlighted an example of successful gamification from the University of Washington. Scientists from the school’s biochemistry department contracted video game developers to assist in their research. What they created was an online video-game puzzle called Foldit that crowd-sources human intelligence and creativity. Through gameplay, Foldit enabled its users—many without any scientific background—to make some impressive achievements, including redesigning proteins and small molecules. Some believe gamification strategies such as this could lead to greater medical discoveries in the decades to come.

Video game developers say the method works because games motivate participants to overcome challenges and their achievements are rewarded, providing a sense of accomplishment and creating more incentive to play (which explains why so many hardcore video gamers forgo food and sleep to continue playing for hours on end). Now, businesses and organizations are finding that gamification can improve communication, creativity and innovation. Toymaker LEGO provides a gamification service called LEGO Serious Play that, according to its website, uses the iconic multi-colored bricks to “create metaphors for real business issues which allows you and your team to visualize situations and address complex issues without simplifying or losing the important details.”

Marketing magazine writes that gamification is proving to be successful across industries, from telecommunications to sports to digital music. Verizon, Nike and Spotify are just some companies that have recently utilized gaming strategies to help turn big profits. The most famous example is probably the McDonald’s Monopoly sweepstakes promotional game. Around since 1987, the annual contest brings two iconic brands together to hook millions of customers, a strategy that has proven to be lucrative for both brands.

But customer engagement is different from employee engagement and gamification is not a perfect science. For organizations interested in bolstering engagement with gamification, Mitchell Osak writes in the Financial Post that “managers need to focus on designing good games and ensuring employee buy-in up front.” Osak recommends a business approach based on the following five principles:

1. Choose your application wisely. Good gamification applications have a defined work flow, are measureable and are embraced by all employees.
2. Design games carefully. Games that are too easy give incentive to cheat, while ones that are too difficult threaten employee adoption.
3. Focus on intrinsic not extrinsic rewards. Gamification works because of intrinsic motivators such as competition, not extrinsic rewards like cash prizes, which lead to short-term engagement but longer-term burnout.
4. Adopt a “learning by doing” approach. Every organization operates differently. Begin with a pilot project to gauge what works before rolling out across the enterprise.
5. Keep technology in its place. “Managers should first prioritize getting game fundamentals right before choosing which technology to use,” writes Osak.

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More and more consumers are now jumping on social media to air their grievances and complaints about a brand. And brands realize that leaving these complains to fester can only stoke the flames and create even bigger customer service nightmares. However, as Curtis Silver notes for an article in Digiday, engaging in dialogue with complaining customers on social media is not always the best policy either.

Silver cites the example of the airline industry and their Twitter accounts which are littered with customer complaints. The airlines seem to have a social media policy where they address all customer complaints. But, Silver argues certain customer complaints—such as those who blame the airline for bad weather that delayed their plane—should not be engaged. And to do so actually does more harm than good because it invites more inane conversations that breed more negativity and bad publicity for the brand.

Silver argues that social media customer service is really not customer service in that it doesn’t really exist to sort out customer’s problems but provides a platform for both the customer and the brand. Silver asks, “But is this really what we’ve come to expect from customer service? A public back and forth in 140 characters because we’d rather everyone know about our problem as opposed to just simply picking up the phone? Is this social media experiment by brands really customer service or just making sure that they, too, are heard?”

It’s an interesting question. Silver does note that Comcast has developed an effective way to handle customer service through social media and that’s by routing customer complaints off the public channels to call centers where issues can actually be addressed and resolved.

And brands do have an obligation to go where their customers are which today increasingly means social media. But maybe all issues and customer complaints can’t and shouldn’t be handled through the latest and greatest social media platform.

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Zachary Seward at Quartz recently shared an interesting internal report highlighting the digital strategy of The New York Times. The report reveals that the Times home page is seeing half as much traffic as it did two years ago, and that social media appear to be the main culprit for the decline. As Seward explains, “overall traffic to the Times isn’t falling; it’s just coming in through the ‘side door’ more often.” Meaning readers are increasingly finding and accessing news articles through social media, email, and other channels; fewer are arriving at content through the homepage.

Seward suggests that this is because home pages and apps are all “pull” media: They rely on readers having to actively visit them. He argues that the Times report makes it clear that readers are more interested in “push” media: those photos, stories, status updates, etc. that find you.

However, Ezra Klein at Vox has a slightly different view. He argues that the home page is not actually dying, it’s just changing. He notes that even with “push media,” someone still has to create content and post it to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, Klein suggests that organizations have invested too much time and resources to just let the homepage die. Plus it’s one of the few places where publishers still have complete control over content.

Klein believes the home page will change as organizations start to better understand their audience and how they now share content. He says, “The home page used to be the way most of your readers found your content. It’s becoming the way your power users find the content to share with your casual users. As we begin to understand that behavior better it’ll likely change the way we build and curate home pages quite a bit.”

Whether the home page dies or morphs into something else, it will be something for content creators to keep an eye on.

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Managing a brand’s name and image can be a daunting task. It’s often a precarious balancing act involving numerous interests and delicate circumstances. Recent media spectacles like the Malaysia Airline’s flight disappearance and the U.S. government’s healthcare website debacle have shown us the importance of a well thought-out PR strategy. And with a constantly changing media landscape, there’s never been a greater need for talented communicators and PR experts.

So after putting in endless hours of publicity management for your company or organization, how do you know when all your blood, sweat and tears have paid off? Measuring a job well-done in this field can be difficult because PR is not always tangible. Business Victoria – a state-run resource for businesses in Victoria, Australia – suggests asking yourself the following questions to gauge the effectiveness of your public relations strategy:

1. Has your number of sales or clients increased or decreased?
2. How many leads – that is, inquiries or follow-ups – resulted in actual sales or clients?
3. How much influence do you have? Are you the media’s go-to industry expert? Does your social-media following grow with each new post?
4. How many web hits does your site attract?
5. Has your brand awareness grown? Is your name the first one that comes to mind when someone needs the services or products you provide?

Thanks to the digital revolution there is now an endless amount of data containing valuable information about the public’s consumption habits and interaction with brands. Unfortunately the industry has yet to fully grasp and understand this gold mine, which is why so many PR specialists are stuck using decades-old strategies. Some experts believe industry professionals are relying too much on antiquated methodologies to measure success and ROI, such as advertisement value equivalency. Public relations consultant Shonali Burke hopes the industry will abandon the metric someday and move toward a system that tracks and measures long-term outcomes. “We should build a better understanding of how we’re helping to position the business, contributing to the bottom line and impacting the company’s perception, reputation and positioning.”

Creating and managing a good reputation is arguably one of the strongest PR strategies and methods of measurement. Business evangelist Guy Kawasaki says brands waste millions of dollars on traditional PR strategies like advertising, which may not be as effective as they once were. “Brands are built on what people are saying about you, not what you’re saying about yourself. People say good things about you when (a) you have a great product and (b) you get people to spread the word about it.”

But in the age of rapid-fire communication where everyone has a platform to speak out, properly managing the public discourse surrounding your brand can be tricky. Crisis and reputation management expert Heath Applebaum will give communicators advise on protecting reputations on- and off-line at World Conference next month in Toronto.

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If you’ve ever done business with someone outside your country, you may have encountered some cultural barriers that hindered the communication process. This can be frustrating for business and communications professionals, especially those who don’t take the time to consider foreign cultural norms. Being cognizant of these differences can be crucial to your businesses success in our increasingly interconnected global economy.

A recent article from Harvard Business Review explains the difference between Eastern Asian perspectives and Western perspectives. Author Erin Meyer cites research from the University of Michigan’s Takahiko Masuda and Richard E. Nisbett that demonstrates holistic thought processing versus specific thought processing.

For their study, Masuda and Nisbett showed Asian and Western participants short videos of an underwater scene. When asked to describe what they saw the Asian participants described the entire scene, providing detail about the foreground and background objects. Westerners, on the other hand, reported the prominent objects in the foreground with little or no mention of the other objects in the video. In another experiment, Masuda and Nisbett asked participants to take a photograph of an individual. Most Asian-produced photos captured the subject’s entire profile as well as their surrounding environment. In contrast, photos taken by Westerners were mostly close-ups providing more detail of the subject’s face with little or no emphasis on their environment. The study demonstrates that Eastern Asian cultures tend to think holistically, seeing an entire situation and how its parts are connected. In contrast, Western cultures tend to think specifically, removing a subject from its environment and analyzing it as a single entity separate from the whole.

Research such as this can be useful to business professionals worldwide in a variety of situations, whether negotiating business deals, advertising in foreign markets, or training workers overseas. Colorado-based Global Perspectives Consulting provides communication training and support for organizations, helping them create understanding, improve relationships, and increase productivity. In a recent post on its blog, GPC says that when it comes to training workers across cultures, there are eight major “region-specific cultural factors” to consider: historical tradition of education in the region, learning styles, high versus low context communication, deductive versus inductive approach to information, shame and honor paradigm, status markers, group orientation, and time orientation.

Many business analysts believe a lack of cultural sensitivity is the reason many international business deals fall through. It can also shine a negative light – justified or not – on those who don’t do their homework before conducting relations outside their country. Last year Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates made international headlines when, during a trip to South Korea, he was photographed shaking hands with president Park Geun-hye with one hand in his pocket. While most Americans wouldn’t think twice about his relaxed demeanor, it was interpreted as a sign of disrespect by many South Koreans. U.S. president Barack Obama, on the other hand, was criticized by some U.S. media for adhering to cultural protocols by bowing to foreign dignitaries while traveling overseas, a gesture some Americans feel undermines his authority. These are just some examples of how maintaining positive and productive relationships, at any level, can be complicated. While there may not always be a right answer, preparation and understanding can mean the difference between sealing a deal and offending an entire country.

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Reprinted from Berkeley 360

From on-demand bite-sized news on your mobile, to the global dominance of a few social networks, the unifying impact of digital technology risks drawing PR attention away from effective storytelling, according to a new report by international PR group, Berkeley 360.

The report, Stories without borders – international PR in an evolving media world, reviews recent research and trends to show how the global media landscape is changing and what this means for international PR. Berkeley360 has published the report to coincide with the UK’s National Export Week 2014.

The findings reveal that while boundaries are disappearing between print and digital media, between online, social and mobile channels, and between brands and their customers, the world remains a culturally, linguistically and geographically heterogeneous place - and brands and PR professionals forget this at their peril.

In-country social media networks can be far better at building and engaging local communities.  Local culture and language mean that localised stories about local firms, tailored to the local news agenda and supported by local spokespeople remain an essential ingredient for successful PR.

Similarly, research shows that over half the world’s population reads a daily newspaper, and trade publications remain the best for influencing senior decision makers.

“We live in a world transformed by technology that has changed forever the way people consume news and engage with brands,” said Chris Hewitt, CEO of Berkeley PR, Berkeley 360’s managing partner. “However, our study also highlights the vital importance of local market landscapes and traditional media. This blended rapidly-evolving world is giving rise to a new set of rules for PR.

“One of these rules is that PR campaigns must think global but act local.  Another one is the need to acknowledge that consumers everywhere want to build genuine relationships with brands.  So don’t just tell them how wonderful you are; tell them a good story and listen to what they have to say.  Your story should be relevant, topical and full of human interest, and strong enough to adapt easily to local market needs and different channels. Thirdly, more than ever PR must establish mutually supportive relationships with the media and with the brands it represents. We are all in this together.”

The whitepaper includes a high level trends overview, a summary of the implications for PR, advice for businesses looking to introduce or expand their international PR activities and a series of informative country media snapshots. Copies of the report can be downloaded free of charge: www.internationalpr.info/stories-without-borders


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After the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Annual Leadership Meeting brought digital ad fraud to the forefront, the question has been raised: If fraud is so rampant, what are we doing about it?

An article from the Wall Street Journal estimates that about 36 percent of Web traffic is fake. For advertisers who pay for ads whenever a user—human or bot—uploads them when visiting web pages, this represents a huge loss. In fact, according to ad-fraud detection firm White Ops, advertisers lost about US$6 billion in the U.S. alone last year.

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In his speech at the IAB leadership meeting (above), Vivek Shah, Chairman of the IAB Board of Directors, said that traffic fraud “has reached crisis proportions….We are supposed to be the most transparent, open, addressable and accountable medium in the world. We’re too good for this.”

However, it appears that most advertisers aren’t doing anything about the problem. According to the Wall Street Journal article, digital advertising spending is expected to rise 17 percent to $50 billion in the U.S. this year.

Roxanne Barretto, assistant vice president for U.S. digital marketing at L’Oréal SA, stated this reason for continuing to spend online advertising dollars despite the risk of fraud: “Slowing down spend represents a missed opportunity to connect with our core audience.” An AdAge article goes on to state that “there’s little incentive to fight fraud.” Why? Because fighting requires money and sophisticated technical infrastructures to take down professional fraudsters.

Should advertisers simply bury their heads in the sand? Shah urges the industry not to. Addressing his fellow advertisers, he acknowledged that “It’s a dirty secret you are willing to keep because the performance looks great on paper….But it’s not right and it will only cause long-term damage to trust and confidence in the medium.”

So what can we do about it? Some companies are demanding reimbursement or free ad space in the event of fraud. Others are rewording media contracts to protect themselves from scam. Shah encourages established publishers to make sure they aren’t buying suspect traffic unknowingly, and suggests that listing standards be developed to protect from those publishers who continue to sell fraudulent traffic.

Is it a fight you think is worth fighting?

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There are a handful of overused and cliché marketing tactics that people in business regularly utilize when pushing their message or product: cute babies, sexy models, flashing lights, CGI trickery, catchy melodies, etc. Although often effective, these advertising mechanisms can backfire if audiences find them tasteless, distracting or boring. Marketers looking to step outside the box and try something original might look into one of humanity’s oldest traditions: storytelling.

New research from Johns Hopkins University, which will be published later this year in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice, found that the structure of an advert’s content was more indicative of its success than the content itself. Researcher Keith Quesenberry spent two years studying more than 100 commercials that aired during the annual Super Bowl competition in the U.S., and their marketing strategies. He discovered that the most popular ads told a complete story, using a centuries-old narrative structure called Freytag’s Pyramid. The simple, five-act structure—which includes exposition, complication, climax, reversal and denouement—has been used in Shakespearian masterpieces and dates back to Aristotle. It can also be found in one of this year’s most popular Super Bowl commercials, from Budweiser. The ad is set on a farm and tells the story of two “best buds”—a puppy and a horse – that are torn apart when the puppy is given up for adoption.

Using Freytag’s Pyramid, the ad packs an emotional punch into a minute-long story. As a marketing technique it looks easy, but professional storytellers will tell you that conveying a clear message while eliciting a powerful emotional response from the audience is not easy. The structural breakdown looks something like this:

Exposition: In the first 15 seconds, the story establishes a friendship between the puppy and the horse.
Complication: The puppy is quickly carried away with a gut-wrenching look of sorrow on his face before making other failed attempts to visit the horse.
Climax: The pup is given up for adoption and, at roughly 40 seconds into the ad, is placed in his new owner’s car. It seems he’ll never see his friend again, until a group of horses chase down and stop the car.
Reversal: Together with the horses, the pup marches back onto the ranch.
Denouement: The horse and pup reunite and frolic together on the farm.

The understated ad, devoid of any nudity, celebrity appearances or gimmicky dance-pop tunes, was hugely successful among viewers and the media. It has nearly 50 million hits on YouTube, with thousands of comments like, “That is so adorable,” “I tear up every time,” and “This is definitely one of the cutest commercials ever created.” What’s more, the ad makes no mention of Budweiser until the very end when the company’s logo accompanied with “#bestbuds” closes out the commercial. The ad’s success reinforces the notion that humans are social and that sharing stories is a powerful way to connect.

The Johns Hopkins study is not the only one to call out a connection between storytelling and audience engagement. A new study of Asian Pacific markets by Waggener Edstrom found that online brand content and storytelling leads to increased consumer engagement and spending. This powerful trend doesn’t seem to be fading anytime soon. Amazon.com is flooded with books about creating stories for brand marketing. Even MBA programs like Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business are teaching their students about the storytelling. So what does this all mean for marketers? It means that generating compelling content is key to driving business. And nothing makes for better content than a great story.

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As the 8th Anniversary of Twitter approaches, most brands agree that it is an effective marketing tool, but paradoxically cite challenges measuring ROI.

Article from Social Media Marketing University 

Despite a successful IPO, brands using Twitter to boost marketing efforts are still uncertain as to Twitter’s true value. According to a recent survey conducted by Social Media Marketing University (www.smmu.com), 45.1% of brands reported that ‘measuring ROI and results’ is their greatest challenge when using the platform for marketing, followed by ‘building an audience’ (42.1 percent) and ‘engagement’ (36.8 percent).

A stark contrast, more than 64.9 percent of brands agree that Twitter is an effective marketing tool. 30.6 percent remain undecided.

“Social media has become a significant play in the marketing world, so much so that brands are almost forced to leverage it, even if they are unsure of its value,” said John Souza, founder of Social Media Marketing University. “The challenge for marketers will be to solidify best practices to measure ROI on all social media platforms as they face increased pressure from the C-Suite. Additionally, as Twitter banks on the success of its paid services, it will be critical for the platform to provide resources and support to help brands navigate this challenge.”

SMMU’s Twitter survey was conducted March 1 – 12 leading up to the eighth anniversary of the platform’s launch on March 21 and the expiration of the lock up period on May 6. Other significant findings include:

  • 96.2 percent of brands using Twitter as a marketing tool report having challenges using the platform to achieve specific goals
  • 16.9 percent of brands are not aware that Twitter offers paid services and 34.7 percent are not currently interested in using Twitter’s paid services
  • Despite the popularity of video marketing, Vine remains underutilized with just 2.4 percent of brands using the feature on a regular basis
  • Most brands using Twitter as a marketing tool do so to increase brand awareness (79.4 percent)
  • Brands are using Twitter predominantly to create engagement during events (62.4 percent), build relationships with influencers (62.4 percent) and monitor brand mentions (58.4 percent.)

A complete look at the survey’s findings will be available at www.smmu.com/research on March 21.

“What we found overall is that there are a number of ways brands are incorporating Twitter into their overall marketing plans,” said Souza. “The challenge is that if marketers aren’t able to demonstrate in black and white how their efforts are paying off, it will be difficult to make the case that Twitter’s paid or unpaid services are worth the investment.”


About Social Media Marketing University

Launched in 2009, Social Media Marketing University (SMMU) is the largest online training firm specializing in social media and online marketing courses, and the first to offer a Master Social Media Strategist Certification. Additionally, the firm caters to more than 114,000 professionals, offering 13 comprehensive courses, weekly webinars and a Social Media Inner Circle program for ongoing professional development. SMMU has been recognized by The Mashable Awards, Forbes’ ‘America’s Most Promising Companies’ campaign and the International Business Awards. For more information, visit www.smmu.com.

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Changing your company’s marketing strategy to fit your audience is essential to success. Unfortunately, too many business leaders are not prepared to keep up with their customers.

Perhaps the most dramatic shift in marketing over the past few years has been the rise of technology and digital communications. As Nigel Fenwick of Forrester Research writes on Forbes.com, the future of business—for customers, products, operations and competitors—is digital, and that development is altering consumer behavior. Although new research conducted by Forrester reveals that nearly three quarters of business executives say their company has a digital plan, a paltry 15 percent actually believe they have what it takes to see those plans come to fruition.

Digital marketing is more than having a web presence; any business can create a Facebook or Twitter page and acquire likes and followers. That’s easy. Today’s digital business landscape is rapidly evolving and is more sophisticated now than it was a year ago. What many business leaders are failing to see is that this landscape looks more like a “dynamic ecosystem of value that connects digital resources inside and outside the company to create value for customers.” Furthermore, they’re failing to see that this change is here to stay.

Consumers now have a plethora of mobile apps that drive their consumption habits, hence the catchphrase “There’s an app for that!” Often these apps are working in conjunction with one another to serve a greater purpose for the consumer. Take, for instance, a business trip. As Fenwick notes in his article, someone traveling for work may use several mobile apps to accomplish distinct tasks: Hipmunk to search flights; SeatGuru to check airline seat availability; SPG to track hotel reservations; American Airlines to deliver an electronic boarding pass; Avis to track car rental information; and TripAdvisor to find places to eat; and Uber to find a ride from place to place.

Independently, each app addresses a specific task or need. Combined, they create an “app ecosystem” that provides more value to the trip and streamlines the overall experience. Should one app not work or suit the traveler’s needs, there are likely scores of competing apps waiting for his or her business. The consumer’s options are now endless thanks to the digital revolution. In this context, a company that does not harness digital technology will likely sink, while the companies that do will surely swim, and will stay afloat as long as they continuously modify their operations according to the changing circumstances of modern business.

Many business leaders are aware of the digital void in their marketing operations and aren’t surprised by Forrester’s findings. Digiday asked executives of major companies for feedback. Here’s what some of them had to say:

Eric Johnson, interactive marketing manager, General Mills
“It’s not that there aren’t good people at these companies working on digital — there are! —it’s that there aren’t always established business metrics to validate digital marketing. It can take significant investment to develop and execute digital strategies, let alone manage the organizational change necessary to implement them. It’s difficult to feel confident about digital work without the assurance of a proven ROI.”

Adam Kmiec, senior director of social media and content, Walgreens
“I think things fall apart for most organizations when they hire the wrong person to lead their digital efforts. You need to look well beyond the resume.”

Bob Rupczynski, vp of media, data, CRM, Kraft
“Digital isn’t just a tactical execution. It’s about understanding the pace of change of media and culture. There are a lot of companies that are playing the wait-and-see game. I’ve worked at plenty of companies where there are no plans for digital, so, no, the results don’t surprise me.”

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