Putting a face on swine flu

It’s no secret that people are more likely to pay attention to a movement, a brand, or a product that has a human-interest story attached. Naming a program after a survivor (or a victim) has a powerful impact.

We’ve all heard of the Amber Alert (named after a 9-year-old kidnap victim in Texas). And most people are familiar with the Brady Bill (named for presidential press secretary Bill Jim Brady, shot during the Reagan assassination attempt) that mandates background checks for gun purchasers. Since 1948, the Jimmy Fund (named after a 12-year-old cancer patient who went on the radio to talk about his disease) has been raising money for pediatric cancer treatment.

It’s no secret that people are more likely to pay attention to a movement, a brand, or a product that has a human-interest story attached. Naming a program after a survivor (or a victim) has a powerful impact. Nonprofit fundraisers know this (Gilda’s Club and the Susan G. Koman Foundation). But government agencies rarely use this dramatic marketing tactic  — even when lives hang in the balance.

Marketer Seth Godin, noting that more than 50 percent of parents in New York City initially kept their children out of the government swine flu vaccine program there, says “If I was marketing the swine flu vaccine, I’d name it after a kid who died last season.”

Philanthropic climate change: Money no longer grows on trees

How do responsibly run, major non-profits raise money in today’s climate without crying “emergency?” Or do they have to?

iStock_moneyIn the past few months, I’ve been involved professionally and as a volunteer in a number of fundraising events and campaigns.

The good news is that people are still giving, quite generously, to organizations and individuals in need.

But the landscape of individual giving looks dramatically different, thanks to the economic downturn of 2008-9.

Most of us know someone who has lost what he or she thought was a secure job. We know someone struggling, or are struggling ourselves, with health insurance payments as high as 25 percent of take-home pay. We know people who couldn’t afford insurance or were refused it and who are now being crushed by bills for treatment of cancer or heart attack. Many of us know small community organizations, or tiny local businesses, that can’t pay their rent. Many of us who have traveled to third world countries are haunted by the difference in resources and opportunities, especially for women and ethnic minorities.

My observation is that in this economic climate, those who have good jobs and extra money are using their resources to help individuals and small organizations to address specific, immediate, and time-critical problems. (Note focus of Jolkona, a fundraising foundation website focused on attracting a new generation of “passionate” donors who want “connection” and “involvement” with recipients.)

This is not good news for many established non-profit organizations. Quite a few of them have evolved to provide deep, complex, well though-out  structures for communities — from arts education and social services to historic preservation and environmental policy. But they don’t deal in heart-rending emergencies, or enable donors to finance quick, visible solutions.

How can these major non-profits compete for the donor dollar in today’s climate — without crying “emergency?” Or should they?

The big problem with nonprofits’ websites

Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list.

A sizeable chunk of my business is the development of content for websites. I write websites from scratch and I work on redesigns.

A few months ago I realized that, while all web design projects have their frustrations, there were some telling differences between the redesign projects for nonprofits and those for businesses. A few examples:

• Businesses typically want redesigns because an existing site doesn’t meet certain performance goals; nonprofits want redesigns because their sites are confusing, out of date, or unattractive.

• Business site redesigns are led by someone at the company’s director level; nonprofit site redesigns are usually led by committees made up of line staff from different departments.

• Business site redesigns are top priority, and take less than three months; nonprofit site redesigns often take more than a year.

• Business site redesigns usually start with the director presenting a list of goals and features, and asking the consultants to work from those; nonprofit redesigns began with the consultants being asked to explain what is wrong with the current site.

At this point, anyone who knows about organizational effectiveness should be seeing the red flags.

As a consultant and contractor, the difference that concerns me the most is client satisfaction when the redesign work is complete. The businesses are generally happy with their sites, which have new features that solve the old problems. The nonprofits, however, are often disappointed with their sites, which for some reason still look old-fashioned and still sound stilted and confused.

Seth Godin has some brilliant, and very troubling, observations on the topic of nonprofits today in his post “The problem with non.”

I read his post with great interest because I’ve come to the conclusion that there is something in the nature of nonprofits that leads them to have websites that appear flabby, undistinguished, and ineffective.

Let me be clear: This problem nonprofits have with their websites is not lack of money to spend on website design — although that’s the factor some of them chose to blame. Consider that some of the most attractive and effective websites around are small-business sites that were done for less than three thousand dollars — including full graphic design.

No, what I think hampers nonprofits’ websites is a lack of organizational commitment to communication. Many nonprofit websites are doomed to crumminess because, no matter how much time the organization spends moaning about it, the website remains at the absolute bottom of the organization’s priority list. That’s evident when you see that the person assigned to be in charge of the site is likely to be either someone at a level where she has very little organization-wide authority or someone who is so busy doing her “real job” that she has no time to devote to fripperies like managing the site.

Watch how this plays out. (Warning: It’s not pretty.)

Over at the business website, the director of communications or marketing is deluged with requests from all over the company (HR, sales, the board of directors) to put new material up on the website. Often it’s a request to feature something on the front page of the site. The director of communications weighs how much value each item has to the company. Then she firmly tells people whose requests don’t substantively help the company’s bottom line or public image that their stuff isn’t going to make it onto the website. Material that is in the company’s best interests gets written up in the correct style, edited, and posted on the site — but rarely on the carefully designed and carefully maintained front page.

At the nonprofit website, the staff member who “does” the website is also deluged with requests to put material up on the site. But in this case, the individual has no authority to say “no” to anything — a problem when most of the requests are coming from the managers of other departments. And, to be fair to the individual, most nonprofits have no easy way of quantifying the value to the organization of any particular piece of communication or information. After all, the agency isn’t booking appointments, or selling widgets, from the site.

As a result, the nonprofit’s homepage is soon cluttered information that has more meaning to internal stakeholders than to any web visitor. You’ll find a client interview, a new slogan, a video of a United Way commercial, blurry snapshots from the company picnic, and a teeny graphic that no one can tell is the cover of the annual report. And the rest of the site gets cluttered with pages and pages of dry material that quickly go out of date. Once something goes up on the site, it never comes down. Because nobody has any authority — or any time — to remove it.

Is the solution to hire another couple of freelancers to do yet another web redesign? I don’t think so. Read “The problem with non” first.

Fake FAQs

Marketers have borrowed the FAQ format from instructional websites in the hopes of giving complex, confusing, and discouraging information about their products the appearance of user friendliness.

Why do websites have FAQs? Why don’t they just answer their visitors’ burning questions right on the web pages themselves? Isn’t that the heart of sales and customer services?

Jeff Sexton makes the case against FAQs this week on the blog at the marketing site GrokDotCom.com.

However, I think he’s going up against a straw man. In my experience, while a few companies may be naively burying compelling marketing content on the FAQ page, most are using the FAQ page to hide problems. They use it as a dumping ground for required warnings and other “small print” disclaimers, as well as a place to put the ugly details about cumbersome naming or numbering conventions that can’t be rationally or quickly explained on marketing pages.

In short, marketers have borrowed the FAQ format from instructional websites in the hopes of giving complex, confusing, and discouraging information about their products the appearance of user friendliness.

Here’s an example from HP’s refurbished-products sales site. This FAQ answers the burning questions “How can I tell what the desktop form factors are?” and “How do I decipher part numbers for refurbished products?” (Warning: The answers to these questions may lead people who do user-facing design to bang their heads on the their own desktops — regardless of form factor.)

What’s your name?

There’s no “right way” to name a business. But Seattle entrepreneur Chris Rugh’s article in Octane magazine provides an excellent overview on issues to consider.

iStock_nametag color 2Seattle telecom entreprenuer Chris Rugh has an article in the new issue of Octane magazine about one of the burning issues in branding: Naming a business.

Of course, there’s no “right” way to do it. Working in PR, marketing, and non-profit development, I’ve been involved in several projects in which the stumbling block was an organization’s name. I’ve fretted over clear, memorable names that no longer described an evolving organization. I’ve struggled to make vague or complex names somehow vivid and memorable. And I’ve seen people lose their companies (and a lot of money) trying to hold onto a name that was difficult to trademark.

Chris’ article is informed by years of experience in buying and selling businesses and their assets, and in creating several companies of his own. If you’re starting a business, or developing a product, and are in the naming phase, “It’s All in a Name” will give you a very good idea of what you’re getting into.

Another excellent Seattle resource on business naming is Christopher Johnson, the linguist who blogs as The Name Inspector. Check the blog to find out more about his current experiment: Special prices on business name consultations, in-person or by phone.

From an SEO perspective, a business or product name is a fascinating double-edged sword. Name your company “Sandy’s Organic Soap” and you’re competing with a tsunami of search results for soap purveyors. But get cute with a name like “Sandy’s Sopes” and list your products as “sope” on your site, and the folks who are looking for a soap company in Portland (but don’t know or can’t remember the name) will have difficulting finding you using the obviously keywords “Portland” and “soap.” (There are SEO techniques you can use to compensate in either of the situations — and you’d want to deploy them.)

FTC disclosure: I have provided web content services for Chris Rugh’s 1-800 numbers company, Custom Toll Free.

Er, do I know you?

The irony here is that adding a little bit of actual identifying information to their email wouldn’t have cost them a cent.

<rant mode on>

I received email today from a company whose software product I apparently downloaded at some unspecified time in the past. Here are the first four paragraphs of today’s email, with the product name changed to Prod and the Company acronym changed to COM (but typos included):

Subjectline: Prod & COM
Lots is happening in Prod Land these days. We have 3 important things to tell you:
*Prod Version 2.0.2 Released:*
We’ve just released an update to Prod, version 2.0.2, which has lots of new translations and bug fixes. As always, download it here: http://getProd.com
Overall, the release of Prod 2 has received lots of great coverage and more users that ever. Take a look at some of the recent reviews: [URLhere]

I download three or four pieces of software a week (that would be more than 150 apps a year), a few of which I use regularly and the rest of which I soon forget. Might I want to take a look at this one again? Perhaps, but this email gives me no clue whatsoever. Is Prod for calendars? Audio? Backups? Font management? No idea.

What I do know is that as a piece of marketing communication, this email gets an “F.” Oh, wait, they don’t give those sorts of grades any more, do they? Well then, it gets a “B – – – – – – -”  (with the number of minuses being significant as placeholders for letters which could complete a appropriate word).

Would it have killed these people to have included in the subject line of the email or the first paragraph, a clue as to who they are and what their product does? Might they want to give me the teeniest little hint about why I might like to download the update they’re hyping?

From a marketing communications viewpoint, the irony here is that adding a little bit of actual identifying information to their email wouldn’t have cost them a cent. Going to their website (which I would never have done if I weren’t writing this blog post) I discovered that the product has an excellent tagline that explains exactly what it is, what it does, and why someone would want to acquire it.

This company is halfway there in terms of MarCom. Now all they have to do is get their tagline into their “marketing” email.

<rant mode off>

Where the editorial grass is greener

Can a writer transition from technical communications to MarCom work mid-career? In the past few weeks several friends with extensive experience in technical writing and editing have voiced just such an ambition. One wrote:

“I want to shift away from computer-related content, but I’m finding it difficult to make the case that my experience in technical editing carries over to editing other types of material.”

As someone who’s played the role of a writer or editor in a wide range of areas over the past several years before settling in MarCom territory, I think I can shed some light on why technical writers and editors are rarely a good fit in marketing or corporate communications teams. The following remarks are in no way intended to disparage MarCom folks, or technical communications folks. But it’s become clear to me that these are two quite different cultures, and a transition between them is far more drastic than most people realize.

These days I am blessed to work closely with an experienced technical editor (and procedures writer) who copy edits my work on websites and catalogs. However, on the occasions that I ask him to edit my writing for brochures, blogs, and sales letters, we both take a deep breath and know there are going to be some frustrations. Here’s why:

• As a technical editor, he wants to correct everything; as a MarCom writer, I only want corrections done to a certain level. The document shouldn’t embarrass anyone, but if two words are hyphenated in a footnote on page two, and don’t have a hyphen in the index 70 pages later? Big deal.

• As a technical editor, he cringes at jargon, sentence fragments, hyperbole, and little gaps in logic. These are pretty much the hallmarks of MarCom writing.

• As a technical communicator, he’d like to see the style guide I’m using. Oh dear. Many of my clients don’t have style guides, and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t refer to them.

If things get a bit edgy when a technical editor and a MarCom writer collaborate, things can get even more stressful when a technical writer embarks on a MarCom writing assignment. Here are the areas where significant cultural disconnects tend to occur:

Balance. If a product has eight features, the technical writer wants to see each feature given equal space, or at least equal weight in the formatting. When I’m wearing my MarCom hat, I’m likely to go on at length about the hottest two features, mention a couple of others in the next paragraph, and completely ignore the rest; after all, they’re covered in the attached specs. When I try to sell this approach to someone from a technical communications background, the reaction is either incredulity or contempt.

Time/money. I hesitate to describe actual incidents here, but my experience has been that technical writers are used to long timelines (measured in weeks) and a period at the beginning of the project in which many, detailed questions are discussed with the client. The technical writer often expects to be able to ask the client questions as they work.

By contrast, MacCom writers are used to getting a short, initial briefing and a 48-hour deadline for creating a strong document, or at least a sample section. When it comes to formatting and style, the writer is often expected to make independent decisions and recommendations to the client. Relying on the formatting or style of previous documents rarely works, because the client company is inevitably in the process of changing designs (or designers).

The MarCom team is also likely to change the scope of the project in mid-stream — dramatically, at times — and the writer dives in afresh. Technical writers tend to regard it as poor planning when what started as an eight-page brochure ends up as a two-page brochure with a sales letter attached. The MarCom writer accepts it as business as usual.

One technical writer was shocked to see a Marcom client of mine review something I’d spent several hours on, announce “We want something completely different,” and send me off in a whole new direction — with a deadline in 24 hours. The technical writer viewed that at a scandalous waste of the client’s money; I had to keep pointing out that the client was spending the money, not me, and my initial piece of writing may well have been an experiment the client needed to see as part of their process.

So, here’s the bottom line, and my advice to technical communications folks who want to move into MarCom: If you can thrive in a fast-moving, free-form, sometimes dramatic environment, go for it. But if you love a good style guide, a detailed production schedule, and documents that emerge looking pretty much the way they were described in the initial assignment? Don’t give up your technical communications job.

Way beyond blogs

A year ago, Peggy Sturdivant, a Seattle neighborhood news blogger, invited me to do a joint presentation for a PR class (the PR Certificate program) at the University of Washington.

We’ve been invited back to present again this year, and, as I’m putting together my notes, I’m discovering two things:

1. That the role of blogging in PR (and in several other areas of business and professional communication) has changed fairly dramatically in the past 12 months; what were emerging trends in January 2008 are so established as to be taken for granted today. (More on this to come.)

2. That the way information is presented in a classroom is pretty much light years away from how I communicate online. It’s slow, it’s boring, it’s cumbersome. Classrooms need presenter computers connected to a large-screen TV or projector screen. In reality, they have nothing but whiteboards or a non-functioning setup that theoretically allows a presenter’s computer to be connected to a screen, but which, in reality, never works because some cord is missing or some software isn’t compatible. Sigh.

Anyway, on to the actual presentation.

Most of what I’ll be presenting tonight are short tips that students can explore later by clicking through to these following links on this blog. Tips are likely to include:

1. Online PR has gone way beyond websites and blogging.

Suggested reading:
Barry’s Hurd’s “Social Media Demographics and Analytics 2008-2009” in which Barry comments that “such things as reputation and brand impact will be occurring real-time 24/7.”

2. Fortunately for those of us who do PR, a much more realistic attitude now exists about blogging. It’s been demystified; is no longer viewed as a magic bullet.

Suggested reading:
Darren Rouse’s post on getting fast traffic to a blog.

3. Unfortunately, the new “magic bullet” that CEOs read about in airplane magazines and decide their marcom folks must create immediately is “community.” That’s simple but difficult to create and maintain. Instead, you need to participate in robust existing communities, a behavior that is antithetical to old-school corporate behavior. (“But is has to have our name on it!”)

Suggested reading:
Barry Hurd’s “PR is killing itself and it hurts to laugh

Chris Pirillo’s YouTube video on creating community.

4. SEO is now the “hot new thing,” a PR essential for blogging and websites.
• Basic SEO is easy.
• More sophisticated SEO is not for amateurs and should always start with analytics before you throw money into implementing SEO.
• Gray-hat (shady) SEO is not as smart as the people telling your company to do it thinks it is. It can, and will, turn around and embarrass you.
• Make sure you understand “social bookmarking” and “tags” of all kinds. You may not need to use them, but you need to know if you need to use them.

Suggested reading:
Boing Boing’s post “Motorola, could you please tell your viral marketer to get out of our comments?

5. Twitter PR is free and powerful, but not easy. (Hint: It’s not advertising, it’s information.) And, watch how closely it’s linked to blogs. Think of it as a headline for your blog posts or for your comments on other blog posts, plus a way to create the credibility that will bring others to your blog.

Suggested reading:
Sign up for a Twitter account and follow:
• moniguzman (Monica Guzman, writer of the P-I’s big blog)
• hrheingold (Howard Rheingold, social media theorist and professor — you’ll get links to his class materials)
• joehageonline (Joe Hage is putting social media principles into action, right in front of you, in his work as a MarCom director at a major corporation, and then explaining it on his blog)
• UDistFoodBank (excellent use of Twitter by a non-profit)
• chrispirillo (Chris epitomizes the concepts of branding and communication; watch how he uses Twitter to drive traffic)

What’s Twitter, and why I love it

If you work in an environment filled with friendly, fascinating people, where you continually hear about exciting news (local, online, and around the world), and you are encouraged to be witty and playful, then you don’t need Twitter.

If you work in an environment filled with friendly, fascinating people, where you continually hear about exciting news (local, online, and around the world), and you are encouraged to be witty and playful, then you don’t need Twitter.

However, I work in a cubicle in my house (really — I had a surplus Herman Miller cubicle installed here) and the cats have their limitations as colleagues.

Thus, five or six times a day, I Twitter. I take a look at what people are saying, throw in some of my own teasers, check “@” replies, answer publicly posted questions, and look at private “direct mail” I receive. My Twitter breaks correspond to the pattern I followed when I worked in a traditional office: Greet people on arrival, mid-morning coffee break, lunch, mid-afternoon break, and departure in the evening. The one addition is that I’m likely to check Twitter once or twice in the evening — by which time most of us are talking about what we’re cooking for dinner or what activities we’re up to (shopping, yoga, classes, crafts, dealing with the kids, etc.)

Who, you might ask, are these people I’m Twittering with? Well, unlike the real office where you are usually stuck with a few folks you don’t want to deal with, on Twitter you hear only from the people you want to hear from — you select the individuals you follow.

I’ve selected colleagues from my past jobs in tech, clients and colleagues from my current SEO work, leaders in the Seattle social media and blogging field, some belly dance, yoga, and fitness folks, and — here’s the twist — their friends. This “second tier” of Twitter is where it gets really interesting. I see my friends commenting on other people’s remarks, and I get curious about the other people, who often get curious about me, and the next thing I know we’re exchanging tips on everything from cooking to software. Or meeting in Ballard for lunch.

Twitter is also a great way of keeping up on what’s going on with friends from out of town. This way you don’t end up finding out, months after the fact, that they’ve changed jobs, moved, or split up with their significant others. You pick it up on Twitter, and can jump in with an appropriate private direct message.

I most often use Twitter from a web browser, but there are a variety of third party apps that let you read and post Tweets from a smart phone. (This list includes desktop widgets and smart phone apps.) I use PocketTweets but also use Twinkle, an app that lets me see other Twitter/Twinkle users within 1 mile, 2 miles, 5 miles (you get it) from wherever I am. It’s fun during an event (such as Folklife) or when you’re traveling. Or during a snowstorm, when you want to know what’s open in the neighborhood.

Yes, some people do take Twitter a bit too seriously. Some try to game it as a social networking tool, posting a bunch of marketing messages thinly disguised as clever repartee. (It’s like having a colleague at work suddenly launch into an attempt to recruit you into their religion, or sell you Amway products.) Fortunately, Twitter makes it very easy to “unfollow” these folks. And I do. (I’m not selective about who follows me, but Twitter offers a blocking tool for people who are.)

The competitive types get all excited about Twitter Grader, which ranks your influence within the Twitter community. I don’t know what the grading algorithm is, but I suspect it looks primarily at the quality of your followers (how long they’ve been on Twitter, how often they post, and how many followers they have).

There’s a trend towards merging all your online communications into one dashboard, so you’ll see people having their Tweets appear on their blogs, or on Facebook. That’s too large, and too uncontrolled an audience for me. What happens on Twitter, stays on Twitter, as far as I’m concerned.

That was then, and this is now

I am putting my indispensable Harvest timesheet clock on “unbillable” for a few minutes to talk about what’s been flooding our email inboxes for the past few days: Requests for money, from both business enterprises and charities.

Like the current economic situation (dare I use the R-word?), it’s only going to get worse.

So, I’m sitting here thinking about what I hope things will look like two years down the road, when the bad times begin to recede.

And the answer is: Different. A lot of these businesses and non-profits will be gone. Which ones will remain will be determined, in large part, by their ability to adapt to reality. Starting right now.

To all those organizations asking me to fund your efforts to keep presenting the same type and level of services you did during the boom years, the answer is: Absolutely no. Sure, I liked the plays you presented last year. But perhaps next year you need to consider ones with lower production costs?

Come back to me with a plan for how you are going to be leaner and meaner during the next two years, and I’ll give long, hard thought to what I can contribute to help you survive.

To all those businesses asking me to pay $110 for a sweater with a trendy label (that will be discounted to $29.99 in January): Fat chance. If I really need a sweater, I’ll be buying it from the local consignment shop.

I regret that people spent so much effort during my childhood teaching me to say “Please” and “Thank You” without bothering to teach me how to say “No.” I’m told that now that I’ve learned to say it, I’m a bit too emphatic and harsh. But something tells me I’ll be getting plenty of practice in the coming months refining my delivery.

Perhaps I’ll try softening “No” with a phrase my friend Charlotte Goldstein, a child of the Depression, uses to great effect: “That was then — and this is now.”

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