A small silver lining in the big, black Coronavirus cloud? Robocalls fall off a cliff.

There isn’t much positive news at all for businesses and consumers coming out of the Coronavirus pandemic — which makes one appreciate any glimmer of good news all the more.

One thing we’ve noticed at my company is a drop-off of those pesky robocalls in recent days. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones seeing this.  My brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia but who also has U.S. personal and business phone lines, has noticed the same phenomenon.  And he believes that there’s a direct correlation to the COVID-19 outbreak.

What’s more, he has quantitative evidence to back it up. Here’s what he writes:

Within the past fortnight I’ve noticed a dramatic falloff in the number of robocalls I’m receiving to my primary landline. 

I’ve plotted the number of robocalls I’ve received so far during each day of March 2020, alongside the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases reported worldwide. Here are the results month-to-date:

What classifies as a “robocall”? I define a robocall to be an inbound call received from a phone number I’ve blocked based on reputations reported by the https://www.nomorobo.com website. 

As the chart above shows, the falloff began on March 11, 2020, just as the cumulative number of COVID-19 cases worldwide began to accelerate. Whereas during the first ten days of March I had been receiving two robocalls per day on average, since then I’ve received an average of just one robocall every five days.  

That’s almost a 90% drop. 

Is this just a happy coincidence? 

At first glance, maybe — because COVID-19 cases didn’t start to accelerate rapidly in the U.S. for another week or so, at about the same time as schools and theaters began to close, sporting events were postponed or cancelled, and many people began working remotely.  

If anything, one would expect the volume of robocalls to jump as scammers seize the opportunity to prey upon the growing number of people in the U.S. who are available to answer calls while cocooning at home.  

Most scammers use a technique called “neighbor-spoofing” to trick people into answering by displaying a local U.S. phone number. For a personal example, nearly all the robocalls I block appear to come from my U.S. area code (or from overlapping and adjacent area codes).  

But in fact, the vast majority of those calls originate from overseas. This makes them difficult to trace, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the calls originate from India and the Philippines, which already have well-established and legitimate call center industries owing to the local population’s English language skills.

As examples, Medicare scams involving the writing of fraudulent prescriptions for orthopedic braces are perpetrated in the Philippines, while sophisticated IRS scams have been broken up in India.

The scammers are criminal organizations that use personal computers, free software and ultra-cheap voice over Internet protocol (VOIP) connections to dial vast numbers of calls automatically. The tiny fraction of calls that are answered are put through to their human staff, who are reportedly packed elbow-to-elbow in call centers hidden inside the upper floors of nondescript buildings, under the constant watch of security cameras and even armed guards.  

In other words, the perfect coronavirus-spreading grounds. 

[What makes it possible for me to track this is thanks to the very same VOIP technology, which automatically routes callers who dial my primary U.S. landline to Thailand free of charge.] 

As you can see in the chart below, COVID-19 cases were already trending upward in India and the Philippines when my robocalls began to drop precipitously on March 11, 2020, about a week ahead of the U.S. curve:

I don’t think that this is a coincidence.

I suspect a lot of people in those concealed call centers got sick and went home. And now that India and the Philippines are in near-total lockdown, hardly anyone can show up for work to keep the scams running. 

We’ll see if the tsunami of robocalls resumes once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. In the meantime, I’m happy to count the hiatus as a small Coronavirus blessing, alongside Italy’s passionate sopranos and tenors in lockdown and the many acts of human kindness now being reported in the U.S. media.

Virtual Meetings: Will the COVID-19 virus accelerate a trend?

One of the big repercussions of the Coronavirus scare has been to shift most companies into a world where significant numbers of their employees are working from home. Whereas working remotely might have been an occasional thing for many of these workers in the past, now it’s the daily reality.

What’s more, personal visits to customers and attendance at meetings or events have been severely curtailed.

This “new reality” may well be with us for the coming months – not merely weeks as some reporting has indicated. But more fundamentally, what does it mean for the long-term?

I think it’s very possible that we’re entering a new era of how companies work and interact with their customers that’s permanent more than it is temporary. The move towards working remotely had been advancing (slowly) over the years, but COVID-19 is the catalyst that will accelerate the trend.

Over the coming weeks, companies are going to become pretty adept at figuring out how to work successfully without the routine of in-person meetings. Moving even small meetings to virtual-only events is the short-term reality that’s going to turn into a long-term one.

When it comes to client service strategies, these new approaches will gain a secure foothold not just because they’re necessary in the current crisis, but because they’ll prove themselves to work well and to be more cost-efficient than the old ways of doing business. Along the same lines, professional conferences in every sector are being postponed or cancelled – or rolled into online-only events.  This means that “big news” about product launches, market trends and data reporting are going to be communicated in ways that don’t involve a “big meeting.”

Social media and paid media will likely play larger roles in broadcasting the major announcements that are usually reserved for the year’s biggest meeting events. Harnessing techniques like animation, infographics and recorded presentations will happen much more than in the past, in order to turn information that used to be shared “in real life” into compelling and engaging web content.

The same dynamics are in play for formerly in-person sales visits. The “forced isolation” of social distancing will necessitate presentations and product demos being done via online meetings during the coming weeks and months. Once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, in-person sales meetings at the customer’s place of business will return – but can we realistically expect that they will go back to the levels that they were before?

Likely not, as companies begin to realize that “we can do this” when it comes to conducting business effectively while communicating remotely. What may be lost in in-person meeting dynamics is more than made up for in the convenience and cost savings that “virtual” sales meetings can provide.

What do you think? Looking back, will we recognize the Coronavirus threat as the catalyst that changed the “business as usual” of how we conduct business meetings?  Or will today’s “new normal” have returned to the “old normal” of life before the pandemic?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The New World of PR

Companies work to find their place in the changing ecosystem — some more effectively than others.

For those of us who have been active  in the marketing communications industry over the past few decades, there’s been a sea change in how the industry operates — not least in the realm of PR and media relations.

One of the underlying reasons for this change is the dramatic shift that’s happened in the field of journalism. Traditional media companies which have long relied on professional reporters and editorial contributors have been dealing with a range of existential threats.  Print circulation has sagged while audiences have fragmented over a plethora of digital content publishers — most of which offer news and information free of charge.

At the same time, publishers’ revenues from advertising have plummeted as the media inventory has expanded to encompass the new digital content publishers.  The bottom-line impact of these twin developments is that it has become much more difficult for traditional media companies to employ the same number of staff reporters; indeed, many publishers have shrunk their newsrooms while relying increasingly on independent contributors and freelancers to fill in the gaps.

But the situation gets even more complicated thanks to the evolution of digital media and the explosive growth of self-publishing platforms. The reality is that there’s a new class of authors who are increasingly publishing from their own platforms, without being involved with any of the major media outlets.

In such a world, the notion of PR departments simply keeping in close touch with a limited number of key journalists as the most effective way of gaining earned media coverage seems almost quaint.

And it gets even more problematic when considering how much easier it is for businesses to prepare and disseminate PR news. At their best, PR pitches rely on the same tools as marketing in general: profiling the audience; personalizing the news pitch, and so forth.

The problem is, according to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are now more than six PR pros for every journalist. This means that more PR news releases than ever are hitting the inboxes of far fewer journalists and reporters.

Is it any wonder that PR news released by companies is so often being ignored?

According to a recent survey of ~1,000 journalists by PR Newswire, the following aspects of PR pitches are the most annoying to reporters and journalists:

  • Too much overt “marketing” in the pitch
  • Lack of relevant or useful content
  • Unclear or misleading subject lines on e-emails
  • Insufficient news detail

On the other hand, some aspects help in a PR pitch, including:

  • High-resolution photography
  • Video clips
  • Infographics

In today’s PR landscape, obtaining earned media is more difficult than ever. These days, not only do you need a great story to tell, you need to craft the perfect narrative. And even then, you might never get the news covered by a so-called “Tier 1” publication.

But missing out on Tier 1 coverage isn’t necessarily the kiss of death. Sometimes the lower tier represents the best targeted audience to receive news from companies. Moreover, by employing low-cost self-publishing tools, a decent social media strategy plus some basic search engine optimization, it’s actually possible to build an audience and garner as many well-targeted readers as those elusive Tier 1 pubs might be able to deliver.

In the new world of PR, the “tried and true” avenues to earned media coverage aren’t getting the job done.  But there are more routes than ever to get the news out instead of having to channel your efforts to go through the gate-keepers of yore.

COVID-19: Whither the Pandemic?

Last week, I published a post about the burgeoning spread of Coronavirus infections, based on the perspectives of my brother, Nelson Nones, who lives and works in East Asia.

I’ve now received an updated analysis from him which is quite interesting.  It’s based on plotting COVID-19 infection rates against average February temperatures for 123 countries.

Here are his findings:

  • The world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots (China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland) are clustered in a February temperature band ranging from -9 to +7 degrees C.
  • The world’s least contagious COVID-19 countries are clustered in a February temperature band ranging from +10 to +28 degrees C. Among those, the poorest countries are the least contagious; the richest (Singapore, Australia and Malaysia) are the most. Presumably this is because international travel is more common in richer countries.
  • Finland, the US, Japan, UK, Taiwan and Thailand lie near the best-fitting trend.
  • With the progression of the seasons, mean temperatures in the US will climb from -4C in February to +20C in July. Following the best-fitting curve, this means the US infection rate would be 63% (nearly two-thirds) lower in July than the present 4 cases per million.

Nelson’s conclusion:  “The pandemic won’t last!”

In conducting his analysis, Nelson used COVID-19 case data and country populations come from the worlometers.info news feed. Average February temperature data come from the World Bank.

These are interesting stats, to be sure — and interesting prognostications as well.  Caution should be the watchword in these times.  But the Coronavirus news may be uniformly brighter as the seasons warm.

What are your thoughts?  Feel free to share your views in the comment section below.

The Coronavirus Threat: A view from East Asia.

Regular readers of Nones Notes Blog know that my brother, Nelson Nones, has lived and worked outside the United States for nearly 25 years – much of that time in East Asia. So naturally I was curious about his perspectives on the spread of the Coronavirus from its epicenter in Wuhan, China, what precautions he is taking in the face of the threat, and his perspectives on how the actions of Asian countries affected by the outbreak may be mitigating the potential effects of the virus.

Here is what Nelson wrote to me in response to my query:

The Coronavirus has not affected my business here in Bangkok to date. I did make a trip to Singapore during the last week of January and to Taiwan during the first week of February, after arriving back in Thailand from the U.S. on January 12th.  I haven’t been sick at all – before or since.

However, in an abundance of caution I am keeping myself at home as much as possible, and I have decided not to travel anywhere until the current hullabaloo dies down.

As for the situation here in Thailand, this country is actually the location of the first COVID-19 (Coronavirus) case ever recorded outside Mainland China. This was back on January 13th, just two weeks after China first notified the World Health Organization (WHO) of the new disease, and only two days after China recorded its first COVID-19 death.  

The patient here in Thailand was a Chinese woman who had traveled from Wuhan, the epicenter of the pandemic.

Since then, Thailand has recorded 42 additional cases for a total of 43 patients, of whom only one died (on Sunday March 1st), and 31 have recovered.  This leaves 11 active cases – all considered mild.

The first case of human-to-human virus transmission within Thailand was recorded on January 16th, affecting a taxi driver. Of the 43 cases confirmed so far, 25 affected Chinese citizens; seven affected Thai citizens with travel histories to China, Japan or South Korea; seven affected Thai citizens who work in the tourism or healthcare industries; and the remaining four were other domestic cases (of which only two potentially represent “community spread”).  Thailand’s infection growth factor peaked on January 26th.

Being one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations (especially from China), Thailand has never imposed any travel restrictions, even from China (nor has the U.S. ever imposed any COVID-19 travel restrictions on Thailand), but all arriving international passengers are screened by an initial body temperature check. Those who fail the initial screening are required to disclose their travel histories within the past 14 days, in detail.  If they have travelled to or from any affected areas, and exhibit any COVID-19 symptoms, they are immediately quarantined at a specially-designated hospital for isolation and treatment.

Under the circumstances, and considering its geographic proximity to China as well as the normal volume of Chinese tourist travel, I think Thailand’s containment efforts so far have been successful and offer some lessons for the United States. Containment in India, Indonesia and Bangladesh so far is even more impressive (Indonesia reported its first two cases only on March 2nd).

Displayed below is a listing of South, Southeast and East Asian countries, ranked by population (together with the U.S. for comparison purposes), showing the number of cases and deaths reported so far:

* Excludes Diamond Princess cruise liner cases.

Sources:

Case data are from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries

Populations are from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_population_(United_Nations)

The countries shaded in green, above, are those which did not require advance visas for Chinese citizens holding ordinary passports, prior to the imposition of temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions. These countries were either visa-free or allowed “visa on arrival.”

The countries in red typeface, above, are those which had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel restrictions as of early February 2020. These include “entry bans on Chinese citizens or recent visitors to China, ceased issuing of visas to Chinese citizens and re-imposed visa requirements on Chinese citizens or countries that have responded with border closures with China.” (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Visa_requirements_for_Chinese_citizens for source data.)

It’s quite clear from the data above that, excluding Mainland China itself, there is little or no correlation between the incidence of COVID-19 cases or deaths and the leniency of a country’s previous or current travel restrictions in so far as Mainland Chinese are concerned.

Indeed, all of the four countries having a higher number of cases than Thailand (Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore) required advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak, and all but one (Hong Kong) had imposed COVID-19 entry bans as of February 2nd

Conversely, apart from Thailand, the countries which did not require advance visas before the COVID-19 outbreak have averaged fewer than one case per country (although all of them except Cambodia and East Timor had imposed temporary COVID-19 travel bans by February 2nd).

The countries shown in bold typeface above are those which are geographically closest to the COVID-19 epicenter. An average of 570 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of these 10 countries; only Laos has been immune so far. Conversely, an average of 6 COVID-19 cases have been reported within each of the remaining 26 countries (excluding China itself).

From these data, I’ve drawn the following four generalizations:

  • Outside of Mainland China, international travel bans and visa restrictions are not effective tools for controlling the spread of COVID-19 disease within a country.
  • Geographic proximity to Mainland China is well-correlated to the historical spread of COVID-19 disease in South, Southeast and East Asia.
  • Vigilant screening and disposition of suspected cases is vital to containing the spread of COVID-19 disease, as Thailand’s experience demonstrates.
  • Allowing high concentrations of suspected cases to form without treatment, such as Wuhan (China), the Diamond Princess docked at Yokohama (Japan) and Shincheonji church at Daegu (South Korea), is a recipe for disaster.  

Of course, the virus and its spread is an evolving narrative, and Nelson’s observations may soon be overwhelmed by new developments. Still, I was somewhat surprised to read that the situation is not quite as dire as the news reporting here in the U.S. would seem to indicate.

Have you heard from overseas friends or colleagues about how they are responding to the Coronavirus outbreak? Please share their perspectives with other readers here.

Weighing in on America’s most trusted brands.

tutdIf someone were to tell you that the Unites States Postal Service is the most trusted brand in America right now, that might seem surprising at first blush. But that’s what research firm Morning Consult has determined in its first-ever survey of brand trust, in a report issued this past month.

Survey respondents were asked how much they trust each of the brands under study to “do what is right.” The ranking was determined by the share of respondents giving the highest marks in response to the question – namely, that they trust the brand “a lot” to do what is right.

The USPS scored 42% on this measure. By comparison, runner-up Amazon scored ~39% and next-in-line Google scored ~38%.

Wal-Mart rounded out the top 25 brands, with a score of ~32%.

The Morning Consult survey was large, encompassing more than 16,000 interviews and covering nearly 2,000 product and service brands. The size of the research endeavor allowed for evaluation based on age demographics and other segment criteria.

Not surprisingly, ratings and rankings differed by age.  Unsurprisingly, the USPS is ranked highest with the Gen X and Boomer generations, whereas it’s Google that outranks all other brands among Gen Z and Millennial consumers.

mibAnother finding from the research is that of the 100 “most trusted” brands, only two were established after the year 2000 – Android and YouTube. That compares to 20 of the top 100 most-trusted brands that were founded before 1900.  Clearly, a proven track record – measured in decades rather than years – is one highly significant factor in establishing and maintaining brand trust.

Also interesting is the study’s finding that brand attributes related to product or service “reliability’ are far more significant over factors pertaining to “ethics.” Shown below are the factors which two-thirds or more of the survey respondents rated as “very important”:

  • Protects my personal data: ~73% rate “very important”
  • Makes products that work as advertised: ~71%
  • Makes products that are safe: ~70%
  • Consistently delivers on what they promise: ~69%
  • Provides refunds if products don’t work: ~68%
  • Treats their customers well: ~68%
  • Provides good customer service: ~66%

By contrast, the following factors were rated “very important” by fewer than half of the respondents in the survey:

  • Produces products in an ethically responsible way: ~49% rate “very important”
  • Produces products in a way that doesn’t harm the environment: ~47%
  • Has the public interest in mind when it comes to business practices: ~43%
  • Is transparent about labor practices and the supply chain: ~42%
  • Produces goods in America unless it is particularly costly: ~40%
  • Has a mission beyond just profit: ~39%
  • Has not been involved in any major public scandal: ~38%
  • Gives back to society: ~37%
  • Has strong ethical or political values: ~34%

There is much additional data available from the research, including findings on different slices of the consumer market. The full report is accessible from Morning Consult via this link (fee charged).

Facial Recognition Faceoff

Facebook has been resisting outside efforts to rein in its “faceprints” facial recognition initiative – and mostly losing.

I’ve blogged before about the concerns many people have about facial recognition technology, and the troubling implications of the technology being misused in the wrong hands.

Facebook would claim to be the “right hands” rather than wrong ones when it comes to the database of “faceprints” it’s been compiling over the past decade or so. But its initiative has run afoul of an Illinois biometric privacy law passed in 2008.

The Illinois measure, which prohibits companies from collecting or storing people’s biometric data without their consent, is one of the strongest pieces of legislation of its kind in that it also allows individual consumers to sue for damages – to the tune of up to $5,000 per violation.

And that’s precisely what’s happened.  A class-action suite was filed in 2015 by a group of Illinois residents, alleging that Facebook has violated the Illinois privacy law through its photo-tagging function which draws on a trove of “faceprint” photos to recognize faces and suggest their names when they appear in photos uploaded by friends on Facebook.

Facebook has vigorously resisted efforts to rein in its faceprint initiative, arguing that any such lawsuits should be dismissed because users haven’t actually been injured by any alleged violations of the state law.

That stance has been rejected – first in U.S. district court and then in the court of appeals. Undaunted, Facebook appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which turned down the appeal in late January.

Rebuffed at all legal levels, Facebook has now decided to settle the suit for a reported $550 million, including payments of ~$200 each to claimants in the Illinois class-action suit.

Facebook has lost, but the whole notion of facial recognition technology could well be like playing a game of whack-a-mole. As it turns out, another firm has developed similar functionality and is busily selling facial recognition data to police departments across North America.  According to a recent investigative article publishing in The New York Times, a company called Clearview AI has mined billions of photos from Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms.  (Clearview is now being sued in Illinois for allegedly violating the same biometric privacy law that was at the center of the Facebook suit.)

And indeed, the efforts to rein in facial recognition activities may be a little too little, a little too late: According to a recent report from Business Insider, the faces of more than half of all adults in America have already been logged into police or government databases.

… Which brings us to a parallel response that appears to be gaining traction: figuring out ways to fool facial recognition software.  A number of entrepreneurs are developing intriguing methods to beat facial recognition software.  Among them are:

  • Clothing designers have begun to target weaknesses in the ability of facial recognition software to process overlapping or unusual shapes, as well as deciphering multiple similar images appearing in close proximity. One such example is a pair of goggles fitted with near-infrared LEDs that interfere with the ability to scan facial features.
  • Headscarves decorated with different faces “confuse” the software by overloading it with excessive amounts of data in the form of numerous facial features.
  • So-called “adversarial patches” – a graphic print that can be added to clothing – exploit the vulnerabilities in facial recognition scanning by making a person “virtually invisible for automatic surveillance cameras,” according to creators Simen Thys, Wiebe Van Ranst and Toon Goedemé.

Will the two-front attack on facial recognition technology from the legal as well as technology standpoint succeed in putting the facial recognition genie back in the bottle? It’s debatable.  But it’s certainly making things more of a challenge for the Facebooks and Clearviews of the world.