A Marketer’s Resolution for the New Year

Note: Those of you who are regular readers of my marketing and culture blog have noticed that it “went dark” for a period of time over the past month or so.  The twin developments of health issues plus a death in the family (my mother, at the age of 96-and-a-half years), meant that I needed to be focused on recuperation and also estate matters.  But I’m back … and hopefully back to my regular schedule of posting.

For my final blog post of 2019, it comes in the form of a resolution for us marketers. It’s to finally acknowledge how little “upside potential” there actually is for social media to build or maintain a brand presence … and instead to place renewed focus on tactics that’ll actually deliver a more measurable ROI.

Most of my business clients have put a degree of effort into social media over the years – some with more focus and fortitude than others. But whether the campaigns have been “full speed ahead” or only half-hearted, invariably the end-result seems to be the same:  a sales needle that hardly moves, if at all.

Moreover, social media takes a deceptively significant amount of effort for that little bit of payoff. Companies that put in the effort devote human capital and in some cases substantive dollar resources to tap outside support, but frequently the results aren’t any more impactful than for our clients who merrily go on ignoring social medial platforms, year after year.  At least when looking at bottom-line sales.

Plus, in our highly sensitized world, these days it seems that when social media actually has an impact, more often than not it’s a negative one.  Too often it’s the sorry end-result of some sort of faux pas where even the best-laid plans for departmental or legal review aren’t carried out fully and the brand gets into trouble. (Sometimes that happens even with all of the checks and balances in place and being carried out religiously.)

So for 2020, we marketers could well be better off acknowledging how thin the promise of social media actually is.  We should ignore the siren calls of “likes” and “engagement” and stop chasing the phantom pot of gold at the end of the phantom rainbow. Chances are, your company’s bottom line will look just as strong, even as you focus more of your time and budget on marketing activities that’ll actually make a positive difference.

What are your thoughts on social media for brands? Please share them with other readers here.

Like synthetic fabrics, synthetic media has its good and bad attributes.

Decades ago, people had a choice of cloth fibers like cotton, wool and silk. Each of these natural cloths had positive attributes … as well as negative ones, too.

Cotton is comfortable to wear, but wrinkles when washed. Wool is great for the cold weather months, but needs to be dry-cleaned.  Too, moths and other insects love to burrow their way through woolen clothing, making many an item made from wool ready for the trash far too soon.

Silk? It has all the detriments of cotton and wool without any of the positives — except that it looks rich and expensive if one wishes to put on airs or otherwise “make a statement.”

Beginning in the 1940s, polyesters and other synthetic fibers were introduced, giving rise to all sorts of new clothing items that touted a variety of positive attributes: They washed up fine, didn’t need ironing, and kept their shape over time.

Never mind the fact that the clothing didn’t breathe, and made more than a few people stink to the heavens after wearing a synthetic cloth shirt for barely an hour on a hot summer day.

Along these same lines, today we have synthetic media. It’s essentially how people and machines are collaborating to create media that is algorithmically created (or modified).

In its earliest incarnations, synthetic media was a blend of “real” and “faux” components. Think of a newscast with your favorite, very real anchor person … but the background, screens and graphics are computer-generated.

But things have gone much further than that in recent times. Text, photography and videos are being created by software with such precision and seeming authenticity that it’s nearly impossible to determine what content is “real” versus what has been “synthesized.”

On the plus side, content can be automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages to different audiences spanning the world, bringing more news and information to more people simultaneously. But what if the avatar (host) could be customized to be more “familiar” to different audiences — and therefore more engaging and believable to them?

There’s a flipside to all of this innovation. So-called “deepfakes” (a recent term that took no time at all to be added to the major dictionary databases) harness digital technology to superimpose faces onto video clips in ways that are so realistic, they appear to be totally authentic.

Considering the advances in the technology, one can only imagine the plethora of “news” items that will be unleashed into cyberspace and on social media platforms in the coming months and years. Most likely, they’ll have the effect of making more than a few people suspicious of all news and information — regardless of the source.

Which brings us back to synthetic fabrics. They’re with us and always will be; there’s no turning back from them.  But people have learned how to use them for what makes sense, and eschew the rest.  We need to figure out how to do the same with synthetic media.

The “woke” workplace? Employees vote thumbs-down.

Most of us have probably heard the old adage that one should never talk about politics or religion at a party (unless its an election party or at the social hour following religious services, I suppose).

But what about at work?

In the “old days” – like when I started in business some 40 years ago – a similar unspoken rule applied; at the office, it just wasn’t “seemly” for people to wear their partisan or “cause” labels on their sleeves.

But that was before the bitterly disputed presidential campaign of 2000. Ever since those fateful 35 days following that election, it’s been downhill in the decorum department pretty much nonstop.

And after the election campaign of 2016, it’s gotten even worse.

Now we read stories about employees revolting against their own employers for seemingly “cavorting with the devil” (Wayfair selling furnishings to border detention facilities), employees losing their jobs – or at the least feeing compelled to leave their place of employment – due to the unpopularity of their political viewpoints (Google), and the like.

Add to this the social “virtue signaling” of some companies and brands who have become involved in social action initiatives (Gillette’s “shaming” of purported male personality traits in its “toxic masculinity” ad campaign).

With the 2020 presidential election campaign on our doorstep and the prospects of continued “high dudgeon” on the part of many people we can charitably refer to as being “highly sensitized” to the campaign, it’s worth wondering what everyday employees think of all this socio-political drama.

If the results of a new survey are any indication, the answer is … “not much.”

Recently, Washington, DC-based business management consulting firm Clutch surveyed ~500 full-time employees working at a cross-section of American businesses ranging from small employers to enterprises with more than 1,000 workers. The breakdown of the research sample included respondents whose philosophical leanings mirror the country’s as a whole (34% conservative, 25% liberal, 21% moderate, 13% apolitical).

What these respondents said should make everyone want to go back to the standards of yesteryear — you know, when socio-political advocacy in the office was considered the height of boorishness.

Among the salient findings from the survey:

  • Most respondents (~60%) don’t know if their political beliefs align with those of their coworkers. What’s more, they don’t care to know what their coworkers think politically.
  • Money, not socio-political alignment, motivates where people choose to work. Whether or not their personal views align with their colleagues’ is of no (or very little) concern to the respondents.  What’s more, few care.
  • Less than one in ten of the survey respondents feel that a “dominant” political viewpoint in the office that doesn’t happen to align with theirs is a source of discomfort. But either way, they’d prefer that such discussions not happen in the first place.
  • Despite the well-intentioned actions of some companies and brands, the majority of respondents feel that engaging in political or similar “cause” expressions adds no value to a company’s culture – nor does it create a healthy exchange of ideas in the workplace. Only about one-third of the respondents think that airing differing views will have beneficial outcomes within the office, while for everyone else, such discussions are viewed as having a “net negative” effect, adding no incremental value to a company’s “culture.”
  • At the same time that respondents wish for a less politically charged atmosphere in the office, a majority of them disagree with the notion of “codifying” political expression and expected behaviors in an employee manual or some other formal written policy statement. In other words, what constitutes “being an adult” isn’t something that should have to be spelled out in so many words.
  • What do respondents think of company owners or leaders expressing their political opinions or taking stands on controversial issues? That’s frowned upon, too. A clear majority of employees (~60%) disagree that company leadership should take stances on political issues – even if they’re relevant to their company’s own products or services. Instead, employees expect leaders to foster a culture of respect at work, including setting a standard that discourages political conversations up and down the chain.

There’s an important side benefit to discouraging discussion of socio-political topics in the office setting. All it takes is for a few “loudmouth” employees to risk creating a hostile work environment – and thus the open up grounds for complaints that could ultimately result in enormous financial costs to the company.

And one important final point came out of the Clutch research: For many employees, a part of their identities as people is connected to where they work.  Often, being an employee means more than simply having a job that pays the bills.  Anything that companies and brands can do to make that identity “work” for the vast majority of their employees will go a good way towards keeping morale high and avoiding the kind of fraught “drama” that can make it onto social media or even the news broadcasts.

[More information about the Clutch survey results can be accessed here.]

What about you?  What’s been your personal experience with employers in the “woke” era? Is your workplace one that is tolerant of all viewpoints while avoiding showing explicit (or implicit) support for any one view?  How successful has your company been in the current environment?  Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The promise — and peril? — of microchip implants for people.

In 2017, when employee volunteers at Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based technology company, agreed to have microchips implanted in their wrists so that they could access the company’s lunchroom vending machines without exchanging money, some people tittered.

At best, it was viewed as a publicity effort to draw attention to the firm and its work in the microchip industry.

So where are we with human microchip implants two years later? Well … not so far along in some ways, and yet things may be poised for a sea change in the not-too-distant future.

And actually, it has less to do with human microchip implants as a convenience as it does with their potential to revolutionize health monitoring and medical diagnoses.

Biohax International, a Swedish-based company founded more than five years ago, is further along on the development curve than most other developers in the field. According to a report from Thomas Industry Insights, thousands of Swedes now have microchip implants, and the number is expected to continue growing at a robust pace.

At present, Biohax chip implants can house anything from emergency contact information to FOB and other access capabilities for cars, homes and even public transportation.

But the next frontier looks to be in healthcare. At present, prototype microchips are being developed that will enable continual monitoring of a person’s vital signs – things like glucose monitoring and blood pressure monitoring.

It isn’t difficult to imagine a day when certain patients are prescribed potentially lifesaving microchip implants that will serve as “early warnings” to nascent health emergencies.

Is this the future?

There could be a downside, of course – there nearly always is with these sorts of things, it seems. What does a world look like where physicians, insurance companies, employers or credit card companies make implants a mandatory condition for service or employment?

How far of a line is it to go from that to being part of a “surveillance state”?

And even if the situation never came to that, would people who demur from participating voluntarily in the “microchip revolution” be somehow walled off from the benefits microchips could deliver – thereby becoming “second-class citizens”?

The ethical questions about human microchip implants are likely to be with us for some time to come — and it’s certainly going to be interesting to see how it all plays out.

Do you have particular opinions about the “promise and peril” of microchip implants? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

The “creeping crisis” for newspapers seeps into yet another corner of the industry.

Newspaper revenue trend lines are problematic, to say the least.

The travails of the newspaper industry aren’t anything new or surprising. For the past decade, the business model of America’s newspapers has been under incredible pressures.  Among the major causes are these:

  • The availability of up-to-the-minute, real-time news from alternative (online) sources
  • the explosion of options people have available to find their news
  • The ability to consume news free of charge using most of these alternative sources
  • The decline of newspaper subscriptions and readership, leading to a steep decline in advertising revenues

Exacerbating these challenges is the fact that producing and disseminating a paper-based product is substantially more costly than electronic delivery of news. And with high fixed costs being spread over fewer readers, the problems become even more daunting.

But one relative bright spot in the newspaper segment — at least up until recently — has been local papers. In markets without local TV stations, such papers continued to be a way for the citizenry to read up on local news and events.  It’s been the place where they could see their friends and neighbors written about and pictured.  And let’s not forget high-school sports and local “human-interest” news items that generally couldn’t be found anywhere else.

Whatever online “community” presence there might be covering these smaller markets — towns ranging from 5,000 to 50,000 population — is all-too-often sub-standard — in some cases embarrassingly bad.

But now it seems that the same problems afflicting the newspaper segment in general have seeped into this last bastion of the business.

It’s particularly ominous in places where daily (or near-daily) newspapers are published, as compared to weekly pubs. A case in point is the local paper in Youngstown, Ohio — a town of 65,000 people.  Its daily paper, The Vindicator, has just announced that it will be shutting its doors after 150 years in business.

The same family has owned The Vindicator for four generations (since 1887).  It isn’t that the longstanding owners didn’t try mightily to keep the paper going.  In a statement to its readers, the family outlined the paper’s recent struggles to come up with a stable business model, including working with employees and unions and investing in new, more efficient presses.  Efforts to raise the price of the paper or drive revenue to the digital side of the operation failed to secure sufficient funds, either.

Quoting from management’s statement:

“In spite of our best efforts, advertising and circulation revenues have continued to decline and The Vindicator continues to operate at a loss.

Due to [these] great financial hardships, we spent the last year searching for a buyer to continue to operate The Vindicator and preserve as many jobs as possible, while maintaining the paper’s voice in the community. That search has been unsuccessful.”

Youngstown, Ohio

As a result, the paper will cease publication by the end of the summer. With it the jobs of nearly 150 employees and ~250 paper carriers will disappear.  But something else will be lost as well — the sense of community that these home-town newspapers are uncommonly able to foster and deliver.

For a city like Youngstown, which has seen its population decline with the loss of manufacturing jobs, it’s yet another whammy.

Because of the population loss dynamics, it might seem like local conditions are the cause of The Vindicator‘s situation, but some see a bigger story.  One such observer is Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton, who writes:

“I don’t think this is just a Youngstown story. I fear we’ll look back on this someday as the beginning of an important — and negative — shift in local news in America.”

What do you think? Is this the start of a new, even more dire phase for the newspaper industry?  Is there the loss of a newspaper that has his your own community particularly hard? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.

Hacking is a two-way street.

Usually we hear of attacks being launched against American websites from outside the country. But the opposite is true as well.

In recent days there have been reports that attacks were launched against Iranian computer networks that support that country’s air bases, likely in response to the June 20th attack by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard  Corps on a U.S. military drone in the Persian Gulf.

And now there are reports that hackers working for an alliance of intelligence agencies broke into Yandex, the large Russian-based search engine, in an attempt to find technical information that reveals how Yandex authenticates user accounts.  The hackers used Regin (QWERTY), a malware toolkit associated with intelligence sharing that has often been utilized by the intelligence alliance (made up of the USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand).

Interestingly, Yandex acknowledges the hack, which happened back in 2018. But whereas it claims the attack was detected by the company’s security team before any damage could be done or data lost, outside observers believe that the hackers were able to maintain their access to Yandex for several weeks or longer before being detected.

Reportedly, the information being sought could help spy agencies impersonate Yandex users, thereby gaining access to their private messages. The purpose?  To focus on espionage rather than the theft of intellectual property.

These actions, which are coming to light only now even though the events in question happened last year, underscore how much much future “warfare” between nations will be conducted in cyberspace rather than via boots on the ground.

Welcome to Cold War II — 21st century style.

Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

You probably suspected this already, but employee surveys continue to show that open-plan workplaces are a source of job dissatisfaction.

One of the most recent research studies surveyed ~4,000 adults who work in offices and found that employees dislike open office concepts for a host of reasons, including:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Interruption and/or distraction from fellow employees
  • Noise levels
  • Inescapable odors
  • Temperature control issues

In fact, feelings run so strongly against open offices that employees would prefer to give up the following perks as a tradeoff:

  • Vacation days
  • Year-end bonus
  • Office coffee machine
  • Access to a window or natural light

And for the cherry on top, a significant percentage of respondents claimed that an open office environment would be a deal-breaker when considering a new job — either inside their current company or going someplace else.

At a time when companies are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, that factor is perhaps the most impactful one of all.

Against this backdrop of “passive-aggressive” attitudes about open-plan workspaces, many companies keep on merrily designing open-office environments or renovating existing spaces to conform to new open-plan design schemes.

Purportedly the reason for open office environments is to save money — but is that really the case? It’s true that some building and partition costs can be reduced, but how about the impact on worker productivity?

Actually, there’s another, perhaps unspoken reason why companies love open offices: they can monitor (read: spy on) their employees more easily.  That’s something most people find quite distasteful — at least here in America where “individualism” continues to thrive as a bedrock cultural principle.  And the plain truth is that people like having some control over their workspace.  After all, it’s a place where they spend eight hours of every workday.

But even with these basic truisms at work, there are new developments that could be changing the whole notion of the office environment. It’s more than just conceivable that we’ll be seeing more spaces adapt to accommodate workers who move from environment to environment based on the needs of the moment.

As more of the “guts” of the office are housed electronically — and portably — the whole notion of a “home desk” may be becoming less and less relevant. Jay Osgerby, a partner in workspace design firm Barber & Osgerby puts it this way:

“The desk is dead. I don’t even know if the office building as we know it today will be in existence.”

I’m not at all sure that Osgerby’s prediction will come true any time soon. Who knows, his view might turn out to be as off-base as the open-office concept.  But it is interesting to observe how the office environment is changing as the nature of business evolves.

What about your own office environment? What’s good and not-so-good about the concept?  What sort of personal horror stories do you have — or conversely, do you have good tales to tell?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Facebook attempts to clean up its act.

Is it enough?

Watching Facebook these days as it pivots from diffusing one “rude development” to another seems a little like watching someone perform a combination plate-spinning and whack-a-mole act.

We’ll call it the Facebook Follies.  The question is … is it working?

Last month, Facebook issued its newest Community Enforcement Report – a document that updates the world about improvements the social media giant is making to its platform to enable it to live up to its stated community standards.

Among the improvements touted by the latest report:

  • Facebook reports now that ~5% of monthly active accounts are fake. (Still, 5% represents nearly 120 million users.)
  • Facebook reports now that its ability to automatically detect “hate speech” in social posts has jumped from a ~24% incidence in 2018 to ~65% today. (But this means that one-third of hate speech posts are still going undetected.)

Moreover, Facebook now reports that for every 10,000 times Facebook content is viewed by users:

  • ~25 views contain content that violates Facebook’s violence policy
  • ~14 views contain content violating Facebook’s adult nudity and sexual activity policy
  • Fewer than 3 views contain content violating Facebook’s policies for each of these categories: global terrorism; child nudity, and sexual exploitation

The community enforcement information is being reported as “wins” for Facebook … but people can’t be faulted for thinking that Facebook could (and should) be doing much better.

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

On a different type of matter, this past week it was reported that Facebook has agreed to settle a class-action complaint that accused the social platform of inflating viewing metrics on Facebook videos by up to 900%.

Although details of the settlement haven’t been revealed, this development appears to close the book on criticisms that were lodged as far back as 2016, in which advertisers charged that Facebook hadn’t investigated and corrected errors in its metrics — nor allowed for third-party verification of the metrics.

It’s yet another agenda item that’s now been ticked off the list – at least in Facebook’s eyes. But now another controversy has now erupted as reported over the past few days in The Wall Street Journal.

Described in a front-page article bylined by veteran WSJ reporters John McKinnon, Emily Glazer, Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appears linked to “potentially problematic privacy practices” that date all the way back to 2012, when Facebook signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission but that it may have violated subsequently.

Contemporaneous e-mail communications retrieved from the time period suggest that Zuckerberg was more than merely passively involved in deliberations about a particular app that claimed to have built a database stocked with information about millions of Facebook users. Purportedly, the app developer had the ability to display the Facebook user information to others — regardless of those users’ privacy settings on Facebook.  The e-mails in question detail speculation about how many other apps were stockpiling such kinds of user data, but the evidence shows little or no subsequent action being taken to shut down the data mining activities.

Another view.

These latest developments raise questions about the veracity of Facebook’s stated intentions to redouble its efforts to uphold community standards and focus more on user privacy, including moving toward encrypted and “ephemeral” messaging products that are better aligned with the European Union’s existing privacy laws that the United States may also be poised to adopt in the future.

Apparently Facebook recognizes the problem: It’s ramping up its global advertising spending to “rebuild trust” — to the tune of doubling its previous ad expenditures.  Here’s what Facebook’s marketing head Antonio Lucio is saying:

“There’s no question we made mistakes, and we’re in the process of addressing them one after the other.  But we have to tell that story to the world on the trust side as well as the value site.”

Ad-tracking company Kantar notes a big increase already in Facebook’s U.S. ad spending — up to nearly $385 million in 2018 compared to only around $50 million the year before.  As for the campaigns themselves, Facebook is relying on a number of big-name ad agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, Leo Burnett and Ogilvy for developing its various campaigns.

Another view.

There’s more than a little irony in that.

Considering the latest news items, what are your thoughts about Facebook? Are they on the right track … or is it “too little, too late”?  Are their intentions honorable … or are they simply engaged in “window dressing” to get people off their case?  Let us know your thoughts.

Motorists are more worried about distracted drivers than drunk drivers.

But then again, we’re just as guilty.

A recent survey of ~1,800 adult American drivers conducted by Wakefield Research has found that the top safety concern they have is distracted drivers on the road – a factor cited by ~70% of the respondents.

This far outstrips concerns about people driving under the influence of alcohol or other stimulants – a concern that was cited by just ~45% of the respondents.

But in a classic example of “do as I say, not as I do,” a clear majority of the survey respondents (~58%) reported that they check their own mobile devices when driving.  Perhaps we believe that our own skills are far above those of the average driver …

This squares with the findings of another survey conducted recently by analytics firm Zendrive. That research found that 85% of drivers feel that distracted driving is a problem.  Despite those concerns, nearly half of the Zendrive survey respondents (~47%) admit that they themselves use their phones 10% or more of the time when driving.

Phone usage seems pretty high overall, with nearly 6 in 10 reporting that they talk on the phone while driving, half use maps or other navigation tools, and nearly 4 in 10 text. Let’s take these results at face value … but I wonder if the actual behaviors are even more slanted towards mobile phone usage than the stats suggest.

We can at least give credit to the respondents for acknowledging that what they’re doing isn’t particularly kosher, since ~83% of them admitted that they put down their phones when they see law enforcement on the road.

And here’s one other finding that I found particularly interesting: nearly 40% of the survey respondents reported that their own children have asked them to stop using their phone while driving.

Talk about parent-shaming – and the parents admit it!

More findings from the Wakefield research can be viewed here.

Do you find these findings surprising, or about as you expected? Please share your thoughts and observations with other readers here.