‘Tis the Season for Christmas Creep

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Although school now starts in August in most places, summer is usually officially ushered out the door on Labor Day weekend, the first Monday of September. It’s on this date when the Christmas season begins. Really?

Aren’t we supposed to have a few other holidays before we start decking the halls with boughs of holly? At the risk of being accused of Scrooging (a made-up verb which means to be indifferent to Christmas), many of us feel the blessed holiday season has gotten out of hand. At the very least, it’s jumped the gun by a couple of months.

Of course, those of us in the marketing and advertising trade are partially to blame for this state of affairs, as retail clients stretch the Christmas selling season in order to meet sales goals set way back in the spring.

Why is This Rush to Christmas Shopping Occurring?
In the words of the confidential source of journalists Woodward and Bernsteinthe best way to understand this rush to Christmas is to “follow the money.” The sales from the holiday season can account for greater than 50 percent of a retail store’s annual volume. This puts enormous pressure on these companies to encourage customers to begin thinking of buying long before Turkey Day.

xmas_creep_02Even e-commerce has gotten the early-season memo. “Christmas is the time of year that retailers look forward to and plan for all year long,” said Jordan Weinstein, managing director, EMEA at ChannelAdvisor. “As we suspected, our survey shows that retailers are planning to begin their promotions even earlier this year, with 62 percent having started their efforts by September. This highlights how critical it is for online retailers to prepare for Christmas early, allowing time to test and fine-tune their campaigns. At such a competitive time of year, it is those who prepare well in advance that have the advantage.

The Problems With Christmas Creep
Many otherwise jovial people, folks who love to jingle bells and trim trees, have developed Extended Christmas Season Malaise. If enough people catch it, a backlash could occur. And as we all know, a backlash is definitely not good for business.

According to ABC News, when retailer K-Mart started its holiday push in September last year, the company Facebook page was aglow with angry remarks.”Shame on you Kmart for advertising Christmas this early!! I WILL NOT be shopping at Kmart,” one angry shopper vented. “Why don’t you just start this on January 1st each year! This is ridiculous,” wrote another.

xmas_creep_03As a result, this year K-Mart began airing a “Not a Christmas Commercial” TV spot, which is a veiled reference to getting a jump on seasonal shopping, but treats it humorously and with a soft touch: “We know it’s too early to be talking about Christmas. Let’s just say you have an event, at the end of the year, where everyone gets a gift.”

From a broader perspective, Christmas Creep ruins the true meaning of the holiday. It tarnishes the traditions and emphasizes consumerism. It turns into a business transaction and nobody wants to treated like a “target market,” especially at Christmas time.

Before lacing up those running shoes and setting the alarm for 4 a.m. for another pre-pre-pre-Christmas-24-hour-blowout-sale, enjoy the turning leaves, the beautiful fall weather, the kids trick-or-treating, and the feast of Thanksgiving before jumping on the Santa Express. The Christmas season will be here soon enough and we’ll enjoy it more if it’s not promoted year-round.

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Raising buckets of charitable donations.

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A month ago, most people had only a vague recognition of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. It’s commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, although the famous New York Yankee first baseman who contracted this disease died in 1941.

What a difference a few buckets of ice-cold water over the head makes! And by “a few” we mean thousands and thousands and thousands of buckets.

If you are unaware of the “ice-bucket challenge,” congratulations — you are officially off the grid. And how is life in the cave? For the rest of mankind, this challenge has become the most prevalent, persistent, peculiar, publicity platform in perpetuity.

How Did This Happen?
This social media juggernaut started innocently enough. Former Boston College baseball player, Pete Frates, created the challenge with his family in an effort to spread awareness of ALS, a disease that he has lived with since 2012. The challenge consists of people dropping buckets of icy water over themselves, recording it, sharing the experience on social media, and then nominating others to do the same. Challenge participants are also encouraged to make a donation to ALS research.

als_icewater_02That’s how it started. However, understanding the momentum it has picked up in a very short time has non-profit organizations’ leaders, marketing mavens, social media experts and even Joe Six Pack (whose beer is now warm because he dumped the ice-chest over his head) wondering how this happened. The number of participants who have taken the challenge is almost impossible to calculate, but the financial benefit to the ALS Association in terms of cold, hard cash is staggering.

According to the Wall Street Journal, “the non-profit has raised $15.6 million in donations between July 29 and August 18, compared with $1.8 million during the same period last year. Meanwhile, ALS Therapy Development Institute, a non-profit biotechnical organization said it has raised $550,000 since August 3, compared to about $110,000 during the same period last year.” Even the smaller, more local ALS groups such as the New York City-based Project ALS has raised $116,000 over the past two weeks compared to just $1,000 they raised all of last year.

als_icewater_03Awareness of the disease among the billions of social media users is also sky-high. According to the New York Times, “People have shared more than 1.2 million videos on Facebook between June 1 and Aug. 13 and mentioned the phenomenon more than 2.2 million times on Twitter since July 29.”

When this much money is raised and this much publicity generated by something as silly as dumping cold water over one’s head and then posting this event on Facebook, it begs an obvious question.

Why Did This Work?
As you’re reading this post, there’s a good possibility that somewhere a meeting is going on in some non-profit organization boardroom where the director and staff are trying to replicate the perfect storm success of this viral campaign. There are as many theories about the secret sauce of this ice-bucket challenge as there are social media consultants sipping skinny lattes in Starbucks.

If you’re involved with a non-profit organization, what can you learn from the ice-bucket challenge? There are a few general lessons to be learned. The challenge seems to have worked because it really touched people, it was fun in a watching-someone-slip-on-a-banana-peel kind of way, it was easy to participate and the almost universal penetration of social media offered a convenient medium which everyone loves to feed.

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Other take-aways from the ice-bucket challenge include:

(1)   The call to action (dump a bucket of ice, cold water on your head) was simple and direct and it clearly worked.

(2)   Social media phenomena such as this rely on the power of exponential reiteration. In other words, when someone met the challenge, they challenged others, who challenged others. The bigger the social network, the more powerful the meme.

(3)   Instead of being a doofus who is getting water dumped on his head, this challenge allowed the participant to be a kind of “hero” who is telling their story to the rest of us and sacrificing his image for a greater good.

(4)   Experiential marketing works because it involves participation, and action speaks louder than words. This challenge succeeded because participants became a part of the Pete Frates story of suffering from ALS.

(5)   Technology, such as the use of hashtags like #IceBucketChallenge and #StrikeOutALS, allows this content to be efficiently curated and easily shared on social media.

(6)   The ice-bucket challenge was simple, outrageous and therefore easily remembered, so it is more likely to be contagious.

Narcissism Masked as Altruism
When a social phenomenon becomes as all-pervasive as the ice-bucket challenge has, the naysayers are always ready to rain on the wet heads of challengers. Such is the case with Arielle Pardes writing in online magazine Vice.

“There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice-Bucket Challenge, but the most annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism. By the time the summer heat cools off and ice-water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It’s trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away.”

Don’t sugar-coat it Arielle. How do you really feel?

als_icewater_05“This is the crux of millennial ‘hashtag activism,’ where instead of actually doing something, you can just pretend like you’re doing something by posting things all over your Facebook. Like the Ice-Bucket Challenge, good causes end up being a collective of social media navel gazing. We reflected on our favorite social-movements-gone-viral and found out what happened to them after they fell off our Twitter feeds. Because, yes, social problems continue even after you stop hash-tagging them.”

Of course, there is much truth in this analysis. All of the famous people, high-tech swashbucklers, professional athletes, actors and even the poor schlemiels like you and me have egos and we like having people see our Facebook page and giving us big, juicy, heart-felt LIKEs for the many clever, funny (and, yes) altruistic things we say and do. It’s only human.

However, if the trade-off for this narcissism is huge sums of money raised and off-the-charts awareness for a fatal disease, bring me a bucket of ice-water and a video camera.

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Six Ways to Get Media Coverage

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As the editor of an outdoor sports monthly magazine – The Outpost – I receive dozens of pitches for media coverage each week. Whether they concern new products, new hunting or fishing shows or (much more commonly) “the most interesting hunting experience anyone has ever had” pitches, I can count on several pitches to be waiting in my email in-box every day.

I am also a content developer and communications specialist for Prejean Creative. This means I have the opportunity to execute content-based marketing programs for our clients which include pitching media outlets for earned media to help leverage this content.

As you can see, in my job (s) I jump from one side of the media desk to the other. When I put on my editor’s hat, I’m deciding whether a story is worth our reader’s time. But when I have on my communications advisor/content developer hat (it’s a little black beret, by the way), I focus on getting our client’s story everywhere their customers might be – including the 10 p.m. TV newscast.

media_coverage_02I’ve been doing this kind of work since I went to work for my little hometown radio station. Okay, I was in high school and we didn’t get a lot of real news there, but I still thought of myself as “the media!” So, I’ve been either pitching or deflecting media pitches forever!

In spite of all the new media tools available to reach your audience – social networks, blogs, video blogs, digital newsletters and magazines – generating traditional media such as newspaper and television coverage for your business or that of your client is still an important part of engaging with existing or potential customers. The marketing theory at work here is: if you engage them, they might actually buy something from you.

Six Ways to Garner Media Coverage
In the years I have been in this line of work, I’ve noticed that there is a right way and a wrong way to do this. (See, your mama was right!) In fact, if you have been tasked with managing your company’s public relations, content development, media relations or anything approaching this dark art, there are at least six things that you should keep in mind.

media_coverage_03If you’re mindful of these six things, you will still not get that story about the kitten who came into your store, hopped up on the cash register and rang up a sale on the front page of the daily newspaper. You will, however, have a better shot of getting real news about your company in front of potential customers, and, if you plan it correctly, they might even start following your company on social networks and sign up for your newsletter. In other words, a good content plan, which is based on good stories and good writing, will help you engage customers.

Make Sure It’s News
This brings us to the first law of media solicitation. Make sure your story is actually news. Every editor believes she’s over-worked and under-compensated and in most cases, she is. The last thing an editor wants to see or hear, first thing in the morning, is an unsolicited story pitch that’s silly, cute or so self-serving it’s nauseating. Don’t be that person.

Editors don’t care about helping you promote your business. They expect you to pay money to their ad sales people for that. Minor changes in staff size or adding a new product to your offerings may not be newsworthy unless they impact your business substantially.

On the other hand, if your CEO has won an award for her philanthropic efforts or your company has won a multi-million dollar defense contract which will allow it to double in size in the coming year, these are real news stories and you should get your facts straight and consider the next step.

Get the Story Angle Correct
Nothing is more infuriating for an editor than getting a pitch from someone who has obviously never read the publication or seen/heard the news program they are pitching. If you’re pitching a magazine, read it before you send the email query. Who are their readers? How old are these readers? Is it gender specific? Do they even cover hard news? Do they run product reviews? Is the subject matter of your story appropriate for them? Why?

media_coverage_04If you get the answers to these questions, it will inform your story’s angle. You will then be prepared when after you email the editor, you follow up with your phone pitch and he asks the inevitable, impatient question: “OK. What d’ya got?” 

Know the Deadlines 
This is the most violated of all media pitching laws. The story may be a monster – full of intrigue, compelling facts and riveting conclusions – but the pitch came after the editor’s deadline and can’t be used. Of course, this drives the editor and the content developer/publicist nuts!

They only stop the presses in movies. The earlier you can get a query in front of a potential media gate-keeper the better. If you’re waiting for some important fact or quote to come in before sending the release, contact the editor, tell him everything you can and ask if it would be acceptable for you to get him the crucial fact as soon as you get it. In most cases, if the story is good, the editor will put together his piece and plug in your last-minute facts.

Every medium has a different deadline. It’s the job of a professional communications specialist to know them all.

Avoid the Tchotchkes – Focus on the Story
Let the story sell itself. Most editors who are worth their salt don’t respond to gimmicks and company paraphernalia. When I receive gifts with a press release, I am immediately suspect of the story.

media_coverage_05The best way to get a story covered is to write a press release or advisory with a compelling, but not bombastic lede paragraph, add 3 to 5 supporting facts and give a brief background on the company. Include a simple email query to the appropriate editor, noting the 2 or 3 reasons why this story should warrant her attention and ask if she would rather you call, text or email for a follow-up.

Get to Know the Editors
If it is possible, arrange for a time when you can have a cup of coffee with the news directors or assignments editors for the media you are hoping to interest in stories about your company. It doesn’t have to take more than an hour and it doesn’t have to be at a fancy restaurant. You should also avoid any direct pitch during this first meeting.

Coffee and conversation about your company and what they are looking for in stories should be the only objectives of this meeting. If it’s not possible to get a face-to-face meeting, try using Skype or the old fashioned phone call to get to know these editors and what their objectives are.

Integrate Your Content over All Media
If you’re still using a press release as your only tool for generating media coverage, you’ve been watching too many episodes of Mad Men. There have been many changes in the way content marketing is used in an integrated communications strategy and you should be using them to build customer engagement. In fact the very term “content marketing” is misunderstood by many marketing/public relations practitioners.

Compelling, knowledgeable content, which is packed with facts, quotes and video, when properly deployed, can yield impressive results for customer engagement. It can also lead to additional media coverage. Here’s an example. A highly specialized medical practice hired me to write a series of blogs which are posted every week and tied to a topic that is trending on the popular search engines. My task (and it’s not a simple one) is to tie the trending topic to the search engine keywords and services of the medical practice.

By using appropriate links and tags and by scrupulously choosing a highly trending topic, this “smart content” blog has resulted in a substantial increase in traffic to the practice’s website. We have also aggressively posted links to this blog on their social media which has resulted in even more readership.

Interestingly, it has also resulted in the coverage by the local media in this Top 10 U.S. market. In several cases, the blog post was used as a tool to solicit local and regional television, radio and daily newspaper coverage. Plus, when this story appeared in other media, we produced follow-up blogs which featured the video/audio/print clips from this coverage. Now, the medical editors of the traditional media in this city get RSS feeds of every blog we post.

And Finally…
Make it easy on the poor editors. They know you have a job to do, which is to promote the company you work for, but they have one, too. If you consistently give them real news, written in a professional and concise manner, you will become a valuable resource for them. If you give them hyperbole with no news value, you won’t.

The best advice is to really think it through before the pitch queries start flying out of your laptop. Know their audience and your objectives. With a good pitch and some luck, you might even get that kitten at the cash register story covered.

If you have questions about content marketing or public relations, give us a shout.

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How Economic Theory Can Affect Your Next Campaign

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Consumers tend to make up their minds about products and services based on the last thing they heard about them. If you think this is too simplistic or you’re dubious, please take a minute and Google “Daniel Kahneman” or just click on this link. This search will likely lead you to his theory of “availability heuristic” and this might encourage you rethink what you are absolutely certain is true.

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Aside from being a tongue-twister, availability heuristic can be broadly defined as making a decision or leaping to a conclusion based upon the most immediately recalled memory related to that idea. Dr. Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize for Economic Science in 2002 and wrote his bestselling book Thinking Fast and Slow  in 2011, is the world’s leading expert on the psychology of judgment. His concept of availability heuristic is one of several cognitive ways we humans make mistakes based on bias.

How about an example of this pesky but all-too-human tendency? Someone might say people who drive red cars get more tickets because the person making the statement has a buddy who has a red car and gets lots of tickets. There is no data supporting this theory of red cars = more tickets and the reality is the buddy likes to drive fast and therefore gets tickets because of this. A conclusion was leapt, and unfortunately, this type of leaping happens every day at the grocery story, the car dealership, the voter’s booth and every other venue where human judgment is tested for accuracy.

Why Should You Care?
If you’re someone who’s involved in marketing, advertising, promotion or public relations, the fact that consumers are making up their minds on products, services and even elected officials based on whatever rises to the top of their consciousness – whether it’s true or not – should give you pause. At the very least, those of us who are in the business of telling compelling stories about our products should be thinking long and hard about the way in which we’re telling these stories.

If the concept of the available heuristic is valid (and it seems to be), how do we ensure our message stays top of mind? Our jobs as designers, copywriters, web developers, bloggers, marketing executives and every other link in the marketing food chain must be to apply the best possible strategic thinking and tactics towards shifting a consumer’s memory and helping him/her avoid an inaccurate judgmental bias.

economic_theory_quotes2This requires us to make our ideas, and those of our clients, come alive. Boring facts delivered by a talking head – especially a talking head which is screaming about the latest discount offer for a commodity – will not rise to the level necessary to overcome most of the biases of the vast majority of consumers. Real stories, told in an elegant manner will trigger emotional responses which, over time, will become memorable and lead to a better return on investment in advertising and design.

Another important factor in overcoming the availability heuristic involves having a way to measure the acceptability of the product or service in the minds of potential customers and to ascertain when our message is (or is not) moving the sales needle. Many of us who are involved in the creative process chafe at what we feel is the unending process of comparing metrics – before and after our brilliant campaigns have been launched. However, with no pre- and post-marketing analysis we are just hoping our words and pictures are making an impression on the customer’s attitude. So, even if we’re successful, we don’t know why.

What’s It Going to Take?
Decision-making is a fascinating aspect of economic theory. We can’t always overcome the availability heuristic and other human biases. However, we can be conscious of their existence and develop honest, compelling stories which take them into consideration.

This demands that we create smart messaging – great stories – within a magnetic, consistent design and that we have a way to honestly measure its effectiveness. Without it, predicting the consumer’s decision nothing more than a crap-shoot.

 

 

 

 

 

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The Wonders of Facebook

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Facebook users may think their newsfeeds contain nothing more than teens posting selfies, music fans posting cliché lyrics, students ranting about school, or an array of complaints about how horrible Louisiana drivers are. However, a recent personal experience has convinced me this is wrong.

Oh, sure, there was a time when teens and young adults ruled Facebook, but like every great trend, moms, dads and grandmas decided to hop on the Facebook bandwagon. Businesses and marketers soon realized that Facebook is an efficient social networking device. So many target markets and audiences are present and soaking up every minute and every word posted on their newsfeeds.

Marketers and businesses are faced with a tougher task than personal posters when it comes to Facebook posts. They must be sure that every word contributes to the message of what they wish to convey to their audience. They aren’t just posting about what they ate for breakfast. Also, they must be sure to proofread. Businesses with Facebook profiles have turned something so common and routine (i.e. personal profiles) into something that can potentially gain or lose customers.

My Experience
I was able to get a glimpse of the magic of reaching target audiences through Facebook when I was assigned the task of gaining recognition for the Southern Garden Festival. I thought to myself, Facebook posts? No problem; I post at least three a week on my own personal Facebook. However, I did not realize the weight that each word has when you are an administrator for a page and you are not actually posting personally.

Unlike blog posts and personal Facebook posts, copy posted on businesses or organizations’ pages must be short and sweet. It is important that the audience is able to understand the message being conveyed in a short amount of time.

1461627_10152278424631702_3264342206373508477_nThe Southern Garden Festival is an event produced every year in the gardens of Harold and Sarah Schoeffler. The festival benefits a local non-profit organization, Family Promise of Acadiana.

The target audience for this event, horticulture aficionados and art lovers with giving hearts, took to Facebook fairly quickly with fervor.

The posts on the Family Promise Facebook page covered the musicians, the artists and exhibitors, and also the events of the Southern Garden Festival. There were several posts included on the Family Promise Facebook page each week.

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As posts grew more prominent and were posted more regularly, Family Promise views and likes increased substantially. In the end, page likes increase by about 30 percent. The audience became more engaged with the Family Promise page, sharing and commenting on posts.

Covering all the bases of the Southern Garden Festival and giving little teasers beforehand helped get the audience invested in the event and the cause.

What have I learned?
From my experience with the Family Promise Facebook posts, I have learned that it is important to gain interest of the target audience by relating the posts to them. High quality photos that go along with the post also help do the trick. One is never too old for picture books.988435_10152278390681702_8638517945918688120_n

I had the opportunity to attend the Friday night event of the Southern Garden Festival, an Evening Under the Stars, and I was greatly surprised by the large number of people in attendance. It crossed my mind that perhaps our Facebook posts had something to do with this.

Facebook was an important part of the tactics used to increase recognition for the Southern Garden Festival. Alongside social media; newspaper advertisements, email campaigns, PSAs and event calendars also aided in reaching the audience.

970703_10152278396021702_5412790697746644380_nI’m not sure if it was solely social media that brought the guests in attendance to the gardens of the Southern Garden Festival, but I do know that Facebook has made an impact on the people who visit the Family Promise Facebook page. They have become invested in the Family Promise cause.

 

 

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons Sean MacEntee

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