Where’d all the LinkedIn stuff go?

If you’re a regular reader of Content, you know I post about LinkedIn frequently. So why no LinkedIn posts lately? Well, I recently announced the launch of a new blog called The LinkedInstitute, which–as its name suggests–is devoted exclusively to LinkedIn stuff. Content will remain active with a broader focus on communication, marketing, and social media.

Thanks for reading!

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Why the ice bucket challenge works: my Sept. Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

"Veronica's Ice Bucket Challenge" by Kyle Nishioka on Flickr

“Veronica’s Ice Bucket Challenge” by Kyle Nishioka on Flickr

Why the ice bucket challenge works

If you’ve visited Facebook, Instagram or Twitter lately, you’ve likely seen videos of your friends – and a few celebrities – dousing themselves with cold water, pledging to contribute to a cause and encouraging others to do the same.

The phenomenon, called the ice bucket challenge, took off earlier this year as a way of raising awareness and charitable support for the ALS Association, an organization that advocates for individuals with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gerhig’s Disease.

Just how pervasive is the ice bucket challenge? According to The New York Times, more than 1.2 million challenge videos were shared on Facebook between June 1 and Aug. 13, and the challenge was mentioned more than 2 million times on Twitter since July 29. Perhaps most notably, as of Aug. 22, the ice bucket challenge has raised more than $50 million for the ALS Association.

With results like these, brands of all kinds – not just nonprofits – are wondering whether they could use social media in a similar way or whether such copycat efforts would be, well, all wet. The fact is, phenomena like the ice bucket challenge are incredibly rare, but there are some lessons organizations can learn that may make their social media efforts much more successful.

• First, remember that people share only that which they believe has value. When someone posts to Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter or any other social network, they do so because they believe that information is worthy of being seen by others. The implicit question is, “Does anyone agree?” People signal their agreement with likes, comments and shares, and the person who authored the post gets the small endorphin rush that comes with validation.

What’s the lesson for organizations? What’s important to your audience trumps what is important to you. Make sure you put yourself in their shoes to determine what might get traction.

• When you let the audience share in your story, it becomes their story, too. Who’s the star of the ice bucket challenge? The individuals sharing their videos. For a moment, they get to be the center of attention – which leads to some residual attention for the ALS Association.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Whenever possible, make the audience the messenger, not just the intended recipient of the message.

• Make it sharable. There’s a very social aspect to the ice bucket challenge in that participants can nominate others to take part. That makes it naturally migrate through and across networks, growing the community exponentially.

What’s the lesson for organizations? As inferred above, it’s not about you. It’s about your audience members’ innate desire to connect with each other and share an experience.

• Make it fun. One of the reasons your audience uses social media is to make good use of their discretionary time. That often means they want to find content that elicits an emotion, which could be a smile or tear. The innovative ways in which the ice bucket challenge has been completed provide inexpensive, accessible entertainment, often with a moving message.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Your message is competing against every other message the audience could consume at a given time. If it doesn’t connect with people, it won’t be seen by many of them.

• Make it fast. The average ice bucket challenge video is very short. Many are no more than 15 seconds, a reflection of our dwindling attention spans.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Less is more. Today, if you ask for too much of the audience’s time, you may not get any of it.

• The medium matters. Many ice bucket challenge videos are shot on smartphones without any special equipment or skills. Video is effective because it engages multiple senses, unlike text or photos. It has, therefore, become the preferred method of content production and consumption.

What’s the lesson for organizations? If video content isn’t part of your social media arsenal – even if it’s user generated – then you’re missing out.

• Going viral is two parts planning and one part good luck. There’s no way to “make” a campaign go viral. It’s entirely up to the audience. You certainly can position your message to have a better chance of spreading, but you can’t force it.

What’s the lesson for organizations? Timing matters, so avoid launching your campaign at a time when the audience’s attention is spread especially thin (during holidays, for example, unless your message is related to the occasion). Even then, however, it might fall flat. When it does, try again, but learn from any missteps.

There’s no question the ice bucket challenge will soon be a memory – just like every social media craze. However, something new will surely follow in its footsteps. If your organization wants to play along, keep the advice above in mind and you just might find yourself in the middle of something really cool.

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The four types of quality social media content: my July Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

Every month, for the past four years, I’ve written a column about social media for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. Here’s the latest.

The four types of quality social media content

"Playing on the computer" by John Watson on Flickr

“Playing on the computer” by John Watson on Flickr

Last month, I identified quality content as one of the greatest differentiators in determining an organization’s success in using social media. As I mentioned in that column, your audience puts a high value on substantive information that addresses their needs. It can come in a lot of different forms – video or blog posts, to name just two examples – but even more important than the format is the degree to which it connects with those you’re trying to reach.

Almost without exception, all social media content that successfully engages the audience falls into one of four categories:

1. Discounts/offers. This one doesn’t apply to all types of businesses, of course. If you’re a retailer, however, there’s a good chance your social media audience connected with you in hopes of getting access to special offers or discounts on your products or services. You might provide a discount code for online purchases or an in-store coupon but, in any case, customers will always value the opportunity to save a few dollars in exchange for some of their attention.

2. Information. To say that your audience wants “information” sounds obvious, but it’s important to remember that they often just want a quick answer to a question. Let’s imagine, for example, you’re a hardware store retailer. This time of year, it may help your audience to know you sell pool supplies or fix gas grills. There’s a fine line between telling them something and pushing too hard in trying to sell them something, but a simple reminder of what you offer may be welcome when they are considering their options.

3. Education. This is similar to information, but it differs in one important way – it’s more substantive. Education consists of in-depth information designed to help the audience solve a problem. Let’s use the example of the hardware retailer. A video explaining how to install a deck or how to fix a leaky faucet, if done well, may position you as a top-of-mind choice when the customer is looking to purchase products related to his or her project. Furthermore, it establishes your business as eager to help and knowledgeable about your industry.

4. Entertainment/inspiration. It may be surprising to learn that audiences welcome content from brands that is purely entertaining or inspirational. The truth is, however, people aren’t always particular about the source if they find content that helps them spendºº their discretionary time well. The challenge for brands is that a sales pitch is not entertainment, so you should share any product/service benefits implicitly, not explicitly. If it feels like marketing, it will be much less likely to come across as authentic.

Here’s the catch: doing this isn’t easy. As the audience continues to expect higher quality content, and as the field for their attention grows more crowded, however, it’s becoming more important that your organization make content creation a central part of its social media strategy.

There’s one silver lining that may help make this seem less daunting – while content creation may seem like a new phenomenon, it’s likely that your organization has been doing it for years with newsletters, photos, news releases or profiles of your employees, you’ve been in the content creation business. The key is to translate that experience to the social media world while understanding the needs of your audience. Start by considering the four types of content to which they will respond and, then, take the time to create more of it.

 

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To better engage people online, focus on creating quality content: My June Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

My June Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column is about one of the most important elements of a social media strategy: quality content.

To better engage people online, focus on creating quality content

While our communication environment has changed dramatically over the years, one thing has remained constant for decades, even centuries: People will always value substantive information that helps them address the challenges in their personal and professional lives.

Organizations have historically been in a great position to provide this information, given their collective in-house talent and knowledge. Until just a few years ago, however, one thing held organizations back from sharing what they know: creating content and getting it in front of their audience was fairly difficult. Doing so either required a serious outlay of resources — enough to allow for the creation of collateral print pieces to help tell the story — or an ability to secure news stories in media outlets. In short, the opportunities were few and the cost was high.

Today, thanks to social media, things have changed considerably. Organizations can now use blogs, video and other tools to create substantive content, often with little or no direct financial cost. In addition, by attracting communities on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, to name just the most prominent examples, it’s easy to distribute this content to the right audience.

Still, however, many organizations haven’t capitalized on this opportunity. For them, content creation is either something they don’t believe to be important or a wish-list item that never rises to the top of their list of priorities.

If this is true of your organization, it may be time to give content creation more attention. Two recent shifts have made quality content more important than ever before — and more of an imperative than an option.

First, while nearly every organization is using social media, far fewer are creating quality content. There was a time when just being present was enough, but those days are over. The bar has been raised on what will attract and retain an audience’s attention, and increasingly, the audience is only giving their time and attention to information that educates, inspires or entertains them.

The challenge, of course, is that this content must be relevant to your organization in that it reminds the audience of what you do and how you’re different than the competition. That will allow you to secure a top-of-mind position when they have a need for, or have an opportunity to refer someone to, the product or service in your category.

In other words, tweeting about the weather is no longer enough, unless you’re The Weather Channel. Brands that are winning the battle for attention are creating substantive content that positions them as thought leaders.

Second, high-quality, unique, relevant content is more important to search engines than ever before. This means the audience’s ability to find your social-media content — not to mention your website — will be correlated with the quality of that content. Search-engine optimization (SEO) used to be relatively easy to game, but not anymore.

For example, Google’s most recent algorithm change — dubbed “Hummingbird” — puts the highest value on content that is, as Chris Marentis has said on the blog Search Engine Land, “never duplicated, always high quality and is relevant and useful to your audience.” It’s no longer enough, then to just “curate” content (to share what others have created, that is); you have to share knowledge that is uniquely your own.

While social media has removed some of the barriers that may stand in your way as you look to make content creation a higher priority, there’s one reality that hasn’t changed: there are still just 24 hours in a day. In order to develop a sustainable method of developing content, therefore, you’ll need to change some priorities within your organization.

This is well worth doing as your audience continues to look to you for more of what they’ve always wanted — quality content that helps them solve problems and use their discretionary time well.

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You can start a hashtag campaign, but you might not control it: this month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column

You can start a hashtag campaign, but you might not control it

How ubiquitous has the once-humble hashtag become? Look no further than the Mucinex “#BlameMucus” campaign. As unlikely a match as secretions and social media may seem, it’s becoming more surprising to see hashtags omitted from messages than to see them included, regardless of the advertiser.

Given how often we’re seeing hashtags, many business decision makers see them as necessary add-ons or even central features in campaigns of all kinds, from sales pitches to fundraising efforts. However, it’s important to do some critical thinking before developing your hashtag campaign — and equally as important to consider whether you’d be better off without one.

Here are the three most important questions to ask:

What do you really want the audience to do? Consider the example given above — an effort designed to generate sales. There’s a chance that a hashtag campaign could create conversations about your product, attract the attention of new prospects, or move an existing prospect to buy. However, there’s also a chance that encouraging qualified prospects to participate in conversations via a hashtag campaign could delay or even prevent them from making a more substantial commitment.

To understand this, consider your call to action from the audience’s perspective. There’s a good chance you provide your audience with a Web address and a phone number — excellent choices if you want to move them through the pipeline. But in today’s environment, your call to action likely also promotes your social-media presence (“like us on Facebook” or “follow us on Twitter,” to name just two of the most likely suspects). You may even include a QR code.

What happens when you add a hashtag into the mix? For the audience, it may be too much information, leading to confusion about what they should do next, and that may inhibit them from taking the action best aligned with your goals. If you’re communicating with a well-qualified prospect audience, therefore, it may be better to leave everything out except an offer to buy and clear direction on how to do so.

What resources will you have to expend to get traction? One of the most underappreciated aspects of hashtag campaigns is that they “go viral” only very rarely, and always with the audience’s consent. You can’t make it happen; you can only influence whether it does.

One of the most fundamental aspects of this is promotion. Like any other message you want the audience to hear, you’ll likely have to promote your hashtag in order to get a response — and even then, it may fall flat. This could come at the expense of higher-priority messages (see above) or may require standalone efforts that require an outlay of resources greater than the likely return on investment.

It’s also important to think about the resources you’ll have to expend if your hashtag campaign is a success. That’s a good problem to have, of course, but it’s still a problem if your staff can’t effectively continue the conversation.

Are you putting your organization at risk of a backlash? Hashtags are subject to one of the most basic truths of social media: It merely amplifies reality; it doesn’t change it. Since the audience dictates the terms of the conversation, a well-meaning but poorly thought-out hashtag campaign can quickly be used against your brand if you’re not performing well in the real world or if the intended message of your hashtag isn’t consistent with the audience’s experience.

Take, for example, the recent “#myNYPD” campaign. The New York Police Department’s goal was to encourage the audience to share photos of themselves with officers, thereby creating some positive buzz about the face of the force. What the audience shared, however, was something very different: photos showing police brutality appended with the “#myNYPD” hashtag. This is just the latest example of brands misunderstanding who controls the social-media conversation and how quickly it can turn negative if you don’t think before you post.

Does this mean you should avoid hashtags? Not at all. But it’s equally as important to avoid thinking of them as some kind of magic bullet. Give your campaign a little bit of thought, starting with the three questions above. And don’t be afraid to opt out if the response would likely be negative — or even, with a pun intended for which I will #BlameMucus — merely phlegmatic.

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We Have a Long Way to go as Communicators: my column for the Inside Indiana Business Inside Edge Newsletter

I wrote this for the Inside Indiana Business Inside Edge Newsletter after a discussion with my class. As we talked about how far we’ve come as communicators, we all agreed that we still have a long way to go–and that will likely lead to even greater changes in our communication environment. 

We Have a Long Way to go as Communicators

For most of us, email is our primary form of communication. Whether we’re pounding away on a desktop keyboard or hunting and pecking (while hoping to avoid auto-correct infamy) on our touch screens, most of us spend significantly more time typing than talking. That fact reveals something critically important about the state of communication: today our predominant form of communication is the exact opposite of what is optimal. 

Consider that communication generally works best when:

  • It’s spoken. Speech isn’t dependent on the vagaries of spelling and (frequently misused) cues like punctuation. Plus, we hear inflection and tone, which are hard to replace, even with emoticons. :^) (See? Told ya.)
  • It’s done face-to-face. While the telephone allows for speech even when we can’t be in the same room as our audience, it doesn’t allow us to convey emotions and supplement with hand gestures that may add meaning to a conversation. 
  • It’s done synchronously, meaning that all parties hear what is said and have the opportunity to respond in real time.

The fact is—as much as it pains me to say this as a former English major—writing is frequently a poor substitute for speech. All writing is, to be plain, a transcription of speech, wherein we use symbols (the alphabet and punctuation) to replace the words we would say if we had the opportunity to speak. We use it out of necessity, that is, not because it’s superior.

This isn’t to say, of course, that writing doesn’t have its place. It first emerged as a way to communicate when we couldn’t be face-to-face—which is, in today’s busy world, most of the time. Email also allows for significant efficiencies when we need a record of conversations or need to communicate with multiple people at once. In those cases, email is better. 

For the most part, though, we rely on email out of habit and convenience (or, if I’m being less charitable, laziness). If you want to improve a communicator, then:

1. Don’t send an email if if it’s possible to talk face to face, what you have to say is important, or if the meaning could be misinterpreted without visual and audible clues. 

2. If you can’t talk face-to-face, consider video chat (via Skype, Facebook video chat, Google Hangouts, etc.). It’s not as good as being in the same room, but it’s the next best thing.

3. Don’t use email when the phone is a better choice. Phone calls tend to get short shrift in our email-first communication environment, but they’re the better choice in many cases, such as when questions will lead to more questions or when tone of voice is important.

4. If you need a written record of the conversation, use email to recap. Yes, that requires some additional time, but it’s just as likely to save time in the long run.

“Google iphone app voice search” from Yuya Tamai on Flickr

Finally, be prepared for considerable changes in our communication environment sooner than you might imagine. Tools like iPhone’s Siri and Google Voice have made typing a little less necessary, if not altogether expendable, and video conferencing has become more affordable and accessible than ever before. There’s more where that came from in the near term. As our communication environment has evolved over the years, it’s clear that we’ve come a long, long way. However, it’s equally as certain that we still have quite a long way to go. 

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This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: Connections help determine the causes people will support

Connections help determine the causes people will support

In a blog post written late last year, nonprofit development and marketing expert Clare Axelrad said this about the changing face of fundraising: “According to a recent survey by Georgetown University Center for Social Impact Communication, 39 percent of Americans are motivated to get involved with causes that have affected someone they know, and 36 percent are motivated by it being an important cause to family and friends. These reasons for involvement far outweighed having time or money, or feeling an urgency to help people in need.”

To sum up Axelrad’s point in a phrase, in today’s interconnected world, “who” is more than “what.” The “importance” of a given cause — if such a thing can be judged objectively — matters much less than the people connected to the cause. Understanding this is not only critical to an organization’s successful use of social media. It’s critical to the overall success of the organization.

In my work with nonprofits, I’ve found that this shift isn’t always well understood. There’s still a sense that if people should care — again, in the subjective eye of the beholder — then they will care. Right or wrong, however, this simply isn’t the case. The truth is people care most only when those they are connected to care at all.

A good example of this is the Movember campaign, which is designed to raise awareness and funds for a variety of men’s health causes, including prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental health. Movember is built upon a simple premise: throughout November, men are encouraged to grow facial hair to demonstrate their support for the cause, and fundraising events help bring people together to celebrate these efforts, and, of course, show off those fancy new mustaches.

Movember has been criticized for being trivial and too broad in its focus, often by those who are somewhat bewildered by the campaign’s success. “It shouldn’t work,” they argue, “because it’s just not substantive!” While Movember’s shortcomings certainly merit some debate, it’s hard to argue with the campaign’s success: in just over a decade Movember has raised $174 million worldwide.

So, why has the Movember campaign succeeded? A few interrelated factors are especially important and suggest a similar path for other nonprofits:

• It harnesses the power of its supporters’ networks. Movember works because the campaign doesn’t rely on itself to spread the word. It’s all about understanding that the audience’s collective ability to tell the story far outweighs even the most successful organization’s ability to do so on its own.

• The audience is the star of the show. The people behind Movember understand that when you make people part of the story, it becomes their story, too. Pessimists might say this is because Movember’s supporters are narcissistic, but this distinction really doesn’t matter, however, if the goal is to elicit broad, enthusiastic support. When the audience is the center of attention, it will want to share the story over and over again.

• It’s visual. Movember gets its momentum primarily from photos, and in today’s communication environment, photos get more attention than words.

• The story is easy to share. The Movember campaign leverages social-media tools like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, taking the campaign to the audience and allowing for the sharing of photos and other content at a single click.

• It leverages the power of gamification. Movember also incorporates some competition, with “leaderboards” that show how much money is raised at different events and in communities around the world. Our natural desire to play — and win — makes it much more likely that raising money for Movember will be a top priority for those who get involved.

Nonprofits looking to succeed have two choices: They can deride campaigns like Movember and talk about why they shouldn’t work compared to “more serious” efforts like their own, or they can learn from them and adapt the campaign’s tactics to fit their audiences, missions and resources. In today’s environment, taking the latter course begins by understanding that who is more important than what — regardless of what we’d like to be true or how we think people should feel.

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This month’s Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly column: The five keys to dealing with social-media critics

Every month, I write a column for the Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly focused on a different social media topic. This month, I shared a few tips for responding to the critics you’ll inevitably encounter via social media.

The five keys to dealing with social-media critics

Let’s imagine you’re the key decision maker for a venture that’s been, from its very start, the subject of serious criticism. While you’d like to believe much of what’s being said is unfounded, some of the arguments being made against you are hard to refute and the problem isn’t going away.

One day, a respected blogger in your field with a national audience takes a shot at you, echoing some of the more biting comments made by others over the past few months. How would you respond?

A. Ignore it. After all, if you’re confident that your work has value, why expend energy on anything other than proving your critics wrong in the long run?

B. Create a constructive diversion. Create content of your own and focus on what makes your organization special, thereby giving your story a chance to be heard.

C. Attack. Confront the blogger directly with a response that denies the validity of everything he and others are saying (even the stuff that, if you’re being honest with yourself, has some merit).

Most of you probably picked A or B. After all, when the options are laid out as clearly as they are above, it’s a little easier to make the right decision. However, in the real world, when the choices are often clouded by pride, emotion and the ready availability of a “submit” button, it may be much harder to make the right decision for the long haul.

The scenario described above, in fact, isn’t fiction. While the names have been omitted to protect the not-so innocent, it’s drawn from the example of a leader of a local organization that has made the mistake of going on the attack not just once, but multiple times. Have others made the same mistake? Undoubtedly.

Nevertheless, has this person done irreparable harm to his organization? Without question. Firing off a heated response almost always results in a rebuttal from your critics and clicks and comments from the audience, which, in turn, makes it more likely those posts will rank high with the search engines — which, in turn, means more people, including your customers and prospects, will see it.

So how should you, as a leader in your organization, respond when a few arrows are shot your way? Here are a few tips:

1. Assess the size of the critic’s audience. There’s a phenomenon called the “Streisand effect,” wherein individuals and organizations call more attention to things they wish were kept quiet. If you make up half your critic’s audience, it may be best to do nothing.

2. Don’t take it personally. Easier said than done for sure, but still worth doing. Often, even when you think it’s about you, it’s not about you.

3. Think before responding. Take a deep breath, walk around the block or call a friend, but by all means, don’t act on your initial instinct.

4. Be objective and try to understand intent. It’s possible that some of the claims being made are legitimate — but you’ll only see that if you put yourself in the other person’s shoes. It’s also worth asking what is motivating your critics. It may be that they just want to provoke you, but don’t rush to that conclusion. It is equally as likely that they want to help you solve a real problem.

5. Make sure there’s more than one side to the argument. It’s bad enough when you have to read content that criticizes your organization, worse still when the world reads it. The best way to make the latter less likely is to have a sustainable strategy for creating content of your own. Doing so as a reaction to negative content won’t help as much as getting started now. The more good content you create, the less likely the bad stuff is to rise to the top of search engine results.

One more thing: There may be times when it is appropriate to engage your critics. However, first determine whether they are rational and treat virtual detractors like you would in the real world. If they swear and threaten bodily harm, they should be “thrown out” and not dealt with.

However, if they are reasonable in their approach, it may be worth having a conversation somewhere other than online or in a way that can be shared without your consent. (Don’t, that is, make the mistake of sending a “private” email message. It may not stay private for long.) Pick up the phone if possible — or better yet, meet in person — and seek common ground. Humans respond best to other human voices. It’s easy to criticize someone when you’re hiding beyond a keyboard, and easier still when your target stays in hiding, too.

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