Archive for October, 2009

Is Your Facebook Profile as Private as You Think?

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

NPR is doing an interesting series this week called “The End of Privacy.” It explores the issue of privacy in the digital age. The second part, which aired today, is about privacy on Facebook, or the lack thereof. It might make you think twice about taking one of those quizzes.

Shameless Promotion of Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger

Monday, October 26th, 2009

DSCN22150087This is a shameless promotion of my son, Hudson’s, recent appearance on the CBS Early Show as airline Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger. He appeared on the Halloween costume segment for FamilyFun magazine, which created the idea. You can see his portable cardboard airplane in the short video clips below.

When we told him that Capt. Sullenberger himself might even see the costume on TV, Hudson replied, “No he won’t. He’s dead. He died in the plane crash.” So he’s not up on the details, but at least he didn’t say this on the show.

Corner-Office Blogging Reveals Little

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
man and woman in office
A blog has to be authentic if it’s going to work, say authors Robert Scobel and Shel Israel in the opening chapters of their book, “Naked Conversations: How Blogs Are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers.” I agree – so far, so good. 
However, Scobel and Israel then proceed to point out all the ways that CEOs — and the PR professionals who advise them — are using blogs to essentially further their corporate objectives. Where is the authenticity in that? Who really believes that CEOs are completely writing from the heart? And as for most of the CEO blogging I’ve reviewed, who actually reads this content on a regular basis? Who considers it a truly insightful look at a company?
Making an Argument
As Professor Alex Halavais states in his lecture, “Communication Pros,” PR professionals are making an argument each time they present information. The listener assumes that the information is “spin,” but the PR professional is arguing that he or she “is providing a credible view of a situation.” In the case of executive blogging, the CEO (and his PR staff, I believe) are trying to make their view of a situation seem credible, too. But one does not have to look hard to find examples of how credibility appears weak in executive blogging.
Having worked with various executives in corporate communications over the past 20 years, I believe I have at least some reason to be skeptical about the authenticity of executive blogging. Many of the executives for whom I’ve provided ghostwriting support displayed great difficulty in articulating a clear and concise message in writing, much less one that sounded sincere and forthright. They may have been excellent at running a company, department or division, but written communication was often a struggle. And who can blame them? They’re not trained to be writers or spokespeople — that’s the job of the communications professional. But when executives claim to be authentic on something as public as a blog, it seems hard to believe.
“Blogs are the medium for soul-baring and straight talking,” writes Stephen Evans, North American business correspondent for the BBC, in his article, “Why Bosses Blog — and Why It‘s Cheesy.” “They’re readable because they’re gossipy and dangerous and the antithesis of officialdom.
“They’re the place where the unspeakable is spoken. They’re the vehicle of loopiness and truth. But just as you know something’s not cool any more when your granny starts doing it (like using the word “cool”), isn’t the point of blogs that they’re meant to be the site of unofficialdom, and so forbidden to executives?” giant computer screen

Now, to be fair, I’m sure that there are some CEOs who do, in fact, actually write blogs themselves without help from a ghostwriter or PR message-massager. One of the executives who seems less artificial than most is Sun Microsystems President Jonathan Schwarz, whom the book profiles. If you can endure the technical subject matter of his blogs, his style seems to be refreshingly blunt. But even Schwarz admits, “Our PR team is thinking about how to use technology and culture as a corporate weapon, and blogging does both.” This remark makes his blogging efforts seem very calculated and much less off-the-cuff.

Better than an Ad Campaign

He goes on to tell Scobel and Israel that, “What blogs have done is authenticated the Sun brand better than a billion-dollar ad campaign could have done.” Again, this makes one question just how authentic his blogging efforts really are. His blog seems to be just the newest component of an overall corporate branding campaign.

This comment from Schwarz contrasts sharply with another quote in the book from Dave Winer, the “father of blogging,” who talks about how blogs should represent the “unedited voice of an individual.” “It’s not just an organization speaking,” he says. “It’s informal. It’s ’come as you are. We’re just folks here.’” What is informal about a blog that aims to “authenticate the brand” like Schwarz‘s?

Life in the FastLane

FastLane,“ the blog of General Motors Chairman Bob Lutz, is hailed by Scobel and Israel as another example of successful executive blogging. The content may have been more fresh when Lutz first started the blog, but the site today looks and sounds like a well oiled PR vehicle, with postings not just by Lutz but a full complement of GM executives, such as the Vehicle Emissions Director and the Vice President of Environment, Energy and Safety Policy.

In his most recent posting, Lutz offers up controversial comments like these:

“We’re going to take away every last excuse people have not to consider our products.”

“We have a lineup of vehicles that we think, if given a chance, can stack up with the best the rest of the automotive manufacturing world has to offer.“

“We believe we have achieved our goal of building the world’s fastest sedan, but I look forward to putting that theory to the test … and may the best car win.”

These sound to me like the smooth message points issued by a PR department.

“Thoughts on how wonderful the new product is and how the management team have got it exactly right in all conceivable ways ought to go straight into the cyberspace waste bin,” writes Evans of the BBC.

Besides being too promotional about their own products, I think executives also need to be careful not to wander off into goofy sidebars or revelations of the obvious. Just because they are important public figures does not mean that everything they have to say is valuable to their audience.

Marriott on the Move

I found that Chairman and CEO of Marriott International, Bill Marriott, was compelled to share this priceless memory on his blog, “Marriott on the Move”:

“I’m blogging today from the Miami Airport Marriott in Miami, Florida. We built this hotel in 1972. I remember back when we opened it, Garo Yepremian was the place kicker for the Miami Dolphins. We asked him to kick a football over the ribbon to open the hotel, and it was my finger that held the ball. Good thing he was such a great kicker! I still have five fingers left on my hand.”

Or how about this business gem that I found on the blog for Jeffrey D. Schnader, CEO of the data software company, Universe Point:

Lost customers suck

Maybe this should be labeled, “Lost sales suck” or “Losing sucks”. It’s true too, I hate it when I lose and when a prospect chooses one of my competitors it stings every time.”

(The website for Universe Point says the company has been “forced to shut down.” I guess lost customers really did suck.)

Ideas to Help Make it Work

I think that if corporate blogging is to work, it should not pose as authentic, from-the-heart musings of the person in the corner office. Readers are too smart for that; they can smell the phoniness right away. Companies should be honest with their external audiences and present an executive blog as what it is, another communications vehicle in their ongoing brand campaign. I think the best way to make this connection is to link the executive blog to the corporate website, so the reader clearly understands that the information on the blog is related to the corporate mission.

If positioned honestly, I think executive blogs do have value. They can give a human face to an organization, even though its “best face” will always be shown. Readers will expect that, and they will respect the organization for not insulting their intelligence by trying to pass off the blog as authentic.

Also, if an executive does take the time to read the comments from customers who visit the blog, this may be some of the best feedback she gets. These customers would have to feel strongly about the company to visit the blog, and therefore their opinion is something to take seriously.

Tips for getting people to read, not scan

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

If you want people to read the copy on your website and not scan it, consider using small type. So says the article, “What We Saw Through Your Eyes,” which describes how eye-tracking technology was used to determine what readers look at and what they don’t. It’s all part of  The Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack III study. The article descibes lots of other study results as well, which you may find interesting.

Three More From Second Life

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

A few more shots from my Excellent Adventure into Second Life with m8rxgrl and Thinking Allowed (see below).

Participating in a graduate class in this virtual world will certainly be as memorable as any class experience I have in the actual world. It was interesting to see everyone testing their new legs, flying around, chatting. It took me a few minutes to figure out who the professor was, but when I saw Zeno’s loudly patterned shirt and heard him repeatedly say, “Hey! …Hey!,” I knew it was probably our virtual class leader.

Meeting the ICM grad who knows Second Life as well as his own skin was interesting as well — especially when he described meeting his real-world wife in SL. When Zeno asked him where he found all the time to spend on SL, he replied that he simply quit watching TV. I thought that was an interesting way to look at the situation. For as much as some people scoff at SL, at least you’re actively using your brain.

My brain was indeed fatigued after about an hour of trying to navigate the island. I kept flying into walls, flying out to sea and then losing sight of land, and forgetting how to IM my partners. Being more adept than I, m8rxgrl and Thinking Allowed fortunately offered up repeated teleport invitations to keep me from being permanently lost at sea. Despite the frustrations, I think I might just go back and try to get better acclimated to this planet of avatars.

m8rxgrl slays a dragon.

m8rxgrl slays a dragon.

Thinking Allowed ponders the Garden of the Missing.

Thinking Allowed ponders the Garden of the Missing.

Looking to steal response papers from USC Marshall School of Business.

Looking to steal response papers from USC Marshall School of Business.

Photos of Alien Life Forms

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009
Getting some culture at the Louvre.

Getting some culture at the Louvre.

My two partners and I explored the island on Second Life with our fellow QU classmates. And the best thing about this virual world — free cameras.

Hanging out at a dance club, not knowing how to dance.

Hanging out at a dance club, not knowing how to dance.

Virtual vertigo on Eiffel Tower.

Virtual vertigo on Eiffel Tower.

Don’t Let Your Avatar Eat Junk Food

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009
Little more than a decade has passed since B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore published “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” But their words have already had a significant and lasting effect on the way businesses view their customers — and the way we, as consumers, interact with the economy. Corporations are now vying with each other to engage us in the most memorable way possible. And many of these companies are laying a cornerstone in a virtual community to reach us. Ultimately, I think virtual-reality efforts by certain industries will fall short of expectations because they do not transfer well to the requirements of an engaging online experience.
Insurance Island
One such industry is health insurance. Because I work in this industry, the recent efforts of two major health insurance companies to conquer the virtual world are of special interest. On June 30, 2008, CIGNA Healthcare announced the development of a virtual health care community situated on a Second Life® island. Just over a year later, on October 6, 2009, UnitedHealthcare opened its Health Care LaneSM, described as an “interactive Web site where “townspeople” explain and teach health insurance topics.”
On CIGNA’s island of health, you are welcomed by an avatar, which greets and leads you to a virtual seminar. CIGNA claims the island encourages audience participation through such fun-filled seminar activities as voting about the fat content of certain food items. The seminar speaker, meanwhile, demonstrates “oversized illustrations of various fiber-rich foods that should be eaten throughout the day.” Doesn’t it seem strange that a Second Life enthusiast would want to pay attention to healthy eating when, with a few clicks in the “change appearance” menu, she can reduce her avatar by three dress sizes? Of course, CIGNA is trying to reach the real human at the keyboard who does eat food, but it seems like an odd and forced connection.
Diet Tips for Avatars
In CIGNA’s “nutrition zone” participants can develop their nutrition knowledge, learn how to make healthier food choices and understand portion sizes and food labels — “skills that will enable them to lead healthier, more energetic and productive lives.” These are laudable goals, but again, isn’t there a disconnect when CIGNA tries to teach proper nutrition to people who are walking around as avatars?
Quiet Neighborhood
Over on UnitedHealthcare’s Health Care Lane, you can visit these very exciting destinations as you stroll through town:
  •  The WiFi Café, where you can learn about online health tools and calculators. (Better make it a double espresso to stay awake!)
  • The Town Bank, for information about Health Savings Accounts.
  • The Public Library for definitions about common health insurance terms.

As Pine & Gilmore explain, the richest experiences encompass “The Four Realms” — entertainment, education, esthetics and escapism. I think the CIGNA and UnitedHealthcare sites make a good-faith effort in the educational realm, but they fall short in terms of entertainment, esthetics and escapism. Part of the problem is that when people are immersed in a virtual world, health insurance is simply not a subject they want to think about. What escape is there in that? They don’t even want to think about it in the real world, which I know from my experience as a communications consultant for a health plan.

Serious Games

The CIGNA and UnitedHealthcare sites also do not live up to the description of “Serious Games” offered by C.C. Abt. He describes serious games, which would certainly include attempts to make health insurance fun, as those that “unite the seriousness of thought with the experimental and emotional freedom of active play.” There’s clearly seriousness of thought required here — health savings accounts, fat content, and such. But try as these companies might, I’m skeptical that health insurance games rise to the level of “experimental and emotional freedom of active play.”

The thing is, serious games can be entertaining, as C.C. Abt writes. And virtual world games have to be entertaining if people are going their to fill their need for a “third place,” as Andrew Hinton asserts. But if this third place is akin to the corner pub or town commons, does anyone really want to spend precious free time boning up on common health insurance terms?

Lack of Meaning

Another part of the problem is that health insurance products, and health topics in general for that matter, don’t have any meaning in the virtual world experience. There is no need for health or health insurance in Second Life. These companies are applying a real-world product to a pretend-world platform, and it seems forced.

The situation is similar to the example of cell phone service sold on Second Life, as related by a Second Life participant, D.J. Barracuda. He shared his view of a article, “Will the Last Corporation Leaving Second Life Please Turn Off the Light?” Says Barracuda: “Let’s be real here for a moment. A known cell phone company came into Second Life to sell their products. Cell phones. We have absolutely NO use for cell phones in a game…I think the poster Al Ramirez said it best when he said, ’I think the bottom line is corporations plainly need to operate in the real world.’”

Bragging Rights?

Are these companies investing money in a virtual world presence because of the lure of exciting new technology? For bragging rights to impress investors? “This is the next big frontier,” states Claus Nehmzow, General Manager International, of Method, a “brand experience agency” that CIGNA hired to design its community. And companies like CIGNA want to claim their stake as pioneers. This is not their sole motivation, but they need to be careful about losing focus on the appeal and effectiveness of the virtual world offering.

Although health insurance companies have a unique challenge in converting an especially dry topic into a fun, interactive experience, the problem may be bigger than that. As the Los Angeles Times reported in July 2007, industries of all kinds were finding that “avatars created by participants in the online society aren’t avid shoppers.”

 No Marketer’s Paradise

A three-dimensional society like Second Life, where publicity is cheap and the demographic is computer-savvy, should be a marketer’s paradise, the article says. “But it turns out that plugging products is as problematic in the virtual world as it is anywhere else.” I’ll be sure to remember this when my company says it’s time to build an island on Second Life.