WHAT SCHOOL DO YOU DRIVE?

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Price, performance, and perception.

In our experience, those are the 3 criteria on which learning institutions are evaluated – by students, parents, consultants, counselors, and, well, everyone.

To take our hypothesis out for a spin to see how it corners, we asked two panels of 12 undergrads – all majoring in Advertising and PR – to evaluate a set of universities using car types and the perceptions that surround them. For a kicker, we also asked if there is a celebrity they might associate with the school.

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Our Top 5 reasons why timesheets suck harder than an airplane toilet

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Anyone in professional services knows the issue.

Timesheets, to put it as delicately as possible, suck. Show us someone who likes timesheets and we’ll show you an anal-retentive, neo-maxi zoom dweebie.

The many sucky aspects of timesheets

1. They suck creativity out of the brain. Timesheets are the ultimate buzzkill. They are to creativity what kryptonite is to Superman: a life-denying, soul-shattering, anti-matter experience that leaves a trail of scorched cerebral earth in its path.

2. They suck away time that could be spent on YouTube. One of our employees claims that he can’t work past 3:30 without going on YouTube to watch a baseball manager get thrown out of a game. Timesheets seriously cut into his Watch-a-Grown-Man-Have-A-Hissyfit time. Argue with that.

3. They suck the life out of my Kwan.

As Rod Tidwell said in Jerry McGuire, you gotta have the Kwan. Timesheets are a total Kwan-killer.

4. They suck because all forms suck. Misery comes in many forms. Most are either IRS forms or timesheets.

5. They suck because they make people go shoplifting in convenience stores. Unproven fact: Timesheets are known to cause people to shoplift at their local Gas n Sip, resulting in excess consumption of turkey jerky.

AND why we do them anyhow

  1. They help us understand process. If we’re way over budget or behind schedule, we can look at how we got there.
  2. They help manage workflow. Some tasks take longer than others. Some people work faster than others. Timesheets tell us about ourselves and how we can organize our efforts better.
  3. It’s just good business. We talk about metrics and how they can tell whether something is worth the investment. Timesheets are a metric for telling us if we’re performing at a strong level, fro clients and for ourselves.

Chime in. Let us know your true feelings about timesheets.

SEO for CMOs: What you need to know

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Is your brand getting buried alive on search?

When was the last time you clicked through to the second or (gasp) third page of Google in search of a listing for your company’s content? It’s a terrible feeling, as if your content is getting buried alive. It’s important for companies to keep an eye on their rankings for branded, non-branded, and industry terms – and understand how SEO is changing.

Keeping pace with search sophistication.

When search engines were first being used, there was less content Out There. The internet was simpler. A website would only use page titles, meta-descriptions and alt attributes to describe the content that was on a given page.

But search got smarter, and algorithms started discerning which sources of information were better than others. For example, Googlebot – the web crawler that looks for new and updated pages – started assigning more importance to content based on the credibility of the source.

SEO Evolution Timeline

Algorithms: Taking a deeper dive

As search engines got better at patrolling the web, they started looking at factors like inbound/outbound linking, anchor text, domain names and registration information. Then algorithms focused on domain authority (which relies heavily on other sites linking back to yours) and diversity of the external link sources. Linking between two or three sites wasn’t enough anymore.

The most recent and advanced algorithm turn the internet into a popularity contest. Social mentions are important, especially those from (wait for it) Google+. And there is a strong focus on user behavior: Once a visitor hits your site, are they easily finding what they are looking for?

Google wants to ensure content legitimacy, which is all good. Having a physical business location, contact page, and better user interaction are good criteria for search hierarchy. But to win at the game you have to know the rules of the road.

Content is still king.

Content has withstood the test of time admirably. There’s no substitute for having good, useful, usable content.

Keyword stuffing, duplicated content, invisible text, and other black hat tricks have been used to elevate search visibility, but unethical or illegal measures to rank your site higher on Google will most likely result in penalties such as lower rankings or being banned from the index. Our advice: make really good content experiences the centerpiece of your SEO strategy – and stay alert for new SEO advancements.

If you’d like an SEO update, feel free to contact us.

With trending topics, tread carefully

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The need to show relevance – and restraint

Social marketing strategy is about staying relevant. We advise clients to add their voice and content to hot topics – when it’s appropriate. Sounds obvious, yes?

But look around and you can see big brands that comment on every trending topic out there. Sure, it’s nice to make it to the top of Twitter timelines and be seen by more potential followers, but it requires diligence and discretion – attributes that easily get lost in the chase to keep up with real time trends.

How DiGiorno pizza got burned

DiGiorno Pizza is one of the biggest players in the twittersphere, with a witty, responsive, and relevant presence (as a rule). They have a smart-alecky, wise-guy voice and they tweet non-stop and comment on trending topics. In addition to sports games and awards show commentary, they even live-tweeted the Sound of Music.

But the practice of diving into as many trending topics as possible recently backfired on the DiGiorno’s social team. They accidentally made a humorous tweet about pizza and attached the #WhyIStayed hashtag – which was referring to domestic violence in response to the Ray Rice scandal.

“Uh-oh”

After a huge corporate social fail, there are different ways of handling the situation. Some companies choose to simply go dark. Others will delete a tweet/post and pretend it never happened. After they joked about the social upheaval in Egypt, Kenneth Cole made an apology and then waited for the next news cycle. DiGiorno also made a couple major apologies and tried to respond to each person who was offended by the post. They have not tweeted again since apologizing for the incident, which took place in early September.

While DiGiorno’s response was the most appropriate for them, most companies don’t have the manpower to devote to individual responses – especially if they have 82k followers.

How to sidestep disaster

Strategize on voice. While developing your social strategy, discuss what the voice of your company should be. Make sure it is in line with your corporate values and brand reputation. Are you going to be witty and funny about anything in pop culture or will you focus only on industry-specific topics?

Research the context. Even if it means your tweet will take 15 minutes longer to be sent, make sure that you research a topic before posting about it – especially trending topics on twitter.

Test it on teammates. A tweet that seems innocuous to you could be offensive to someone else. Take a few minutes to ask your co-workers what they think. Asking 3-5 different people should let you know if there are any potential landmines.

As always, we are here to help with your social strategy… contact us if you have any questions.

Back to school on social PR

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Schools are brands

Educational institutions – from private schools to community colleges – have awakened to the power of brand development.

There is a growing recognition that schools offer branded experiences to a range of constituents – donors, faculty, alums, students past present and future, as well as employees, unions, and others among them – and that the equity of the brand needs protection.

Academic brands need to rethink PR

It used to be that a school’s brand reputation was largely driven by news headlines. “Fraternity house under investigation for hazing,” or “Women’s hockey team wins title” are the old school PR scenarios that schools had to combat or capitalize on.

Today, schools have a huge opportunity to use social media for PR purposes. If a consumer is upset with a brand, they will tweet about why. Consumers like academic brands on Facebook. They follow their favorite schools on LinkedIn university.

Trending: #[School]Problems

One trend in college and high school students is #[InsertNameOfYourSchoolHere]Problems. The hashtag and twitter handle is used across the US to put issues students have with schools front and center. The content ranges from the comical….

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…to the controversial…

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…to the awful.

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How to combat negative PR in social media

To combat negative PR, schools need to act like a consumer brand. This means embracing 1 of 3 strategies;

  1. Take every response seriously. No matter how trivial, comical, or inconsequential the comment may seem, respond with concern. This can deter internet trolls while maintaining good relations with legitimate customers. The best practice: Offer an email address that the consumer can use for private resolution of the issue. And resolve the issue.
  2. Learn to take – and make – a joke. Sometimes brands respond to funny or mean social posts in a comical way. This can be risky, but very rewarding. Don’t forget how this facebook post about women’s menstrual conditions inspired the Bodyform video that went crazy viral.
  3. Ignore the everyday negativity. AKA the “go-dark” method. It is useful against trolls who crave attention and should not be rewarded with recognition, however it can hurt your brand when the complaint is legit. This will require a person within an educational institution to monitor, assess, and determine what’s worth answering and what is not.

 

School’s out: Get a social media policy in place.

It’s hard to know what to respond to (and how) without establishing some guidelines first. This requires that a social media policy be created, with a clear sense of the school’s philosophy about communications – and an equally clear grasp of resources, human and material. The challenge is to scale needs to capabilities – and it’s something we help clients with all the time.

 

Not sure how to create a social media policy that’s right for you? Join us for a beverage to discuss it.

 

Is Pinterest Killing Creativity?

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As we pointed out in Why Pinterest Reminds Me of the Stock Market, Pinterest was one of the fastest growing social networks ever – an online bulletin board that allowed you to “pin” your own pictures and online bookmarks and share them with friends.

It has become the go-to site for everyday creativity – things like cooking, styling, or DIY project ideas. And therein lies the issue.

The Pig Cake Conundrum

A partner here needed to make a pig cake for her daughter’s birthday. Her first step was to search for “pig cake” on Pinterest, which returned hundreds of options, from Peppa Pig to Miss Piggy. The options seemed endless and each image linked to step-by-step instructions of how to make the masterpiece.

Good news: She duplicated a cake and it was a hit at the party.

Bad news: The experience sucked.

It wasn’t because the cake didn’t look and taste fantastic. It was because she couldn’t take credit for it. It wasn’t hers. It belonged to Pinterest.

What this means for clients

One of our CPG clients, a household marker brand, promotes its products as expressions of everyday creativity. They began using Pinterest shortly after the site launched. It has been a great traffic driver to the client’s website. Its had synergies with other social networks and has improved positive social mentions.

Would we recommend that our client that not posting crafts because people should be creative on their own? Of course not.

But brands that enable people to be “creative” should encourage engagement that does not rely on step-by-step instruction.

Define a creative task, but leave it loose. A sample engagement invite for our marker client: Using only a blue, green & yellow marker, draw a picture of your favorite summer activity.

Encourage fans to share their own creations. Calls to action around UGC should  reward participation with positive comments and appreciation.

Redefine creativity through your brand. Food and beverage brands have contests for  consumers to volunteer new recipes. Home improvement brands love it when people use their products in new and unexpected ways. Even the act of authoring a review is creative – and should be acknowledged as such. Converse, back in 2005, started down a path of consumer-authored creative and look where its taken them.

 

Feeling like your consumer outreach could use a little creativity? Discuss it with us over a beverage. Contact us.

Listen up: Time for website audio to make a comeback

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The argument against websites that autoplay sound is well-known.

It’s annoying.

It’s invasive.

It’s a dead giveaway at work that you’re not really working. And those cheesy speakers with no midrange aren’t helping matters any.

But when we turn off the sound, we’re saying goodbye to a sensory experience that can do a lot for the site experience. We think it’s time clients listen to the case for how sound can support the target experience.

5 reasons why audio should be reconsidered.

1. People work with headphones on. Thanks to tablets and smart phones, more and more people work with in-your-ear audio as a way of getting through the day.

2. YouTube changed everything. The ascendancy of YouTube as a research and learning platform has meant that it’s acceptable to include audio + video content as a core part of everyday life, even in the workplace.

3. Stories are told with sound. Branded content often has an agenda of cultivating a narrative around the product – anecdotes, stories from everyday consumers, and other forms of allegory. Categorically eliminating sound ties one hand behind the back of the website as it seeks engagement. See how this funky Berlin hotel uses audio to create an other-worldly experience

4. It can be subtle. Audio can be atmospheric and textural. It can be simple sound effects that set a tone or mood. Check out how audio works within this scrolling site for a story the Guardian built about a wild fire in Tasmania.

5. It can be elective. Website visitors can be empowered to decide if they want to listen to the audio – just make it clear to them that they’re going to a sound file with a “Hear the full experience” activation button for listeners who want to go deeper.

Sound off – or on? Let us know what you think.

There’s no definitive, yes-or-no answer regarding audio usage on websites. It’s all a question of whether it works for what you’re trying to accomplish. So let us hear your opinion, online or in person.

Finding a home for the Home button

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There’s no place like Home. Or is there?

Part of serving a wide range of clients means studying their websites all the time, and looking at usage patterns. It allows us to determine who is currently using our clients’ sites and – how their habits and preferences are shifting. Which brings us to the Home button.

The logo as a Home button.

The practice in recent years has been to eliminate the traditional Home button. By using the logo instead, sites have had a convenient (and content-efficient) way of letting users get back to comfortable, navigable ground. Furthermore, using the logo frees up room in the navigation bar for other navigation elements. The chart below illustrates the percentage of websites using a Home button versus their logo. It proves what we already suspect: the Home button may be on its way out.

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Not so fast.

Many of our clients’ websites are trafficked by users who are web savvy – but not all of them. Sites that serve users who are elderly, mentally ill, visually impaired, socioeconomically troubled, or not conversant with traditional site functionality may struggle with the shifting variables in web design.

Giving these people a traditional path back to their starting point can be comforting and can keep them on the site. In Steve Krug’s excellent book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability he writes: “Having a home button in sight at all times offers reassurance that no matter how lost I may get, I can always start over, like pressing a reset button or using a ‘Get out of jail free’ card.”

The breadcrumb alternative

To keep users oriented within a site, breadcrumbs can be helpful. When a user lands on an internal page of your website from another source, breadcrumbs will allow the person to see exactly where they stand within the site’s structure – without taking up much space. Breadcrumbs are also easy to implement into the visual design of a site, and the links contained in a breadcrumb trail give the user additional information.

Home, reconsidered.

For some sites, such as social networks, the homepage is a key feature, with a personalized news feed or a central hub for user activity with key functions. In these cases, clear pathways to get Home are valuable. Look at Facebook. It has made changes to the tool tip when you hover over the logo, reflecting a change in user understanding of how to get back home.

But on sites where the homepage is not the central hub of user interest and activity (such as eBay), the standard practice is to make the route home less prominent. One notable exception to this rule is Pinterest, where the homepage is hugely important to the user but has no dedicated home button – only a clickable logo in the top center, and search in the top left.

3 things to remember

1. Look at the audiences. Are the primary users likely to need directions Home?

2. Evaluate the site’s complexity. Are there complex subpages that might make navigating difficult, and a Home button appealing?

3. Don’t go with the crowd. Trends can be interesting and useful. But they shouldn’t be a substitute for independent thought. Yes, there is movement away from having a Home button, but your site should respond to its users, not what the herd does.

As always, we’re ready to continue the conversation over a beverage.

 

Think outside the mascot: 5 steps to better academic branding

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Back to school on academic branding

Private prep schools. Community colleges. Name-brand universities. International programs. Vocational and technical institutes. Academic organizations of all stripes are competing harder for business – and looking carefully at their branding practices.

Not just the logo or the ads. Not just the mascots and marching bands. Not the varsity team jerseys. More and more, schools are asking themselves a larger, more critical question: How do we brand the essence of who we are, i.e. our curriculum?

Recognizing the obstacles

Academic environments, generally, are not marketing environments. They are learning environments. So their marketing culture is usually not highly evolved – and is often handled by Admissions, an affiliated but separate discipline.

The other challenge is political. Academic organizations frequently must practice inclusion to secure buy-in at lots of levels and optimize the chances of success for any change in how the school operates. Big initiatives make big targets.

So it’s best to think long-term and include the correct stakeholders early and often.

5 baby steps toward curriculum brand development

Step #1: Step back. Waaaaay back. Look at your curriculum end to end and try to describe it in basic language. Example: A private school client wrestled with the task of how to describe its curriculum, which is evenly split between traditional liberal arts courses and highly creative electives. The course of action became about Balance. The Sorry-But-We- Can’t-Name-the-Client curriculum “strikes the perfect balance between classic studies and progressive, student-driven inquiry.”

Step 2. Consider culture as well as curricula. Sometimes it’s not what happens inside the classroom, but outside it. One private school client has an informal Peer to Peer counseling program that matches underclassmen with juniors and seniors, so there’s always a person to turn to for advice. This is not unique, but no one else has branded it, so an opportunity exists for a P2P initiative that underscores a supportive culture.

Step 3. Brand the faculty. No, we don’t mean that you should assign “superstar” status to any individual. Rather, think about the faculty as a team, which shares a common goal. Consider a faculty t-shirt day when every teacher wears the same shirt with the same message, like: I teach great students great things. It’s a small step toward creating the perception of a unified spirit and standard.

Step 4. Consider brand partners. The Learning Company is not a brick and mortar institution. But check out the alliances they’ve built with Smithsonian and National Geographic. Those associations command a lot of credibility for the courses offered. If you co-brand a course with a local university, 501C3, or other entity, you can begin to brand the curriculum from the inside out.

Step 5. For extra credit: Believe in the blog. The Darrow School, a private high school in New York, has a charismatic head of school who can blog.

We remind clients that blogging takes tradecraft and time and it shouldn’t be done by just anyone. But a blog program that features a rotating field of faculty experts, coaches, guests, alumnae, and other stakeholders can be interesting – and can feed social media channels and site content with fresh images and opinion.

Your turn. Give us a shout and we’ll be happy to buy you a beverage and talk in more detail about your school and its brand.

The Facebook Conspiracy Theory

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A few weeks ago, articles and videos were making their way around the web claiming that Facebook ad-buys were completely bogus.

Facebook claimed that if you purchased an ad focused on gaining likes to a page, you would set a budget, create the ad and, over a couple weeks, watch your fan-base grow. The real question is about quality: Who’s doing the “liking?”

We decided to do our own testing.

We created a new page with no likes, posts or engagement whatsoever. We even gave it a title that no one would have interest in liking… “Virtual Apple Tree”. It’s an image of an apple tree doing what apple trees do: Growing apples. We put a $25 spend behind it and waited for the magic to happen.

Sure enough, magic happened. We received 141 likes at around $0.17 cents per like. Amazing, right? But that’s when the concern set in. How could we possibly get 140+ people to like a Facebook page with no content or interaction, simply from paying $25? We dove into the pages of our new friends.

They all seemed to be legitimate people. They had profile pictures, standard US names, some activities on their walls from playing games, sharing content, etc. But then we noticed a startling trend.

Click-farming: Worthless growth

The new fans of the Virtual Apple Tree all seemed to have liked 5,000+, 20,000+ and even 40,000+ pages. The research had brought us face to face with the reality of click-farms – companies that give people small sums of money for every thousand pages they like.

The real cost of empty likes

For unsuspecting Facebook page managers who are just trying to use the advertising tool, these fake likes are much more detrimental to a page than the waste of money. Pages built on click farming are now going to start taking your organic reach away from potential real fans, causing you to want to pay even more money to “promote” posts. And the only way to get rid of these likes? You have to manually delete them one by one.

3 Actions

If you are focused on buying likes, you should:

1. Reevaluate your Facebook strategy. Depending on your target, Facebook may be the wrong venue for your audience or you may simply just be too late to the game to start a new page.

2. Try to increase engagement organically. Although Facebook continuously makes this harder to do, stay focused on reaching the quality fans and worry less about quantity.

3. Consider hosting an on-wall promotion with your advertising budget instead of purchasing ads. This is a way to reward your current fans for their patronage and also gain new fans virally from others posting and sharing the content.

As always, we are here to discuss social media strategy with you. Give us a shout. Let’s talk. Beverages are on us.