Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Freedom From Fear - Selling Canada's Afghan Mission

I have steadfastly refused to wander into polemical debate with this blog but the deployment of a friend to Afghanistan has given me pause. Here in Canada the civilian feeling wavers between apathy and resignation. There's a faint sense that the finish line (2011, when the mission ends) is getting closer and that the government will hold to it and not extend the mission.

More than half the country opposes this mission (54%). The media refer to it as a 'war' and the headlines are typically "3 Canadian Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan" (Calgary Herald) or "Unarmed Civilians Killed by Canadian Soldiers (Hamilton Spectator)." The politicians focus on the end date of the mission, not what is actually happening now. And the abiding images are of (a) bewildered Afghan civilians being searched by heavily armed Canadian soldiers and (b) coffins coming home draped in flags.

Answering Why

As Remembrance Day rolls around, I asked myself "what are we doing here?" And why is it that most Canadians don't really know?

Because of the nature of democracy, the bureaucracies at
Foreign Affairs and National Defence (as well as in the military itself) cannot be seen to be communicating at odds to the elected government. So how is the government portraying the mission? The Harper government oscillates between two rationales for our mission - supporting our American friends in the maddeningly vague 'war on terror' and, if pressed hard, continuing to honour a commitment given by a previous government. Put in schoolyard terms, this amounts to 'we're doing it because they said so' and 'they started it.' Unhelpful and largely ignored by the media.

The only solid story hooks left then are the conventional ones that flowered during the war reporting of the Vietnam era - body bags and the mistreatment of innocent civilians. Don't take my word for it; look at the media coverage over the past year and you'll see these are the main metaphors for our mission.

I think it could be different. I believe that this should not be communicated as a military mission foremost. And I believe we are owed an answer to 'why.' Here's how I would do it:

First, it's not a war. The principal objective is not killing Taleban and rooting out terror networks. Sure that's why there are tanks, artillery and all the rest of the toys over there. But that's not what should be sold to the Canadian public as the purpose of the intervention. Remember, nobody likes a long, unexplained military commitment in some country on top of the world (especially not a place where two global superpowers have already had their asses handed to them on a plate).

This mission is about delivering freedom from fear to the Afghans. That's how it should be portrayed. It's not a stretch, honest. In fact we're already doing stuff in Afghanistan that would support this narrative - bomb disposal, primary health care delivery, school construction and more. Think of it:

  • Everyone should be free to go to school without fear of intimidation.
  • Everyone should be free to travel the roads without fear of IEDs.
  • Everyone should be free to live without fear of serious disease.
Wouldn't that throw light on the true purpose of the mission? Wouldn't that shift the focus from the body counts in the Taleban and Canadian columns? Wouldn't we be able to measure and communicate a win in Afghanistan? Of course, there is military activity but it should be seen as occurring in support of solid goals, not in the light of some cowboy-like 'shootin' up the bad guys' narrative.

Unfortunately I think this may be too little too late. I predict the government will continue to use the communications approach it is wedded to. And I predict the mission will, be any of the measures being used now, fail. But it will obtain its political objectives - getting out by 2011 with some activity to show for it. This is because, as 2010 comes around, the mission will likely focus on minimizing casualties in advance of the departure the following year. I see it as a year or so of declining activity, driven by the need to mitigate political risk, not the actual purpose of the mission.

Unfortunately, to borrow a phrase, 'night and the Taleban return.' When the day wanes in 2011 and we leave, when in 2012 and beyond we construct rationalizations for our activities in Afghanistan, we will have missed an opportunity to truly say what we did and why. We will not have answered the Canadian public when they ask "what was the point?"

Postscript - I expect criticism from both the political and bureaucratic folks who may argue that all of this is being communicated through their websites and so on. To them I can only say 'stop drinking the Koolaid.'

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Virtues of Lurking

Lurking has a slightly disreputable air to it. For the eggheads out there this may have to do with the word’s Scandinavian origin. It comes from the Norwegian lurka – to sneak away. So what sort of self-respecting communications person would want to use ‘sneaky’ means to gain audience insight? Lots, actually.

Be like Fossey

More virtuously, lurking just means passively and unobtrusively observing. Some of the best lurkers come from the sciences – Diane Fossey was a lurker par excellence and thanks to her skulking about we hav
e plenty of insights about gorilla social behaviour.

All we are trying to do is what Fossey did - see what folks do and say in their natural environments. Humans, gorillas... same difference... we're all primates.

The 1% rule

Researchers have found that most Internet users are lurkers of one sort or another. Call it 'participation inequality' or the one per cent rule, what we're talking about is how only a very small fraction of visitors to social networks, discussion groups, review sites etc. actually contribute anything. The rest of us are just spectators. For those of you who want the math, here it is:

This has implications for the value of your observations. If only 10 per cent ever actually say anything then the stuff you're observing is representative of only a narrow slice of your audience. So the findings you generate by lurking should be seen as directional or confirmed through other research tools.

3 Rules of Lurking

While there are many practical (but not insurmountable) barriers to lurking in the real world, online it has quite a pedigree. In fact, many of the principles of online lurking can be adapted to real world lurking.

I am assuming that, as a communications person, you probably have limited programming skills. I am assuming too that you have at least a rudimentary ethical backbone. And I am assuming this is a DIY project and you haven't farmed it out to some analytics firm that's billing you hundreds of thousands of dollars. So I'll start with what I feel are the essential rules for successful lurking:

1. Sit down and shut up

Harsh as that sounds you need to remember that this is a passive exercise. You're like the crew of the USS Dallas, patiently listening to undersea noises in the hope of picking up the trail of the Soviet Red October submarine. Just listen, swallow down any righteous indignation that arise
s from particularly moronic posts, and take notes. Your analysis will come later. Right now you are a spectator.

2. Establish a neutral identity

Lurking as 'WhiteHousePresSec99' is not going to do you any good. You need a neutral identity that does not directly point to your rationale for lurking and equally does not attempt to deliberately ob
scure or deceive. As a private citizen you have every right to join a forum or drop into a review site. So if you need to create an identity to log into a group, establish a personal, bland, neutral one with sparsely populated information fields. You should be as interesting as the colour grey or oatmeal. Or borrow a friend's identity if necessary. And of course you can always shed your skin, dump the old identity and create a new one. Remember, you can always have an official identity that can post and comment on behalf of your organization.

3. know where to lurk and why

There are as many reasons for lurking as there are online venues to do so. You might lurk to gain customer insight, to monitor critics, gain competitive intelligence or measure the success of your communications efforts. You need to be certain why you're lurking at a particular venue so that you don't get a skewed view of what you're seeing. Example - Apple cultists like me have already drunk the koolaid so our comments reflect that, as opposed to this guy who claims "Mac killed my inner child" (look at the number of views and comments).

Where to lurk? Some venues are obvious - Inside CRM published a list of customer review sites here a few years back for pretty much every product imaginable. There's also BlogCatalog to help you locate relevant blogs (tip: always read the comments). Some you will come to know by word of mouth or patient trawling.

Start making sense

By now you should have sheets o
f information and no one is the wiser. You feel a little like this guy except perhaps without all the killing and sleeping around (or not, it's your life):

How cool is that? But what do all these data mean? Again it depends on what you hope to find out in the first place. Did you lurk to get early reactions from audiences to a high profile communications campaign? Did you want to know what people thought of your services? Here are some things to watch out for:

  1. Measure for volume and tone - are they flippant and desperately trying to be witty? Could be a deliberate rebel who revels in stirring up shit and not reflective of broader opinion.
  2. Gain as much demographic information as you can from profiles and such (mine deep - is the spelling atrocious? Could be someone with little education or a teen). Linking perspectives and comments to any clue about someone's real world persona is useful.
  3. Be creative - this is not a scientific process. I am asking you to get a little bit of information and hypothesize about its significance. Sometimes your insights will be obvious, sometimes the links will be more tenuous.

The bad news is that lurking takes time and effort. And it's an imprecise exercise in many cases. The good news is that it is a great way to put your finger on the pulse of important audiences. And the skills you practice online can be applied in the real world. For example, next time you're waiting in line at Home Depot/WalMart/Starbucks (circle one), open your ears to what the folks ahead of you are saying. Sometimes it's just chatter but often there's an insight to be found in all that dross.

Stay tuned... next time I'll be talking to an anthropologist about how those folks get insights into their subjects. As always, feel free to comment or request a topic.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Trying Desperately to Listen

Hello and welcome back. I took large chunks of the summer off (hence the sllence); I hope you also had a chance to decompress, spend time with your family or whatever it is that makes you feel rejuvenated and ready to get back in the game.

In keeping with the generalist approach of this blog, I'd like to spend a few blog entries in the coming months talking about the folks we used to call 'audiences.' You know, the supposed recipients of our communications and the people who sometimes have genuine conversations with us. I'm going to start with some thoughts on audience understanding.

Hey Ray

Here's Ray Kerins.

He's most famous for asking the pharmaceutical industry a very pointed question: "How in the hell do we have such a bad reputation?" (I'll answer that in a future post... with some glee and schadenfreude) and for his re-organization of the communications and PR functions at Pfizer. As VP of Worldwide Communications for the world's largest drug company
($71 billion in revenue, 137,000 employees) he is naturally very interested in understanding his audiences.

All that is great but what really interests me is what he said at a recent Social Communications & Healthcare conference.

"The whole issue of listening is something we are trying desperately to do."

Trying desperately to listen. I confess to being a little spooked by this as it suggests a certain degree of panic. After all, the roots of the word 'desperate' mean 'lack of hope.' I hope that's not what he meant but I think truthfully many large organizations - from Fortune 500 multinationals to governments, are indeed engaged in a desperate attempt to figure out what is actually going on 'out there' in the minds and behaviours of their various constituencies.

So I set myself the challenge in coming blogs to answer the question: how do we try desperately to listen and succeed at the task? Often we get bogged down in the mechanics of so-called audience understanding - the how-tos of focus groups, quantitative data analysis, etc., etc. So how do we let the authentic voices of our audiences come through? I'll be talking to public opinion researchers, in-the-field communications folks and even a few eggheads like anthropologists to see how we can actually get (more than) a few bursts of insight into our audiences.

Next up... On the Virtues of Lurking.


And, in the spirit of listening, if there's something you want me to yammer on about just drop me a line at mcivor at RosettaPR (.) com

Monday, June 22, 2009

Yves Peters - Rock & Roll Typographer

I'm writing this blog in Verdana, a serviceable font created in 1996 by Matthew Carter at the behest of Microsoft. It was designed to be legible in various sizes on a computer screen. Verdana is a coined word derived from 'verdant,' suggesting the lushness of the Pacific Northwest home of Gates and company, and 'Ana,' Matthew's daughter. I bet you knew that already though.

For the benefit of those of us in the communications world who might not be sufficiently s
chooled in typography, I recently interviewed Yves Peters "the most feared type critic of the Northern hemisphere," typographic designer extraordinaire and drummer in the band, Troubleman, on his views about type in a digital world and what communications directors and planners need to know about it. Because Yves is in Belgium I did the interview via email.

Here we go...

Hi Yves… I like the definition of typography as designing a communication using the printed word. Yet the typographic function is often handed to a graphic designer to work with or it is an obscure function within an agency that one contracts the work to. How distinct are these roles? How should a communications director evaluate the capacity of a design firm and its typographical team? Does it matter?

Although it pays off for communications directors to have a good basic knowledge of type, typography is a specialized area in graphic design, so it is best left up to professionals. Thanks to the omnipresence of the computer and the average users’ increased familiarity with fonts, people are now more aware of typography and often succeed in judging whether a specific typographic solution looks and feels right. This should help communication directors to decide whom to work with. However, once the job has been assigned to someone they are best served by trusting the graphic designer/typographer’s know-how and experience. It is the latter’s job to correctly analyze the content and give it the appropriate typographic treatment.

Given the tendency to default to something appalling and the prevailing view that content is the crucial element…
how important is type in a digital setting? Why does typography matter in an almost post-print world?

The choice of the typeface(s) and the typographically correct usage of the font(s) greatly influence how the text is perceived by the reader. People are much more visually oriented and design-savvy these days, so they definitely will notice if the type looks good and reads well or not. Poor setting of the type will result in the content simply not being read. In that regard type is extremely important if content is the crucial element. Further
more screens with their comparatively low resolution are notoriously poor at representing text matter, so it takes experienced graphic designers/typographers to get the most out of this difficult medium.

Online there seems to be a tyranny of Helvetica, Verdana and Times New Roman. And common self-publishing tools like blogs are driving conformity. How can we circumvent this given the default fonts of browsers and the need for functions like key-word searchability? Are we just taking the lazy person’s way out?

I think we are now at the threshold of a new era of more typographic refinement on the Internet, with embedded open type (EOT) and @fontface and so on ready to be implemented widely. There are still some hurdles left to clear, but I’m pretty confident things are going to work out for the best. Personally I have never had any real problems with the restrictions of online typography, because there are enough parameters that can be controlled to ensure maximum legibility. I’m a very pragmatic person, and as such accept that text is represented in a default font in online communication. Just like I took peace with the fact that the first photocopiers were only black and white, and that a logo has to work in one single flat colour. There are no restrictions, only challenges, and a good graphic designer can turn those so-called restrictions into assets. Give a poor designer an exquisite typeface and you’ll still get a mediocre end result. A good designer on the other hand is able to achieve a silky-smooth text setting with any plain default font.

Communications directors often come from non-arts backgrounds – business, marketing, journalism… and, if there are type components to the visual identities they have for their organizations, they are usually devised by external consultants and presented as a fait accompli (some even inherit identities). How should they school themselves in typography and develop sensitivity to, and appreciation for, it?

I wouldn’t go as far as to try and convince them to read The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst or Letters of Credit by Walter Tracy – although I highly recommend it – but a primer like Erik Spiekermann’s Stop Stealing Sheep or Ellen Lupton’s Thinking With Type are perfect introductions to the wonderful world of typography in graphic design. Plus nowadays there are countless online resources where one can read and learn about type and typography in short bursts, in a both relevant and entertaining way. “Best of” lists of recommended type and design websites are frequently posted online, and there usually is something for everyone in there.

Favourite font? Least favourite?

That’s a tough one – as I write about type and typography on The FontFeed and Unzipped, and occasionally review new typefaces in my Bald Condensed columns on Typographer.org I am constantly exposed to exciting new designs, so my preferences shift a lot. I prefer my type less obvious, not too slick, and it needs to have some bite to it. I want to be surprised by a new typeface, like Fred Smeijers’ Ludwig or Jack Usine’s Vidange. But if I had to pick one off the top of my head, let’s maybe take an outsider – the lesser known FF Hydra, for its slightly squarish, compact shapes, its tense outlines and its gutsy ink traps.
Talking about professional type design I used to say that there are no such things as bad typefaces, only bad typographers, but of course there are more than a few appalling designs out there. It would be unfair to single out certain designs that have aged poorly or which are being used inappropriately. If there’s one typeface that massively gets on my nerves – mine and countless others’ by the way – that would be Comic Sans. Some people try to rehabilitate it by saying it is overused or used for things it wasn’t intended for, but that’s plain rubbish. It has nothing to do with children’s writing nor comic book lettering; it just is a poorly designed train wreck of a script that is impossible to use well. And it’s everywhere [ed. there's a movement to ban this font, check out Ban Comic Sans] .

How quickly can you identify a specific font? Is it intuitive at this point like a connoisseur tasting a wine and being able to name the vintage and vineyard?

It does feel intuitive since a couple of years, and the overall “feel” of a word or sentence often is enough to set me on the right course. Yet I’m pretty sure I still identify typefaces by recognizing key characters. Let’s say that half of the typefaces I can identify almost immediately, and some more I can track down with a minimum of research. And if I can’t pinpoint it straight away sometimes I can deduct from the structure of the curves or the flavour of the typeface who designed it or what foundry it is from.

How does playing in a band shape your work as a typographer, if at all? Or are they two different worlds?

There are many parallels. Graphic design is mixing different elements like images, colours, shapes, type, and so on – arranging and balancing those elements, and making them work in harmony, just like the different instruments in a band. And being a drummer helped me appreciate rhythm is vital to typography. It’s in the baseline grid, and how you can subdivide and multiply the base unit to find new related grids. There is an internal rhythm in words and characters, and character spacing, kerning, and word spacing ensure it is not disturbed. And specifying different type sizes in a design works best when there is a logical relationship based on multiples.


Yves seems to be everywhere on the web. You can learn more about type and Yves Peters at Fontfeed, Unzipped, Typographer.org and a few other sites like Typophile. You can also follow him on Twitter as 'BaldCondensed.' And check out his band too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Whither Widgets?

Widgets used to be for undergrad economics assignments and Warner Brothers cartoons… as in “Acme Widgets Inc.”

Depending on who you talk to, the idea of small chunks of code doing things autonomously (like running a clock or a stock ticker) owes its origins to Bill Gates (his Active Desktop for Windows had bits and pieces that drew information from the Internet) or Apple (their Desk Accessories bundle of programs for the Mac came out in 1981 but it didn’t connect to the Internet because there wasn’t much of one at that time) or the ominously-named Athena Project (not, as I thought, a scheme for world domination but a graphical user interface enterprise out of MIT). It really doesn’t matter because – like Zebra mussels, they’re here and they’re (almost) everywhere.

What is a widget? It’s a little portable application that runs autonomously and can do stuff. You can put it on a website (the most common environment for widgets), install it on a desktop (check out Facebooker, which allows you to access Facebook from your desktop without opening a browser) or a mobile device such as a Blackberry, iPhone or other smart phone. Think of a widget as a simple, micro-application.
You might also know it by the more dignified name of 'app' as in Google Apps or the App Store on your iPhone.

What is not a widget? While click-
through banner (and other) advertisements with animated GIFs may be considered the granddaddies of widgets, they are not in and of themselves, widgets. They’re prehistoric vestiges of a simpler time. More importantly, most folks dislike advertisements and making them more animated and more obtrusive just annoys them further. Widgets are different; they invite interaction. That ‘permission-based’ interactivity is a crucial distinction.

I interviewed Tom Sprows, a widget pioneer and IT consultant, for this article. He provided a taxonomy of widgets. It goes like this:
  • Informational like Next Episode, which lets you know when your favourite show is scheduled
  • Games whether classic arcade or simplified sports
  • Utility useful stuff like FedEx shipment tracker or Second Life Search
  • Silly most of the stuff you see on Facebook
  • Interactive chat-based, message ability, user content, sliders, puzzles and so on
I would add ‘entertainment’ like NBA.com’s greatest moments in basketball history widget.

For many of us the most obvious widgets are those we bump into on Facebook or these seemingly ubiquitous ones deployed on Amazon.com affiliate websites.

But it's not just a tool for private sector marketers. Not-for-profit folks and governments can use widgets to build profile. Just ask the Pew Foundation. You can put their widget on your site if you want to show off social and demographic trends your users could find useful. Purveyors of all sorts of data can use this approach - from health researchers to pollsters.

So what's good about widgets? Well, functionally they have several selling points. They put you, your brand and your message into a setting (the host website) that gives them a context, an association. They move... and are (or should be) interactive enough to gain and hold attention. And they're sticky. If you've built it right it will be visually arresting with enough utility or entertainment factor to keep your audience for a while.

Strategically, widgets are also good (if made right). They can create engagement opportunities with your audiences. They can make your brand and messaging portable across a variety of settings outside of your own hosted environments (pointing back to them too). And they generate opportunities to build your brands by appropriate positioning that creates an association between the attributes of the website that your widget is on and your brand.

Hold up for a second though. Folks who know my opinion on social media will know what's coming. You don't need a 'widget strategy.' You need a plan to use widgets as part of your cohesive web strategy, one that supports the widget tactics with other online elements. Widgets are tools, not a strategy unto themselves.

There are things to keep in mind when using these tools. For one, where to place them? This comes back to (you guessed it) - understanding your audience. It's like deja vu all over again. You'll need a sense of where online your audiences gather and what they do there. Is it a social club like Facebook? Or a shopping expedition? You need to know. From that you're going to think long and hard about widget placement (I'm leaving aside the viral possibilities for now). Then you need to construct a widget that does something, one thing, and does it very well (creatively and/or functionally). Simple is best.

There's a great wide world of widgetry opening up. One in which widgets may connect to other widgets to offer greater and more complex functionality ('widget mashing'). And the potential for greater user modification and content generation too. That's the good news.

Now let me rain a little on the parade. There are, of course, bad widgets out there, ones with malware and such. But there are bigger issues.The most basic one is what people are doing when they're online and encounter your widget. Two scenarios - if I'm looking at a website about Vienna and there's an Amazon affiliate widget showing me some cool travel books about Austria; I might just click on it. But if I'm updating my status on Facebook (because my friends are just aching to know what I've been up to) then chances are I'll tune out any widgets on the periphery... unless they connect with my sense of fun and my image of myself and my circle of friends. My point is that widgets that are tangential to an audience's purpose online will be ignored. You need to know why your audience is in a particular web environment in the first place and design your tool from there.

I remain sceptical of any tool that presents itself as a 'solution' or a 'strategy.' That goes for tactics too. Whether it's a widget or word of mouth marketing - what we're talking about is a potential opportunity to form a connection. Blindly launching a foray without understanding the nature of your audience and the way in which they want to connect is not going to get you very far.

Having said all that, I'm not totally negative on widgets. They're not pointless as some have argued. But they're not the complete future of online marketing. Widgets are one of the ways in which the static website is slowly being bled to death or at least hamstrung. It seems to me that such sites will shortly be simply launch platforms for more fluid and dynamic interactions. Will there be a place for static websites? Yes, just as there's a place for old-fashioned billboards. Will we want to interact with them? No, not very much. Will widgets empower this more fluid interaction? I think so.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Logic of Crowds

“It’s all about me,” went the rallying cry of web 2.0. The governing principle was empowerment of the individual – Facebook pages about me, my MySpace, people following me on Twitter. As we move into an evolutionary world where terms like web 2.0, 3.0 and beyond are increasingly meaningless, I have to ask: “is it still all about me?”

Here let me suggest something a little subversive:

it has always been all about you (and me)

Communicators talk about “the people formerly known as audiences,” as though a great emancipation has begun. While the term, ‘audience,’ implies passive listening – audentia (Latin for ‘hearing’), it’s not as though the willingness to engage in a conversation has been absent. After all, the term ‘audience participation’ was first coined in 1940 when communications largely meant radio, film, newspapers and magazines. There has always been the theoretical potential to talk back to the creators of the media content you just consumed. Of course there was that niggling need to master film production or learn how to operate a printing press, but still… I had this toy printing press when I was a kid and ran my own newspaper until the crushing tedium of manual typesetting took the fun out of it. That’s talking back.

In the 1940s this man (Paul Lazarsfeld) came along:

He looked at communications during an election and found that, rather than media reaching audiences directly, it was mediated by opinion leaders... kind of like 'early adopters' of information. This led to his two step flow theory that looks something like this:

This is quite obviously not wholly the case any more because (a) opinion leaders have proliferated (including previously marginalized voices), (b) individuals are now in contact directly with each other, thanks to social media and (c) they're talking back more easily, thanks to technology.

Two step flow is dead. I've just shown you why. Instead we have a different environment that's less about the relationship between monolithic mass media entities and the individual and more about the individual and the communities he or she belongs to.

You're probably wondering when I'll stop pontificating and say something useful. How about right now? Let's start with a basic situation analysis:

  • Audiences are not so much fragmented as completely splintered
  • For all the talk about individuals and individualized communications, audience segmentation is still an effective tool
  • Audiences are self-organizing into groups (and companies like Seesmic are really enabling it)
  • Groups fill a 'bridging function,' connecting to other groups, borrowing ideas and content from each other
  • Understanding how groups (or 'communities,' if you prefer) work, who belongs, how they connect and talk provides insight into message flow and penetration
Let's look at one approach to this. Twitter is based on the individual, whether a person, an organization or a brand. To be really useful to the communications planner we need to see a bigger picture. Some sort of aggregation has to happen. That's where Tinker comes in. It's a service that enables you to follow events, not just individuals. It gives you a broader view of the chatter (sorry... buzz) going on about stuff that interests you and your organization. You get to see the connections between people and groups. Cool, no?

So yes, it's still all about me but that's not particularly helpful for communicators trying to do our jobs - getting the message out. It now has to also be all about communities.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Social Media Kindergarten

I've just posted a presentation to SlideShare about social media. It's a basic introduction intended for folks in the health sector but applicable to anyone looking for a quick understanding of what it's about and how to get started. Not that I'm hard-selling here but there's a bunch of other good stuff I've posted to SlideShare that may also prove interesting.