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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

My Media "North Star" Indicator

I receive a great deal of mail from Media Realism readers. Almost all write to me directly at doncolemedia@gmail.com as most do not want the world to know their comments. Some say they do not want their boss to know that they agree with me and bosses say that often they do not want their staff to know the same. Also, my subscription list generally has personal rather than business e-mails on it.

Recently, I received an e-mail from someone whom I have never met but he has written to me with some regularity over the last five years. His question to me was “How do you stay focused on what is going on in the business? Is there one thing that you go by as a gold standard? I would appreciate an answer but I realize that my question is very, very hard?”

Actually, it is not difficult at all! A week does not go by when I do not refer to my Media North Star. Early navigators had a hard time determining which way was north as the first compasses were not always accurate. Often, they would hug the coastline as they explored, which was safe but prohibited the discovery of new islands and even continents. If there were no cloud cover, they would look for the North Star knowing that it was always located directly above the North Pole. Such simplicity saved many an explorer until technology improved the game.

Well, I have a North Star which helps me through the noise surrounding today’s media and advertising world. It is not brain surgery. I simply monitor COMMERCIAL AVOIDANCE every chance that I get.

A recent report from Experian suggested a firm link between using some streaming service and cutting the cable cord. In 2013, they reported that 18.1% of households with either a Netflix or Hulu account had cut the cord from a mainstream provider. Three years earlier in 2010, the percentage was merely 12.7%. So, total cord-cutting households now stand at a level of at least 6.6% while three years earlier it was 4.5% of the total household frame. And Aereo (facing a big court case soon), allows you to watch TV without a cable or satellite subscription.

The second screen has really taken hold. Some say that 40% of viewers to TV programming use either a laptop, Smartphone or tablet while they are “watching” programming. Among young adults, various studies peg it as much, much higher. Allow me a rare personal example. This past Sunday I was catching part of the telecast for the Players Golf Championship. As I often do, I had my laptop handy and looked up various statistics on several golfers in the competition. Suddenly, I had four e-mails and one text message from four mature gentlemen in four different states. One even suggested that I toggle back and forth between the NBC telecast and The Golf Channel to catch non-stop action and avoid commercials! Something is happening out there when old men are becoming commercial avoiders instead of coach potatoes who simply pop open another beer and obediently watch the tube.

For years, I have told people that you need more media weight (rating points) than you have in previous days to move the sales needle for a brand. I still get e-mails from marketers saying I am merely a shill for agencies wanting more money. And, a few creative directors blast me by saying that if you make a great spot people will stop and watch it. Well, if 47% have DVR’s, 6.6% have cut the cord, and the second screen distracts only God knows how many from commercial breaks, even the greatest commercial has a difficult time breaking through.

TV is in a very disruptive phase. Why do you think Comcast formed an alliance recently with Netflix and is trying to be the dominant player in broadband with the Time Warner deal? It is very simple. They are smart. Things are changing and faster than ever.

So, may I suggest that you do what I do? Read and discuss all that is happening across the many new media platforms. Yet, remember that TV still gets a huge share of the advertising revenue pie even though their sales results are weakening. You cannot simply “hug the coastline” and hope for the best. Find a North Star as I have and you can avoid being overwhelmed by all the noise going on around us.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com or post a comment on the blog.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Word of Mouth Still Reigns

If you ask people with experience in advertising what the most effective medium is you will often find the graybeards smiling and answering “word of mouth.” Some do not say it in the presence of clients but most of us know both intuitively and through experience that nothing tops naturally occuring word of mouth. Why is it so strong? Well, word of mouth essentially means that you have hundreds or thousands and, in a few cases, millions of natural advocates for your brand. The message is perceived by many as both honest and natural. A great example to me is Vanguard Investments. They spend very little in terms of conventional advertising relative to their mutual fund peers. Yet, their rock bottom costs have over time made many of their index fund customers quite well off and they are enthusiastic ambassadors for the company.

Today, people often use word of mouth, viral and buzz marketing interchangeably. This is understandable given online and mobile activity but technically they are distinct avenues. Viral is a message that spreads quickly. It is quasi word of mouth augmented by technology. If it works it is great; if not, it is one more interruption in our busy days. Buzz marketing is something that garners publicity. It can be exciting but often lacks authenticity as companies often hire others to represent them with consumers without disclosing the relationship.

So, what separates word of mouth from viral, buzz and conventional advertising. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) Strong word of mouth carries something of value (i.e., Vanguard great long term performance and ultra low costs) that has social or cultural significance.
2) The messages that do the best are ones that consumers create themselves. Vanguard has a hard core group of aficionados who meet regularly who call them themselves “Bogleheads” after Vanguard founder Jack Bogle.
3) All interests are disclosed upfront. There is no deception as there sometimes is with buzz marketing. Things are upfront and aboveboard.
4) In word of mouth the reach of a message is always overshadowed by the impact of results. So, if someone has a You Tube video that goes viral and reaches millions, companies often get very excited. The question to ask is what happened to sales or the companies image. Millions of people watching a consumer made or company crafted video are only good if there was some benefit. As David Ogilvy wrote some 55 years ago, “If it does not sell, it is not creative.”

Word of mouth was not front and center for many years. An occasional retailer might have said, “We do not have to advertise. We have great word of mouth.” Agencies did not discuss it much as you received no commission on it nor did it bubble up from creative departments. Sadly, few people baked it in to the evaluation mix let alone the media mix.

Today, with the explosive growth of social media, word of mouth may finally begin to be getting the recognition that it has long deserved. Young adults may be suspicious of conventional advertising but value their friends' opinions on movies, restaurants, clothing  stores and automobile models. Facebook has only accelerated this trend.

Capturing the effect of word of mouth is not easy but is well worth the effort. A research study, even a modest one, may tell you that your word of mouth is carrying you much farther than the millions that you spend on advertising. As it is often free or usually low cost, this is an avenue well worth pursuing for many marketers. And, of course, word of mouth marketing is now taking a form where it is not spontaneous as in the past. It is emanating from companies blurring the lines between word of mouth, viral and buzz.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

Monday, May 5, 2014

Two New Saints Among Many

This past week, Pope Francis oversaw a very special event--the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II. Adding to the unique event was that retired Pope Benedict XVI attended the service as well. Popes are rarely named saints. The last one canonized was Pope St. Pius X (1903-1914). A number of critics applauded Francis’ action as a shrewd political move as he appealed to the liberal wing of the church with the elevation of Pope John XXIII and the conservative wing with John Paul II.  As a Vaticanophile and a crusty curmudgeon, I felt he moved too quickly. Eyebrows were raised in 1954, when Pius X was named a saint a mere 40 years after his death. John XXIII was 50 years (quick by Vatican standards) and John Paul II was a lightning fast nine years.

With all the buzz about saints, I thought it might be a good time to devote a post to the many living saints I that I track as a demographer. I am talking, of course, about single moms struggling in the marketplace.

Today, there are 10 million single mothers in the U.S. living with at least one child under 18. Their lives are difficult, but if you look at it closely, many are remarkable women whom I would categorize as, well, saints. They work a job, sometimes two, rarely get child support payments, and despite exhaustion and a precarious financial existence, try to bring up decent children and often succeed.

Many of the readers of Media Realism are at ad agencies, TV and Radio stations, or cable providers. There are not a huge number of single moms at these companies for two reasons: 1) to survive, you often have to work overtime and weekends which interferes with day care pickups and 2) many 9 to 5 jobs have been totally eliminated at many places as they are incompatible with working mom imperatives.

So, I polled a few people whom I have known for years, sometime decades, who are owners in multi-unit retail. The results were surprising, and at times, uplifting and moving.

A fellow whom I have known for 25 years owns several franchises in three different concepts. He runs them all with ferocious energy and unfailing good humor. He wrote: “I love single Moms. They are great employees. You do need to be flexible, though. Children get sick and poor children get ill more than most. Once someone has proven themselves as an employee, my wife and I tend to “adopt” them and their children. I have three assistant managers who never miss a PTA meeting or school play or teacher’s conference. My wife drives their kids to the doctor along with Mom. If the bill is stiff, she picks up the difference. These women have earned our trust and I will be damned if they are going to suffer.”

Another fellow at a large company says that he looks the other way and breaks the rules for good employees. “We have strict rules from headquarters about attendance and I have busted them all. Our single Moms tend to be the better employees so I let them go to teacher conferences on company time (illegally) and I spend many lunchtime hours ferrying little ones to and from the doctor’s which my boss, 1200 miles away, would never allow. Once someone has shown themselves to be reliable, I throw much of the rule book out the window. If you want to build loyalty, be human. Corporate guidelines have no heart.”

Single Moms struggle. They are not great targets for many upscale brands. Yet, they live hard lives and try to do the right thing. They deserve our admiration and respect.

I am not suggesting that all 10 million single Moms are saints but more than a few are. If you can, cut them a little slack here and there and you may find that productivity will actually increase in your firm.

If you would like to pursue this topic, consider reading NICKEL AND DIMED by Barbara Ehrenreich, THE WORKNG POOR by David Shipler or THE MORAL UNDERGROUND by Boston College professor Lisa Dodson.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com