Thursday, August 10, 2017

Communicating Authentically

A million years of evolution has finely
honed our sensitivity to authenticity
Authenticity helps us determine the validity of information in every moment of our lives, whether it’s listening and watching people, reading body language, talking to people or simply absorbing signage, radio, TV or internet impressions. We use our “authenticity filter” to determine the value of information we are absorbing. It is a subliminal, autonomic response that we do not consciously control.

This automatic response provides us with clues about the authenticity of the source of these messages. A million years of evolution has finely honed our sensitivity to authenticity. While this authenticity filter applies to everything we experience, it is perhaps why and how some of us are more successful than others in life and business.

As small business owners and decision makers, we tend to trust a more calculating approach to marketing and sales. We spend a great deal of time addressing a divergent series of issues relating to company growth which often including sales and marketing, shewing how our company is represented in the marketplace. Unfortunately, a calculated approach rarely contributes to the authenticity of your sales and marketing message. 

Often times, we settle on predictable sales messages and we pack them in so that customers can’t really identify our products or services as unique. Authenticity contributes greatly to our unique brand and they help differentiate us and allow customers to create an emotional attachment to our products. Time and effort factor greatly into the process of authenticity because we only have so much time and our attention is often pulled in many directions.

Large businesses fare much better when creating authentic brands and messages, but only because they apply money, time and effort in the process. Small businesses tend to use the same decisions making process that has been successful in other areas of the business and authenticity is difficult to qualify and demands a significant investment in time and effort.

Small to intermediate size businesses would fare much better if they give credence and a higher priority to authenticity in their marketing and communication message. We have all seen small or startup companies do very well when they have an authentic message to deliver, by creating an emotional link to their product through authenticity. We marvel at their innovation and ingenuity and then promptly ignore considering authentic messages when we create our own marketing messages?
Another great characteristic of authenticity recognition is that it is common to all. It is not an attribute specific to any one demographic. If your message is authentic any audience can pick it up.

Perhaps, understanding and learning how to use this innate ability offers small business owners a real benefit when trying to craft authentic messages and brands. As a starting point I recommend reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink. It will help define this characteristic for you and provide evidence of its use and misuse. Among a number of theories he postulates, Malcolm talks about having too much information and how this can interfere with the clarity and authenticity of a message.

As business owners we sift through a great deal of information as we wear our many hats. Cultivating a process that commits time and effort to filtering out irrelevant and confusing information is an important part of creating an authentic brand or message. Sometimes, collecting more information only reinforces our more practical judgment. Gladwell explains that messages can be more authentic when they are the result of simple and frugal information.

The first step in making your message authentic, regardless of the medium, is to make it clear enough to make a decision on - without having to use a magnifying glass.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Learning Strategy: Changing Workforce Demographics

Organizations tend to plan short term based on cyclical budget demands, year to year strategic plans, and the response to changes in governing regulations and the economic landscape. Typically, its learning strategies are not synchronized with the demographic profile of its learner groups.  This near-sighted approach in developing learning plans does not benefit an organization effectively or its need to have its employees, special interest groups and contractors understand its goals and objectives. Yes…you read correctly, each of these groups is the target of a well-planned learning strategy. Each group of learners within a learning strategy's audience may have unique learning styles, age differences, gender biases and ethnic makeup. The demographic makeup of our workforce is changing and we need to change our learning models to accommodate the changing face of workers.

As a result of the broad impact a learning strategy can have on an organization, learning strategies are and will be increasingly important for organizations as the pace of change and updates in knowledge and technology quicken. Ensuring that an organization can filter down knowledge to each of these groups will have an ever increasing bearing on its fortunes. Organizations, need to consider long term learning planning demands by developing a multi-faceted strategy that responds to different cultural, ethnic, gender and task specific requirements of each unique learning group.  Check out the labour force demographic makeup trend charts below to follow the changing workforce in the United States between 1976 and 2006.  One can only assume that the pace of change has picked up in recent years and is more pronounced in Canada.

Add caption

 In Canada, as in most regions around the world today we are experiencing shifts in labour population age, ethnicity and gender. This inevitable shift in cultural norms among our workforce means that knowledge transfer, to be effective, has to consider this in the delivery of knowledge. The United States Department of Labor for example, in its report “Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century” show steady change in workforce makeup. Seniors, women and ethnic workers make up an increasingly larger portion of the workforce. This study has based on trend data captured between 1976 and 2006.

 How does this change long term planning strategies? I think that eLearning strategies must see the bigger picture. eLearning must be integrated into a process that considers different kinds of learning styles unique to each group based on their demographic makeup. I think it’s reasonably obvious that when you are planning learning, you must consider reflecting the nature of the group in the images and voices that are portrayed, but more than that the very nature of learning can sometimes be impacted by the medium.

Some examples of this might include indigenous subject matter. Traditionally, Inuit and First Nations have a history of oral storytelling with a strong influence of imagery. Planning unique learning programs that respects and consider these issues in developing subject matter can be the difference between a successful program and failure. Another example might include delivering knowledge to a work population that is more ethnically oriented. Using images, offering language versions, reflecting the ethnic makeup in your imagery and offering scheduled live support and feedback may make the learning program much more effective.

 It is understandable that this kind of development cycle and the support it demands will affect budgets, but this is why a long term strategy works in an organizations benefit, as costs and planning can be amortized over a longer period as the programs are rolled out. Tracking the effectiveness of these programs and how they can impact the fortunes and bottom line of an organization can help build a case for the additional costs and resources required to develop and implement a long term learning strategy.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Reality TV Killed Video

This was Reality TV ( back in the day) before slick marketing
created a whole new industry and killed  "good" video  production
Before we get into this …. I have something to share...something that may not be obvious to everyone; reality TV is marketing term developed by the television industry to capitalize on the idea of authenticity.  In “reality” (sorry for the pun), reality TV is the same old TV we have been watching since the invention of television, with slicker production packaging. 

“Reality TV” has been in the pipeline since the 40’s. A couple of supposedly unscripted television show come to mind, how about  Allen Funt's hidden camera show or  Candid Camera shows that were produced in the 40s and 50s., or Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom which aired from 1963 through 1988 with Marlin Perkins.

There are no television shows today that are shot without planning or a production crew in attendance guiding all the action. No one would spend the time and money to allow videotaping by setting up a scenario and allowing us to “just see what happens”. A friend recently told me he watches “Alone’ purportedly a reality TV show that pits man or woman against nature in a totally unscripted format. The show even claims “no television crew is present” in the making of this show. The reality is a cameraman is present not a crew; clever wording to be sure that gulls the viewer into the “willing suspension of disbelief”.

Now, having set up this premise, what does Realty TV have to do with modern video production for web sites, social media, corporate videos and events?  Well, I am glad you asked! Planning is everything, when producing videos. Scripting, storyboards, locations scouts, design, prepared on-camera talent, lighting and most recently a firm grasp of how to use new technology are essential to producing great video whether they are 10 seconds long or 10 minutes. Even someone shooting raw video has to plan, practice and prepare.

Reality TV has added a few tools to the video production tool chest in recent years but it still takes a lot of planning and creativity to allow a planned video to look authentic and un-rehearsed.  Just because you have a camera doesn’t mean you can produce great video.  Customers, especially corporate clients have been increasingly expecting the costs of production to be reduced as the proliferation of cameras and camera technology (such as drones) has increased.

While advances in video technology has reduced the cost of producing video there continues to be a significant cost for experienced , creative talent.  The cost of producing a “corporate” 10 minute video in the 80’s might have reached $ 100,000 using professional crews and talent. Today that same video might only cost $10,000 (but nobody is making 10 minute corporate videos today).  The problem is that organizations are trying to produce shorter videos today for next to nothing. In doing so they are eliminating the very thing that makes videos motivate people to buy their product or create a positive feeling about their brand. Powerful, well thought out video production that leverages creative talent and new technologies still has a cost; unfortunately, finding the right production partner to produce your video with the right blend of creative talent and technology is difficult to figure out when anybody can own a camera or a drone.  

Monday, February 6, 2017

Building an eLearning Strategy

Develop strategies that deal
with contractors, unionized
workers and salaried staff.
Over the past several years, eLearning has gradually been integrated into the knowledge transfer process of industry and government.  Unfortunately, the creation of most eLearning is usually based on a mix of existing internal programs originally developed as print, web and video; or they simply buy an available eLearning program from the open marketplace. Organizations simply take an existing program and, more often than not with some minor alterations, upload the content to an Learning Management System (LMS) with short term planning goals and budgetary restraints. In many cases they spend more time and money on selecting an LMS than they do on the actual content. Understanding how to build responsive and effective content is important when you consider asking employees to do some if not most of their training on personal time.

Additional resources, pre-testing, test quizzes; access to mentoring, cohort knowledge sharing, program feedback and a commitment to link outcomes to performance are all issues that typically are not addressed. These eLearning considerations and learning program strategies affect the learner’s ability to change behaviors or to incorporate knowledge into their practices and planning processes.

To be fair, budgets, union bargaining, lack of long term strategies, lack of experience and unsupported eLearning implementation provide some context for explaining why organizations simply choose the path of least resistance. For example an organization might upload PDFs with text and images; or existing PowerPoint presentations; or even use an interactive web site. There are many solutions out there that can meet "budgeted" learning demands of an organization but getting results requires more serious planning before eLearning content gets produced and implemented, even when content already exists. Don’t get me wrong, content that exists is important and a valuable asset that can be leveraged to reduce overall development costs and support comprehension.

The best way to address these and other considerations in eLearning planning and implementation is to develop a two pronged strategy before you ever consider content. First develop a long term plan (3 years) that seeks to integrate unionized employees (where applicable), contractors, regular hourly employees and salaried staff into the eLearning program incrementally.  Three years to integrate unionized staff is ambitious, when you consider the need to address concerns by their bargaining unit. And second, create incentives in the program to reward performance. This can be measured through peer review and annual performance reviews that track and document the comprehension and application of knowledge in day to day tasks.   These two considerations are challenging to implement, because they require all levels of management and employees or even contractors to be invested in the process.  

Once you have that plan documented and supported, next comes the production of content that is linked to comprehension and changes in behavior. Laying the planning foundation ensures you have the tools to more effectively implement eLearning within your organization.  Without it, we are simply spending a lot of money to provide yet another way for learners to forget or ignore what they have learned.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Advertising: For Better or Worse

"Good Seller" or " Bad Seller"?
I spend a lot of time watching and listening to all kinds of ads while consciously and subconsciously evaluating them. I watch them through a lens of trying to understand their motivation and their effectiveness; some on TV and radio, some on social networks and others in print and on billboards. Let’s face it there are a lot of ads everywhere you look. (it is estimated we receive up to 5,000 impressions a day). 

In thinking about this and I have come up with a theory that says basically this, there are basically two types of advertising,  advertising that is designed to promote a product that is “selling well” and advertising that is designed to promote product that is “not selling well,” or “certainly not as well as hoped.” We can debate why a product is selling well  (or not); if it is not selling well it may be a new unknown product, or a recently updated product , one with new or previously unknown benefits, a newly developed product and the list goes on. The reasons are varied and many. For a product or service that sells well, the advertiser is generally trying to leverage the existing goods sales and generate great sales, “striking while the iron is hot” (so to speak).

 One thing, I have found true more often than not, the more advertisers (and this is an important distinction between “advertising” and “advertisers”) promote a specific product the more likely it is that it may have limited value for you and generate great profit and margins for the advertiser.
The frequency and shear number of media channels used gets multiplied as advertisers try and climb on to the “gravy train.”  
Television Ad
Take for example, Canadian extended health care packages which are currently in heavy rotation in many media channels including television and online advertising. In this category we see a rush of companies and products, such as Flex care, Sure Health, Cover Me, Canada Protection Plan, and the list goes on. These are companies who employ a legion of actuarial accountants to recognize and capitalize on (gaps in healthcare no doubt) as an opportunity to generate profits. This product would fall under the category of a product that is “selling well” with companies climbing on board to take advantage of the opportunity. The opportunity is the result of an aging, fearful demographic that may not have planned well for retirement and a health care system that has gaps.  

Of course this does not apply to all products in all categories at all times, this is simply a guide to help you cast a critical eye towards ads and the products they promote to determine if these have value, using this theory.   

Direct Mail
Another, and a very different example aimed at a different demographic would be online stores such as Zoolilly, a completely online store that deals in clothing and home d├ęcor. They would fall into the “not selling well” category. The fact that they do not sell well is the  result of the fact that they are an unknown quantity.

An example of another “bad seller” might be an impulse buy product whether that is on TV or online. The seller creates a need for the product by fabricating a problem. The advertiser, through their commercials then proceeds to promote the multi-uses for their product in addressing the identified a problem and adds a few other uses just for good measure. It’s a “bad seller” because there was no market for this product prior to adverting. In most cases the manufacturer will try and have the product stocked on shelves at major department store chains. The claim, only available through this call-in commercial or online web site, immediately tells us that department store chains have decided this is not a product they think will sell or has real value for its customers.

I could offer many examples all distilled down to “good seller” or “bad seller” but I think I have made my point. It is important that as buyers, we critically evaluate advertising from a motivation point of view. Understanding a company’s motivation can help us understand the value proposition being offered by the seller. It is also important as potential advertisers that focus on the "real" value a product offers in our advertising to differentiate ourselves whether we are  advertising a good selling" product or  a "bad selling" product.

If you are a company trying to sell your products; then understanding your own motivation for creating a marketing message helps you develop more effective selling strategies and their corresponding messages. I believe that most customers can differentiate between good sellers and bad sellers and perceive value. This is especially important to small businesses who can not compete with  huge advertising budgets that "good sellers" can  often generate..

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Online Content: Two Purposes - One Process

Content is always promoted as one the most important aspect of an online presence, either to create an immediate arms-length interaction or a more personal interaction. For some it simply represents their brand and a means of qualifying them … at least that’s what customers say. An example of a more personal interaction might be a new home real-estate web site, which is designed to provide only the barest minimum of details about the new homes (Why?) they want you to visit…they can only sell you a house when you visit the sales office.  On the other hand, companies that sell products online must provide a lot of detail about a product to help customers make immediate, impulse purchase decisions. In other cases, such as special services or commercial services, a business may want to provide significant content to qualify them as a capable provider, and this is designed to result in a more personal contact or online inquiry as well.

In a sound marketing strategy the goal of online content can have two very different purposes, depending on what type of business you operate.  One may be the need to satisfy an immediate demand and or a transaction and/or another may seek to initiate a more personal form of contact like a visit or a phone call.

Clearly, different types of businesses demand different content strategies for their web sites based on how they stream potential buyers into the sales funnel.  Not only does the type of business have an effect on content, the size of business has some relevance in the process as well.

Large businesses can afford to apply appropriate resources to updating and maintaining all levels of content regardless of the type of business they are in. Small business on the other hand is much less capable of assigning resources from an often over-worked staff to maintaining the online content. Small businesses are often caught up in the day to day process of managing the enterprise and are overwhelmed with hiring and firing, managing finance, sales, product development, and more. As a result, their most important marketing medium is left to languish from lack of resources. Large businesses can suffer from this same approach, but for different reasons, they may just be indifferent.

This may seem like a simple problem to solve, all it takes is more resources for small businesses and to focus on the problem, right? Wrong…more often than not the content needs a skilled hand in ensuring that the content reflects your business goals, is well worded, is optimized for Search Engines and is consistent with your marketing strategy.  Doing this on a consistent basis over time is a considerable investment  and must be carefully managed to take advantage of buying cycles, seasonal products, changes in the economy, competition, and changes in company  direction.

We don’t have the scope in this article to address all of the factors that can benefit your online presence as it relates to your specific business demands and sales funnel, but we can provide some simply rules for preparing content.

Research shows that visitors often scan pages looking for relevant content. As a result, how you say it can almost be as important as what you say.  Using a strategy that prizes scan-able text is essential to creating effective content. Here are a few simple rules for updating and changing online content regardless of the type or size of business you have.

  1. Try highlighting important words through bolding, increasing the font slightly or adding hypertext links to serve as one form of highlighting
  2. Insert meaningful headings and subheading by pulling titles and terms from the body copy. Try to make your headings simple and easy to understand.
  3. Use bullet lists from time to time but be judicious in their use. Too many will defeat their purpose. While consistency is good in bullet throughout the site, more than one list on a page can create a conflict in focus for a reader. If two bullet lists are required on a page, try and use different means of laying out that second list to create differentiation.
  4. Focus on one idea per segment or paragraph.
  5. Avoid compound sentences and industry jargon. Keep ideas short and easy to read.
  6. Don’t write in proposition style. This is where we create a need and then present the conclusion as a result of a need.  The conclusion often needs to go first to create impact and grab the “scanning” reader. 
  7. White space is the most valuable resource on a page; it helps readers focus their attention. Don’t waste it by adding too much content!
  8. Above the fold (a newspaper term) defines the most important area in any web site. It’s a bit of a moving target with today’s varying resolutions but suffice it to say long scrolling pages should be avoided and your most important content should be seeded at the top of the page. 
  9. Keep online content clear, use simple language. Even the most sophisticated reader will appreciate clarity and focus. Allow your content to be accessible. 
  10. Finally, don’t ignore accessibility guidelines in the design of your online presence or how you communicate with all of your customers.   As we are entering the “Baby Boomer “age, many of your aging customers may need to be accommodated in some manner. You don’t have to have a physical or mental disability to require accessibility accommodations.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

eLearning: SME’s & the Creative Process

Classroom training adds reoccurring commitment
of  time, effort & cost
Instructional design and creative direction are essential to the creation of intuitive eLearning; they help empower the learner to explore content and they create a desire to engage. This becomes a difficult process when most interactive content and Subject Matter Experts are born in the crucible of the ivory tower learning paradigm. The Subject Matter Expert (SME), or teacher and the creative development team represent two very different sensibilities when trying to create an intuitive learning environment.

For the SME, each topic is carefully detailed, researched and written down in a formalized text of some sort that can be agreed on and finalized, often by a peer committee review process. At least that’s the typical classroom style learning process we have grown up with. 

But this is changing as we go from classroom to virtually any place to learn online, without a teacher or instructor to guide us. Regardless of the source of the content the resulting “knowledge guide” used to develop eLearning is enshrined at some point in a traditional written form such as textbooks, subject matter expert content briefs, studies, instructions, guidelines and regulations. The content is often very specific, structured and unwavering in identifying the basic tenants of any topic to ensure that there is an agreed upon knowledge base.
The ability to deliver this carefully defined information in a meaningful way has largely depended on the environment and the person delivering the information. The “classroom teacher” often chooses what to accentuate, when to emphasize certain content and how to best illustrate key elements of content to reinforce comprehension of the basic principles of a concept. With the advent of eLearning, both the environment and the teacher involved in delivery of learning have been changed, embedded or even eliminated for the most part. As learning delivery methods have moved to an online environment, so too has the medium moved to a different kind of learning development process.  

The question now becomes who or what has replaced the “on the ground” teacher’s role in this new method of learning? How is the textbook knowledge being delineated in online learning and how are we guiding the learner? The surprising answer to these questions is that much of the responsibility for interpreting content through the interactive process has fallen to the eLearning instructional designer and the creative director. They now fulfill the role of interpreting the information to create a learning environment that allows for intuitive comprehension. The overall benefit in this change is that, no longer is the learner at mercy of the teacher’s choices. The learner now has an expanded role in interacting with the content to choose to explore knowledge that reflects individual interest within a topic.

In many ways this is a much more dynamic learning environment where learners can begin to explore the content in meaningful ways while still absorbing the basic principle designed into the learning programs content. The unfortunate pitfall in all of this, just as in the teacher enabled learning environment, the effectiveness of an online learning program is largely based on the skill of the interpreter, and in this case it is the interactive development team. Understanding adult learning, digital media production and interactive design are crucial if the Self-Paced eLearning or Blended learning is going to be successful.

In the eLearning development cycle, unlike within classroom learning, the development pipeline from concept to delivery is much shorter and the subject matter expert can exert much more influence on the content, or so it would seem. However, in reality the typical subject matter expert has only the knowledge of the 2D representation of the information, i.e., books, documentation, practical application etc., while online learning is now representing the content in a more 3D format which cannot be effectively managed and directed by the subject matter expert. They must rely on the skill and ability of the design team to creatively interpret the information in an interactive form that engages and creates comprehension. The more a subject matter expert tries to impose structure on the content the less intuitive, creative and engaging the content becomes, ultimately subordinating comprehension to structure and minimizing the learner’s ability to control the learning experience.

In thinking about this you may have noticed this process is not dissimilar to the video production cycle where there are many influencing factors and unknowns in the development process even though we have a clear understanding of what final product we would like to arrive at. Ultimately the production team including the instructional designer, writer, creative director, etc. must be trusted to influence the final production and achieve the aforementioned goals of the learning experience. Not surprisingly, like film and televisions production, subject matter experts can have a significant and positive influence on an eLearning production but not without great cost, time and effort.

In short if you want a great eLearning production and you want to manage time and cost effectively, you need to recognize your role in that process and make sure you have a great creative team that understands digital media production (often this kind of talent comes out of the television industry), adult learning and interactive design. A successful eLearning experience is less about a specific process that can be carefully managed, but more about an intuitive process that generates a creative understanding of the content that gives the learner the power to explore and the desire to engage.