Rural Broadband

I am passionate about broadband — and the need for everyone to be connected to affordable, high-speed broadband if they so choose. It’s a necessity, not a luxury. Because of my rural location I recently blogged about the National Broadband Map. I have a big beef with the Map’s claim that I have a choice of five broadband providers because in reality I have one, which means I don’t have a choice. See that post here:

And for those of you who scoff at the ‘broadband as a necessity’ idea here are some sobering thoughts for you from a presentation I created. In it, you’re the rural electric company claiming that electricity is a luxury as well. You are on the losing side of history, by the way.

Finally, some excellent stories (I’m all for stories) about the rural and urban digital divides. I love the one about the hog farmer. It shows the impact that a lack of broadband has on businesses so well, and nips the false argument about broadband being some elite- liberal issue in the bud. Full disclosure, I worked at Free Press when these were created though I didn’t work on them specifically.

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You Had Me At “I’m Sorry”

There is a lot swirling in the blog/Twitter/marketing world about customer service being the new black, or at least the new marketing. Responding to a problem that a customer experienced is certainly essential, but the public and private roles that a customer plays in our current marketing sphere are often opposite one another.

The power of the customer cannot be underestimated these days, no matter how frustratingly bad / false/ spiteful Yelp reviews can be.

One of my clients had been ignoring social media space, as well as customer service, and one of my roles has been to connect the two for this small business.

From the start, I’ve been monitoring reviews and managing the response to any review below 3 stars. This was a totally new concept for the client. The communication offers an apology and asks for the chance to right the wrong with a free overnight or meal, etc. It’s a genuine outreach with a clear and compelling offer.

Two things have struck me since launching this customer service effort.

First, not a lot of people actually respond to the mea culpa.

Second, the conversion from angry to delighted customer is more powerful than can be imagined. While the effort might result in only a 10% response to the apology, those who do come back for a “do over” have responded overwhelmingly. And they are now advocates, messengers and marketers on behalf of the business.

One such customer wrote a glowing email to the General Manger after being treated right. He really raved about his experience and his gratitude at having his original complaint addressed. He also promised to update his Yelp review.

But here’s the catch. Now-happy customer who promised to update his Yelp review hasn’t. And it’s still doing damage.

This is the crux of the issue for many businesses and organizations who are working to both address problems and prevent them. They can repair a customer relationship, which is extremely important and does serve as an important part of marketing and brand management. But they can’t repair the PR (‘public’ and ‘relations’, actually means something in this context).

To me, this is the real power of the consumer. It’s beyond marketing. It’s having the ability to be both a positive messenger while simultaneously helping to tarnish (or destroy) a business’ reputation.

I see businesses making great strides at being customer-focused, thanks to withering reviews (that are often fair and honest) and the now-public nature of reputations. I think this is great because I am emphatic about good customer service and want to see much more of it.

But I’m also hoping to see a shift in how newly powerful customers understand their responsibilities in the public sphere so that the public and private experience — and messages they send — are more aligned.

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Lumpy Batter (and Other Woes of Nonprofit Communications)

As the year-end onslaught of worthy nonprofit solicitations comes to a close I’ve had an epiphany of sorts about the nature of consistency and messaging. I know that nonprofit experts extol the virtues of consistency — newsletters should go out every quarter, direct mail every 6 – 8 weeks, thank you notes should include another solicitation, etc.

But communications are like cake batter: Lumpy, or sticky consistency results in bad cake. And bad cake is thoroughly disappointing.

A major nonprofit that I’ve liked since my early years in the foundation community is consistent, but not in a good way. Every plea is a crisis (lumpy). Every thank you is really a “give more” (sticky and irritating). Interactions with this nonprofit are transactions.

The giving doesn’t feel good anymore. I hope this isn’t because I’m part of a selfish generation that needs ever more from everyone and everything.  I simply want my occasional (and meager) sums of money to make an impact. I want my cake. I want to eat it too. And cake should be good, not lumpy or sticky. You get the point.

I’ve mentally written off this organization because I’ve experienced years of this consistently bad outreach and it has left me feeling unconnected to the nonprofit, as well as increasingly annoyed by its fundraising and communications tactics.

In 2011 I’ll be shifting from the mental write-off  to actually removing my name from as many “lumpy batter” lists as possible, and focusing solely on the good cake organizations.

I know others are doing the same. I’ve seen similar resolutions from people I follow on Twitter (@SnarkyJones) and hear increasing frustration from rank and file donors about the ways we get communicated to, and the way those messages make us feel.

So for those organizations who have created good batter I say ‘long live cake!’  For those with lumps I say ‘off with your head!’

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Embracing My Inner Generalist

I come from a strong liberal arts background and a family that pushed the importance of being generally competent in lots of areas. To my parents, the focus on specialization — especially in young kids — was viewed as a sad shift in society.

To that end I majored in communications, with concentrations in art and intellectual history. My master’s degree is a Master of Liberal Arts (yes, that really exists).

My career has followed a similarly general path. I’ve been a Special Projects Manager (aka “trusted generalist”) in two different organizations. Project management is a major theme in my work, whether in the philanthropic community or on the nonprofit side.

But when I launched my own consulting gig I did so as a Marketing Consultant. I had been Marketing Director at my previous job and it felt more real than a plain old Consultant.

However, a number of new clients made me rethink the Marketing Consultant title I was using. The #MarketerMonday shouts outs on Twitter sometimes felt like my only connection to marketing, despite my constant and unwavering dedication to helping clients tell their stories well.  I will always be passionate about improving messaging and communications, whether in video or social media, board reports or funder briefings.

But that passion, and the skills needed to communicate well, don’t come from only a marketing background. Or branding expertise. Or even being a maven or guru in social media.

You need a good generalist to cover all those things — someone who understands the nuances and oddities of the philanthropic community as well as the endlessly changing rules of social engagement, along with the pitfalls of nonprofit-speak.

With that in mind I am delighted to reclaim my generalist sensibilities under the very general title, Consultant.

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Identity Crisis

I have a terrific client that is having an identity crisis. What it is and whom it caters to can vary from day-to-day, depending on the target audience for the current marketing outreach. I’ve said that this is a mistake because people don’t know what the client really is, or what they do well. Or if they do anything well (which they do).

Of course my client is not alone in this haphazard approach.

Plenty of companies with enormous marketing budgets create a confused product and confused brand because of a whole lot of mixed messages. You can’t be an octogenarian’s dream car and a hip hop status symbol while also turning women on as they drive.

No business would sanely claim to be a bridal boutique, a hipster handbag store, an outdoor gear outfitter and a flower shop all at once. You’d look like this (pretty crazy) to potential customers. But many others try a similar, though less obvious, form of being everything to everyone.

Being everything to everybody dilutes the core of what makes an organization or business special and it makes customers unclear about your offerings. If I want Thai food I won’t go to a place that offers Thai and pizza in a trendy martini bar with a late night greasy diner menu.

Embracing who you are and what you do — and sticking to that story — is essential.

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The Disgruntled Employee In Us All

By now you’ve undoubtedly seen the awesome display of employee vengeance in the form of an “I quit” whiteboard presentation. It was so fun to scroll through the photos and laugh at the sweet revenge taking place; imagine our own acts of boss-vengeance and dream up what we would have written.

Too bad it was a hoax.

Not that I don’t love humor or when someone points out the obsessive lack of fact-checking that our mainstream media system does before blaring stories across the Series of Tubes.

But the story of Jenny and her awful Farmville-addicted boss is so much more powerful because we can all relate to it, and we were all rooting for the underdog. We all feel like the underdog, especially when it comes to our bosses.

Everyone (except those asshole bosses) shared in one small, albeit very public, victory. We were collectively laughing at bad bosses.

I suspect we’re not collectively laughing at anything now, not even the media’s need to regurgitate or create fake news. “The Media” is a less meaningful villain than bosses.

Nonprofit communicators can learn from this. Get a good villain (there are plenty out there) and take them out with humor.

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Reclaiming the Story

Like about 5 million of you, I got asked by MoveOn for my feedback about the direction of the country and the direction that MoveOn should take. The request was this:

I’d love to hear what you’re thinking right now. What do you take away from the news recently? What are you excited about? What do you want from MoveOn?

If you have any thoughts you’d be willing to share, please reply to this message or drop us an email.

I thanked Justin (or in reality, the volunteers who will read the responses) for asking. That alone is so refreshing. And I rattled off a little missive about my thoughts on power, the influence of money in politics, etc.

But my real response was this:

As a communications professional I always look to tell stories to connect with my audiences… and I think it’s imperative for nonprofits to do that. The progressive movement has stopped telling stories as a whole.  MoveOn does a good job on a campaign level, but progressivism as a movement doesn’t.  I’d like the story of what we stand for and what’s at stake to be told better and more in all kinds of mediums. Remember the Arthur DeMoss Foundation anti-abortion ads in the early 90s (see one here)? They told a story and were so powerful that I remember them today. I can’t say the same of pro-choice ads.

MoveOn should hold more video competitions and also devote more money to storytelling, whether via viral videos and more traditional means. When our story becomes popular and compelling, we have a much better chance of keeping independents and keeping elected officials on our side. They’ll go whichever way the political wind blows them for the sake of their jobs. It’s our job to make them think of us as the power and energetic base.

The recent Super Bowl ad for Focus on the Family, using the compelling story of Tim Tebow and his mother’s decision to maintain her pregnancy despite a sickness that threatened her fetus exemplify my point. The brouhaha was justified, given CBS’ failure to air ads with competing messages. (I’m for airing ALL sides of stories, not just one. Seems more honestly American to me.) But the story was and is a great story.

It is personal — bringing us into the lives and struggles of real people, and played out with charm and sweetness. The story told is one of hope, of motherhood, of love. It’s about potential more than anything.

Frances Kissling and Kate Michelman from Catholics for Choice wrote in response to that Super Bowl commercial about the need for the pro-choice side to better tell their story in a thoughtful opinion piece in the Washington Post. I agree with their reasoning.

While I’ve jumped into the most controversial and emotional battleground simply by bringing up abortion, I think my point about storytelling is essential for a broad spectrum of issues — from factory farming and energy issues to financial regulations and consumer product safety concerns.

I’ll be looking out for stories that I think do a good job of promoting progressive ideals and hope to find some to share so that ten years from now I can recall the power of a specific story and the movement that it supported.

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