Category Archives: communications

The false dichotomy of engagement vs. broadcast (or why Pepsi sales are down)

To understand why Pepsi has now fallen behind both Coke and Diet Coke in sales for the first time in decades, let’s examine the tradeoffs between two communication choices: inbound customer engagement and outbound advertising messaging.

We’ve explained the Information Ecosystem before, a simple model showing how information flows (inbound or outbound) to any group (of a few or many). Spend 10 seconds examining the model above and intuitively you’ll see that communicators — advertisers, marketers, organizations, husbands and wives, parents and children — have four tactics at hand. You can broadcast outbound to many; pull research in from many; personalize outbound messages to a few, or engage in inbound communication from a few. Four paths, four tactics, all with their own value given your objective and audience composition.

The biggest mistake marketers make is falling in love with only one tactic. In the 1950s, broadcast was king, in a world where only outbound advertising at scale was possible and communicating with small groups or individuals was too costly. In the 1990s, some companies embraced 1to1 personalization as the future of all communications, eschewing broadcast advertising empowered by new databases that could record preferences of individual customers. Today, in 2012, many companies buy in to social media gurus who shout engagement is the new panacea.

But is engagement really at odds with broadcast messaging? Of course not. Both play a different role on the same field:

The colored circles on the Information Ecosystem above show the debate that often occurs in marketing boardrooms. We must do one or the other, the arguments go. Some see a world where consumers still watch 5 hours of TV a day and commute in cars for 2 hours, so mass-media advertising must work. Others see the shift to Internet, laptops, text, smartphones, apps, social networks and tablets, and think digital-based engagement and word of mouth propagation are the solution.

The truth is, for most companies, both points of view are right — because the dynamics coexist with each other.

When to pick engagement or broadcast

Engagement is a valid tactic if a few members of your audience (say, consumers) have higher value to you or influence over their peers. This variance was called by Don Peppers in the 1990s a “customer value skew,” and the steeper this skew, or range in difference among customers, the more sense it makes to treat different customers differently.

In financial services and airline bookings, where some customers bring much more money to the table than others, engagement makes sense; but for commodity products, or services that appeal to broad swaths of consumers, engagement is a tactic best reserved for emergency situations, a “Motrin Moms” meltdown where a company must be ready to swoop in if negative attacks scale rapidly. If your customers are really different amongst themselves, or have potential to be wildly influential, engage away; if not, downplay this tactic.

On the other extreme, broadcast push such as advertising is best for companies trying to send a message out to masses of customers who all may need relatively the same thing. This doesn’t mean everyone will want your product; but it does mean that even if you are targeting 5% of the population, the needs within that group are similar enough that outbound broadcast can stimulate demand. Education, awareness, interest, consideration are all dynamics driven by advertising to the masses, and the seeds for downstream word of mouth. Like a spotlight, you can target the outbound communications to small groups and do so with efficiency; but there is nothing wrong with pushing messages out to the masses since it is one of four valid communication pathways in the overall Information Ecosystem. The Super Bowl and Academy Awards got lots of chatter among consumers in 2012, and the starting point for both was a major television broadcast.

The lesson of Pepsi

Finding the balance is difficult. In 2011, PepsiCo slashed outbound ad spending on its Pepsi brand in half, down to $20.1 million, focusing more on social media engagement. In March of 2012, news broke that the Pepsi brand had fallen from No. 2 to No. 3 in sales behind Diet Coke — a huge black eye for Pepsi, this being the first time in two decades it trails two Coke brands. Now Pepsi has said it will boost 2012 ad spending up by 30%. “We need television to make the big, bold statement,” Massimo d’Amore, chief of Pepsi Beverages Americas, told the Wall Street Journal.

This is not to say Pepsi’s move toward social-media engagement was wrong; but it did err in overweighting engagement and gutting broadcast for what is, at core, a commodity product in a highly competitive category. Pepsi failed in its judgment because it did not evaluate its customer base value skew accurately — most customers have similar value to Pepsi (we can only drink so much a year) and a similar need (we’re thirsty), and few have influence over their peers’ beverage consumption habits. For a carbonated soda pop, treating different customers differently makes little sense.

The tactics of engagement and broadcast are not opposed to each other, and can fit in the same organizational marketing plan easily, provided the role of each is understood to manage customers in the appropriate manner. There is no ROI on being invisible in a marketplace that needs education; there is also danger in not responding to the small groups of influencers or customers with the highest value, so engagement may be required as well.

Do you need to tell everyone about a new thing? Or is there a steep customer variance in your target base that, if managed, could turn the tide of your business? Answer those two questions, and you’ll have an initial cut at how to invest communication resources.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Cloudy words, faster than horses

Prior to the Internet, radio, and telegraph, the fastest human communication on Earth belonged to African drums. They were amazing, really; while northern Europeans would send messages via slow horses, which can go 50 miles per hour in short bursts but only 17 mph galloping long distances, villages across Africa could speak to each other via drum signals at the speed of sound, using drums with only two tones. Messages passed from village to village could travel faster than 100 miles per hour (given the time to hear and resend the drum signals). If invaders struck or fire spread, villages thousands of miles apart could know within half a day.

The question, of course, is how was this possible? The drums carried only two sounds (an upper and lower pitch, created by playing two separate drums). Unlike Morse Code, there was no consistent African alphabet to be transcribed into dots and dashes. How could information about war, or whether to meet by the river, be encrypted in such simple drum signals?

It worked because African languages had a secret that took decades for European intruders to discover: they were based on both sounds (like English) and pitch (high or low notes). In English, we use pitch infrequently, at its most basic to distinguish a statement from a question (You are mad, downbeat. You are mad?, upbeat.) By contrast, in many African tongues, as James Gleick profiles in The Information, minor nuances in tone change the definition of each word. Alambaka boili expressed one way means “he watched the riverbank”; alambaka boili with a different series of pitches means “he boiled his mother-in-law.”

But drumming information remained a challenge — because African language required both sound and pitch, and drum beats removed the human sounds. Drummers relying solely on tones had to create an entirely new language; because tones by themselves could signal several different words, the drummers solved this problem by adding several other words of context to each phrase of beats. Say you needed to drum the word “bird.” To remove ambiguity, drummers signaling the message would beat “the foul, the little one that says kiokio.” Every term used others to clarify itself. Gleick writes, “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate.”

It was an ingenious solution to a complex communication problem. Sadly, the drum language is being replaced by the Internet and text messaging.

Ben Kunz is vice president of strategic planning at Mediassociates, an advertising media planning and buying agency, and co-founder of its digital trading desk eEffective.

Originally posted on Google+. Image: Martin Sharman.

The oil spill jumps the shark

There’s a saying that all news is local, and if it ain’t local, it’s not the news. So we’ve been watching the public anxiety over the BP oil spill begin to wane as it, far away from most Americans, drifts off the urgent news cycle. If the slick were overlaid on New York City, we’d still be talking — angry, perhaps, at pollution stretching from mid-New Jersey to central Connecticut — but the Gulf is so distant. Larry King has moved on to cover Lady Gaga; NPR is shifting gears to politics and the Middle East; a public consumed with the latest viral fads begins to yawn at the prospect of more of the same news dripping from the ocean through August.

The problem goes deeper that ocean pollution, as troubling as that may be. Communication is escalating into faster streams of massive information sets. IBM researcher Martin Wattenberg told Wired a year ago that the biggest problem facing society today isn’t storing exabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, about 21 of which equal all monthly Internet traffic) or zettabytes (1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes, 42 of which would store all human words ever spoken aloud), but simply learning how to understand big data. We’re awash in news and advertisements and public opinions. The human need to filter out noise, to make some sense of the world, could be why polarizing outlets such as MSNBC and FoxNews are ascendant — as we all listen in only to self-reinforcing views of the world, cocooned in our little flattering bubbles. When information creation and storage reach the point of cacophonous clamoring, humans may tune out altogether. Geography used to keep us apart, to forge new cultures and languages and to ignore disasters far away at sea. Now, with knowledge passing all borders, the only way to stay sane may be to forget pollution altogether.

Why NYT is now rated PG-13 for adult language

The New York Times recently dished up a naughty word when it noted U.S. moms were mad about a Motrin commercial. The reporter didn’t write mad. She wrote p*ssed. Curious, we punched the “P” word into the NYT search engine and found 4,750 references — or 4,749 if you count the typo in the headline that should have read “Census Bill is Passed.” It all reminds us of the nudity and sex in advertising becoming more prevalent, as AdRants notes daily, which may not be good for communications.

Advertisers and writers now shout louder to be heard in the din of fragmented media. The staid New Yorker magazine has dropped the F-bomb 106 times so far this year. As curses become copiously abundant, their impact is lessened, leaving us with lousy language and scant resources for the occasional real exclamation.

We’ve written before that the little amygdala organ in the front of our skull is programmed to be jolted by strong language, an evolutionary response similar to fleeing from a saber-toothed tiger. A long time ago one of your cave ancestors yelled Fug!, and the people who ran from the attack survived to become your great-grandparents. But if we continue to shout Fug! too much, our amygdalae will get dulled, until no one really gives a damn — and sadly, on that day humanity will have lost its ability to shock.

Photo by Demi-Brooke.


So we’re watching American Idol with the kids tonight (bear with us, they want to be musicians when they grow up) and while we’re enduring this pure drivel suddenly a talented teen auditions in front of the three judges and Randy Jackson gets a weird look in his eye. We think we remember it.

The look of sincerity.

Under all the glitter and staging and Paula Abdul coming in late perhaps hung over, when pure talent raises its voice, the judge Jackson suddenly peers seriously, and we see a human soul acknowledging another without pretense or deceit. It lasts about 2 seconds … and then the music blares again and the nets cut to commercial break.

Andy up in Vancouver posts a similar recorded incident, this one back from 1969 with the great Fred Rogers asking for PBS funding in front of a Senate subcommittee. If you watch this 6+ minute video, you’ll see Mr. Rogers wasn’t an act … he was a real guy with a quiet voice trying to help children build self-esteem. The curmudgeonly senator on the other end of the pitch softens and softens and then finally approves Rogers for millions in funding. There’s not much of this type of honesty in communications today. It works. See if you remember how to do it.

William Petit and the beautiful final mile of viral messaging

We live in a bucolic suburban community in central Connecticut that last year was shocked to find bad news right in town. The home of physician William Petit was burgled in 2007 by two men who committed heinous crimes, abusing and killing his wife and two daughters and then setting the house in flames. Petit survived, emerging from his basement bleeding after being hit in the head with an axe.

A month ago, a neighbor of ours knocked on the door and said the town was honoring Dr. Petit, and asked if we would like to participate. Sure, we said. We ended up with a sack of waxed paper bags, candles and sand (to hold the candles down), and tonight lit lights to honor a man who lost his entire family.

And here’s the rub. The entire town did the same thing. Every street was lined with luminary candles, about 130,000 in total. We’re not sure how the idea took off. But we walked our young boys out to see the most beautiful scene … roads lined with glowing sparks in honor of a family that was devastated. Everyone participated, and in the dark January clouds overhead, we heard the whap-whap-whap of news helicopters recording the scene.

Somehow, the idea of recognizing one family broke through all our schedules, and at 4 p.m., we all lit the wax fires in little paper bags as the sun went down. Perhaps this ideavirus was too strong, too emotional, to be ignored.

Across the street from us lives another doctor who is very busy, and who almost never says hi to anyone in the neighborhood. We often wonder if anyone lives in his house. But tonight, about 5 p.m., the candles suddenly appeared in front of his mailbox and driveway, completing the scene. Some ideas are too viral, and too inspiring, not to catch fire … even among those most resistant to sharing the news.

(Photo by Betsy Kunz)

The children on the bus go round and round

Sometimes in the buzz of our world a little black hole opens up to create a communications vacuum. This entails a noteworthy cause that almost everyone would say is important, if you asked them, but one that almost no one does anything about.

Like school bus seat belts.

Each year in the U.S., 440,000 public school buses travel more than 4 billion miles to daily move 25 million children. Ah, children. U.S. parents do anything to keep them safe. We outlaw lead paint, get mad at China for shoddy toys, and when transporting our own tots, strap them into mandatory child seats and drive off in modern cars equipped with air-bags, side air-bag curtains, crumple zones, headrests, daytime running lights, and anti-lock brakes.

But send a child to school, and they don’t use seat belts. Today’s kids enter a bus with technology that hasn’t changed much since Dr. Frank Cyr and his friends at Columbia University decided to paint buses yellow in 1939. The last serious innovation in school bus technology came in 1977, when the U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards created construction standards to make sure school bus roofs do not collapse when they roll over. No one talked much about the little heads rolling around inside, or whether seat belts would keep those heads in place.

This void in communications is intriguing, since demand for child safety seems to be high and bus accidents happen all the time. Google “school bus accident” and the screen fills with news reports. This past summer, a school bus fell off a collapsing bridge in Minneapolis. Counselor Jeremy Hernandez was called a hero for helping kids get off the bus, but he told CNN that as the bus fell surrounded by tons of crashing concrete, he and others flew over the seats. Just yesterday, on Nov. 10, another school bus in Hanover Township, Pa., crashed over an embankment after two wheels fell off. A few — just five — states have done something about this, with lap belts now used in NY, NJ, California and Florida, and Alabama Governor Bob Riley announcing on Nov. 6 that his state will “test” seat belt usage on, ahem, 12 buses across the entire state.

We don’t know why the case of missing school bus seat belts, like some others, fails to cascade communications. Perhaps there are only two things that drive human awareness: Private profit or public advocacy. If profit can be made, marketers build advertising plans to get the word out. If advocates are impassioned, Al Gore gives Apple Keynote presentations until we all believe in global warming. But for pedestrian, boring, complicated causes, such as investing in little black belts for little laps, the message just falls into a vacuum.

Sort of like a yellow school bus sliding toward the Mississippi River.

And now a few words about filth

Why do we curse? That’s the question posed by Steven Pinker in The New Republic. We thought of this recently looking at the blog of a design shop we admire, who are recruiting with a lovely photo of their team, tan, relaxed, all flipping the bird at the camera. At once, we get the message. These guys are hip. Cutting edge. Sooo not uptight. How can a single photo, or ucking gesticulation, give us such pause?

Pinker’s article first points to the hypocrisy of it all. We mean, really–you can say fertilizer, or manure, or dung, excrement, maul, guano, mulch, cowplop or even buffalo chips–but don’t you dare utter hit, hitter, or hithead, or you’re rude. Even the words themselves carry different weight at different times. Bono dropped a feringing expletive at the Golden Globe Awards in 2003, and the FCC decided not to fine NBC because–get this–Bono used the F-bomb as an adjective, not a verb.

So why do hit, iss, uck, unt and ole make us uncomfortable, but the terms excretion, urine, copulate, vagina and anus don’t?

As Bono might say, Pinker offers an ucking brilliant answer–and something worth noting for marketers. Some words have “strange emotional power” that “tap into deep and ancient parts of the brain.” Pinker takes a biology field trip into the limbic system, the neocortex, and a few other wires in our heads before pinpointing a little amygdala organ in the front of our skull as the culprit. Seems we have a little gland-thing that causes deeply emotional and involuntary reactions to certain stimuli, such as a saber-tooth tiger eating your mother, or perhaps, when you read uck you. As a test, we think that even removing the first letters of vulgar profanity will make you uncomfortable. Try to read this, other ucker, and see if you get issed off if we call you a ock ucking hit-faced amygdala-organ hit-head. Do you feel any emotion?

Maybe it all started back in the last Ice Age, when the word UCK! meant “OGG, RUN THERE’S A WOOLLY MAMMOTH STAMPEDING RIGHT AT YOU!” So “uck” got hot-wired into the brains of all those who survived (and who ran really ucking fast).

It’s all fascinating–and points out that language, and art, and design, can pull us in emotional ways that we can’t constrain. Marketers and advertisers might toy around with new ways to grab attention beyond the obvious cuss word or sexual image. But be gentle about it. After all, when thinking about ucking, we just lose control.