7 Ways to Better Marketing in 2016

2016
Let’s start the new year right: out with the old and in with the fresh.

#1 Get off the training wheels articles

Dear content experts: We know that images are processed 60x more than text. We also know that tweets with images get tons more shares than those without. We get it. There are hundreds of articles on these basics. If you want more SEO, be less of a sheep and more of a leader. Got an interesting take on why Twitter sucks for certain businesses? Or an argument to do long-form blogging instead of 500 words? Bring it. Make us think, provoke us and push us further in our education, don’t give us the same-old.

#2 No more gobbling up junk food infographics

Ratios are important, including infographics. For instance, when the largest element of an infographic is the logo of the company that produced it, it’s a clear warning sign. Many infographics these days are filled with fluffy, contextless stats aimed at showcasing themselves for shares and/or hopping on popular culture (not very well). We have more innovative data visualization opportunities than ever. Let’s use this information to educate and inspire ideas, not dumb down readers.

#3 Overthrow the content monarchy drivel

…Is so 2013 (I’m guilty myself). No more using “content is king” or corollary: “content is queen” context, engagement or anything else that is sidekick to the King. (and why does the Queen always have the helping role?) These cliché terms are ubiquitous and mean nothing anymore. We’re way beyond this revelation (see #1). It’s time for the next level analysis when we write about content. Speaking of which…

#4 Doctor’s orders: marketing does not cure cancer

I do suggest one new monarchy term: “Content is the new court jester”. We’re a pretty humorless bunch. We do have the Condescending Corporate Facebook page, Clickhole, recaps of social media flubs, and the occasional catch-all. But more laughs and less self-importance is the prescription for what ails us. There are brands that get humor thankfully. Yes, meaty, relevant content is an essential ingredient for smart marketing strategy and contributes to revenue (fingers crossed), but let’s have some fun, people.

#5 A fresh litter is worth 10 copycats

A blog post compiling expert views is one thing, but regurgitating others’ ideas with few word changes has a centuries-old legal term: plagiarism. It’s spread online like rancid butter. If you have an opinion, state it and back up with well-thought ideas and research. While we’re at it, let’s do away with hijacking trending stories unless an authentic connection is there. The passage of time often reveals more interesting or thoughtful insights. Better yet, let the story ride out its 15 minutes and write about something original.

#6 Social media deserves a demotion

There, I said it. While social media continues its star billing, advertising (save for ethically ambigious “sponsored content”), events, and everything else in the marketing wheelhouse is relegated to the D-list. Social also gives  click-bait culture a huge boost. True, social media disrupted how we communicate with each other and brands, but ALL marketing is a part of the promotion landscape. Young marketers are taught to burrow heads into their screens 24/7 without understanding or caring about what they can learn by looking up and around. All pieces of the promotion pie are part of our rich legacy. (P.S. Apple does billboards, so you know it’s still cool).

#7 Time travel to forward-thinking content 

There are tons of articles about “next year…” this time of year, but what about visionary pieces that look at marketing five or 10 years down the road? The internet of things, mobility, and other technologies are reshaping the way we market. Let’s peek into future so we can plan for the Next Big Thing (or avoid a trending rat hole). Like: why virtual reality will change the way we shop or how robots are invading into journalism . Let’s learn about these futuristic ideas now and start planning for what’s to come . Even if these predictions never come true, it opens our minds to new possibilities and ways of thinking.

Here’s to a great marketing year in 2016….hold the filler.

 

 

 

 

 

Think Like Your Client and Become a Better Consultant

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Freelancers love to write about the woes of not getting paid, how they feel underappreciated, and dole out consulting advice like there’s no tomorrow. One topic we rarely explore, however, is the client point of view working with us. What do they wish we’d change? What annoys them? And what can we learn as consultants?

I know personally because I’ve been on both sides of the fence, both as a client and a freelancer. I’ve heard complaints. I’ve noted bad behaviors. I’ve been asked to change the way I operate occasionally (#trueconfessions). But to know your clients’ pet peeves is half the battle—doing something about it is quite another.

Here are some common complaints from the client trenches and ways to remedy them before they spiral out of control, or you flat out lose the work.

Don’t tell me about your other clients

The old adage “Always tell your clients you have other work” for fear of them thinking you’re desperate can also have a downside when you are actually really busy. Freelancers sometimes go too far and won’t shut up about other clients. This can take the form of blathering on about a job that is dominating your life, saying you’re strapped for time, having difficulty scheduling meetings, or worse yet, missing deadlines (more on this later). Here’s the reality: Clients don’t care much about your other jobs—they are interested in the projects you’re working on for them. Make their job your number one priority as if it were your only assignment, because in their eyes, it is. Prattling on about other non-issues also includes babysitter problems, a sinus infection, or bad dog behavior unless that’s your small talk of choice before you dig in to the work.

Do this instead: Minimize or eliminate client chatter and off-topics and focus on what’s in front of you. Mention other clients only if it’s relevant to the discussion or boosts your experience/knowledge.

Go by my communication style, not yours

In the days before “internet” was the standard lexicon, communication with clients was much easier. Fewer options meant less friction and decision making about getting your project done. Today’s technology cornucopia requires frenetic dexterity and multi-tasking: Email, text, web conference, or God forbid phone! Most clients, however, have a preferred method that will be revealed quickly. If they’re all over the map, take the initiative to ask how they want to communicate and cadence they prefer—even if you’re half-way through the project it will be worth it. I learned my lesson years ago when a client told me I was sending too many emails. That’s when we agreed to wrap up topics in one email every day. I still ask myself with every client email I write: do I send this email? Can I figure it out on my own or by asking someone else? Can it wait?

Do this instead: Make communication methods and work style a part of your project kick-off discussion with a client. Asking directly will show you are thoughtful about the work process, acknowledge their needs, and set a unified beginning to your relationship.

Meet your deadlines. Period.

I’m don’t consider myself to be a God fearin’ type but deadlines are my bible. When you don’t meet delivery dates, credibility is lost and the next job with that client could be in jeopardy. Next up, your work reputation could be at stake. Though it seems obvious that meeting deadlines would be part of a consultant’s ethos, making it top priority is what makes the difference. Sometimes milestones aren’t met due to client delays, external circumstances, or other issues beyond your control. That notwithstanding, the “Say what you mean and mean what you say” applies when it comes to deadlines.

Do this instead: Get a strong grip on deadlines with your client early on—are they loosy goosy or are they firm drop dead dates? Keep your client updated on project status so there are no surprises. Better to tell them red flags before they have to ask—by then it’s too late.

Keep payments professional

We all know step one is do the work, step two is  invoice and step three is receiving a check on your payment terms. But any consultant will tell you, that’s not always how this plays out. When working as a corporate client many moons ago, I still bristle when I think about the writer who called in advance of her invoice date and said she needed her check so she could pay her quarterly business taxes. This is not my problem as her client. Certainly companies need to pay on time (who doesn’t have stories about the late payment, including moi?). But as consultants, we also need to abide by our own terms and manage our finances properly—this is not the concern of our client.

Do this instead: Set your payment terms early on in the project and stick to them. Don’t ask to be paid early unless you have a darn good reason (i.e a portion of the project is delayed, canceled, or finishes early—this last one a rarity, of course.)

Just because I know you as a (friend, colleague, acquaintance) does not give you a work pass

Ever hire a friend for a job for it only to turn out to be a disaster? Me too. I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this one. The rule of thumb is the business relationship comes first when you’re working together, but never at the expense of the friendship. Sure you have a “short cut” to communication since you have an established relationship but that shouldn’t be an excuse for late work, overconfidence, or any other bad behavior you wouldn’t consider acceptable with a consultant you didn’t know personally. As a client years ago, I hired a friend and discovered she wasn’t up to snuff with deadlines, the quality of her work, and other aspects of the project. I was both surprised and disappointed. I kept the friendship but let go of the work relationship after that  job. I’ve also worked as a consultant for several friends and treat them like I would any other client. Mutual respect and professionalism is key.

Do this instead: Again, talk about the rules of engagement early on to head off potential issues. Talk about your work styles, expectations, and any concerns. Be honest to avoid conflict later that could put a crimp in your personal relationship. So not worth it.

Bonus for both sides: Follow your gut

Intuition is highly underrated, especially when a consultant is hungry for new work and a client is starving for help. Both can lead to unappetizing results under the right (or rather wrong) circumstances. I liken it to overlooking flaws when dating someone and later those same negative qualities seemingly come out of nowhere—they were there from the beginning, of course, you just didn’t want to see them. My personal work hell in my first years of consulting was a similar life lesson: ridiculously high expectations, a crazy schedule, and poor communication skills made for a very unhappy work scenario. I told the client why the job wasn’t a good fit and that I wanted to end the contract. He, in turn, was livid, tried to convince me to stay, and then decided he wouldn’t pay me for the work I had completed. Sadly, I didn’t have the fortitude to fight for my money in those early days of my business. It was an expensive lesson but worth it. Always look  for the answer inside, whether you’re hiring someone or being hired (and oh yeah, dating too). Pay attention to that little voice, it really is telling you something.

Do this instead: The first time or two you talk as a potential client or consultant, if you get a bad feeling or fumble over communication every sentence, try and talk about it (tricky considering the situation) or get out gracefully—often it’s best bow out early instead of trying to make something work that could be a nightmare assignment for both of you.

The fact is, I learn work lessons from my clients every day—some that inspire me to do things differently, others that surprise me with epiphanies, and a few choice ones  I’ll never work with again but are good article material. Win-Win!

Five Consulting Reality Checks

nickThere’s a reason for stereotypes: Sometimes they’re true. But a lot of times they’re not. As a freelancer for 16 years, I’ve gotten all of these questions, multiple times: Do you wake up at noon? Do you charge clients every time they pick up the phone? Do you hate any of your clients? The answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal no, but I will spill intel that you won’t hear elsewhere.#1 You’re either a consulting type or you’re not

Plenty of friends and colleagues talk about starting their own businesses. It’s fun to chat about but hard to do: You work your ass off most days. You scour for jobs on the others. Your business and your personal life blend too much. Vacations are a rarity. And there certainly is no job security. While not an easy path, it’s very rewarding. I’ve known some folks who go in and out of consulting, but 99% either stick with it or not—there’s not much in between.

#2 We have different rates for different clients

There, I said it. This might come as a shock and even seem unfair, but consulting is not a one size fits all business. If you’re a big corporate client, for instance, I know the going rates versus a small business who can’t afford as much or is cheaper. Or a nonprofit. Or a friend of the family. Or the project is long-term versus a one-off. There are lots of reasons for different pricing. You can be sure I won’t gouge you, but all factors are taken into consideration to come up with that magic number.

#3 Expenses. Are. High.

I’m not asking you to take out the violin, but understand that even if you think you’re shelling out a small fortune, much of that money is already allocated: besides life expenses like housing and food, there’s health insurance, office costs, gas/travel, marketing, client meals and gifts, and that little thing called taxes every quarter. Know that a fair chunk of that 1099 check is going to it. The high rolling consultant trope is only a fantasy held by clients and well, us.

#4 We’ll work harder for you than the typical employee

This might seem presumptuous and even downright cocky, but there is a reason we put such effort into our work: We’re only as good as our last job with you. Employees have an ongoing flow of work and opportunities to show their stuff, not to mention a semblance of job security. Us?

We’re judged on every engagement. Being too comfortable can be the biggest downfall. It’s a great motivator to go that extra mile, every time. Which leads me to the last truth…
#5 We’re committed to you, but we’re always dating.

It’s not that we’re planning to cheat on you by running off with the competition, but we don’t have blinders on either. And don’t forget we have other clients. Like any open relationship, we still go to networking events, meet with other work suitors, and scan the job ads. We know that you could leave your company or get laid off. Budgets get cut. Or a new person comes in with their own cronies. We have to protect our investment in you. Remember that variety is a reason consultants do what we do. We don’t just love working for ourselves; we love working with lots of you.

One last truth: We are nothing without you. Clients are the lifeblood of our business and we learn a lot from these relationships, even if we don’t tell you that. We become smarter, grow as a work partner, hold up a mirror to our strengths and weaknesses, become better problem solvers, and even help evolve our businesses.

So thank you for letting me do what I love—but my payment terms are still net 30.

6 Networking Rules to Break. Now.

social_network_networkingTrue confessions: I have not always been a good networker. When I started my marketing communications business 15 years ago, I lived in the middle of Silicon Valley and was lucky enough to have a client base right out of the gate. In fact, I rarely went to networking events unless there was an interesting speaker, it was free, or there was the promise of a raffle prize that had the Apple logo on it. I was fortunate to get most of my work through word of mouth, random outreach, and a little bit of kismet.

It was a much different story five years ago when I moved to San Francisco. Though only 50 miles separated these two bustling tech centers, the business landscapes were a tale of two cities. While Silicon Valley gravitated toward older tech like semiconductors, hardware, and software, SF was all about social media, apps, and the sharing economy, inhabited by scrappy startups. Picture the days of rents just beginning to climb to ridiculous rates, the sight of cranes a bit more commonplace, and brogrammers starting to taste the wonders of hand-crafted, artisanal beer out of mason jars. In other words, pre-Google bus days.

It was an exciting time but also a scary time for me. While I possessed the general tech cred, I knew I needed to expand my reach and grow my business locally to make it in The Big City.

So…picture if you will, mild-mannered Diane Prince turning into Wonder Woman, or in my case, Janice Cuban transforming into San Francisco Networking Woman (sans the tight superpowers outfit and arch enemy fighting). I flew through city, industry, Meetup, and other myriad of events—shaking innumerable hands, swapping a gazillion business cards, and eating hundreds of sub-par hors d’oeuvres washed down with mediocre wine.

Through it all, here’s what I have learned as a networking pro who’s been through the San Francisco trenches.

Conventional wisdom: Arrive when the event starts

New rule: When was the last time you showed up at a networking event at the beginning and it was crowded? Exactly. Fellow networkers typically are racing from work, fighting traffic, etc. Depending on the length of event, I recommend showing up 30 minutes in for that perfect “networking tipping point”—the best buzz in the room, conversations are flowing, and the highest odds to shake the most hands.

Conventional wisdom: Approach a group of people and introduce yourself

New rule: Um, no and no. What’s more intimidating at a networking event than walking up to two or more people and cutting in? This doesn’t even include the possibility that you could be interrupting a good networking moment and might even get that “stalker look” from said group. Instead of this intrusion, help out a fellow solo attendee: if someone is standing by him or herself, they’ll appreciate that you saved them from an awkward moment munching on a carrot or checking their phone by their lonesome. And who knows, it might even be a good contact for you. Which takes us to…

Conventional wisdom: If someone is prattling on, make up a fib to excuse yourself

New rule: Politely end the conversation by saying you don’t want to keep them from meeting others at the event. Who can argue with that? And it’s actually true. Don’t give the person some B.S. about talking to someone you know in the room (unless you really do), or getting another drink when your glass is half full. People are not dumb and will sniff out that you’re bored or done talking with them. They’ll also remember that move if you contact them in the future wanting an introduction to a lead. Manage your networking time carefully but be nice.

Conventional wisdom: Prepare and memorize your elevator pitch

New rule: Well, this is a half-truth. Of course you should have a spiel ready to go, but before you spout off your own mouth, find out more about the person with whom you’ve just shaken hands. If you’re in a business like me where you write for different types of industries, knowing that someone’s profession is real estate versus tech marketing is going to make a difference in how I talk about my services. Since most people naturally love to talk about themselves anyway, ask questions first and find out what makes them tick, their interests, and who knows, it might even lead to a discussion about their potential work needs.

Conventional wisdom: I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to get new business

New rule: Of course we all want new business. Duh. But one of the nice surprises I’ve found over the years is that these events can also be a resource for new friends, colleagues, and mentors. Bonus: these folks are more inclined to help you in the future just because they like you. In fact, I’ve made an entirely new circle of friends in San Francisco from networking alone. In other words, “friendwork” it too.

Conventional wisdom: Always dress “professional”

New rule: No word has become more confusing than this the past few years. Long ago in a tech galaxy far, far away, it was expected that you wear a work outfit to a networking event consisting of suit or dress slacks. This uniform has been changed considerably. Even “business casual” can now translate to jeans, leggings, and more creative outfits, especially in San Francisco. If you’re going to a lawyer or banking networking event,  be buttoned up of course, but this is the exception, not the rule anymore. Common sense dictates that no matter what city you live in, keep it professional: a messy look, dirty jeans, or too-tight tops are still no-nos and make the wrong first impression.

So…are you ready to use your superpowers? Now that you’re armed with new networking mojo, get on that cool outfit, dust off your business cards, and fly yourself off to that next event!

The 7 Types of Visuals on LinkedIn

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Have you noticed that visuals have taken over your LinkedIn status update pages? If you’re too busy or impatient (or both) to scroll through all of them, I’ve saved you the time. You’re welcome.

As a value-added service, I’ve also rated their LinkedInability rating from 1 to 5 (1 means “must disappear ASAP” and 5 means “bring it on”). Note: The names behind the graphics are not revealed to protect the innocent (and in some cases, the embarrassment).

#1 The “If I See This Cliché One More Time ..”

I get it, LinkedIn is work-related so a lot of visuals spread around have to do with that. It’s a no-brainer. What’s odd to me is how many times I see the same thing posted by different people again and again and wonder: hasn’t every single person on LinkedIn come across this already? Sure I can hide the post, but the damage is done. Can’t unsee.

LinkedInability: 1

#2 Weird and Inappropriate Sh*t

Admittedly I am connected to a few folks who put out some pretty unLinkedIn-like graphics, which always get my attention, for better or worse, but I have to question their judgement. For the record, here’s how I decide about posting on LinkedIn…with one simple question: Would I ever bring this topic up in a work convo? If the answer is “no,” it’s a non-starter. Most of these types of posts are more suited for Facebook or fodder for when out for drinks with friends. Common sense dictates you might not want to discuss things like politics, religion, and bodily functions in a professional environment–just sayin’. In fact, someone felt strongly enough about this to create a graphic to make the point.

LinkedInability: 2 (should be a 1 but it spices up my status update feed)

#3 The Clever Cad

 I don’t see these types of visuals as often as #1 unfortunately, but when I do, I do so enjoy them and might even learn a thing or two. These graphics tend to be commentary or educationalsmart, funny, and can have a long shelf life. Bonus points: these  visuals can be shared on your social platforms to impress colleagues with your perceived wit and content curation skills.

LinkedInability: 5

#4 The Senseless Graphic or Venn Diagram

There is something about a circle with words and boy, add those arrows and kapow! These types of posts look, feel, and act  impressive even if conveying obvious or useless information. Let’s face it, visuals trump text every time. But the truth is, most of these chart, diagrams, and assorted data drivel say much ado about nothing…or do they? I’ll get back to you after studying with more coffee and wait for that “aha” moment.

LinkedInability: 2

#5 I am LinkedIn LION, Hear Me Roar

When I first saw term “LinkedIn LION” years ago, I knew it meant at least one thing: you have helluvalot of connections. Turns out this is actually an acronym stands for LinkedIOpen Networker. This means you have 500+ connections and according to this how-to be a LION article,  “…(a LION) will connect with almost anyone on LinkedIn regardless of whether they know, trust, or even respect the person.” Really? You don’t respect them but will connect? Yikes. LinkedIn’s Help Center’s less-than-flattering definition of LION makes its opinion known. Even so, that big kitty sure gets around on the site and it’s pretty majestic as most lions are. It’s like the unofficial LinkedIn mascot that’s not endorsed by it (very edgy)

LinkedInability: 3

#6 The Magnificent Meme

When used properly, memes will not just get attention but make you think, or even better, laugh. For some reason Liam Neeson and LinkedIn have a special bond (OK, the secret’s out, it’s the Taken movie franchise). Since Liam has one of the most viral memes on LinkedIn, those smart marketers at 20th Century Fox seized on this popularity by having him “endorse your particular set of skills” as part of its social media promotional campaign for Taken 3.
LinkedInability: 4

#7 The Cheesy Stock Photography Club

Let’s face it, we are all tempted by the stock photography devil . It’s like when we’re really hungry and we drive by that sad Burger King. It’s quick, easy, and no one will know the better. But pictures don’t lie, since at least 100 other lazy people will use the same exact image on that same day (and maybe even on the same site). But that doesn’t stop this annoying habit. Sure, it’s not as many calories as fast food, but you’ll hate yourself just as much the next day.

LinkedInability: 1

So there you have it… By no means is this an exhaustive list of LinkedIn visuals posts -there are more out there to lasso: The Humblebrag, the Useless Treasure Trove, and WTH is This? Most importantly however, right now, is deciding which image will accompany this post on your status updates.

LinkedInability: TBD

If It’s Called Customer Experience, Why is it All About the Company?

_HY_7338RWhile companies clamor to get their share of revenue from new and existing customers, the delta between what brands say they do for customers and what actually happens has never been larger. Perhaps it’s because of stats like: 90% of executives say that customer experience is central to their strategies, but a whopping 86% don’t expect to see a significant uplift in business results from it. See the math problem here? Too much company-centered thinking and not enough customer-centric business management.

To get more insight on this disconnect, I sat down with Lynn Hunsaker, a customer experience expert who helps companies love and be loved by their customers, through her firm, ClearAction. She should know a thing or two about this topic—she’s directed customer experience programs for 25 years with leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies.

Q: What are the biggest customer experience issues are these days?

A: The first problem is transparency—customers see behind the company’s motives—If there’s a gap between what they’re saying and what they’re doing, it’s harmful to the relationship.

The other big issue is that companies need to get it right the first time— as in don’t roll-out a product prematurely and don’t have surprises in your processes and policies. Brands with the best customer experience or service like Zappos, REI, Trader Joes, Nordstrom, Ritz Carlton, Adobe, Boeing, and American Express—they pay attention to their customers first and themselves second. Whether it’s B2C or B2B it makes no difference, the focus is on the customer, and that’s what matters.

Q: When companies don’t get it right, customers are taking to social these days to gripe about it and get action.

A: Yes, but “social media” tends to be rigidly defined as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other popular platforms. It should also includes online communities of other types, including online rating systems like Yelp, TripAdvisor, just to name just a few. In fact, the ratings mentality now permeates the psyche of every generation, from Millennials to Baby Boomers, empowering them to critique brands and be forthcoming with their opinions. Ultiimately, though, what tends to happen with social media complaints is that companies try to resolve these very public criticisms by responding to it at a micro level.

Q: What does “micro level” problem solving in customer experience mean?

A: Companies resolve issues one customer at a time, one service rep at a time, or within a single department at a time—a quick fix and then move on to other priorities. If you really want to make a difference for all customers and for your company’s revenue and profit growth, prevent issues from happening again altogether. That usually requires departments to work together to resolve the root causes of issues—that’s harder and takes longer, but it’s what’s needed to build trust that earns loyalty.

Another example of micro response to customers: when a customer complains on Twitter, it apologizes and tweets out the happy news to counteract the bad press caused on social media. Sure, it may appear that the problem is solved, but it’s really just a case by case response and a Band-Aid for a bigger problem. And when this “resolution” is over-the-top, like giving six movie complimentary passes to apologize for the theater snafu of two people, it really just masks an attempt to generate positive word-of-mouth. Again it’s about the company, not the customer.

Q: So are customer surveys just a waste of time then?

A: Brands tend to use customer surveys as a barometer or a report card, hopefully with good news for their public relations department or to increase their Net Promoter ratings, showing how many customers would “recommend” the company.

When a service rep or sales person tells a customer that a survey answer other than “highly satisfied” could ruin their bonus or performance assessment, yes, a survey is a waste of time and money for customers and the company. This situation happens because employees are penalized or rewarded too heavily on customer behavior instead of monitoring their own behavior internally.

Instead of looking at surveys as a one-by-one solution opportunity or a means to show how awesome your company is, you can get more value by looking for patterns in it, as well as in other sources of feedback, like complaints on the 800 number, social media, or customer anecdotes—it’s really a collage of information that matters. These patterns help companies elevate the response to a macro-level, and that’s ultimately the goal. When you connect the feedback dots, you make things better for all customers, not just one at a time.

Q: Can companies turn their customer experience reputation around?

A: Absolutely. An example is Suntrust Bank, who saw the financial meltdown in 2008 as an opportunity to see how they could rebuild trust with their customers. One of the executives would often ask in meetings: “Are we deciding on this because we’ve been bankers for so many years, or because customers told us?” This question became a habit for managers across the company, and changed their decision-making to be customer-focused. This is the kind of habit more brands need to adopt.

Q: Sounds like there is hope. What do you see ahead for 2015?

A: Yes and no. Brands will be pushing harder on the customer experience manager to show business results. They’ll try to do this through more surveys, customer journey maps, social media, content marketing, customer engagement events and campaigns, and loyalty programs. Some companies, though, will disband their investment in customer experience altogether, getting rid of entire departments. For a lot of companies, it’s going to be business as usual mantra, with the mismatch between what the company says and what customers experience is.

Thankfully, there is that small group of companies—which is maybe a good thing since it’s easier to stand out from the crowd—that are going to step back and ask themselves: is what we’re doing more about us or customers? These companies will persistently seek patterns to resolve issues from happening again. They’ll earn trust and down the line business results by improving ease-of-doing-business for customers. In other words: it will be about the person buying their products, not the company, and that is what customer experience management is all about.

What Becomes of Content in 2015?

cwordThe word “content” has supplanted itself as The Marketing Word in 2014, to the point that I’m hard-pressed to find a digital headline or article without it this past year. Then there are the white papers, conferences, books, and even the Content Marketing Institute (sounds very heady, doesn’t it?). You get the idea. But let’s get some perspective here: Content, in all its incarnations over the years, was simply called something else—be it copy, copywriting, promotion, website content, marketing blurbs, plain old writing, insert big etcetera here. With the rise of social media and other digital marketing to further a brand—whether posts or podcasts, vines or viral videos—this marketing expansion now sits under the same umbrella: Content. One and all. The blending of terms combined with the craving for sky high shares brought to the forefront big changes swirling around in advertising, journalism, and marketing the past several years. Some good, some not so good. I believe we reached a tipping point in 2014 and are venturing to the point of no return. Sure, there is plenty of smart, insightful, and creative content out there, but it is overshadowed by junky digital filler caused by “content mania” and insatiable need to feed the social media sharing beast. Let me explain.

Sponsored Content, aka Native Ads

This kind of promotion has been around for ages in other forms (corporate advertorial in trade magazine, anyone?) But online sponsored content is a bit more dangerous in such prolific quantities. Why? It’s more than a hoodwink; it confuses consumers expecting unbiased articles, whether they care or not.

Sponsored content has seen explosive growth in the past few years due to the expansion of digital publishers, coupled with news outlets desperately looking for a panacea to cover plummeting ad profits. Mission definitely accomplished, but the tricky (read: ethical) part is the barely-there line between “real articles” and those brought to us by our favorite and not-so-favorite brands. Even the bastion of buttoned-up news, the New York Times, got into the sponsored content business. You see, the lines have really (really) blurred, even for the Gray Lady. The FCC stepped in to help consumers identify sponsored content, but many readers eat it up if it’s “interesting” no matter how indigestible the thought of brand involvement might be. Studies show it decreases trust of content, but it doesn’t stop them from clicking.

Brand Journalism

Which leads us another trend from the content explosion—brand journalism—companies who deploy articles the way a news reporter might—factual information? Yes, but with words that supports the brand’s message, liifestyle, or agenda. This content fuels brands with a great resource for well-written blogs, C-level ghostwriters, and sponsored content, not to mention spawning new careers for jaded journalists, frustrated fiction writers, and corporate careerists looking for a fresh start.

Hootsuite’s CEO Ryan Holmes even nonchalantly dropped a reference to its corporate “newsrooms” at a conference earlier this year. A reach perhaps, but it appears to be the future of The Brand. Welcome to the new blurry world of the “news” where articles you read might not have a clear bias but the source of the materials will.

Attack of the Content Creators

Another way content has taken hold lately is the crazy-big growth of “content creators,” “content experts,” and other fill-in-the-blank content titles (full disclosure: I brand myself this way too). Hardly anyone is simply a “writer” anymore. Sure, including a white-hot industry in your title might make your keywords stand out more, but consider the downside: lots of competitors use this title too, making it a crowded field.

Digital publishing outfits like the Huffington Post, Gawker, and other media companies large and small often won’t pay or divvy out peanuts based on article shares. After all, if you won’t write for free, someone else more hungry for the lure of digital fame will. The more that writers that offer their services without compensation or laughably low pay, the more devalued the profession becomes. This cannot be undone (another disclosure: I have written for zero pay to get my name out there). I get why it happens—it’s called supply and demand—but there is collective power in writers holding out for what we deserve instead of giving in to this pressure.

On their own, none of these trends is necessarily catastrophic for content. But when you put them together it gives me great concern to think where content is going in 2015 with the jumbling of words, images, and audio breeding only as share fodder, the cocktail of news and brand agenda, coupled with the cheapening of writing as a craft, I wonder if we’ve lost some of our core quality standards and beliefs in what content is about. Like the “click-bait headlines” that trick us into thinking we’re getting one thing instead of another, we’re fooling no one but ourselves to say it doesn’t matter in the future.

Image: Velocity Partners