Friday, January 10, 2014

Future or Flop: What Wearable Tech Means for Public Relations

In the 1989 blockbuster “Back to the Future Part II,” the movie’s main character, Marty McFly, finds himself in “far off” 2015 where he and the audience catch a glimpse of the future. 
While flying cars don’t dominate and wheel-less skateboards don’t exist as depicted in the film, there’s a piece of fake future technology that’s already right at home in 2014: wearable “smart” technology. In the movie, Marty, played by Michael J. Fox, is seen sporting a talking, self-drying jacket.  
From smart watches and Google Glasses to fitness trackers, intelligent t-shirts and bras, wearable technology continues to gain momentum. The transition from smartphone to smart coat (or anything else deemed intelligent) stems from a drastic drop in the size and cost of data sensors as well as an increase in data storage capacity, processing power and the battery life of Bluetooth-connected devices.  
These sensors track what’s increasingly called biometrics. Calories burned, steps taken, heart rate and even perspiration and sleep patterns can be analyzed by sophisticated sensors. Linked to a smart device, consumers have access to an enormous amount of personal data, which they can use to make behavioral changes to improve their health or lifestyle. A smart tennis racket or smart golf club can analyze your swing and send that data in real-time to another smart device for readout; and ‘course correction’ if your swing sucks (as mine does).  
At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, wearable tech appeared to be the biggest showstopper. 
But does such prominence guarantee the technology’s success? And, placing my PR hat back on, what implications, if any, does wearable technology have for the communications industry?   
There’s no doubt wearable tech has a future –even if many current examples have been criticized for being ‘half baked.’ Some smart watches, for instance, have been compared to smartphones with a wristband. Function has to become fashion-friendly and this is happening, albeit slowly. Intel recently announced that it was teaming up with boutique retailer Opening Ceremony to design a smart bracelet, while chip-maker CSR and Cellini Jewelers have created a smart pendant that lights up when receiving notifications.  
Wearable tech works because of the ongoing data revolution. Just as retailers crave a more granular customer picture in an effort to personalize experiences, consumers desire more data for similar reasons. Knowing that you’ve only taken 1,000 steps in a given day and burned 500 calories, or that your home uses 10% more electricity than it needs, all helps to improve consumers’ daily lives. It’s as if big data is becoming domesticated and made user-friendly. 
As people become more comfortable with the tracking, recording and analysis of large real-time data sets, it’s likely that our clients will expect a similar degree of metrics tracking the success of their campaigns. And if some of these wearable tech companies become clients directly, you can be sure they’ll want to feature campaigns of people using –and benefiting from – the gadgets they sell. While many will become more comfortable with big data in their lives, not all will embrace these Big Brother-like technologies. That means we’ll likely have more PR fires to extinguish as there may be a vocal minority of smart device detractors, eager to attack our newest and potentially most promising clients and the products they sell. I suspect such developments will keep our jobs rather exciting in the year ahead.  
With a New Year ahead of us, there’s plenty of time left to convince wearable tech skeptics. After all, our jackets may not be self-drying or talking yet, but you can be sure such advancements aren’t far off. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Preventing a Big Data Backlash: Information Security and Privacy Protection in 2014

Hindsight is a weird thing. Profound events come to be known not by virtue of major human advancement or scientific discovery, but by living. By being another day older. On June 4, 2013 few people knew the name Edward Snowden. By the following day Edward Snowden was fast becoming a household name as Americans and citizens around the world learned of the scope and clandestine nature of the CIA’s domestic and international surveillance programs, leaked by the 29-year-old government employee.  
Very soon terms like PRISM, XKeyscore, Tempora and metadata entered our lexicon. Snowden, it’s been estimated, stole nearly 2 million classified government files and by multiple accounts, much of the information contained within those documents has yet to be leaked. By December 2013 TIME Magazine had selected Snowden as the runner-up for The TIME Person of the Year, referring to him as the “Dark Prophet.”
I’m not so sure about the prophet reference but if Americans (or anyone else) ever needed a reminder of just how vulnerable our digital data could be, Snowden’s actions are proof. 
The Year of Data Breach Disaster 
Beyond Snowden’s data leaks, 2013 was a year filled with numerous data breaches and failed information security measures. Deal-of-the-day website LivingSocial was hacked, 50 million Evernote user passwords had to be reset, the Washington State Administrative Office of the Courts was broken into, big box retailer Target announced that up to 40 million credit and debit cards used around Thanksgiving had been illegally accessed, and in the closing hours of the year, photo sharing app Snapchat discovered that nearly 5 million of its users had their personal information (including most of their phone numbers) posted on the unlawful website, 
Wow. And you worried about your front door being locked. 
Yet so far none of these incidents have caused a massive data backlash like they would have several years ago. Investment in big data – systems that accumulate enormous amounts of information in order to derive business intelligence or consumer insights – remains robust, estimated to be worth $47 billion by 2017. And a survey conducted by the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor just days before the NSA story broke found that 85% of Americans already believed their phone calls, email and online activities were being monitored. The consensus being that to some extent, data breaches are not a big deal and that we’ve given up our privacy and ownership of personal data for “access” to social sites and apps that are supposedly helpful to our lives.  
But trends moving in opposite directions aren’t sustainable. Sooner or later, a data security breach of such magnitude will occur that consumers will very genuinely be scared out of their complacency. Imagine if some act of cyber terrorism undermined the US power grid, putting millions of us in the dark for days or even weeks? Or what if a massive digital identity theft scheme undermined the federal government’s ability to function as a distraction tactic or prelude to more serious violence?  
Backlash Whiplash? 
The trickle-down from such scenarios would have a chilling effect on many industries, including airlines and travel companies as well as advertisers and their third-party technology providers. If some of our most vital governmental and infrastructural institutions can be so easily undermined, how will airlines convince passengers that the more data they share with them, the better and more efficient a flying experience they will enjoy?  
Likewise, advertisers and retailers are some of the most aggressive collectors and users of big data metrics. If the data we as consumers readily relinquish to these companies isn’t made secure, in time our complacency will erode and the big data investment statics estimates mentioned above will fall flat. After all, retailers and advertisers were plenty profitable before the age of big data, anyway.  
As 2014 gathers momentum, it’s time airlines, advertisers and retailers become highly transparent about how the metrics they collect are being used, who that information is being shared with (or sold to) and what steps are being taken to ensure that personal information is as secure as possible.  
By many accounts, 2013 was a disturbing year in terms of data breaches. What the year ahead holds is really anyone’s guess.  
Except, perhaps, Edward Snowden.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Someone’s Got a Case of the Mondays: How to Motivate Employees With Games (Seriously!)

Playing games and the enjoyment of game play is part of the human experience. Throughout civilizations, humans have played games – for entertainment and storytelling. But games have never been just about fun, they have also been used throughout history for education, training, and other practical purposes. And this is still the case today.
When the British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt in 1922, he found among the many buried treasures several boards used to play the game of Senet. Apparently board games were very popular in ancient Egypt: scientists have found Senet boards that date back over 5,000 years.
Fast-forward 2,000 years (give or take a few), and we find ourselves in the fastest-paced society ever. Consumers are permanently connected to the Internet (and each other) through mobile devices and record numbers of marketing messages and distractions. So it’s no surprise that one of the most talked about engagement tactics of the past year has been gamification. This means using game dynamics like competition, collection of rewards such as points, badges or levels, and status on leaderboards to give consumers – and customers – a fun experience that taps into their love of games and keeps them engaged with the brand.
But while much has been written about how to harness the power of gamification to improve the customer experience, there hasn’t been much discussion about how gamification can help companies improve their employees’ experiences.
It’s true that work and play don’t go together very well in most employers’ minds. However, The Daedalus Project, which studied human behavior within the context of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), found that players are, in fact, honing work-related skills such as organizing teams, monitoring processes, assigning tasks and tracking budgets.
Who knew?
gamification_definitionThe Adweek article referenced above also cites a recent global survey by Gallup, which found that a whopping 90% of workers aren’t engaged with their jobs – and that disengagement is costing companies about $2 trillion in lost productivity.
Using Gamification Incentives as a Human Resources Strategy 
In an article for Forbes with predictions for 2014 in talent, leadership, and HR, Josh Bersin writes: “Today’s HR organization is no longer judged by its administrative efficiency – it is judged by its ability to acquire, develop, retain, and help manage talent. And more and more HR is being asked to become ‘Data-Driven’ – understand how to best manage people based on real data, not just judgment or good ideas.” Gamification is an excellent way for companies to tap into their employees’ personalities and interests while also gathering useful data.
Several experts agree that companies need to approach their corporate cultures from a gamified perspective in order to better engage their employees – much the same way they’re using gamification tactics to engage their customers.
I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to implement this kind of initiative at ThinkInk. Maybe create a leaderboard which shows who the fastest employee is? Or perhaps a special perk – say, a monetary bonus or a free lunch – for the employee who gets a thought leadership article or blog post or press release client-ready with the fewest rounds of edits.  Aaaaaahhhhh, the possibilities are endless.
The daily grind can sometimes leave employees feeling disengaged and listless, here at ThinkInk and at every other company. Perhaps if, as bosses and leaders of great teams, we can combine a play ethic with a work ethic, that daily grind can become less grinding and more fun.
It’s food for thought, at the very least.
Has your company implemented gamified initiatives to boost employee engagement? Have they been successful? Share your stories with us in the section below.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New Year’s Resolutions for PR Agencies: 6 Steps to Evolve the Perfect Client-Agency Relationship

In a perfect world, public relations would involve a simple relationship between client and agency. The client would respect and trust the PR agency to maximize opportunities and not just reduce risk. And the agency would make sure the client stays involved in strategies and decisions. Sadly, this is not always how things go in the PR world.
What lessons and resolutions can agencies and their clients take into the New Year to make public relations a smoother and more effective collaboration? Here are 6 steps:
1. Root the client- agency relationship in trust:  Building a strong foundation from the get-go is key to a dream relationship.  The client signed your agency for a reason. Know what that reason is good-pr-clientand make it the foundation of your relationship.
2. Figure out where your agency stands with the client: Is it more like a partnership or a division of roles? Will your agency be an extension of the client’s in-house team? Or is your agency playing more of a crisis management role?  Knowing the answers to these questions and relaying your expectations to the client leaves no room for doubt or unmet expectations.
3. Lay the groundwork for transparency, polite pushback and unvarnished feedback: PR is often about describing a client or their campaign in the best light possible.  Some call it spin. Whatever it’s called, the PR-client relationship must be robust enough to weather contentious moments when creative differences emerge. In the event of creative differences, it helps to remember that the client is challenging your ideas, not your agency.
4. How, Why, What, When, Where?:  We expect these questions from our clients, but why shouldn’t our clients expect the same questions from us? That means going beyond merely keeping clients in the loop. Explaining the process of why you are doing what you’re doing gives the client confidence in their choice. It’s important to remember that clients are not communications experts. That’s why they’ve recruited your PR firm to begin with. Therefore it’s critical that extra steps are taken to make sure clients feel like they are part of the PR process.
5. Ask questions:  It’s ok to go back to the client with questions if you are uncertain about any information provided. It doesn’t show weakness, but rather, it shows that you are thorough and committed to getting the job done right the first time.
6. Staying two steps ahead:  At any given point, you want to be two steps ahead of your client and their industry. More often than not clients need options and recommendations to determine what they don’t want. While that may be frustrating, keep in mind that they hired your agency. Listen to their needs and they’ll return the favor.
Ultimately, successful PR efforts come down to establishing a strong working relationship between the agency and client. Anyone in PR knows that some clients are harder to work with than others. What can distinguish your agency is how well you handle those challenges and still lead by example as PR professionals. The New Year is the perfect time to go the extra mile and break down these so-called barriers between agencies and clients.
What other recommendations would you add to this list to make the PR agency-client relationship stronger and more collaborative? Share your thoughts below.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Black Thursday: Forget the Turkey and Your Family and Go Buy More Stuff!!!

Will our ever-growing obsession with Buying More Stuff end up turning the entire 24-hour period now known as Thanksgiving Day into Black Thursday?

Probably. And how depressing. At least The Miami Herald’s brilliant political cartoonist, Jim Morin, managed to convey the craziness with a little humor.

Last year, major retailers including Walmart, Toys R’ US and Target threw their doors open on November 22nd to throngs of holiday deal-hunters. Consumers by the millions shook off the post-turkey tryptophan lethargy and dashed away shortly after Thanksgiving dinner, afraid of missing bargains on the most in-demand gift items.

And that meant possibly hundreds of thousands of low-paid employees had to forsake their family celebration to be on retail sales floors, ready to smile and cheerfully risk a serious bodily injury to greet the oncoming stampede. Take a look at this disturbing video of a mob scene inside a Walmart store as crazed shoppers nearly climb over one another, screaming and having tugs-of-war over marked-down smartphones. 

Looks like a cattle round-up gone horribly awry, doesn’t it? Well, it also looks like this year a handful of sensible retailers are saying no to the insanity and keeping their stores closed until it’s actually Black Friday.

Apple CEO Tim Cook recently announced that, with the exception of three stores in New York City, Las Vegas and Hawaii, all Apple stores will be closed on Thanksgiving so employees can relax and spend the holiday with their families. Several other retailers, including Nordstrom, Costco, Marshall’s and Home Depot have also decided to buck the Black Thursday trend.

“Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that it’s an easy decision to make,” BJ’s Wholesale Club CEO Laura Sen told the Huffington Post, adding that workers deserve “a nice holiday with their families.”

Amen to that. How about just being thankful for what we already have?

Now, I can put on my marketing hat and acknowledge that yes, stores need to remain competitive and yes, the period between Black Friday and Christmas Eve is by far the most important of the year for retailers. In fact, for some, it represents between 20-40% of annual sales, according to the National Retail Federation.

Furthermore, putting in long, grueling work hours during the holiday shopping season has always been a fact of life for retail employees because that’s just the nature of the beast. And they know that.

But isn’t it enough that most big retailers already open at 12 a.m. on Black Friday? Giving employees those few extra hours to enjoy their Thanksgiving feast with loved ones doesn’t seem like too much to concede.

Last year Brendan O’Kane, CEO of OtherLevels (a ThinkInk client), mused in a guest post on Retail Merchandiser – after reading that Macy’s would be open around the clock the weekend before Christmas – about the possibility of a holiday shopping season where stores just don’t close at all.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this scenario actually becomes real within a few years.

And on that wildly cheerful note, I and the whole ThinkInk staff would like to wish our readers and clients a beautiful and peaceful Thanksgiving holiday close to their families and far from the madding crowd at the mall.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is Customer Loyalty Earned, Bought or Both?

"Why was God able to create heaven and earth in seven days and seven nights? Because he didn't have installed customers and legacy technology to worry about." – Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit.

That’s what Smith told Fast Company earlier in the year when he was pondering this question: How do you actually move an existing group of customers from what they fell in love with to the next thing that could be great?

What he’s specifically talking about is near-field communications (NFC), a technology that uses a low-power radio signal to transmit information between two devices – such as a point-of-sale system and a consumer’s smartphone – and enables consumers to take actions such as making payments simply by tapping their phones against a terminal. I’ve written about NFC quite a lot, as well.
Mobile marketing pundits have been trumpeting NFC as the next big thing for several years, but as recently as September 2013 only 18% of American smartphone users owned an NFC-enabled device. And that’s primarily because tapping a phone isn’t all that different from swiping a card or handing over cash. 

In other words, consumers have been so well conditioned to using cards (prepaid, debit or credit) that it’s difficult to get them to embrace a new technology that requires them to change their habits – and there’s a similar dynamic in loyalty.

Loyalty program engagement has dropped 4.3% since 2010, but program memberships have continued to climb – there are 2.65 billion of them in the US alone! Clearly, consumers are used to joining loyalty programs, but when they find them unengaging, they stop using them, remaining members in name only. 

Not exactly a recipe for lasting brand loyalty, is it? Brands need to earn their customers’ goodwill and repeat business. That means communicating with them through their preferred channels and taking the necessary steps to know their wants and needs and so give them rewards that add actual value to their lives.

ThinkInk works with some loyalty companies that really get this.

For instance, Toronto-based Points, runs a virtual loyalty wallet where members can track, trade and redeem a variety of rewards currencies in one convenient location. Not only do consumers have more freedom to use their rewards how they want to, participating brands get to share some of their customer data for a clear picture of customer wants and needs that allows the brands to make relevant offers.

Another company, Kula Causes, built an online platform where brands can allow their loyal program members to convert unused points or miles into cash donations to the charitable organizations that mean most to them (there’s over 2.5 million to choose from!)
In this case, Kula’s partner brands, which include JetBlue and Kellogg’s, earn their loyalty members’ “brand love” – and longer-lasting business relationships – by acting as conduits for those customers’ charitable instincts.

We’re also lucky enough to work with Kobie Marketing, an award-winning loyalty marketing firm that has built many of the world’s most successful customer loyalty and CRM programs for brands including Verizon, AMC Theatres, TGI Fridays, BJs Restaurant & Brewhouse and Royal Bank of Canada. They were recently selected as a leader in customer loyalty services for the second time by Forrester Research, Inc. The findings were published as part of a comprehensive assessment of customer loyalty program service providers in the Forrester Wave™: Loyalty Program Service Providers, Q4 2013. The recognition showcases Kobie Marketing as a loyalty industry innovator while underscoring how companies such as Kobie help brands build programs that track, understand, reward and grow customer value and engagement. Go Kobie!!

Another client, the Fuel Rewards Network is a free rewards program that significantly cuts consumers fuel costs. Members of the FRN program are rewarded at the pump and through their regular purchases at local grocery stores, restaurants and online retailers with cents-per-gallon off savings that can then be redeemed at Shell gas stations around the country. In just over a year, the Fuel Rewards Network has saved Americans more than $240 million in fuel costs with members saving an average of .28¢ on every gallon. All of us at ThinkInk have enrolled in the program – and it’s open to everyone. Visit to learn more.

Last but not least is PointsHound. PointsHound, which launched in beta in October 2012, is a new type of online hotel booking site that caters to the coveted and valuable frequent traveler demographic by offering an unprecedented rate of airline, hotel and retail rewards for every hotel stay booked on the site, at more than 150,000 properties around the globe. Travelers can choose to earn points and miles with a growing roster of 12 loyalty rewards programs, including American Airlines AAdvantage, My Best Buy, Flying Blue and Virgin America Elevate when making their hotel reservations at

You could argue that customer loyalty is bought with discounts – and that’s true if we’re talking about a program that incentivizes exactly the same behaviors without being imaginative and thinking about the whole customer experience. And in an age of diminishing loyalty engagement, the overall experience is more important than ever to earn and keep a customer’s ‘brand love.’

So, while it’s actually some of both, I’m of the opinion that the best and most powerful loyalty is earned by brands that go the extra mile to better know their customers and give them the kind of true value that can drive those relationships for a lifetime.

If you belong to a loyalty program – and chances are you do – how does the brand earn your “love,” if at all? What experiences have enhanced or diminished your brand loyalty? Share your stories with us below.

Friday, November 8, 2013

A David versus Goliath Battle Comes to Adland, But will Goliath Win?

Every high schooler can recite Newton’s third law of motion: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

But it’s a rule that applies far beyond physics classrooms. In the advertising world, an attempt at an equal and opposite reaction to this past summer’s mega-merger of Omnicom Group and Publicis Groupe, now Publicis-Omnicom and the world’s largest advertising agency, is already under way.

Like the Alliance of Small Island States or any “big guy versus little guy” organization, several small to mid-sized advertising agencies including Chi & Partners, its media operation M Six, customer relationship shop Rapier, PR agency Halpern and social shop The Social Practice have begun to push back by creating their own joint holding company called The & Partnership, according to AdAge.

Headed by Chi & Partners CEO Johnny Hornby with a North American arm run by Proximity CEO Andrew Bailey (formerly of Proximity Worldwide, an Omnicom company), the new conglomerate is a recognition that small and medium-sized advertising agencies risk losing clients and being squeezed out of the market as mega mergers like Publicis-Omnicom become more common. In reaction, small agencies are fighting fire with fire. 

But are mid-sized mergers really the right solution?

Media analyst and blogger Don Cole doesn’t think so and I agree to an extent. He fears that small to mid-sized agencies won’t have the staffing, creative talent and big data resources to be truly appealing to larger (and more profitable) clients. In the end, mid-sized mergers are like pooling the skills of several minor league baseball teams. More players don’t mean more capabilities. If anything, he cautions, cost cutting (read: layoffs) will be first on their agenda. In this scenario, the Goliath that Publicis-Omnicom has become (and the others that follow) wins out over the smaller Davids.

So if mini mergers aren’t the solution, what is? It’s not as black and white as Don Coles sees it. To return to my baseball analogy, not all minor league players stay minor league forever. Some do make it to the majors. And “making it to the majors” is what all advertising and PR agencies aspire to achieve. While one route to that success is, of course, growing large (and influential) enough to be bought by a conglomerate such as Publicis-Omnicom, another way is to continuously recruit new, young talent and also become expert in specific niche communication fields. That’s what we’re doing at ThinkInk.

It’s important to remember that smaller agencies aren’t devoid of assets. At smaller shops there is often less process, less bureaucracy and less confusion over who has the authority to do what. Small agencies are nimble and can better respond to client crises, when they inevitably occur.

As for The & Partnership, you can be bet adland will be watching its success or failure as closely as it’s watching Publicis-Omnicom. The David and Goliath ad agency battle is just heating up and it’s anyone’s guess which side will win.