Curation Is The New Aggregation

As 2010 comes to a close I’m betting many marketing communications professionals have had a challenging year hitting their goals. Organizations that I work with all express a desire to attract more customers, members, engagement, donations, etc. in 2011. One strategy that keeps coming up as a means to accomplish this is to bolster efforts to become the ‘go to’ place on the web for all the information stakeholders need about a product, service or issue. What this generally translates to is a bigger, richer, denser website–full of information, media and links, created, collected and fed from around the web.

This is all well and good, but it isn’t necessarily going to help reach the goals listed above, even if the effort is undertaken with more gusto next year. There are organizations that envision themselves as central content hubs, with others providing them funds, attention, time and patronage as needed because of their hub status. The danger of this worldview is that it's at odds with the realities of a society that’s both energized and exhausted by social media and connectedness. As Seth Godin points out in Linchpin, being the information hub is no longer a differentiator because anyone can now find and learn almost everything–and then some–on the Internet. Plus, other organizations are just as busy generating and collecting content based on their own needs and interests; creating a glut of information on the web, much of it overlapping and all of it competing for people’s attention. Web 2.0 technologies have given organizations the ability to collect and share content easily. This can be stimulating, but it can also become repetitive and tiresome.

Smart brands know that they must figure out how to integrate to be relevant in a socially connected world but not overwhelm or fatigue their constituents in the process.

One way to do this is to take a step back and analyze the usefulness of the content being aggregated. Mechanized “more” is not necessarily better–it’s far more powerful when organizations use their expertise to make selective choices about what’s relevant and what will engage their core audiences. This is where the art of curation comes in. If aggregation is about collecting content somewhat indiscriminately, curation––very much a human, and sometimes time consuming, endeavor ––is about choosing content; it’s condensing overwhelming complexity into easily digestible, enjoyable and useful chunks. Or as Tom Foresnki puts it, “curation versus aggregation represents human web versus machine web.”

As the web evolves, people will increasingly look to the people behind the organizations that they have relationships with and trust them to make choices about what content they get to see based on the things they care about and the depth of their interest levels. The organizations that have success in 2011 might just be those that can delight their constituents by being good curators for them. One caveat about curating: the right to deliver anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who want to get them has to be earned. It's power comes with permission.

Aggregation will still have its place, (any organization that hasn’t developed the expertise needed to set up the automated collection of specific content on their website should make it mission critical for 2011), but to have added value, there should be a layer of curation over it so that it's more selective and customized; as the web evolves, it’s part of what customers will come to know and trust a brand for.

Regardless of whether it’s aggregated or curated, all website content requires a strategy that aligns with the larger organizational goals. It's critical to know why content is being put together, who will use it and how they will use it; whether constituents are able to get it somewhere else; what the internal staffing implications are for managing it and what the potential outcomes might be.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

6 Ways Holiday Cards Can Be Strategic CommunicationsTools

The holiday cards started arriving in the mail today. For the next few weeks they’ll show up in clusters, hitting peak volume about seven to ten days from now. Even though direct mail spend has been trending down, there's evidence to suggest that people are still very responsive to this type of printed advertising. Judging by the increased activity in my mailbox already, it's clear that holiday cards aren't going away anytime soon and are something that most companies will consider this year as part of their direct marketing mix.

As I’ve written before, the simple gesture of sending a card–whether it’s for the holidays, to acknowledge someone’s birthday or just to say thank you–can go a long way in fostering positive relationships between a business and its customers. Cards show the recipient how important they are and reinforce for them why they do business with a company.

The problem with holiday cards, is that even though they’re a necessary marketing expense, it can be difficult to justify the expenditure of time and money it takes to produce them, especially if they aren’t doing a good job of furthering the goal of helping keep the company top of mind when it’s time to make the next purchase decision or donation. In this current economic climate, when many marketers are opting for smaller mailings to select stakeholders, or even sending e-cards, how can they be sure to make this tool work strategically for them?

Set A Goal
As with any advertising, there should always be a specific goal for the piece. Perhaps it’s to update the organization’s mailing list, for example. If that’s the case, it may be worth the extra investment to use the mailing to get notified of any bounces or returned mail, address changes, etc. Or maybe it's to build name recognition with certain customers that haven't been in contact for a while. The card could then serve as an opportunity to put the business' name out there again, along with the website. Whatever the goal, it should be quantifiable and measurable in some way.


If 'everyone' is sending out holiday cards it makes sense to try and approach the project in a different way. Caldecott Properties, a San Francisco bay area real estate brokerage firm, sent me a “Happy Thanksgiving” card over two weeks ago; a full week before the actual holiday. While their card was fairly standard from a design perspective, the fact that they had the foresight to get out ahead of the pack by sending their card earlier than most, (and choosing a different holiday than most businesses do), made their piece of mail jump out from the usual bills and publications in my mailbox much more than it would have had they sent it this week or next. Try to do something different than everyone else: perhaps a "New Years" greeting would be more appropriate?

Don’t sell, acknowledge
Some marketers recommend placing coupons, etc. in holiday cards. As I’ve said before, I don’t think it’s a good idea to put an ‘ask’ for more business in a card, even if it is indirect and disguised as a benefit. The card should be sent purely to acknowledge the relationship with the recipient. One exception to this could be to offer a small, downloadable gift (not to be confused with a discount offer!) as a token of thanks that could be obtained from the company website, thereby creating a way to measure response rate.

Make it memorable
Cards should be designed to visually appeal to the audience so they don’t just become throwaways. People are more likely to hold onto a piece of direct mail (which it goes without saying should have contact information on it for future reference) if it’s beautifully designed or has some functional value. Another idea would be to use the card to make an announcement (new office? New campaign?) Getting useful information that they might need later gives recipients another reason to hold onto the card.

Use it as an opportunity to partner

Purchasing cards from a charitable organization or non-profit is a great way to do some small scale cause marketing by making a donation that’s tax deductible. Customers like to know that their desire to make the world a better place is shared by the organizations they do business with. This will also potentially help customers feel good about partnerships the business has with other organizations. There are plenty of great looking charity cards available, which, depending on how a recipient list is segmented, could also make the card more memorable or worthwhile. If, for budget reasons, an e-card is more cost-effective, it could be purchased from an environmental organization and positioned as a choice to mitigate negative environmental impact.

Measure the ROI
The emotional return on investment – how warm and fuzzy customers feel about the organization – is something that all organizations should measure whenever possible. Since a holiday card is not technically an acquisition tool there aren't many way to measure its impact aside from the idea already stated above. Businesses who manage to get their cards out in the midst of the busy end of year season tend to come across as organized and timely and these positive feelings might help influence purchasing/donation decisions later. One way to measure this would be to include questions about customer's perceptions of the card as part of larger attitudinal surveys.

Finally, what should a holiday card say?

Start with the truth. Customers appreciate authenticity. They don't all celebrate the exact same holidays so a card going out at the end of the year should most likely have a generic greeting in it. Be sure to check the customs of any international clients: as always, a little research can save on embarrassment.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

A Quick Review Of Jumo, The New Social Network For Non-Profits

Relationship maps have developed and continue to deepen all over the web: Facebook maps our personal relationships, Yelp maps our relationship with local businesses, Amazon maps our relationships to products. Jumo, a new social media network, which launched in BETA today, maps the relationships between people and non profit organizations. It's an attempt by creator Chris Hughes (who co-founded Facebook) to foster more long-term and sustainable relationships between people and organizations that are working to make a difference.

Steve Mclaughlin provides a very thorough overview of Jumo, so I wont go into too much detail here, suffice to say that the platform is broken up into three main components: Find, Follow and Support. Jumo helps the user find non-profit organizations by learning the types of things that interest them and making suggestions. The site then helps users follow those organizations by receiving a stream of updates about the work they’re doing and how that work is affecting real people. When they're ready, Jumo helps users support the organizations with which they’ve built a relationship.

After setting up an account and playing with it briefly this morning, here's my first impressions, typical buggy issues aside. 

It allows people and organizations to build a more organic connection with one another.
The donate button on many non profit websites can often be intrusive and email calls to action are sometimes insistent and urgent, all of which can be off putting for many potential supporters and make them feel like they are viewed as little more then an ATM machine. Jumo just might help organizations that aren't too savvy about this move to where they now need to be–in an era where relationships must be forged and cultivated first before a financial ask for support is made.  

It integrates nicely with other social media platforms and devices.
Jumo helps the end-user see all of a non profit's social media otposts in one place to get a complete picture of their digital presence. It also streams conveniently to people wherever they are, be that email, Facebook, mobile or elsewhere.

We're all somewhat unnerved by the plethora of options now available to us in the promotional mix and here's another social network for non profit marketers to worry about. So, is it worth jumping on the bandwagon yet?

Hughes has said that he sees this helping out small non profits that don't have a lot of resources to devote to their social media presence. In her Los Angeles Times article yesterday, Jessica Guynn wrote that "the site could potentially benefit smaller charities which don't have in-house social media experts." Unless I'm missing something, I don't see this. Each non profit still has to spend time creating their Jumo profile and must continue adding content to all their other media outposts in order for it to be aggregated on Jumo, so it's not really a time saver for them. The benefit, as I said earlier, is for the end-user who gets to see all the content in one place. The real benefit for small non profits will come when Jumo starts making user segmentation information available to them, assuming they can afford to pay for it.

Ultimately, there's no guarantee that all of this activity will bolster a non profit's social capital sufficiently to lead to donations of time and or money. Money quote from McLaughlin in today's New York Times piece about Jumo:
"It’s still not clear whether or not followers translate to volunteers and donors. But people that are more engaged with nonprofits are most likely to become a donor or support them in another way."
Users who may be suffering from social media fatigue could be reluctant to adopt one more social network but if anyone can pull this off, Hughes may be the man. Aside from his stint at Facebook he was also the former director of online organizing for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. Whether this network will succeed and take off, where others like Yahoo For Good and GlobalGiving have failed to soar, remains to be seen.

Hughes’ presentation at the Social Good Summit earlier this year below.

mashable on Broadcast Live Free

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

What Marathon Running And Business Have In Common, Ctd

Dean Karnazes talks to Forbes, as part of their Sales Leadership video series, about how to apply lessons learned from running to sales and marketing. Watch the video.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Marketing Campaign Case Study: How The President Of The United States Helped Slurpee

The best marketing communications professionals think on their feet, mobilize rapidly and do it in an authentic way that aligns with their brand image and delights their customers. I’m impressed by what the Slurpee team did in the last few weeks with their Unity Tour marketing campaign, which wrapped up a two-week-long cross-country journey from Dallas to Washington D.C. on Thursday.

Here's 6 things they did right with this campaign:

They were nimble enough to seize a great opportunity quickly
The genesis of the tour began during the heated rhetoric of the 2010-midterm elections, when President Obama used an analogy about Republicans sipping on Slurpees while Democrats get the car –aka the nation–out of the ditch. This was manna from heaven for the Slurpee marketing team and they jumped right in to capitalize on it; White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs maintained that 7-Eleven (coyly, I'm sure) "declined to comment specifically that Slurpees were a Republican drink."

They created a campaign that is not only clever but upbeat and positive
The day after the elections, Bloomberg reporter Hans Nichols jokingly asked President Obama if he would have John Boehner and other Republican leaders over for a "Slurpee Summit." The President laughed and then quipped that Slurpees are delicious drinks and that he might very well serve Slurpees during the conversation with leaders from both parties.

Slurpee launched a new grape flavored slush drink to take on a nationwide tour called "purple for the people." The color was chosen based on the idea of mixing red for Republicans and blue for Democrats in hopes the parties would work together in passing legislation on the Hill.

They combined social media and traditional marketing seamlessly
The national tour, documented with video, was replete with special offers, customer interaction, and giveaways, and was complemented beautifully by humorous and authentic social media marketing that represented the latest trends in marketing.

They maintained a strong and consistent brand voice
Throughout the campaign, whether it was on the website, various social media outposts, or in comments they made to the media, Slurpee found exactly the right tone and stuck with it.

They were not afraid to be real
Slurpee gave people an insider look into the tour with some behind the scenes footage.

They made sure the campaign was consistent with the personality of the product
These slightly tongue-in-cheek comments from 7-Eleven Marketing Manager, Daniel May, show how Slurpee doesn’t take itself too seriously. The team knows the product is fun and is willing to take some risks:

"We are hoping there will be a Slurpee summit…The tour has sent formal invitations to everybody and everybody is welcome…We truly hope there is one and if they want Slurpees there, we will make sure to bring them."

All of this obviously caught the attention of the media. Here's video below of some news coverage of the President's comments.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

What Marathon Running And Business Have In Common

Barring some life circumstances and various states of injury I've been a devoted runner my whole adult life. Until recently, a half marathon was the longest distance I'd ever run; I'd always had my sights set on a marathon but couldn't commit to the time needed. Once I sent my youngest kid off to college a year ago, I began serious training and completed The Marine Corps Marathon with my friend and running partner, Amy Keller, in October. 

It's often said that the hardest part of running a marathon is training for one. It's also said that the first 20 miles on race day are just a warm-up for the last 6.2. Both of these truisms were definitely the case in my experience. There’s no faking it–you have to pay your dues and put in the time and discipline and run to the training schedule. Ultimately that's the only way to get good enough and strong enough to complete the race. And on race day it takes both smarts and determination to get over the finish line.

There's a lot to be learned when we physically push ourselves in this way. The strength and confidence gleaned from stretching to accomplish extraordinary things carries over into how we live up to the challenges of our professional lives; lessons learned from athletics can just as easily be applied to business. Some days the job is easy, other days extremely painful. Knowing when to conserve energy and when to go for broke is a key skill whether you're participating in endurance events, trying to ship a product or ensure a non-profit's sustainability. In all cases it's important to keep your eye on the future and your longer term goal in mind while preventing burnout in the present moment. In business, just like long distance running, you need people you can trust will be there for you when you're losing steam and you need to be there for people, even when you may want to zoom out ahead–teamwork is important, even for solo endeavors. And once a particular race is over it's not possible to rest on your laurels because you have to get out and run again or risk falling back on what you've gained.

Someone who understands all of this well is ultramarathon runner and businessman Dean Karnazes. Dean has pushed his body and mind to inconceivable limits: he ran 135 miles nonstop across Death Valley, CA in 120°F temperatures, and ran a marathon to the South Pole at −40°F. He completed a feat that is staggering to comprehend for ‘normal’ marathon runners like myself: running 50 marathons, in all 50 U.S. states, in 50 consecutive days, finishing with the New York City Marathon, which he completed in three hours and thirty seconds. Most recently he won the 4 Deserts Race, a series of 7 day ultramarathons across some of the harshest conditions on the planet. 4 Deserts has been called the ultimate test of human endurance. Needless to say, he’s a very inspiring person.

Earlier this week I attended the excellent North Face Speaker Series to hear Dean talk. Here’s a few fun facts that Dean, who Men’s Fitness magazine called “quite possibly the fittest man on the planet” shared with us:

•    Researchers found that he is, quite literally, made to run–his biomechanics are perfect and his body pushes out lactic acid (the bane of any endurance athlete’s existence) the more he runs
•    Unless he’s running or sleeping he stands. He finds sitting “tiring”
•    He can sleep while running if he has to
•    His idea of a good day is to run a marathon distance before he makes breakfast for his kids and takes them to school

The guy is clearly in a league of his own. But, Deans asserts that he’s just an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things.

Not surprisingly, Dean isn’t just good at running; he’s also a successful entrepreuner who holds graduate degrees in Science and Business. He’s worked for Fortune 500 companies and startups and founded a natural foods company of which he remains president to this day. Like many famous athletes, he’s put his celebrity to good use and has founded a non-profit organization. It’s called Karno Kids and raises awareness about childhood fitness and activity. I’m guessing that this philanthropic venture benefits greatly not only from his business acumen, but from his proven ability to excel in a competitive, and often challenging world.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Save "Save The Words", Ctd

Harkin responds to my blog post and makes an excellent point (italics mine):
When I said the campaign shimmered, I meant the idea. I meant the logocentricity of the site. And I forgot that, as a linguistic type, I am easily blinded by words. I was so busy drinking in obscure words I almost choked on the interface, architecture, and execution.
Thank goodness I work with great graphic designers, web coders, interface and architecture experts, and visual creatives who can point out the importance about things beyond my linguistic world. Because the synergy between words people and picture people is where great branding really happens.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Save "Save The Words": A Quick Marketing Case Study

If you spend any time on the web and are connected to relatively erudite people (aren’t we all?), chances are you’ve been sent the link to Save The Words, a new website developed by marketing communications company Y&R's Singapore office. Save The Words is an advertising campaign created to stimulate sales of the latest version of the Oxford English Dictionary in Malaysia.

There’s a reason the site has gone viral–it’s creative and cute. Users can choose and “adopt” a word to keep it alive or just click on words and learn their meanings. When they find a word they like enough to adopt, they promise to use the word, “in conversation and correspondence, as frequently as possible.” There’s even an option to purchase a t-shirt with the chosen word on it.

Verbal branding consultant and word expert Christine Harkin enthuses that it “simply shimmers with brilliance” and “greets its audience with a protest-connoting march of signs which all cluster in the foreground and beg readers, “pick me!” While I agree with Ms. Harkin (disclosure: I have worked with Ms. Harkin previously and she’s an esteemed colleague) that this is a clever idea, I can’t get quite as worked up about it as she does because the execution, from a communications and web usability standpoint, diminishes my experience. Plus, I’m not fully on board with the strategy either.

Here’s what’s bothering me:

The Flash-based design will be difficult for some computers and mobile users. Flash also makes deep-linking impossible and individual words unsharable – a tragic missed opportunity in today’s social world.

Designers love small font sizes and light grey type but it’s impossible to read, especially for older people who read and write a lot and love words (aka the site’s target audience). The fixed font size on the site is not only deadly for older eyes, it's a usability no-no for the disabled too. On the FAQ page, the link to the Facebook group doesn’t go to Facebook, but to the Oxford Press online store; creating possible confusion and frustration for users.

The red arrows that indicate that the screen moves in all directions are so small that it’s hard to see them. Plus there’s no language to tell users that the screen can move in all directions. The main navigation is extremely small and hard to read. Also, two words–no search.

It’s assumed the user will figure things out by clicking around which quickly becomes a tiresome exercise. Not answering users questions - such as what this site is about or specifically where they can buy a dictionary is frustrating. If users are searching for an interesting word to help them say a particular thing there’s no thesaurus function to help them do that. What’s also missing are some fun facts about word usage and the dictionary–the brand image and relationship with the Oxford English Dictionary isn't really being strengthened here.

Registering and Lack of Social Interaction

It’s clear from a marketing perspective why users are required to register but it can be a turnoff for some people, especially since there’s no apparent reason here why they should have to. If user information is being collected it should be integrated on the site to show people who've adopted words and it should be fun and social–read Facebook and Twitter–in terms of who has taken on the most words, etc. 

“One of the problems we were facing,” says Creative Director Edward Ong, who reportedly came up with the idea in a bar with friends after work, “is that many people prefer to use the online dictionary. So we thought, why not get them to develop a love for words online and push them back to the physical dictionary?” Aside from a brief mention in the FAQ section the website does little to push users back to the physical dictionary or reward them for using one. I wonder if it’s actually doing the opposite by allowing them to fall into the web again.

Ong claims that there have been 3 million website mentions of this site and a 12 percent increase in sales of the dictionary since the campaign launched so the things that are irksome for me about this site may not be an issue for most people. I've certainly seen some interesting words get slung about on the internet this past week and anything that helps increase awareness of the richness of our language can only be a good thing.

Y&R, (formally Young and Rubicam), is an industry giant so I expect them to know and implement the best practices for marketing communications and web usability. I'd like to see them come up with some social media strategies to encourage use of the dictionary and/or thesaurus offline (Youtube anyone?). Hopefully they can continue to improve on the site; it could become a great resource for people and help bridge the gap between surfing the web and the tactile and delicious experience of leafing through a "real" dictionary.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Take A Non-Profit Executive Leadership Survey

CompassPoint needs nonprofit executive directors and CEOs to complete their Daring to Lead research survey before the deadline on next Friday, Nov 19.

Daring to Lead helps the sector understand the career paths, tenure, challenges, and professional development needs of nonprofit executive directors.The first two Daring to Lead studies, published in 2001 and 2006, are some of the highest-impact research on nonprofits and leadership available.

It takes just 20 minutes to participate. Please pass this along to the executive directors you know.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

What Major Retailers Are Missing Out On This Veterans Day

Everywhere today, people are acknowledging the fact that it's Veterans Day and talking about how much they value and appreciate the service of the men and women in our armed forces. Everywhere except, it seems, the marketing departments of major retailers. This morning I looked at the top 10 U.S. retailers' websites to see what they were saying about Veterans Day and if they were running any promotions for veterans. Not sales for the rest of us, but discounts that benefit veterans and veterans alone. The results are mostly disappointing and somewhat surprising.

Here's the rundown:

Rank #1: Walmart
No acknowledgement of Veterans Day.

Rank #2: Kroger
There's a clickable link to tell us to remember veterans.

When you click on it, however, the company merely toots it's own horn about what a veteran friendly employer it is. No promotions for veterans.

Rank #3: The Home Depot
The Home Depot does fairly well. When you click on the flag on the homepage it takes you to a page that acknowledges the holiday and thanks veterans for their service. Home Depot has a year round veteran discount program but nothing special for the holiday.


Rank #4: Costco
No acknowledgment of Veterans Day.

Rank #5: Target
No acknowledgment of Veterans Day.

Rank #6: Walgreens
No acknowledgment of Veterans Day.

Rank #7: CVS Caremark
No acknowledgment of Veterans Day.

Rank #8: Lowes
Lowes does well. It's promotion is communicated clearly and it's generous to boot - it's extended to both current military personnel, veterans and their family members.

Rank #9: Sears Holdings
Sears offers a 3 day sales promotion, but it's for everyone, not specifically for veterans and it doesn't thank veterans for their service.


Rank #10: BestBuy
No acknowledgment of Veterans Day.

While it's not in the top 10, Kmart is another notable offender who cynically offers sales for the rest of us (with no words of thanks), but nothing in particular for veterans or their families.

It's hard for me to believe that there isn't money in these retailers' budgets to offer some sort of promotion for servicemen and women. I'm also pretty sure that their marketing communications staff could be nimble enough to add something to their websites today so that, at the very least, they are acknowledging today's significance to their customers; many of whom, I'm sure, are military families. So I'm nonplussed. What a missed opportunity to strategically drive sales and simultaneously improve their brand images while strengthening relationships with their customers.

Schools are closed, government workers are sitting at home in their fuzzy slippers and National Parks have opened their gates to the general public. A day off from work or school or a chance to visit one of the country's most beautiful spots is great for those of us that can benefit from it, but many of our vets are still going to work today because they have to put food on the table. And for some, that can be a real struggle. Is Veterans Day really about veterans or is it more about the rest of us? In this economy especially, doesn't it make sense that marketers should offer veterans something to acknowledge their service that will impact their pocketbooks?

UPDATE: At least some of the restaurant sector seems to get it. Allison Linn offers a list on her blog over at MSNBC of some major restaurant chains that are offering deals and giveaways to active military personnel, veterans and their families.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

Guidelines For Using Photos As Web Content

Back when I started this blog, I made the conscious decision not to include images unless they were directly illustrative of the point I was trying to make. Flash forward a few months later and if I'm not writing a case study I’ve found myself starting to use images to ‘pretty up’ most, if not all, of my posts. Research by web usability guru Jakob Nielsen indicates that I should have stuck with my original plan.

Nielsen’s eyetracking studies document a dramatic gap in how users approach website (and blog) images. Here’s the major takeaways:

1. Some types of pictures are completely ignored by web users
This is typically the case for big feel-good images that are purely decorative.

2. Other types of pictures are treated as important content and scrutinized
Photos of products and real people (as opposed to stock photos of models) often fall into this category.

3. Visual bloat annoys users

Even with high-speed Internet connections and sub-second download times, users still prefer websites that focus on the information they want, rather than images and visual design, especially when they are using smartphones.

According to Nielsen (whose website is an exemplary model of web usability), pictures can make a positive difference to the user experience in some cases. In e-commerce for example, product photos help users understand products and differentiate between similar items. On corporate and personal websites and blogs users want to see the person or team behind the site, organization or company.

What it comes down to is that users pay attention to information-carrying images that show content that's relevant to the task at hand. They ignore purely decorative images that don't add real content to the page.

Aside from these practical tips there’s a larger lesson for communications professionals here. As marketers we sometimes get sidetracked and try to give our customers what we think they should want as opposed to what they really need. We usually have the best intentions–we want to delight our customers–but it can have the unintended consequence of negatively impacting their brand experience. Graphic design should always be used judiciously and only in service of the goal we're trying to accomplish, not the other way around.

I’ll admit it, I got seduced by the power of visual assets and graphic design. I was worried about what marketer Lauren Girardin calls the deadly “nothing but text” screen. Plus, social media guru Chris Brogan, in a great post about blogging best practices, says that "using pictures makes the posts pop". But Nielsen reminded me that while blogs are a unique form of website, they are websites nonetheless and normal website usability guidelines apply to them too. From here on in, I'll be following his blog usability guidelines to the letter.

What do you think? Do images enhance your user experience on this blog or would you rather do without them unless they are directly adding to the content value or brand experience?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

What's Your Marketing Approach?

Image: Louderthanadam

You can be cynical in your approach to marketing or you can be generous.

I went through 4 airports in as many days this past weekend and had to pay to get on the Internet at every one except Denver International, which gives free (and fast) access to passengers. The exchange? Watch a twenty-second ad by the wi-fi sponsor.

I don’t have the numbers in front of me, so I can’t judge whether it’s a better decision financially to nickel and dime every passenger at the airport who wants to get on their laptop, or accept sponsorship dollars from a corporation so they can put an ad of their choosing in front of every customer before they can surf the web.

What I do know is which decision would make an airport authority come out looking more generous, even while they’re getting paid for being so.

Do it right, and being generous can be a win-win all around.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

Customer Experience Impressions From Travel

We don’t give much credence to what we’re being told unless it lines up with what we see in action.

The hotel guest information book tells me you want me to enjoy my stay, but if I have to walk outside the hotel and find the bell boy myself so I can get my luggage, I don’t believe you want me to enjoy my stay.

The signs all over the airport tell me you take my safety seriously but if I see your male employees snickering when your female employee pats me down for a body search, I don’t believe you take my safety seriously.

The in-flight video (from the CEO himself, no less) tells me you care about my customer experience, but if I’m standing at the back of the plane and I hear your employees complaining about their customers, I don’t believe you care about my customer experience.

Next time you think no-one is watching, or think no-one will notice or care, think again.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

Social Media and Politics

Image: Mashable

When I was a kid, it was practically impossible to get away with being naughty and even harder to lie my way out of it when I'd done something wrong. My grandmother, who babysat me after school while my mom was at work, would knowingly say, "the truth always finds it's way out", and my mother, ever her daughter, would build on that with, "tell the truth, because you’ll be found out eventually." My husband’s mother always told him growing up, “don’t do anything that you wouldn’t mind being splashed on the front page of your local newspaper.” Wise women–all of them. And now, more than ever, aphorisms to live by.

Social Media makes it hard to get away with anything. It's in our nature to want to exaggerate or pretend to be something we aren't to advance an agenda, but today’s world is a tricky place to do that. Both individuals and organizations need to be careful what they disseminate on websites and other outposts because people are paying attention, and, let's face it, most of us dislike being lied to. It's human nature to want to call out falsehoods when we see them and social media gives us the perfect outlet to do that. I think we feel just as strongly, if not more, about hypocrisy, lying's ugly sibling. So why then, aren’t people more careful about what they do behind closed doors or about representing themselves to be something they aren’t?

I am convinced that most people–regardless of their age–haven’t fully grappled with the reach of the Internet yet. Social media is still fairly new and technology in general is moving faster and changing our lives in more ways than we can wrap our heads around. (It might even outpace us soon; Kevin Kelly's latest book What Technology Wants has great insight into this.) Attitudes, while slowly changing in regards to what’s acceptable to publicize and what isn’t (and what it all means about a person’s character), still haven't adjusted to the reality of the information age in which every detail of our lives is suddenly fair game.

A large part of the job in communications used to entail controlling the message and the public personae of the leaders that we represented. Thanks to the explosion of social media, reputation management has become somewhat more challenging. We are all now public figures–the CEOs of our own lives and reputations–even when we're not officially working, and it can be difficult to keep things off the record. Anything we say or do in private can easily be used to besmirch us.

The people who are struggling the most with this are the boomer and x generations. Millenials, on the other hand–who aren’t running the world yet, but soon will be–have grown up with technology and have much different attitudes vis a vis their privacy and what is acceptable to be made public. They may face judgment from hiring managers as they navigate the shoals of today’s workplace but that will most certainly change over time as they and their peers move into management positions. All in all, it's not really an issue for them. They just don’t criticize others’ “off the clock” behavior as harshly as previous generations. Consider for a moment that Bill Clinton had to deny inhaling, yet it’s common knowledge that Barack Obama, who enjoyed large amounts of support in the last general election from young voters, not only smoked-but publicly enjoyed-marijuana and cocaine.

Speaking of politicians, it's only a matter of time once someone announces their intention to run for public office before something gets surfaced from their past and splashed all over the Internet; social media is amplifying the reach and impact of our desire to throw stones at people who live in glass houses.

Christine O'Donnell seems to be this election cycle's poster child for negative press. Why? Ms. O’Donnell has been very public with her views in the past and there's lots of fodder available to lampoon her with when human nature rears it's ugly head. Consider the most recent story that Gawker published about Ms. O’Donnell’s antics at a Halloween party a few years back. Whether or not you agree with their approach, it's clear what Gawker's intent was behind publishing it: they saw it as an opportunity to call out hypocritical behavior. (Plus, Gawker was very upfront about their profit motives–no hypocrisy there.)

I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for the media strategy session regarding this incident, especially since Ms. O'Donnell's communications team should have known that there is footage of her (courtesy of Bill Maher) saying explicitly that she doesn’t celebrate Halloween because it’s a paganistic and satanic holiday. Team O’Donnell’s response–that Gawker was being sexist–was a red herring that just added lies to the hypocrisy (Gawker has lambasted many male public figures for their regressions too and can hardly be called sexist).

People make choices that others question, or that they regret, or they change their positions over time. I’m not saying that they shouldn't run for elected positions because these facts may come to light through social media; we'd be hard put to find applicants for the job if that were the case. I’m merely pointing out that it’s more important then ever to be honest about who you are, and what you've done, as the truth will eventually find its way out. At the very least, you should fess up when it does and not try to detract from what’s really going on. Social media shines a light on authenticity, or lack thereof.

Which brings me to my final thought. I wonder how my colleagues in PR deal with the challenge of managing the reputations of politicians who run on public platforms that are disconnected from their private actions and behavior. There seems to be lots of them on both sides of the aisle. If I were Ms. O'Donnell's Communications Director, I'd have wanted to know the truth ahead of time so I could figure out how to spin it in a way that didn't make her look even less credible.

But then, I'm not Ms. O'Donnell's Communications Director.

UPDATE: Wisconsin voters are sending 39 year old Sean Duffy, a contestant on the sixth season of The Real World, to congress. NY Mag wryly points out:
Kids, take this as the inspiring lesson it should be: Don’t let anyone scare you into thinking there are embarrassing things you can do on television that, given the right amount of time and effort, you can not live down.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

How Sport Is An Important Part Of Business

Image: Randy Chiu

What do baseball and football (or any other sport for that matter) have in common with business? They're fail-safe things you can talk to your colleagues and customers about.

Your work most likely takes you around this great country to various organizations where you no doubt meet and interact with people of all stripes. When you sit down with your clients or vendor partners for a meeting, in the first few minutes there will invariably be two types of people in the room: the ones who are talking and the ones who have nothing to say. Why? Because before you get down to the brass-tacks of business (and while you're waiting for stragglers to arrive) the ice-breaker is more often than not, sports. Some people feel that sports is beneath them and so don't deign to follow which means they can't participate in this important part of the business ritual.

According to this study, college educated women enjoy sports as much as their male counterparts but men watch more sports than women and have a greater grasp of sports trivia. Sadly, there are still more men than women in leadership positions in the U.S. (source: Catalyst research) but the chances are, for your client or colleague of either gender, sports is a great water-cooler topic to chat about. The same holds true for vendors, regardless of whether they have a college education or not. Plus, it's much safer ground than politics, or religion, or what kind of car you drive.

I'm not just talking about sports, really. Think communication, connection and preparation; all things you need to be good at to make it in business. If you really care about your various stakeholders and you want to forge a strong bond with them, or strengthen an existing relationship, demonstrate that you care what they care about, be prepared and spend some time reading up on their sports teams.

Go Giants!

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

Management Lessons From Healthcare

Image: Ezra Klein

I just finished reading Letting Go, the latest treatise by surgeon-cum-writer Atul Gawande, which explores the ambiguities of end-of-life care. There is a lot to be learned from the study of healthcare. It helps us gain “insider” information that can not only empower us as healthcare consumers, it can also be instructive as we think about our own work.

As Drs. Leonard Berry and Kent Seltman point out in their book, healthcare customers are unique in that they are usually sick or injured and under considerable stress; medicine requires them to bare themselves–emotionally and physically–to doctors and caregivers to a far greater degree than any other industry. Healthcare providers must continually perform well together in the face of vulnerable customers, known human error, system failure and vast amounts of technology to provide the intangible service called health and well-being. It goes without saying then, that there's much to be gleaned from the individuals that serve us in this unique–and often life altering–way.

More than 70% of Americans now earn a living in the service sector, which encompasses everything from health, law, telecommunications and entertainment to retail, finance and beyond. The chances are high that we will all work in a service job at some point in our career. And the notion of service has applications for all industries. Management guru Tom Peters believes the concept of "servant-leadership" is critical for success no matter what business you're in. At its core, service is inherently about performance so medicine is a great place for management to look for insight about how to improve service for both their internal and external customers.

Gawande has found a theme in trying to understand human failure and imperfection and studying how individuals, teamwork and process can be improved against a backdrop of dizzying technology and massive amounts of information. What he also shows us along the way is that excellence isn’t innate; it is an ingrained practice borne out of learning from mistakes.

In his first book, Complications, Gawande recognizes that medicine, even with all of the latest technology, is imperfect and asks how we become even remotely competent at something that’s inherently flawed. What he discovers time and time again, is a powerful truth applicable to all of our jobs: excellence in anything is never just about the science; and even with “perfect” science, or well-established process, or advanced levels of education and experience, fallibility is a constant. Excellence in service, whether it's for our customers, colleagues or business partners is about accepting failure when it happens and moving on from it quickly to improve. In Letting Go he teaches us that it’s also about artistry–the human touch, collaboration, generous acts, personal courage and core values that guide decision-making and inspire extra effort.

He is arguably one of the best healthcare essayists for the medical layperson to read.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at 

The Importance of Research and Good Infographics

Image: Neeta Lind

I had some routine blood work done yesterday to test, amongst other things, my cholesterol levels and whether or not I had diabetes. My results pleased me as much as if I had scored perfectly on the SATs (which, physiologically speaking, I had.) It took me a while to figure out that I was as healthy as can be though, because the numbers didn't mean anything and the information my healthcare provider had on their website explaining what the tests were looking for was confusing and sparse. I ended up having to do some searching around on the web to decode it.

Literacy levels in this country are going down and they are inextricably tied to two key demographics: the health and wealth of our population. The 2003 National Adult Literacy Survey found that adults with the lowest literacy levels (a number that has increased since the last time the survey was conducted in 1992) are more likely than those at the higher levels to be poor and to have a physical, mental, or other health condition. Older adults (who typically have more health concerns–such as diabetes and high cholesterol–to deal with) are more likely than middle-aged or younger adults to demonstrate limited literacy skills: 40% of seniors aged 65 or older read at or below the 5th grade level. Yet most health-related materials are written at the 10th grade level.

If I, as a college educated and web savvy individual, have a hard time understanding what my test results mean, I worry about what some people with less education must make of theirs.

I give major points to my healthcare provider (Kaiser Permanente) for the speed in which I received my results and how easy it was to access them. I had blood drawn at 10:30am and by 3:35pm I'd received email notification that the results were available on my password-protected user page. Within 24 hours I also got an email from my doctor telling me how great the results were, asking me if I had any questions, and to keep up the good work. Talk about fantastic customer service. But what about the people who can't get theirs if they can't read, don't have a computer or are not technologically comfortable?

In addition to being aware of the literacy constraints that many people face it’s important for healthcare communicators to understand other aspects of their audience demographic. How do healthcare providers give out test results for folks in poor rural areas, for example?

Whether the delivery mechanism is in person, an online message, or a printout received by mail, it's commonly accepted that more than 60 percent of individuals are visual learners yet my test results were all text and numbers. Couple a lack of graphic design with words that are hard to understand for most people and it's no wonder some healthcare communications (in this case test results) don't make sense. A 2000 Harvard literature review of medical and public health research addressing literacy issues offers little in the way of recommendations to improve communications beyond the written word, yet these communications are often critical to helping patients understand and manage their ongoing health. Good visual cues and clever use of iconography can help all healthcare customers, regardless of their reading level.

In my test results I would have liked to see symbols that represent what each test is for and some sort of chart that shows the scores on it. People are by nature, typically competitive, even with themselves, and this would be a great way to show a person visually how they rank, normatively. Since these tests are done regularly, it could also be customized to track a person’s improvement (or not) over time, which could be a useful teaching tool for docs to use, regardless of how they communicate it.

It's great that I got an email from my doc, with an open invitation to ask questions. It turns out that I was able to find what I needed and didn't need help, but here's yet another instance where doing the research to understand your audience is important. A lot of people who have problems with literacy hide this fact from family members, co-workers and, most likely, their doctors. Plus, people can be busy or lazy, or both. How many people are going to take the time to follow up on these test scores to make sure they really understand them, and wouldn't it be more efficient for everyone if that information could be gotten easily from the initial communication?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

A New Approach To Board Recruitment

I attended a great workshop today called: “An Unconventional Look at Board Recruitment & Engagement.”  The workshop was put on by the wonderful East Bay Community Foundation and was led by Jan Masaoka, a non-profit management consultant. Jan was previously the Executive Director of CompassPoint in San Francisco. She's now the managing editor of Blue Avocado, an online magazine and resource for non-profit leaders.  

From my notes, here's Jan's patented method for recruiting new board members. 

Form a Blue Ribbon Nominating Committee
•    You will need about 15 people to be part of the committee. (Ask about 25 people to come, so you’ll end up with 15 people or so.) Comprise it of people that you think you’d want on your board but you are pretty sure they’d say no. Tell them this is a one- time commitment; this committee meets once, then disbands.

•    Hold the meeting at your organization's office, over lunch (be sure to serve lunch!) The Executive Director and board leadership should be present.

•    Give attendees a no more than 15 minute indoctrination of what your organization does, plus an overview of what needs to be done in the coming year. Then tell them: "What we need you to do is suggest 4 people for our board, based on what we do as an organization, and what we need to accomplish as a board this year. Tell us who they are and why they would be a good fit."

•    Then, have a roundtable discussion about all of the recommendations.

•    The goal is to end up with a list of about 25 recommended people.

•    Next, the
Executive Director and/or board leadership call them to set up an in-person meeting to recruit them.
What works so well about this approach is that when someone comes on a board as a result of this process it will be apparent why they are there and what they will accomplish. As board members we often recruit friends and acquaintances, then once they join the board we tell them: “Find something useful to do and organize yourself to do it." We hope that they will step up and get something done once they are engaged, when what we should do is make it clear to them from the outset what is needed from them.

Another great by-product of this nominating committee is that this is also an excellent way for non-profits to cultivate a major donor list.

Once I've fully digested Jan's talk, I'll be blogging in the coming weeks with my own thoughts about some of the other topics she touched on; she presented some really useful information that got me thinking about new ways that we can all approach our work as board members.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

It's The Little Things-Why Birthday Emails Matter

Image: Chaim Soutine

While I was in art school, one of my professors said something that stuck with me: when viewing a piece of poorly executed art, the average person cannot articulate why or how the perspective is"off" but they always pick up that something is not quite right. Their eyes, and thus their brain, knows that the world they are seeing reflected in the painting or illustration shouldn't really look like that.

Our professor cautioned us that we should either be able to draw perspective well enough to "get it right", or intentionally skew things in an unexpected way so that the audience would get our intention, and the piece would invite further evaluation. If we didn’t do either of those things, and were lucky, our audience might forgive our mistake and appreciate what we were trying to do. Most likely though, he said, it would turn them off to the work.

The same holds true in some ways for marketing communications. The average customer or member doesn’t question how they are being communicated with when things are humming along and it's business as usual, but they immediately notice when something is off; which can create negative perceptions towards the brand they're interacting with. Depending on the audience demographic, communicators have few chances to make mistakes. Older customers tend to be loyal to brands or organizations once they’ve committed to them, but younger customers are notoriously fickle and have little patience for brands that don't hit the right note in their communications.

Conversely, customers notice when something happens that goes above and beyond their expectations. It's my birthday in a few days and I've plugged my date of birth into online forms countless times so it's always interesting to see which companies and organizations that I’ve done business with reach out to connect with me on my special day. I could be jaded and unmoved by an email wishing me well as I get another year older, especially since I know the mechanics and intention behind it, but a personalized email–even if it is automated–still means something and I appreciate the effort that went into it. Someone, somewhere, understood that sending out a birthday email makes a difference and had the thought that it was worth taking the time to program the system to shoot out that email. And when they had the thought, they told someone, who told someone, who actually took the time to make it happen.

Granted, these types of emails are a little self-serving and they're not always completely personalized (I got the birthday email above from the Marine Corps Marathon a full three days before the actual day of my birthday, for example), but they still add a personal touch that I often don't experience from many organizations. If some of the non-profits that I support thought to send me a birthday card expressing gratitude that I am still alive and kicking (and therefore able to continue sending them money) then maybe, just maybe, I'd be more inclined to write a larger check when it came time to solicit my annual donation. Or perhaps I'd be more willing to volunteer my time to help move understaffed projects along. There's no guarantees of course, but for those non-profits who want my continued patronage it's a small investment of time and should be worth a shot.

Furthermore, if executed really well, personalized birthday emails can communicate generosity to a customer; how nice that The Marine Corps Marathon reached out, connected and acknowledged me without needing anything. Now that's intentionally skewing my perspective of their brand, in a very positive way. (Note to non-profits: please don't ever insult your constituents when celebrating them with an ask for money in a birthday card. Same applies to thank you cards and holiday greetings too.)

Getting that birthday email made me feel good about the organization and in turn I spent some time on their website checking out their charity partners. They piqued my curiosity which took my relationship with the organization to a whole new level.

So, is your email marketing interesting your customers or turning them off?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

How To Impress Me In An Interview

Image: Alex France

I've been reviewing resumes and conducting interviews for graphic designers and marketers lately. Unlike most of my colleagues, I enjoy doing it; I honestly love to learn about people and talk about the things I am passionate about. (One of my top five career choices as a kid was to be a talk-show host. To this day, my friends will sic me on people when they want to find out something about them – they claim I ask the most penetrating questions.)

It can be a dreary process though. It never ceases to amaze me why some people do not follow simple instructions regarding submitting their materials or cover letter. Haven't they realized that this is the first part of the evaluation process?

As communications professionals, we're in the daily business of delighting people so it goes without saying that our public personas should attempt to do just that. Candidates don't cut it as marketing communications professionals in today's business world without active accounts on LinkedIn and Twitter. Having a blog or website has become increasingly important too, and will immediately elevate applicants to the top of the  candidate pile. It shows me who is serious about their craft and is constantly working to become a better writer and or designer. Striving for self-improvement and a higher quality work-product is a critical component of successful marketing communications. Creating and maintaining that robust online presence is key– if candidates can't do it well for themselves, why would I think that they could do it well for me?

There are many people who are good at what they do and have a passion for communications outside of the daily grind; a passion they bring to their work. To get an interview with me candidates have to differentiate themselves and delight me so that I get a sense that working with them would be enjoyable; we would be sharing a common interest, ideas and enthusiasm, etc.

There's always a few that get through to the interview. For them, if they are looking me up on Google, and have found this page, I offer up a few pointers on the things that will make me feel all fuzzy inside when I am doing an interview:

Doing your homework
You should know about me and the organization I am representing, especially if we've already talked on the phone. Use search engines to find out something about me that could make for interesting conversation. It shows me that you care and that you've got the basic internet skills to do some simple background research. A good rule of thumb is to try and know more about me than I do about you.

Bringing samples, printed and digital, even when I didn't ask for them

I want to see what kind of work you've been doing lately, both in the online and offline space. I'm looking for fresh work that reflects the changing world of marketing communications. If it's print, it should be crisp and clean and well-executed. If you can't produce anything newer than five years ago and it was a college project to boot, know that I'll be rethinking whether you are a fit for this project.

Asking me questions throughout the interview
Don't wait until the end of our conversation to ask me questions. You should be interviewing me as much as I am you to find out if we are a mutual fit. Some of the best people I've hired have hit me with questions during an interview that I had to stop and think about before answering. I always want this kind of person on my team as it indicates to me that they are a thinker and will keep me on my toes.

Not being afraid to say that you can't answer my questions with the information you've been given (but telling me what information you would need.)
I don’t expect you to know exactly how to solve the problems I'm throwing out to you after a few short minutes together (and I’ll be sure to throw in at least one real zinger to see how you handle it.) Indeed it's often a good idea to show me that you know how to take stock of a situation and figure out the best way to get what you'll need to make an informed decision later. Knowing how to push back is sometimes more important than having the right answer immediately.

Having pursuits to talk about that on the face of it, have nothing to do with the job

This is always a great indication of someone's initiative. To make the effort to get involved in something without being told to is awesome. In particular, if you're doing something communications related this is a great sign. Examples include: writing your own blog, being involved in volunteer opportunities, or writing and getting published on a subject that interest you. If you can bring in something to your interview–perhaps it's an example of something you've written or a website you've built–that's excellent.

Demonstrating confidence and/or poise without arrogance

This is sometimes a fine line but one that is crucial to being a great communicator. You've got to believe in yourself enough to be respected by others but also know your weaknesses and when to ask for help. You don't have to do a full on salesman's routine to sell yourself but if you don't believe in your own abilities then neither will I. 

Being articulate
Thankfully the stereotype of the geek with no social or communication skills is less common than it used to be. As more people enter the profession so do the variety of individuals you come across. However, those who can clearly articulate ideas and thoughts are going to be far more successful in communications than those who prefer the company of computers to people

Need I say more? Work can often be stressful and demanding. It's important during those times to have a sense of humor and a positive attitude. If I can see you smiling and appearing somewhat relaxed during an interview–a situation I know is stressful for you– then it gives me an idea of how you will perform under the gun once I've hired you.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Finding Out About Baby On Facebook

In the last few weeks three of my friends announced they were pregnant. One called me on the phone to tell me and two updated their status on Facebook.

Which experience do you think I was the most delighted by?

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

Where Is Your Organization At In Regards To Location-Based Mobile Social Networks?

 Image: Steve Dunleavy

William Roth's blog has some excellent ideas on ways to get people outdoors using Foursquare.

I was saved from near disaster in the mountains a few winters ago by a cell phone. After getting lost in a freak blizzard while snow shoeing I was able to call search and rescue to get helicoptered out from what could have become a bad situation. Now, I never leave home without one fully charged before I venture into the wilderness. And I'm not alone: many search and rescue teams report that cell phones are helping to avert problems–before they become life-threatening–and saving lives.*

Of course most people wont need to use their cell phones for an extreme search and rescue situation while enjoying the outdoors but since cell phones are the only interactive medium people tend to carry with them in non-interactive medium environments–such as the outdoors–I really think William's onto something here. Environmental non-profits and outdoor organizations should sit up and take note of the marketing possibilities that Foursquare presents.

Beyond being a fun game why should your organization get involved with it? Here's two additional reasons that I came up with.

1. Corporate Partnerships
Users get rewarded with badges and points for visiting locations and logging those locations into their Foursquare accounts. Let's say you're a conservation organization and you want to encourage your members to develop resonance for a certain river, mountain, beach or wilderness area. It would be easy to partner with outside organizations and vendors that could then connect with the Foursquare user once they "check-in" to the outdoor place they visit the most frequently. If you've had a hard time getting corporate sponsors for your cause, this could be your entree.

2. Membership Engagement
People often have collector mentalities. Perhaps your organization could run a competition with your members to rack up visits to every place you are trying to protect. You could then reward or highlight them in some way for being wilderness "frequent flyers."

Foursquare presents a fantastic opportunity for environmental non-profits to engage with their members and build awareness around the outdoor places and environments they are trying to protect in a fun and educational way. Cellular network coverage has improved tremendously over the past several years so take advantage of this and get your members to interact with your organization even when they are on the road and away from their computers.

One thing to bear in mind though, is that cell phone coverage is still not ubiquitous in the United States and rural and remote areas suffer most from lack of it (although sadly, I often get better cell reception on the top of peaks than I do at my house; there are no guarantees.)

*Please don't venture out into a wilderness situation that is beyond your level of  skill and expertise with the idea that a cell phone will save you should you get into a dangerous situation.

Natalie Zensius is a marketing communications strategist with experience in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Learn more about Natalie at

One Man's PR Nightmare...

As Jason Linkins over at the Huffington Post almost gleefully points out, there's been a lot of rubbernecking on the web in the last few days about the tense exchange between Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center spokesperson Marc Slavin and Bay Area ABC News reporter Dan Noyes. In case you haven't seen the video, it's below.

I received a link to the video from friends and colleagues in PR via 3 different sources yesterday: it was shared on Facebook, discussed in a LinkedIn group I belong to and emailed to me and many of my PR colleagues in a group email.

I should give full disclosure that I have worked with Mr. Slavin in the past as part of a communications task force for Laguna Honda's soon to be open new hospital building; I always found him to be extremely respectful and professional. Was Mr. Noyes aggressive? Undoubtably. Was Laguna Honda administrator Ms. Hirose flustered and unprepared? Yes. Could Mr. Slavin have handled this situation with Mr. Noyes differently? I'm sure. In fact I'd bet that he has probably replayed this incident over and over again (if not in his head, on his computer screen) wishing for a different outcome.

We all have days or situations that are better than others and that we wish we could do over or forget about completely. (I'll leave specific commentary about what Mr. Slavin did, and the debate on how he could have handled such a situation differently, to the millions of people who are discussing, commenting and dissing on what Gawker called the best local news video this year.) Point being, when we have these types of situations, we have to deal with the consequences. Unfortunately for Mr. Slavin, his bad day quickly became that much more public thanks to social media sharing tools such as Youtube, Digg, Twitter and Facebook, (to name a few), that spread this video across the web like wildfire, only amplifying those consequences.

The Huffington Post, like many other news outlets, helpfully displayed some other places on the web, including twitter that this story was getting play.

and provided the requisite social media tools to share the video.

Note that there were 536 comments on the video on the Huffington Post website alone. 321 people tweeted about it, their followers retweeted and so on, ad infinitum. (Guy Kawasaki, who has almost a quarter of a million followers, tweeted this story. Imagine his reach!) A quick google search for it produced more than 37,000 results–many in languages I couldn't understand.

Painfully, Mr. Slavin can not only replay the video but spend countless hours scouring the web to see comments people have made– about him personally, his professional demeanour and the organization he was representing. He is now an integral part of the new story and as a result has spent many hours I'm sure he didn't account for answering inquiries from all fronts about the incident. This video is a great example of how quickly content can go viral and create bad PR for an individual or organization.

So what's the takeaway here? Being on the front lines, sometimes in tense situations, is nothing new for PR professionals. We know this and develop thicker skins the further we advance in our careers. What is a fairly new development is how social media adds yet one more layer (or many, depending on how you look at it) to managing an organization's public image and can make our jobs (and us) even more visibly and inextricably linked to that image. Is this being talked about when we train up and coming PR professionals? How about when we do speaker training and crisis communications? Prior to the advent of web 2.0, this video would have aired on TV in the original newscast and been posted on the ABC 7 website. Some people would have emailed it to their friends but it most likely would not have gained enough strength to become the tsunami it did in such a short time.

The fact that our words and actions can infect the web like this, doing damage to companys we represent and to our own reputations is something we should all be acutely aware of.