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Video: Are you a socially savvy real estate agent?

March 26, 2017

Video: “Birmingham Realtors — Are You a Socially Savvy Agent?”

Five years ago, I answered a couple of challenging questions from my pal Tom Horn of the Birmingham Appraisal Blog. And we caught it all on video.

  1. How can real estate agents benefit from having a blog?
  2. What are the five things they can do to get started?

All of it still applies in 2017, so if you’re an agent, it’s not too late to show off your expertise and your houses to a booming real estate market. Check out the video, and let me know in the comments if you have questions.

And if you need a real estate appraisal in the Birmingham area, contact Tom today.

Watch more videos featuring my tips and advice.

Determining the right social networks for marketing

March 20, 2017

Milky Way galaxy

Reaching an audience through social media can be maddening. But even more so by using the wrong channels.

Because social media marketing is a time-intensive chore, we must figure out which networks to use from the start. The worst approach is to use what everyone else is using. That lazy tactic guarantees poor results and frustration.

The best approach is to ask customers and fans what channels they use. We should also ask what their expectations are for each network: Few would mention having to wade through more ads and promotional videos.

Getting this info will take some time, whether using a survey (online or offline), asking them at the checkout or searching each network for brand mentions. These aren’t perfect methods, but they can save time and money in the long run.

Whatever data we gather, we can now put our brands on a few social media channels. It’s important to test and measure organic and paid posts. This lets us know what’s working: timing, topic, type (photo, video, poll, text, retweet), targeting, voice, frequency.

The cycle of testing and measuring becomes more critical over time, as networks evolve and people change their social media habits. What’s hot today may be a ghost town tomorrow.

But it also gives us the opportunity to refine our marketing approach to better reach our potential customers. The whole point is to learn and grow.

We should understand that gigantic social networks might still be the correct ones to use, as long as we go after niche audiences. YouTube can shed some light on this.

It would be silly to go after the billions of viewers on YouTube as an audience for our brand. But we know that the video channel serves countless niches out there, from hardcore gamers to makeup addicts, from tweens to boomers, from travel vloggers to woodworkers, from hobbyists to pros.

Crafting videos to go after a select sliver is a smarter approach than throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. Loyal fans are more likely to become customers than drive-by viewers.

Niches abound in Facebook and Instagram. It’s up to us to create compelling content for those specialized audiences.

These three steps — surveying; testing and measuring; and targeting niches — ensure that our social media marketing efforts have maximum ROI. They turn the chore of outreach into the higher traffic, engagement and sales.

• • •

Contact me if you need help with
your social media marketing …

Contact me

Spring cleaning for sites and blogs

March 12, 2017
Clean me

Photo: Aimee Rivers (CC)

First of two parts …

For springtime, let’s get our sites and blogs in the best shape possible. That means spending some time on spring cleaning.

Taking time to evaluate and fix our sites can mean a better user experience and more business.

1. Make sure all information is correct. Check staff listings, hours of operation, phone number, email address, job listings, products, services, even copyright info.

You may need to update old photos and graphics. Enlist your web developer and art department if needed.

2. Test the site on mobile. Whether you use a mobile theme or responsive design, pull up as many pages as you can on as many phones and tablets as you can manage. You can also use a free emulator site such as

Does the site load quickly and cleanly? Does it show relevant info to the mobile user? Is it easy to navigate and click on links and buttons?

3. Check all the links. Specifically, check links to social media channels, internal pages and external sites.

Use one of the many free tools, such as

4. Slim down the site. Unneeded pages? Chuck ’em. Same for plugins, code snippets (such as for third-party services), embedded videos, Flash doodads, maps, slideshows, calendars and so on.

Be ruthless. Load time is measured in milliseconds, and users are more impatient than ever.

Check the site speed with Google’s free PageSpeed Insights.

5. Test a few more things. Make sure Google Analytics is installed properly and showing current data.

Test your newsletter signup form and contact form. And your shopping cart. And your live chat feature. And make sure to test them again on mobile.

6. Check for backups. Automated full-site backups is an insurance policy in case of server outages, hacker attacks and other problems. Be absolutely certain that your entire site is backed up automatically on a regular basis (monthly, at the very least).

Also, check the backup files for integrity and access. If you can’t get to them or install them, they’re not doing what you need them to do.

Don’t put off this annual checkup. Getting a spouse or an intern — anyone with fresh eyes — to click through and read your company site and blog will help you zero in on the trouble spots.

A good spring cleaning will help your brand shine online for the months to come.

Part 2: Spring cleaning for social media

• • •

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The new new new LinkedIn

March 6, 2017

LinkedIn profile

My LinkedIn profile, 2017 edition

We used to talk a lot about Facebook changes, big and small. Each one would roil the community, demanding a rollback to the previous iteration.

But Facebook marched on, and it seems like we’ve made peace with its ongoing evolution.

LinkedIn has upgraded its look for the first time in years, rolling it out to segments of users. I finally saw it on my account last week. I’m underwhelmed.

Essentially, profile pages have a new look, but no new functionality. They’re more compact, hiding details about jobs, education, awards and more until a user clicks to see more. All that time spent fleshing out a profile seems to be for naught.

Whether on the app or desktop version, the front page timeline is virtually a clone of Facebook’s timeline. Surely, that’s by design. The upgrade hasn’t made it any more compelling than before.

For casual and infrequent users of LinkedIn, I wonder what the draw is. Networking, professional development, sales and job search don’t appear to have improved in the redesign. Maybe new owner Microsoft will have big ideas to implement in 2017 and 2018.

For the moment, LinkedIn looks shinier with no real added value. I discovered a few useful tools by wandering around (compare salaries, take courses), but I doubt people will jump on board for these amenities.

Meanwhile, I see friends and businesses trying out Facebook Live all the time. And Facebook just launched a Jobs feature, an opportunity for companies to hire and for users to apply.

Competition is good, but will LinkedIn evolve into a more useful tool? And will users care enough to engage?

More on the redesign from Wired.

Video: LinkedIn Desktop Redesign

Death of a blog

February 27, 2017
grim reaper

Photo: Paul Kline (CC)

Most blogs die unheralded deaths. They pop into existence with little fanfare and wink out with as much fuss.

What kills these corporate blogs is usually neglect and apathy. And many deserve to die: Their continued existence tarnishes the brands they’re supposed to promote.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Blogs can have long, productive lives if we work with purpose and tie them to meaningful rewards.

That purpose must be a business goal. The blog could be a part of marketing efforts, or a way to enhance customer service, or a channel to drive sales. Starting with specific outcomes in mind can help determine blogging topics, metrics to monitor and approaches to drive traffic and interaction.

Careful planning is a must, but it’s worthless without tying the blog to rewards and consequences. Many leaders don’t care about results, and so their colleagues blog half-heartedly. If no one cares about the blog, why waste time and effort on it?

The saddest part is that with so such pervasive mediocrity among businesses, it’s that much easier to create and maintain a stand-out blog. Settle for less, or strive for more?

If it is time to kill the blog, check the site metrics before deciding whether to leave the posts online or remove them. Deleting the blog could hurt site traffic; leaving it up could give visitors the impression that the site is abandoned or neglected.

(One option is to take the top-performing posts and integrate that content into existing or new pages.)

Let’s keep our blogs happy and healthy through smart management. If a blog must die, let it be from old age and not commonplace indifference.

• • •

Let me know if you need help with the care
and feeding of your company blog …

Contact me

What podcasts are on your playlist?

February 19, 2017

Photo: David Martín (CC)

I listen to a lot of articles and audiobooks in the car. I don’t usually listen to podcasts.

I’ve done both seasons of “Serial” and dipped into Birmingham’s Arc Stories on occasion. I was listening to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and will jump in when the guest or the topic interests me.

My listening time dropped when I switched from walking in the neighborhood back to my treadmill (where I’ll watch shows off the DVR). So I haven’t had a pressing need to fill my iPhone with audio content.

Still, I want to know what you’re listening to regularly. Bonus points if it relates to communication.

Leave a comment below with your favorite podcasts (video podcasts are allowed, too), and tell me why you subscribe. Yes, you can promote your own podcast, too.


Harnessing Twitter’s power with TweetDeck

February 13, 2017

Companies have written off Twitter for years. But in 2017, it’s back with a vengeance.

Twitter is the home of real-time social media engagement with fans and customers worldwide. The channel can be a challenge to manage, given so many can’t quite figure out what’s going on.

Enter TweetDeck.

This free tool makes life much easier for social media managers, bringing streams of tweets in an organized format. All it takes is some thoughtful customization to keep a company on track with its audience and ahead of its competitors.

Check it out at

Let’s add columns to make TweetDeck do most of the work for us. I’ve put together suggestions in the slides below.

Click any thumbnail to see suggestions at full size.

For Chrome users, two free extensions can enhance the TweetDeck experience: BetterTweetDeck 3 and ColorDeck for TweetDeck.

We can add, delete or fine-tune columns in TweetDeck as needed. The important first step, though, is to set up the right columns to monitor, making Twitter an indispensable tool in our social media marketing.

• • •

Sign up for the free Birmingham Blogging Academy newsletter
for more help with social media …


Digging deeper into the words we all use differently

February 6, 2017
George Lakoff

Photo: Pop!Tech (CC)

I love language, but I haven’t studied it formally. I want to understand it better as a writer and a speaker. It’s critical to persuasion and marketing.

Linguist George Lakoff wrote an 8,000-word post-mortem on the 2016 presidential election called “A Minority President: Why the Polls Failed, And What the Majority Can Do.” I’ve read it a couple of times and shared it on social media.

I’m going to re-read it and study it till it sticks in my brain.

One idea he explains is the limits of facts and rational arguments. They don’t always work, since everyone processes information differently. If we’re wired more for logic, those facts might be persuasive. If we’re wired more for values, these arguments are simply incompatible, almost as if speaking a foreign language.

I’m planning on reading Lakoff’s updated version of his 2004 book, [aff. link] “Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate” to better understand the psychology behind our language and how to reach more people.

Maybe I can rewire my brain to use language more engagingly and understand how others perceive my words.


Video: George Lakoff on why facts don’t move all people

How to find your blog’s focus

January 29, 2017

Photo: Hans Splinter (CC)

New bloggers often struggle with the most basic question: what to blog about. But even corporate blogs face this challenge.

Blog anyway.

This might strike fear into middle managers everywhere, but it shouldn’t. Plenty of marketing plans move forward with no defined goals and poorly conceived action steps.

A blog and a blogger can find their voice through practice. The most likely outcome is … nothing. The blogger runs out of steam, either from competing demands or lack of ideas or lack of institutional support. Why bother if no one in the organization can be bothered to contribute ideas, posts or promotion to a fledgling endeavor?

A lucky few will find that, after 6 months, the blog slowly comes into focus. It could be pure marketing. It could be recruiting and humanizing the company. It could be customer service, offering not only information and assistance, but a broader look at trends, best practices and one-on-one advice.

A different approach is to examine the marketing plan for the year ahead and determine how a blog can enhance those efforts. It could be to extend the brand and increase consumer awareness of a company’s products and services. It could be to drive traffic to the sales section of the site. It could be to kick-start lead generation with in-depth posts. It could be to build customer loyalty by preaching to the choir.

When we decide on the blog’s role, we can then determine topics and tactics. We want topics that are fresh and those that are done to death. Each post, done properly, enhances our search ranking and brings the right visitors to our site over and over.

The tactics should include regularly scheduled posts (at least once a month and ideally once a week); promotion of posts; networking with bloggers who work on similar topics; analysis of metrics; and fine-tuning content creation. It’s a lot of work, and most companies will either need to bring in more people or drop other less-effective strategies.

Finding the focus can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. It is impossible without actual blogging. But a sharp focus can not only bring more fans and customers along for the ride, but also keep out those who would never spend a dime or provide only drive-by traffic.

And the sooner we start, the sooner we find it.

• • •

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for more help with blogging …


On the diminishing importance of headlines

January 20, 2017
Obama Beats Weiner

Photo: Robert Moran (CC)

Most people see the news on television. The Internet, including apps and social media, ranks second.

Those above 50 are very into TV, while those under 50 are more into online news. These statistics come from a Pew Research Center 2016 survey.

News channels

Clearly, more and more people are relying on Web-based news. And usually, that news comes in headline form.

The challenge is that those headlines, for better or worse, are the sum total of news that users receive. They don’t click to read the full story (or watch the video or flip through the slideshow), but they do absorb the headline, whether they agree or disagree with it.

(Often, someone will comment on a link I share, reacting not to my words, but to the attached headline that I didn’t write or even have a say in. It’s the digital equivalent of “Old Man Yells at Cloud.”)

It’s a frustrating trend for me on so many levels. As a headline writer. As a thorough reader. As a pithy Twitterer. As a combatant against willful ignorance.

The good news for bloggers is that the content can be of sub-par quality as long as the headline is sharp. The bad news is that those of us who happen to write terrific posts or film great video are stuck.

This is similar to the trend where commenters stopped leaving comments on posts and started putting them with Facebook shares and tweeted replies. Or studying the issues through 7-word photo memes, clickbait come-ons and animated gifs.

So much for engagement and edifying our audiences.

All I can do is continue to suggest that bloggers make their headlines clear and succinct. And to thank any readers who made it this far.

Thank you.

More on headlines:

Weaponize content | The worst headlines in history will destroy your faith in humanity

Make plans for WordCamp US 2017 and 2018 in Nashville

January 15, 2017
WordCamp US 2017

Happy campers at December’s WordCamp US in Philadelphia.

After a 2-year debut in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest WordCamp is headed to the South.

WordCamp US will be in Nashville for 2017 and 2018. This year’s event takes place Dec. 1-3, and tickets are $40. The first 2 days have three tracks of sessions all day long, while the third day is contributor day, allowing attendees to work with different teams on WordPress development.

For those interested in WordPress, site design, content and more, this conference is perfect. I’ve heard great things about WordCamp US, and I’m excited it’ll be so close to home through 2018.

December’s event brought 1,300 campers to Philadelphia to see nearly 60 speakers. My two regrets are missing the event and not having Birmingham selected as host.

Fortunately, I can watch all the talks for free at the WordCamp US 2016 section of

I’m marking my calendar now. (For those who can’t make the trip to Nashville, a virtual ticket will be available.) Maybe I’ll even be lucky enough to be selected as a speaker.

Hope to see you there in December.

Video: WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg gives the
“State of the Word 2016” keynote at WordCamp US.

Email offense

January 8, 2017

Photo: Søren Niedziella (CC)

Great email management requires more than defensive tactics. It means having a solid offensive strategy.

Getting a permanent handle on email frees us to do productive work, removes the anxiety of facing the Inbox and assures colleagues and partners that we’re handling messages decisively. It works, but it requires us to take a few more aggressive steps.

1. The most important step forward is to set boundaries. This is straight outta “The 4-Hour Workweek” [aff. link].

One boundary should be expectations of timeliness. Email can’t be a dog whistle that anyone in the world can use to summon us at a moment’s notice. I can immediately tell when those expectations are out of alignment when someone responds to my email after a few weeks, but then sends me followup emails within an hour demanding a reply.


If it’s an emergency, call me. If it’s not an emergency, email me. (And trust me, I have a strict definition of what constitutes an emergency.) I’m perfectly fine letting calls go to voicemail 99 percent of the time.

Many questions magically resolve themselves without my intervention. And just about everyone receives a reply from me within 24 hours.

2. Another boundary to set is how many times a day we check email. I’m down to two times a day and should eventually get to once a day.

When email is the to-do list written by others, I prefer to keep that list as short as possible. Otherwise, it threatens to sap away all productivity and focus. We don’t check our snail mailboxes obsessively, and we really shouldn’t snatch our phone up for every notification for texts and social media.

We do this to ourselves.

We must rescue ourselves.

Checking work email in bed at night and first thing in the morning is counterproductive. It’s setting unrealistic expectations and burning us out. It’s allowing the tool to use us than the other way around.

3. Where many people fail is not in cleaning up their Inboxes. It’s not even in setting up auto-filtering rules.

The failure comes from having a working system in place.

What good is clearing 700 messages out of the Inbox if it’s overstuffed a week later?

It’s like having an organization system for clutter in the home. Mail goes here, keys go there, remote goes there. Otherwise, clutter.

Filtering rules can handle most of the incoming email. But we must still whittle down some pile of messages. “Getting Things Done” [aff. link] offers a solution: Reply, do later, archive or delete.

  • If a reply can be written in 2 minutes or less, we take care of it on the spot. Then we archive it.
  • If it takes more than 2 minutes, we put it in a To-Do folder.
  • If we need to refer to it later, we archive it.
  • Or delete it.

By putting total focus on the Inbox, we can manage it daily, without re-reading messages or struggling with indecision.

Quite a few posts can guide newbies through applying Getting Things Done to email, including this one that focuses on Gmail users. The Getting Things Done system is terrific, but applying it to email and other areas takes study and practice.

Without any system in place, email becomes a burden again, rather than a simple task to handle with a smile.

4. A big step to consider is email encryption. It’s technology that’s available to all of us at a reasonable cost, allowing only us and the recipient access to the message.

But why do it?

Email privacy is an illusion. Our mail can be read by government agencies, corporate spies, tween hackers, Russian hackers and nosy family members. Many of us have faced similar privacy concerns about our medical records, our financial statements, our phone data, our photos stored on the cloud and other sensitive material.

We lock our doors, try to hide our PINs at the ATM and supermarket checkout terminal and use two-factor authentication for site logins. Maybe we’re not thinking enough about securing our email.

Lifehacker put together a guide to email encryption in 2013 worth studying. For most people, having stronger passwords and better password management will be enough of a defense. But for a few, encryption will be a necessity.

Email offense ensures that we take charge of this communication tool. Our game plan is to free up time wasted on tracking messages and give ourselves ongoing peace of mind.

Tips for email defense

• • •

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Email defense

January 1, 2017

Photo: Dennis Jarvis (CC)

Email is my favorite way to communicate, though I realize it’s out of fashion for many people. Some prefer the instant access of group chat apps such as Slack, or simply picking up the phone. And we have plenty of alternatives, including messaging apps (WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger), texting and ye olde Snail Mail (which I send when I want to complain about customer service or product defects — it’s fairly effective).

Using email can be a real pain, as users fight to keep their Inboxes tamed while having time to, you know, work. Not to mention all the security problems: phishing and other scams, hacked services, viruses, misrouted messages.

I’ve seen friends and clients struggle with email. It’s costing them time, customers and sanity — but it doesn’t have to be that way. They can win the email war in a few steps.

Let’s look at some options for email defense. These are tactics I use every day in keeping my Inbox clean and my goals on track.

1. I had to install a spam filter. Because I have public email addresses and multiple domain names, spammers spoof them to send out their junk. So I receive upwards of about 200 spam emails a day. This was driving me up the wall, trying to find a handful of legitimate messages in a sea of Viagra ads and unsafe links.

Apple’s for my laptop wasn’t cutting it.

I found SpamSieve, a plugin that has saved my bacon. It filters out spam during my mail checks, and learns with each pass. I can train it for false positives and negatives. It’s only $30 and completely worth it.

2. Many, many years ago, I learned how to set rules for each email app I used. Because so much of my email is recurring, I wanted it to sort itself into neat piles: bills, friends, newsletters, media releases, urgent notices and so on.

It’s still a work in progress. But at least I’m not wasting time looking through all my emails in one endless list.

Filter emails by sender, by recipient email address (handy when I use different addresses for different purposes) and subject. Mark them by label or color, change them to already read, or trigger a sound for important messages.

It takes about an hour to set up filtering rules and testing them. They’ll save hours upon hours with each incoming message.

3. Many users do an annual cleanse by unsubscribing from old newsletters, promotional offers and any email blast that have outlived their usefulness. Doing it once a day for a week can drastically cut down on overall volume all year long.

I finally made myself do it in December, and having that cleaner Inbox made it worthwhile.

For those who need a shortcut, try Unroll.Me, a free service that works on major platforms including Gmail and (but sadly, not my humble Apple Mail). Not only does it offer mass unsubscribing, it also takes the remaining newsletters and puts them into one digest.

No more excuses: Drop the emails (even my newsletter, if need be) no longer needed or read.

4. Passwords remain one of our most vulnerable security areas. We use bad passwords (too common, too short, too simple). We leave them lying around. We leave them unchanged.

This makes little sense, since we rarely input our email passwords while checking them from our computers at home and work and our phones.

Email providers are making it too easy for the hackers: Many set a maximum limit of password characters — it’s crazy to have an eight-character password nowadays guarding our email accounts.

Let’s change our passwords today, using a mix of letters and numbers and punctuation. Try 20 to 30 characters for best security. (And use a password manager to track those new longer passwords: Try KeePassX for Mac desktops and MiniKeePass for iOS devices. MakeUseOf has more on this free solution.)

5. Perhaps the oldest rule of all applies even more in this age of social media and Internet shaming. If we wouldn’t want to see something on the front page of, we shouldn’t send it in an email.

Email, for the most part, is not secure in its travels from server to server. We like to think of it as a direct transmission from our Outbox to the recipient’s Inbox, but emails travel a circuitous route over many vulnerable access points. While the likelihood that any one person’s single email message could be intercepted en route, the reality is that our systems are vulnerable at all points along the way, beyond our own devices.

Keeping sensitive info out of email may not be a practical solution. We must each weigh the benefits (convenience, compatibility, speed) and the risks of using email in each instance of transmitting that data.

Using these five steps can greatly enhance our email usage by keeping our accounts safe and secure, clean and efficient. Let’s make the most of our email through good maintenance.

Next week: Playing email offense

• • •

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The 2016 index to posts

December 23, 2016
Red Cat

Photo: Natalie C (CC)

The year is almost over. So what did we learn in 2016? Take a look at all 54 of my posts, organized by category.


Social Media

Digital Marketing

Leadership and Management

Last but not Least


• • •

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my free weekly newsletter …


RIP Facebook interest lists

December 18, 2016
snowy cemetery

Photo: KMW2700 (CC)

A moment of holiday silence for Facebook interest lists.

I told you about them almost 5 years ago, how they’re a great way to do competitor research. Sadly, they’re on their way out.

Any Facebook user could build a list, public or private, of people and pages to see all their updates in one stream. For me, it’s a huge timesaver keeping up with close friends. It was also a fun way to show off Birmingham news updates and restaurants, letting users subscribe to the lists to see all that info in their streams.

No more.

Like other sites, Facebook adds and drops features all the time without warning. I noticed for months that the interest lists were quietly becoming less robust. Certainly no one I knew was using them.

I still have access to mine, though for how long only Mark Zuckerberg knows. And I still have my Twitter lists, but they never quite measured up to Facebook’s version thanks to Facebook’s size advantage.

As an alternate solution, Facebook users can still build Friend Lists, they just can’t be shared with others.

Sigh. Always tough to let go of power user features, but I look forward to what Facebook brings our way in 2017.

More posts on social media.

How social networks divide us

December 11, 2016

Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck

Technology was supposed to make our lives better, wasn’t it?

Instead, we have fake news. We have trolls. We have the Divided States of America.

We can’t keep our mouths shut, or really, our fingers from typing nasty comments and responses. Social media is dividing us, and we’re willingly severing ties.

Did we really want all this when we joined Facebook and all those other networks?

Years ago when we signed on, we may have joined out of peer pressure or mild curiosity. Maybe we thought we’d promote our business, or see what everyone else was doing.

While social media has united us into little tribes, it has also split us apart for all kinds of reasons:

  • political arguments;
  • family squabbles;
  • misunderstandings;
  • religious differences;
  • trolling;
  • sports;
  • misguided help;
  • “drama”;
  • any reason, really.

We read into people’s reactions. We read into their lack of reactions: not enough Likes and retweets, not coming to our defense, not apologizing. We call out other people’s behavior to their friends, their bosses and their family members. We choose public shaming over private conversation. We choose more forceful words instead of gentle listening.

We make a big deal about cleaning up our friend lists and taking social media holidays. We live for the attention of others, but a very specific kind of attention. We perform rather than communicate.

Most of us bring this division on ourselves in two ways. We escalate situations through our responses. And we equate life on social media to real life.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We can choose to respond with kindness and empathy, without an assumption of other people’s tones and intentions. We can listen more. We can embrace people as complex creatures, not the sum of their silly photos, cryptic updates and hurtful words.

We can model the behavior we want to see in others every day.

Social media channels can unite or divide, but not on their own. We make that decision with each moment we spend online.

Let’s use that technology wisely.

The dark side of journalism

December 5, 2016
typewriter on fire

Photo: J.D. Lasica (CC)

A friend and former colleague wrote me the other day that he had “made peace” with joining the dark side. He was referring to public relations.

Many journalists have long looked down on PR, perhaps spurred by bad encounters with PR professionals over the years. While I understand, I don’t share that sentiment. I know plenty of terrific PR experts and have found stories and ideas I would not have otherwise discovered. I’ve done my fair share of PR work and have advised clients on PR strategy time and again.

What’s rarely discussed is that journalism has a dark side, too. We’ve seen it many times this year.

Certainly, journalists have faced detractors from all corners with claims of biased reporting, ethical misconduct and sensationalism. The dark side of journalism should include five areas that damage the industry needlessly.

The first area is “pay-for-play,” when a media outlet expects businesses seeking coverage to pay up front for ads. Most might recognize it by a standard term: extortion. Owners and marketers often don’t realize that this is an unethical practice and not the industry norm. However, in limited media markets (such as Birmingham), we may not have many options beyond the outlet seeking payment.

Avoid pay-for-play at all costs. Patronize media outlets that keep their business interests and journalistic pursuits separate. Hire a professional or an agency to assist in obtaining earned media coverage.

The second area is media release journalism. I’ve seen it both traditional outlets and online outfits. With newsroom resources stretched beyond capacity, reporters and producers take shortcuts. One of the most egregious is taking media releases and using them virtually unchanged for print, online and on air.

For a PR pro, it’s a huge easy win: It puts the client’s message directly before the outlet’s audience without a filter but with the appearance of credibility. In the long run, it harms everyone. Journalists lose credibility, audience members lose trust, and story subjects lose another option in reaching people.

We don’t have many options to discourage this practice, other than to reward media outlets that avoid it with our clicks, our subscription dollars and our patronage of their advertisers.

The third area is a lack of innovation. The industry has been largely static, whether print, broadcast or this “new” age of digital. Essentially, the click-revenue model is similar to the emphasis on big numbers that worked for decades: readership for print, viewers/listeners for broadcast.

Have we seen any innovations that have made good journalism more robust and more profitable? Some have even made the argument that journalism should be divorced from the for-profit model, though the nonprofit ventures of late have been a mixed bag.

The fourth area is a lack of transparency. We have important questions to ask of news organizations:

  • How are coverage decisions made?
  • How are they carried out?
  • When the budget is cut, what are the deciding factors?
  • Do audience members have a say in decisions? Subscribers? Advertisers? Non-newsroom employees?
  • What are the priorities in the newsroom? They could include speed, accuracy, potential metrics, cost, controversy, public service, brand alignment and so on.

A public that demands more of its media should expect more transparency than is currently and automatically offered. We want the same transparency from the media that the media asks of government, business and other institutions.

The fifth area is fake news. The first four areas have indirectly contributed to the fake news phenomenon. Any time established media outlets shoot themselves in their collective feet, it opens the door a little wider for the hucksters to slip through.

Fake news is extremely profitable and has repercussions far beyond which website, social media account or YouTube channel racks up the most hits.

I wish I had a clear-cut solution on the fake news problem. It’s largely insular: People either take refuge within a fake news bubble, or they don’t. Gentle persuasion, empathy and skillful storytelling are likely not enough to entice them out of that bubble.

We can continue to make sure children have access to free robust public education, free Internet access and libraries in every community. Development of critical thinking skills should become a top priority for educators and citizens across America.

Having worked in journalism for 25 years, I know well its power for good. But I also know how it has declined in certain ways throughout my career.

I believe great journalism is essential for a great democracy. Whether we deserve either remains to be seen.

More posts on journalism.

Consistent communication is important. So is shaking things up.

November 28, 2016

Photo: Asenat29 (CC)

Consistency can make your brand stand out amidst fierce competition for attention. It matters not if you have limited time and limited budget — we all have those challenges.

But let’s avoid predictability. Let’s avoid dull. Let’s leave room for occasional surprises to delight and awaken fans and customers.

It’s not difficult to shake things up. Usually, the biggest hurdle is our own reticence to actually provoke our audience. We’re afraid of scaring them off.

(If they’re that easily frightened, they were never really ours to begin with, right?)

What are some ways we can surprise our online audience?

  • Talk with people and call them by name. Social media, emphasis on social.
  • Put the spotlight on others, including competing companies.
  • Give them a gift. A real gift, not 10 percent off our stuff.
  • A handwritten note on nice stationery.
  • Use a different format: illustrations, charts, limericks, PDFs, anything that varies from your standard mode.
  • Guest blogger, Snapchatter, Instagrammer. Someone with a distinct personality and voice who gets your audience.
  • Empower colleagues to reach out online. Too often, we leave it to one or two ambassadors, when we have a company full of ambassadors itching to help others.
  • Revisit past interactions. Y’all Connect speaker Ramon De Leon had his Domino’s franchise follow up with one customer annually with free pizzas, after a big screwup with her Super Bowl party order.

Whether you reach out to one or 100, you can make a splash by veering off your beaten path. Note: This isn’t license to become erratic in your online communication and marketing — only an opportunity to bolster your consistent message with a burst of fresh creativity.

First, be consistent. But then, shake things up. Your customers will appreciate you all the more.

More ideas:

Thankful for … Part 2

November 20, 2016
turkey art

Photo: Roger Deetz (CC)

When it comes to blogging, you and I have much to be thankful for.

  • It’s easy. Most of us can have a site running within minutes, with custom domain, nice graphics and almost no cost. Help is available, and we’re free to go in any direction.
  • It’s flexible. I can post as much or as little as I want. I can split into separate blogs, or delete and start over. I can post tweets and photos and links and videos and galleries and quizzes and PDFs and art and lists and sound clips and more.
  • It’s collaborative. I’ve learned from commenters, sharers and guest bloggers over the years. I’ve connected with marketers, business owners, speakers, authors and more.
  • It’s empowering. Blogging has helped me refine my voice and put myself out there. It’s led to speaking opportunities, books and media appearances. My work has been quoted and cited many times over on sites and in media outlets big and small.
  • It’s forgiving. I can try and fail and come back the next day and knock one out of the park. I can screw up and have little wins and setbacks. I can teach others based on my years of mistakes.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thankful for … Part 1

Mindful listening: Weird things to try

November 14, 2016

Photo: Christian Heilmann (CC)

After an acrimonious election year, we all need a break. Let me suggest a different approach.

Listen better.

When half the country is taken by surprise two presidential elections in a row, it means we’re not really listening well. We hear arguments that bolster our beliefs all too well, at the cost of understanding half of our neighbors. We think we know the score, and then face an ugly awakening.

This lack of listening cripples us in other areas: our personal relationships, our marketing campaigns, our rapport with colleagues, our clients and so on. No matter where we live, no matter where we work, we run into people with different points of view.

We can’t expect others to listen better. We need to work on ourselves.

I continue to practice my listening skills every day, knowing that strengthening it also helps my overall communication skills. I have a few oddball suggestions for interested students to try.

1. Take an improv class. Improvisational comedy isn’t about quick wit. It’s about careful listening. Scene partners rely on each other to build a world from scratch instantly, but those foundations can collapse in a wink.

A master improv performer understands that she must continue where her partner left off. She can try to think ahead, or surrender to the moment, studiously listening and watching what her partner has brought to the game.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve run through the arguments and counterarguments in my head while someone else was talking. I really missed out what they were trying to tell me, because I didn’t want to understand their viewpoint, merely one-up them.

The Positively Funny troupe offers classes in Birmingham.

2. Listen intently in short bursts. A meeting offers the perfect opportunity to go all in: no devices, no doodling, no distractions.

Can we listen to what each person has to contribute? Can we discover how others react to questions, opinions, requests and commands? Can we accurately summarize each colleague’s portion?

I would often get lost in my own thoughts during meetings and very rarely get called on it. I’ve seen plenty of people spend entire meetings and conference calls glued to their phones.

We pay a price for distracted meetings: lack of follow-through; confusion over action steps; poor service for colleagues and customers. Maybe we can’t be perfect listeners 24 hours a day, but how about for 1 hour?

3. Practice yoga. One primary skill in yoga is breathing. Through monitoring our breath, we become one with our bodies (if that makes sense). We listen to what our bodies are telling us: Mine usually tells me that ow my left leg is cramping up!

I know that when I do a better job of listening to my body, my mind and my spirit, I am better prepared to listen to the concerns of others. But if my stomach is rumbling, if my mind is stuck on negative thoughts, my listening suffers.

Yoga is a great way to tap into our noisy inner lives. It might make someone else’s noisy life a little easier.

4. See a therapist. I’m grateful when someone listens to me carefully. Therapy can be cathartic when I have so much I want to unload.

But it’s also a wonderful opportunity to see a pro at work, someone paid to listen to people’s woes. She isn’t taking calls or checking emails or scrolling through social media. She asks questions, watches my expressions, listens to my tone and participates as needed.

Not to mention that therapists can help patients learn listening skills. Marriage counselors guide couples through basic exercises so each one can practice talking less and taking in more.

Many of us are probably not in a listening mood, especially to “the other side.” We harm only ourselves in remaining inert. Who will be the first to reach out and give a warm, sincere listen?

More ways to work on listening skills.

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