Great Content But Can Your Audience Find You?

Stone ArrowRecently I received an exhaustive URL to a great web page about a city’s new project. Then I looked for menu prompts to direct external visitors there but found none. Short of keying in a series of cryptic characters (which would look horrid in print), there was no way to find the page. Likewise, have you ever searched a website for an organization’s specific office or product and given up in frustration?

As communicators, we develop quality content and share it with our audiences, often using it to ignite conversations and engagement. But these efforts are in vain if a large segment of your audience doesn’t find you because the “path” is broken or desperately needs a renovation.

Sure you can fix website menus/links within your organization and use key words effectively but what about sites that others control?  Check how relevant third parties are representing your brand, if at all. You may find some surprises. I don’t mean media/blogger stories where editorial integrity has the last word and your organization’s core messages may never be conveyed verbatim. I’m thinking of websites/other digital properties owned by organizations affiliated with yours − so your brand has a legitimate reason to be there and properly represented.

For example, what if…

  • You manage communications for a public sector organization and your parent Ministry lists you on its website but with an outdated value proposition.
  • You work for a retailer that runs a customer loyalty program with a trusted vendor − but the vendor lists only a few of your participating stores on its promo web page, if at all.
  • Your socially responsible employer is actively dedicated to a cause; the recipient not-for-profit features all its corporate supporters on its web page, with links to their sites, but leaves yours off the roster.

Having lived each of these scenarios, I think it’s worth the time to occasionally retrace your audience’s steps to see how aligned stakeholders cite your brand on their sites.

To do a digital audit, run a:

  1. Manual check of all the relevant affiliate and stakeholder organization websites that should or could mention your brand.
  2. Google search and dig beyond the first couple of pages to find any gaps.
  3. Search on Bing/Yahoo or use other online tools to uncover missed opportunities.

If mentions or messages are amiss, you can outreach directly or use your contacts/networks to tactfully request changes.

More importantly, maybe it’s time to take a page from the social media best practice of “listening” to conversations and using what we hear to inform strategy.  We can do so by using this audit to find out why a mistake or omission occurred. Maybe your contact list is outdated, there is a major disconnect or a relationship gone amok?  With this insight, we can take steps to course correct or adjust our strategy for engaging that stakeholder as we move forward.

Do you do these checks? What works for you and what “surprises” have you uncovered?

eNewsletters: Constant Contact vs. Mail Chimp

ConstantContactSome time ago, I researched the merits of eNewsletter tools for a client, narrowing the choice down to: Constant Contact versus Mail Chimp.  I also discovered a few other tools in the process, such as iContact, which looks good but it forces its logo on your newsletter with no removal option.

In the end, we selected Mail Chimp, which
has a learning curve but proved effective.MailChimp

For the benefit of others seeking a cost-effective and professional solution for external or internal communications, I’m sharing my findings here.  (Click on the table to enlarge and then save the file, if desired.) I’ve also included links to various sources I consulted.  (Caveat: As this initial research was done in early 2012, some things may have changed. So if you discover any needed updates, please let me know.)

CCMC Comparison

Sources:

How to Communicate a Workplace Tragedy

Frontcover_April29As we approach International Day of Mourning on April 28, I recall a quick lesson in PR school on how to manage an employee’s death on the work site and how I hoped it was something I never had to do. So far, I haven’t.

A couple of years ago however, I learned much more about how best to deal with tragedy in the workplace,  from Shirley Hickman, a woman (and former client), who exemplifies the “integrity2impact” theme of this blog — out of a tragic loss.

In 1996, Shirley and her family’s lives changed forever when their son Tim perished after a traumatic workplace explosion. After the initial shock, the family looked for answers about what occurred and why. Beyond their own needs, they wanted to find out so they could help prevent a similar incident from happening to someone else. Sadly, they learned the explosion was predictable and preventable, if everyone had followed a series of safety rules.

Since then, Shirley has focused on making a difference in workplace health and safety through her own initiatives and Threads of Life – Association for Workplace Tragedy Family Support, a national registered charity, which she co-founded in 2003.

I met Shirley when I managed the PR launch of Forget Me Not, a book this charity produced to promote safer work environments through true stories of Canadian workplace tragedies. While doing background research, I found a noteworthy article entitled “Dealing with Affected Families,”  which appeared in Accident Prevention magazine. It outlines Shirley’s recommendations for communicating with this audience after a workplace tragedy/critical injury, as told to an interviewer.  Initially targeted at occupational health experts, I think these recommendations are also particularly pertinent to internal communicators and HR folks:

  1. Establish a communications link with the family as soon as possible – Contact the family as soon as the crisis communications team has assessed the situation and devised an action plan. Ideally assign one person to liaise with the family and keep them updated. The worst thing  Shirley said “is to leave the family to others, such as the Ministry of Labour….when that happens, the family becomes bitter towards the employer before they even know the facts.”
  2. Build compassion into crisis communications – Check what support services are available for employees and their families in advance and include these details in your corporate communications and crisis planning. Then, if a tragedy occurs, you can ask the family what they need, describe available services, such as grief counselling, employee assistance programs or media interview support, and connect them with the needed help.  In some scenarios, staff might also help with practical needs, such as arranging childcare or transportation, immediately after an incident.
  3. Manage the information flow – Screen new information, as it becomes available but maintain a sense of openness and transparency by not withholding critical information, including answers to tough questions. If however information can’t be released for legal reasons, then tell the family this.
  4. Establish a legacy, after the crisis passes – “Talk about who the person was, the loss to the family and the loss to the community, and how valued the person was as a worker,” Shirley recommends.  Positive gestures can range from a phone call to say “we’re thinking of your family right now” or a card to establishing a scholarship or post-secondary occupational or public health and safety program.

Shirley believes good crisis communications helps the company and those left behind by “reducing the psychological problems and absenteeism rates that go with extreme emotional stress.” She suggests a critical incident or fatality is not just about one family but the families of all their coworkers too.  “They’re watching how the company is responding to the family of the worker because it could have been them, and their families,” she cautions.

Granted each organization has its own challenges and limitations but these points provide a good starting place for how to enhance internal crisis communications, from the unique perspective of those directly affected for the long-term.

Inspiring Comfort from Boston Bombing Heroes – Round-up

A small voice interrupted our horrified silence with “Daddy, change the channel, I don’t want to watch this movie.”  How we wished it was a movie. How could we tell our four-year-old it wasn’t? How could we believe the carnage of 9/11 was deliberate?

From my childhood, I remember the morning they found Pierre Laporte’s slain body —a day after my parents assured me the FLQ were merely trying to make a political point but wouldn’t hurt anyone.

How do you explain evil to a child and reassure them of their safety? How do we recover from these events that erode our basic sense of security?

Even though we’ve all aged since 9/11 and perhaps grown more jaded, the past week’s Boston bombings and destroyed lives are no less jarring.

Gandi QuoteA recent post from Sesame Street recommends reassuring children that parents, teachers, law enforcers, and members of their community are doing everything possible to keep them safe from harm.  Likewise, Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers) once said: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You’ll always find people who are helping.’” 

After the shock and prayers for those affected, I think many adults took a similar route and searched for stories of incredible goodness rising from horrific acts.BananaQuote

I searched for comforting quotes from Gandhi and others. A “When Life Makes You Think” post from Digital Strategist Hessie Jones took a similar approach.

RedCrossTweetJust as I thought nothing quite fit the moment, the news feed began to fill with on-the-scene accounts of selfless kindness, often at great risk.  Here are links to a few of these stories:

Thank-you to all those who showed us the very best we can be, amid the very worst.

Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

8 DIY Tools for Visual Content Creation and Infographics

Since about 65 per cent of us are visual learners, it’s no wonder high quality infographics are 30 times more likely to be read than text articles (according to customermagnetism). Visual content is also noted for boosting SEO performance and consistently appears as a “must have” on content strategy checklists.

If you have the budget or an in-house resource, it’s best to have a data visualization specialist create top-of-the-line visual content but this isn’t always possible. Fortunately, there is also a growing list of free or nominally priced online tools you can access to visually depict data and tell your story.  Here are some I’ve discovered for creating infographics, as well as word clouds and graphic timelines.

DIY Infographic Creation Tools:

  1. EasellyEasel.ly – Provides drop-and-drag templates called “Vhemes,” which  give you a framework for creating infographics that feature Venn diagrams and traditional graphs, as well as maps and pathways. You can easily customize them further by changing backgrounds/colours and inserting shapes, lines or icons from a range of categories (including people of varied demographics) or uploading your own images.
  2. piktochartPiktochart – Offers a choice of six free templates (with more available for an upgrade fee). You can customize your graphic by changing colors, themes, fonts or inserting/uploading icons/images. You can also create charts manually or by uploading CSV files.
  3. InfogramChartsInfogr.am – Still in beta, this easy-to-use tool comes with six templates for creating your own infographic or standalone graphs. You can enhance it by editing data and text and uploading images. I find it stands apart with its incredible range of 14 adaptable graph formats, which include progress gauges, tree maps, and word clouds, as well as bar and other standard charts and tables.  However, unlike some of the other tools, it lacks pre-fab icons.
  4. VisuallyEgVisually – Offers a range of templates that enable you to create infographics but they must be based on Twitter or Facebook data. According to econsultancy.com,  you can also order Visually infographics, which start from $1,495 and take at least 18 days to produce.
  5. GraphicDriverGraphicriver – This tool is not free but offers a variety of intricately designed templates that you can purchase for a licence fee as low as $6.00 and then customize to meet your needs.

Word Cloud Tools:wordle-tree

  1. Wordle – Generates “word clouds” from text that you provide. The words are sized according to how frequently they appear in the selected chunk of text, with the largest point size used for words that appear more frequently in a selected chunk of text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
  2. Tagxedo – Similar to Wordle, this tool gives you more control on what specific shape your text forms, as well as its colour scheme, orientation or font style.

Timeline Tools:

  1. Dipity – This tool enables you to easily create, share, embed and collaborate on developing a static or interactive timeline that can be integrated with video, audio, images, text, links, social media, location and time stamps. (An alternative, more sophisticated  tool for creating multimedia timelines is Timeline JS)

Some Cautions

The work however starts long before you open the tool, when you….

  1. Decide the purpose of the infographic and what you want it to inspire the viewer to do.
  2. Identify an angle that speaks to people beyond your organization or client. Ideally, it should tell a story and try to answer a question (or questions) that someone, somewhere has likely asked or wants answered. (News hooks like human interest, novelty, drama, proximity or conflict might be a good place to start.)
  3. “Google” the web to source ideas and check for infographics with similar themes to ensure you create an original.
  4. Gather and validate stats, which may show: a sequence/process, relationships, before & after, comparisons, map…
  5. Clean, refine and cull the most compelling data points.
  6. Storyboard, sketch ideas and try out formats for graphs or images offline that you can bring to life online.

I know many designers cringe at the thought of  over zealous “suits” and others creating abominable results (like early websites with mismatched “ransom note” text that blinked on and off). Fortunately, many of these tools have built-in features to keep you on the right design track but to play it safe:

  • Keep text to a minimum by making your graphs and illustrations tell the story.
  • Restrict your colour scheme to a maximum of three core colours, plus black but avoid white backgrounds.
  • Keep it simple, by sticking to a core message and using a conservative number of elements that leaves the viewer with some blank spaces to rest their eyes.
  • Limit yourself to two font types, if possible and use a type’s weight (bold or light), italics or colour to emphasize a point, instead of  all capitals or underlined text.
  • Draw the viewer in by setting illustrations/icons to move from left to right (or the direction your audience reads), versus featuring a graphic of a person/animal running or looking to the left side of the screen.

What tools have you used? How did you apply them to your business needs?

Note: In researching this post, the following sources were particularly useful and worth checking for more relevant insights:

Breaking Barriers to Get Your Message Online

YourHealthYourWagEx3Your organization’s website is likely its lobby to the world, with gateways to pages that convey its historical rise to its current value proposition. For brand consistency and streamlined access, the best practice is to have a single website but sometimes I don’t find this viable.

If you’ve  ever tried to “renovate” or add an item/page to your website for a valid purpose, only to be halted by a rigid platform, a tight budget, limited resources or a backlog of other priorities — you know what I mean.

Blogs are noted for their flexibility and capacity to go into overtime when a crisis occurs, while your website or traditional channels may be too slow or inaccessible. The same premise applies to using a blogging platform to create a “pop-up” micro site, for a short-term need or a “workaround” to the main website.

TrilliumHallEgWhen do you need a pop-up microsite?  What about when…

  1. You need to promote an event in a tight time frame (such as a first-time public information event targeted at local residents)
  2. You need to launch an unconventional application or brand extension for your product or service (such as a multimedia venue a hospital wants to market to “healthy” people)
  3. You anticipate multiple updates for a quick pace build or a tiered campaign roll-out (such as a conference assembled in an insane time frame with fluctuating abstracts and speakers joining at a staggered pace)

For mavericks who “dare to challenge” convention, a pop-up site can also serve as a workaround for the above or other scenarios when your main website is:

  • Governed by an umbrella organization and your initiative is sure to exceed the pages, resources or customizations allocated to your division, department or franchise.
  • Hopelessly hard-coded and long overdue an upgrade
  • Managed by limited resources, with many requests ahead in the queue.

SustainPlantExI’ve turned to WordPress to quickly and efficiently build a micro site as a central communications conduit for some of the above scenarios and more.   [Here are the steps I’ve followed to create a pop-up site in WordPress but you can likely do the same in other blogging platforms.] Be sure however to check WordPress.com policies before you start to ensure you conform and there’s no surprises.

Have you created a microsite to meet a short-term or other need? Have you had success in other platforms? What challenges did you face? When do you think a pop-up site can prove invaluable and when should it be avoided?