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:

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?

Should Curbing Violence Start with Words?

This summer, we’ve been horrified by tragic mass shootings in Wisconsin and Colorado.  Closer to home, several senseless gunfire incidents have jolted Toronto. We shake our heads, grieve for the victims and then move back to business.

The problem is business, particularly marketing, often means talking about the new killer app, killer collection or even killer strategies, which if executed well, will generate multiple hits and create die-hard fans. Sometimes we reduce the impact to just assault with a genteel alternative, such as “kick-ass,” as in kick-ass campaign but it’s still hostile. And as the scope widens, we talk about “ad wars” and “annihilating the competition.”  Similarly when a firm’s reputation is on the line, we set-up a “war room.”

I don’t think this practice is exclusive to English.  I once discovered “blood bath” and other violent terms peppered throughout business copy I was editing for an Asian client.  As blood bath didn’t suit North American business conventions, I substituted with more precise terms to describe the urgency and high stakes. (The client described my editing as “making it more polite.”)

Sure business is competitive and a successful approach stands out and is often extreme but must it be aligned with murder or violence?

More importantly: what’s the fallout of violent rhetoric?  In the wake of the 2011 Tuscan shootings, Rev. Barbara Kaufmann covered this practice in a Huffington Post article and how it is often subtly or subliminally used in marketing to prompt action or even aggression.  She also cited Deborah Schaffer, a Montana State University professor who has studied inflammatory and prejudicial speech since the nineties and states that “language can be used to stir up and manipulate emotions…sometimes for good, sometimes for evil.”

Am I reading more into the marketing language we frequently use with no ill intentions? Maybe. But in a world where we are starting to recognize how bullying scars a child for life (or worse) and unprovoked shootings appear to be rising, maybe it’s time we took violence out of the marketing vernacular.

An IABC colleague once pondered different ways say awesome. Maybe it’s time to take this further and seek alternatives to “the killer approach.” What about scratching the surface with….

  • the Ultimate, Ideal, Exemplary or Definitive or ….versus the killer app, collection or strategy?
  • Opportunities, References, Exposure points or …. versus earned media hits?
  • Extreme, Lifelong, Enduring, Resolute or …. versus die-hard fans?
  • Insight hub, Pulse Room, Information Centre or …. versus war room?

What alternatives can you suggest? Where else can we address violence in marketing lingo?

Take-aways from Helping Manage an IABC Chapter

After eight years on communication association boards (the last six for IABC/Toronto), I’ve done my last ‘ritual’ as immediate past president. This means time to shift to new priorities, including bringing this blog back to life.

During these years, I’ve been asked why I immersed myself in IABC and what I learned. As an extrovert, part of the attraction was the opportunity to work with smart and inquisitive people. The other reason was to give back and sometimes push the envelope towards change, which may be slightly easier from the inside.

Beyond broad personal development and growth, here are some specific things l learned through my tenure:

  1. Concerns cross continents…while we sleep. I once woke to an email from IABC Chair Barb Gibson asking about a controversial blog post on a Toronto event’s promotion. (Thanks to a pre-planned visit, I was able to alleviate the issue that day in person with the student blogger and online with the chair.)

  2. Sometimes a budget in the red is positive. When a not-for-profit, like IABC, earns a surplus in one year, a loss may be incurred in the following year to spend it. Although accurate and prudent, it’s an awkward message to deliver. (We’re still ‘wordsmithing’ the best way to say it.)

  3. Social media fosters a crowd mentality, which veers toward the positive. It can also bring defenders from the most unlikely places. I was once jarred by two volatile tweets from a member questioning IABC’s value. I invited offline discussion, while several tweets extolled the association’s benefits, including the detractor’s boss (not usually an overt supporter).

  4. Responsiveness counts more than ever, particularly online. Following the incident above, a member sent kudos for the quick response.

  5. For a great volunteer outcome: Start with a passionate volunteer. Provide a base, remove roadblocks and step back. To establish a mentoring program (which was a personal goal), we found a strong director with firsthand appreciation of a great mentor.  We held a ThinkTank to gather primary research, developed an outline and moved mentoring from a heavy portfolio with minimal cycles to a lighter one, with room for support. Our volunteer ran with it, doubling engagement and boosting feedback within two years.

  6. Leverage the expertise of varied generations, particularly when change is involved. We made the leap to social media through demos from Gen X and Y members on how it worked, combined with Boomer and Gen X insights on policies and guidelines to mitigate risks.

  7. Tap into IABC’s Worldwide network to access award-winning solutions for personal and chapter benefits. After grappling with website options, we found the answer in IABC Maritime’s revered site. By emulating it, we cut some corners but upheld quality.

  8. IABC members are welcoming and inclusive worldwide. (Once, when rooms were in short supply at Leadership Institute, I shared with a member and her beloved Labrador Retriever.)

  9. In terms of ‘Be heard,’ less is definitely more, when it comes to IABC.

  10. Setting SMART objectives for a chapter’s strategic plan is a best practice. It also means extensive follow-up to validate metrics and write CMA submissions….with sometimes a glistening award or two at the end.

For me, it was a great experience and one that I would highly recommend. I imagine leaders in other chapters have similar, as well as varied insights.  If you were on an IABC board for a couple of years or more, what did you learn?

(For more about IABC/Toronto, see IABC/Toronto 2008/2009 Annual Report.)