The cause that refreshes

Has branded journalism come of age?

Long considered promotional by traditional journalists, branded journalism is gaining credence as consumers looking for news that reflects their personal interests.

The discipline scored a big victory last month when the New York Times covered the reinvention of Coca-Cola’s website as an online magazine. The site offers articles on entertainment and the environment as well as company-centric news and features on corporate social responsibility. While content comes with a point of view, Coke says it wants to serve as a credible source of information. As with any of these sites, the key for journalists and consumers alike will be full disclosure of those commercial and political relationships.

Given the greater credibility readers grant editorial over advertising, marketers have promoted branded journalism for years. Several agencies, such as VSA Partners in Chicago, not only provide the service for clients but coach others in best practices.

I have long advocated for content marketing as a way to engage audiences in a compelling way, going back a decade to my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a history of not only the corporation that has become Sanofi Pasteur but the vaccine pioneers who made it a success. I’ve continued working in that discipline for the past eight years as principal writer for Mack Trucks’ Bulldog magazine, one of the oldest corporate publications in the nation.

There are two things I like about corporate journalism. It allows us to reach the essence of all news by creating a story about the people who benefit from the brand, whether that’s a commercial of philanthropic interest. And when done properly, the discipline requires the transparency of traditional journalism, with its bedrock insistence on accuracy of fact and tone.

That doesn’t always fly with senior management but it’s something practitioners owe to readers. By meeting that mandate, we can help organizations tell their stories in ways that even journalists can accept.

For marketers, that’s refreshing news, indeed.

10 things Fla. can learn from Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy wasn’t our first major storm but it was the first since we bought property in Sarasota, Florida. After five days without water, power or reliable phone service, we’ve discovered what many Floridians know: that while you can’t move your home out of harm’s way, you can mitigate the discomfort with a little planning. Here are 10 tips from a northerner who has learned about infrequent but damaging storms:

  1. Plan for the worst. Create two options, one for sheltering in place, the other for abandoning your home. Find a place to shelter before hurricane season. If you can’t stay with relatives or friends outside the disaster zone, investigate nearby motels and plug that contact information into your mobile phone. You can tough it out without hot food but not a shower: you don’t want to report for work with bat hair. Don’t assume your neighbors can shelter you. Chances are they won’t have electricity, either. Book lodgings at least two days before the storm hits or you’ll lose your place to other homeowners and utility crews.
  2. Everything runs on electricity, not just AC and the Internet. Even alternative-fuel systems with electric starters, like pellet stoves and some gas hot water heaters, won’t work. Credit card and ATM machines need power. So do gasoline pumps at service stations. Assume no one will have electricity, including the municipalities, and plan accordingly. That means bulking up on generators, manual appliances, and cash.
  3. Invest in battery backup. Power outages outlast computers, cell phones and smartphones. Consider universal power supplies and dedicated cell-phone chargers. Once a storm approaches, charge all devices every night you have power. And remember to check the batteries in flashlights. You don’t want to be one of the things that go bump in the night.
  4. Sign up for text alerts from the electric company so you’ll know when it restores power to your home. Create a neighborhood phone tree so when the electric company says it has restored power, you can verify, or challenge, that assessment.
  5. Store essential phone numbers on paper. Keep a copy in your house, car and pocket.
  6. Inventory your medications. Keep a list in your wallet or purse. As soon as the first storm forms, refill your prescriptions. Every time the weather service begins tracking a new storm, use those alerts as reminders to check your supply.
  7. Save plastic containers to fill with water for washing, drinking and flushing toilets.
  8. Fill your cars with gasoline as soon as the weather service says a storm will make landfall within a few days.
  9. Pack a crash bag and keep it in the trunk of your car. Include clothing, personal hygiene items, bottled water, flashlight, cell-phone chargers and over-the-counter and prescription medications. If you’re stranded on your way home, you’ll have a few essentials.
  10. Don’t overstock the refrigerator or freezer. Perishables perish. In addition to paper products and plastic utensils, stockpile liquids packaged in bricks, dry goods like pasta, peanut butter, bottled water, canned goods and a manual can opener.

If there’s one lesson Hurricane Sandy has taught us it’s this: hope for the best but plan for the worst. Your future self will thank you.

Learn about how to prepare for hurricanes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Ready.gov site.

Home smart home

The home of the future will look like the home of today, only with a few more gadgets.

By 2020 experts believe our homes and appliances will contain more advanced technology but that many of us will prefer working with non-digital systems. That’s according to a survey of 1,021 Internet experts, researchers and observers conducted recently by the Pew Research Center.

In other words, predictions of the demise of the analog home run counter to behavior, much like those predictions of the paperless office.

“Hundreds of tech analysts foresee a future with ‘smart’ devices and environments that make people’s lives more efficient,” the Pew Center reported. “But they also note that current evidence about the uptake of smart systems is that the costs and necessary infrastructure changes to make it all work are daunting. And they add that people find comfort in the familiar, simple, ‘dumb’ systems to which they are accustomed.”

Smart technology can manage systems that control heating and air conditioning, power, appliances, security, entertainment and communications. Some systems allow remote monitoring and access by way of mobile devices.

Slow digital adoption could reflect the age of homeowners. Younger people who quickly adopt technology haven’t had the years to save for a down payment. The “typical” age of a homebuyer has remained at 39 years since 2007, according to the National Association of Realtors. Census figures show that while 43% of households with a householder under the age of 35 own a home, 81.6% of those with a householder between the ages of 55 and 64 do.

In the survey some experts believe homeowners will adopt technology that saves energy and money. Others think that for the moment the issue is a “marketing mirage.” Aside from programmable thermostats and Internet-enabled security cameras, which technology will nudge homeowners toward the digital domicile?

Emergency? Who You Gonna Call?

Payphones have gone the way of steam engines and spats. Concern about security has not. Colleges have responded by installing emergency call stations known for their blue lights. Adults old enough to remember rotary phones can use their landlines and lifelines.

Leave it to the Internet generation to develop an alternative.

Security apps for smartphones have become a booming business. They provide a wide range of functions, from receiving emergency notifications to connecting you with commercial monitoring teams through a subscription service. Apple’s App Store alone lists 98 apps in the emergency-alert category.

What’s your best bet if you want to use your smartphone as a mobile substitute for blue-light boxes? Here’s a short list of apps, some free, some not, starting with passive software and advancing toward interactive systems.

  • CodeRED Mobile Alert. Designed to keep you informed, this app taps into the national CodeRED Emergency Notification System to alter subscribers of public safety issues.
  • Emergency. The utility allows the direct dialing to four main emergency services (general, fire, police, medical).
  • SOS Panic Button. This app features a large panic button that, when pressed, will use the phone’s GPS tracking feature to notify friends and family of your location by telephone and email.
  • Bluelight. The app notifies your friends and family when you don’t arrive at your destination as planned.
  • SOS Response. This is for users who want their smartphones to act more like hardwired home alarm and blue-light systems. The app sends photos and GPS information to a monitoring team, who then alert responders.
  • MyForce. Another subscription-based service, this app sends reports to alarm monitors who, the developer says, will connect to 911 dispatchers “after an emergency is validated.”

A word of caution about the technology. Anyone can use a blue-light emergency call button or home-alarm system. Only those who can afford a smartphone and the monthly fee can access some of these subscription services. And what happens if your phone can’t find a signal?

 

Taking the temperature of weather apps

With much of the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern seaboard in the grip of hurricane season, residents might want to update their iPads with the latest weather apps. (The iPad doesn’t come with a basic weather app, unlike its smaller sibling, the iPhone.) Mashable’s Elizabeth Woodard has a few suggestions.

For basic information in an uncluttered display, Magical Weather presents a week’s worth of temperatures in a transparent pane over an animated background. Users can swipe to retrieve an hourly forecast.

For all the bells and whistles, Intellicast HD displays a full 10-day forecast with charts, graphs, sunrise and sunset times, moon phases, a radar picture, storm cell tracking, wind direction and a weather blog.

For customizable graphs, Seasonality Go shows users a series of screens they populate with weather data. Users can move and resize the panes with forecasts and maps until they find the one they want.

Some apps, like WeatherBug and The Weather Channel, are also available for iPhone and Android devices.

Now if they’d only keep the roof from leaking.

 

 

The age of distracted viewing

Half of all cell phone owners use their devices while watching TV, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center. Owners use their phones to engage with content, avoid advertising or interact with others. The report is based on a survey of 2,254 adults via landline and mobile phones.

The numbers drop dramatically with the increase in an owner’s age.

First the general stats. Of the 88% of American adults who own cell phones:

  • 38% use their phone to keep themselves occupied during commercials or breaks in something they are watching
  • 22% check whether something they’ve heard on television is true or not
  • 6% use their phones to vote for reality show contestants.

“Taken together, that works out to 52% of all adult cell owners who are ‘connected viewers’—meaning they took part in at least one of these activities in the 30 days preceding our survey,” the center reports.

A deeper dive into the numbers shows that as you age, you are less likely to use a mobile phone while watching TV:

  • While 81% of mobile phone owners in the 18-24 age bracket use their phone while watching TV, only 29% of those aged 55-64 and 16% of adults over age 65 multitask.
  • 73% of the 18-24 crowd uses phones to distract themselves during commercials while the numbers for the two older groups drop to 16% and 9%, respectively.
  • 45% of the 18-24 cohort uses the phone to fact check TV content while, in the two older groups, those numbers plummet to 8% and 4%, respectively.
  • Only 1% of adults over age 65 see what others are saying online about the program they’re watching. The figure rises to 28% for the youngest age group.

The numbers are similar for owners who use their mobile devices to interact with friends or contribute thoughts about televised content. In the 18-24 group, 28% post comments, 43% exchange test messages with others watching the same program and 7% vote for a reality show contestant. Compare that with adults over age 65, who rarely post comments (1%), seldom exchange text messages with other viewers (4%) and don’t vote for contestants (3%).

What does that say about engagement among older viewers? Are they too old fashioned to use new devices or do they have longer attention spans? Are they less inquisitive or more patient? What do you think?

Jeff Widmer

Access all areas

Smartphones are replacing computers as our primary Internet devices.

More than half of American cell phone owners use their devices to access the Internet, according to a report issued this week by the Pew Research Center. That’s a big jump from the 31 percent of cell owners who said they used their phones to go online in April of 2009.

Nearly a fifth of cell phone users said they do most of their online browsing on their phone. The rapid adoption of the smartphone as a primary research and entertainment tool comes at the expense of other less-mobile devices such as desktop and notebook computers.

Why are people shifting their Internet portal to cell phones? The phones are convenient and always available. They fill access gaps and better fit people’s usage habits, the center reports.

The center conducted the national telephone survey this March and April. It included 2,254 adults age 18 and over, with 903 interviews conducted on the respondent’s cell phone.

Jeff Widmer

Marketers still searching for digital roadmap

Ninety percent of companies do not have an integrated digital marketing strategy, despite studies that show an increasing number of customers migrating to the digital platform.

Only 9% of chief marketing officers say their companies have a “highly evolved digital marketing model with a proven and clear path of evolution,” according to a CMO Council study of more than 200 marketing executives. Twenty-three percent report top executives at their firms are “still trying to understand where digital marketing fits within their overall business.” And 36% say their strategy amounts to a collection of tactics.

There is some good news from marketing leaders:

  • 20% report having approval from the C-Suite to implement a digital strategy
  • 42% say they have the interest and support of their teams
  • 23% are trying to determine where digital fits within their existing strategy
  • 20% say they need to make digital marketing a strategic priority with management.

Marketers need to go where their customers go, writes Michael Brenner in a post called “Are Marketers Becoming Digital Dinosaurs?” “The point is to create content that your audience wants, in all the places where they may look for it. The point is to have your customers share your content with their connections. The point is to lower the cost of sales and to increase the effectiveness of marketing.”

And they need a roadmap to get there.

— Jeff Widmer

Older adults embrace technology

They may not spend most of their time sending text messages but older Americans are embracing digital technology. They use the internet, join social networks and own mobile phones, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center.

The center reports that as of April 2012, 53% of American adults age 65 and older use the internet or email. This is the first time that half of seniors are going online.

A third (34%) of internet users age 65 and older use social networking sites such as Facebook, and 18% report that they do so on a typical day. Most adults in this age group still rely on email to communicate, with 86% of internet users age 65 and older preferring that medium.

As for devices, the center found a growing share of seniors–69% of adults ages 65 and older–own a mobile phone. That’s up from 57% in May 2010.

— Jeff Widmer

You are the network

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, has written a book with sociologist Barry Wellman showing how the large, loosely knit social circles of networked individuals expand opportunities for learning, problem solving, decision making and personal interaction. This new system of “networked individualism” offers some advantages in liberating people from the restrictions of tightly knit groups.

Here Rainie explains the themes of Networked: The New Social Operating System.

— Jeff Widmer