Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

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.

Going online for a lifeline

Nearly nine in ten caregivers with Internet access use the technology to find health information to help them with their duties. That’s a large pool of people: 30 percent of U.S. adults help someone with personal needs, household chores, finances and services.

The statistics come from the Pew Research Center, which conducted a national telephone survey conducted in September 2010. The survey was released this month.

“Caregivers are significantly more likely than other Internet users to say that their last search for health information was on behalf of someone else—67 percent vs. 54 percent,” Pew reports. “Just 29 percent of online caregivers say their last search was solely focused on their own health or medical situation, compared with 40 percent of non-caregivers who go online for health information.”

Pew defines the cohort as those caring for an adult, such as a parent or spouse. A small subset of the group cares for a child living with a disability or long-term health issue.

The center found that eight in ten caregivers (79 percent) have access to the Internet. Of those, 88 percent look online for health information, outpacing other Internet users on every health initiative included in the survey, from researching treatments to rating hospital to making end-of-life decisions.

How do you use the Internet to care for others?

Hands across the ether

I had a problem. The friend who had created and hosted my website for the past dozen years was closing his business. The server would go dark Friday. He let me know Monday. I felt more concerned about whether he would find a job than whether I could find a company to host the site. But since I make a living as a PR and social media strategist I thought I’d better not let all of those work and writing samples vanish into the ether.

So I called a national web hosting company whose name sounds like granddaddy and discovered that while it could host a site, it couldn’t migrate my pages to a new server. Nor would it offer much in the way of help, should I decide to go it alone.

So I did something I’ve only read about: I signed into LinkedIn and reached out to members of several groups to which I belong. Within a day I counted half a dozen recommendations, from big players to small local shops, all from people who have used the services. One person who has since become a connection, Diane Walz of Good Life Care in Sarasota, Florida recommended someone with whom she’d worked. The person was local. She specialized in WordPress projects. And, as Diane said, she’s nice.

Local, competent, nice. As Rick Hunter used to say, works for me.

So I emailed Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads on a Wednesday afternoon and got a quote. It seemed reasonable. So did she. After receiving the logon credentials she started work late Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon she had the site up and running. I’m testing it now and everything seems to work. She’s tweaking what doesn’t, including the email system, which now runs on both computer and smartphone.

This is the way social networks should work. They’re much more than a collection of pictures, posters and opinions. They’re a conduit to people with real world experience, the kind that keeps your business and your life running as smoothly as possible.

Someone once said the mission of all of us in public relations is to “be useful.” Social media is no different. We’re here to help. In a world complicated by devices and deadlines, it’s nice to see that philosophy in action.

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

America gets its information on the fly

Nearly 9 in 10 smartphone owners use their devices for consumer research. They are using them to perform real-time searches to help arrange meetings with friends, solve problems or find information to settle an argument, according to a new study from the Pew Internet & American Life project.

Within the past 30 days, smartphone or cell phone owners said they used their phone to:

  • Decide whether to visit a business, such as a restaurant.
  • Look up a score of a sporting event.
  • Get up-to-the-minute traffic or public transit information to find the fastest way to get somewhere.

“The growing adaptation and functionality of smartphones has made them more entrenched in users’ daily lives,” The Pew center said. “Just-in-time cell users — defined as anyone who has done one or more of the activities above using their phones in the preceding 30 days — now comprise 62% of the adult population.”

Such real-time queries will have implications for organizations from financial services and healthcare institutions to B2C companies that want to reach consumers before they initiate a search.

Forget Peak Oil. How about Peak Internet?

The rapid rise of Internet adoption in the United States has peaked, a trend that has implications for marketers who have shifted their budgets to interactive from print.

One in five American adults does not use the Internet, according to the Pew Internet Project, which interviewed 2,260 adults age 18 and older in English and Spanish, by landline and cell phone, in July and August of 2011.

Internet adoption among U.S. adults increased rapidly from the mid-’90s to about 2005.  That means adoption topped out at least a year before the advent of the Great Recession. Since then, the number of adult Internet users has remained stable at around 75 to 80%. The Pew Internet & American Life Project’s latest poll shows that this trend continued in 2011.

Here are the major findings:

  • Senior citizens, those who prefer to take interviews in Spanish rather than English, adults with less than a high school education and those living in households earning less than $30,000 per year are the least likely adults to have Internet access.
  • Among adults who do not use the Internet, almost half said the main reason they don’t go online is because they don’t think the Internet is relevant to them. Most have never used the Internet before and don’t have anyone in their household who does.
  • The 27% of adults living with disability in the United States today are significantly less likely than adults without a disability to go online (54% vs. 81%). That’s a small number, thought. Pew found that only 2% of adults have a disability or illness that makes it more difficult or impossible for them to use the internet at all.

While Internet use has reached saturation among most residents, another trend—the move toward mobile computing—may counteract the former. Pew reports that 88% of American adults have a cell phone, 57% have a laptop, 19% own an e-book reader and 19% have a tablet computer. About six in ten adults (63%) go online wirelessly with one of those devices.

For marketers, that means a deeper dive into data on those subgroups.

Drill, baby, drill.