Off the Grid

Spending nearly every summer of my life in a cabin less than 10 meters from a lake in the middle of British Columbia has a profound effect. Toilets and sinks fed by pumped lake water, electricity derived from solar panels, propane-powered refrigerators, and an hour’s drive to the nearest approximation of civilization (and at least two to the nearest hospital) all become a reminder that city life is pretty easy.

Sound and noise are different when you’re close to the middle of nowhere. I live close to a highway, so absolute silence is rare. Wind blowing through trees; calls of kingfishers, eagles, loons and ospreys; and occasional boat and ATV motors are as noisy as it gets at the cabin.

There are so many stars at night that I cannot pick out the constellations I could easily point out from any city sidewalk. I am truly sorry that I do not own a time-lapse-capable camera – I cannot show you that night sky.

However I can show you some of the vistas around my family’s cabin by the lake. The following are (very large) panoramic photos that impart a slice of my summers past.

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Sunday Roundup – June 8, 2014

Intention. It is the reason why we act – we intend to get a result.

Exactly what the result is, however, is the important part of intention. Intending only to be kind will get the result you want, even if you don’t know you want it.

Treating People with Kindness

Kindness begins with one of two intentions: 1) to receive something in return or 2) for the sake of doing it. Reason 2 is best, as it focuses on one’s own intent.

There is no expectation of return, so there is no chance to be disappointed. Expecting nothing in return makes it more pleasant when one receives something in return anyway.

Pillars of Trust

Business owners will consider Reason 1 first. That is how a business functions: it is intended to generate a profit .

Reason 2 to be kind does not expect return, but that does not mean there will be no return. Being kind with no intention of instant return is more noticeable than one would imagine, and doing so creates stories of trust that are worth sharing.

Clients sharing their own stories about an amazing business works far better than a business telling the same stories. There is no better endorsement than “on top of delivering the goods at the right price, they were exceptionally kind”.

Career Boosters: The Value of Volunteering

“I did it for the sake of itself” is not the best interview content, so the article linked above focuses on direct benefits of volunteering. Though one may volunteer for the sake of doing it, the interviewees make it clear that there are tangible benefits.

Just like being kind, volunteering has more benefits than “more business” or “another sale”. Volunteering is kindness given action – doing good deeds for the sake of doing it. Picking up skills, knowledge, and relationships are side-effects that need no warning label.

Over to You…

Do you give away your time? What about your kindness? Tell a story about the unexpected benefits of your intention to be a good person.

Sunday (Monday?) Round Up – May 19, 2014

Words, or just a single word, will make the difference between shared knowledge and confusion. From spelling and choosing words correctly, to answering the right questions and explaining a gargantuan undertaking, it’s all about precision.

30 Incorrectly Used Words That Can Make You Look Horrible

Nothing stands out like a mistake. Knowing how to say what one wants to say is vital to precise communication.

Three Questions Every Brand’s Story Must Answer

What would your world be like? What will make it happen? How are you trying to get there right now? That’s a basic plot of any mission, so can your organization answer those questions? Communicating you or your organization’s mission requires precise, exact communication.

Here’s What You Missed at Social Media Camp

A precise message can be derived from a complicated event. Social Media Camp 2014 was a gigantic venture – three speakers presenting at the same time and over 750 attendees. Nonetheless, Laurel Lindsay distilled it into short, exact sentences that loses no important details despite having a low word count.

Over to You…

How do you practice precision? Do you agree that routine and creativity can mix? How important to you is a precise story?

Sunday Roundup – March 30, 2014

Choices are inevitable. What conversations to join, how to participate after joining, and what work one does to earn a living are decisions that everyone makes.

Let’s jump into this week’s articles.

Have a Purpose and Be Social

A classmate put this post together. To reframe his thoughts: Be strategic about using social media. Without a purpose, the task is aimless. Without an understanding of the medium and how it works, the task is unlikely to succeed.

GM Uses Social Media to manage its Customers and Its Reputation

Speaking of using social media for a specific purpose and being social, General Motors seems to be doing a good job. Social media is immediate and easily watched by many eyes (including employees), meaning that it can be an excellent customer service and crisis management tool

Your Story About Money

I shared this because it says something important about the work we do. The way we make money is connected to that money itself. Good work makes for good money, and good money feels better.

Who’s Responsible?

Seth Godin gets two spots this week, as I think both posts are interrelated. This one is a short piece about personal responsibility and things we can control. For example, how money is earned and what we do with once it is earned are within our control.

Over to You…

What do you think about social media? Making money? Personal responsibility? Leave a comment!

Internal Marketing – The Newsletter

Organizations of all sizes often have some form of “internal marketing”. Product/service training, sell sheets, and newsletters are all examples. Even speeches and presentations by co-workers and supervisors are internal marketing.

All internal marketing is important, but I am going to focus on newsletters.

News Print

Most literature on the subject that I have read (most recently, Public Relations Writing by Bivins, T.H.) tells the same story. Newsletters are a piece of internal communication that mixes “hard” (monthly sales figures, product updates, etc) and “soft” (employee X had a child, look at this picture of your co-workers being silly, etc) news. Hard news delivers important facts while soft news implies what behaviour is acceptable in the office and what kind of values are part of the company’s internal culture.

When I began working at a medium-sized (100-200 employees) company, through nobody’s fault, I did not receive a copy of the company’s internal newsletter for the first month and a half. When I began to receive the newsletter, I noticed that it was easier to interact with co-workers and assess my work.

The Inside Track

Have you ever been conversing with two or more other people when an inside joke between those other people is brought up? I find that alienating, and it is even more so if the conversation diverts to follow the thread of that inside joke.

The same feeling crept up on me while I was not receiving the company’s newsletter. I heard references to specific events and images in the newsletter, and I had no idea what was going on. I felt like a temporary consultant rather than an employee on payroll.

My work was also impacted. Most of my work is writing that must represent the company’s culture. That work was stressful – more so than I had experienced with any writing I have ever done. My stress-level dropped after I received the company newsletter regularly: the bar by which I could assess my writing had been set.

Resolution

Newsletters are a simple and effective way to share news relevant to employees (key word: relevant), and they can also communicate the company’s culture. I think there are other issues in my own situation (I was sick for a couple weeks and my previous supervisor left the company), but I am certain the newsletter had a profound effect on me.

Over to You…

Do you have any experience with newsletters or any other internal marketing? Leave a comment and share your story.

Sunday Roundup – March 2, 2014

I have five stories for you lads and ladies this week. Other than the Harvard Business Review article, most of the articles focus on values – yes, even the article about Comcast.

So, without further adieu; feast your eyes on my Sunday Roundup:

Feminism is having a wardrobe malfunction.

This makes an important point about values that can be applied to individuals or businesses. We all have our own sets of values, and the organizations we operate and/or are employed by have sets of values. No matter how good we think our values are, they are ours alone. We can and do believe any number of things, but none of those things are necessarily the “right way”, they’re just “our way”.

Erika Linder is Him and Her in Mesmerizing Campaign for Crocker Jeans.

Androgyny for the win! Gender, as usual, is irrelevant. First of all, I’m impressed at how well Ms. Linder acts the male part – some of her gender swap is makeup, but some of it appears to be how she moves the muscles in her face.

How does this relate to values? Not all genders are considered equal in North American society, whether that gender is the result of good acting and make up, genetics, or bring transgendered. It is well past time to reconsider the value we place on gender.

Human2Human: Jargon or an Old a that Still Matters?

How much value to we place on being “businesslike”? How much to we place on human interaction and conversation?

Employees, customers, and anyone else directly or indirectly involved in a business are human beings before they chose to involve themselves with a business. Even the C-suite of a company is a human being by birth.

From my perspective as a marketer, it is easier to be human. Having a real, honest conversation with a prospective client is far more engaging than acting like a machine. After all, I was born human, too.

How To Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want To.

I don’t always agree with what comes out of Harvard, but I would not accuse them of being poor workers – they seem to get a lot done. How do they do it? Perhaps they do not use the tips in the following article, but I like to think they do.

Comcast doesn’t give a f*ck.

Of course they don’t. By owning almost all of the cable networks in the United States, they don’t have to care about competition or what customers want. Customers have no choices other than Comcast owned services, so Comcast has no incentive to be anything other than self-serving, and there are no competitors offering better prices or service or anything else that I customer would want from their cable network. So do we value our cable television enough to stand up against Comcast buying cable providers? I do, at least I would if I lived in the United States.

Over to You…

What did you read this week? Did I miss something important? Do you have a question? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

Saying vs. Doing

Canada’s Conservative party has never struck me as one to be tough on corporate mistakes. So you can understand my surprise in hearing that Health Canada is gearing up to sign an bill into law that allows parliament to fine offending corporations $5 million dollars per day.

Take a moment to get your jaw off the floor, and then consider taping it into place. The bill will also allow the government to dump executives of said offending corporations into jail.

Who are the potential offenders? Pharmaceutical companies. Yes; the government is taking at at Big Pharma. I still don’t believe it, or at least don’t believe the bill will make it into law.

The bill is being advertised as “Vanessa’s Law” because it was tabled after a minister’s daughter died because of a prescription medication (Prepulsid).

The full list of what Health Canada can do to is as follows:

  • Require mandatory adverse drug reaction reporting by health-care institutions.
  • Allow the federal government to recall unsafe products.
  • Provide the courts with discretion to impose even stronger fines if violations were caused intentionally.
  • Compel drug companies to revise labels to clearly reflect health risk.
  • Compel drug companies to do further testing on a product, including when issues are identified with certain at-risk populations such as children.
  • Impose new penalties for unsafe products, including jail time and new fines up to $5 million a day. That’s an increase from the current $5,000 a day.

The Problem

Corporate decision making. Many companies have shareholders that also share in running the company, usually forming boards of directors and things of that nature. Further complicating any implication in criminal negligence, individual parts of the company have individuals responsible for what happens in that part of the company. So the question is “Who do we throw in jail?”

To be honest, I hope Health Canada has serious reach when it comes to narrowing down the candidates in that kind of search. Criminalizing something does not always halt that activity, so saying it is illegal is not going to be enough and there had better be ways of following through on what I think are big promises.

The Bottom Line

I like what is being proposed. It seems to protect consumers and is designed to keep appropriate agencies informed. Potential fines and jail time are great added value.

That said, I think following through on jail time for the right person will be like trying to get directions from a deaf mute that knows excellent sign language that is definitely not the sign you learned in a university elective.

Before We Begin a Witch Hunt…

Hello everyone! My apologies for a late blog: some ducks had to be put in a row for this one to be published. Now, on to defending internships…

In the past 4 months alone, there has been a deluge of news stories exemplifying bad internships. However, unpaid internships are not inherently evil. The circumstances and result of internships, on the other hand, could pass inspection as evil.

For those same 4 months, two days of every week have been booked for what is essentially an internship. It is not called that, but it functions the same way: I do work for a company and am not paid. This arrangement came about because I met with an experienced member of the marketing industry who invited me to learn more about said industry by doing volunteer work at the company where she works.

What Works

This internship works for a few reasons. It takes up only six hours every week, and I can work additional hours if I feel like it or need to so that work is completed. My direct supervisor is acting as a mentor: answering questions, inviting me to participate in tasks, allowing me to make my own mistakes, and providing honest feedback.

The most important part is how much control I had over the arrangement. I was asked to set my hourly commitment. I am expected to be honest if I think that I will be unable to complete a task.

Obviously those tasks benefit the company, but they are also relevant to my career goals. That is enhanced further by the aforementioned face-to-face feedback that flows both ways. The intentional results are refinement of my skills (helping me) that benefits the company (skilled workers are generally do better work) and refinement of current employees’ skills in the organization (see previous parentheses).

Examples of What Does Not Work

I am not stuck in an internship of 12-hour days doing phone surveys on the premise that is “relevant work” for a management position (don’t teach me about quality control charts or how to manage the differences between individual employees – why would I need those as a manager?). I am not bussing tables for free at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver (I am still reeling at the fact Fairmont is serious).

The Issues

Based on what I have read in the articles above and my own experience, it seems like there are two main problems that make unpaid internships unbearable for interns.

Over-Commitment

Human beings have fundamental needs. Eating, sleeping, drinking water, and having access to shelter and clothes are important for everyday life; so is having time to mentally unwind. No pay, no time to earn money on the side and limited leisure time because of a high number of working hours (and not listening to complaints) has unfortunate results.

Some will argue that the interns have made a choice to work the hours they do. That is true in some cases, and I am sure any intern takes their positions with faith that they will be treated well. Unrealistic time commitment expectations and no chance to have complaints heard does not constitute “well treatment”.

Actual Learning

Six 40-hour weeks performing phone surveys do not qualify as broadening a skill set. One week of phone surveys? That will teach someone a lot about the ground-level work and how to be patient in the face of anger and resentment, so it is not useless. However, an additional five weeks of phone surveys is like using a sledgehammer to drive home a finishing nail.

How about bussing tables at the Fairmont Vancouver for free? What can one learn from that internship? How to stack and carry more plates than looks reasonable and fake a smile.

The Bottom Line

Internships are not inherently evil. Everyone involved in an internship can benefit: interns gain skills, organizations gain trained employees and current employees (if they’re smart/willing to accept criticism) can refine their own skills. Keep internships alive, but make sure they deliver what is promised without pushing a human being past their bodily limits.

IPO – What Could It Mean?

A private company is free to act however its owners choose, within confines of the law, of course. Until recently, Twitter was privately held. By initiating an initial public offering, the company is now publicly traded. Twitter is now responsible to a beast other than its customers, employees, and owners: shareholders.

Inviting New Guests

Shareholders generally buy for one reason: profit and the earnings they can gain from it. Twitter is bringing in money thanks to promoted tweetsaccountstrends, and its foray into TV-linked advertising, but it has never earned a positive bottom line. Pressure is mounting for the company to move its ledgers out of the red.

I have no doubt the company’s public offering is related to that fact. No income means dwindling reserves of cash, which is not a sustainable business model – neither is relying on a public offering for money meant to cover operational costs.

That implies that the public offering has a purpose other than the need for cash: new minds working on a difficult problem. Buy outs of “undervalued” companies were a common practice in years past – investors with big ideas buying a majority share of a company and attempting to increase its market value for the benefit of shareholders (and themselves). It seems almost as if Twitter’s c-suite was hoping for something similar.

The Future

No income and an IPO do not mix unless there is hope for something new. Exactly what that something new will be is unclear. The leveraged buy outs I mentioned earlier were not guaranteed successes and sometimes deliberately exploited the company for personal gain, and Twitter’s vast reserves of information are exploitable.

It is widely known that Twitter played an extensive role in the Arab Spring thanks in part to its stance on the privacy of information. It is likely the decision to hold back personal information is no accident and comes from the top of the company.

Shareholders complicate that matter. The question becomes “what will change for the sake of being profitable”? Facebook is well known for using the vast amount of information it collects about individual users to earn a profit – targeting advertisements on the social network is something many companies are willing to pay for. That use of the information is not dangerous in itself, but selling the information to the spy agency of a citizen-scrutinizing-and-critic-censoring country (Iran, China, Russia, sometimes the U.S., etc) would be.

I am fine with Twitter earning a profit (we all need to eat), but not at the expense of its customers personal security. With my knowledge of shareholder function and stock markets, I cannot say for certain what will happen, I just hope Tweeps do not get used and abused by an over-enterprising shareholder or two.

Over To You

So what do you think will happen? How will its IPO change Twitter? Are you a shareholder of the company? Start the discussion in the comments below!

Why Target?

This article on Marketing Magazine’s website, and many more like it, are looking at Target. The U.S.-based retail chain is having some trouble adapting to Canada’s retail market.

I have no idea why Target’s leadership thinks the company has a chance of competing in the Canadian retail landscape using its current operational strategy. At the same time, I must tip my hat at the company’s marketing department: The amount of earned and paid media surrounding the retailer’s entry into Canada meant it was almost impossible to ignore.

Target is a new player to an already crowded game. Massive, all-under-one-roof discount stores aren’t new to Canadians, though the format is slightly different. Costco is one-stop shopping. Brands under the helm of President’s Choice like Real Canadian Superstore and Wholesale Club are the same.

Target has been successful at generating a positive perception of its stores with a pre-launch media campaign, but is it following through on that perception? Customers do not think so:

“…various studies found that consumer perception of the Canadian stores was lacklustre, with complaints ranging from stores running out of some products while others considered the prices too high.” (Canadian Press, as quoted by Marketing Magazine, 2013)

Target Canada is facing two problems. Poorly managed operations in relation to promises implied by promotional campaigns and a loyalty program that makes no sense given market conditions.

Inflated Expectations

“The acknowledgment that Target’s entry into Canada has been underwhelming is a stinging admittance by the company, especially since the discount chic chain generated such a high level of consumer anticipation and hype that’s rarely experienced in the retail industry” (Canadian Press, as quoted by Marketing Magazine, 2013).

Generating buzz is awesome. It feels good and begins generating a (hopefully positive) perception of the brand. However, the trick is matching or exceeding the hype. It seems like Target’s marketing department has outstripped their operations department.

The initial buzz and excitement has been followed up by nothing good. Fisher says the company is “learning new systems and processes, using its technologies more efficiently, educating a new workforce and trying to improve replenishment processes” (Shaw, 2013). All of those are fair – if your company is test marketing several stores in a new area. Opening day will rarely be pefect, but it seems that Target’s troubles go deeper than a few kinks to iron out.

Market Conditions

“We have no intention of starting a price war…” said Fisher (Kopun, F., 2013, B2).

That statement is noble, and I am glad Target has decided against a price war, though it does pose a problem: higher prices than the competition. The nature of a discount store is cost leadership, so Target must compete on price and/or ensure it is differentiated from its competition. Wal-Mart exists. Costco exists. Both retailers compete on price, and Costco competes on perception-of-service. So how does Target compete?

“Target defends its prices by saying that consumers save more when combining additional discounts applied to shoppers who pay using its credit card.” (Canadian Press, as quoted by Marketing Magazine, 2013).

So Target’s advantage is a credit card that provides a discount. A good concept in terms of offering a discount-based loyalty program, the problem being that is yet another credit card, is an obvious attempt at mining customer data, and is not exciting. In an era defined by recession and targeting the poor and uneducated with debt they cannot handle, hawking a credit card is like trying to sell hiking boots to a person with a broken knee.

The Bottom Line

Target Canada is a welcome addition to the retail landscape – as long as it can compete with other retail giants. A discount-garnering credit card is not a competitive advantage. Unstocked shelves and poor service are not advantages. Without a real advantage, the company cannot not put any pressure on other discounters to better serve Canadian shoppers, thus limiting the value of even having the retailer in Canada.

In the hopes of encouraging Canadians to visit target more often, Target Canada President Tony Fisher says the company must…

“…redefine the perception of what a trip to Target means,” Fisher told analysts. (Canadian Press, as quoted by Marketing Magazine, 2013)

There was a gigantic pre-launch media campaign. The implicit and explicit cues in that campaign shaped current perception of what going to a Target store “means” – and the money is already spent. If the chain wants to compete, it cannot rely on marketing to recreate how Canadians see the store.

In short, it appears like Target has its head in the sand. Amid operational failures and marketing over-extension, the C-suite turns to marketing to manipulate public perception. There is already a “meaning” behind Target Canada, so focus on what the company has already got.

*     *     *

What do you think about Target? Do you think about Target? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

 

References

Kopun, F. (2013, August 22). Target admits it has a lot to learn in Canada: Discount retailer reports 13-per-cent drop in second-quarter earnings. Toronto Star B2.

Canadian Press. (2013, October 30). Target admits Canadian launch fell well short of expectations. Marketing Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.marketingmag.ca/news/marketer-news/target-admits-canadian-launch-fell-well-short-of-expectations-92454?

Shaw, H. (2013, October 30) Target Canada still plagued by price perception problems as sales fail to meet expectations. Financial Post. Retrieved from: http://business.financialpost.com/2013/10/30/target-canada-still-plagued-by-price-perception-problems-as-sales-fail-to-meet-expectations/