Communication facing outwards

The teens at my daughter’s high school know something that many communicators don’t seem to. They are very active content creators in multiple social media, both ephemeral (think SnapChat) and more permanent (think Tumblr). And they are intently focused on audience reaction, which they measure much as community managers do – impressions, engagements and the like. Furthermore, they expect that the creators of the content they consume, their peers, will engage with them about it.

There’s a lot to learn here about the way tomorrow’s audience (and even today’s) wants to be a part of the story.

Recently, I presented some research completed with my Elon colleague Max Negin and undergraduate Maggie Sloane about what readers want from journalists on social media. Almost 18 percent of readers stated they wanted interaction with the journalist. Thus far, the number of journalists who are on social media is growing, but still limited. The number who actually interact is smaller still. The great majority of journalists I follow use social media as a platform for communicating AT the audience, rather than WITH the audience. 

This is a wasted opportunity As Neal Schaffer notes in his book “Maximize Your Social,” engagement and listening are essential elements of a social media presence. This helps to build your online reputation, but even more, it tells you what is important to your audience. As a writer, you are nothing without your audience. 

If you make your listening public by highlighting and responding to what your audience is creating related to you, you can generate community among your readers/viewers. Ultimately, this helps you to do your job better, as you harness your followers to identify topics, leads, sources and angles for you. And it may help you to be relevant to your audience tomorrow.

Jargony jargon, transparent business and your audience

I’ve been enjoying following the growth of Buffer, a service that lets you schedule and track social media posts. The thing that interests me is the way that they are choosing to build their business, which appears to mostly be through an application of content marketing that is so strong that I think I’ll use it as a case in my grad strategy class in the spring. 

In addition to doing a great job of building community with users who choose to interact with them online, the founders maintain social media posts, the company populates several blogs and will even send you a newsletter about business decisions and how they are working out. It’s very interesting to watch – pretty much a 360 from the business model of secrecy that a lot of organizations use. The strategy can serve to both convey trust to prospective users and to feed current and interest prospective investors.

The most recent blog post on their “Open” blog interested me mostly because it is very jargon-heavy for someone who doesn’t have business training. There are quite a few acronyms, used before they are defined, and terms like “de-risking the founders” that you’d have to have specialist knowledge to understand.

The Open blog, dedicated to transparency, has a mix of pieces, mostly designed to do the job of content marketing – to build trust by giving value to the reader. But in a stream of accessible articles on creativity, persistence and life hacking, the articles on developer projects and business growth seem to be created for a much more targeted audience (although they vary in tone from month to month).

It brings up an important concept in strategic communication – consistency. It’s something legacy media generally did pretty well. Teams of editors or producers would work to have a common level of vocabulary, complexity and tone across pieces, while allowing for the voice of the writer to be evident. In more flexibly managed or rapidly evolving organizations, it can be a challenge. 

One thing I suggest to my writing students is that they use some focus questions about the audience to plan the style of writing needed, both for single pieces and across everything:

  • What do they already know?
  • What do they want to know?
  • How do they prefer to learn things?

For the strategic communicator, it’s easy to think about what I want the audience to know. And that’s important to me. But if I don’t focus on the audience, I can lose some opportunities. 


The good news about news

I teach the introductory writing course in our majors, and the assignment I give on the first day is to go out and interview someone in a particular demographic about their news use habits. It’s not a scientific survey, to be sure, but it usually gives some interesting results.

First, the good news – all 36 people my students interviewed said they did follow the news in some way, regardless of age or gender. That’s important for a communication major looking to justify his or her career choice amidst a barrage of messages that news is dead. It’s not.

Second, although the great majority consume news online, the ways of finding it vary.

Some highlights – 

Social referral was tops for those under 30. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were quite important to that age group – so much so that I asked my students to estimate what percentage of Americans use Twitter, and they guessed 80. (hint – that’s very wrong. It’s more like 20) Think of social referral like amateur curation.

Lifehacking the news was important for folks 30-50. People in that age ranges were like to use aggregation sites like Yahoo News or the Drudge Report or RSS readers to find their news and would regularly check those sites during the day. They also used some legacy media like drive time radio and legacy media web sites. We talked about how aggregation is a tricky one, since in some cases it’s an algorithm that is determining what’s important for people to look at. 

Habit won the day for those 51 and up. They used TV news and newspapers at planned times during the day. My students said they thought these older Americans aren’t on line or don’t use social media. That’s also wrong. It just seems that they don’t see social media as a means for finding out what’s important. Out of the whole survey, these folks were most likely to trust professional curation.

If you are in an emergency, you need to use multiple channels. The youngest respondents were the most likely to say they would use a search engine to find out what is going on right now (which is frightening…). In the middle would check news websites. The older respondents all said they would turn on the TV. 

Ultimately, the message for communicators is the same: know your audience and find them where they are.



Truth, accuracy and fairness

We’ve been talking about truth, accuracy and fairness a lot in my department lately. It’s one of the ethical standards that journalism holds, and so we need to be able to demonstrate that all of our students learn about it…even those going into advertising, public relations and entertainment media. At first glance, that seems like a pretty tall order. But it doesn’t have to be.

Consider what you are doing when you communicate: You are developing a relationship. And good relationships are built on trust. So if you are burnishing your corporate reputation, you do it with true things. If you are creating a character, that character is consistent in different circumstances. If you are talking about your product vs. your competitors, you describe your competitor accurately, and then describe why/how you are better. 

We’re seeing this stretched a bit in the coverage of Ferguson. 

For the journalists, it’s hard to cover a large, amorphous, breaking story. But they try, by getting information from the people on the street, from their own observations, and from the officials who are responding. I am not sure the officials are always playing fair. They are communicating as well, with a central message that the government is competent and that things will go back to normal. Media studies show us that these are typical administrative messages in a crisis, and a press conference is an efficient way to get this message to a large audience. But the setting seems loaded, to me. 

When politicians get in trouble for extramarital affairs, their spouses stand dutifully by them at the press conference as a visual symbol that the spouse is getting past it, so the voter should as well. If you look at the background of the governor of Missouri’s press conferences, you see the same image, except the people in the background are a visual symbol that the black citizens of Missouri are past it, so the ones who are still protesting are deviant. Regardless of what the words are saying, the image is one of dutiful support. I don’t know who most of the people are, but I know that given the census figures on the black population in Missouri (just under 12 percent), the picture of the stage isn’t accurate and most likely isn’t fair or true either. 

The practice of writing takes practice

I came across this article talking about how content strategists are becoming too much about the strategy and not enough about the content. In case you’re not familiar, basically, ranking well in search requires that you demonstrate that other people want your content. This means you need to a) make content people want and b) make sure they can find it. A content strategist is someone, usually in a marketing department, who has skills to do both.

The article was arguing that a lot of the time, content strategy is seen as being the idea person, not the one who actually writes words or creates pictures. 

I think this is a bad idea.

On the first day that I teach a writing class, I always tell my students that they’ll write a lot because writing is like playing basketball. I can stand up and give them 40 lectures about the theory of optimum basketball playing, but if I then take them to the arena and hand them a ball and some opponents, it won’t be pretty. It’s a skill, and skills require practice. 

Making great content is a skill, too. And if you want to get and stay good at it, you need sustained practice. Here’s why:

Practice makes you accountable. When I was in college, I went through DJ training at the campus radio station. At the time, this started with learning all of the FCC rules governing the airwaves and how to not break them. Being generally eggheaded, I was really good at that part. I got the highest score to date at the school on a test on the rules. But, when you put me in the studio and I was actually accountable for getting the technologies to work together to avoid dead air and for not overmodulating and for pronouncing the call letters correctly, it was a disaster. I could come up with rules and plans, but I couldn’t do it when it came right down to it. And I haven’t been in a studio in many years, so if you put me in one now, I’m sure the same thing would happen. 

Practice means understanding. Expertise is developed through experience, so if you want to make content people that people want, you need fresh experience. This is particularly true when the ways and technologies people communicate with are changing rapidly. 

Keeping your hand in actually creating content makes a difference in its effectiveness. So, go write something. And then write more somethings. 

Attitude and reaching a global audience

Through my work with the International Collegiate Programming Contest, I get frequent reminders of how communicating across cultures has special challenges and rewards. But, it’s not just me. If you write things that appear online, you may well have a global audience. 

This week, I am getting ready for a research seminar on global education, so I’ve been doing a lot of reading to get ready. A big topic of interest is intercultural competence – essentially the ability to neutrally evaluate a culture other than yours and act appropriately within that culture. As a communicator with a global audience, I need that with respect to what messages i communicate and how I present them. If I fail, I miss a reader, a customer, a friend.

One interesting article gave some ideas for qualities that let one become culturally competent. 

  • Self-awareness - This is knowing what your own culture holds and values, and recognizing that these are cultural factors, not essential truth. 
  • Openness - This is an attitude of curiosity and a willingness to believe that others are different from you. This might include trying to meet people who are different from you or using media from people different from you.
  • Respect - Your attitude that things that are different are just that: different. It’s a lot easier to understand something if you can see that is has value and is, therefore, worth understanding.

Having these qualities can help you reach your audiences better.