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New trend: Companies making product design trends based on Instagram

By now, you’ve most likely seen Starbucks newest concoction: The Unicorn Frappuccino.

It’s purple. It’s pink. And, maybe most importantly to Starbucks, it’s inherently Instagrammable–to the tune of 150,000+ pics on the platform so far using the #unicornfrappuccino hash tag–there are tens of thousands more using the #starbucks hash tag.

Except, according to most, it tastes like crap (at least, according to many).

But, for Starbucks, creating a new tasty drink most likely was not the MO.

According to a Starbucks spokesperson via The Guardian: “The look of the beverage was an important part of its creation, our inspiration came from the fun, spirited and colourful unicorn-themed food and drinks that have been trending in social media.”

Read between the lines: This was a huge marketing play, pure and simple.

And, most of it was focused on what kind of drink would photograph well on Instagram (and Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram).

Why spend millions in marketing ad buy dollars when your target audience will market it for you? That was clearly the strategy here–and, judging from the social media stats we can see so far, it worked (not to mention the 20-person deep line I saw at Starbucks last Wed. when it was unveiled at 7 PM AT NIGHT!).

Meanwhile, Starbucks didn’t seem to put a ton of marketing dollars into its promotion of the new drink:

One tweet (most likely with paid dollars behind it, but no way of knowing)

One Facebook post (same thing):

One Instagram post:

I didn’t see a huge media blitz. I didn’t see ads on TV or across the internet.

What I did see was virtually everybody on the internet talking about the drink and photographing it last week. Without much of any paid incentive to do it.

All because the drink photographed well on Instagram.

Starbucks is hardly alone in tapping into this trend.

Locally, right here in Minneapolis, Hi-Lo Diner is rumored to have made key decisions on the decor and appearance of their restaurant based on how people would photograph their food on Instagram (and their retro sign outside).

And, I’m sure they aren’t the first, nor will they be the last, to take that approach.

I’m also thinking about coffee shops like Spyhouse and Annelace in Northeast Minneapolis–both of which have an inherent “Instagram-worthy” appeal to them.

Product and service design choices are now being made (in large part, in some cases) based on what photographs well on Instagram.

And I don’t think this trend will be limited to coffee shops and restaurants.

I could see this also impacting companies and industries like the following:

  • Apparel (where it’s already happening)
  • Organizational products (notebooks, bags)
  • Beer labels and packaging
  • Home and outdoor products

The list goes on. As companies become more data-focused and more aware of real-time consumer trends, thanks to social media, it will be interesting to see if this trend accelerates, or if it fizzles out, in the years ahead.

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Should companies pay their PR interns?

Yesterday, I made my bi-annual journey down to my alma mater to speak to PR and Mass Comm students. In one of the classes I spoke with, an interesting discussion broke out around internships.

Specifically: Should companies pay their PR interns?

Understandably, many of the students tended to say “yes–companies should definitely pay us.” And, from where they sit, I can hardly blame them.

Soon-to-be college grads. College debt. Parents breathing down your neck to get that first job.

I get it. Internships kinda suck. Especially when they don’t pay.

But, I’m here to tell you one thing: I’m not sure it matters.

Should companies pay interns? That’s not my battle. I tend to think market forces should dictate that sort of thing–not regulators.

But, if you step back and look at the bigger picture: Getting paid for an internship really doesn’t matter. Here are three reasons why:

#1: Getting paid for an internship isn’t the end goal. Finding a full-time job that pays you a decent amount of money you can live off is the goal. An internship is just a means to that end. So, if that internship pays you–great. If it doesn’t–don’t sweat it. Just work your butt off, make connections and get that first job.

#2: The pay’s not worth it anyway. Think about what a typical internship pays. Probably somewhere between $10-15 an hour. That’s barely enough for most people to live off in most major markets. So, if that’s the case, why sweat the minimal pay? Why not reframe your outlook and look at the internship a bit different–again, see it as a means to a bigger end.

#3: Internships are all about experience and connections anyway. As an intern, you have zero leverage when it comes to the job search. You’re 21/22. You have zero experience. No leverage. So, utilize the internship for what it is: An opportunity to gain valuable experience (raise your hand to do EVERYTHING), and and opportunity to meet and network with people who can GET YOU A REAL JOB!. Do those two things well during your internship and you will have a job within 3-4 months.

Agree/disagree? I know you have an opinion on this one…

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What bothered me most about the United Airlines crisis

By now, we’re all kinda United’ed out, aren’t we?

My Facebook feed was full of people still talking about it last week.

My LinkedIn feed is STILL full of people opining about the incident.

And, most (if not all) of this commentary has been highly critical of United.


And that’s what’s bothered me most about this whole fiasco: Our industry’s penchant for analyzing these crisis incidents, playing Monday Morning Quarterback and being highly critical of the company in question’s PR strategy.

Because really, we should know better. Right?

How could we possibly sit here, analyze United’s actions and have any idea what’s going on behind closed doors?

We don’t know the political pressures at play internally. Maybe the United CEO was hell-bent on coming out with that initial statement backing his employees. Maybe the PR team got completely overruled. Wouldn’t be the first time.

That whole “over-accomodated” language–you don’t think that was driven COMPLETELY by legal? We’ll never know, but that would be my guess having worked with legal teams in the past. Again, PR team: Overruled.

We don’t know how many cooks are in the proverbial kitchen at United. Sometimes different executives not at all connected to PR get involved in the decision making for various reasons. Maybe one of those people had more input than he/she should have had. Again, PR team: Overruled.

Point is: We weren’t in those meetings. We are not United employees. We’re not privy to the details and strategy. So, it’s a little hard to analyze and say “here’s what I would have done” when that’s most likely not realistic at all considering all the other players involved, the politics, and the climate at United.

Ideally, yeah, I’m sure United and its PR team would have wanted to do a lot of things differently. But, so much of that is out of PR’s control. And, we all know that, right? Many of us have worked with and for big companies. We KNOW the politics involved–and how strong they can figure in. We KNOW the legal team has a strong seat at the table and often overrules PR (for better or worse). And we KNOW there are strong personalities within most organizations that drive the agenda.

We know all that, yet we still comment as if we know better.

I would have thought we were smarter by now.

Apparently, I was wrong.

Apparently, we’ll go on critiquing companies as if we know better.

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PR Rock Stars: American Academy of Neurology’s Leah Johnson

Truth be told, I don’t know Leah Johnson all that well. I met her through my work with MIMA and a common friend (and fellow rock star, Madeline Strachota). But, in the short amount of time I’ve gotten to know Leah a bit better, I can tell she has rock star tendencies. How can I tell? First, she’s a hand-raiser. She’s now part of the Student Relations committee with MIMA that just unveiled the first-ever MIMA scholarship! Two, she’s been with the Academy of Neurology for five years. She started as an administrative assistant in 2012. She’s now the associate director of digital strategy and innovation. That’s quite a jump in five years–and she’s been with the same organization for five years (that says a lot right there!). Again, definite rock star tendencies. Let’s hear more from Leah and what’s she’s up to in her work with AAN.

Tell us a little about your role as associate director-digital strategy and innovation with the American Academy of Neurology.

I lead the Digital Team at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), which includes content strategy and development. The team is full of experts that act as an internal agency to our staff clients. We run two websites, develop over twenty .NET applications, manage over 40 social media channels and send more than 5.3 million individual emails a year. In addition to leading the day-to-day, I also manage the organization’s digital initiatives, which for this year include a website redesign for our member site, launching a completely new website, and a semantic search engine. I also co-chair the AAN staff committee, which focuses on staff engagement and a quality work environment for all employees.

Your title includes “innovation”–what are you currently doing at AAN to stay on the cutting edge?

I am supported by great leadership that believes in innovating and providing a best-in-class digital experience for our members. As I mentioned previously, one large initiative this year is redesigning our AAN.com website. We launched a new website approximately three years ago that had focused on improved governance and usability. Our goals this time around include a fully personalized, mobile-optimized, and cleaner/brighter experience. In addition to the big digital initiatives, we hold meetings throughout the year that emphasize the need for innovation within the organization. These are our team ‘lightbulb’ meetings. We meet once a month to review what is happening in the space, including any R&D and trial and error exploration. We are consistently reviewing and questioning our current processes to make sure we are agile enough to try new things.

For example, about a year ago we launched an Instagram account (@aanbrain.) We were not certain if there would be an audience for our content, but we decided to try it and follow the ‘fail fast’ motto. I am a huge proponent of trying an idea, but also knowing when it is not working and moving on quickly. To our (somewhat) surprise, the Instagram account has been one of our fastest growing and most engaging channels, including high ad conversions. Because we took a bit of a risk and had a clear goal (average over a 3% engagement rate), we were able to take more risks on that channel to see how they would pay off.

On the tech side, we are spending a good amount of R&D time developing apps using angular 2.

Staying on that innovation topic, what trends are you keeping a close eye on in the digital realm that may impact AAN down the road?

The AAN has a huge focus on distance learning and eLearning. With that as a priority, we are keeping an eye on any VR and AR trends and how that may impact the way students and physicians learn. As you can imagine, the impact of studying the brain in VR has the potential to be huge leap for eLearning. We are also keeping an eye on search trends. Search is incredibly important in the academic world, and we want to make sure we are always following any changes, big and small, to search engines. We are also working on efforts to make Neuroscience “cool” for those in grade school and looking into leveraging influencers in that realm, which is something we have never done before.

Speaking of trends and innovation–how do you keep up with all the changes in the industry while holding down a fairly hectic full-time position?

This is such a good question. I can tell you it has certainly gotten harder and harder as I find new things to take on at work, but I have a few strategies that I follow religiously to keep me updated. I read theSkimm every morning when I wake up. I am part of theSkimm’s ambassador program; I think their brand is an important one to watch. I am constantly watching brands that I love and questioning the strategies behind their content. I think you can learn a lot about innovation just by paying attention to your own reactions. I also reserve a few minutes a day to review the four or five SmartBrief emails that I subscribe to. These are great recaps of the previous day and mostly I focus on the quick summaries. I have also consistently kept an hour reserved on my calendar every Friday for the last five years to catch up on all big things from the week—a great place to start is always your “Talking Points” email.

At the AAN, we have an internal “coffees and case studies” meeting to discuss highlights from campaigns in which we have tried new and innovative techniques. Lastly, I attend as many MIMA events, where the “coffee and case studies” idea came from, and Social Media Breakfast events as possible. The content is so great and useful.

You started at AAN as an administrative assistant 5+ years ago working your way up to a director-level position now. For a millennial that’s virtually unheard of! Why is it you’ve stuck around that long when other opportunities most likely have popped up that you’ve passed on?

What I have learned during my time at the AAN is that you must find a place to work that is willing to invest in you. I have been provided training opportunities, growth opportunities, and challenges throughout my five years here. I have been asked to always use my voice in a smart and helpful way, even if I was the greenest person in the room. I have found wonderful mentors who have taught me that you must push yourself and pursue opportunities when they arise. Some of it has been luck in timing, but most of why I love the AAN is that they have given me chances to prove that I deserve to be in the roles that I have taken on. Growth is a huge aspect of why I have stayed here for five years, but I also show up to work every day excited to be here. Right out of college I landed myself in a job that I loathed going to every day. I vowed I would never let myself fall into that situation again.  I work with some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet and that is the most important thing to me.

You recently started volunteering with MIMA and are the chair of the student relations committee. Why did you decide to volunteer your time with a professional organization? And why MIMA?

I have been a member of MIMA for the last five years. I knew that if I was going to learn beyond my immediate resources I had to surround myself with smart people who knew what they were doing. MIMA was a perfect fit for that. The content of the programs is always engaging. The people I have met are always driven and helpful and I have always felt welcome at the events. I will also admit I think I was specifically captured by the number of doughnuts provided at each of the events.

I have met a few people at MIMA events who threw around the idea of volunteering. As soon as I knew there was an opening on the student relations committee, I was in. I was so excited by the idea of helping students. There were major obstacles, and a lack of opportunities for me during my final years of college. It never seemed clear on how I was supposed to find a path to a digital position. If I could help a few students get to connect to and access the information that I was desperate for during those times, that was the type of volunteer opportunity I was looking for.

We have been working over the past two years to get students to be more engaged and aware and recently launched our new MIMA Student Scholarship. There is still so much opportunity for growth, but I am excited with the direction we are moving and have learned an exceptional amount from being involved in MIMA.

As part of that work, you/MIMA just unveiled a pretty cool new scholarship program for students. Can you tell us more about that program and how it impacts students looking to learn and grow their digital skill sets?

We continually hear from students that they are not getting what they need for real-world resume building in the classroom and that many are struggling to land internships because they have no real-world experience. We are hoping the scholarship program can help bridge that gap. The program is a case study competition that is very practical, but also includes some challenges that would show a hiring manager that the applicant can think critically about a digital marketing problem. Our goal is to not only award the scholarships but also to connect all applicants with local corporations, agencies, and non-profits that are looking for smart, ambitious interns. The application deadline is March 30, and the finalist will have an opportunity to present their case study to the thought leaders on the MIMA board.

Finally, you’re certified in Google Analytics–what’s one nugget or feature most people don’t know about GA that could really bolster their digital marketing efforts?

I will say, I fell in love with Google Analytics four years ago while attending ConFab. The presenter spoke about page scoring and goal tracking. I went back to my office the next day and started giving each page a score. Obviously, that did not turn out to be super useful, but I knew I had to get certified ASAP. It was definitely a “fail fast” moment.

What we have done lately is set up some Custom Dimensions for our logged in users. This has helped us identify which persons are logging in on specific pages and engaging with our content. We know when someone logs in it is a huge win and a way we can deliver that person the best content; we are therefore trying to increase that number and track what users are doing once they take that action.

We have been using email and social campaigns tracking via unique URLs for a while now, but I believe this is our most beneficial GA report. We test our content as much as possible, and this has helped us set and track clear KPIs for A/B testing. We are no longer looking only at an increase in CTR in an email where we tested a subject line, but drill down to more specific tracking on the web page and setting more specific content goals. I believe Google Analytics is only a good tool if you are clearly defining your goals and reporting back.

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Targeting micro-influencers: The next big thing that should have been a big thing 5 years ago

AdAge reporter, Kristy Sammis, recently wrote an article that sums up how I’ve felt about the whole influencer thing for years.

No need to pay big-time influencers gobs of money to broadcast your products and services when you can target “micro-influencers” to do the heavy lifting instead–for far less, if any, money.

The last couple years have seen the whole influencer marketing thing spiral completely out of control. Companies are routinely paying these influencers tens of thousands of dollars for a single Instagram post. Or, a Snapchat story. Or, a handful of tweets.

It’s ridiculous. It’s always been ridiculous.

Sure, it’s worked in spots. But, by and large, this has been one big bandwagon-jumping operation from the outset. A few big brands started “activating influencers” and the next thing we knew, everyone was doing it.

And yes, I know you could substitute “celebrity” for “influencer” and it’s really no different from what brands have been doing for years. I get that. And, like I said, in spots, it works.

But, when I think of how companies can utilize influencers, I gravitate toward more of a grassroots effort using these “micro-influencers.” Here’s why:

Less money.

I worked with one client a couple years ago that was targeting “cat influencers” as part of their work. Not the people who OWN the cats, the ACTUAL CATS. Yeah, this is a thing. And, these cats were commanding a lot more money per post than you might think. To the tune of tens of thousands of dollars. Now, these cats did have large Instagram and other social media followings. But, did they really “influence” anyone? Did they really change buying behavior? Maybe. Maybe not. But, for the price tag they were commanding, I’d like to be a bit more sure of that than “Maybe. Maybe not.” Remember, less money spent on influencers means less risk and more opportunity to exceed expectations.

More trust.

One of the primary hurdles with these big-time influencers is trust. Sure, they have the reach and massive followings many brands are looking for. But, do people actually trust them? I would argue “no.” And, on the flip side, I would argue people trust “micro influencers” much more. According to the recent Edelman Trust Barometer, more people are trusting “someone like them” than ever before. Those are your micro-influencers! These are people with 1,000 Instagram followers–not 100,000. These are folks with maybe 750 friends on Facebook–not a celebrity influencer with 400,000 people “following” them. These folks earn trust every day because they’re not making 15 sponsored posts–they’re just talking about their days and what they like and what they find interesting.

More access.

If you do decide to target these big-time influencers, think about the process of approaching them. It’s kinda like targeting a reporter at the New York Times. They get pitched ALL THE TIME, right? They’re getting approach by huge, Fortune 500 brands every day throwing tons of money at them. How much chance do you have of getting their attention? I think that’s a big challenge right from the outset. On the flip side, micro influencers are rarely approached by anyone, yet they cost far less (if anything) and have more trust than celebrity influencers. Makes too much sense, right?

More passion.

Remember mom bloggers? They still exist, of course. But, way back (7-8 years ago), they were a huge force on the Internet. They developed content that resonated with other moms. Moms read their stuff all the time. Then, they started to appear on marketer’s radars as a tool to reach other moms (a coveted audience). And, the outreach and partnerships started. Then, mom bloggers started running sponsored posts–a lot. And, those posts that resonated with moms so much seemed to dry up. Their blogs turned into one big series of sponsored posts. And, they lacked passion. On the flip side, micro influencers are oozing passion. Because no one’s paying them to talk about anything. They’re just posting about and taking pics about the things they really care about in their lives (food, hobbies, family, etc.). Target the uber-influencers? You’re bound to get someone who will simply go through the motions for your brand. Target micro-influencers? You’re bound to get someone who will be a little more excited and not quite as jaded by the whole influencer marketing world.

photo credit: PAN Photo Agency Kim Kardashian with sisters and husband Kanye West visited Armenian Genocide memorial Tsitsernakaberd via photopin (license)

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