Hall of Fame: Fear No Project’s Minimalist Design Keeps Focus on Content (with PowerPoint Slide for Classroom Use)

The project management blog Fear No Project provides a good example of how less can be more when a writer wants to keep the focus on textual content. As this annotated PowerPoint slide shows, the design is about as minimal as one can possibly get, but it supports blogger Bruce McGraw's goal of sharing in-depth project management information with his readers.

Hall of Shame–and Fame: Chargify Infuriates Its Customer Base, Then Shares the Lessons Learned

Want to make an unpleasant situation even worse? Spring the news on people with no warning.

Chargify, which provides securing billing solutions for small to midsized e-commerce companies, charges its clients flat monthly fees based on the number of customers they have. This tiered pricing plan keeps costs low for e-commerce startups that still have few revenue-generating customers.

Until recently, the lowest tier in Chargify’s pricing plan had an extremely attractive price point—it was free. The idea behind the free tier was to attract e-commerce companies still in their startup phase, and as they grew, they would grow into the higher tiers and become paying clients. However, Chargify discovered that many companies in the free tier grew very slowly, if they grew at all, and Chargify wound up supporting a lot of users that weren’t bringing in any revenue.

In order to pull in enough money to deliver the dependable, sustainable services that its clients needed, Chargify realized it needed to raise prices, and that included charging lowest-tier clients for the first time. The company announced its new pricing structure and immediately came under attack from many of its clients—for the price increases themselves, for the lack of any advance notice, and for Chargify’s refusal to “grandfather” existing customers under their original pricing plans. Some called the company “greedy” or “stupid,” and a few went so far as to accuse it of bait-and-switch tactics.

As bloggers and commenters across the Internet piled on, the technology news site TechCrunch summed up with the situation with an article that began, “It’s been a rough day for Chargify . . .” After spending two long days responding to criticisms on Twitter, industry blogs, and other venues, co-founder David Hauser wrote an unusually frank blog post titled “How to Break the Trust of Your Customers in Just One Day: Lessons Learned from a Major Mistake.” He said the company made “a massive mistake” in the way it handled the changes to its pricing model. By failing to alert customers well in advance of the change, he continued, Chargify “broke a trust that we had developed with our customers over a long period of time, and will take much to repair. We should have communicated our need and desire to remove free plans and provided more information about how this would happen, and over a period of time leading up to the change.”

The services Chargify provides take money to deliver, and the price increases were necessary, but everyone involved agrees that the situation was not handled well. Hauser and his team will continue to learn new lessons as they expand Chargify, but you can bet they won’t ever initiate a price increase without giving their customers plenty of warning. (By the way, if you teach Introduction to Business, this story has a number of interesting angles to discuss in class, including the difficulty of validating a business model before it goes live, the financial imperative to jettison unprofitable customers, and the pluses and minuses of the freemium pricing strategy.)

Using Twitter to Teach Message Organization, Composition, and Revision

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Twitter offers some interesting possibilities for teaching business writing skills. The 140-character limit forces writers to distill their messages to the essentials, and planning a multi-tweet message can expand this practice in clarity by encouraging writers to think through a unified sequence of points that support a primary headline tweet. Presentation expert Cliff Atkinson suggested the Rule of Four Tweets as a tool for planning presentations, based on the realization that many presentation audiences now use Twitter as a live backchannel during presentations.

By writing four short messages (one top-level summary and three major supporting points), a speaker can make sure a presentation has a single, tightly focused main idea with a sufficient number of distinct supporting points. And then by including those four message points as Twitter friendly statements during the presentation, the speaker makes it easy for audience members to spread the word by tweeting those points to their followers.

We've begun implementing variations on this idea as student exercises in our business communication texts—for a variety of document types, in addition to presentations. Conveying the main idea of a document or presentation in no more than 140 characters helps students verify that they've really thought through their purpose, beyond just a descriptive headline. Supporting that main idea with three strong supporting messages helps ensure adequate support for the main idea. For all four tweets, the character limit requires careful writing and revision in order to convey meaningful ideas clearly and concisely.

The communication tasks don't have to involve messages that would normally be delivered via Twitter, either. It's the experience of expressing a set of ideas within the limits of the medium that makes the approach so appealing. Sending actual tweets isn't required, of course, although if a class is set up with private Twitter accounts, students can send live tweets without worrying about the activity being visible to the outside world. As alternatives, students can e-mail their four messages to the instructor, post them on a class blog, or include them on slides in a presentation. If you've been experimenting with Twitter as a writing medium in your classes, we would love to hear about your experiences.

Image: renjith krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Hall of Fame: Red Bull’s Audience-Centered Approach to Social Media (with PowerPoint Slide for Classroom Use)

The energy drink company Red Bull has one of the largest fan bases on Facebook, giving it the opportunity to connect with millions of enthusiastic customers. This annotated PowerPoint slide illustrates the company's audience-centered approach to social media—sharing information and stimulating conversations among fans—rather than the traditional mode of delivering promotional messages to passive receivers.

New Ways of Working, New Ways of Writing

[UPDATE: A video that discusses these nine modes and shows numerous examples is now available on the Bovee-Thill YouTube channel.] As businesses continue to adopt new media choices, the writer’s task is becoming more diverse and more demanding. In the old days, few businesspeople outside an advertising agency ever faced the challenge of writing headlines and teaser copy, for example. Today, though, anyone who hopes to e-mail, blog, or tweet effectively has to be adept at catching a reader’s attention with well-crafted subject lines, post titles, or micro-messages.Looking across the media landscape, we see at least nine distinct compositional modes. These aren’t necessarily limited to electronic media, of course, but taking advantage of the full spectrum of electronic media means having at least basic skills in all nine:

  1. Conversations. IM is a great example of a written medium that closely mimics oral conversation. The ability to think, compose, and type relatively quickly is important to maintaining the flow of an electronic conversation.
  2. Comments and critiques. One of the most powerful aspects of social media is the opportunity for interested parties to express opinions and provide feedback, whether it’s leaving comments on a blog post or reviewing products on an e-commerce site. To be effective commenters, writers need to focus on short chunks of information that a broad spectrum of other site visitors will find helpful—and avoid the rants, insults, inappropriate jokes, and blatant self-promotion that are the bane of social media.
  3. Orientations. With vast amounts of information presented in so many different formats, the Internet can be an extremely confusing place, even for knowledgeable professionals. As information piles up, the ability to help readers find their way through an unfamiliar system or subject has become more valuable than ever, particularly when material of interest is spread across multiple websites that are out of the writer’s control.
  4. Summaries. Writing clear and concise summaries has always been an essential skill, of course, but the info-grazing habits of today’s online readers makes it even more vital. For example, popular bloggers are often good at summarizing masses of information for people to busy to sort through it on their own.
  5. Reference materials. With virtually unlimited capacity and the ability to provide immediate access to any location in an information structure, the Internet is obviously an ideal repository for reference materials. However, browsing, searching through, and making sense of these vast warehouses can be quite a challenge for information seekers. Even with search capabilities at hand, readers don’t always know which search terms will yield the best results, so writers can help by including orientations and organizing the material in logical ways with clear headings that promote skimming.
  6. Narratives. Compelling storytelling can be a good way to cut through the clutter of online media, whether it’s sharing a company history or demonstrating a product.
  7. Teasers. The combination of length limitations (such as on Twitter) and hyperlinking opportunities seems custom-made for writing teasers—intentionally withholding key pieces of information as a way to pull in readers or listeners in. Although they can certainly be effective, teasers obviously need to be used sparely and with respect for readers’ time and intelligence.
  8. Status updates and announcements. A lot of social media writing involve status updates and announcements, an area where some new business professionals may need a little practice to transition from personal and social updates to “business appropriate” updates.
  9. Tutorials. Given the community nature of social media, the purpose of many messages in these media is to share how-to advice. Writing tutorials is great practice for analyzing audience needs and crafting messages that are clear, concise, and logically organized.

Have you found it helpful to explore various compositional modes such as these when you teach business writing? Have you run across any other modes that writers need to be successful with in new media?

Hall of Shame: Waldorf-Astoria's Passive Use of Passive Voice

Indirect language and passive voice can be great tools for diplomacy, but as New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel recently demonstrated, they can also be used to avoid the appearance of taking responsibility.

The Waldorf was clearly in a bind when a large contingent of the Saudi royal family arrived and needed a whole lot of hotel rooms, at a time when the hotel was booked for the Thanksgiving holiday. The hotel would not confirm what happened or explain its decision, but the apparent result was that more than 100 other guests with confirmed reservations discovered they had been bumped. In addition to the decision itself, there is the significant customer service question of why the hotel didn’t inform all those it had to bump before they arrived. Even though the hotel made other arrangements for these guests, when you book a room at the world-famous Waldorf, you want to stay at the world-famous Waldorf.

However, what really caught our attention was the language used by Hilton Hotels, the Waldorf’s owner, to explain the situation. Hilton’s statement included the following:

“On those occasions when a guest relocation occurs, it is always our intention and goal to ensure that the affected individual is totally satisfied.”

When a guest relocation occurs. We’ll even concede the “guest relocation” euphemism. It’s the word occurs that is the real gem here, as though some mysterious force relocated 100 people who had confirmed reservations. These relocation didn’t passively “occur.” Waldorf actively relocated 100 customers.

Yes, the hotel was clearly in a jam, but just as clearly it made the decision to accommodate one group of customers at the inconvenience of another group. We’re not saying the hotel should have just come right out and explained exactly what it did, but it could have shown more respect for the bumped customers by taking responsibility for the decision. Here’s one possibility:

“When circumstances force us to relocate guests, it is always . . . “

This keeps the business decision behind the scenes but puts the hotel in the role of the active agent responsible for the decision. This seems like a reasonable middle ground between offering a full explanation and pretending that a Thanksgiving miracle happened.

What do you think of Hilton’s statement? What would you advise your students to say if they were in the role of Hilton’s PR manager?

The Commenting Conundrum: Are Blog Comments a Useful Measurement of Social Media Engagement?

Judging from the number of articles offering advice, the question of how to encourage more comments on posts is a matter of wide concern among bloggers. In fact, this dilemma seems to be at the heart of the social media model.

Blog comments can be tremendously valuable in multiple ways, of course, from gathering market intelligence to correcting or expanding information offered in a post. The question we’d like to focus on here is whether comment volume is a useful measurement of social media engagement:

  • Is comment volume a meaningful measure of engagement specifically and of communication success more generally, relative to the other metrics available (including friend, membership, or subscriber totals; page
    views; file downloads; and product orders)?
  • Other than those situations in which collecting information via comments is the primary purpose of a blog post, can bloggers meet their ultimate goals without generating high volumes of comments?
  • What would change if comment volume on a given blog was two or three or ten times higher?
  • Is a lack of comments necessarily a negative sign, or is it more just a reflection of how things are?
  • If a blog has only limited commenting traffic, does it truly qualify as a social medium? Or is it really closer to the traditional publishing model, in which readers get the information they want without participating in a conversation?

While pondering these questions, we stepped back to consider our own behavior as blog readers, both in our personal interests and with the thousands of business-oriented blog posts we read every year.

Why Don’t Readers Leave More Comments?

This isn’t a rigorous analysis, but we reflected on our own blog reading habits and extrapolated six possible reasons why blog readers may be reluctant to leave comments.

  • Limited by time constraints. Every professional has too much to do, and leaving comments is just one more item on the to-do list.
  • Not feeling part of the community. Some blogs seem to have a tightknit sense of community, with a core of frequent commenters who are on friendly and even personal terms. To other readers, this close sense of community can seem like a closed sense of community, and joining the conversation can feel like butting into a lively conversation at a party.
  • Reluctant to ask for advice or information. Some blog readers are comfortable using the comment function to ask for information or advice, but we suspect many others are not and would rather dig around to find answers on their own.
  • Having nothing substantial to add. Most of the time, we’d be willing to speculate, most readers conclude that they don’t have anything useful to add. More broadly, blog posts that are clear, complete, and noncontroversial probably won’t attract a lot of in-depth comments simply because there isn’t much for anybody to add.
  • Unmotivated by a sense of reward. Even when readers might have something to add, many probably consider the potential reward (such as peer recognition or promotion for one’s own blog) and conclude it’s not worth the trouble.
  • Sensing that the conversational peak is over. When posts do generate a healthy comment stream, this often seems to peak after a couple of days. After that, many readers who might be motivated to comment probably sense that the show has moved on and there is no point in contributing.

Given how many reasons there are not to leave comments, ramping up comment volume is clearly a challenge. If nothing else, bloggers need to adopt a realistic stance when it comes to getting comments.

Can Readers Be Engaged Without Leaving Comments?

Evidence suggests that bloggers can accomplish communication goals without it showing up in comment volume. For instance, we’ve purchased books, courses, and other products from bloggers without leaving comments on their posts. In these instances we’re deeply engaged as readers and consumers, and they’re accomplishing at least some of their business goals, without us being visible community members in the “social” sense.

A lack of comments might be troubling, in other words, but it doesn’t necessarily signal a lack of engagement.

Bottom Line: Where Do Comments Fit in the Big Picture?

No single answer will fit every situation, but it seems appropriate to ask if the quest for comments can be overemphasized. At the very least, bloggers should figure out where comment volume falls in their hierarchy of goals. For example, are comments mostly “feel good” feedback, a real information source, an opportunity for readers to share their knowledge, or something else entirely?

And now to demonstrate our finely tuned sense of irony, we’d like to ask for your comments on this article. As a blog reader, do you find comments from other readers generally valuable? Are you a regular commenter yourself? Why or why not? If you blog, do you view comment volume as an important metric of engagement?

Using the Cook’s Source Copyright Infringement Episode for Class Discussions

You may have read about the recent episode of copyright infringement by Cook's Source magazine, in which the magazine's editor, Judith Griggs, justified her actions by asserting that the Web is "public domain," and therefore it is acceptable to reuse published material without permission. Moreover, Griggs claimed that this sort of usage occurs frequently, "especially on college campuses and [in] the workplace."

Here are three entertaining and thought-provoking writers who have commented on this story:

Monica Gaudio wrote the original material that was used without her permission.

Nick Mamatas, the source referred to above, helped spread the word about what happened.

Jonathan Bailey of PlagiarismToday wrote an insightful post about the story and clarified that Griggs' use appeared to be copyright infringement, rather than plagiarism, as most commenters are calling it, because Cook's Source apparently did mention Gaudio's name.

This episode makes for some eyebrow-raising reading on its own (the unauthorized usage is only part of the story), but it also points to several issues that make great discussion topics for the business communication course.

First, how many people actually believe that content on the Internet falls under the legal definition of being in the public domain? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." Have you ever polled your students on their understanding of this?

Second, even if material isn't legally in the public domain, how many people consider that its mere presence on the Internet makes it fair game? This might be called the "If you don't want someone to take it, don't put it online" defense.

Third, looking at the matter of delivering value of any kind via digital means, how many people would steal something in digital format but not steal an equivalent product in a different medium? Music is one of the most commonly discussed products in this regard, of course. How many people who would never dare steal a tangible CD from a music store but not think twice about taking the very same music from an intangible online source?

As a thought experiment, ask your students to think into the future, when the rapidly developing field of three-dimensional printing could mean that a variety of products can be transmitted digitally and reproduced at home using low-cost printers. Say you like some designer dinnerware you saw in a store but don't want to pay the designer's price? Download the specifications file and "print" it yourself using cheap raw materials. Even for those who try to justify making copies of songs, books, and other media products, would they draw the line at reproducing more-tangible "stuff"? What if some day you could make unauthorized copies of furniture or cars?

If you discuss these questions with your students, we'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions.

Employment Communication: Four Essential Steps to Building a Personal Brand

If you teach employment communication and job search strategies as part of the business communication course, personal branding can be a great way to help students understand what they have to offer future employers and how to focus their communication efforts.

Even though personal branding is a hot topic these days, more than a few professionals have probably expressed the sentiment of “I don’t want to be a brand; I just want to be a good employee.” However, like it or not, personal branding affects everyone, in every profession.

The Automobile Analogy

Automobiles offer a great analogy to help students understand the importance and meaning of brand. Volvos, BMWs, and Cadillacs can all get you from Point A to Point B in safety, comfort, and style—but each brand emphasizes some attributes more than others to create a specific image in the minds of potential buyers. Common mental associations for these brands, for instance, are the safety emphasis of Volvo cars, the performance emphasis of BMW, and the luxury emphasis of Cadillac.

Employers think about potential employees in much the same way. Three candidates for a particular job might have all the basic skills required—they can all get an employer from Point A to Point B—but the first might come across as a highly focused technical whiz, the second as a potential business leader, and the third as competent but unmotivated and uninspiring. The impressions an employer forms can help or hurt the job seeker, and they can range from spot-on to wildly inaccurate, so it’s vital for candidates to take control of their brand images.

If You Don’t Brand Yourself, I’ll Do It for You

Even though some people are reluctant to brand themselves or even disdainful of the whole idea, personal branding always takes place. The only question is who is in control. BMW could leave its brand image entirely up to others, letting drivers, mechanics, and journalists decide what “BMW” means. All these parties decide for themselves what “BMW” ultimately means to them, of course, but the company works constantly to shape that mental picture, through everything from its product advertising to the architectural nuances in its dealerships.

Similarly, if job seekers don’t establish a clear brand image for themselves, interviewers and hiring managers will do it for them. A good place for students to start grasping this concept is to realize they have already established a personal brand with their professors, classmates, teammates, and others, based on how they’ve behaved and performed in the past. Now is the time to become more conscious of that brand and to consciously shape it for long-term professional success.

Helping Students Identify and Promote Their Personal Brands

To help students craft their personal brands during the job search, guide them through these four steps:

First, figure out the “story of you.” Simply put, where have you been in life, and where are you going? Every good story has dramatic tension that pulls readers in and makes them wonder what will happen next. Where is your story going next?

Second, clarify your professional “theme.” You want to be seen as something more than just an accountant, a supervisor, a salesperson. What will your brand theme be? Brilliant strategist? Hard-nosed, get-it-done tactician? Technical guru? Problem solver? Creative genius? Inspirational leader?

Third, reach out and connect. Major corporations spread the word about their brands with multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns. You can promote your brand for free or close to it. You can spread your brand message by networking—connecting with like-minded people, sharing information, demonstrating skills and knowledge, and helping others succeed.

Fourth, deliver on your brand’s promise—every time, all the time. When you promote a brand, you make a promise, a promise that whoever buys that brand (as in, hires that employee) will get the benefits you are promoting. All of your planning and communication is of little value if you fail to deliver on the promises that your branding efforts make. Conversely, when you deliver quality results time after time, your talents and your professionalism will speak for you.

Personal Branding Resources

Here are some great resources on personal branding to share with students:
www.personalbrandingblog.com

http://altaeeblog.com
http://blog.brand-yourself.com
www.krishnade.com/blog
http://cuberules.com
www.jibberjobber.com/blog
http://theengagingbrand.typepad.com
http://blog.brand-yourself.com

Do you teach personal branding as part of employment communication? If so, what advice to you have to share with other instructors?

The True Story of an Overlooked Mode of Business Communication

In the beginning, there was storytelling.

Humans have been telling stories for as long as they’ve been communicating. As individuals, stories are central to our experience of learning how to communicate. And much of the communication in contemporary life, from journalism to political discourse, relies on narrative structure.

In spite of its pervasive role in human affairs, though, storytelling is often overlooked as a mode of business communication. However, stories can be an effective way to organize business messages in a surprising number of scenarios, from recruiting and training employees to enticing investors and customers.

Advertisements are often mini-narratives, with the product or a user of the product playing the role of the hero. Entrepreneurs use stories to help investors see how their new ideas have the potential to affect people’s lives (and therefore generate lots of sales and return on investment). Companies tell the story of their founding and early years, using their heritage as a way to explain who they are today.

Career-related stories, such as how someone found the opportunity to work on projects he or she is passionate about, can encourage skilled employees to consider joining a firm.

Business stories can be cautionary tales as well, dramatizing the consequences of career blunders, ethical mistakes, and strategic missteps.

Whether one’s purpose is to inspire, persuade, teach, or warn, chances are narrative technique can make the message more interesting, personal, and memorable. As the business media landscape continues to evolve and fragment, storytelling is likely to become evenmore important as a way to stand out from the clutter and chaos of competing messages. In fact, we’re adding significant coverage of storytelling to the newest editions of our textbooks, including a variety of student activities and cases.

Have you discussed storytelling in your business communication classes? We’d love to hear any stories you have to tell. Go to http://boveeandthillbusinesscommunicationblog.com, search for this topic, and write your comments.

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