The Social Clearinghouse

Infographics have become an increasingly prevalent trend, offering a snapshot of data relevant to consumer behaviors and consumption patterns. As social media platforms begin to peak with record breaking valuations, infographics help illustrate the data in way that marketers can digest. Marketers who have traditionally used gut instinct to determine marketing spend are now relying on data largely driven by technology and social oriented platforms.

Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, SocialCam, You Tube, and even dating sites like Match.com or eHarmony have become a clearinghouse for big data encompassing demographics, preferences, consumption behaviors, etc. Marketers can leverage this user intelligence to hone strategies and develop future approaches. Data illustrating the wants, needs, and expectations of users/consumers enable marketers to create purposeful, impactful, and even contextual messaging to inform purchase decisions.

The potential pitfall associated with so-called “big data,” for marketers, is assuming that the collection platform is the right marketing vehicle to reach those same consumers. Consumer preferences, behaviors, or demographic information collected from one social platform may not be the best mode for reaching the consumer base. Facebook, with over 900 million users, is one of the largest data collection platforms in the marketplace, but as exemplified by GM’s recent announcement of its withdrawal from the social network , it isn’t always the best platform for advertising.

As technology continues to revolutionize how data is collected and presented, marketers must remember that the real value lies in how information can be digested within context to better target a consumer base. When trends change and social is gone, marketers who understand the value of data will be in the driver’s seat.

Smoke Screen: Company Culture or Policy?

Two prominent current topics in the newsmedia have sparked debate, raising questions about the nature and extent of rights of employers and employees in the workplace. In a rapidly changing world, the blurred line these topics tread must be more clearly defined before ‘company policy’ becomes becomes an invasion of rights. Employees are asking themselves where company culture ends and infringement begins.

Recently there has been a resurgence in conversation about employers demanding access to employee social media pages on the premise of maintaining company integrity. The debate quickly escalates into a discussion of the personal rights of employees as pertaining to the content and publicity of their Facebook page. Employees are almost uniformly against the practice, but even combined with the efforts of privacy advocates such as the ACLU, the practice has not yet been made illegal. Advocates for monitoring or restricting social networking are quick to bring up the “nothing-to-hide” argument, but digital privacy is still a crucial right in the modern world.

Businesses are also becoming the latest frontier to latch on to the increasingly prevalent trend of bans on smoking. Some employers, such as health insurance giant Humana, have begun to tighten policies related to employee smoking habits, going beyond simply prohibiting smoking during work hours to completely disqualifying smokers from employment. Of course, for Humana, operating in the healthcare industry, the ban on smokers is an obvious measure in line with the company’s mission. For other employers however, a tobacco-free policy can help boost productivity (less employee ‘smoke breaks’) and help to reduce health insurance premiums.

Like keeping close tabs on employee Facebook profiles, these policies get tricky when considering that smoking is, regardless of company views, a completely lawful activity. With the aid of the ACLU, 29 states implemented laws to protect “smokers’ rights,” but federal law permits an employer the right to flat out refuse to hire a nicotine user, because smokers are not recognized as a protected class. Rumors suggest that a number of companies in the Fortune 500 are considering adopting similar bans on smoking, suggesting Humana’s actions may be a sort of glimpse into the future.

Acquiring and retaining productive employees and promoting a better workplace is the obvious desired outcome of hiring strategy for companies in any industry. Before practices like banning smoking or monitoring social network profiles become the norm, however, further scrutiny is necessary to clarify some significant questions about whether employers have the right to independently regulate otherwise lawful behavior.

JXN Executive Roundtable Attracts Central PA Business Owners to Discuss Sustainability and Growth

On Tuesday, May 1st, 2012, Junction Creative Solutions (Junction) welcomed guests for its JXN Executive Roundtable event, a forum for entrepreneurs and business owners to share insights and perspectives in an intimate environment. Cosponsored by Raffensperger, Martin, and Finkenbiner LLC and Patrono & Associates, the event included 27 area business owners who participated in a dialogue, promoting collaboration by discussing best practices to facilitate and sustain growth.

“For our first roundtable discussion in the Gettysburg area, we were encouraged by the number of area business owners who elected to attend this event,” comments Mark Cropp, Executive Director of Business Development & Partnerships, Junction.  “Combining the thought leadership of this group can facilitate growth within each business and in the greater community.”

A panel discussion focused on the impact that significant shifts in the economic climate have had on growth, and the importance of diversifying business to adapt to changes in the marketplace.  Panelists encouraged attendees to invest in good people, seek help and expertise from partnerships to drive maximum value, and create a strategic roadmap and consistently execute. “Diversification is quintessential, particularly so in a bad market. Adapting products or services is considerably less risky than pursuing a new customer base,” said John Murphy III, Patrono & Associates. “Adaptability has become the key to building long term success, protecting a business from a great deal of uncertainty under difficult circumstances.”

Attendees found the discussion thorough and useful.  “The panelists were able to not only answer the questions posed, but were able to take and build on each other’s comments,” commented Katherine Powley, Vice President, Susquehanna Bank. “They all agreed that diversification has been the key to their success these past few years. In thinking about my own clients, I think that would be true for those that have weathered this economic downturn as well.”

Since its inception in 2008, Junction has extended its influence into the Northeast, further developing relationships with companies in the Central Pennsylvania region with a presence in Gettysburg. Julie Gareleck, CEO and Managing Partner, Junction, is hopeful that the Roundtable will help foster a better business environment not only in Pennsylvania, but nationwide. “Sound strategy drives successful and sustainable business, and exchanging knowledge and experience with our peers helps create strategy that is better informed,” said Gareleck. “Events like the Roundtable bring the thought leadership of these owners and executives together to promote a more positive environment for business development. We look forward to future events and continuing to support growth for businesses of all sizes.”

Junction is actively preparing for its next event to be held in the region. To get involved in future events in Gettysburg, please contact mark@junction-creative.com.

Social Media: Boom to Bust?

As Facebook reports its user base has reached 901 million users and acquires Instagram for a staggering $1 billion, industry analysts continue to debate the existence of what is being deemed the “social media bubble.” Some argue that social media is a sign of a burgeoning online community that fuels the economy. Skeptics speculate that this age of social media is reminiscent of the most recent collapse of the housing market and the not so distant .com bubble.

From the mid-90s to 2000, industrialized nations saw a dramatic increase in equity valuation due to the growth of the Internet sector. Venture capitalists pumped millions of dollars into start-up companies led by a young generation of entrepreneurs with big ideas and incomplete business models. The markets witnessed a surge in IPOs with remarkably high stock prices and then experienced devastating losses when the bubble burst.

Not so dissimilar, social media companies, most notably Facebook, are entering the market with incredible valuations. Valuations are being based on the potential buying power of these social media user bases. But is the potential of this large consumer base enough to drive sustainability and stability? News that financial advisors are cautioning clients against social media fund plays may be a sign of what is to come.

There is no question that the industry is experiencing a social media boom, but its fate will no doubt fuel speculations on both sides of the argument. What do you think?

All Filler for Miller

Watch a set of advertisements during any major television event, and you are bound to see a spot for a Budweiser, Miller, or Coors product. Domestic macrobrewers have notoriously gigantic budgets for ad campaigns, and in terms of sales of their flagship offerings, the rate of return on investment is excellent.

Initially introduced in 2007, Miller 64, Miller Brewing Company’s foray into the ‘ultra-light’ beer market is named after its total calorie count per 12 fl oz. Originally dubbed MGD64, it was launched nationwide after favorable testing in Miller’s home base of Wisconsin. Supported by the usual multi-million dollar ad campaign, everything went according to plan for the brewing giant, right?

Wrong. Within a market increasingly in favor of higher quality craft beer , the product has never gained true traction with consumers. Often perceived as ‘watered down,’ weighing in at only 2.8% ABV, the beer has struggled with its image as a serious option. In the roughly 5 years since its introduction, Miller has rebranded the product multiple times, each iteration failing to increase sales in any meaningful way. The company also attempted to capture a set of non-beer drinking drinkers with a 64 calorie “lemonade” malt beverage under the same brand, but the effort was fruitless, leading to a near instantaneous discontinuation.

Sales of the golden swill were down double digits in 2011, so Miller elected to redesign the brand with an updated label design (a key indicator of brand loyalty in the beer industry) and a new ad campaign. The latter, centered around a catchy ‘sea shanty’ song, features active and attractive 25-35 year olds, but in addition to the actors, the lyrics to the tune and the slogan “Brewed for the Better You” make it obvious that Miller has a clearly defined new target demographic in mind.

Notwithstanding Miller’s spirited efforts to make Miller 64 work, the most glaring issue is the evidence that the market for these products is extremely slim, if not entirely nonexistent. Even in spite of a health-crazed society, ‘healthy beer’ is a fairly obvious oxymoron, and very little can be done by advertising to popularize it on a large scale. By contrast, the popular SkinnyGirl cocktail brand, offering lower calorie mixed drinks, hit all the right notes with a similar target demographic, enough to merit a reported 120 million dollar purchase by Beam Global last year.

So when is enough enough? It seems that occasionally, even when armed with the influence and funding necessary to push a product on a global scale, marketing can fall short of a product that doesn’t fit consumer wants, needs, or expectations, and the best course of action is simply to let go. In this case, the payoff from the latest endeavor remains yet to be seen, but it may be time for the diluted barley beverage to go the way of its predecessors: down the drain.

Word Out on the Town

Reputation has always carried heavy importance for businesses across industry. Throughout the last century, customer loyalty was primarily forged through personal interactions that involved a high standard of service blended with consistency. Managing performance and generating new business was dependent on solid reputations and relationships. However, technology is the basis for a large majority of interaction between businesses and consumers. With this shift, the importance of reputation is not diminished; instead, a new standard is being set online.

The internet has accelerated the speed of consumer interactions with brands in dramatic fashion. As one might expect, reputation has become increasingly transient and incredible sensitive. A plethora of online ‘review’ sites populated by communities of customers giving feedback in real time has empowered the voices of consumers. A single bad review of a restaurant can deter other patrons, and a bit of praise can fill the reservation book. Whether from advocates or critics, the instantaneous reporting of customer experience can literally be make or break for a business.

These drastic changes have led to behavioral changes, manifested most strikingly in the form of companies touting themselves as “reputation management firms.” The anonymity that the internet allows by nature has meant that not all customer reviews or ratings are to be believed, and a small number of businesses have turned to gaming the system by eliminating negative feedback and creating fake reviews with the goal of building a strong reputation or repairing one that is damaged.

The reality is disconcerting, but the message is clear: reputation online plays an extremely important role in success within the highly competitive landscape. It is important for owners and operators to understand customer feedback, address concerns, and motivate the large audiences on review sites and in the press in order to turn negatives into positives. Utilized correctly, a robust reputation online can prove to be a massive advantage, vital to the success of any business now and in the foreseeable future.

Introducing the JXN Executive Roundtable

In 2012, businesses face the challenge of reacting to major shifts in consumer behaviors within the financial constraints of a less than favorable economy. Many owners and CEOs find themselves looking for ways to reenergize the company with what seems like a shrinking budget.

Junction, as an advocate for the creation of progressive, sustainable, and successful businesses, introduces the JXN Executive Roundtable, bringing together thought leadership and promoting collaboration in the greater business communities.  The event series provides an opportunity for business owners, entrepreneurs, and executives to share and discuss best practices for sustaining and growing business.

The inaugural event in the series will take place on May 1st, 2012 at Blue Parrot Bistro in Gettysburg, PA. The event, hosted by Junction and cosponsored by Patrono & Associates and Raffensperger, Martin & Finkenbiner, LLC, will be an invitation-only evening of networking for business owners to discuss best practices for sustaining business in the market place.

If you are interested in attending the event, contact josh@junction-creative.com.  More information will be available next week on our blog.

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The slow economy of recent years has forced the reconsideration of budgeting for people from all walks of life. For many, the downturn has meant drastically reduced spending. Much more severe than simply eliminating luxuries, stretching dollars as far as they will go across everyday expenses has become standard practice. Items considered to be necessities are not any less necessary in this financial crunch. Occasionally, special circumstances lead to a situation that requires new ideas to maintain the mutually supportive confluence between business and consumer.

The Atlanta Journal Constitution recently reported on a local RIMCO, an arm of rent-to-own giant Aaron’s that has transformed a massive downturn in its primary business, selling and renting car and truck rims, into an opportunity to fill a real need for its customers rather than peddling a luxury. Unlike rims, the tires that wrap around them are an absolute necessity for car owners. However, tires are nearly as expensive; the outright purchase price for an entire set is well out of the budget for many drivers.

Renting-to-own is widely understood to be considerably more expensive than buying, but in the case of necessity items, some customers may have no choice. The store now rents twice as many tires as the rims that used to compose 60-70% of its business. Loyal customers, although not enthralled with the increased cost, are appreciative of the service and products they receive from the store, without which their commute would be impossible.

Rather than struggling with the challenges of the economic downturn, RIMCO successfully managed to shift its strategy on the fly in reaction to a radically changing market. In the face of lowered demand for the store’s primary source of business, it seized an opportunity to provide even more value to its customers than previously, and at an inflated cost that meant more revenue. The same lesson could apply in any industry – value is about more than price. For consumers, it is more important that a service fills a need. For businesses, creating an adaptable strategy that thinks far beyond cost is essential.

Don’t Feed the Trolls

Startup and entrepreneurial businesses face plenty of obstacles and pitfalls along the path to sustainability and success. Besides dealing with the obvious challenges, such as earning funding, building a team, and spreading a marketing message, startups are now facing a new menace posed by a far less notable foe.

The poet and activist Audre Lorde is famously quoted as saying “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” Patent trolls, individuals or organizations that lay claim to and police the use of intellectual property like innovate concepts, design patents, and even web domains, are proving that this concept can be leveraged against the success of a startup or even a Fortune 500 company. Also known as copyright trolls, these entities do not, in most cases, use the patents, trademarks, or copyrights they own, but rather prevent others from profiting off of the use of ‘owned’ property.

These organizations are highly controversial in nature and detrimental to the success of many other businesses – especially in today’s environment where innovation and technology drive the cutting edge. They operate well within legal limitations, regardless of their poor public perception. A patent, easy to obtain, if valid and infringed in court, can lead to millions of dollars in damages. The ‘business’ of patent or copyright trolling can be particularly attractive, growing the threat.

Awareness of patent trolls is generally low on an entrepreneur or SMB’s radar when creating a strategy to go-to-market or to market to a target audience, but the threat is real. In the case of a fragile young company with little or no safety net, incurring a lawsuit over even the borderline use of a patented idea can be devastating.

Before any business takes a step, the consequences of the decisions being made are constantly evaluated. Considering and thoroughly researching whether someone owns the ideas or technologies powering a business can protect it from a major disaster.

QR Codes: From Passé to Practical

Nearing the end of 2011, QR Codes (short for Quick Response Codes) were the red-hot new word in the marketer’s vocabulary. The 2D matrix-type barcodes were beginning to appear everywhere, from traditional places for print marketing such as corkboards and city busses, to newer locations like storefront windows television screens. Armed with smartphones that have put barcode scanning technology in the hands of the masses, audiences engage with the codes in impressive numbers; more than 14 million codes were scanned in July 2011, and the number is growing.

Plugged-in advertisers everywhere have jumped on board with QR codes, and the popularity of the useful tool has hit a fever pitch. As these little black and white boxes continue to make their way into prominence, it will become increasingly important to design a strategy that takes advantage of their strengths while avoiding their potential pitfalls. Here are a few general rules to keep QR code marketing effective:

–  QR Codes require context. An advertiser cannot simply place a code somewhere and expect the average smartphone user to pull out their device and scan it. Even if the code is placed somewhere relevant to the audience’s interests, QR codes require context. Placing the code within visual media with a focused message and smart design will motivate audiences to scan.

– All links directed through QR codes must be optimized for mobile platforms. The overwhelming majority of devices used to scan codes are smartphones, tablets, and other “unplugged” technologies. A destination that has poor usability or compatibility is an instant turn-off.

– QR code marketing must be directed towards a specific user base. Not all demographics are keen on QR codes; the younger and more tech savvy set are the early adopters and the obvious target, but for Baby Boomers and other more set-in-their-ways groups, ad dollars may be better spent in more traditional arenas.

– Good QR code marketing is closely tied to social media marketing. Codes are a fantastic way to create an impactful relationship with an individual who scans by immediately directing them to interact with your brand on a social network.

– Be creative! QR codes can be expressive, interactive, and clever. Most scanning applications have excellent error tolerance, meaning greater functionality while allowing for plenty of customization. Colors, shapes, and sizes can all be modified to create a code in line with branding, leading to a more attractive incentive for users.

    QR codes will continue to grow in prominence as they are integrated into marketing and advertising strategies. Following these tips, a brand can stand out from the crowd and capture their desired audience.