Monday, September 12, 2005

Because his Ideas are Good

A new e-book from Seth Godin at:

The ideas are good for anyone interested in having their blog read (translation: all of us) but it is worth noting that none of his ideas are anything new under the sun. As early as 1996, a communications researcher (Nancy Baym, see did studies of online communities in soap opera fan newsgroups (sounds cheesy, but read on). It seems those newsgroups had prolific and popular "posters" whose ideas would spread amoung the entire readership. These posters got popular by posting messages that were fun, relevant, and informative. Once they became known as authorities in their online communities, they could post almost anything, and would still maintain a large readership (relating to the: it matters what you post, no, it matters who you are, first two sections in Seth's e-book.

It just goes to show. In human communication nothing is really new - only the character of the challenge has changed (read below for further thoughts on the timelessness of human communication and technology.

But Seth's e-book is actually really good. Old news told in a new way. Recommended reading for every blogger.

Friday, September 09, 2005

How to get your message out to those who wish to read it

Or how to use other people to get what you want.

As a blogger and/or a business communicator, this is an important aspect of self promotion.

Reflect on Networking, for a moment. Remember the last time you were at a conference, or a cocktail party. You would seek out the people in the room who you felt were the most important or had the greatest ability to help you achieve their goals. Then what do you do? You grab your coffee, or your glass of wine, and position yourself as close to that person as possible. Once there, you try to say something witty, or something interesting to get that person interested in talking to you. When they turn to face you, engage in eye contact and you both have a conversation you know that you are networking really well. Then after a while, you move away and seek out others to network with. Most of us do this instinctively, it's part of getting ahead in self promotion.

What we don't usually do is dissect, on a very basic level, what is taking place here. In real life networking, we use proxemics to filter the people we want to talk to from the rest. Everybody does this, in fact, proxemics is one of our most basic human perceptions. Using proxemity to filter our communications is what's known as social filter. Experienced networkers are very skilled with how they use proxemics to make an impact. Even something as simple as standing a little too close to somebody can be a winning move at the hand of a good networker, and a disasterous move when done by somebody who does not know what they are doing.

But like I said, most of us already do this - what complicates things is technology. When you interact with a computer screen or write your blog, you can't exactly use physical proxemics BUT you can still use social filtering. On the internet though, social filtering becomes more of a "word of mouth" type of thing. Generally experienced internet users LEVERAGE THE KNOWLEDGE of others to find information that is useful to them on the web (after all, we KNOW there is too much information out there - it is very difficult to find exactly what you're looking for). How do they use other people to find what they need? Through membership in online communities, social bookmarking sites (, furl - if you haven't signed up already go, go now), and by looking at the ratings of others before they decide where to go, or what to buy ( is great for this i.e. "see what others who bought this book also bought).

Google is a dinosaur, it's over. The way you promote yourself, is by joining a community (or many) of like minded people, and sharing with them your favorite sites on the web. When your community starts to realize that you have similar tastes, and a good knowledge of what is available on the net - they will not hesitate to come to your own site, and recommend it to others. Then since they are also members of many online communities, other people will be looking to them for suggestions as well - and your site will spread.

It is almost no longer enough to just update your blog. You have to get out there, and network in the internet cocktail party. This means commenting on other peoples work, joining a social bookmarking site, and seeking out like minded people on the world wide web.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

An Interesting Study of Why Effective Advertising Really Works

About Mcdonald's, and the documentary "Super Size Me"

again, I wrote this for school, but I figure since I'm doing alot of writing for school right now, I might as well share it to keep the blog fed :)

In 2003, Morgan Spurlock took the world by surprise with his Academy Award nominated documentary Super Size Me. In his documentary, his health took a drastic dive when vegan Spurlock chose to eat nothing but food from McDonalds for 30 days. This documentary was very popular, and Spurlock became an anti fast food celebrity. A strange thing happened about a year after the documentary ratcheted Morgan Spurlock to fame: Mcdonald’s restaurants took the super-sizing option off their menu, and started promoting a “healthier choices” menu. Advertisements for the restaurant chain began to feature a new, physically active Ronald Mcdonald. Mcdonalds restaurants told the public that this change had nothing to do with Super Size Me, but a savvy public suspected otherwise. I intend to use Roland Barthes Semiotic theory to illustrate why this popular documentary had the ability to change a mammoth corporation.

Barthes would probably label fast food advertising as its own semiotic system. He maintained that the most important semiotic systems in our culture serve to maintain the status quo. This is because the mythology that surrounds these systems tells people that things are the way they ought to be, always have been, and always will be. This was good for Mcdonalds, whose mandate is to get as many people as possible to eat at their restaurants. As far as the fast food chain was concerned, they did not have to change anything about the way they conducted business as long as their symbols were working as part of a well functioning advertising campaign. After all, if customers are still walking in the door, why change? For Mcdonalds restaurants limited, the most recognized symbol in their arsenal was of course, the Golden Arches themselves. In Mcdonalds’ very effective advertising campaign, this sign was associated with family, fun, low prices, convenience food and “You deserve a break today.” Mcdonalds had already very expertly turned the symbol of a clown into a mythic or connative symbol for fast food rather than its original meaning as a symbol for childhood innocence and fun. According to Barthes, this transformation in meaning follows a typical semiotic pattern. Every connotative sign is really the result of two sign systems that are interconnected. The first system is very simple, the signifier (in this case a clown) and the signified (childhood fun at the circus) combined to make the sign (clown = fun). The sign from this first system then goes on to become the signifier in the second system, and thus creates an ideologial sign. In Mcdonalds case, the signifier (clown = fun) combines with the signified (fast food restaurant geared towards families) to create a very successful advertising campaign (eating at Mcdonalds is fun, and will make your family happy). Barthes tells us that the original sign does not lose its message in this transformation, but since the signifier can’t tell you about the sign’s historical or cultural past, the mythical or connotative sign remains hollow and false.

One of the main problems with hollow, mythic signs, according to Barthes is that only those with knowledge of semiotics can spot the “crust of falsity” that these signs carry. Spurlock may have understood how effectively Mcdonalds was using the symbols of Ronald Mcdonald and the Golden Arches to target people from all walks of life, but most peole eating at the restaurant did not stop to think why it was that Mcdonalds’ advertising campaign had succeeded in getting them in the door that day. While most people saw Mcdonalds as a cheap burger and a good milkshake, Barthes would have seen it as a place involved in “dangerous mythmaking” and we can imagine that Morgan Spurlock experienced similar feelings, leading to his decision to make the movie. Barthes and Spurlock would tell us that when Mcdonalds uses a mythical symbol to indicate to us that “fast food is fun” we feel somehow like we can buy our way out of feelings that are less than fun. Many of the people that eat at Mcdonalds are lower income parents and their families. Being a parent is not always fun, especially when you have to work all day to support your kids, you shuttle them around to their after school activities, and you’re left without the time or energy to cook dinner in the evening. So you take them to the place which promises that fun is just a Happy Meal away, because the sign tells us that “being in a family should be easy and fun.” In this manner, the happy family and their easy life is co-opted by Mcdonalds. It takes a pretty powerful use of semiological warfare to help us see through that fog.

Perhaps without intending a semiological protest, Morgan Spurlock’s movie created a competing sign. With the process described above, he successfully turned Mcdonalds’ “golden arches” into a signifier for a sign that now represented heart disease, obesity, and early death. This second order, connotative sign produced by Spurlock was enough to cause many people to boycott Mcdonalds, and Mcdonalds to change it’s entire menu. Essentially, Spurlock took the ideological baggage, or connotation of the Mcdonalds symbol, and replaced it with a new connotation in the minds of those who watched his documentary. The resulting signified (the concept of Mcdonalds’ food being unhealthy) had more of an affinity to its signifier (fast food), than Mcdonalds’ original connotation did. Barthes interpretation of signs always upholding the values of the dominant class is happily debatable in this case. Spurlock effectively created a positive connotative sign. This sign encouraged people to think twice about what Mcdonalds was really offering them, and caused the burger giant to start a re-branding campaign in defense. However, if the rebranding campaign is successful, then maybe the truth is closer to what Barthes and sociologist Dick Hebdige propose: a brief period ofsubversive semiotic power, which is later co-opted by mainstream society. I prefer the former, because it is hopeful to think that somebody working inside a dominant medium (in this case filmmaking, which is too often used to enforce the values corporations) can change the world for the better. I’m sure Morgan Spurlock would believe in one man’s power to create positive change, but Barthes would probably tell us that we are being too idealistic. Only time will give us the answer.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Organizational Communication (originally written for school)

I recently worked for an organization that was falling behind in their customer satisfaction ratings. Clients told us that they felt that our competition was listening to them more effectively than we were. Management grew very concerned, when customers were started taking their money elsewhere. We worked in a very competitive business, and in order to keep the shareholders happy, we’d have to keep our stock value up. This was something we could not achieve if our customers did not believe in us. Management tried to address this problem by developing mandatory staff training programs with messages of "putting customers first" and "enhancing the client experience." They enforced a stricter dress code, and they insisted that all employees limit personal effects to only five items per office. They said that if we followed these guidelines we would appear more professional and thus improve our customer service reviews. Staff however, didn’t understand why these measures were necessary. We felt that we were already offering superior customer service, and we wondered whether the clean office guideline was really a good solution to the problem. We knew that customers were not leaving because they got poor service from the employees. Nor were they leaving because we had messy offices. They were leaving because they felt that the organization did not listen to them. During this same time period, management decided to lay off hundreds of employees and move an entire processing center from Vancouver to Toronto. This move slowed transaction time considerably which annoyed our clients further. These cost-cutting measures kept the organization on top, but did not offer a long-term solution.

Communication theorist Stanley Deetz would tell us that this company’s failure to listen to both their customers and their employees indicates a larger systemic problem. Corporations are a dominant force in our society, but decisions in how corporations are run are made only by a privileged few. Deetz says that our quality of life is compromised when corporations "control and colonize" our lives. Corporations achieve control because they control language, and language has a profound influence on the way we think. Any information we receive from corporate communications is suspect because corporate information is created by undemocratic processes which are put in place to protect managerialism. Managerialism, according to Deetz, is logic, practices and ideology that value control. This desire for control can overcome even a desire for money, performance, or in my company’s case, customer satisfaction. My company put money into a training program in what they said was an attempt to solve the problem, but Deetz would tell us that this was only the company trying to avoid a public conflict. Conflict avoidance is present in any company desiring managerial control. In my company’s example, if any of the dissatisfied customers asked what the company was doing to fix the situation, the company could show the clean offices and the training budget in order to diffuse potential conflict. The training programs were also a good way for the company to shift responsibility for the service problem to the employees, as part of their conflict avoidance strategy. Staff, for our part, was unknowingly helping the company scapegoat us. Through a process Deetz calls consent, we were working in the best interests of the company in a faulty attempt to fulfill our own interests. In other words, when we cleaned out our offices we were allowing the corporation to retain control over our working lives. Deetz tells us that managerial control of workplace language is to blame for this seemingly nonsensical employee compliance. When management told us that empty offices were more "professional" and "enhanced the client experience," we believed them, and in turn that language created our workplace reality. The more people take for granted corporate control of their lives, the more consent occurs. In our situation, employees started to feel that the company was regressing. We used to have involvement – a place we could go to post suggestions about how to make things better at the company. A few months ago, management discontinued that program, and didn’t tell us why. Perhaps management wanted us to feel that we weren’t qualified to discuss how to improve the organization. This discursive closure is another example of distorted communication within my company.

Deetz proposes a better solution to our customer service problem than the one my company initiated. He suggests that this problem, along with many others could be solved if the company was accountable not just to shareholders, but to six groups of stakeholders, each with varying interests. These stakeholders would have a say in any decision the company makes, and managers in the company would act as mediators to ensure a balance between everybody’s diverse interests. The investors, workers, customers, suppliers, host community, and world at large should have a say in how my company is run. In the problem described above, we can imagine how the act of just giving employees and customers a voice in corporate decision making would have changed the situation. If we also took into account the needs of the community where the hundreds of employees were laid off, and the investors who value long-term performance and security for their investments, the final decision would be more democratic, and the company would soon be working in everybody’s best interest. I think that if my company had been run this way, it would have received high client satisfaction ratings. The customers and employees would have justifiably felt that their voices were heard. In Deetz’ proposal, accountability is not just lip service, or a good PR word. It becomes a reality

Thursday, September 01, 2005

We Are Still Here I Promise

So between the two of us and our ever busy schedules, it seems Jay and I are doing a pretty good job of keeping this blog on the bottom of our collective priority lists. I believe I can speak for both of us when I say we will reclaim our blog sooner rather than later, once we find ourselves in balance with all of our responsibilities. I suppose I should read more of our Ho'ohana Community cohorts and follow their lead in areas such as time management. I've bored you with this lament of mine before...

I will refrain from linking to the myriad sources detailing the recent disaster in the Southern U.S. but I will say there are a lot of emotions there...anger at government ignorance and blatant neglect...helplessness, sympathy and fear for those in the middle of the tragedy's storm. Ok, I lied, one link - from the Globe.