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Thinking Things


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How Aetna Approaches Social Media in the Healthcare Industry

Posted on 25 August, 2018 at 13:27 Comments comments (95)
This story was written for and first published by PR News.

Why has it seemed like such a challenge for healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, insurers and nonprofit organizations to communicate effectively and build relationships on social media? One could argue that regulatory guidelines must be considered at every turn and have prompted communicators to proceed cautiously—especially given the serious nature and high stakes of the healthcare industry in the first place.

Kieran Fagan is familiar with the situation. He is vice president of communications at Aetna, responsible for digital communications and content strategy, and communications for Aetna International. At the upcoming Healthcare Social Media Summit Oct. 23 in Baltimore, he will be speaking on the session “The State of Healthcare Communications,” which will delve into the key issues that are now accelerating social media in healthcare communications. Fagan previews a few of them, from his point of view at Aetna:
Healthcare professionals being applauded for their passion to care about people, yet cited for not communicating with patients well enough: “On the one hand, I could cite examples of excellent communication from our associates with our members,” Fagan says, noting letters and testimonials indicate many one-on-one communications that have made a big and positive difference in people’s lives. “On the other hand,” he continues, “we know that we’re part of an overly complicated and broken system and could do a better job communicating with our members.”

He cites as an example of “complicated” communication the “indecipherable” Explanation of Benefits statements that everyone gets in the mail. “I’m a member, too, and I can’t figure them out,” he says.

Yet he feels the industry is working to get better. “The experience I have on our member website keeps getting better – easy access to information, quick responses to my questions about claims. More and more people are having a more positive digital experience, which is where we’re headed.”

The effect of high tech on communications in the healthcare field: Overall, Fagan feels the effect is positive. “Looking at digital communications, anything that helps simplify people’s interactions with the ‘system’ and get them the information they want or need is positive,” he says.

He used as an example being able to talk to your health insurance company via Twitter or the member portal and resolve an issue quickly. Other positives of high tech: being able to learn more about your diagnosed medical condition using “Dr. Google”; understanding potential treatment options and discussing them with your doctor via telemedicine portal; and connecting with other people in an online forum and share experiences and tips.

Today’s biggest challenges in meeting patients’ and customers’ evolving communications expectations: Fagan says he sees two primary challenges—one new and one old. “The new one is the ‘always on’ expectation that digital media feeds,” according to Fagan. “When people have a question, they want an answer now. When they have a problem, they want someone to solve it now. They don’t always expect an answer or solution now, but they want one. They don’t want to tap their way through an excruciatingly long phone menu or hunt through your website for an answer.”

The second challenge, he says, is an old communications challenge—communicating in normal, jargon-free language. “It still astounds me how many corporations shroud themselves in dense, wordy press releases full of impenetrable sentences and quotations no human would speak,” he laments. “We can learn a lot from social media about how real people talk—and would do well to mirror that to be a relevant voice in those conversations.”

Regulatory changes’ impact on healthcare communications: Aside from GDPR and its impact on sites doing business in Europe, Fagan believes there hasn’t been much recent regulatory change in the industry that’s affected his approach to social media. “A lot of the basics are unchanged, most covered under HIPAA’s social media rules and boiled down to: ‘respect patient privacy.’ Like any company, Aetna has clear social media guidelines, monitoring and reporting processes.”

Measuring the effect of your social media communications efforts: Fagan says Aetna has a monthly scorecard that measures overall media performance, with social media as part of that. The company measures a combination of factors: the effectiveness of social channels (are they maintaining or increasing engagement); the reach of the content (is what they have to say breaking through to audiences); and Aetna’s share of conversation among specific groups of online influencers (are the people who matter most on a topic talking about Aetna relative to that topic). He says Aetna includes in this the effectiveness of and engagement with the company’s senior leaders who are active in social media.

Tailoring different messages for different audiences in different social platforms: “For my work, it’s less about tailoring a message for a specific platform than having the right ‘messengers’ talking to the right audiences regardless of platform,” Fagan says. He noted that Aetna’s chief medical officer uses Twitter to talk to a more clinical audience – his network of peers, academic experts, clinical trade media, etc. Similarly, the president talks with customers via LinkedIn; the chief digital officer is talking to digital health leaders via Twitter, and so on. “They each have their distinct audiences, often on the same platforms,” he says. “We work with them to tailor the message to their audience, and use social media to keep up the conversation.”

Book Review: Still Crazy After all These Years

Posted on 25 August, 2018 at 13:12 Comments comments (4)
The following book review first appeared on BookTrib, for which I am Editorial Director.

One day at the age of 10, as a student at a New England boarding school, young Ned Hallowell was told to report to the school psychologist at the request of his mother. Getting right to the point, Dr. Merritt asked, “Well, how about if you tell me about your life so far?”

“I remember starting to talk, and out of the blue the floodgates opened,” recalls Hallowell in his new memoir, Because I Come From a Crazy Family (Bloomsbury). “I talked and talked and cried and cried… Dr. Merritt sat there, not saying a word.” What Dr. Merritt said next, according to Hallowell, “makes me believe he was either the best or the worst psychologist on the planet. He said, ‘You can go now. We do not need to meet again.’ "

That was the first taste of therapy for Dr. Edward Hallowell, today a leading child and adult psychiatrist and one of the foremost authorities on ADHD, who oddly enough has built his brand around the words “distraction” and “crazy.” His bestselling book, Driven to Distraction, was written to help people cope in our crazy-busy, 24/7 modern world. It begot many other self-help works including Crazy-Busy, once again on the theme of people being overbooked, overstretched, about to snap and trying to manage.

Fast-forward to Hallowell’s latest gem, Because I Come From a Crazy Family, in which the author does some self-psychoanalysis and once again opens the floodgates to deftly recall how his upbringing led him to a career dedicated to “decoding human nature… [and] doing battle with the demons of the mind, including my own.”

In the opening pages, he recalls how his mother proclaimed when he was a baby that she knew he’d make the family happy. “So those were my marching orders: make people happy,” he writes.

Hallowell is a thorough and convincing storyteller, recounting all the details from a childhood cluttered with what he calls the “WASP triad” of alcoholism, mental illness and politeness. Along the way readers are introduced to a bipolar father, alcoholic mother, abusive stepfather and Hallowell’s own bouts with ADHD and learning challenges.

The gift of this work is that Hallowell is able to paint a Mark Twain-like picture of a childhood from Chatham, MA, to Charleston, SC, with all the typical growing-up adventures you’d expect from any coming of age tale. Sure, it has its warts, which help explain his life’s work sitting on the flip side of the doctor-patient table from his Dr. Merritt experience and letting others confront their emotions. The fact that his childhood was normal in many ways and crazy in others allows the reader (and Hallowell’s millions of devoted followers) to relate, and conclude that they are not in their struggles alone.

“People in my family were wonderfully interesting people,” Hallowell says in an early episode of his podcast, fittingly called Distraction. “They’re very loving. There was no cruelty, but there was a fair amount of craziness and drinking. “People ask me, “Why did you become a psychiatrist?” The answer is because I come from a crazy family. I found the workings of the mind very interesting, but I didn’t want to be a bench researcher – I wanted to be an explorer.”

Using his own ADHD as a centerpiece, Dr. Hallowell tries to position others’ similar struggles as positives. “These folks have a Ferrari engine for a brain with bicycle brakes. If you manage it properly, you can take it to the very pinnacle of success.”

For a professional psychiatrist who excels in prompting someone else to do most of the talking, Dr. Hallowell is the auteur for this very special narrative. Instead of hearing others delve into their past, this is all Ned all the time. It’s poignant storytelling with a purpose, and a treasure for those either new to or familiar with his work. Because I Come From a Crazy Family is a memoir worthy of consideration for your short list — that is, of course, if you can find a way to toss aside your distractions and lose yourself in one man’s very relevant vantage point in this crazy-busy world.

Because I Come From A Crazy Family is now available for purchase.

Traditional Ads Meet Content Marketing at Ad Week 2016

Posted on 3 October, 2016 at 8:07 Comments comments (121)
This blog first appeared on the website of  CRN International, where I am the company's Marketing Director.

Hold on. We’ve heard some 300 sessions X 13 years at Advertising Week preaching the glory of content marketing. Yet there was the moderator of a radio industry panel asking her CMO panelists what final message they’d like to leave for a room full of potential radio advertisers.

It was the invitation for a blatant “pitch” – if that word is even in the marketing lexicon anymore. Their answers came in the form of live “spot ads”— much like radio ads often buried within long commercial stop sets but in this case buried within four days of nonstop presentations.

And so it was at this consummate industry tailgate party, once again taking possession of New York’s Times Square with some 100,000 attendees. The event is not so much a “Guide to Effective Marketing” as it is “A History of the World as We Know It”– tackling social, political, cultural and psychological issues as thoroughly as programmatic, data, digital and the like. There were enough maxims to put Confucius to shame. So imagine how light-hearted it was to hear Cosmopolitan Editor in Chief (and now also Hearst Chief Content Officer) Joanna Coles point out the diamond “as big as a baby” on her fellow panelist to the left and the lack of a bra on her panelist to the right.

You know, maybe Radio Advertising Bureau CEO Erica Farber wasn’t so off track with her “pitch” question to radio CMOs. In our offices here at CRN, we’ve committed to memory radio’s weekly reach of some 247 million Americans, its favorable showing both locally and nationally vs. other media, and its incredible appeal to Millennials. In a nutshell, brands can be part of a great story on radio.

What’s more, if nothing else, Advertising Week 2016 woke us up to the reality that content marketing, while a nice idea, is so omnipresent that only a sliver of what’s offered up to us every waking moment gets any traction. Said Jennifer Zeszut, CEO of marketing analytics firm Beckon, “We are creating content faster than we can measure the quality control of it.”

In a presentation, Zeszut cited company research based on some $16 billion in client spending that just 5 percent of all content generated 90 percent of consumer interactions. “In other words, 19 of 20 pieces of content get little to no engagement.” Conclusion: Companies churning out content just for the sake of it (she noted two clients that developed 29, 000 and 50,000 pieces of original content) will only go so far, and not necessarily far enough given the effort.

Lack of engagement, Beckon says, is the best-case scenario; the worst case is that low-quality content will actually hurt the perception of a brand and, ultimately, sales. Recommendation: Don’t make “number of pieces published” a main KPI but rather make those KPIs more outcome-focused.

Another key learning from Beckon: Don’t confuse “total brand mentions” with “total consumer-initiated brand mentions.” It is much more effective to have consumers touting your story.

As Venky Balakrishnan, Global Vice President, Digital Innovation, of Diageo agreed on a separate panel, “Being #7 on somebody’s Top Ten list is better than having to shout out, ‘Buy me.’ ”

Then there’s the question of the right content delivered in the right manner. Randy Freer, President of Fox Networks Group, said we have to get away from our obsession with chasing the latest hot platforms and instead focus on what we’re trying to say and how we’re saying it. The proper platform will follow.

Makes sense. In fact, Gayle Fuguitt, President and CEO of the Advertising Research Foundation, cited a statistic indicating, “Seventy-five percent of the impact of any campaign is dependent on the creative.”

In order to get that creative right, a lot of discussion revolved around the need to have a diverse team within your creative departments to represent a realistic cross-section of opinion and synergy with the appropriate target demographics. “Diversity is a big strategy for us,” said Brad Jakeman, President, Global Beverage Group, PepsiCo. “We need different approaches to problem-solving.”

Echoed Kristin Lemkau, CMO of JPMorgan Chase, “We need to get a cross-section of consumers on our marketing team.”

Jakeman also noted the importance of company culture in getting a message across and growing a business. “Culture is almost impossible to change,” he said. “But what can you identify to change within a culture? People don’t just want to know what the company makes, but what makes the company.”

For an enormous marketing organization like Procter & Gamble, it naturally has to engage with consumers across all platforms. And the messaging is critical. “We have to tailor our creative so that we still look like one brand,” said Marc Pritchard, Chief Brand Officer. “We have to communicate the features and personality of the product, and figure out how to express it in 30 seconds. We need to think of the idea first.”

In the end, it’s all about driving growth. So consider the statement from Catharine Hays, Executive Director of Wharton’s Future of Advertising Program: “Marketers are becoming the new Chief Growth Officers in a world that is not growing.”

“Traditional mindsets about advertising and marketing must be challenged,” she said. “The rise of the attention economy requires a new marketing model.”

As such, she said it is important for companies to put aside significant dollars to fund internal learning. “Marketers need experimentation without the fear of failure,” she said.

To that point, Anna Fieler, Executive VP of Marketing for POPSUGAR, said, “We are minding the core but experimenting vigorously in new channels.”

Ok, and now on to the other 243 sessions….

Getting in Tune with Non-Traditional Radio Marketing

Posted on 20 June, 2015 at 7:10 Comments comments (230)
(This article first appeared in and the Chief Direct Marketer newsletter.)

Anyone searching a stock photo library for pictures of a radio will find thousands of images that conjure up memories of old-time radio. But the audio industry has transformed beyond recognition, with the most common sources of sound looking like computer screens, smartphones and car dashboards.

Radio is still a very valuable advertising medium. About 91%, or 245 million, of all Americans ages 12 and up listen to some form of radio every week, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau, whether it’s commercial radio, streaming, pure play, podcast or something else.

Those numbers haven’t been lost on marketers: Total spending in radio and other forms of audio advertising in 2014 topped $17 billion.

Some marketers have employed non-traditional tactics to get their messages to stand out in a crowded field. Of the branding messages considered in a report from radio marketing firm CRN International, 77% said they are most interested in useful or entertaining content about an area of interest, and that this form would have the greatest impact on purchase consideration. Less than two percent said traditional commercials would have the most impact.

Mother’s Circus Animal Cookies, a regional brand of Kellogg Company, and Access Health CT, an East Coast company charged with boosting healthcare enrollment, provide two striking examples of how taking a non-traditional approach to radio marketing helped separate them from the clutter.

Mother Knows Best
Mother’s Cookies had been relying too heavily on display ads to drive sales and needed to reverse a downward sales pattern. A lack of consumer engagement and push to retail led to a double-digit decline in sales. “The brand’s retail sales had been down significantly over the last two years and I wanted to test the possibility of using radio to turn around by reconnecting consumers with the brand in a way not usually seen in my product category,’’ said Colleen Chorak, senior marketing director, Kellogg Cookie Portfolio.

The idea was to bring the character of “Mother” to life on radio as a highly relevant and respected person who understands what it means to be a mom. A persona was developed for Mother, a mom on the go lending a hand at a child’s lemonade stand; shuttling the kids between games, lessons and play dates; and doing all the voices and accents when she reads a bedtime story.

The target audience was working moms ages 30-44 of cookie-loving families, with Los Angeles as the test market. With cookies known to be an impulse buy, the thinking was to raise awareness of the brand and get moms to perceive that Mother’s was a very cool and relatable company.

CRN developed a radio campaign using brand ads to introduce the character. It also provided free radio advertising to two Los Angeles retailers in exchange for incremental display merchandising for Mother’s.

A key marketing component was a series of two-minute “conversations” that ran on two Los Angeles radio stations for 12 weeks. The conversations, set up under the premise that Mother was a local client of the stations, positioned her as a working mom with a significant job as well as the same interests that all moms face—getting kids away from computer screens, dealing with summer camp, how to spend Mother’s Day and more.

The result?

Mother’s realized significant sales improvement where the radio campaign ran. “In the test market, the brand has slowed sales declines versus other regions of the country,” said Chorak. “On all levels, this program exceeded my expectations and has been a real win for my brand.”

Keeping Healthy
Expectations were high at Access Health CT, which was looking to increase enrollment under the new federal healthcare program. The organization had a successful first enrollment period. However, about 140,000 Connecticut residents, many of whom were Hispanic and African-American, were still uninsured at the time of the second enrollment period. That prompted Access Health to explore more effective, efficient ways to reach the target using radio beyond traditional spot buys.

The radio campaign used the power of stories from culturally authentic real people to create personal connections to clarify misperceptions and drive enrollment. Enrollment counselors were also engaged to build understanding and trust at the local level.

Real people related their personal stories about how having health coverage has made a difference for them and their families. Thought leaders in the Hispanic and African-American communities educated listeners through live 60-second endorsements and conversations about the benefits of health coverage. Statewide media was also used to secure Public Service Announcements at no cost to Access Health.

“People connected with the station anchors and talent – they really made it personal,” said Andrea Ravitz, director of marketing, Access Health CT. “We were able to convey the live experiences that everyone and their families go through, and the impact was super.”

“For us, it was a more creative way to say the same thing as we would with normal radio ads, but the approach was more real, human, relevant, and got people to pay attention,” Ravitz said. “Our message filtered through their experiences.”

The Access Health radio program ran for six weeks in five target cities for three unique demographics using 17 radio personalities. During the second enrollment period supported by the CRN radio campaign, Access Health realized a 75% re-enrollment, an 89% increase in calls to the centers, and a 48% increase in unique website visitors.

Jim Alkon is marketing director of CRN International.

The Innovative Spirit at Work

Posted on 22 April, 2015 at 9:17 Comments comments (8)
This post first appeared on, the website for CRN International, a radio marketing company where I am Marketing Director.

“Everyone at Harvard is inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

That’s what Harvard President Larry Summers told the Winklevoss twins when they whined about Mark Zuckerberg stealing their idea in the movie, The Social Network. Summers urged them to “let their imaginations run away with them on a new project.”

I had a chance this past weekend to witness firsthand the Harvard invention credo, with one small twist: I was at Yale, about four miles and 400 SAT points from my CRN office in nearby Hamden. It was the “Entrepreneurship Across Yale” weekend of “pitches, prizes and world-changing ideas.” Finalists from two contests among Yale students shared their entrepreneurial ideas with the hope of winning financial support. Non-winners were invited to present their ideas again the next day in an audience-judged Tuna Tank—a takeoff on the popular TV show of another fish.

One of the most innovation-inspiring exercises is hearing ideas of others, and this event was no exception. Here were the finalists for Yale’s Sabin PrizeGrovio, an unmanned aerial system for monitoring agricultural fields; HomE, a “clean energy” battery backup for essential home appliances; Poda Foods, food-grade cricket protein; and Tuckerman & Co., high-quality, sustainably made professional clothing. And don’t tell me you just had one of the same ideas!

The Tuna Tank strangely conjured up memories of another scene in The Social Network where Napster founder Sean Parker convinces Zuckerberg not to go after advertising right away for Facebook because advertising “isn’t cool.” The ten student presenters in this exercise described very different business concepts ranging from a peer-to-peer delivery service, to a dating service where your friends—not you—do the initial screening to find you a good match, to a device that gives users “freedom from the screen” by communicating everything via voice, to virtual consultants for small business. Creativity was rampant, and the young Yale-schooled entrepreneurs were impressive in their deliveries. But several of the concepts lacked a well-thought-out business model and potential revenue stream. Hey, at least in college, even for some School of Management whizzes, I guess coolness still counts.

Also part of the weekend, the Thorne Prize recognized the best student-led venture focused on social innovation in health. Consider the ideas of the finalists: Formidably, a software platform for securely digitizing and processing data on paper forms, optimized for developing countries; Hapterix, a point-of-care test that non-invasively diagnoses neonatal sepsis, a bacterial infection and leading cause of morbidity and mortality in newborns; PremieBreathe, a low-cost respiratory aid for newborns in low-resource settings; and the prize winner, StoryTime, making early literacy accessible to all by sending children’s stories to low-income parents via text message.

To experience something similar to Yale’s rapid-fire snapshots of innovation, check out the year-end issue of The New York Times Magazine, which highlights all the new patents applied for over the past 12 months. It’s a plethora of unique thinking and unusual concepts—most of which never make it to market. Many are quite funny, but they are also inspirational and the very foundation of what innovation is. Fear of failure is not spoken here; neither was it spoken at the Yale School of Management.

In fact, Kyle Jensen, Director of Entrepreneurial Programs, argued in his remarks that failure is an ally to innovation, and entrepreneurs should enter the ring expecting defeat nine out of ten times. But that will serve to motivate them to get off the canvas and come back swinging the next time.

Corporations are obsessed with being perceived as innovative. They strive to create the right environment, get the right mix of people, provide context, foster openness and empowerment, and “let imaginations run away.” That atmosphere permeated Yale, full of enthusiastic, energetic, free-thinking minds as well as supportive, encouraging mentors.

Innovation has been a cornerstone at CRN since the very beginning. It is essential to meeting our clients’ objectives; it is integral to our success. Yet if you asked us where it came from, that might be harder to answer than actually developing the innovative client solutions themselves. That’s why our weekend peek into the next generation of entrepreneurs and the innovators of tomorrow was such a valuable, motivating experience. It gave us an up-close hint of the smell and spirit of innovation at work. And it was beautiful.

The Wild, Wacky and Worthy of Ad Week 2014

Posted on 4 October, 2014 at 7:37 Comments comments (4)
This blog was first posted by CRN International, for which I am currently Marketing Director.

“I’m a big advocate and supporter of radio; trouble is, most creative on radio is really bad.”

The head of a multibillion-dollar ad agency shared that with me between sessions at Advertising Week 2014 in New York. And as much as the show’s organizers tried to break me by instructing 960 speakers to replace every “er” or “uh” with words like content, data, engagement, storytelling, mobile, programmatic, and collaboration, the CEO’s candid comment will be the most indelible memory for me, now that I’ve washed the hand that shook Dan Rather’s.

Oh, the comment had plenty to compete with: close to 300 sessions, 100,000 attendees, and seemingly more stages than there are Broadway shows. Yet after a while, no matter the title of the session or the question from the moderator, every answer managed to include one of those seven magic words. Tolerance depended on the time of day and extent of hangover.

Radio sure had its moments. A panel of four radio personalities moderated by Radio Advertising Bureau CEO Erica Farber reminded us of the infectious intimacy that can be established between listeners and their favorite on-air personalities. That bond is accompanied by a trust that shouldn’t be violated by, say, compromising one’s integrity by endorsing a product one does not believe in. Unless, of course, you bow to the gospel of former New York Giant Amani Toomer who said, “I work for NBC Sports Radio, and I’ll pretty much sell anything.”

Getting back to the CEO’s comment, we at CRN can’t disagree. We’re big advocates and supporters of radio ourselves, with the caveat that it must be used properly. Most advertisers still insist on jamming spot messages of various creative merit down consumers’ throats. Yet CRN’s recent consumer research clearly revealed listeners’ penchant to tune out traditional commercials and indicated that they respond more favorably to other types of tactics.


One such tactic is the use of endorsements and testimonials. While not referring specifically to radio, a panelist in a New York Times CEO Forum, Julie Bauer, President of Consumer Electronics at Panasonic, recited the three forms of this storytelling strategy—celebrity endorsements, expert endorsements, and testimonials from “real people”—and the need to match the right tactic with the right audience, the right time, and the right message. Talk about real people, it was fitting that during the week iHeartMedia guru Bob Pittman said the best form of advertising is hearing a recommendation from your best friend.

On that same CEO panel, mcgarrybowen Founder Gordon Bowen didn’t exactly scoff at the prospect of putting too much stock in data and analytics, but noted, “Marketers are led by their gut into the human condition and tapping into human emotion. That’s instinct—that’s what our industry does.”

In a separate session, Kasha Cacy, President of the U.S. division of Universal McCann, referenced emotion not only as a marketing tactic but as a selling strategy to clients. She said she usually faces “no resistance to campaigns that rely on emotion. Be passionate when you are making the case. I never feel I’m selling something if I believe in something.” Cacy said UM believes in “the power of a moment; moments consumers care about—how to find them, capture them and use them for your brand.” To help determine those moments, Cacy described a “Day in the Life of a Consumer” exercise in which UM had a number of consumers wear cameras around their foreheads all day. The result was insight into what the consumers did and saw, as seen through their very own lenses. Cacy chuckled at the consumer whose camera followed him as he watched TV and then got up during the commercial—which someone spent huge dollars for—to go to the kitchen.


Thoughts on how to build an influential brand have certainly changed in recent years. Jeremy Levine, Senior Vice President of Digital Sales for Live Nation, said, “It used to be that the brand had to be the center of everything. Now, brands must be more subtle in their marketing to achieve authenticity.” Rob Horton, Vice President of Marketing at Glidden, added, “We try to talk to the consumer as if you are our neighbor.”

Mark O’Brien, President of DDB North America, said his company measures brand influence through an “Influence Index” that takes into account social buzz, price premiums, earnings multiples, and sales. Added Nancy Hill, President and CEO of 4A’s, “Influence has to translate into sales.”


Brands need to clearly identify and operate in the context of an “Ambitious Purpose,” said consultant Jim Stengel, a marketing veteran who spent 25 years with Procter and Gamble. “You must have an Ambitious Purpose or it’s simply game over,” he said. “Ask yourself, does your brand come from a deeper purpose or ideal? Does it serve the world in some meaningful way? Is it inspiring teams and partners?” Stengel said brands also need to “bring humanity to life. Are you touching the hearts of your consumers in a sincere, caring, honest way? Is empathy a core value?”

To give attendees a better idea, Stengel listed the Ambitious Purpose of some popular brands:
 • Google: To make the world’s knowledge available and useful to everyone
 • Skype: To help people connect in more ways to transform and enhance their lives
 • Nivea: To proactively care for and protect people

Stengel believes a company’s Ambitious Purpose “always has to stay the same, but you must be willing to change everything else if necessary.” He gave the example of Pampers from his time at P&G: “When we went from a focus on ‘dryness’ to a focus on ‘baby development,’ we tripled the business.”


What keeps marketing people awake at night?

 • Lauren Crampsie, Worldwide CMO, Ogilvy: “Sometimes people are afraid to take a chance. We are not necessarily having the right conversations in the creative world right now.”
 • Lisa Donohue, CEO, Starcom Mediavest Group USA: “Keeping up with the pace of people. And talent needs are so significant, constantly changing, and becoming more expansive.” 
 • Lisa Cochrane, Senior Vice President, Marketing, Allstate Insurance: “Staying on top of change and focusing on the next Big Idea.”
 • Brian Jones, Vice President, North America Commercial Marketing, Dell: “Modern marketing, and finding the right partners.”


The advertising business obviously is a collaborative one with many moving parts. While speakers and panelists spent most of the week supporting that realization and offering helpful ideas to further promote such activity, one person said the solution to quality collaboration is simple: “give us credit and get us paid.” How inspiring!

My Five Favorite Posts of 2013

Posted on 30 December, 2013 at 21:11 Comments comments (3)

The principal of my daughter’s elementary school many years ago went on and on at an assembly praising staff members and volunteer parents for a variety of contributions. “I know we tend to thank a lot of people around here and it’s taking a long time,” she said in a friendly, unapologetic tone. “But that’s too bad!” She had an instant fan.
Leadership gurus preach the value and necessity of appropriate praise as a cornerstone to generating intended results. Like pistachio nuts, investments and extra golf balls, it’s one of those things you can’t have enough of.

Thanks for reminding us what we’re up against and how far we have to go.
In the days since reading Holly Finn’s cynical and scathing assessment of the meetings and conventions industry in The Wall Street Journal, my mood has changed from outrage to anger to frustration to hunger (it was dinner time) to concern and then to excitement and exhilaration. Ms. Finn basically tore apart our industry, painting us as a bunch of Good Time Charlies who like to spend lavishly, party endlessly, and think, learn and network less than occasionally.

Between associations pounding the drums in Washington, advocacy experts spreading the word in forums near and far, and social media threads offering diverse opinions on what’s right, wrong, what could and should be done when it comes to elevating the stature of the meetings industry, there’s only one thing for corporate meetings professionals to do to take the issue beyond mere words: get a voice in the executive suite.

If given the choice at a professional education event, would you rather listen to an engaging speaker and get a new idea or two, or meet everybody in the room one-on-one for at least three minutes? 
I’ve been wrestling with this question, and, as Vice President of Education for Meeting Professionals International’s Greater New York Chapter responsible for program development, I am most interested in the answer.
History tells us compelling topics and charismatic speakers carry the day, draw people away from their computer screens, and send them merrily into the night.

A common sequence surrounding a discussion of ROI in the meetings industry:
  1. Speaker says measuring ROI is essential for validating and continuing to have events, as well as helping in many cases to validate jobs.
  2. Others nod in agreement.
  3. Speaker points to statistics indicating most companies do little or nothing to measure ROI.
  4. Others nod in agreement, some staring down at their notepads.
  5. Speaker encourages and energizes others to go back to the office, work to penetrate the layers of executive decision-making, and make ROI a priority.

Time to Rethink the Association Model?

Posted on 12 December, 2013 at 6:23 Comments comments (7)
This article was written for and first appeared in

It was a discussion among association chapter leaders on how to increase membership. The usual campaign strategies were mentioned. But for all the tactics, I had a larger question: What is our value proposition—is it strong enough?

Even if it were, would that matter? Associations are fighting an increasingly tough battle to engage and keep members, stay relevant, and deliver numbers. Is it the fault of the associations themselves for their struggles to adapt and improve with every industry course correction? Or are we simply living in an age in which association participation is slipping on the working professional’s priority list—no time, no interest, no urgency, no energy, too many other options.

The age-old value formula for members of associations is no secret: stay involved in your industry, take advantage of resources and educational opportunities, and make new business connections via networking opportunities. Add to that frequent communications vehicles and job banks. These elements are typically available via local chapter events and a national educational conference or trade show. For years membership renewal in our industry associations was a rubber stamp for most planners and suppliers. And that was fine, particularly as members, myself included, forged relationships that led to new business.

But just as meeting planners were alerted to the importance of proving ROI, so too were executives forced to evaluate every penny spent in a treacherous economy, including association membership for employees.

Facing this new reality, where members had to justify the relevance of their membership, did associations start operating more like businesses and less like the communities they were selling to members in the first place? While the answer is a little bit of both, perhaps the rising concern over dues caused many associations to focus too much on numbers and drift away from their core strengths.

Yet wouldn’t some associations, at least at the chapter level—which is the heart of many organizations—actually be better served with fewer but more committed members, who had to think twice about their involvement before mailing it in? I raised this question a while back: Would you rather belong to a club of 800 with 20 percent engaged members or a club of 200 with 100 percent passionate ones?

A look at some riveting statistics from Meeting Professionals International’s Greater New York Chapter, for which I was vice president of education, would seem to support this concept. From September 2012 to July 2013, the chapter had five education/networking events. Of 685 chapter members at the time, only 148—or 21.6 percent of total membership—attended at least one. That means 537 members—or 78.4 percent of membership—chose not to attend any. The topics weren’t interesting? (Satisfaction scores, by the way, were through the roof.) The venue and locale were undesirable? The dates presented conflicts? C’mon. In Greater New York at least, there are many disengaged members who, outside of paying dues, seem to have limited involvement with the group.

I suggested that MPI experiment and intentionally reduce/control membership in one of its chapters to produce a stronger, more active membership. Let’s say Greater New York cuts its membership to 250 (don’t faint, MPI loyalists), institutes a qualification process whereby applicants are evaluated and accepted, and starts fresh with a smaller, more focused, more inspired membership eager to learn, share, participate, influence, and contribute. As it is now, chapters try to develop programs that appeal to the masses and draw the highest audience, but they suffer for being too general or simply irrelevant. A smaller group would be less subject to those generalities and could address more specifically meaningful topics that members could readily apply to their work. As energy levels rise, other initiatives of a motivated group could include white papers and community/industry causes of relevance. What’s more, current pressures to reach challenging membership metrics and member satisfaction levels would ease. As it is now, chapters are evaluated on those metrics and rewarded—or penalized—with funding and incentives from headquarters. The non-participatory members bring down the overall participation-level percentages of events and programs, and their lack of participation affects their answers on satisfaction surveys. Under this newer proposed model, those trouble spots could be corrected. How vibrant a group this could be—provided the chapters deliver on quality.

The changing needs of the potential membership pool call for a reassessment on the part of associations, which I imagine takes place constantly. Short of anything so radical, though, we at the chapter and national levels should work very hard to make our programs appealing. We should conduct surveys to get feedback about members’ priorities and preferences, hold focus groups, and give members every chance to be heard. And of course, we should listen and respond. But we can’t drag people kicking and screaming away from their computer screens and into the face-to-face world of live events. And why should we?

While associations at one time were the main source of information about an industry, that is no longer the case. As explained so eloquently by Howard Givner, executive director of The Event Leadership Institute: “Technology, and specifically social media, has flattened and democratized the flow of information, and fostered a wide range of education and networking in a friction-free environment. Ideas and connections now flow fast and furious across the Web, and are not bothering to make a pit stop at the association office. People are ‘on’ seven days a week now, checking e-mails and doing work at all hours of the day, and have come to expect lightning-fast delivery of information. By contrast, the traditional association is encumbered by various processes, bylaws, committees, and other legacy structures built in an era when business moved more slowly.”

If you’ll accept the current skepticism about the value of associations in comparison to other information sources, it stands to reason a new structure and dynamic might be worth considering in hope of resuscitating a lethargic membership and membership pool. Certainly, there’s easy money to be made from the many members who blindly mail in renewals then are hardly seen or heard. But these non-participatory members are hurting the greater good in the long run.

In their book, Race for Relevance: 5 Radical Changes for Associations, Harrison Coerver and Mary Byers note the six marketplace realities that did not exist 25 years ago:

• Too little available time for board members and regular members • More demanding value expectations
• Changes in market structure
• Multigenerational differences among today’s membership domain
• Competition—not only from other associations but from other information channels
• The effect of technology on accessing that information

Their solutions were along the same “less is more” theme I am proposing: smaller boards that can more easily make decisions; fewer committees with fewer members bent on sticking to the mission statement; a slight shift to more staffers and fewer volunteers; understanding that not all members are desirable ones; and even being selective about the breadth of products and benefits that are offered.

What sort of members are the desirable ones? Certainly not the ones who pay their dues, sit back, and see what the association can and will do for them. Rather, the ones who step forward with an all-in approach from the get-go, join a committee, and participate to the fullest. This was evident in a focus group I conducted for MPI Greater New York. One participant recalled that after year one of membership, she wrestled with renewal. Ultimately, she decided to stay with it and immerse herself in activity and involvement. The difference, she said, was remarkable and very rewarding. While you will never get 100 percent involvement, under the newer model you certainly would shift the balance to a higher number of motivated members.

Measuring Value: It's Not a Pipe Dream

Posted on 19 June, 2013 at 7:16 Comments comments (6)
A common sequence surrounding a discussion of ROI in the meetings industry:
  1. Speaker says measuring ROI is essential for validating and continuing to have events, as well as helping in many cases to validate jobs.
  2. Others nod in agreement.
  3. Speaker points to statistics indicating most companies do little or nothing to measure ROI.
  4. Others nod in agreement, some staring down at their notepads.
  5. Speaker encourages and energizes others to go back to the office, work to penetrate the layers of executive decision-making, and make ROI a priority.
  6. Others stand and applaud.
  7. Others return to their offices and do nothing.
  So why was this night different from all other nights?
  It was different because, courtesy of the Event Leadership Institute, I was in a room full of meetings professionals who are taking the conversation to the next level, not by asking how they can measure ROI but by sharing how they do measure ROI. As part of the process:
  * Haley Carlson of The Tribune Group sits down with stakeholders and gets a clear understanding of objectives for each of the 300 meetings she facilitates a year.
  * Rachel Gross of Univision focuses as much on the quality of attendee as the quantity.
  * Jeff Kaplan of Discovery Networks, while also seeking the “right” audience, often is concerned with measuring the “buzz” and coverage generated by his events.
  * Margaret Savoia of Ernst & Young establishes metrics and provides management with detailed reporting on touch points, activity and results.
  * For some, it’s as simple as doing something that plays into their bosses’ personal passions.
  The gathering was the first in a series of Executive Roundtables to be conducted by the Event Leadership Institute, which provides high-quality online, on-demand education on every essential meeting and event category, as well as live events with top thought leaders and influencers.
   It was exhilarating to learn about a world beyond “ROI Anonymous” where professionals have actually initiated lift-off with top executives and entered the hallowed heavens of goals and strategy. It probably doesn’t hurt that their companies’ household names, products and personalities necessitate careful and collaborative thinking in order to get it right in the delicate discipline of event marketing.
   Hearing some of the planner anecdotes, David Adler, CEO and Founder of BizBash and, along with Howard Givner, a principal in the Event Leadership Institute, asked whether the profession had finally overcome Corporate America’s longtime skepticism that dumps meetings in a bucket to be unceremoniously emptied at the first hint of hard times or budgetary concerns.
   The answer: Not quite. While many in the industry still struggle with getting their foot in the doors of the glamour offices, it’s nice to know there’s hope, and it was expressed in the processes, ideas and comments that came forth. One participant even referred to events as “the new luxury brand.” Interesting.
   In the case of entertainment and media companies, ROI could be measured with “fuzzy” goals like supporting an artist, creating buzz around a new release, exciting the press, or delivering a “feeling” that something is good….timely….relevant….hot.
   As The Tribune Group’s Carlson noted, “It’s great to get to the point where you are bringing new ideas to the table and being rewarded for those ideas.” What’s even more impressive is when you as a meeting planner are in a position to, as Carlson added, “push back and disagree” with the initial inclinations of management when you as a planner feel you know better and are not threatened by saying so.
   Kaplan of Discovery insightfully described the necessity – and joy – of being part of the strategic decision-making when it comes to recognizing planner value. “For many people in our industry, if you fail you’re done -- simple as that. But at a certain level, if you fail, you have the opportunity to keep failing,” as long as ideas and creativity are what’s valued.
   If I had a penny for every time someone has told me to slow down my golf swing and I refused to act, I’d have enough money for a new set of clubs. Similarly, as much as it is beaten over their heads, many meeting professionals are in irrational denial when it comes to ROI. But ROI is not a dangerous drug to be avoided. As proven by the encouraging progress and results of the roundtable participants, it stands to improve your life if you’ll make the commitment to simply say yes. Go on, I know you can do it.

(This column first appeared as a guest blog for the Event Leadership Institute at

Booking the Most Compelling Speaker - You!

Posted on 15 May, 2013 at 13:25 Comments comments (10)

If given the choice at a professional education event, would you rather listen to an engaging speaker and get a new idea or two, or meet everybody in the room one-on-one for at least three minutes?
I’ve been wrestling with this question, and, as Vice President of Education for Meeting Professionals International’s Greater New York Chapter responsible for program development, I am most interested in the answer.
History tells us compelling topics and charismatic speakers carry the day, draw people away from their computer screens, and send them merrily into the night. MPI aids the process with an internal database of hundreds of speakers spanning relevant and useful subjects. We are encouraged to spend all educational dollars budgeted to us, thus not shortchanging members bent on quality education.
But the more we struggle to keep customers satisfied, the more we are tempted to deviate from classic lecturers spouting wisdom to row after row of obedient listeners. Word on the street these days is single-speaker format is passé and attendees want more participation, whether that means putting on an apron and sticking your nose into health-conscious goodies for meetings-goers; talking among yourselves in roundtables; navigating an obstacle course to inspire team-building; a simple panel discussion or hosted-buyer event -- anything apart from what we’ve been hypnotized to accept. Attendees also want to feel like part of a community, which may have the event as its epicenter but which starts to function long before the event and continues well after it.
Our own research indicates networking events are more popular than educational events, even though our cerebral sessions build in plenty of networking every time. Some educational sessions even teach attendees how to be better networkers! So let’s ask again: Would you rather listen to one speaker and pray for takeaways, or spend the entire time in a speed-dating format having brief introductory meetings with everyone present?
In theory, if I attended an MPI Greater New York educational event this year, I could have learned any of the following:
  • Comp policy, staff rooms, gratuities and meeting rooms are reasonable items to negotiate with hotels.
  • Romantic personalities value relationships; warrior personalities value results.
  • Pecha Kucha presentation format gives your audience lots of ideas in a structured, concentrated format.
  • The price of lettuce makes salad a prohibitive option for an event luncheon, as opposed to a turkey sandwich.
  • Don’t implement a new content idea merely to be different; go with what your specific audience needs.
  • Fishbowl seating lessens the distinction between speaker and audience.
  • Augmented reality, a live, direct or indirect, view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented by computer-generated sensory input, can be used for product demos, to replace traditional tradeshow booths, maps, games and interactive brochures.
  • Meeting Architecture is the task of designing the meeting experience, its content, format and continuity.
  • Don’t over-schedule; allow down time during your events for thinking and reflection.
In truth, I must weigh those tidbits against the new professional contacts I’ve made, for which I can claim at least one “keeper” per session, and wonder whether introductions should take priority over instructions.
Networking and education remain one and two for just about any poll you’ll see on the value of association membership. And education can take on different meanings: how to perform a function and handle a situation, or simple enlightenment on a hot topic. But in this changing business landscape where associations themselves are slowly re-engineering their value propositions, it’s as much about who’s there as what’s there. Years ago I tried to convince my team that if we got the right people there, it didn't matter what the program looked like. To borrow the Seinfeld reference, I told them, "It's an event about nothing." When asked these days about the most fashionable trend in the industry, I always say attendee engagement. Proper nurturing and feeding of that trend, by the way, ensures successful realization of the previous most fashionable trend: ROI.
I’ve been scouring databases looking for popular, famous, controversial, informative, charming, funny, attendance-slamming speakers. But the people I really need to be seeking out are the right attendees. Attendee lists are more intriguing to peruse than speaker bios and learning objectives. Ironically, I’ll be a panelist later this week at a local chapter meeting of the National Speakers Association. It will be interesting to share some of these perspectives and see how they go over.
Perhaps the best education we can offer is as a facilitator of quality peer-to-peer sharing and interaction -- hopefully in concert with a dash of the traditional methods and formats. Please let me know if you feel a connection-oriented event has surpassed the relevance of a content-oriented one. As I mentioned, I am most interested in the answer.