Monday, March 30, 2015

Interns

Back in the mists of time, when I was the director of one of the state’s political parties, I used to joke that with ten good interns, you could probably run many of the smaller countries out there (San Marino, Andorra, Liechtenstein, etc.). I’m a big believer in internships here at New Harbor, and we regularly provide these kinds of opportunities – both paid and for college credit.

For any organization, the main thing to know about internships is this: If you take just a few minutes a day to plan an intern’s work, the benefits for the intern can be enormous. I usually tell interns that while they may have to go on the occasional coffee run or make copies now and then, my goal is for them to be able to walk away with something tangible for their portfolio – something they can point to at a future interview and say, “I did this.”
This summary of legislative campaign finances and a survey of the Rhode Island business community’s campaign contributions are two good examples of New Harbor intern projects.  The interns who worked on them even got some ink in one of Rhode Island’s most widely read political and policy blogs  - see #7.

On the intern’s end, here’s the short list of what I need: a professional demeanor (including wardrobe), can-do/I-can-figure-it-out approach (tempered by good judgment), and a minimum of ten regularly scheduled hours per week. A regular schedule is the key to the whole package, because it helps us plan the work, which allows the interns to put together their portfolio piece. And finally, we generally get many more inquiries than we can accommodate, so misspellings or mistakes on the resume or cover letter result in automatic disqualification.

Oh, and there’s a happy ending. Timing is crucial, but from time to time over the years, we’ve hired interns here at New Harbor and made them full-time members of our team. I expect we’ll be doing more of that in the future.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Delete Me

In the New Harbor playbook, the e-mail newsletter is the indispensable tool for reaching a targeted audience in a meaningful, effective way. We’re on the receiving end of a lot of e-newsletters, too - some good, some not. But it’s amazing to us how often the most important element of the total e-news package is overlooked and misused. 

 That piece? The subject line.



Check out some of the subject lines (with the senders’ names changed to “Acme” or “Jones” to protect the guilty) in e-mail newsletters we’ve received, just in the last week: 

 • Acme Newsletter for February 4, 2015 
 • Your February Acme Newsletter 
 • Acme Newsletter February 2015 
 • News from Acme 
 • Acme February Newsletter 
 • Acme News 
 • News from the Office of Politician Jones 

We’re not making this up. So here’s the point: It’s a shame for someone to go through the effort of creating and distributing an e-newsletter, only to have a subject line that basically screams “Delete Me: I’m another boring, cookie-cutter e-mail newsletter. ”



The subject line (working in tandem with the sender field) is the most important piece of the package, because if it gets lost and recipients don’t open it, what have you gained? The sender field can really help here. For example, if the sender is “Acme” or “Politician Mary Jones,” say it there. That will free up the subject line to tell your readers what it’s about, not who it’s from – since the sender line already tells us that.



So give your subject lines some serious thought, because they’ll make or break your e-news. And experiment a little. Sometimes, we’ll do two or three different subject lines when sending out the New Harbor e-news, just to see what works as an opener, and what doesn’t.



One tactic that can work well is to use a quotation from the newsletter that might be especially relevant or interesting to your audience. Feel free to hint at the content inside, without giving everything away, so that readers are likely to click on the email to find out more.



Ask yourself: What would make you want to read this email? Chances are “Acme Newsletter February” would not be as compelling as, well, almost anything else.



Bottom line: don’t let the time and effort involved in putting together an e-mail newsletter campaign be wasted by a saddling it with a boring, generic subject line.

Monday, December 29, 2014

What is Your Message?

We are all barraged with thousands of bits of information every day. Attention spans are notoriously short and everyone’s brain is working hard to sift through the noise. This reality makes a clear, effective message essential if your organization wants to be heard – and understood.

A clear message does two important things:
  • An effective message gives your audiences an overall structure, or framework, to understand what your organization does and/or its goals;
  • An effective message gives your messengers (employees, board, etc.) a structure to tell people what you do, and to be heard and understood.
With the structure of a clear message in place, the facts and figures and stories you tell about your organization will serve to support and reinforce that message, helping people to understand who you are and what you do.

The lack of a clear, understandable message can be dangerous for your organization. Without a message, it is nearly impossible to describe your organization effectively, or to be understood. And without this fundamental understanding you will likely miss countless opportunities. Even worse, others - including competitors - can take the disjointed parts and define you on their terms, instead of on your own. Reporters, too, may be left to piece together the parts of your story on their own, defining you to fit their needs or confirm their preconceived notions.

Here’s an example of a bad, unfocused message, and a good, strong one. You’ll know who the company is after you read the good message. You’ll also realize how awful the first message is after you recognize the company - and probably have a rueful smile when you think about how often people describe their organization using something like Message #1.

Message #1
  • We were founded by a visionary who started a movie company, then we got into television and amusement parks – which we still do – but now we own a TV network with three channels - one for kids, one for sports and one for general audiences. We also sell books and toys based on the characters from our movies and we even run a cruise line.
Message #2
  • We use stories and characters – like Mickey Mouse - to entertain, to teach lessons and to give people and families fun things to do.

Clearly explaining your organization in a sentence or two is crucial to being known and understood on your terms. Your key message is what you want your audience to “take away” from their interaction with your organization. A clear understanding of your organization comes through the prism of a good, strong message.

Effective messaging also provides you and your team with a structure, or framework, to communicate with all your audiences: customers, potential customers, the press, investors, donors, partners and employees. It provides a framework for all of your communications: marketing materials, speeches and presentations, web site and social media content, news releases and op eds, and just about everything else.

Finally, it’s important to realize that your message and your mission statement are not the same thing. Most mission statements are vague, laden with jargon and buzzwords glued together and watered down by a committee. These statements avoid doing what a message needs to do – prioritize what is important for people to know about your organization.

With a strong message in place, an organization is well-positioned to tell their story, and have it understood. From there, the work of creating a 21st Century communications distribution network to effectively deliver your message to your key audiences can begin.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The 2014 Elections

The gap between the electorate in a presidential year election and a non-presidential year continues to widen.  This year, in both Rhode Island and the country, the electorate was significantly older, whiter and more affluent than the voting population as a whole.  This is a reality that benefits Republicans.  In addition to the fact that this was the lowest turnout in 72 years, here are two more numbers that jumped out at me: Only 13% (or one out of eight) 18-29 year-olds voted this year.  Meanwhile, 68% of voters were 45 or older.  Contrast that with 2012, when 53% of voters were 45 or older.

This new reality creates wide two-year swings in what the electorate says it “wants,” since the electorate in Presidential years is so much different than in the “off-years.”  

At first glance, the fact that Democrats swept all the statewide and federal races in Rhode Island would seem to indicate that the state was immune to the national trend.  But in suburban and rural General Assembly “swing districts,” Republicans enjoyed some success, defeating an incumbent state senator and knocking off six House incumbents, a rarity.  Outside the urban core, Rhode Island bore a much closer resemblance to the country as a whole.  The trick for R.I. Republicans now will be to prepare when the pendulum swings back to a much less friendly “Presidential” electorate, which is coming their way in two years.

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They know who you are – and they are going to ring your doorbell, call your phone and even stalk you on the Internet (particularly Facebook) until you give them a reason to stop.  This was the year that the marriage between the “Big Data” tools of the two Obama presidential campaigns and plain old-fashioned door knocking by volunteers was consummated at the local level.  

Voters would be amazed (and maybe a little concerned) to learn what campaigns, even at a town council and school committee level, know about them, and how that information can now be sliced and diced in an effort to persuade them as individuals.  Why did that ad for so-and-so seem to appear for weeks on every web page you went to?  Because when you visited the campaign website, they dropped a cookie in your browser that “followed” you around the Internet, and showed you the ad everywhere you went.  The ad was probably targeted at you based on the pile of other information they had about you.  

In local campaigns it used to be enough to ring doorbells and send a few well-done pieces of direct mail.  By 2016 that will no longer be true – the candidate without a robust, smart, data-based on-line effort will be at a distinct disadvantage.  The good news for candidates is that it’s much more affordable than newspaper advertising, the now fading staple of local campaigns from the past.  The hard part - especially for local campaigns - will be to find someone who can manage the on-line effort, knows what they’re doing, and can do it consistently.  And even in this new age of technology, it still won’t work without those committed volunteers!

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Those annoying robo-calls you got on your phone throughout the course of the campaign were not what you probably thought they were.  While they may sound like a cheap poll, they’re really not, since a poll conducted in that way has little value to a campaign as a measure of voter sentiment.  In reality, the calls are a cheap (pennies per call) way to get even more information out of you.  In this case, the sponsor of the call is trying to find out if you’re willing to identify yourself as a supporter, an opponent or still undecided.  If you want to the calls to stop, say you are “opposed” – the campaign will stop calling, since they don’t want to do anything that will encourage you to go to the polls.  The worst thing you can do?  Say you are undecided, or hang up.  They’ll just keep calling.

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Speaking of polling - continuing a trend I first noted in 2010, for all practical purposes, it is now prohibitively expensive to get accurate polling data.  Campaigns do what they can because they have to, but any other poll, even from credible news sources, must be taken not with a grain, but with a mountain of salt.  It’s simply too hard and too expensive to get enough people to spend the 10-20 minutes per voter it takes to get a reasonably accurate gauge of voter sentiment.  Soon, only the best funded campaigns (or their related “Independent Expenditure” allies) will be able to afford truly accurate data.  The pollster who can figure out how to get accurate data in a world increasingly populated by cell-phone owners with limited attention spans will be much in demand.

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Thanks in large measure to the Citizens United decision, arguably the worst Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, campaign finance is now officially a sewer.  You can’t blame candidates and interests for doing what they must under the new rules to win, but the public is poorly served by a system that practically requires a candidate to have at least one (largely unregulated, often secretive) SuperPAC in their corner to make “Independent” Expenditures.  Meanwhile, however, expect this behavior to continue until voters impose some kind of penalty on candidates.  Although maybe there’s a connection between the low turnout and obscene amounts of money flying around.

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That said, a ton of money does not necessarily buy success.  Further, you don’t need to have the “most” money, you just need to have “enough.”

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A few years ago, I noted that competent, professional campaign staff had become essential for candidates (#5), a trend that has accelerated.  Two interesting things have happened since: 
First, relative to the resources available for down ballot statewide candidates (Lt. Governor, Secretary of State, Attorney General and Treasurer) in Rhode Island, these campaign professionals have become more expensive, and in many cases, prohibitively so.  There are few bargains to be had.  Meanwhile, and more important, as party primaries have increasingly become an exercise in appealing to a party’s base, partisan campaign professionals (there are no other kind) who win primaries have become less adept at pivoting towards general election voters who are persuaded by a more centrist message, and more likely to be turned off by partisan code words and talking points.  Candidates, beware.

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Only eight more years before Rhode Island is likely down to one statewide U.S. House seat.

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The 2016 Presidential campaign will start before the snow melts.