All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

ABCs of a 21st Century Writer

Making Sense of Prose and Pixels

Audience

Start with your audience—what they know, what they need to know and how they make sense of the world.

Brevity

Tight copy may be the “soul of wit,” yet it takes twice as long to write.

Context

A pre-existing set of conditions affect how audiences hear. Incorporate context to add layers of meaning. Ignore context and risk failing to connect.

Drafts

The third draft is always better than the first or second. The fifth? Not so much. Exert the right amount of effort and resist obsession.

Ethos

The Greeks knew some stuff. Beyond the prevailing zeitgeist, every corporate culture, marketplace and social media following taps into specific memories, values and language to make meaning. Persuasiveness often hinges on these.

Feedback Loops

Natural feedback signals are lost when we use any media—from writing books to broadcasting video. Many of today’s technologies, like social media, are including ways to measure audience reactions. Click-through rates, watch-times and other social media listening techniques act virtually to tell us what’s resonating and why.

Graphics

Modern readers unconsciously judge our visual production values against everything else they encounter. Graphic design increases readability and keeps our messages relevant in fast-moving media environments.

Hyperlinks Definitely the most underappreciated, yet one of the most powerful, writing developments in our lifetime. Hypermedia de-clutters our prose while adding unimaginable richness to our documents.

Interface

Our documents are read on a myriad of screens—some the size of matchbooks, others the size of walls. Anticipate which interfaces your audience uses to design features like graphics, audio, video and interactivity.

Juxtaposition

Compare and contrast to help delineate and distinguish.

Knowledge Management

Communication is more and more about managing information flows, platform integration and data analysis. Technology and numbers can often intimidate communicators. They shouldn’t. Written language is a profoundly complicated technology. If you can master English, spreadsheets should be like coloring books.

Laughter

Comedy is best left to professionals.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” — Erma Bombeck

Modality

Text is great for brevity and/or complexity. Video captures short attention spans. Audio contains subtle cues and emotional richness. Interactivity engages the mind, the will and the body. What mode is best? Digital communication is beautiful because we can incorporate all of these into our campaigns.

Negativity

It’s not all sunshine and lemonade. If you are actually saying something important, someone else is likely disagreeing. Anticipate possible negative reactions and integrate effective responses when possible. On social media, always have strategies for dealing with negative posts. Especially learn how to deal with trolls.(Hint: don’t feed them.)

Obvious

Don’t do the thinking for your audience. You’ll bore them and lose them.

PowerPoint

I know we have to use PowerPoint, but why so badly? When you use it, avoid the well-known sins that lead to glassy looks and ineffective presentations.

Questions

For interest, create questions in the minds of your audience; questions they must answer for themselves. For clarity, answer questions for your audience; questions they might ask if they could.

Repeat

If it needs to be said, say it again and again. Then say it a different way. Then repeat it. Then recap, referencing the first three times you said it. Cut a groove into an audience’s memory that isn’t easily erased.

Speed

Quick turnarounds, instantaneous responses and on-the-go content development are creating pressures for communicators to be faster and faster. It’s amazing and exhilarating to open a mobile app and produce a fully formatted video that posts 5 minutes after initial inception. It’s also exhausting and sometimes reckless to move at the pace afforded by these platforms. Tap the brakes for better content.

Timing

Impatience can cause an argument or initiative to fail on the launch pad. Measure the moment, looking for what the Greeks called kairos (the fullness of time, the pregnant moment). This is especially important to campaigns where information builds upon itself or momentum is desired.

Unaddressed Issues

When you choose not to address issues that are important to your audience, it’s often helpful to signal that and why you’ve made a conscious choice and are not guilty of ignorance or oversight.

Voice

Professionals often find it easier to slip into their client’s voice than to find their own. We all have a style. We just have to open our mouth and sing to find it.

Words

I love words. You love words. The right word is a delicious morsel; the crafted sentence a feast. It may seem that technology is pushing words aside, but fear not. Words accomplish things AI never will. In the hands of artisans (Smiths), words reach into our memories, touch our hearts and create our possible worlds.

X-rated

Always avoid blue jokes and references (see Laughter).

Yell

SOMETIMES IT’S GOOD TO GO BIG!!!

Zig when others zag.

If everyone is using digital, it may be time to mail a beautifully crafted, glossy print piece.

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2019 Communication Trends

Digital migration trends and challenges.

Digital Migration

In 2019, organizational communication continues its march towards all things digital. Companies are investing heavily in applications and platforms that facilitate HR functions, benefits administration, education, training, performance measurements and more. Likewise, employees are increasingly comfortable and eager to engage with technologies that offer the same types of experiences they have in the marketplace and in their personal communication.

As this digital migration continues, communicators are increasingly aware of the gap between the utopian promises of new technologies and the unadvertised challenges created when they are implemented into real working situations. For the savvy, embracing new technologies also includes creating communication strategies that work for their specific internal audiences. This article briefly considers trending technologies and some of the accompanying challenges.

Trending Now

Personalization of data is increasing rapidly across the employee experience. Employees used to create their own benefits profile against standardized offerings, or call into a center to get help. Now they logon to dashboards populated with real time specifics about their compensation, medical, retirement, PTO, performance, etc.

Enterprise Social Media (ESM) differs from employees’ other social media primarily because it is more intentional. Companies are using private social media platforms (usually built on the company intranet or a vendor app) to distribute information and foster conversations that promote collaboration, wellness, knowledge communities, company culture and more.

Knowledge Sharing across organizations is one of the most important trends in ESM. Wikis, blogs, forums, How To videos, and collaboration tools are all ways to share and preserve important organizational expertise, knowledge and memory.

Mobile computing has reached a tipping point. With nearly 80% of Americans owning smart phones[1], employers can expect that their people have access via mobile applications to benefits, job-related apps, collaboration tools, internal information networks, etc.

Wearable devices are being used by companies to help address several key situations. First, many companies offer wearable fitness trackers and connected applications as part of their wellness programs. Second, employees in physical jobs wear devices that monitor the safety and efficiency of their movements. Finally, wearable technology is being used in training and to push performance in professions ranging from package delivery to neurosurgery.

Video continues to rise in popularity as production costs fall. Platforms like YouTube, and the small screens on mobile devices, have made users more comfortable with lower production values and short-format video. The door is open for more organizations and leaders to use video to replace, or supplement, communication that was traditionally done in meetings or print.

Analytics are applied to reams of data available on every aspect of our work in digital communications. For example, we can measure the efficacy of an open enrollment video by knowing if it is watched to completion. This data tells us to make the video shorter, or more dynamic. ESM conversations are tracked and managed to foster an intended activity. Efficiency data is available for online activity and work-related apps. Making sense of all the data is becoming a key job for internal communicators, who must understand how the raw numbers translate into informative stories for leaders and other stakeholders.

Bumps in the Road

Both employers and employees want the benefits promised by new technologies—efficiency, accessibility and customization. However, the road is not without its potholes. Embracing trends in digital migration requires communicators to stretch as they integrate technical expertise into their communication toolkit.

Confusion can challenge the successful implementation of new technology. Converting existing human-reliant processes into digital transactions is rarely a seamless exercise. There are often gaps between the way things are done and the new app. Creating communication to guide a digital migration requires a familiarity with what exists and what is being built, along with a level of technical expertise. Creating a collaborative environment between vendors and stakeholders often hinges on great change communication.

Impatience often follows work-related technologies that are usually far more complicated, and carry higher stakes than consumer products. Billions have been spent on Apple’s iTunes to make buying a song simple and easy. The same is not true of the custom application designed to measure employee productivity. Unfortunately, employees will judge your technology based on usability gold standards found in their consumer experience.

Frustration arises when new technologies are introduced without the necessary human support. User-centered design techniques that help communicators understand the employee experience can help create the support communications necessary to a transition.

Meeting the Future

As technology continues to transform our work lives, the role of the organizational communicator is expanding. Anticipating the promises and the challenges of digital migration prepares us to add value to our organization as we help ensure the employee experience is successful and rewarding.

[1]Pew Research Center. Mobile Fact Sheet. 2018. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/mobile/

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Not Ready for Prime Time: 3 Stories from Healthcare Consumers

Being a healthcare consumer isn’t easy.

Recently I was explaining what Smith does to some friends. Pretty quickly the conversation turned toward health insurance and healthcare costs—mainly HSAs and high-deductible plans. Cutting to the chase, folks aren’t happy.

Our HR clients are tasked with explaining the necessities, values and details of what often is called healthcare consumerism. In theory, consumer-driven healthcare has three key components:

  • More healthcare choice, information and responsibility is placed in the hands of employees
  • Employees come out-of-pocket for more of their health spending
  • Healthcare consumer choices create market forces that control rising healthcare costs

It seems reasonable and I hope it’s working.

However, theory and reality often diverge. Listening to my friends share their recent experiences helped shed light on real difficulties employees have as healthcare consumers. It seems that the market they are accessing is largely detached from reality in terms of pricing, accountability and transparency.

These three stories are illustrative because my friends all tried to be proactive, informed and careful healthcare consumers.

Patient-friend A needed corrective jaw surgery that was outside the parameters of his health insurance. His treatment plan with his dentist, orthodontist and oral surgeon came to around $8,000. This included $900 for the use of an outpatient surgery center, which was to be prepaid—a real bargain.

When he arrived at the hospital, to sign forms and pay the $900, he was informed that the bill was now $19,000. That’s right—$18,100 more than what he was expecting. He was shocked. He called his doctor while in the waiting room to “freak out” and cancel the surgery. Upon closer examination, the surgeon’s office manager realized that she coded the order incorrectly, neglecting to note that the patient would self-pay. She spoke with the hospital admissions person, sent over the corrected order, and guess what? The bill went down to $900.

Doesn’t that give you pause? Why is an insurer/employer billed 20 times more than the hospital will take in cash for the same service?

Patient-friend B needed her gall bladder removed. She chose the hospital because it was in-network and her surgeon’s practice was also in-network. Since her deductible had been met for the year (the reason why she elected to do the surgery when and where she did), there were no out-of-pocket costs for the operation.

However, after the surgery was performed, she received a separate $4,000 bill from a contract surgical nurse who assisted during the surgery. This nurse was not in-network, so the insurance wouldn’t pay the bill. It took months of wrangling, threatening and fighting to get the hospital and insurance company to intervene.

What’s an unconscious consumer to do?

Patient-friend C (OK, this is me) tried to determine the cost of a doctor’s visit to decide whether to do it in December or January as part of my healthcare budgeting. My family has a $7,000 deductible and we manage most of our healthcare costs through our HSA and FSA.

The visit wasn’t critical; I could have waited until my annual physical and it would have been covered. Still, I wanted to close out my FSA. Use it or lose it. My doctor’s office refused (claimed to be unable) to tell me how much I would pay for a visit beforehand. The only option I had was to have the visit and find out how much it cost at the conclusion. The cost ended up being more than I had in the account, thank you.

I wouldn’t agree to this scheme with any other purchase.

Employees are depending on us.

A recent study showed two things about employees and consumer-driven health plans. First, employees don’t fully understand these plans. Second, they count on employers to educate them on the details. If the stories I’ve shared are part of a universal experience, we all have a lot of work to do to help empower employees to receive good care in a difficult marketplace.

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Push Employee Engagement

It’s very likely your employees have a company issued, or benefits-related, smart phone app—a small transactional program that expedites HR record-keeping, benefits administration, wellness programs and more.

A well-made app can drastically simplify important functions with the added benefit of mobile accessibility. Most apps have the ability to send push notifications—an important communication feature that can be used to increase employee contact and engagement.

Push notifications enable interactive communication directly with employees by sending actionable messages to their phones.

A push notification message is “pushed” out from a central server to an application. It differs from SMS text messages because the push notification contains a message plus the ability to act directly within the app.

For example, your company and its healthcare partners are sponsoring an onsite screening next month. Send a text and you tell everyone about the event. Send a push notification and you tell everyone about the event, plus the employees can—with a swipe—automatically sign-up for a screening, watch a video, or ask a question.

Push notifications are widely used in marketing and social media because they are proven to increase responses and other engagement with products, services and social networks. They work because they are simple, immediate and actionable.

As part of an internal communications strategy, push notifications can add the following benefits:

  • Signal when information has elevated value
  • Facilitate important transactions
  • Reward engagement through badges and leveling
  • Distribute relevant content
  • Track responses to increase engagement

Push notifications are powerful tools, but they can also become invasive and annoying when overused. It is important to carefully plan how your organization will use push notifications. When creating a strategy, make certain they align with your company’s internal branding and message frequencies. You want employees to see them as useful assists and valuable sources of information, so be mindful of how a push notification might interrupt their lives and make sure the message is worthwhile.

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