Caveat emptor

Nice feature article in the NYT during the weekend about tuition costs at both nonprofit and for-profit colleges. It’s  subject that deserves a lot more attention than it gets. This jumped out to me:

College marketing firms encourage school officials to focus on the value of the education rather than the cost. For example, an article on the cover of Enrollment Management, a newsletter aimed at college admissions officials, urged writers of admissions materials to “avoid bad words like ‘cost,’ ‘pay’ (try ‘and you get all this for…’), ‘contract’ and ‘buy’ in your piece and avoid the conflicting feelings they generate.”

Simple, direct language is the best way to help people understand something. Look at those two constructs and think about which one best helps people understand their future at college. It’s the not the marketing buzzwords. So, then, if the clearest, most concise language isn’t the language being used, the the first priority of these organizations isn’t giving potential students an honest reading of their situation. That’s revealing.

And, yes, I am aware that college is still the best route to a more financially secure future. And, no, there is no college “bubble.” This is just about the marketing, which calls to mind used car salesmen more than anything else.

Poltical tweeps under the microscope

Nice post from Nieman Lab on how people are acting like journalists on Twitter. Caught my eye because that’s exactly what I do. This is basically the concept of content curation in PR, a role established enough now that people can list it as previous experience on their resume and apply for jobs that request it.

Here’s what they’re doing:

Now, Metzgar and Ibold are still in the process of evaluating tweets — 250 so far, but ultimately 2,500 — for journalistic behaviors. For example, do these Twitter users verify the information they’re sharing? Do they simply assert information? Do they affirm preconceived notions? Or do they demonstrate some other special-interest approach?

Former Nieman Foundation curator Bill Kovach and Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel developed this evaluation framework — verification, assertion, affirmation, and special-interest —  in their book Blur. (For the purposes of their study, Metzgar and Ibold added a “none of the above” category.)

Researchers are also evaluating tweets for political rhetoric using three categories: attack, acclaim, and rebuttal. Their early findings have yielded some interesting results. Metzgar and Ibold find the most prevalent journalistic mode among their politically-oriented sample is assertion, which Kovach and Rosenstiel characterize as placing the “highest value on immediacy and volume and in so doing tends to become a passive conduit of information.” (Sound familiar, web users?)

… cool. But pretty limited. I’d like to see a more comprehensive study of the sharing and fact-checking methods that the various tribes use on Twitter. It’d be interesting to have someone steeped in online blog reading (like many of those adorning my roll to the right) check how different readers of different sites interact and promote information. This is only a preliminary study (from “30,000 feet”) as the article notes, so I’d love to have a look at what it’s like when they get more time and data.

Also, this made me smile:

Regardless of political orientation, tweets were likely to be “scandal-oriented with emotional charge.” (Again, sound familiar, web users?)

As did this, though for a different reason:

What may be more telling is how both of these highly engaged Twitter groups — in addition to an “overall disregard for verification” — ignored traditional media, and one another. In instances when Twitter users did attempt to provide verification, it often came in the form of a link to an outside source. But rarely was that source a traditional journalistic outlet.

Given how ‘traditional’ journalistic outlets have failed us during the past couple of decades, I’m OK with that.

You’d agree with Randolph Scott

Interesting post from Justin Fox over at Harvard Business Review. He cuts right to the chase:

We all like to think we can evaluate information and arguments rationally, regardless of where they come from. But we don’t.

No. We certainly do not. Fox quotes Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan, who notes that:

People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

Fox then says:

Kahan is most concerned about scientific issues (climate change, HPV vaccines) where he thinks group identities get in the way of reasoned discussion. But the same tendencies can be seen in pretty much any case where there are conflicting opinions — which ought to make them of interest to anybody in a management or other decision-making role.

There’s probably some sophisticated PR insight that can be drawn out of this but I don’t have it right now. Other than arguing with people in a respectful way and trying to acclimate yourself to their predispositions and speech conventions, I dunno. No deep thought for today.

Just got my deep thought. I wonder how true this is for political discussion. Obviously, if you’re dealing with one person and your job is to convince him/her, then you have to be accommodating and understanding and non-snarky and never condescending and all that.

But what if we’re talking about political persuasion? Basically half the people in the country don’t vote. I’m not sure why (that’d be an interesting study but I imagine they might be hard to get hold of). Would using intentionally inflammatory rhetoric, designed to catch the attention of other people who weren’t paying attention, be a better strategy? Because remember: the people you’re attempting to convince probably won’t listen to you anyway for the very reason that Fox outlines.

I feel like the equation has to change when you’re switching from a one-on-one conversation with a committed, opposed person to a series of messages that appeal to millions of people, some of whom are already on your side, some of whom aren’t and around half of whom aren’t even paying attention. Is it worth catering your argument to the delicate sensibilities of ideologically hostile people in the hope that they see the light? Or are you better off torching those people and crossing your fingers that your tribe gets riled up while the unaware half takes a few minutes to stop watching porn and check out what’s going on? Another question to which I don’t have the answer.

And yes:

Yelp! for health care

Sarah Kliff has a post about a new start-up that’s devoted to promoting consumer awareness about health care packages (via). Castlight Health will basically serve as an aggregator for news and prices of health care packages, much in the same way that Yelp! is now a go-to for people who want to learn more about businesses. Here’s how, ideally, it’ll be useful:

The idea of comparison shopping is a relatively simple one; it’s something we do all the time. But in health care, there’s traditionally been little place for it. Health insurance plans have traditionally assessed a flat co-pay for a specific health care service, like a colonoscopy or annual physical. The prices, from the consumers perspective, are all identical.

A flat co-pay, however, can mask huge variation in what doctors charge insurance companies. In California, for example, doctors bill anywhere between $1,529 and $186,955 for an appendectomy.

In recent years, health insurance has evolved to give subscribers more reason to care about what doctors bill. With premiums skyrocketing, employers have increasingly turned to Health Savings Accounts. Under those arrangements, employees are given a “defined contribution” — a set amount their employer will pay for health care. That’s different from a traditional, “defined benefit” plan, where employers cover a specific range of benefits, regardless of cost.

HSAs are generally paired with a high-deductible health plan, meant to provide stop-gap coverage for individuals who end up requiring especially high amounts of health care.

In a defined contribution plan, employees have a huge reason to find the doctor who charges $1,529 for an appendectomy — namely, that bill will be drawn directly from their Health Savings Account.

That’s also where Castlight comes in.

No word in the piece about whether Castlight will have product reviews, a la Yelp!, and I’m sure there are a gazillion ways this can go terribly wrong. Still, intriguing idea.

Free for all

Andrew Sullivan has some thoughts on how to best elicit feedback on the Intertrons (via). Sully has long resisted having a full-fledged comments section, if y’all don’t know, and he links to Julian Sanchez:

If the type and volume of criticism we find online were experienced in person, we’d probably think we were witnessing some kind of EST/Maoist reeducation session designed to break down the psyche so it could be rebuilt from scratch. The only way not to find this overwhelming and demoralized over any protracted period of time is to adopt a reflexive attitude that these are not real people whose opinions matter in any way. Which, indeed, seems to be a pretty widespread attitude. Scan the comments at one of the more partisan political blogs and you get a clear sense that the “other side” consists not so much of people with different ideas, but an inscrutable alien species. I think it’s self-evident that this is an unhealthy development in a democracy, but it may be a coping strategy that our media ecosystem is forcing on us—at least until we find a better one.

Then adds:

I have a better one. Scrap comments sections, and add serious editors to filter the smartest emails both in favor of the blogger’s view and against. Yes, you need to develop the thickest of skins. But a thick skin isn’t the same as epistemic closure. Or it doesn’t need to be.

DeLong says something about humanizing yourself as a means of deflection. I’ve never had a high-traffic blog that attracts trolls, so I can’t really speak as to how psychologically damaging it is to often deal with idiots on the Internet. That said, I still think they’re wrong.

I get that there’s a ton of crap on the Web. But good comment sections, which (yes, I know) are few and far between, are still worth it, in my view. I’m aware that having a lightly moderated comment section is a recipe for attracting trolls. But how about Sully’s idea? That the writer gets to pick and choose to which arguments he or she will respond? Makes sense… as long as you entirely trust the writer. And how many people do you read that you trust entirely? I actually trust a fair amount of the people I read at this point but Andrew Sullivan sure as hell isn’t one of them (for good reason, I might add).

So, no, count me out. The Internet has tons of filth and idiocy and ignorance. But I’ll take that and sift through it rather than depend on the host of a site to pick and choose the arguments that they deem worthy of response. I’d like to be able to make that decision, thanks.

Great moments in political PR

The Heartland Institute, which is one of the leading “think tanks” producing “research” about the lack of effects/irrelevance/non-existence/shut up, hippies of global warming, has put up a few billboards to try and raise awareness of their position (via). Here’s one:

You may or may not remember the Heartland Institute for working with Philip Morris to call into question the legitimacy of research that documents the harmful effects of second-hand smoke. Charming.

Popping the bubble

Going off my last post, I’d do better to remember that most people spend their time thinking about stuff other than what I think about. I’m aware of that politically and my writing references that a bunch but I guess it’s just as true for marketing stuff.

When you read about marketing or PR, you quickly gain a level of familiarity with basic concepts and techniques that show up in every other post. Advice on how to write good headlines, craft engaging content, deal with your stakeholders in a respectful way, all of that stuff is repeated so often that it needs no saying among PR folks. Or at most, it needs only a casual reminder every once in a while.

But when you step outside of that echo chamber, in which everyone is talking to everyone else and they all work in the same industry and deal with the same client problems and use the same acronyms, you have to reset pretty quickly. Lots of people don’t have much of an idea how to define ‘public relations,’ let alone have developed thoughts on content marketing or the efficacy of automated email outreach. If you stay in the bubble too long, it’s easy to forget that, or at least it is for me.