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The holiday season is officially here, with just a month until the new year, and less than a month until Christmas Eve. It’s a time of year when many families are thinking about charitable giving and what organizations need help.

It’s also the time for holiday giving advice, and over the last few years, we’ve seen a push towards a more informed, personalized giving. We’ve been told to give strategically and to treat giving like a project, looking for outcomes. In general this isn’t a bad way to look at things, and can help in terms of deciding on a charity of choice, but it’s not about a return on investment.

Recently, the Globe and Mail came out with some holiday advice in terms of giving, as treating your gift like an investment, and focusing on the tax break you get as a result. And they included the idea that since businesses don’t always highlight personal stories in quarterly reports, charities shouldn’t either.

This is similar to the Kickstarter effect where charities are advised to show a real goal and bring people together to meet that goal. Not a bad idea, and often the big payoff of a number is a long-standing success metric for specific campaigns, especially around the holidays.

Here’s the problem: most of the charities who need your help don’t need one big thing. They need operating costs covered, they need additional space, they need to hire another resource, they need new plumbing, they need building repairs and maintenance, they need the things that every organization needs, and it’s not sexy.

A Focus on Things, not Service

Let’s use an example: a hospital in your area needs a new MRI machine. That piece of equipment comes with a price tag that can be easily turned into a goal for lots of people, who then get to say at the end ‘look, I helped get that machine!’ This is obviously useful and will help lots of people who need that machine. It’s an unqualified win for you, for the hospital and for the community. The perception is fantastic! People all helped to buy a new thing, and having that thing will help loads of people. And it comes with prestige to boot.

However. The same hospital also needs 12 additional beds for mental health care, a new admin hire to keep the outpatient clinic open late and two extra nurses. The hospital could wrap those things into a package and run a campaign to upgrade the mental health unit, but it will be harder to get people into the idea of donating funds to salaries and laundry service and other operating costs. So a good idea to get people interested is to tell stories about families helped by the unit. It’s not an ‘exemplary employee’ situation like you’d see in a business’s success report, it’s a preview of the real value an organization can offer.

Here’s the other perception problem:

It’s too easy to conflate the salaries of badly needed hires and increased hours of operation with ‘administration’ and assume it means that the organization that needs your donation isn’t properly funding ‘projects’ or ‘equipment.’ And I promise you, hospitals, libraries, women’s shelters and animal rescues need funds to stay open. Funding operating costs is incredibly important, and isn’t sexy in any way. But even worse, it can be seen as some kind of proof that the organization isn’t running well and can’t keep itself open. This is easy to deal with by looking for organizations that have been operating for a long time or have recently expanded.

Give to an organization.

Help the shelter that needs to increase their hours of operation. Buy a membership to a public art gallery. Spend on a day care who’s funding has been cut. Donate to a hospital’s general fund. Contribute to the YWCA’s urgent needs. If your budget includes global charities, find an organization in good standing with a long history of helping others. Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International come to mind.

One piece of advice from that same Globe and Mail article makes a lot of sense to me: volunteer your time to organizations you care about. If you work with them and see how things operate, you’ll get a strong sense of the values and commitment of the organization.

This season, use your gift to keep things moving. Find an organization you care about and fund their greatest need. Give the gift of staying open, expanding the offering, and of continuous service.

And remember, it’s a gift. Not a loan, it’s not a business plan. Give expecting nothing in return, and volunteer expecting only to improve your own community.

Happy Holidays!

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An advertorial from Buffer, cross-posted in The Next Web called “A scientific guide to posting tweets, Facebook posts, emails and blog posts at the best time” was shared widely this weekend, and emailed to me directly by several different people, some of whom are working on the same project with me.

Before I get going with why I disagree with the article, let me say that Buffer is an amazing app, as is the Hootsuite auto-scheduler, a tool I use daily. I really like using them for convenience, and to get an idea of what seems to work well for the communities my different clients are engaged with. When I read the article, all it really told me was that I need to look at my own audience, split-test all my posts, record the engagement rates and then move forward with more decisions. If you’re delivering a social media service to a client, you should be doing this anyway. If you’re posting for yourself, it’s a good thing to do to help you succeed.

Buffer did a great job of explaining what their product does and how you can use it effectively. What it didn’t talk about was content. What it didn’t talk about was context. By calling the article ‘scientific’ it ended up being reductionist to the point of exclusion for any other impact your posts might have. (It also didn’t talk about promoted posts or ads, which directly affect impressions on various networks.)

Rule: Kittens on Thursday, Jokes on Fridays

The article was fine. It was broad, it had some standards, but they weren’t even broken out by industry. For example, there is a general finding that engagement is higher on Facebook on the weekend and at the end of the week. In the case of one client I have in mind, engagement is dead on the weekend and right back up Monday morning. There are specific reasons for this that have everything to do with content and audience preferences and nothing to do with general rules. They are unique and interesting, as is their audience. The advice I give them could include sharing more or promoting more on the weekends if they want to go in that direction, or it could focus on the audience who has implicitly declared a preference and share even more at the top of the week. This is just one example, there are many more available, each one different and skewed towards your community and their preferences.

It would be really nice to plug in your audience demographic, your time-zone, and your goals and then just press ‘go’ and instantly end up with a zillion loyal followers commenting and sharing your posts. In reality, you need to listen to your audience. You need to see what else is happening in the world and then do the opposite of whatever Kenneth Cole is doing with that information. You need to create lovely, fun, memorable items that people want to share. And sometimes you need to pay to boost it – particularly if you’re sharing something time-sensitive.

Buffer is an excellent tool. So is Hootsuite, ThunderClap and any number of other tools that can help you share your messages more. But the best tool you have to knit your community closer together and really reach the people who need to be reached is an iterative analytics and content suite called: your ears, your hands and your brain.

Start listening. Start sharing. Start measuring.

A short while ago, a good friend of mine posted a link to a story on his Facebook wall, and in the comments section, he shared a related link from another source. The followup link was long. I mean LONG. It was a long url anyway, and it still had all the tags from his reader, which basically doubles the length of the url. A platform like Facebook is imperfect for link sharing, it reads some links and gives you a thumbnail, but it also publishes the whole link just above it, putting lots of filler in the sandwich – your comment, the link and responses from others.

The thing about this is that the friend of mine works for a major political party at the federal level. He works in Parliament and his Facebook wall, though entirely personal and of his own making, often discusses party news and articles about legislation.

He needs to use an url shortener.

Anyone, anyone who wants to use Facebook and twitter for conversations, to promote their ideas, to syndicate their articles (I’m looking at you journos and SEO pals) needs to use url shorteners to keep their links concise. This is not just a rule for my good friends working in our nation’s capital trying to make a difference, it’s for anyone with a content strategy. It’s for anyone who should have a content strategy and doesn’t!

Url shorteners do three things for your links:

1. They make your posts more readable. We want to understand your commentary on the topic. If all you have to say is that you agree without reservation or inflection, just point straight at it. But if you want to add a level of understanding, do so.

2. They make your posts more shareable. The more room you have in your twitter message for retweeting, the easier it is for lots of people to forward your message along. On Facebook, they make that tiny, faint, non-intuitive share button way easier to see.

3. They make your content more searchable. Search engines see those links on curation blogs and prominent sites like Business Week which embeds links from twitter. If you want to get really technical, the good url shorteners are treated by search engines the same way they treat a 301 redirect – or the ‘not-spam’ redirect. So all those posts and reposts and conversations and links go to where you’d like it to go.

Making your content – or just your favourite links – more readable, shareable and searchable is basic to any conversation. It’s not only for websites trying to sell ads and boost their authority, it’s for anyone who wants to have a conversation, short or long. If you want to get people to an event, the link to that event shouldn’t overpower the invitation platform. Same with driving directions on a Google map, a photo slideshow (these are at times the worst offenders AND top innovators in short and clean urls. For some reason, there’s very little middle ground) a neat thing you want to buy or that you want to suggest to a friend.

Whatever it is, make it readable, shareable and searchable.

Now the bad news: the main argument against url shorteners is link rot. By using a third-party between your main link and your audience, the possibility that they might shut down someday puts your links in jeopardy. There’s a really good reason to assume that these third-parties won’t last forever, just look at Tr.im. It’s a totally valid concern and there’s no real consensus on how to avoid it, other than refreshing links often – which everyone should do anyway – and embedding full links in more than one place (did I just hear an echo of cross-linking in regular content? I think I did!)

The other issue is spam. If you want to be sure of what you’re clicking on, you’ll have to take for granted that you’re clicking on something safe. This is really no different than some of the assumptions we have to make about long urls as well. Even if they look legit, they could be covered in malware and other garbage once you get there.

So link shorteners are far from perfect and don’t work alone to support your content. But if we’re talking about conversation between people, especially on social media platforms, it’s worth it to shorten your url anyway. And the benefits of the link shortening tools like analytics, shorteners built into publishing tools and even vanity url shorteners could outweigh the costs of potential link rot. You can even get technical and use url shorteners as a search interface. (awesome!) This concept is great, and they actually use their custom short url as a calling card!

Keep your conversation about your conversations. Share ideas using short links couched in your context and topics, don’t weigh down your convos with long strings of overwhelming gibberish.

Language is what we use to create our reality. So create something convincing, that flows and interacts; don’t wall yourself off behind unreadable gibberish.

PS: now that you’re ready to shorten your links, here’s where you can start:

wp.me
bit.ly
tinyurl
goo.gl
youtu.be

For everyone who’s ever designed a grocery store loyalty program, please note; it’s loud in the store. It’s too frigging bright, someone’s kid is always screaming, the lines are too long and since it’s a grocery store, I probably won’t be comparison shopping all over town. I want to go in, buy what I want and get home. Especially in winter.

So please don’t shove a scratch card in my face when I’m paying. Don’t foist a barcode keychain on me that makes me pay over 200$ for a four dollar coupon. I promise you, I don’t care. Yes yes, the economy this, recession that, but honestly, keep the four bucks. Seriously. (oh, and as a former cashier, don’t give these people a quota to push this stuff. When the cash out takes longer because of these steps, they have to deal with irate me.)

That’s the thing about loyalty programs.

If you sell basic necessities in a residential area, you don’t need to boost loyalty. You need to earn the respect of the community around you. Innovate your delivery service, support community events, showcase local suppliers, whatever.

And as for every brand out there that doesn’t sell basic necessities, let me enlighten you: I don’t want a coupon. I really don’t. Unless it’s on an e-purchase that automatically populates during purchase, it’s just another piece of junk in my purse, which will eventually – and inevitably – go into the recycling bin. And leave the stamp cards, please. I have a hundred, I’m not using them. I know you saw it work for airlines, but their product is expensive and the brand choices are few enough that loyalty programs actually make sense. When I need dishsoap on the other hand…

Can I just pay and go?

I’d really like to do that. I’d like us both to agree that we don’t know each other. We aren’t friends, and our relationship is based on you having something that I’m going to pay for. Please make the process as easy and professional as possible. Stop trying to tell me how great everything is, stop piling ‘added value’ on top of my toilet paper or my travel tea infuser. Just make it easy for me to find what I want and then just go. And if you really really want to be friends, please:

Give me something I can use.

No, don’t layer it on during purchase. Don’t make me buy a membership card, and please stop putting coupons on reciepts. I don’t keep them. Offer students a discount. That’s it. Waive the shipping fee once in a while. Knock it off with the ‘admin’ charges and the ‘courtesy’ fees. We don’t need more junk to wade through. We just need a break. There’s an old adage that can serve anyone well if they’re planning on throwing a loyalty program at busy consumers with lots to deal with: less is more.

This is where you’ll find information on me, the things I do, the things I like, what I’m learning and what I’ve learned.  I’ve done freelance writing, project coordination, managed construction jobs, written a novel and lived through many strange occurences.

I took a break between high-school and University which went quite a bit longer than I expected.  Now I’m a copywriter for a marketing company by day and a student with a 3.73 GPA by night.  I spend a lot of my time being excessively tired.

You can find samples of my work on a few different blogs in the blog roll, and a few will be posted here for anyone curious about the type of things I scribble about.  I’m also very into music, so much so that I appear on an internet radio show called the Canadian Ruckus.  You can hear the edited segments on the show’s website, or the full-length version here.

I dote on an adorable 4′ long green iguana, I read far too quickly for my own good, and I harass politicos about copyright and other concepts mostly beyond their grasp.  I love reading about Canadian History, particularly when written by James Laxer, and Cities and Civilization, particularly when written by Jane Jacobs.

I can be contacted for freelance writing at Julia [dot] Vyse [at] gmail [dot] com.

This blog is mine. Don’t blame. Don’t copy.

All opinions and posts on this blog are my own and not those of my employer, friends, family or people I might just have met who seem really cool; or even my pets, who have no choice but to agree with me anyway. You can tell these opinions are mine because this is my blog.
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