My $1,169 Roth IRA Mistake

It’s not much fun to admit a mistake, especially when it cost me $1,169. If anything, sharing the story will hopefully help you avoid the same fate. You see, back in the late 90’s I put some money into a Roth IRA account holding mutual fund shares that focused on tech stocks –if you can believe it– because, yeah, it was the 90’s.

Quick reminder: a Roth Individual Retirement Arrangement is a retirement vehicle that allows individuals to invest non-deductible (taxed) income now in order to make qualified tax-free withdrawals at the age of 59.5 (subject to certain restrictions, see the IRS’ webpage for more info).

My investment faced some real headwinds with the tech bubble burst, the early 2000s recession and the 2008 global financial crisis all playing havoc with the basically nonexistent returns. After an extended lost decade my investment has finally made some small gains thanks to U.S. stock market performance since 2013.

SPX daily 5y

No one can control the market. Arguably, it would have been advantageous to time my investments better by going in and out of the market at various points or choosing the securities bought more carefully–though, to be fair, market timing is notoriously difficult even for professionals while also incurring greater transaction costs and pretty much every asset class or instrument available took a hit in 2008 leaving few, if any, safe havens.

In fact, my big mistake was paying excessive charges. On my initial investment of $3000, I paid $1,169 in fees and expenses that could have been completely avoided. Let’s do the math.

Account fee

I opened the Roth with a financial advisor which seemed like a good idea at the time since I was just finishing high school and knew next to nothing about finance or investing. The account was subject to a $40 annual maintenance fee for each of the 15 years for a total of $600. The advisor put the money into a mutual fund where, as it turns out, the same fund company would have only charged a $10 annual maintenance fee with a $10 one-time setup charge–which would only amount to $440 wasted except for the fact that many brokerage firms and asset managers offer no-fee Roth accounts. Amount wasted: $600.

Load

I ended up in a retail investor share class with a high front-end load of 5.75% on the $3000, or $172.50–most of which goes right into the fund management company’s pocket. There are circumstances where a front-end load may be appropriate when used by the fund company to cover upfront transaction costs of buying securities in certain markets. This was not one of those situations. In fact, the same firm offers a no-load advisor share class although my financial advisor, a full-service brokerage firm, did not opt for it. (The two share classes had nearly identical expense ratios, so all things being equal this was the poorer choice). Cumulative amount wasted: $772.50.

Mutual fund expenses

The asset management industry is highly competitive and the rise of passive index-tracking strategies has put further pressure on fees. By and large, investors are better off paying less in fees and expenses when possible. While mutual fund annual expense ratios vary anywhere from 0.08% to 2%, the average annual expense ratio for target-date funds (a set-it-and-forget-it one fund solution for many investors) is 0.84% according to Morningstar.

My financial advisor put my $3000 into a large cap growth fund that coincidentally charges 0.84%. However, having done my own research (because my advisor only showed interest in running transactions on my account and not providing advice–as described here) I found a diversified target risk growth fund of which I’m rather fond for only 0.18% or 18 basis points. Having instead invested the money in the less expensive fund would have generated cost savings of $301.50 based on a rough asset-weighted estimate of the cost differential (66 bps) over 15 years.

I’m not naming the funds here because it’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, and that would be unfair. Performance-wise, the large cap growth fund slightly outperformed the diversified target risk fund over 15 years, although the former is down -3.40% year-to-date while the latter is up 0.53%. Personally, I had to opt for the broader diversification that comes with a mixed stock & bond portfolio and international exposure. Cumulative amount wasted: $1,074.

Exit fees

If it’s not yet clear, I am decidedly underwhelmed with my soon-to-be ex-financial advisor which is why I moved into a no-fee Roth with my preferred asset manager. I’m not sure if the feeling was mutual because, lo and behold, the advisor had a parting gift for me: a $95 termination/distribution fee tacked onto the end of our relationship. Termination fees can range from $50 to several hundred dollars. The best way to avoid them is to pick a good provider and stick with them for the long haul. Total amount wasted: $1,169.

A pricey lesson

While my experience cannot be generalized, over the years researchers have noted that bringing financial advisors into your investment decision-making can reduce performance on both an absolute and risk-adjusted basis (lower returns and lower Sharpe ratios) while incurring higher costs. Essentially, the best way for many of us to get the most from our investments is to do the homework ourselves.

Outrageous Question From My Financial Advisor

So I was speaking with my financial advisor about an account. I expressed an interest in moving out of the current mutual fund and into a more risky asset class with a more cost efficient investment strategy.

Here’s what I can piece together a snippet of that discussion:

———————————————————————————————————–

Me: “I’d like to move out of the current strategy. I’m more interested in small caps, real estate and frontier/emerging markets. I’d be happy with an ETF or a mutual fund provided that the fees are low. Would you mind sending me a few suggestions?”

Advisor: “So, if I understand correctly, you’d like something more aggressive?”

Me: “Yes, aggressive–that’s it. I’m comfortable taking on more risk.”

Advisor: “Well then, I can take care of that for you. If it’s okay for you, give me the go ahead and I’ll provide you with a trade confirmation.”

Me (quite surprised): “No, that’s not necessary. I’d like to decide or at least sign off on where my money’s going. If it’s too much trouble for you to put together a proposal, I can do the research and make the selection myself.”

———————————————————————————————————–

There are no gaps in this transcript–in a few short exchanges (admittedly after exchanging initial pleasantries) the conversation veered into action mode  — the advisor had jumped the gun and was ready to trade, no questions asked. It just felt so wrong.

I had asked for a few suggestions and the advisor offers to move my money into new products without telling me upfront which ones he’d select. I’d been fairly specific about which asset classes I’d consider and wanted have the advisor’s opinion. But the advisor’s WAY ahead of the game–ready to send me the trade confirmation –deal done, game over– without any hint as to what will be in the new portfolio. No indication of the asset class(es), which asset manager(s), ETF vs. mutual fund, active vs. passive strategy or total expense ratio.

Is this really how advisors provide advice these days?

Unbelievable.

The Easiest Market Research Mistake To Avoid

“The minute you start compromising for the sake of massaging somebody’s ego, that’s it, game over.”

– Celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsay

A while back I was asked to provide guidance on a readership survey being conducted by a firm to collect feedback on their flagship print publication for clients. I’m a big fan of market research, so I always latch onto new questionnaires and novel response formats that happen to come my way. In this instance, the survey effort hit a rather significant stumbling block.

Pictured: a stumbling block

A multiple, limited choice

The problem that emerged from the short and simple questionnaire hinged on a single question that asked respondents with which frequency they would like to hear from the company about topics judged relevant to them (as judged by the firm). The possible answers were pretty straightforward –weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc– though there was one seemingly slight omission: clients could not choose a ‘none’ or ‘zero communications’ option — meaning that they had to receive something from the company.

Allowing for all possibilities

It may not seem like a big deal that a respondent cannot choose to opt-out of communications, though in most countries this is a minimum legal requirement for marketing communications and in Europe the burden is higher due to requirements that the recipient opt-in for receiving messages. Legal considerations aside, I felt that an overly restrictive set of answers could show the firm’s unwillingness to accept the full, honest client feedback and potentially signal disrespect.

My advice was to add a ‘zero’ (no communications) response option out of courtesy for respondents. This is, incidentally, best practice when producing questionnaires.

Letting ego get in the way

One of the directors at the firm in charge of approving the survey felt that clients would never choose to opt-out of communications and decided to have the zero option removed from the frequency question’s possible answers. He couldn’t accept the fact that some clients want to be left alone. Despite my appeal to reintroduce the zero option, the survey was deployed without it. Two months later at the end of the response period, the response rate was rather poor. This alone might have indicated that there was an issue with the survey design. The actual responses dispelled any doubt, with 10-15 percent of the respondents providing angry or negative comments–most of which focused on the issue of frequency. Out of frustration, a number of clients had taken the liberty of creating their own zero option, heavily underlining it and expressing strong dissatisfaction with rather harsh words. Others more politely asked to opt-out. (Mental note: if your client survey incites anger, it’s time for some serious soul-searching).

Keep an open mind

Soliciting client feedback means preparing yourself to hear it. It’s important to allow your audience to freely and fully express themselves–even if you don’t like what they might have to say. Demonstrating the ability to listen to and fulfill clients’ needs is the basis for successful client relationships.

If you’re interested in the next step following a readership survey, have a look at this story on how to re-launch a print publication.

Sound Check: Where Financial Firms Struggle With Social Media

Adolphe Bitard telephone

Even financial service firms that have been slow to adopt a social media strategy have moved passed the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we question and are now dipping their toes into places like the Twittersphere. Despite this positive trend, some firms are still struggling to find their way in this new environment.

I use the term ‘struggling’ to indicate several unwanted outcomes. The first, a much more common issue firms face when delving into the social space is like open mic night at a coffee shop or comedy club. Anyone with enough courage can stand in front of the audience, although what’s spoken into the microphone typically falls flat for one reason or another. For individuals, it can be lack of preparation or experience. For firms using social media, it could be one of those too, in addition to more fundamental roadblocks.

Escaping the sound loop

I’ve witnessed a company set their social media strategy, staff the team and then get very little traction towards meeting their own objectives. In fact, firm’s social media streams quickly got stuck on repeat. The whole exercise became route repetition of the same few updates each week. We’re talking about word-for-word copy & paste jobs of the exact same sentences. Every. single. week.

Image credit: beardtoday-gonetomorrow.blogspot.co.at

Sigh.

Forget for a moment that the main premise behind Web 2.0 involves the ability to exchange information instead of merely projecting it out into the ether. Just think about this for a second. If you met with a person who said the exact same thing every week, you’d quickly call off those meetings because you’d know upfront what would be said. What’s more, you’d end the discussion with the distinct impression that you weren’t being heard–since no matter what you say, you’d expect another copy & paste post next week. That’s not a discussion. And it doesn’t leave room for engagement.

Warming up the mic

In this particular case of endless copy & paste, the firm tapped a technical web expert to lead the social media media effort. The decision seems logical, since these are the people that have the most in-depth knowledge of website building, SEO, etc. However, the challenge for web techies is that often do not represent a company’s frontline storytellers — the public faces that put out views and interact with clients, prospects and the media. As such, they can face significant challenges when using these tools of engagement and dialogue due to the fact that this had not been something that had been asked of them in the past. It can represent a steep learning curve that MUST include entail a break from 1-way communication (where the sender speaks and the receiver listens).  Social media requires the opportunity for 2-way communication.

The essential social media learning curve. Image credit: Ron Koller

Number One Emcee

The ability to pique an audience’s interest and deliver web-friendly fodder for engagement will in large part determine the success of your social media program. In my view, we need to think about a social media manager’s role not as the person on stage with the microphone, but as the master-of-ceremonies who ties together a string of performances mostly by managing the transition. This means adopting an investigative journalist’s mentality, navigating the entire organization to showcase frontline figures –the company’s leaders and experts– and packaging the show for the audience.  Bringing in marketing and press teams can help.

Noise complaints

Many financial service firms are subject to strict regulations not just regarding how they conduct business but also how they communicate with regards to which intended audiences they address as well as the content of their messages. As a result, some firms are hesitant to say much of anything on social media lest they incur the wrath of their own compliance teams, or worse, their regulators. Truth be told, given the social media presence of so many financial companies today, it’s hard to argue that there are any deal-breakers that would keep your firm from being able to use these tools. That said, it’s still a good idea to steer clear of discussions about your firm’s products or services. Not only do audiences hate the hard-sell approach, but compliance teams tend to hear alarm bells as well. Personally, I think this is a relief for most firms often focus a bit too much on themselves and not quite enough on the fact that their offer touches upon their clients’ major life decisions e.g. education, retirement, estate planning, etc. Turning the focus a bit more towards customers’ life experiences could bring a breath of fresh air to many firms’ communications.

Don’t forget social listening in your social media program Photograph: Ronald Grant

Sound check

Another and much less frequent issue arises when a firm faces the audience’s heated wrath. Bands use the sound check before a performance to ensure that their instruments are connected, properly tuned and that sound levels are where they need to be. Recalling the importance of 2-way communication, a social media sound check means listening to what the audience is saying about your firm and your industry. Not listening can get you into trouble, as JP Morgan Chase found out with their planned Q&A on Twitter back in November. Using the hashtag #AskJPM, the firm solicited questions for their vice chairman. A deluge of hostile questions ensued (here’s the NYTimes recap) and JPM called off the Q&A session. The lesson: make sure you’ve got a social monitoring system in place as part of your social media program. Many monitoring tools automatically report on whether your brand’s mentions have a positive or negative tone. It’s important to know where you stand with the audience before opening the door and inviting them to throw virtual tomatoes.

 

 

How NOT to Write a White Paper

New York Zoological Society - Picture on Early Office Museum Public Domain File:Monkey-typing.jpg Created: 1 January 1907

Your client has amassed a wealth of evidence in support of purchasing Solution A. The problem: you don’t offer Solution A. You have Solution B. You’re faced with having to engage the client in a dialogue about the results of their research and analysis (which speaks against your Solution B) to somehow steer them into reconsidering their impending decision.

You opt for what many B2B firms do in this situation: scramble to create some thought leadership that portrays your company and your products in the most attractive light possible, given the circumstances.

At this point, you recruit a few colleagues to launch a response –a white paper– the go-to format because, hey, it even sounds impressive.

Here’s what NOT to do.

Start with a tired metaphor

Relate every element of the client’s situation to some unoriginal and unentertaining other situation that conveys corporate inspiration. Classic example? The race car. Whether you go for Formula 1 or Nascar, it’s got all the elements of business imagery: competition, teamwork, engineering, high performance and so on. Because when clients look to solve real life business problems, they prefer to do so while imagining themselves as Speed Racer.

If you’re feeling more creative, reach for something more imaginative. If you’re offering cloud computing, why not a Jack and the Beanstalk metaphor? I’m sure there are clouds in that story. Even seemingly apt metaphors can be considered groan-worthy depending upon your audience. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revitalize Japan’s economy rely upon ‘three arrows’ which come from a folktale–variants of which are found throughout the region, sometimes replacing arrows with chopsticks.

If those are too mundane, aim for the non-sensical. I’ll never forget one piece that read ‘it remains to be seen whether the proposed regulations will become an all-singing all-dancing cabaret.’ Not particularly meaningful, but certainly memorable.

Stack the deck

The devil is in the details, so weigh them in your favor. Provide a perfunctory sketch of Solution A, then devote most of your time explaining the inner workings, advantages and benefits of Solution B. Yours will seem more tangible. Even better, introduce a few permutations of Solution B –let’s call them Solution C and Solution D– and then compare all four options. The amount of discussion dedicated to Solution A will shrink considerably. Whatever you do, avoid an apples-to-apples comparison of Solution A and Solution B. Switch out one of the apples for a banana, a pear and a kiwi.

Cloud the issue

Your client has set out a chain of logical steps supported by evidence that point them to a clear destination. Create diversions and set up ambushes at each step along the way. Plant a field of straw men. Pile irrelevant information and spurious relationships into a big, messy heap. Do anything you can to turn their road map into a jumbled maze. Put lots of focus on the least important elements–particularly if they play to your strengths.

Go on the offensive

You’ll want to put forward your own analysis–something that sounds good without committing to any claims that could be challenged. This will require you to stay vague. Couch any claims in broad generalities or use conditional language to deliver purely hypothetical scenarios. Imply unsubstantiated facts or buttress your own view with ‘common sense’ applied to a technical field where it likely doesn’t belong. Minimize the preponderance of quantitative evidence with infinitely sparse counterexamples to cast doubt on Solution A. Because even if the expected results have an incredibly high likelihood of occurring –let’s say 99.1%– there’s a miniscule chance — the remaining 0.9%– that something else happens; for example, that the results disappoint. Play to that uncertainty. If that doesn’t work, invent unlikely consequences of Solution A and embellish every gory detail. Remember, so long as you’re exploring hypothetical cases, you cannot be proven wrong.

Appeal to emotion, not reason

To the greatest extent possible, you’ll want to avoid precise construction of logical arguments. Since you won’t have numbers that speak in your favor, it’s best to hammer on emotional appeals. Wield flattery, indulge your audience’s overconfidence (e.g. how a large majority of people consider themselves better-than-average drivers which is statistically impossible), and then scare the daylights out of them with what could be the most effective emotion in B2B sales: FOMO, the fear of missing out. Remind your audience of all the theoretical benefits of your Solution B and how horrible it would be for them if someone else had them first. This plays to the herd mentality that underpins decision-making in more than a few sectors. Alternatively, exaggerate their initial acceptance of Solution A into a forever-binding, static commitment that locks them into an eternity of inflexibility and disadvantages galore. Or, on a lighter note, when possible create a ‘cool factor’ that makes your Solution B more awesome than Solution A.

Sell your product, not your ideas

You never want to miss an opportunity to sell. Your sales team will probably discuss this white paper with the client, so make sure to pack all the key features of your product(s) into the document AND talk about your firm’s capabilities. Make it all about you. Be sure to throw in the copy from your last ad campaign–because repetition is an effective tool. An effective tool. Repetition.

But seriously

Why would anyone write a white paper as disastrously described above? Good question. Unfortunately, plenty of firms cram (sometimes desperate) sales content into a white paper format and, in doing so, frustrate their clients. It doesn’t have to be this way. White papers and other thought leadership materials are meant for firms to demonstrate their expertise and help find solutions–not to sew confusion.

Tips to keep in mind when writing a white paper:

  • A tired metaphor shows lack of originality and can distract from the matter at hand.
  • Stacking the deck by skewing the arguments in your favor can stray too far from the objectivity required to match a business need to a solution.
  • Your audience expects clarity, so provide it. Clouding the issue undermines your apparent mastery of the topic and makes you less credible in their eyes.
  • Try to avoid emotional appeals (they’re cheap and difficult to fit into organizational decision-making), or at the very least, balance the rational and emotional appeals.
  • Avoid selling. Audiences will shout out commercial messages–particularly where they don’t belong.

How to Relaunch a Flagship Publication in 8 Steps

As content marketing continues to dominate B2B marketing discussions, many firms are reviewing their preferred tactics and key messages in order to reinforce their content marketing effectiveness.

A few years ago I was tasked with formally reviewing a firm’s flagship print publication–a notable example of content marketing launched with the right intentions, objectives and support from top management. Here’s a series of eight steps to relaunch a flagship publication based on that experience.

Despite a 6-figure annual budget and dedicated headcount, the publication had languished since initial launch–unable to gain traction with its intended audience and increasingly recognized within the company as a required, if not painful, exercise.

Weighing in at more than 100 pages per issue, the print publication appeared erratically several times per year, in part due to production lead times of up to 5 months. It had few fans and plenty of critics–both inside and outside the firm. It was a classic white elephant, commanding prestige while incurring costs far in excess of the value it delivered for the company.

Here are the steps I took to assess, re-position and relaunch the publication.

1. Get a baseline reading on inputs and outputs

With a recurring publication, it’s fairly straightforward to measure the inputs–what it takes to bring the thing into existence. Total hours spent and budget are common metrics. The goal here is to mark a starting point so that you have a basis for comparison later on. This was helpful to me since I was new to the project, hence unfamiliar with some of the elements set out years ago.

If you want to be more sophisticated, you can breakdown the cost per hour along the various production stages in order to get an indication of where it may be most effective to outsource parts of the process.

2. Check the publication’s objective and target audience

Dust off the documented purpose/objective of the publication and its intended audience. Make sure that these still match the company’s strategy. In my case, these were not document. If these are not written down, talk with those at the genesis of the project and document that understanding. Then share these notes. I found that this can help clarify the aims of the project and garner support, especially when you can demonstrate how the project’s objectives coincide with a stakeholders’ aims.

3. Ask the audience

After establishing a baseline for production and confirming the goal and target audience, look at how the readership reacts to the content. Website statistics offer a good starting point. The crucial determinant of success is whether anyone wants to read your content. The easiest way to find out? Ask them. For the publication I conducted a readership survey that allowed respondents to answer online or by post (postage paid, of course). The challenge here is to make participation as frictionless as possible for the readers: if it’s in any way difficult or frustrating to provide feedback, response rates will suffer accordingly. Also, solicit feedback from your internal stakeholders. Having them complete the same questionnaire can be an eye-opening way to show that perceptions inside and outside the firm can vary significantly. In this case, I found it valuable to get the sales team’s input as well.

Results from the readership survey revealed that the audience was interested in more accessible, shorter pieces of RELEVANT content–e.g. that the content address their needs and interests. It also provided an indication of what kind of topics they expected the company (as a service provider) to cover.

4. Set an editorial policy

Your editorial policy will encapsulate information from the earlier steps including the objective, intended audience and writing/production guidelines. In a way it can be thought of as an agency brief that can be handed over to someone else for execution. The more clarity and detail a policy provides, the better. I prefer editorial policies that include quality standards or a checklist for contributors–though these may not be necessary if your organization already has writing guidelines or an editorial approval process.

In a medium or large sized organization, it’s wise to convene an editorial board that governs the editorial policy and meets regularly to review performance. The board can then assign daily implementation of the editorial function to an individual or a team.

The upfront work of setting an editorial policy will help improve the quality and relevance of your content over time.

5. Review the ‘look and feel’

Some people mistakenly focus all their attention on the content–what’s being said or written–or that design is merely an artistic consideration. All of these strawmen are wrong.

While content matters a great deal, it’s not the only thing that matters. Contrary to the old adage, many people do judge a book by its cover. So make that cover appealing. Use it to entice readers to turn the pages.

For the relaunch I conducted, the production work proved incredibly expensive, because the dimensions of the 100+ page documents were so costly to print and ship. Scaling down to a sleeker, more attractive, look and feel for the publication not only matched what the audience asked for in the readership survey–it also cut production time and shipping costs by 35 percent. To lock in these savings, guidelines on size and weight were set.

A few more design tips:

– Use image and color to set the tone

– Build out multiple levels of reading that allow readers to skim and then ‘dive in’ where they see an interest

– Avoid stock photos

– Consider how the work will appear in print and onscreen

6. Set a schedule

While technically your publication’s frequency (daily, weekly, monthly) should be contained in the editorial policy, publishing frequency is only the tip of the iceberg–the visible part of the production process. What’s hidden is the production time–which can range from a few hours for a blog post to several weeks or even months for an article or white paper. Your publication schedule will help you to sort this out. Update this often, share with stakeholders and build in some flexibility (i.e. swap publication dates of different pieces or have a backup piece prepared) in order to avoid excess anxiety over deadlines.

Adhering to a schedule–rather than publishing when a piece is completed–will help set your audiences expectations. Further down the road, if you are successful, your audience will anticipate and look forward to upcoming publications.

7. Deliver multiple formats

Your audience receives and consumes content in a variety of ways. In some countries, it’s preferable to hand-deliver print publications, which requires engagement from your sales teams. In other places, postal delivery is difficult or unreliable–so electronic delivery is preferred. A print publication can have a whole new life online. Here, it was necessary to revamp the website, update the email delivery process leveraging a state of the art emailing tool, initiate a social media campaign and create a smartphone app that offered readers their choice of ways to consume the content–all in addition to the print publication.

The key thing to bear in mind is that moving from long form (article-sized) to short form (social media) content requires additional effort and that the storytelling takes place in a more open (shareable) though confined (140 characters or less) space. Allocate the necessary resources to make this run smoothly, rather than treating it as an afterthought.

8. Measure effectiveness

A successful relaunch doesn’t end when the ‘new and improved’ version is unveiled. It’s a milestone that marks the time to step back review the ground that has been covered. The editorial board is a great forum for this discussion. Gauging your audience’s reaction requires conducting a second readership survey, along with analysis of web statistics, for comparison of the before and after results. In this particular case, audience engagement indicators–how much time was spent reading the material and how often the content became a part of discussions with clients–more than doubled. This can largely be attributed to the editorial policy and design work. In addition, the roll-out of multiple electronic formats allowed sales teams in some markets to increase their audience reach by 800 percent.

Give yourself time to succeed

Overall, this particular relaunch resulted in higher audience engagement, greater audience reach, quicker production times and lower costs. But not all of these benefits come immediately. It takes time for an audience to recognize improvement. (Incidentally, it presents the opportunity to run a relaunch marketing campaign if you want to play up transparency around the effort).

Relaunching a flagship publication can be a time-consuming effort. Given the potential benefits, along with the opportunity to forge a stronger connection between you and your audience, it’s an exercise worth considering. With these steps in hand, the effort should be that much easier.

The Key To Marketing From A Head of Sales

I asked the head of a 200-person strong sales department of an asset management firm operating in about two dozen countries across the globe: “What do you need marketing teams to produce in order to best help advance discussions with prospects and clients?”

The answer was instructive, if not straightforward: produce high-quality, educational content.

 

Making the Most of Corporate Academic Sponsorships

Many firms find it useful to partner with academic institutions for a variety of reasons, including: to commission research, to advance a field of study, to identify a stream of potential recruits, or to promote brand awareness, just to name a few. While the combination of corporate capital and scholastic brainpower would seem unstoppable, there are plenty of circumstances that conspire to prevent corporate-academic partnerships from reaching their full potential.

In this post, I look at how for-profit corporations can better identify and collaborate with academic institutions (though the academic side is no less interesting and deserves to be addressed, it is beyond my experience set and hence better left to others).

Don’t jump at the first opportunity

A corporate academic partnership that goes bad can be a nightmare for all those involved–with countless hours wasted and frustrations aplenty–particularly when multi-year contractual obligations oblige. I’ve actually seen a company sign a multi-year agreement with the very first academic institution that came knocking at the door. It didn’t go very well. Do your due diligence. It’s better to identify a short list of potential candidates and use agreed criteria before selecting a partner institution and finalizing an agreement. Of course, this requires academic sponsorship program to:

Have an objective

It sounds straightforward, though it can easily be overlooked. A corporate academic sponsorship involves time and resources. It should have an objective and –ideally– metrics to measure the results just like any other effort. Setting an objective internally will help you to explain your vision of the sponsorship to the institutions themselves, helping everyone to have greater clarity from the start.

Document everything

In an extreme example, an individual at one firm signed the deal and then left the firm a short time later. This person’s replacement then left the firm within 2 years, meaning that they were unable to find back the relevant contracts, could not identify the objective of the sponsorship, had no short list to fall back on. Avoid this mistake.

It may be as simple as taking notes and making them accessible to your team. Alternatively, it may entail an internal communications campaign to raise awareness of the program and get more buy-in from stakeholders. While it may seem like extra paperwork, it’s crucial for organizational memory. If the person in the corporate lead role changes positions or leaves the firm, those notes will help the firm maintain continuity over time.

Match their scope to your ambition

Key factors in identifying appropriate potential partner institutions include: the academic entity’s notoriety, specialization, track record regarding sponsorships, personnel and value proposition. Each firm’s needs are different, so these considerations have to be weighed accordingly. A company that leads its sector would likely favor the most prestigious schools. However, a firm may want to select a school with less overall notoriety if a particular branch has a strong reputation in a given niche that is relevant to the industry–whether it’s agriculture, media or economics, etc.

Identify your full contribution upfront

A sponsorship requires time and money. But is that all? A while back I attended a seminar hosted by an academic institution that had a clearly defined approach to sponsorships, and understood the benefits they bring to the school. The school systematically applied a ‘business check’ to the output of their sponsorships. Essentially, they asked their sponsor firms to enter into a dialogue regarding the subject matter and offer the ‘real world view’ from industry practitioners. Yet, not every corporate sponsor was aware of this approach, which really amounted to a missed opportunity for everyone. How do you know what a school wants from you? Simply ask.

Weigh the pros and cons

In some jurisdictions, academic partnerships get beneficial tax treatment. That one advantage alone does not constitute a well-conceived sponsorship program. Take a holistic view of the effort, and make an evaluation based on a clear-eyed assessment that allows for the possibility that the program could have poor, average or good results.

Anticipate an adjustment period

Academia and corporate worlds operate differently. And it’s a different type of relationship than one with a supplier, client or external agency. Especially if this is your first corporate academic sponsorship, plan to learn as things go along in order to allow all parties to acclimate to the new relationship.

To conclude

A firm’s decision to launch a sponsorship program should not be taken lightly. Corporate academic sponsorships can be beneficial to both parties–though they sometimes leave room for improvement. Bearing in mind the above set of guidelines can help steer the corporate-academic connection towards a better outcome.

5 Signs Your Content Machine Is Underperforming And How To Fix It

The relentless rhythm of content production and publishing can be demanding for content marketers, writers and authors of all stripes. Take a quick step back from the whirring engine in order to make sure that your content machine is firing on all cylinders.

Here are a few signs that your content production is underperforming, along with ways to address any hiccups:

  1. The compliance approval is the longest stage in the process.

In most organizations, it takes a good amount of time to plan, prepare and vet good content. Getting compliance sign-off–especially in financial services–is crucial. But it shouldn’t be the limiting factor.

Action: sit down with your review and compliance stakeholders to check the agreed service level, identify and address bottlenecks. Make this a regular thing.

  1. The four-eyes principle applies only to nerds.

The four-eyes principle means that one person writes, another person reviews. Surprisingly, a marketing head at one firm I spoke to admitted to me that they do not check what they produce before it’s published. Unsurprisingly, that firm’s communications often have spelling mistakes, translation errors and poor grammar.

Action: hire an editor, or–at a minimum–implement peer review inhouse. If you don’t bother to read your material, why should your clients?

  1. Your content never made it out the door.

I’ve actually seen a department in one organization deliver ‘finished’ content to internal teams (without a compliance check)–simply hoping that it would be pushed to the outside world by others. It wasn’t. As a result, no prospects or clients ever actually saw the content.

Action: The 80/20 rule does not apply to reaching your audience. Go the full distance. Diffuse content in various formats across an array of communications channels for maximum impact.

  1. You cannot remember the last time you discussed topic ideas with colleagues.

Sadly, some firms hire people to produce content without managing the content process–e.g. no editorial calendar, no key topics, non-existent or constantly revised key messages. While this makes the content producer’s job rather easy (little oversight, vague objectives), it makes achieving success quite difficult.

Action: make content production an organization-wide effort. Good content is a team sport. Your colleagues will have different views and suggestions for improvement that boost the quality of your content.

  1. No one reads your content.

The most severe warning sign that your content machine is underperforming is also the most difficult to resolve. Perhaps you have good content in the wrong place and thus need to adjust the channel mix. Or maybe the messaging doesn’t relate to the audience. Or the tone is off.

Action: Conduct a full review of your content marketing program, from objectives and process to result measurement and analysis. If everything appear to be in good order, use market research techniques (panels, surveys) to gain more insight directly from your target audience. If all else fails, find new ways to integrate existing content into your organization’s activities and look for feedback through that route.

Recap: Digital Innovation, Social Media, Mobile Marketing and More

The other day I was fortunate enough to attend a presentation on digital innovation by Josef Mantl, an Austrian communications entrepreneur and CEO of the eponymous Josef Mantl Communications.

The evening, hosted by the the Austro-American Society in Vienna, provided the perfect backdrop for Dr. Mantl, a Fulbright scholar and Al Gore Climate Leader, to talk us through some of the largest milestones in the digital world over the past decade.

He outlined the importance and overwhelming presence of all things digital in today’s society–including its importance for businesses, political organizations and academic institutions in connecting with audiences and building success. In fact, the digital world has become crucial to success, and no successful organizations forgo the web these days.

Yet, there are other reasons to care about digital. According to Dr. Mantl, digital has fundamentally changed consumers themselves–who no longer simply purchase a ready-made product/service from a company (or not). Rather, the digitized consumer is multi-dimensional, and can potentially playing a role in product design, review and brand stewardship, among other things.

Here are a few key takeaways from the discussion:

– The rise of digital has increased the pressure on organizations to provide high quality content.

– 64% of CEOs and opinion leaders read their email on mobile devices.

– People’s need and ability to share makes social media an integral part of today’s marketing campaigns.

– Social platforms from publicly-traded firms face greater pressure to monetize traffic, putting marketers in a situation where must cough up ad spend to be visible.

– The digital environment favors short, emotional messages with strong visuals.

– New technology is a key driver in this space. Look for augmented reality, near-field communications and wearables to be the ‘next big things.’

For those interested, these themes and more will be explored at the upcoming Mobile Marketing Innovation Day event in Vienna on May 28, 2014 (in German).