Saturday, June 30, 2007

Killing with kindness, musing on memes

I almost skipped it.

I was skimming the Books Update email from the NYT Sunday Book Review when I noticed a review of The Edge of Evolution by Michael J. Behe. His name sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it.

The promo blurb said, "In his second book, Michael Behe turns to genetics to poke holes in Darwin’s theory." That's when I noticed the reviewer: evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Oh my, I thought, this is gonna be good.

It was. It's one of the kindest but most totally decimating reviews I've ever read. You can read it here.


One thing I hadn't realized is that Dawkins is the guy who coined the term "meme" to describe (as noted in his Wikipedia entry) "how Darwinian principles might be extended to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena."

One of the most thought-provoking books I've ever read is Thought Contagion, a book about memes and the transmission of ideas by Aaron Lynch. I read it at about the same time I read another influential book, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

Both Lynch and Gladwell consider how ideas, beliefs and even new products or fads are spread through society. That is, they try to explain why some ideas, beliefs or products catch on and become popular, while others -- that seem equally viable -- simply don't.

In Thought Contagion, Lynch identifies several "propagation advantages," which is how he describes the characteristics that tend to encourage people to pass on or "propagate" a specific idea or belief. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell looks at the factors that make ideas or products "sticky" and more likely to catch on with the public.

Both of these books could be helpful to folks in the advertising, marketing and P.R. professions -- to anyone who's in the business of persuading others, for that matter -- as well as to journalists and others who need to better understand the factors that shape society and debates on public issues.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Pointers on writing for the web

You'll find some good pointers on writing headlines and copy for the web in Who Needs Headlines? at A List Apart, a blog on "the design, development, and meaning of web content."

As Shaun Crowley, a freelance copywriter and author of 100 Copywriting Tips for Designers and Other Freelance Artists, notes:
People often go online for quick, easy guidance. Headlines like How to…, 10 reasons why…, and 50 top tips for… promise the reader valuable tips, and they help you to highlight the key benefits.
I also like Crowley's suggestions to...focus on the product's unique selling point...use a quote...start a story. All good advice that works just as well offline as on.

Also check out Human to Human Design, an article by Aussie web design consultant Sharon Lee, who says, "A good website is built on two basic truths -- that the internet is an interactive medium and that the end user is in fact human." It's always helpful to remember there are people on the other side of what you write.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Sisyphean PR and other follies

And you think you've got a PR problem! Consider the uphill battle faced by Price Floyd, a U.S. State Department official charged with improving our nation's image in the world.

As reported in Slate, Floyd pointed to our rejection of the Kyoto treaty, dissing of the International Criminal Court, revocation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and said, "What we don't have here is a failure to communicate."

"These actions," Floyd wrote in a recent op-ed piece in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. This is the policy we have been 'selling' through our actions." As a result, our words are ignored or dismissed as "meaningless U.S. propaganda."

As marketer Chris Houchens noted in a recent post in his Shotgun Marketing blog, this is what happens when you try to "REBRAND" through words and not actions. It's a Sisyphean exercise.

By the way, wondering how Floyd got away with making such pointed comments in an administration known for lock-step message control? Well, Floyd recently quit his State Department job. 'Nuf said.