Are You Contagious? If Not, Follow these Six Steps

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Achoo!  Under the right conditions, a sneeze or cough can spread sickness far and wide.  All it takes is for one infected person on a plane or in a crowded room to pass the condition to dozens, maybe hundreds more.

Most of us understand how a virus spreads and epidemics begin.  But few use that knowledge when communicating to reach a larger audience. By making your communications more contagious, or “sticky,” you can increase their impact, longevity and spread.


The 1918 Influenza epidemic was the deadliest plague in history.  It killed more people in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years, more in a year than the Black Plague in a century.

According to The Great Influenza by John Barry, the virus had humble beginnings.  It started in isolated Haskell County, Kansas.  Soldiers on leave caught and brought it to the 60,000 men at nearby Fort Pierce. Aided troop movements, it circled the globe and killed 50-100 million people in 18 months.

Information moves even faster than disease.  Within minutes the entire world knew about the 9/11 attacks. Media helped initially, but word-of-mouth spread it around the globe in minutes.  That’s because 9/11 was the ultimate sticky message, one quickly shared by friends, family and coworkers.

Going Viral

Viral videos also show how quickly information spreads.  Unfortunately, the odds of creating a successful viral video are miniscule.  In fact, Advertising Age columnist Bob Garfield recommends you don’t even bother trying.

“Fishing for rainbow trout?  If you catch one,” he writes by way of analogy, “it’ll probably weigh 2 pounds. You will not catch a 42-pound rainbow trout.  Oh, it’s been done…and it’s conceivable somebody will hook another one. But it won’t be you. “

Fortunately, you don’t need a viral video or 9/11 to make sticky messages.  With a few simple tips, your media releases, direct mail and website will be more likely to cling.

Money magazine provides an opportunity to compare the stickiness of different messages. Five health nonprofits placed ads the magazine.  None were outrageous or “went viral.”

But the Alzheimer’s Association’s ad was better and incorporated elements of all six criteria needed to create a sticky and more memorable message.

Six Steps to Stickiness

How do you get “sticky?” Authors Chip and Dan Health offer six recommendations in Made to Stick. Elements of each can be seen in the Alzheimer’s Association ad above.

  • Simplicity – Strip your ideas to their core elements.
  • Unexpectedness – Being different captures and holds someone’s attention.
  • Concreteness – Specificity makes your message easier to process and remember.
  • Credibility – Are your spokespersons believable?
  • Emotion – Connect beyond facts and figures.
  • Stories – Are memorable and effective teaching tools.

While no guarantee (not all seven-footers play in the NBA), incorporating these elements will make your messages more contagious.  Like sneezing on a crowded airplane.

Popcorn Problem

The Center for Science in the Public Interest had a problem: How to convince the media and public about the unhealthiness of movie popcorn (37 grams of saturated fat per serving).

That’s a tall order.  Americans are inundated with messages on healthy eating.  How could CSPI break through the noise, and get noticed, with nothing more than dry fact (37 grams of fat)?

They called a called a press conference with the following message: A medium-sized movie popcorn contains more saturated fat than a bacon and egg breakfast, a Big Mac and fries for lunch, and steak dinner with all the trimmings.

And just in case the reporters missed the message, each item was carefully laid out on a table for comparison.

The story contained nearly every element of stickiness.  The result? CSPI generated national media coverage and public awareness.  More importantly, their sticky message mobilized the public to demand healthier popcorn options at the movies.


Information spreads like a virus.  The stickier your message, the more likely you’ll create an information epidemic.

Creating “sticky” communications is not difficult. It starts with knowing your audience, what you want them to do (“call to action”) and what motivates them to act.

Then, following the Six Steps to Stickiness, you can generate communications that people will read, respond to, and pass along to their friends, co-workers and loved ones and others.

A barrier to creating stickiness is often an unwillingness to be “unexpected.”  The good news is that you don’t have to be outrageous to get noticed.


New GE Study: Word-of-Mouth Referrals Improve Traditional Marketing Efforts

Marketers have long assumed content shared by friends or other influencers carries more weight than paid placements.  Someone is more likely to visit a restaurant when referred by a friend, the thinking goes, than from a television or radio ad.

Now General Electric has some proof.

In late 2011, the company compared the effectiveness of a paid advertising campaign and paid advertising campaign coupled with online-sharing.   Overall, consumers who saw the ad and received a referral from a friend were 138% more likely to view GE favorably than those who saw the ad alone.

The results of the test were originally published in the January 25th edition of Advertising Age.

“Personal referrals are far and away the most influential form of communications,” said Sparklight Communications President Joseph LaMountain.  “Yet many companies and causes fail to incorporate word-of-mouth into their marketing and communications campaigns.”

For example, organizations can raise significant levels of awareness, or funding, for an issue by asking its supporters to share  information to friends, neighbors and work colleagues.  Yet too often this valuable “human capital” is not effectively mobilized.

Word-of-Mouth is Most Trusted Media Source

There’s a new restaurant in town.  What will convince you to try it: A newspaper ad or a friend’s recommendation?

The recommendation wins hands down, every time.  That’s because a recommendation from a friend is a far more trusted source of information than a paid advertisement.

We know that intuitively, but a new report from Nielsen finds that consumers trust in word-of-mouth appeals has increased dramatically: 18% since 2007.  By comparison, consumers trust in paid television and radio advertising has fallen by 25% or more.

According to Nielsen, “92% percent of consumers around the world say they trust…word-of-mouth and recommendations from friends and family, above all other forms of advertising.”  What puzzles me is why more groups and business don’t jump on this bandwagon and get their people talking!

The Amputee Coalition is an organization using word-of-mouth to raise awareness.  During April, the group has recruited hundreds of companies, medical professionals and individuals to distribute educational materials in their community.  The group is hoping to distribute 1 million cards and generate just as many conversations.

A campaign like this also keeps members engaged with the organization.  All-too-often the only time someone hears from a group is when they’re looking for a handout.  Studies show that the more a volunteer is engaged with a group’s mission, the more money they will give to that group.  Talk about a no-brainer!

Our Top Ten Successes of 2011

It’s become a tradition for us to highlight our successes from the previous twelve months.  It also helps that our “Top Successes” posts are among the most popular on our site!  So without further adieu, please find below our top client successes from 2011.

10. Recruiting Grasstops Volunteers  – Every week the average Representative in Congress receives 10,000 email messages, far too many to process.  Yet many organizations continue to focus on the quantity, rather than the quality, of communications they generate to elected leaders.  We were pleased to have the chance to work with a national patient advocacy organization that sought to build a network of high-level, politically connected volunteers.  Over an 8-week period, we identified and recruited 78 A-list volunteers from 43 states.  We’re now working with the organization to engage these volunteers in state policy initiatives and the 2012 presidential campaign.

9. Bringing in Bucks & Building Support – ADHD affects millions of kids in America, but some still consider it a “made up” disease.  We worked with patient advocate Natalie Knochenhauer and her group ADHD Aware to develop a funding proposal for a national public awareness campaign.  We were thrilled when a major industry partner decided to fund the organization in the weeks leading up to ADHD Awareness Month in October.  During the awareness month, we reached more than 1.125 million people online with our messages and increased ADHD Aware’s Facebook supporters by more than 350%.

8. Raising Public Awareness – In 2011 we developed awareness campaigns for both the Alliance for Aging Research and the Amputee Coalition.  For the Amputee Coalition, we developed a campaign that will be launched in early 2012 and seeks to educate Americans with diabetes on how to avoid a lower-extremity amputation.  For the Alliance, we developed a campaign to build support for the Healthspan initiative, which will also launch in early 2012  For both we conducted strategic planning sessions, developed key messages, identified target audiences, created communications tactics and an implementation plan.  We look forward to reporting on the success of these campaigns in our Top Successes of 2012!

7. Training Future Generations – In the summer of 2011, I taught Grassroots Communications: Mobilizing the Masses to more than twenty Georgetown graduate students.  Grassroots communications is key because they allow any organization – not just those with huge budgets – to generate conversations and action on the issues they care about.  These conversations are far more persuasive than email or advertising and can more easily cut through the 3,000 marketing messages we process each day.  Teaching at Georgetown provides an unparalleled opportunity to share these strategies with a new generation of communications professionals.

6. Achieving a Regulatory Milestone – In mid-2011 the US Preventive Services Task Force announced it would review the effectiveness of screening for lower-extremity atherosclerosis.  Securing a favorable review from the Task Force has been a top priority of the Vascular Disease Foundation and its allies for more than three years.  We’ve been working with the Foundation the entire time and are thrilled to see that our analysis, messaging and lobbying has begun to pay dividends.  We’re now partnering with the American College of Cardiology, American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association to stress the value and importance of this life-saving preventive test.

To be continued next week….

4 Strategies for Recruiting A-List Volunteers

We need influential advocates!

Many groups would like to have a “grasstops” network of volunteers – those with significant expertise and political connections – but few have successfully built one from scratch.

Late last year, we helped build a team of A-list volunteers for a national patient advocacy organization.  We recruited 78  volunteers from 43 states with significant health care and political experience.  Their goal is to deliver the organization’s message to key decision-makers in their state.

We focused on four things when building our Elite council.

  1. Developing Application Criteria – We started by asking, “What do you want people to do?  What skills do they need? ” These questions formed our application.  We also asked, for example, how far applicants lived from their state capital.  That’s because we want them to meet with state officials, like the governor, so being close to the capital is key.  Diversity and educational attainment are also important, so we asked that too.  All told, our 20 questions were answerable in about 5 minutes.
  2. Finding the Influentials – We also wanted applicants who are influential in their community.  So we asked a series of 12 questions modeled on those developed RoperASW research firm.  The questions are designed to identify the 10% of the people in a community that “convinces the remaining 90%” how to vote, shop and give.  By finding local connectors, we can work with their connections to reach public officials. Continue reading

How Obamacare Helped Me

In April 2008, I stopped drinking alcohol. When Mimi left her job, and her group health insurance plan, in November 2009 I suddenly became one of the 50 million uninsured Americans. But thanks to the Affordable Care Act – or “Obamacare” if you’re of a particular political persuasion – I now have health insurance coverage.

I have a family history of alcoholism and in 2008 decided I wanted to stop drinking. But it was harder than I thought. So I decided to visit my primary care physician and she prescribed Lexapro, an anti-depressant medication. After one dose, I lost my craving for alcohol. After thirty days, I stopped taking it and haven’t had a drink since.

Good news, right? Not if you want to purchase health insurance on the open marketplace. When we gave up our group health coverage, our insurance company declined to cover me citing my past history of “substance abuse and anxiety.” Fortunately, I was able to continue coverage through COBRA temporarily; that company dropped me after a payment was 3 days late.

For the last 18 months I’ve been without any health insurance coverage. After much prodding, our health insurance company did eventually offer me a policy that cost $1,500 per month with a $10,000 out-of-pocket deductible. I declined, hoping that the health care reform law passed by Congress in 2010 would kick in before I suffered any grave medical problem.

And that’s exactly what happened. This summer, I learned about the Pre-existing Condition Insurance Plan (PCIP) that was created as part of the health care reform law. Organized by the states and federal government, it provides coverage to someone like me who’s had difficulty getting coverage in the past. It’s not free, but at $168 a month it’s affordable.

I’ve worked in health care for nearly 20 years. During that time I’d heard from many people with diabetes, epilepsy and cancer and the difficulties they’d faced in obtaining health insurance. But losing my health insurance because I stopped drinking alcohol? I never thought in a million years my life would be at risk for making the (seemingly) right decision about my personal health.

So the next time you hear people decry “Obamacare” and how it’s taking away your personal liberties, think again. You just may be in my shoes some day.

Retired MD Collects 5,800 Petition Signatures

A campaign to restore funding to a palliative care community service on the Upper North Shore has received a big response reports Tracey Findlay in the Hornsby and Upper North Shore Advocate.

Retired Wahroonga doctor Yvonne McMaster has collected 5800 signatures since launching the campaign in March. She intends to present the petition to Parliament House. Dr McMaster said she had been encouraged by the community response.

“I am now pretty confident we will get at least 10,000 signatures. I have had lots of replies and offers of help,” she said.

As reported in the Advocate in March, Dr McMaster is protesting against “a rationing of services” for the terminally ill after palliative care community funding was cut by $1.2 million by the then Northern Sydney and Central Coast Area Health Service in 2009.

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