Marriott: The Silk Road Strategy

“Marriott International has an ambitious plan to open another 340 new properties in China, averaging approximately one a week”

Executive Summary
Marriott International is the world’s largest hotel conglomerate. The company operates over 300 hotels in China with 500,000 employees. Marriott has an ambitious plan to open another 340 new properties in the country averaging approximately one a week. In January 2018, the company unwittingly distributed an online survey to its Chinese Marriott Rewards members that listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao as sovereign nations. The mistake sparked outrage among Chinese stakeholders who encouraged government officials to force Marriott to shut down its website and mobile apps on the mainland. Craig Smith, Marriott’s president and managing director of Asia-Pacific operations expressed hopes of restoring credibility by apologizing and working to slowly earn back the Chinese people’s trust and confidence. Waiting for the brand’s reputation to recover is not enough. Marriott International must actively engage the Chinese Millennial demographic on local social media platforms such as Baidu, WeChat, YouKu and Weibo with informative and entertaining content that celebrates Chinese pride. Key opinion leaders (KOL) in China and electronic word of mouth (eWOM) will be pivotal components of this communications strategy. Data mining software will track consumer response to persuasive messages that utilize the central and peripheral processing found in the Elaboration Likelihood Model (ELM). Studies have shown ELM to be the most appropriate theoretical framework for the context of hotel communications marketing (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). This digital strategy will promote travel while building rapport within the world’s largest hospitality market. The campaign will begin and end with qualitative and quantitative surveys to measure the return on investment (ROI).

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Introduction
Marriott’s decision to cooperate with the Chinese government by temporarily closing their six websites and apps in the country was the only real option. If the company had waited for bureaucrats to force a closure, the hotel conglomerate would have lost the opportunity to save face or MiànZi (面子) with its Chinese stakeholders. The greatest asset that Marriott can have when doing business with Chinese buyers is credibility. There is no concept more powerful in Chinese culture than that of Miàn zi. The voluntary removal of the digital platforms leaves Marriott with the opportunity to restore its reputation and continue its mutually beneficial relationships with Chinese travelers. Marriott International CEO Arne Sorenson addressed the situation by honoring the Government’s request and auditing the platforms for errors. The original complaint against Marriott came from a Chinese “netizen” who spotted the infraction and immediately called for a nationwide boycott of the company. The violation was then officially addressed by Lu Kang, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson who demanded Marriott obey China’s laws and respect Chinese honor. A China Daily reporter added insult to injury when he suggested that Chinese companies would not be so simpleminded as to disrespect American territorial integrity. In the wake of these events, Marriott has issued an official apology, fired the firm that created the survey, and announced an eight-point rectification plan that promised to educate employees, implement user-friendly lines of communication with offended Chinese citizens, and their subcontractors working in China.
The solution to this problem starts with a qualitative and quantitative study of Chinese stakeholders. Solid research with tireless environmental scanning and enthusiastic symmetrical dialogue will do much to avert future blunders. This proposed campaign will also tap into the power of Chinese celebrities who are key opinion leaders (KOL) on the mainland. KOL endorsements will do much to restore the brand’s credibility through peripheral and central processing on social media or 社交媒体 (shè jiāo méi tǐ). China’s digital platforms are Marriott’s greatest asset in managing this situation and the internet should be used to give voice to the target audience. The policy is a no-brainer in a country as nationalistic as the Peoples Republic of China. The strategy will incorporate a holistic approach to all cultural and political factors involved in this crisis and harness the power of Chinese public opinion to ensure Marriott’s long-term prospects in the world’s largest consumer market. Decentralization and localization of Marriott’s Chinese assets will be a priority. No one understands China better than Chinese citizens.
Problem Statement:
Marriott International offended Chinese stakeholders when it illegally listed Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao as separate countries in an online survey. The hotel conglomerate showed gross incompetence and as a result, damaged its brand in the world’s largest hospitality market.
Goal: Rebuild credibility and long-term relationships with Chinese Millennial stakeholders.

Objectives:

  1. Engage the Chinese Millennial demographic with KOL on social media platforms WeChat, YouKu, and Weibo with informative and entertaining travel content that implies Chinese patriotism. Desired change: 15% increase in positive attitudes towards Marriott International’s portfolio of brands by June 21, 2019. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
  2. Raise awareness for Marriott’s International’s Li Yu or “serving with courtesy” hospitality program with Chinese Millennial population by 15% by June 21st, 2019. Desired change: 15% increase in positive awareness among the world’s most populous nation for Marriott’s Li Yu customer by June 21, 2020. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
  3. Increase awareness among Chinese Millennials for Marriott’s new Fairfield (wàn fēng) Hotel brand by January 21, 2019. Desired change: 15% increase in awareness among Millennial demographic for Marriott’s Fairfield Hotel brand by June 21st, 2019. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.

Topic Profile
Marriott International Inc. is a global hospitality company with approximately 6,500 properties in 127 countries. The company got its humble beginnings in Washington D.C. as an A&W root beer stand, opened by J. Willard Marriott in 1927. The mom and pop business grew to become a chain of restaurants known as Hot Shoppes. Marriott began to diversify by catering food to airlines in the D.C. area before making a dramatic shift into the lodging business in 1957. The corporation grew from one hotel in Arlington, Virginia to a national operation with a diversified portfolio of brands that offered different price ranges in the 1980’s. Over the years Marriott has expanded through merger and acquisition to include brands such as The Luxury Collection, Bulgari Hotels & Resorts, W Hotels, EDITION, St. Regis, JW Marriott & The Ritz-Carlton. Their premier brands consist of Autograph Collection Hotels, Design Hotels, Le Meridien, Marriott Hotels, Renaissance Hotels, Marriott Executive Apartments, Gaylord Hotels, Marriott Vacation Club, Westin, and Tribute Portfolio. The hotel conglomerate’s second-tier brands include AC Hotels by Marriott, Aloft Hotels, Courtyard Inn, Element Hotels, Fairfield Inn & Suites, Four Points, Moxy Hotels, Protea Hotels, Residence Inn, SpringHill Suites, and TownePlace Suites. The company’s closest competitors include Accor, Best Western, Carlson Rezidor, Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental Hotels Group, La Quinta, and Wyndham Hotels (Marriott.com, 2018).
Marriott International continues to set itself apart from other lodging companies with cutting-edge technology and impeccable customer service. Marriott innovation transforms the hospitality and travel industries on a yearly basis. One of this year’s technological advances includes the ability to talk directly to hotel staff through the company’s mobile app in real time before, during, and after the customer’s stay. The revolutionary Marriott Rewards app personalizes the customer’s travel experience by adjusting to their individual needs throughout their stay. More important than technology is Marriott’s world renown customer service anchored in the Golden Rule philosophy of treating others the way you would have them treat you.
Target Audience

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The Millennial demographic makes up 415 million prospective customers in China and this group spent over $261 billion on travel in 2017. Chinese Millennials are educated, affluent and proud of their heritage. They are independent, open minded, crave freedom and want to escape their mundane daily routines for adventure in exotic locations. Digital platforms are undisputedly the best method to target Chinese consumers born after 1984 (Agozzino, 2012). An estimated 97% of Chinese Millennials have smartphones and most use them to access the internet over 30 times a day. As social media has become more prevalent in the lives of China’s young people, eWOM has taken on a greater role in their purchasing decisions (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). There is a high level of trust among Chinese Millennials for peer reviews about hotels on preferred websites. “The ELM is one of the most frequently used theoretical frameworks in studies on eWOM and has been used to explain the persuasive power of eWOM among consumers” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013). It is important to note that, “the ELM has been applied to determine how online consumers view online reviews” in this proposal (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). More than ever before, Chinese netizens are turning to friends and acquaintances online for information about travel and feedback on purchases. Young travelers in the planning stages of their trip primarily turn to the WeChat and Weibo apps for fact-finding, reserving accommodations and sharing their experiences. It is by using ELM and eWOM on digital platforms in China that Marriott, “can emphasize the involvement of highly credible members of their loyalty programs in the social media environment” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).
Communication Plan
Message 1. Wherever your travels take you, Marriott offers you a home away from home. We have 30 brands to choose from in every price range on every continent. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
“Technological advances have created an ever-widening array of options for sending messages designed to shape, reinforce, and change target audiences’ responses” (Stiff & Mongeau, 2016). Firm-generated content (FGC) on social media is effective in increasing brand recognition with tech-savvy consumers. This phenomenon is known as “social-network proneness” (Kumar, Bezawada, Rishka, Janakiram, & Kannan, 2016). As Millennials engage with peers sharing purchasing experiences, a product’s online presence is increased. This activity has a snowball effect, building ever greater levels of traffic and engagement between consumers. Research suggests the use of FGC social media is an effective method of boosting sales (Kumar et al., 2016). The authors also state that data collection on social media traffic is seen to be particularly effective with Chinese Millennials who are comfortable with technology and are frequent users of digital platforms (Kumar et al., 2016). An astounding 70% of Chinese Millennials utilize online platforms to organize their travels and KOLs are viewed as reliable sources for travel advice.
“Social media enables the widespread viewing and sharing of consumers’ experiences and opinions of hotels and destinations” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). This Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC) plan will use credible sources and ELM on multiple social media platforms to successfully persuade Chinese Millennial consumers. Internet targeting is an effective tool that employs social networking, streaming media and rich media messages to invite interaction among groups willing to participate in sharing information online (Yadin, 2012). Persuasive communication will help Marriott increase brand awareness in China by enlisting KOLs to influence consumers on the mainland. Social media reviews are especially effective with the Millennial market segment that is “full of active consumers eager to become brand ambassadors” (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). Studies have proven that tech-savvy Chinese netizens are a perfect target for e-commerce strategies.
With 78,168, 835 followers, actress Yao Chen (姚晨) is China’s most popular celebrity on Weibu. Chen also happens to hold the title for the social media account with the most followers ‘fans’ (粉丝) in the world. For this reason, Yao Chen will be hired to be Marriott’s key spokesperson and brand ambassador in China for a period of one year. Chen will post pictures and videos of her international travels to exotic locations all over the globe weekly. The carefully scripted videos will match Hollywood standards of quality. The actress will stay at one property that represents each of Marriott’s 30 brands. Source attractiveness will play a huge role in exploiting persuasive messages that will utilize ELM and peripheral processing. This message will consume the largest amount of the campaign’s budget. Chen’s commercials will run on all Chinese platforms for one year upon which time the company will carefully evaluate their effectiveness and return on investment (ROI). A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.
Teng, Khong and Goh (2014) state that “eWOM marketing campaigns can be utilized in an ELM framework to identify and measure the impacts of various constructs in persuasive communication”. This strategy will apply to both “central and peripheral routes simultaneously in high-involvement web advertisements” (Teng, et al., 2014). One thing is certain, however, that “the ease of accessibility to social media sites from travel-related search results verifies the importance of social media within the hospitality industry” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).

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Message 2. The Marriott Rewards membership app offers a seamless travel experience all from the convenience of your smartphone. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
In the fast-paced environment of digital and social media marketing (DSMM) Chinese consumers are increasingly using social media and mobile phones to communicate and make purchases (Lamberton & Stephen, 2016). Marriott’s communication plan for China must include multiple social media platforms to successfully inform prospective consumers on the benefits of the company’s products and services. Chinese digital media platforms offer the most efficient path to communicate specific messages to particular stakeholders such as Millennials, and consumer dialogue on social networks will improve Marriott’s brand awareness through eWOM (Batra & Keller, 2016). EWOM such as consumer testimonials are most effective with Millennial stakeholders because this age group is comfortable with technology and sharing their information online (Batra & Keller, 2016). The authors further point out that social media platforms are well suited for the creation of online brand communities (Batra & Keller, 2016). It is particularly important to note that data collection in real time will make it possible for Marriott practitioners to rapidly make improvements to online messages. New technologies make it possible to collect consumer interaction and closely monitor “how many unique visitors click on a page or ad, how long they spend with it, what they do on it, and where they go afterward” (Batra & Keller, 2016).
A famous blogger named Aikeli Li (艾克里里) will discuss how user-friendly the Marriott Rewards app is and that even the least tech-savvy person can enjoy its benefits. In the background, Li’s grandmother will be using the app to plan his travel itinerary. The Marriott Rewards message although dealing with technology will use the peripheral route. “Peripheral cues are simple rules or information shortcuts such as brand image and source attractiveness that consumers use to assess a recommendation” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013). The happy and funny content will appear in both video and picture/print on WeChat and Weibo for the period of one year. A survey will be conducted prior to and at the end of the campaign to measure results and adjust future tactics.

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Message 3. Marriott International’s Li Yu experience starts before our guests arrive at their home away from home. Weary travelers are immediately greeted by Mandarin-speaking hotel associates to serve you. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.

In recent years marketing professionals have increased their use of ELM and KOL on Chinese social media platforms (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). It has been determined that the use of ELM on social media extends the relationship in customer engagement beyond short-term messaging to brand loyalty and long-term relationships (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). This campaign will ensure that the Li Yu brand promotion is shared by KOL through active engagement on WeChat with the target audience (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). The Chinese WeChat app boasts over one billion active monthly users and 900 million use the platform daily. WeChat provides an excellent means of creating “influence impressions” and “peer to peer word of mouth” (Ashley & Tuten, 2015). The hospitality industry is rich with data and this information is exactly what is needed for the world’s largest hotel chain to design social media content that piques the interest of China’s young urban professionals (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Chinese young people want personalized travel experiences to share with peers; they do not have loyalty to their parental brands; they want convenience combined with technologically advanced hotels (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Ashley and Tuten (2015) found entertainment to be the most successful method for social media engagement and stated that “social media participants are likely to desire entertainment and information” from preferred brands. Marriott’s key efforts to interact with the 18-34 age group should be through celebrity travel bloggers (Garrahan, 2015). A combination of the top ten travel bloggers in China will be hired to write reviews about the Lu Yu experience. These KOL will post pictures and short video clips at various destinations enjoying Lu Yi hospitality. The reviews will begin on WeChat which has emerged as the principal reference for travel information and hopefully cross-pollinate to other platforms where young travelers get travel information. This should be effective because “travelers who adopt information from online reviews will incorporate the information obtained in their mental models” (Fileiri & McLeay, 2013).

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Message 4. Marriott’s new Fairfield (wàn fēng) brand offers budget-conscious travelers all the benefits of a proven global brand. Excellence in customer service goes hand and hand with simplicity and comfort. Relax and enjoy your stay, we will handle the rest.
The dissemination of branded content in China will require creative use of social media platforms (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). Marriott International must engage Millennials with KOL in short videos that simultaneously promote Chinese patriotism and its new Fairfield (wàn fēng) hotel brand. The patriotism portion of the message is very important for China’s young adults who take pride in the country’s rich history and legacy of modern achievements. Marriott will enlist Papi Jiang, (酱), China’s most popular social media celebrity, to mix the country’s heritage with its modern accomplishments into her travels around the country while staying at Fairfield Hotels. Her short videos will appear on Sina Weibo and YouKu projecting pride, fun, and happiness. Each vlog will be approximately four minutes long to encourage stakeholder interaction and run for a period of one year.
In what Lamberton & Stephen (2016) refer to as the “digital transformation of marketing” the internet has introduced new opportunities for “interaction and experiences” in consumer behavior. The one factor that pulls the “fragmentary” nature of the Chinese internet together is the desire to be entertained while connected to people and brands (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016). The business to consumer relationship has become one of collaboration rather than that of the traditional transaction. The dialogue created in this e-commerce relationship has a strong tendency to persuade and influence prospective customers (Adamson & Dev, 2016). Marriott’s content marketing effort will “allow consumers to get involved in a brand’s universe, enjoy varied experiences around it and above all, feel an individualized and personal experience” (Soloaga & Guerrero, 2016).
The media habits of Chinese Millennials are quite different than that of older generations (Tanyel, Stuart, & Griffin, 2013). Marriott must move away from legacy marketing to social media communication to engages the young audience online (Garrahan, 2015). These efforts should include buzz marketing (Tanyel, et al., 2013). Currently, content that goes viral is the best value for advertising dollars (Agozzino, 2012). Marriott must embrace the buzz marketing technique and make it an intricate part of their internet campaign (Garrahan, 2015). These strategies are extremely effective among digital natives because “mobile devices are regarded as essential tools” in China (Tanyel, et al., 2013). A survey of Millennials demonstrated that information and entertainment in advertising created goodwill for the companies that provide the content (Tanyel, et al., 2013). It is clear that advertising of the future will require that prospective customers are informed and entertained before any substantial brand loyalty will be created (Garrahan, 2015).

Anticipated Outcomes
The obvious shift to digital platforms as the main pathway to target consumers will require Marriott to use the ELM on the internet. The growing consumption habits of this target population will become the lion’s share of future travel both domestically and abroad (Agozzino, 2012). Social media platforms enabling consumers to share experiences and opinions are an important persuasive element in changing buying decisions among Millennials. Studies will continue to suggest several elements which should be present in order to result in a positive consumer attitude change include: the credibility of the source of information, visual advertising, and involvement of credible members of the hotel loyalty program. Agonizzo (2012) elaborates on the use of quality content in social media to build better connections among existing stakeholders, as well as prospective clients.
As social media has become more prevalent in the lives of Chinese Millennials, eWOM has taken on a greater role in this demographic’s purchasing decisions (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). The speed at which consumer reviews, pictures, and posts circulate on the internet is unprecedented and there is no other age group that participates in this exercise more than the 97% of Chinese digital natives who own a smartphone (Yadin, 2012). The impact of social media on commerce in China is greater than any other country and its influence is growing. Marriott International will cultivate consumer to consumer conversations on WeChat that build positive brand awareness. More and more Chinese Millennials are turning to friends and acquaintances online for information about travel purchases. Members of a collectivist culture, such as China, are more influenced by preferences and needs of others. The opinions of others or group norms is emphasized. In this culture, associating a product with positive consensus is likely to lead to a favorable evaluation. In addition, the best marketing plans seek to engage with prospective customers through social media platforms and Marriott International will “make conversations actionable through co-creation and collaborative problem solving” (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). Marriott must become a major player in China’s highly advanced use of social media to interact with customers. Chinese social media users play multiple and “dynamic roles in the complex exchange of information” in online travel communities (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014). ELM research points to the potential of customers feeling a level of “vested interest” in a brand at this level of engagement (Kimmel & Kitchen, 2014).
The use of mobile devices to connect with social media platforms provides incredible opportunities for tracking consumer responses to advertising in real time (Yang & Kang, 2015). Data is now processed “with greater methodological and analytic capacities” (Lamberton & Stephen, 2016). New software technologies make it possible to gather intelligence on a level only imagined in the past (Yang & Kang, 2015). Social media usage creates a treasure trove of buyer information and Marriott will use this information to enhance customer service activities (Yang & Kang, 2015). The geo-social marketing software platform called Hyp3r can target segments of the Chinese population with highly customized interaction.

 

Unintended Consequences
This campaign will track stakeholder response through data mining software called Hyp3r. This data is used to encourage further engagement on digital platforms (Yang & Kang, 2015). There is growing public concern regarding the impact of data mining on consumer privacy. Chinese Millennials have a growing distrust of internet marketing. However, the same cannot be said about KOL reviews. When it comes to travel, studies show that Chinese Millennials have an urge to share, are comfortable sharing personal information online, and are a perfect target for data acquisition. In the future, Chinese Millennials may have concerns about moral and ethical internet advertising which will require Marriott to navigate between tremendous opportunities and questionable tactics (Tanyel, et al., 2013).

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It is clear that social media usage on mobile phones creates a treasure trove of buyer information (Yang & Kang, 2015). However, “social networking and mobile technologies present a disquieting phenomenon because of the pervasive nature of mobile technologies that significantly impact users’ privacy” (Yang & Kang, 2015). A delicate balance will need to be found between customer privacy and intelligence gathering because data mining has such far-reaching implications on society (Yang & Kang, 2015).
While data mining is critical to the success of communications planning, its collection could potentially damage the reputation of the Marriott brands involved in its collection (Yang & Kang, 2015). There is little doubt that social media systemic review is on the rise but consumer sentiments across the globe call for actions such as “access limitations, de-identification, secure storage and statistical privacy” to be an international e-commerce standard (Yang & Kang, 2015).
When asked about the implications of data mining, Marriott’s chief global marketing officer Karin Timpone said, “surveillance shouldn’t be looked at as a privacy concern, because the customers like when they are singled out by the company” (Golden & Caruso-Cabrera, 2016). The use of software that tracks consumer reaction to online content is at the core of this campaign. Data mining on social media, while prevalent, is increasingly seen to be infringing on the privacy rights of those that use technology for e-commerce (Yang & Kang, 2015). However, “Millennials will continue to expose their lives, ignoring potential negative implications and undermining the old privacy norms” (Yadin, 2012). Although there are concerns regarding consumer privacy, marketing on social media in combination with data mining is currently the most effective way for Marriott to build mutually beneficial relationships with tech-savvy Millennials.

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Conclusion
Marriott International is currently using 24-hour media rooms to develop and track branding efforts on digital platforms in East Asia. The strategy is based on the premise that, “social media enables the widespread viewing and sharing of consumers’ experiences and opinions of hotels and destinations” and “hotels can use these ambassadors online to increase the development of attitudes toward hotel consumers (Atwood & Morosan, 2015). It was Cialdini (2009) who stated, “the principle of social proof operates most powerfully when we are observing the behavior of people just like us”. Research has proven that dual-processing models of persuasion are effective in China and that “ELM represents the most appropriate theoretical framework for the context of hotel communications marketing” (Atwood & Morosan, 2015).

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The Growing Threat of Psychographic Profiling & Big Data

My research for the Master of Science in Communication at the Purdue has consisted mostly of communication strategies directed at Millennials. Whether it be Volkswagen, Marriott International or Paramount Pictures this demographic accounts for the bulk of social media marketing campaigns. It makes sense right? Young people make up the majority of social media users and organizations are carefully tracking their tech-savvy behavior through interactive content online.

Not only do multi-national corporations want to know our ages, they also want to know our psychological makeup. This kind of data can indicate everything from our favorite restaurants to our religious philosophies or lack thereof. Kind of a scary thought isn’t it? The bottom line is the better an organization knows and understands its customers, the easier it is to create messages that will successfully sell them products and services.

With that being said, I must respectfully disagree with digital metrics extraordinaire  Avinash Kaushik who stated as recently as 2014 that demographic and psychographic information is the least useful data available to online businesses. Yes, Competitive Intelligence Analysis (CIA) is a critical component of a winning digital marketing plan and Echosystem results matter, but if you ask me, demographic and psychographic data are the most valuable of all analytical metrics. We need look no further than the results of the 2016 US presidential election for evidence of the power wielded by psychoanalytic information.

It is hard to dispute the success of the communication strategy that won Donald Trump the election. Many Washington insiders believe the secret of Trump’s successful presidential bid lies with a relatively unknown startup called Cambridge Analytica. This little “big data” company was hired by the Trump campaign to measure the psychographics of the American electorate. The rest is history. It might be a bit of an exaggeration, but Cambridge CEO Alexander Nix boasts ”we were able to form a model to predict the personality of every single adult in the United States of America” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017). Over the top? The company’s research is said to be based on the well-established psychological profiling theory behind the “Big Five” or “OCEAN” which stands for the personality traits of “openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017).

It has been a well-known fact among psychologists for quite some time that OCEAN data can determine an individual’s personality with a high amount of accuracy. While this information in and of itself has been of great use for decades, computer technology has revolutionized its collection and impact. The fact is, most of us are now part of a massive survey sampling on our smartphones that just keeps on giving.

Psychologist and Stanford professor, Michal Kosinski, who developed the original Facebook profiling technique, believes smartphones provide “a vast psychological questionnaire that we are constantly filling out, both consciously and unconsciously” (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017). Who can disagree? Basically, smartphone intel adds up to a marketing research nirvana that can basically predict everything from where we are located to our chosen political ideology. If that doesn’t freak you out a little bit, it should.

It’s exactly this kind of intelligence that won a glitzy real estate developer with zero political experience the most powerful office in the world. Kaushik is correct when he asserted that it is important to get a “head-to-head comparison of how you are doing vs. your competitor at a macro level on specific social channels” (Kaushik 2015). Yet knowing what Hillary Clinton’s communications team was up to on social media could not offer what “the OCEAN Model and Big data analysis” did for the GOP (Grassegger & Krogerus 2017).

Cambridge Analytica claims every Trump message in the 2016 campaign was driven by psychometrics data. The success of psychographic data and ad targeting on social media has forever changed America’s presidential elections. Cyber psychoanalytic intelligence gathering points to an Orwellian future. If you don’t believe me, you should look into the Chinese government’s mobile app for everything from ordering takeout to personal banking. Do you hear the “fire bell in the night” (Jefferson, 1820)? It’s probably time we all take a hard look at the ethics of big data and our privacy rights.

Sources

Kaushik, A. (2015). Crushing It With Competitive Intelligence Analysis: Best Metrics, Reports. Occam’s Razor.

 

Grassegger H. & Krogerus M. (2017) The Data That Turned The World Upside Down. Motherboard Retrieved at https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/mg9vvn/how-our-likes-helped-trump-win

My Social Media Footprint

My first experience with social media was a dating site for singles in 2009. I had seen commercials about the sites on TV and I wanted to try one since my divorce had just become official. Not long after, a lady I met online, set up a Facebook page for me. At the time I was absolutely clueless about completing such a task. Facebook was very different back then. There were still a limited amount of users on the site and people were more willing to accept friend requests from strangers. In fact, I was able to connect with some really amazing people including entertainers and other public figures. I even webcammed with some and got to know them pretty well. These opportunities would have been unthinkable before the advent of social media.

On the other hand, I’ve also encountered the dark side of Facebook which includes my very own psychotic stalker. This is an old “friend” from high school that is more concerned with what I have and what I am doing than in accomplishing something positive with his own life. His antics have included everything from making fake profiles with my pictures to trying to destroy my personal and professional relationships. Yes, it really has been that bad and no, I won’t be upset if and when he dies. This has been going on for 20 years and social media has made it more diabolical than ever before. I recently began to pray that God will remove this man from my life forever. He is cancer.

As many of you know, much has changed in the way of social platforms since 2009. Most public figures are completely inaccessible except for on fan pages or Twitter and a great deal of the excitement of using the sites has worn off. Nowadays, I only add people I know unless I can verify who they are through a mutual acquaintance. I must say though, I have made some really good friends on Facebook and even had a few from Australia visit my home here in South Carolina.

While some of the fun of using social media sites or SMS is gone, the utility of the sites remain. As Lipshultz aptly states the “proliferation of smartphones has driven interests in mobile devices and media” and I am no different. I still use social media to stay connected with friends and family but now I use it primarily to get news and entertainment. I really enjoy the articles from Men’s Health, and Inc. and will often take the time to read a few throughout the day. I also obtain my national and international news from reasonably credible sources on my newsfeed such as the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

My SMS usage consists mostly of Facebook. I actually spend too much time on it quite honestly. To make matters worse, I now have Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat accounts. I also use YouTube to listen to music or for educational purposes. For example, I recently referred to YouTube videos to help me learn the data analysis software called SPSS for a statistics class I just completed. I am reluctant to admit that I also created a personal YouTube channel where I posted a couple of extremely amateur sports podcasts. They’re awful, don’t bother listening.

In 2014, I began blogging for a small sports news and commentary site called The Couch Rider Report and began strategically placing links to the articles on Facebook and Twitter. Later, I moved on to bigger sites affiliated with FanSided where I covered the Los Angeles Rams and Baltimore Ravens. The idea was to build a small writing portfolio while gaining exposure through the electronic “word of mouth” or EWOM. Sometimes I would get as many as 25,000 clicks! The sites don’t pay, so I am no longer as interested in blogging for others as I had been. I do, however, have my football and racing articles posted on my SMS accounts in hopes of getting a paid writing position. I have learned a great deal about utilizing social media through my Master’s program at Purdue University and have a newfound respect for promoting my own “brand” on these platforms.

When it comes to branding on SMS, I recommend that communications practitioners employ marketing strategies that rely heavily on data mining or “big data collection” as it is referred to by Lipschultz. The best place for organizations to collect intel on me is Facebook because that is where I am most willing to open articles and patiently view ads. It came as no surprise to me that “The news saw the most social traction” in the Lehr study with 28,000 shares per month with entertainment being “the second highest performing vertical” with 17,000 shares. These are the categories that the majority of people are looking for in all forms of media for gratification.

As far as marketing on SMS is concerned, everyone hates the dreaded popup ad. I think the best advertisements include clever comedy skits in short videos because they are effective with a wide audience. Who doesn’t like to laugh? Currently, the most impressive branded content on social media is being delivered through storytelling. I am actually really looking forward to the new SMS platforms that will offer a virtual reality experience. At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what I think because Millennials are the new baby boomer generation and they rule the digital world of social media.

Sources

Lehr, A. (2015). New data: What types of content perform best on social media? Hubspot Blogs.

Do the Barcelona Principles Measure up?

The world is experiencing a “digital transformation of marketing” and the largest contribution the Barcelona Principles can offer in the current business environment is on social media

The Barcelona Principles were updated in 2015 by the International Association of Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC). The 2.0 updates are as follows:

  • Goal Setting and Measurement are Fundamental to Communication and Public Relations.
  • Measuring Communication Outcomes is Recommended Versus Only Measuring Outputs.
  • The Effect on Organizational Performance Can and Should Be Measured Where Possible.
  • Measurement and Evaluation Require Both Qualitative and Quantitative Methods.
  • AVEs are Not the Value of Communication.
  • Social Media Can and Should be Measured Consistently with Other Media Channels.
  • Measurement and Evaluation Should be Transparent, Consistent, and Valid (Leggetter, B. 2015).

It turns out The Barcelona Principles are more of a vague set of guidelines than a solid foundation on which to build a strategic communication plan. Principle 1 states, “Goal setting and measurement are fundamental to communication and public relations” (Leggetter, 2015). It is hard to disagree with the importance of goal setting and measurement in the pursuit of objectives. Yet, the utilization of metrics is not as well established amongst public relations practitioners as you might think. In a recent PR Weekly survey, the CEO of Paine Publishing, Katie Paine, stated, “a lot of PR people are not exposed to measuring …unless they actively seek it out” (Arenstein, 2016). This is unacceptable and a clearly defined set of principles can help raise the bar on what should be standard operating procedure throughout the industry.

Project managers in public relations and marketing need established benchmarks upon which to measure progress. Timelines and budgets are critical components of a credible campaign and they must include a sound cost-benefits analysis. As the authors of The Global Public Relations Handbook, aptly stated: “practitioners need to quantify public relations results for bottom-line scripted executives who are accustomed to marginal analysis” (Sriramesh & Vercic, 2009). When an organization spends finite financial resources to promote a message or brand, expenditure of those funds must be justified. The difficulty of this challenge is echoed repeatedly throughout the business world.

I learned the difficult truths about return on investment (ROI) and key performance indicators (KPI) in my early twenties as a young entrepreneur. I’ve always had a passion for branding but that passion caused me to naively overspend on creative, but costly advertisements that were ineffective. What I needed to succeed as a general contractor in a small town atmosphere, was a credible and well-established reputation– something flashy, expensive advertisements cannot provide. My lack of an adequate market analysis had provided a painful, but important lesson. “Credibility and relevance of the medium to the stakeholder or audience” is critical to successful ROI in public relations! As it turned out, word of mouth was the most powerful marketing tool I could ever have used and is even more so in the world of social media.

Whether your organization is a nonprofit or commercial enterprise, large or small in size, success comes from building mutually beneficial relationships and positive electronic word of mouth (eWOM). There is no better place to build mutually beneficial relationships through symmetrical dialogue than social media. The world is currently experiencing a “digital transformation of marketing” and the largest contribution the Barcelona Principles can offer in the current business environment is on social media (Lamberton & Stephen, 2016).  Digital platforms are rapidly becoming the most influential media outlet available. Not only are these platforms cost-efficient methods of advertising as far as ROI, they are also the most promising area for the application of the data mining because of their built-in measurability.

The internet provides a treasure trove of information where computer software can gather both qualitative and quantitative data for public relations and marketing activities (Yang & Kang, 2015). The global surge in internet and smartphone use will “push marketers to develop more complex social media measurement tools and techniques” (Lipschultz, 2015). Multi-national corporations such as Nestle are currently using 24-hour media rooms to create engaging online content and to track customer interaction in real time on social media sites (SMS), such as Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and SnapChat. The information is then used to “strategically segment and prioritize publics” (Sriramesh & Vercic, 2009). The bad news is that the PR industry is struggling to train competent practitioners on how to identify and measure key performance indicators. The good news is that “absolutely everything that happens in the digital sphere can be tracked, measured, and analyzed in all kinds of interesting ways” (Concannon, 2015).

The Barcelona Principles are a perfect fit for social media, but they are too broad in their present form. The designers did provide a document that has the industry talking about the importance of measurement. The problem is, it doesn’t provide a clear formula of how to effectively obtain those statistics, especially if they are to hold up under the framework’s demand for transparency and repetition. Journalist Lance Concannon summed it up best in his article entitled The one thing missing from the Barcelona Principles: Answers, “You would think, this update might include some helpful guidance on which digital tools and online metrics can be used to add more data-science thinking to PR measurement, but alas no”.  It doesn’t take a communications expert to determine The Barcelona Principles in their present form are more common sense than anything else.

These guidelines are a basic set of blueprints that lack a clear endorsement of the software and methods needed to accurately measure communication strategies. Computer technology and digital media are rapidly providing answers, but the industry needs to do a better job producing qualified experts. As I mentioned previously, social media is currently the most effective platform for PR campaigns in the 21st century. Not only is digital the most cost-effective method to reach target audiences, it is also where the most accurate output and outcome data can be gathered. Leggetter (2015) noted under Principle 7, “All measurement should use valid methods and be reliable and replicable in the case of quantitative methods and trustworthy in the case of qualitative methods”. I believe the Barcelona Principles’ demand for precise measurements is only obtainable with definitive data mining software, clearly defined statistical procedures and most importantly competent practitioners.

References

Leggetter, B. (2015). Barcelona Principles 2.0. PR News. Retrieved from the PR News Online website:  http://www.prnewsonline.com/barcelona-principles-2-0/

Concannon, L. (2015). The one thing missing from the Barcelona Principles: answers. Retrieved from the PR Week website: http://www.prweek.com/article/1364956/one-thing-missing-barcelona-principles-answers#iyIjHEzGbLT6HxmG.01

Lamberton, C., & Stephen, A. T. (2016). A Thematic Exploration of Digital, Social Media, and Mobile Marketing: Research Evolution from 2000 to 2015 and an Agenda for Future Inquiry. Journal Of Marketing80(6), 146-172.

Arenstein, S. (2016). PR News Measurement Survey: Awareness of Barcelona Principles Trending Upward Slowly. Retrieved from the PR News Online website: http://www.prnewsonline.com/pr-news-measurement-survey-awareness-barcelona-principles-trending-upward-slowly/

Lipschultz, J. (2015).  Social media communication concepts, practices, data, law and ethics.  New York, NY: Routledge.

Yang, K. C., & Kang, Y. (2015). Exploring Big Data and Privacy in Strategic Communication Campaigns: A Cross-Cultural Study of Mobile Social Media Users’ Daily Experiences. International Journal of Strategic Communication9(2), 87-101.

Sriramesh, K., & Vercic, D. (2009). The global public relations handbook. New York, NY: Routledge.

 

M Live: Marriott’s 24-Hour War Room

My favorite brand is Marriott International. I grew up in the Washington DC area where the family business had its humble beginnings as an A&W root beer stand in 1927. I first learned about the hotel chain in the 1970s from my parents while my father was working to refurbish Marriott’s original property built in 1957 in Arlington, VA. Recently, the company has undergone a massive expansion by purchasing competitors and creating new brands for niche markets. In the process, Marriott has grown to become the world’s largest hotel conglomerate with 5,700 properties and 30 brands in 110 countries around the world.
I had the honor and privilege of meeting the company’s CEO J.W. Marriott in the early 1980s. Since then, I have enthusiastically followed the hotel chains growth and I continue to go out of my way to stay in their properties whenever I travel. During the last 30 years, I have witnessed Marriott’s advertising and public relations campaigns shift from legacy marketing efforts, in print and television, to complex integrated strategies that include cutting edge campaigns “built upon the role of quality content in developing reputation and relationships” on social media platforms (Lipschultz, 2015). Through my research for this Masters program, I have discovered that Marriott’s award winning strategies are the envy of many multinational corporations and are second to none in the lodging and travel industry.
In 2014 Marriott launched its first 24-hour global media studio called M Live in Bethesda, MD to engage with stakeholders in real time. Since that initial launch, the company has opened four more command centers in Miami, London, Hong Kong and Dubai. The M Live mission is to create interactive content that “leverages pop culture and contains micro-nuggets of information, humor, commentary, or inspiration” (Lipschultz, 2015). Marriott’s branded content engages consumers on Instagram, YouTube, and SnapChat. The campaigns include, but are not limited to, short videos such as the “Two Bellmen” series that are extremely well produced, offering entertaining plotlines filmed in various Marriott hotels from LA to Dubai. The campaigns also use social media influencers like Taryn Southern in the series “Do Not Disturb” featuring celebrity guests in light hearted interviews to promote Marriott’s new economy brand Moxy Hotels. The videos are available on YouTube and various digital platforms on the internet. I have become a devoted follower and analyst of this social media campaign even though its specific target audience is the Millennial demographic.
Needless to say, I am extremely impressed with the in-depth understanding and professionalism displayed in the presentation of these communication efforts. The powerful electronic word of mouth endorsements seen amongst online travel communities has only served to solidify my brand loyalty and increase my desire to travel. It is clear that Marriott practitioners understand “the important role that consumer reviews (on social media) play in the process” (Lipschultz, 2015). One of the things that impressed me most is that while many companies have ignored or even pulled away from SnapChat, Marriott had the vision to invest in a strong presence in the platform that now has 100 million users daily and is the most popular social media outlet amongst young travelers. This goes against the conventional wisdom of the 85% of the marketers in Stelzner’s report that stated they have “no plans to use SnapChat” (Stelzner, 2014). Marriott’s SnapChat campaign includes a series of three-minute videos showing young social media influencers traveling to various locations and casually sharing their adventures while staying at Marriott Hotels. The Millennial vloggers are powerful brand ambassadors among a market segment prone to research and make purchasing decisions based on the experiences shared by their peers online.
At the pinnacle of Marriott’s social media marketing strategy is the Marriott Rewards program. Marriott Rewards offers an extraordinary, unparalleled travel experience while simultaneously creating positive user content. As Lipschultz states, online customer relationship management (CRM) “can take advantage of communication tools by literally reaching out to nearby customers with new offers” (Lipschultz, 2015). Marriott is able to provide individualized service such as champagne for newlyweds in real time through geo-fencing software partnership with Hyp3r. The Rewards mobile app for phones just keeps giving as customer’s positive online comments are compensated with perks created to develop brand loyalty. The app offers everything from the keyless entry for the tech savvy consumer to points for participants that include free nights, and reduced pricing on exciting travel adventures. Marriott’s points program “rewards brand loyalty through a special program that has linkage to their social media marketing program” (Lipschultz, 2015).  Marriott’s campaign does just that and they presently do it better than any of their competitors.
My recommendation for the company to improve their social media presence is to continue to “approach social media as a viable business intelligence platform”(Lipschultz, 2015). Marriott International has the financial resources to experiment with what works and what doesn’t and adjust their campaigns accordingly. It is through the metrics of data mining software such as HootSuite, Narativ, and Hyp3r that social media can offer key “insights into consumer opinions and shared experiences” (Lipschultz, 2015). In this manner, the world’s largest provider of hospitality services can gain their greatest return on investment and convert the maximum number of tweets, likes, and shares into sustainable profits.

References

Lipschultz, J. H. (2015). Social Media Communication: Concepts, Practices, Data, Law and Ethics. New York, NY: Routledge.
Stelzner, M.A. (2014). 2014 Social media marketing industry report. Retrieved from the Social Media Examiner website: https://www.socialmediaexaminer.com/SocialMediaMarketingIndustryReport2014.pdf

L.A. Rams: 5 Keys to Winning the NFC West

The L.A. Rams’ future looks as bright as a summer day on the Sunset Strip. Owner Stan Kroenke has added one of football’s hottest rookie quarterbacks to a backfield that already boasts the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

A stout defense and a punishing running game are perfect conditions to start a rookie quarterback. This year Los Angeles has all three. Rookie QB Jared Goff can start the season as a game manager but he will need his arm to put this team in the playoffs.

With good luck and a lot of hard work, the franchise can win the NFC West in a triumphant return to Los Angeles.

The Rams face uncertainty under center. Jeff Fisher can turn to Case Keenum if things begin to fall apart. Keenum played admirably last year and led the Rams to their first victory in Seattle since 2004. But the team needs to see what they have in Jared Goff.

General manager Les Snead shelled out two first-round picks, two second-rounders, and a third-round pick to the Titans to procure 6’4 215 lb Goff out of the University of California. If the rookie does start,  it is not unreasonable to believe that he can turn the team around in his first year.

One need look no further than Joe Flacco for evidence. In 2008, Flacco started all 16 regular season games in his first season and took a team that went 5-11 in the previous year to 11-5 and the AFC Championship.

Goff does not need to be Peyton Manning, but he needs to protect the football and make some plays. Luckily he will have Todd Gurley to help him make a successful transition to the pros.

Todd Gurley makes winning a division title this year possible. Like Goff, some questioned the Rams’ rationale in drafting the tailback tenth overall in 2015. In truth, the pick was a grand slam home run. Gurley rushed for 1,106 yards, averaging 4.8 yds per carry, even though he missed the first three games of the season.

With ten touchdowns and only one fumble, the former Bulldog became an overnight sensation. He has had over a year to train and condition in the Rams system and if the second year veteran stays healthy, Los Angeles can expect an even greater contribution from their star running back; 1,500 yards rushing for Todd in 2016 isn’t an unrealistic projection.

His mere presence in the backfield improves the play of the offensive line; taking pressure off the rookie quarterback and opening up the passing game. If Goff can protect the football and work in sync with a healthy Gurley, the Rams will go far this season.

In 2015, the running game was the only bright spot on an offense that ranked last in the league. The Rams have a tough schedule, but if the team can make moderate progress on offense, the franchise could go 11-5 versus last year’s 7 -9.

Wide receiver Tavon Austin makes plays all over the field and is ready for a break out season. Los Angeles does lack a speedy deep threat, but the front office selected two tight ends and two wide receivers in an attempt to bolster the passing attack.

The team got steals in both  Tyler Higbee, out of Western Kentucky, and University of South Carolina standout Pharoh Cooper. Higbee is one of the best pass-catching TE’s to come out of this year’s draft.

He had a solid career at WKU where he racked up 14 touchdowns on 68 catches for 1,054 yards. Cooper was South Carolinas’ MVP and scored eight touchdowns on 66 catches for 973 yards while playing with three mediocre quarterbacks.

He is a play maker, and should not be underestimated.  It will be critical for Goff and his fellow rookies to build chemistry with Gurley, Austin, and the offensive line. If these players can gel with the veterans, they can do enough to win close games.

The Rams have gambled with a reload on defense this year, but defense is what Coach Fisher does best.  The departure of DE Chris Long and LB James Laurinaitis was a surprise, but both Long and Laurinaitis’s production was down.

In a move to add speed and youth, both players have been replaced by what looks to be upgrades in DE, William Hayes and OLB Alec Ogletree. Ogletree will move inside as the Rams’ new signal caller.

The losses of CB Jenoris Jenkins and S Rodney McLeod are a concern but their replacements will play behind one of the leagues’ best defensive lines led by Aaron Donald, who finished second last year to J.J. Watt for Defensive Player of the Year.

Look for defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to have CB E.J. Gaines and LaMarcus Joyner, well prepared to make the transition to starters. The Rams’ defense will continue to be the strength of the team in 2016.

Good defense and special teams cover a multitude of sins on offense and this year will be no different. While punter Johnny Hekker had another pro bowl season the Rams lost five critical games because of breakdowns on special teams.

The unit suffered from penalties that negated big plays from Tavon Austin on punt returns but the inaccuracy of kicker Greg Zuerlein was the most costly. Zuerlein has a strong leg and did well on kickoffs but lacked accuracy missing 10 out of 30 field goal attempts.

As a result, the four-year veteran had the worst average in the NFL. While Zuerlein has re-signed this off-season. The team brought in rookie free agent Taylor Bertolet out of Texas A&M to compete for the position.

In a schedule filled with staunch competition, there will be little room for error. Los Angeles must avoid mental mistakes and capitalize on every opportunity to score points if they are to win their division.

Before saying it is an impossible feat for this roster to win one of the leagues strongest divisions, remember the Rams went 4-2 last year against its NFC West opponents sweeping the Seahawks and splitting wins with Arizona Cardinals while starting two different quarterbacks.

However, the team’s schedule is ranked the third most difficult in the NFL in 2016. Los Angeles will need to play their very best football on offense, defense and special teams.

Success in these areas is key to Goff leading his new team to victory. Coach Fisher and company will need good luck to win the division title but as the saying goes, “Good luck is the result of hard work and preparation.”

Embrace the Pain and Live for the Fight

As I enter my 3rd year of sobriety, I cannot help but feel a great deal of gratitude. I lived through my addictions and have had the good fortune to land on my feet.

I have been given a gift. Because of this, I have come to the realization that I want to help others who suffer from similar circumstances. There are wonderful people, both children, and adults, that are destroying themselves. Many, if not all, suffer quietly with mental and emotional disorders. They spend a great deal of their time and resources trying to escape their demons by self-medicating. As a result, their lives become a tangled mass of wreckage.

The good news is that recovery is possible. Just over two years ago I was near death and the old adage of being “sick and tired of being sick and tired” hit me hard. In response, I had the overwhelming desire to break habits I developed as a 15-year-old boy. The party lifestyle and all its ugly consequences became my number one enemy. I suddenly realized that for years I had surrounded myself with people that I only thought were my friends.

As the fog lifted and I could once again think clearly, it became apparent that they were more enemies than anything else. Furthermore, along the path of self-destruction, I had lost the trust of the people that truly loved me. At the end of our lives, these people become the only things that matter. When I was finally done getting high, it was the love of real friends and my family’s trust that I set out to earn back.

The path to sanity is different for everyone but for me, success involved daily prayer. I had always prayed, even when I was not living my life right and despite my poor choices, the Lord responded and protected me.

The way I understand it, addicts that are in recovery need a “Higher Power.” Mine is the gospel of Jesus Christ. I was so addicted to cocaine that the only shot I had at happiness was by turning to Him. When I did, I was able to slowly lick my wounds and heal. For a long time, it appeared as though no progress was being made. It is now clear that I was making headway with every passing hour. I recall driving home from church one day and suddenly having the overwhelming desire to get drunk and score some rock.  I prayed for strength that day in the car and as I did, I was inspired to remember the pain and agony that comes at the end of a binge. The thought of the consequences made me shudder.

In the past, getting high felt like a soothing balm. That is the incredible lie that addicts believe and it causes us to return time and time again to a path that leads to despair.

Thankfully, the overwhelming urge to relapse passed. As I made my way home, I felt a message in my heart and mind say, “Each time you overcome these temptations and make good choices you will become more powerful.” That gave me great hope and still does to this day. I see it happening as my life and health steadily improve.

Because I cleaned up I was able to complete a Bachelor’s degree that I had started long ago. More importantly, I was able to mend relationships that I had nearly destroyed. I haven’t attended Alcoholics Anonymous or its equivalent called Narcotics Anonymous but I don’t knock these programs whatsoever. They have done tremendous good in the lives of many people. I have read some of their literature and the parts about God ring true to me.

As I struggled to stay sober, I learned about the healing brain and PAWS (Post-Acute Withdrawal). This is a whole new battle of overcoming depression, bad memories, and sickness that seems to come out of nowhere. The feelings of discouragement are brutal. These symptoms come long after the pain of physical withdrawal is over. It is during these times that those in recovery are at the greatest danger of relapsing. You have no other choice but to ride out the storm like a ship on the high seas, being tossed to and fro in the midst of a hurricane.

My symptoms associated with PAWS started about six months after I was clean and sober and may continue for years. I have them constantly. You can and will get through them though if you reach deep down inside and tap into the reservoirs of strength that exist in your soul. I must mention that a doctor’s care is necessary. I recommend a good therapist as well. We, as addicts, tend to carry many years of trauma and emotional pain and it is imperative to clean all that up if we are to return to anything close to normalcy.

I understand that religion isn’t in vogue these days but I read the Bible and pray daily. This is critical to my ability to withstand the promptings to return to cocaine. These are what I like to call “the moments of truth.” This is when I have to decide. What do I really want in life? Do I want love or people that use me? Do I really want a shot at happiness and am I willing to pass through “the seasons of suffering” to get it?

Have you ever noticed that anything really special in life comes with hard work? Sobriety has not been easy but it has been well worth it. My advice is to embrace the pain and live for the fight.

As for now. I am trying to figure out the best way to help as many people as I can to find the plan of happiness. But if this testimony and message only helps one person, then it has been well worth writing. I have realized through all of this that faith, gratitude, patience and hard work are the tools that can be used by anyone trying to make positive changes in their life. These key elements apply especially well to any addiction, whether it be food, porn, or as in my case cocaine.

I started out as a young person trying to relieve discouragement and anxiety. Little did I realize that the choice would eventually lead to a journey into hell. I feel strongly at this point that the best thing to do with this experience is to use it to help others and try to make the world a better place. Two thoughts that are never found in the depths of addiction.