Dating vs Online Advertising: Swipe Left or Right?

Recently I spent the weekend with a newly-single friend who, after 17 years of marriage, finds himself once again ‘on the market’.  Having not dated since the last century, he’s getting a crash course in how much being single has changed, due to technology.

If you’ve been ‘off the market’ for a decade or more, you may not realize what a different, tech-inflected experience dating has become.  Apps like Match, Bumble or Tinder have made it much easier to specify and connect with the type of person you’re looking for, saving you countless hours in bars.

Technology has also brought huge changes to online advertising in the past decade.  But other than Facebook or Google shareholders, I’m not sure many would say unequivocally that online advertising has changed for the better.  If you’re an advertiser trying to get just the right person interested in you, I’ll just say you have my sympathies.

So technology has made dating more efficient, but has it made advertising worse?  

What if dating was just as bad as online advertising?  Here’s what looking for love might look like:

 

  1. You find yourself sitting next to the Klan.

 

In the physical as well as digital world, you’ll be judged partly by whoever’s sitting next to you.  If you’re after a mainstream audience as most advertisers—and many daters—are, you want to avoid being associated with extremist or offensive content.

However, it’s become increasingly clear that advertisers’ brands and messages can appear in all sorts of places they didn’t intend.  Ad networks place banners on tens of thousands of obscure sites, many of which would generally be considered unsavory.  In the spring of 2017, major advertisers pulled their ads from YouTube because those ads ran alongside hate-filled terrorist videos.

  1. Someone other than your expected date shows up.

Historically, information on audiences reached by advertisers was never very good (e.g. your 30-second spot during Modern Family reached 6 million households, but you had no idea which households.)  Starting in the early 2000’s, what drew billions of ad dollars online was the promise that digital ads came with rich, detailed data on viewers captured from everyone’s digital trail of web use.  But as a steady stream of research has shown, display ads often contain wrong information about who’s viewed them, which can be worse than no information. Multiple people using the same computer, your kids playing with your phone, your gift purchases for others, misleading clickbait, etc…all create data dissonance and often produce faulty, and sometimes embarrassing, ad targeting fails.

  1. Your date actually ‘swiped left’.

On dating apps, swiping right on someone’s photo/profile sends a signal that you’re interested in them.  If you both swipe right on each other, that indicates mutual interest, and one of you typically reaches out.  One of dating apps’ key benefits is that they tell you who’s interested in you before you’ve ever met in person.

Online advertising supposedly has data to indicate who’s interested in your product, service or organization, but very often that data is wrong.  Ad industry publications like AdWeek and Digiday feature stories nearly every  week about the murkiness and inaccuracy of data on the number of ads viewed, the number of clicks, etc.  Since sites and networks running ads often get paid each time an ad is clicked, there’s a massive financial incentive to use ‘bots’ to automatically click on ads without a human ever having seen them–collectively known as ad fraud. Imagine if your date got financially rewarded on the number of dates (s)he attends? Oh wait…that’s called something else.

  1. Those awkward silences are 10x longer.

Imagine if I every time you spoke it would take 15 seconds or longer for your date to hear you.

Online advertising has come a long way from the early 2000’s pay-per-click Google AdWords and static display banners.  Today, if you use the web for 3 minutes you’ll see ads with animation, video, and sound.  Despite studies showing that users find them annoying, advertisers are making more use of video ads which automatically begin playing when they detect you’ve scrolled past them.

The trouble is, more people are viewing content and ads on their phones–and auto-playing ads on phones don’t load quickly enough.  So viewers typically scroll right past while the ad loads (if you’re like me, you scroll past ads as quickly as possible.)  Which means that advertisers’ messages–what they’re trying to tell you–get lost in the delayed load-time.  Which means advertisers are paying for a still-loading ad container that mobile users breeze right past–money not well-spent. In addition, many sites are running multiple ad networks which often delays or freezes browsing. Again, bad user experience; wasted ad dollars.

  1. You learn 100 trivial things about someone without learning anything truly important.

Online advertisers receive reams of inferential data about someone due to browser cookies – obscure sites visited, locations frequented–dozens or hundreds of columns on a spreadsheet about someone.  But try finding out what really makes them tick – their goals, aspirations, fears, what they know and want to learn – and you’re likely never to get deeper than superficial demographic data.  Nothing upon which you can base a truly meaningful and mutually advantageous relationship.

So what now? Should I just get a cat?

No, advertisers are not destined to be perennial wallflowers. You can actually build profitable relationships with potential clients and customers without annoying them, spamming them, or flat out ruining their user experience and impression of your brand.

There are ways to engage audiences in immersive ways that actually enhance the user experience and their impression of your brand, content, products, and services. Brands—large and small—are moving beyond or enhancing their traditional online and native advertising with more interactive tools like learning assessments. These tools provide deeper engagement and produce valuable additional data to deepen advertisers’ knowledge and understanding of their audience and prospective customers—rich, first-person data that better informs your future communications with that person.

Sounds like a good date and the beginning of a beautiful relationship.
For more on deepening audience engagement, visit Credspark.com

Marketing Is Training Turned Outward

My extended family includes a few psychologists, from whom I’ve picked up a few nuggets on the human condition.  One of them goes like this:  “Depression is anger turned inward.”

OK, not the most uplifting way to start a blog post, but stay with me a second.

What’s interesting is the idea that two different emotions may really just be two sides of the same coin.  We experience them differently mainly because of their direction of travel (i.e. outward-directed toward other people vs. inward-directed toward yourself.)  Could that same relationship exist between Marketing and Training, two seemingly-different functions?

Marketers and Trainers:  Separated at Birth

Having violated one Blog Rule – Don’t Be a Downer – I’d like to now violate another Blog Rule – Don’t Write Absurd Things.

Here goes:  Marketers and Corporate Trainers are twins separated at birth.

I can hear you thinking, “What???”  Their titles are wildly different.  They report to different C-level executives.  They work in different SaaS tools.  One group hits Content Marketing World in September and the other attends the Association for Training and Development’s annual conference in May.  And they collaborate with each other very rarely, if ever.

Yet Marketers and Trainers are attempting to do the same fundamental job:  Holding an audience’s interest while leading them toward understanding.  Which makes the two roles far more twinned than they may appear to be.

The Explainer Twins

Designers invent new things that Salespeople get customers to buy and Operators deliver them.  HR people recruit, hire and let go staff.  Accountants track and measure it all.

Then there are the Explaining functions:  Marketing and Training.  Each makes sure the right people understand the right things.  Marketers focus on explaining to external audiences – the significance of the brand, the value of the product or service, etc.  Trainers focus on explaining to internal audiences – bringing new skills and knowledge into the organization, ensuring the right employees know the right things.  If both Marketers and Trainers are doing a terrific job, the organization is almost guaranteed to be formidable.

Yet, being twins, Marketers and Trainers tend to share an inherited defect:  They don’t spend enough time and effort Understanding Their Audiences.

Shared Need:  Know Your Audience

“Know Your Audience” is another nugget I love – drawn not from psychology, but from public speaking.  My stand-up comic friends would attest that it’s saved them multiple times.

Unfortunately, Marketers’ and Trainers’ efforts to understand their audiences – what people know, need to know, and care about – tend to be very limited.  Today’s Marketers tend to rely on digital observations–what did people click, like, share, etc.–which typically give limited insight on the potential buyer.  Trainers tend to rely on end-of-training assessments, performance reviews and workshop evaluations, which are episodic and not particularly detailed.

Instead, the Explainer Twins should get in the habit of frequently measuring what their audiences know and don’t know, in order to focus on what those audiences don’t yet understand.

Audiences: Know Them and Grow Them

You often hear digital businesses talk about Relationships with users, which could mean as little as having someone’s email address and/or credit card details.  But how great can a “relationship” be when it’s based on a browsing history and perhaps a few transactions?

What’s true in real life is also true in the digital world:  True relationships are built by knowing someone well.  Think of the best professional relationships you’ve had outside your place of employment, such as your clients, partners, and suppliers.  As you’ve gotten to know them, you’ve asked each other questions, and built trust.  In the process, it’s almost certain that the value of those relationships has grown, which in turn has grown your revenue and/or helped you be more efficient.

How To Know?

If you will, Marketers and Trainers both function “on a Need-To-Know basis.”  They both need to ask questions in order to succeed for themselves and their organization.  If only there were a single SaaS platform that allowed both Marketers and Trainers to ask questions simply…  

Oh, wait, there is.  Visit CredSpark to learn how other Marketers and Trainers are asking questions to foster growth

 

Your Audience Demands Relevance. Will You Deliver?

Many things in this world are scarce. Content is not among those things. As content distribution costs have gone to zero, content has flooded the world. Which makes it hard to find exactly the content you need.

Over-abundant content – User-generated, curated, “fake news”, etc. – has simply created a new problem: The problem of Relevance. In order to find the Relevant, we have to slog through acres of the soggy, muddy Irrelevant.

The big platforms are all about delivering Relevance. Google delivers relevant search results, Facebook and LinkedIn deliver relevant updates from people you know, Amazon delivers relevant products, Netflix delivers relevant entertainment. Each firm’s multi-billion dollar spend on algorithms is, at the end of the day, all an attempt to deliver relevance.

Don’t have billions to spend on algorithms? Ask questions.

Media companies and marketers who DON’T have billions to spend on relevance algorithms don’t have to roll over and die, however. They can do something very old-fashioned: They can ask questions.

It’s stunning how few content companies ask questions. When they do, 98% of the time it’s just surveys, which typically take far more effort than they give back in reward (vs. quizzes, which engage your brain by challenging your understanding of the world or yourself). Content and media businesses think of themselves as information producers. But there’s already too much information being produced. What people need content and media businesses to deliver in 2017 is fine-grained Relevance.

Media companies can create an “experience” that delivers relevance.

Media companies are poised to deliver Relevance the way local restaurants can deliver a terrific dining experience. You don’t need scale. You just need to be attentive, which means understanding your audience, which requires asking questions. If the current hegemony of the Relevance behemoths (Google, etc.) seems unstoppable, keep in mind that McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food chains used to be much more dominant than they are today. Huge tends not to stay huge forever.

Let’s distinguish ‘Asking Questions’ from ‘Making Inferences.’ My 10-year-old struggles with making inferences, and so do online advertisers. When I visit the website of a company whose product I’ve already purchased, I suddenly see their ads everywhere. (Where is Google’s ‘I ALREADY BOUGHT ONE’ button?)

Inferences may be out of date, or they may just be silly. Or mildly offensive, as in cookie-driven ad networks’ assumption that due to my 45+ age I need specific products related to sexual performance.

Why Infer, when you can simply Ask?

There is inherent power in simply asking questions.

It’s so inexpensive to ask your audience questions and to remember the answers, and knowing your audience is the Most Important Thing. It requires no Big Data, no Artificial Intelligence. It simply requires an interactive content platform attached to your customer database or CRM, and then some people to write those questions.

When you ask your audience questions, 3 things happen:

  1. People appreciate your interest (if it seems focused on meeting that person’s needs better) because people like being asked about themselves.
  2. You get to know your audience better.
  3. You deepen your audience relationship (which is your ‘moat’, as NYU’s marketing genius Scott Galloway has pointed out.)

Just ask questions. Lots of people will interested in the answers you gather, including:

  • Other audience members (we like to know what our peers know/think)
  • Advertisers/sponsors (who can market/sell to your audience better when they know more about them)
  • Employers (who can hire better when they know more)

Also, when people answer your questions, GIVE THEM STUFF. There’s a world of Controlled Circulation media predicated on this quid-pro-quo: You tell us lots of info about yourself, Dear Reader, and we’ll give you this free, info-packed content. That business model has been challenged in recent years, but the core idea of ‘get to know an audience really well, and sell that knowledge’ hasn’t really changed.

Question: Have you started asking your audience questions yet?

It’s Graduation Time for Assessment Tools

In school, you always knew where you stood.  But in the workforce, it’s a lot less clear.

As a student, your knowledge was checked on tests and quizzes multiple times per month, perhaps even a few times per week.  You probably didn’t love being tested; but along with grades, all those assessments provided you with information:  What you knew, what you didn’t know, and what you needed to work on.

Assessments serve a critical function

Tests which give you information are known as formative assessments.  Literally, they are intended to help you form an understanding of your own knowledge and to guide your learning process.  For example, those end-of-chapter quizzes may count for just a few points in your overall grade, but their real value is in exposing your current knowledge gaps, allowing you to focus your future efforts on the areas where you need the most improvement–ultimately helping you make significant gains on a final exam.

Learning is lifelong.  Why isn’t learning measurement?

Education Week recently reported that US schools will spend over $1.6 billion in 2017 on digital formative assessment tools.  Platforms which help teachers deliver short tests and quizzes to help measure student learning is a booming business.  But this raises a larger question:  Why do we stop measuring learning after people graduate?

There are many possible answers.  Perhaps it’s our historical legacy of the false dichotomy between the ‘Learning’ and ‘Earning’ phases of our lives.  Maybe businesses don’t see the ROI in measuring learning, or perhaps they’re worried about rubbing employees the wrong way.

But frankly, none of those answers is any good.  As the Knowledge Economy has claimed an ever-larger share of the workforce over the past 40 years, it’s now generally accepted that we can’t stop learning after our formal education is complete.  So it makes sense that if we expect to learn in our jobs, we should be given the same ongoing learning guidance that was readily available to us as students, i.e. formative assessment tools.

Employers need to wake up and assess the learning

At CredSpark we’re encouraged to see the early stirrings of wakefulness to a new, measurement-informed approach to workforce learning.  But employers need to be fully awake, quickly, to ensure they’re ready for when formative assessments finally graduate and make the move from the classroom to the working world.

Want to know more about the measurement of informal learning?  Sign up for CLO Magazine’s webinar on this, taking place June 14th at 1pm Eastern.

 

Media lost on Breadth. They can still win on Depth, if they act like teachers.

Part I:  Media’s Crisis and The Way Forward

Media firms face a true existential crisis:  What is their purpose?  Why do they exist?

For about 150 years, Media businesses were the only way to get messages, both non-commercial (news) and commercial (ads), in front of large groups of specific people.  Media firms’ purpose centered upon the breadth of their reach to their audiences.

Today, the breadth contest is over:  Google and Facebook have won.  Together, these twin giants of tech and distributed content reach billions of people each day.  (By comparison, the largest legacy media firms command daily audiences in the mere tens of millions.)

Because they’ve won the battle for breadth, Facebook and Google have also won the battle for revenue growth.  Print advertising is being eaten by digital advertising.   While spending on digital advertising continues to climb, an oft-cited statistic is that Facebook and Google are capturing 90% of that spending growth, leaving media firms to fight over the table scraps.

In order to adapt, media firms have spent the last few years re-organizing, downsizing, or – in direst circumstances – selling themselves.  But in general, very few media firms have made a strategically sound bet:  Pursuing greater depth in their audience relationships.

By depth, I mean knowing someone very well – who they are, what they know, what they don’t know, what they need, and what they care about.  Knowing a person in depth is typically achieved only by a privileged few:  Family members, close friends, and teachers.

Think for a moment about how well teachers know us, and why:  They spend significant time interacting with us.  They gain our trust because we know they are there to help us.  And, of course, teachers ask us lots of questions.  In the process, they come to understand our strengths, our concerns, and our opportunities to grow and improve.

After we leave school, we continue to learn as we pursue our careers, and in the process we acquire new teachers:  Managers, colleagues, and leaders of the occasional class or training session we may attend.  But we have other post-graduation ‘teachers’ that are largely unacknowledged and under-appreciated:  The people who author and distribute information and guidance related to our jobs, our careers, our world, and our personal lives.  They’ve been around for about 150 years, and they’re called the Media.

With polls showing that mistrust of the media is higher than ever, weekly attacks from politicians, and cries of “fake news” filling the air, it’s easy to forget that the Media’s original purpose was to inform, guide and help us.  In other words, to teach us, after we’ve left formal schooling behind.

Trust in Media has eroded for many reasons, and rebuilding it will take sustained effort on many fronts.  But I’d argue that the way forward for Media firms must involve taking an active role as teachers of their audience members.  In doing so, Media firms can notch a double win:  They’ll regain audience trust by showing their concern.  At the same time, they’ll develop new business models based not upon showing ads, but rather upon asking their audience important questions, remembering the answers, and providing personalized, individualized guidance.

For help in measuring your audience, check out CredSpark.

5 Signs That Your Brand Is A Terrible Teacher

Back in school, we spent our days listening to teachers. Now—consciously or not—we spend our days listening to brands. Is your brand just like that boring, ineffective teacher you used to have (and couldn’t stand)? Here are 5 warning signs.

  1. Your Brand Lectures Endlessly.

When Hollywood shows a terrible teacher, they typically show him or her droning on and on while students zone out. (“Anyone? Anyone?”)  Everyone who’s made it past first grade knows first-hand that standing in front of students talking at them, day in and day out, bores them immensely.

That is what many brands do: they talk at people, with little regard for who’s interested, or why. They lecture the audience on features, benefits, or solutions.  It’s true that occasional lectures can help get the basic facts and explanations out there (case studies, concrete examples of how their product helped someone, are a better type of lecture). But like good teachers, brands need more than lectures in their toolkit. Brian Marcus, VP of Marketing at Evocalize, finds that when brands actively encourage their audience to participate and share stories, the resulting engagement levels can resemble those of the best small-group classes you took in school.

  1. Your Brand Tracks Attendance—and Little Else.

Imagine a classroom where the only thing the teacher paid attention to was attendance and participation. Did the student show up? Did he raise his hand? Great, give him an A!  While attendance is critical, and regular participation is encouraging, those are only starting points—true progress is measured in deeper ways.

Now think about what your brand tracks. Despite all the hype about Big Data, probably most of what you track is simply whether your audience showed up and participated. Did they show up at your website? Thanks to browser cookies, they’ll see your ads elsewhere for weeks to come (lucky them!) Did someone participate by Liking or Sharing your content? Your marketers are happy, but they haven’t learned much about her. So the question is: Amidst all this attendance and participation data you’re gathering, are you developing insights on your best customers? More from Brian:  “Data such as brand sentiment, brand influence, and customer interests should be overlaid on top of transactional data in order help a brand develop true insights about its beach-head customers.”

  1. Your Brand Doesn’t Answer Questions Clearly—If It Answers Them At All.

At some point during school, you asked a teacher a question and received an answer which only left you more confused. Or maybe you raised your hand with a burning question but were never called on. (So frustrating, right?)  Being able to ask questions and receive clear answers is essential to learning.

Recent corporate adoption of social tools like Twitter raised everyone’s expectations about being able to interact with brands. Many firms now employ Community Managers – but how many are trained or empowered to be effective? Stories of brands’ responsiveness to social media channels – such as United Breaks Guitars – seem to be fading into history. According to recent research by SproutSocial, 83% of important questions posed to brands by social media users go unanswered. Does your brand resemble that teacher who won’t call on students, despite their upraised hands?

  1. Your Brand Says Things Either Too Obvious or Too Confusing.

Imagine walking into 2nd grade and being told to read The Catcher In The Rye. You’d be confused, perhaps upset. Now, imagine walking into 10th grade and being assigned a book report on The Cat In The Hat. You might have some nostalgic, creative fun with that assignment the first time, but it would get old quickly. Even rookie teachers know not to give students material that’s either way too hard or way too easy.

Yet brands’ content is often pitched too high or too low, because striking a balance can be as difficult as teaching kids of multiple grade levels in the same classroom. Imagine if Ford’s Super Bowl ads for the F-150 pickup trucks said, “This can carry heavy loads.” Duh! That’s important in a pickup, but that message is Too Obvious.

Now imagine if Ford said “The F-150’s new fully boxed frame has eight crossmembers (five through-welded) and is made of up to 78 percent 70,000-psi high-strength steel, up from 23 percent in the 2014 F-150 frame.” Huh? That’s also important, but only a fraction of the audience wants that much detail. For the rest of us, that’s Too Confusing. Avoiding the Too Obvious/Too Confusing pitfalls mainly takes common sense – you don’t need Ford’s multi-billion-dollar marketing budget.

  1. Your Brand Never Asks People What They Know—Only How They Feel.

Back in school, feelings came second to knowledge and understanding. If you sat in class coughing violently, or weeping, or holding your gut and wincing, the teacher would probably ask, “How do you feel?” Perhaps your teacher wanted to hear what a book made you think or feel.

But generally in school, Subjective questions (about you, with no right or wrong answers) take a back seat to Objective questions (about the world, where answers are right or wrong, or at least some answers are better than others.) Answering Objective questions is how students learn about the world beyond themselves.

Today, in our interaction with brands, it’s the reverse—brands care chiefly about how we feel. They probably care more than we’d like. (“Please answer 15 questions about your recent experience of calling to update your mailing address.”)

Brands are using low-cost tools like SurveyMonkey and Qualtrix to pepper us with subjective questions about our feelings and perceptions. But as I pointed out in a January 2015 article in Entrepreneur, brands that aren’t quizzing their audiences on important Objective topics are missing a major opportunity to engage with and learn about them. You need to know what your audience knows, as well as how it feels.

To conclude: In 2015, Brand Reach requires Brand Teach.

(A shorter version of this article was first published on entrepreneur.com in March 2015.)

How ‘Soft Skills’ Tests Could Create Opportunity for Millions

Soft-Skills-University-Mockup

College degrees that impress employers are harder than ever to obtain and afford.  Could innovations in testing level the playing field?

Flashback to America in the late 1950’s:  A grandchild of immigrants, raised by working class parents, is bright and motivated.  He studies hard and earns good grades.  Despite his humble background, he scores well enough on the SAT exam to win acceptance to a prestigious college.  He earns his degree, climbs into the middle class and joins the ranks of those who’ve achieved the American Dream of being better off than their parents.

Different versions of that quietly heroic story have happened countless times—it’s a well-known tale.  What’s less-known is that there are two heroes in that story:  The young man, and the SAT.

I can hear you wondering, “The SAT???  How could any standardized test—much less the dreaded SAT—be a hero?”  Answer:  The SAT was a hero because it enabled the American Dream to take place millions of times over.  Let me explain that, and why it’s relevant today.

The SAT as 20th Century Hero?  Actually, yes.

Today, the SAT and ACT tests are taken by millions and loved by very few.  They are controversial because they’re seen by many to reflect cultural biases.  Students from more privileged socioeconomic backgrounds tend to do better on college entrance exams, so the tests are widely viewed as tools of exclusion.  But they were designed to be the very opposite—they were intended to promote inclusion.

When standardized college entrance exams were pioneered in the early 1900’s, they were radical in two respects.  First, they were radical data tools.  Testing for college aptitude across a large population of students—quantifying academic merit—was a disruptive innovation a century ago.  Second, they were radical social tools.  Standardized tests were adopted by prestigious colleges to admit students from outside the social elites—they opened up access to millions of students.  Soon, young Roosevelts, Adamses, and other Establishment offspring began to share the footpaths of Harvard Yard with large numbers of the less well-heeled.

As often happens, the formerly-radical became mainstream.  For several decades after the end of World War II, tens of millions of US high school students took the SAT, and campuses sprouted everywhere to handle a 20-fold increase in college enrollments from students of all classes and backgrounds.  Widespread access to higher education was a social good in and of itself, but it also delivered a direct economic benefit—colleges began annually to graduate millions of skilled workers prepared to fill jobs created as the knowledge economy was born and grew.  The SAT was a hero because it expanded access to American higher education, and by extension, to the American Dream.

Today, We Need a New Hero

Fast-forward to today:  The American Dream isn’t what it used to be.  America’s upward mobility engine appears to be stalled.  Pundits gravely share data showing that the benefits of post-2008 recovery are being disproportionately enjoyed by “the one percent.”  An Economist cover story from January 2015 warns of the rise of ‘America’s New Aristocracy’.   That article makes compelling, evidence-based arguments that social mobility is in bad health, and that if it dies, America itself will decline rapidly.  Unusually, both Democrats and Republicans agree on this point (although they differ on how to fix the problem, naturally.)

So here’s a Big Question:  If the SAT powered the economic miracle that was the American 20th century, could another standardized test arise to play the role of economic hero in the 21st century?  I believe it could—and it’s called…

The Soft Skills Test

(Like Superman’s alias Clark Kent, don’t let the mild-mannered name fool you.  It’s powerful.  Let me explain.)

We’re in the early stages of the next disruptive innovation in testing, the broad adoption in the workforce of the Soft Skills Test.  Soft skills, a.k.a. people skills, comprise factors of personality such as Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.  These Five Factors contain within them dozens of specific orientations, behaviors, and skills such as attention to detail, personal organization, concern for others, tolerance of stress, etc.  After decades of psychological research, there is broad scientific consensus that these personality traits can be accurately measured by means of standardized tests.

Personality tests may still be viewed as mainly just for fun, or perhaps for sparking introspection and discussion among friends and colleagues.  But an increasing number of employers have begun to adopt standardized personality tests for the very serious purpose of employment screening—the Wall St. Journal cited estimates that employment-focused personality tests are a $500 million-plus market, growing 10-15% annually.

Why Soft Skills Tests are Heroes to Employers

Why are personality tests so popular with employers?  Because according to many surveys including this one, employers rank strong soft skills at the top of the list of attributes they seek in new hires.  Soft skills are no longer nice-to-haves—today, they’re need-to-haves.  IBM recently announced development of its own competency model for soft skills, to be used in hiring and developing its workforce.  Other large employers and professional associations are exploring them as well.  The logic is straightforward:  Now that so many ‘hard skills’ are provided (or at least assisted) by computers, employers can focus on workers’ ability to communicate, coordinate, and collaborate effectively, as well as deal with the stress of increasingly competitive markets.  In other words, paying attention to the soft skills of your workforce is more in vogue than ever.

Some of you are now asking, “So what if you can measure these soft skills—isn’t personality fixed, which means employees can’t really improve in these areas?”  For many years, it was dogma within academic psychology that personalities were more or less unchangeable.  But that view is rapidly shifting, according to Dr. Richard Roberts, VP and Chief Scientist for ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, and one of the world’s foremost experts on the measurement of soft skills.  “Personality is not set in plaster.  Meta-analytic data, which summarizes the results from numerous studies rather than single, one-off investigations, shows that personality can change significantly across an individual’s lifespan.”  (Disclosure:  After more than a decade in the assessment business, building product for firms like Kaplan and Princeton Review before founding CredSpark, I recently became an Advisor to ProExam.)

So if personality can change, the next question is, can a better personality be taught?  Again, the research shows that it can.  Columbia University’s Teachers College recently published a study reviewing the impact of Social and Emotional Learning programs.  The study found that such programs are not only effective, but they generate $17 in economic benefit for every $1 they cost to deliver—a return on investment which may exceed that of hard-skills training programs, according to Dr. Roberts.

Why Soft Skills Tests Could Be Heroes to Employees

The amount of US outstanding student loan debt is well over $1 trillion—in a job market that continues to test the resolve of young graduates.  Due in part to a flood of overseas applicants, it’s harder and harder to win acceptance to a prestigious US college that will impress employers.  (Remember that expansion of US higher education in the last century?  It’s now expanding by recruiting bright students from across the globe.)   So, American students are taking on more debt than ever, in an ever-harder struggle to win credentials that will enable them to get ahead in the workforce.  The same goes for those already in the workforce, competing for jobs and promotions against those with fancier degrees.

Which makes the following a $1 trillion question:  If employers value soft skills above all others, must someone attend a prestigious, highly-selective college to gain the personality traits employers most seek?  Or could he or she gain those soft skills at any college?  Or skip college entirely?

Anyone who’s ventured outside the small, rarified bubble of the meritocratic elite knows there are millions of very smart, hard-skilled and soft-skilled people in the workforce without fancy college degrees—or any college degree.  Just as the SAT opened college access to students of many backgrounds, could Soft Skills tests open career growth to a much broader range of people?  Could we see the rise of colleges and universities primarily focused on soft-skill education?  If the use of Soft Skills Tests becomes very widespread, could they prove heroic to those without elite credentials?  What do you think?