Thursday, May 19, 2011

Run For Your Lives!

I like horror movies.  I do.  There's nothing better than sitting back and getting a good scare.  The kind of scare that makes you jump out of your seat and scream and spew popcorn across three aisles in front of you.  Sadly, my love of horror hasn't helped me much in my professional life.  Truth be told, it hasn't helped me much in my personal life either, but that's a different story. 

As it turns out, I just wasn't thinking far enough outside the box.  This realization came to me today as I ripped through my Twitter feed checking for any interesting stories.  That's when I came across THIS little gem from the Los Angeles Times and local TV station, KUSA (click on the links to read the entire article or watch the video)

Preparing for a zombie apocalypse? The CDC weighs in

CDC advises on Zombie apocalypse
Zombies take over Hollywood Boulevard in a 2009 zombie walk. Would you be ready if they came to your neighborhood? (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Preparing for disasters has always been part of the mission of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from hurricanes to flu pandemics.

It was only a matter of time, then, before they decided to weigh in on another calamity of great concern to the public: the zombie apocalypse.
"That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this," Dr. Ali S. Khan, an assistant surgeon general with the CDC and head of its office of Public Health Preparedness, wrote on the CDC's Public Health Matters blog.
I have to tell you, the instant I saw this article, I laughed, I chuckled, I shared and I laughed again.  But then I took a moment and thought to myself, "THIS IS BRILLIANT!"

I wasn't talking so much about the articles themselves, although the LA Times writing is excellent.  No, I had to marvel at the creativity and cleverness of the Center For Disease Control.  This, my friends is what we call a PR Home Run and there are some lessons to be learned from this particular news gem.

A "Newsy Sense of Humor":

Before I go on, I have to admit, I wish I had thought of something like this.  I also desperately wish I had been in the room when whoever it was pitched this idea during the PR meeting.  In my mind it goes something like this:
Person 1 - Any ideas of how we can make emergency preparedness more interesting and newsworthy?
Person 2 -  We could use the recent tornado and earthquake tragedies as a news peg.
Person 1 - We could, probably too soon, a little depressing, but a good idea.
Person 3 - Terrorism?
Person 1 - Bin Laden's dead, not timely.  Anyone else?  Anyone?  ANYONE?!
PR Intern - uhhhh....Zombie Apocalypse?
Person 1 - (choking on water) WHAT?!
PR Intern - I'm serious...how about a zombie apocalypse?
Person 1 - Errrrr....yeah, you know what?  Okay!
Allright, I'm pretty sure it didn't go down that way, but a man can dream, can't he?  Before we get too deep into the analysis here, I'm going to make a few assumptions.

1. The CDC is trying to reach a younger, more apathetic demographic
2. The CDC probably feels that their message is getting old and that they needed to spice it up a bit

By now, you've probably seen this story on the network news, in your local papers, on your local affiliates, heard it on the radio, heck, even NPR is running the story.  So how does a "fake" news story manage to get massive amounts of news coverage across the globe and shared millions of times in social media circles?

The answer is that the CDC did a masterful job of blending popular culture with a real news story with a real news peg.  And the incredible part is that they managed to do it about an issue that is generally VERY serious and, at least lately, involves stories centered around real life tragedy.

Zombies Rock:

Let's face it.  Zombies are awesome.  It doesn't matter if they're the slow-moving, dimwitted zombies from the 60's, or the lightning-fast brain-eaters from the late 90's.  They're popular, they're scary (usually) and everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, is familiar with them.  Zombies have replaced vampires and werewolves as top monster (despite the best effort of that Moonlighting show...wait, not Moonlighting...you know what I'm talking about). 

That's what makes this latest CDC PR effort so effing genius.  The American public has been listening to the emergency preparedness message for decades now.  We've heard it so often, that for many of us, it's become a dull roar against the background of the rest of the news we're inundated with on a daily basis.

And yet, even though we see new zombie movies just about every year, we continue to love them, watch them, read about them; we can't get enough of them.

Zombies have enjoyed fifty years of mass appeal even as the emergency preparedness message has been relegated to the back pages of media outlets everywhere.  At some point, it probably occurred to someone that, hey, what could be more of an emergency besides a zombie apocalypse?  The nuclear threat has gone the way of the cold war, the threat of terrorism seems to have diminished a bit, the economy is picking up. 

What's left to be afraid of?  The answer, of course, turned out to be zombies.  So what if zombies don't exist outside of certain New Orleans neighborhoods?  If ever there was an emergency situation we can all get behind, it's a full-scale zombie attack.

Still Newsworthy:

But here's why the story REALLY works.  There was an actual newspeg behind the effort.  Yes, that newspeg happened to be the tragic deaths of hundreds in the U.S. and across the world due to severe natural disasters.  Within our own borders, the need for emergency preparedness plans is all too evident after watching the Mississippi jump its banks and twisters tear apart town after town in the South.

Yes, the loss of life is tragic.  The financial impact and the social upheaval is disastrous.  But we already know that.  We've all seen the pictures and, unfortunately, too many of us switched away to instead watch American Idol or Dancing With The Stars.  The stories themselves have become a bit old hat.  We're not only not shocked anymore by these disasters, we generally aren't paying much attention anymore.

Now, the CDC couldn't send out this release after the tornadoes, or after the initial flooding in the Midwest.  That would have been seen as insensitive, and rightly so.  But now, the flooding isn't as big of a threat, and enough time has passed since the tornadoes did their damage. 

Yet the newsworthiness of the story remains.  Being prepared for any kind of emergency, regardless of what it is, is still important.  Newsrooms realize this.  They KNOW it's a story they have to cover, it's just that they don't do it with any gusto anymore. 

Right after 9/11, emergency preparedness stories received ten minute, in-depth packages and three page spreads in the media.  In recent days, the same stories were lucky to get a :30 second VO or a sidebar mention.

One of the reasons I think this story really works is because the reporters, producers and editors immediately recognized the cleverness of the release.  The Tweets I saw from my friends still working in newsrooms seemed downright giddy.  They loved the story.  They giggled and guffawed as they posted the story on their websites, read it on the air and printed it in their papers.  They Tweeted it with lead-in's like, "I LOVE this story!" and "Thought everyone would enjoy this!"

The Breakdown:

So let's take a quick look at how this story worked, blow-by-blow.

1.  There was an actual newspeg (recent natural disasters)
2.  The information was wrapped inside a popular culture beast (literally and figuratively)
3.  The CDC made the connection between the fictitious event and a real emergency and the need to 
     be prepared in both instances
4.  The release made no overt effort to be jokey.  It was tongue-in-cheek serious and made its point as   
     if it were discussing a real event
5.  It was timed in such a way that it was still relevant without being insensitive

Trust me, this isn't as easy as the CDC made it look.  It took skill and knowledge and some creativity to pull this off, which they did in spades.

Extra Benefits:

Another stroke of genius is the social media aspect of this story.  Traditional emergency preparedness stories never make it as a social media viral posting.  When is the last time you saw a Facebook post about being ready in case of a sudden snowstorm or epic hailstorm?  The answer is, never.

And yet this story was burning up Facebook, it was blowing up on Twitter.  In a day it became about as popular as the "Talking Dog Tease" on YouTube.  I don't know if the CDC considered the social media aspect of the story, but because of the pop culture reference, and the uniqueness of the approach, the public saw exactly what the media saw, a funny, interesting story packed with real, useful information.

I suppose this story could have been couched in an alien attack, or a vampire scourge or an explosion of werewolves or teenage witches, but somehow I don't think it would have enjoyed the same success.  Had they picked aliens, it would have seemed a little too much "War of The Worlds".  Had they picked vampires, werewolves or teen witches, it would have seemed too cheesy.  It would have looked like they were trying too hard to connect with a younger generation and see relevant. 

By going with zombies, they managed to cross generational lines, be funny and informative at the same time, and look clever instead of desperate.  The particular pop culture reference made all the difference.

How To Do It:

Generally, I encourage you, as a small business owner or non-profit director to take risks, to think outside the box.  And trust me, I still do.  However in this case, I have to say, be careful.  Again, this isn't an easy thing to do.  You can see how the choice of choosing the specific pop culture reference made all the difference.  You can see how the timing had to be impeccable. 

Plus using a fictitious event to promote real information can be tricky if not properly presented.  The CDC got away with it because it's so well known and the story was one which had been presented regularly for decades.  Try doing this with a first-time pitch and you could run into trouble, or run the risk that journalists think your a bit batty.

However, with that said, if you want to use this technique to spice up your story pitch keep these things in mind.
1.  Make it useful - Your pitch has to have quality information, stuff that the everyday person can use and needs to know.  This makes it difficult for a lot of small businesses to capitalize on this technique

2.  Time it right - Like every other pitch, your story has to be timely and have a newspeg.  If it deals with serious, sad or tragic events, you'll have to wait and catch that tiny window between not being insensitive and still being relevant

3.  Choose your reference correctly - If you use this technique, you don't want to appear like you're just using a reference to attract a specific audience.  You want to look clever and smart, not like you're working too hard.  Your pop culture reference has to be something everyone can immediately relate to, like, you know...zombies!

4.  Don't try to be funny - Again, funny is in the eye of the beholder.  The CDC played it right by presenting the information as a real release, complete with background information and fictitious studies.  Yes, the story was humorous, but the CDC didn't present it that way.  There was a subtle wink to the reader, but we all knew what was happening right away and didn't need to be drawn in by jokes or overt humor.

5.  Use it sparingly - This isn't the kind of approach that will work over and over again.  This release worked because it came from a normally staid and conservative organization that normally doesn't do this kind of thing.  It caught the media off guard, it caught the general public off guard.  It was unique in both its presentation and in the fact that it hadn't been done by the CDC before.  However, if the CDC tries to use this approach too often, it will backfire and the media will simply stop paying attention to it.
***NOTE*** The exception to this is if the CDC uses this same approach in a year when it releases its annual emergency preparedness story.  Next time they might try "What to do if attacked by massive flocks of birds" or "How to be prepared in case the Mayan Calendar is correct."  This will work for a few years, but only if used once a year, as if part of a series.  Even then, in five years or so, it will get old and the media will have moved on.
So there you have it.  The breakdown of an honest-to-goodness PR homerun.  it doesn't happen everyday, and I rarely get as much joy writing about a particular press release or news story as I did with this one. 

In the end, what small businesses and non-profits can take away from this story is that it's okay to think outside the box, to be creative and take risks.  Yes, sometimes you'll fall flat on your face and your story won't be picked up.  But then there are those times when your story might actually become a news blockbuster and an internet sensation. 

Hey, it can happen...just like a zombie apocalypse.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Human Brand

Branding.  It's like the holy grail for most marketers.  Creating an instantly recognizable brand is one of the primary objectives for the majority of marketers and organizations spend thousands of hours and millions of dollars to do so.  And yet, with all that effort and with all the products, companies and services available to the consumer, the number of insta-brands (or instantly recognizable brands) is quite small.
Of course, small businesses and non-profits just don't have the resources that major companies do when it comes to branding their organization, product or service.  But, as we've seen in this blog before, you don't need the massive resources of large companies to do something well and be effective.  You simply need a plan and a little know-how.

The Obstacles:

First, branding isn't just getting your name out to the masses.  It's about creating an image that is instantly recognizable.  You want folks to have an immediate connection to you when they hear your name, product or service.  This isn't just about having folks recognize your name, but about having them really connect with you.  Maybe you want your name associated with quality, reliability, new and hip, it's really up to you. 

The problem is, folks don't automatically relate to "things," they relate to people.  It's hard to relate to a plate of spaghetti or a sandwich or a car.  You can WANT those things, you can think those things are cool, or nice or desirable, but you can't really relate to them.  The same holds true for most organizations.  You can admire a business or what a non-profit is trying to accomplish, but at the end of the day, it's still a faceless organization, often a name without a personality.

And using social media to create meaningful, integrated relationships between a brand and consumers is simply harder than creating the same kind of relationship between people.  In essence, all of the social media networks out there were designed to connect people with people, not people with brands.

For instance, you own a small business or run a non-profit.  You're online as yourself, but also have pages for your organization.  On your personal pages, you most likely interact with your friends in a more casual, conversational manner.  Now think about how you interact on your organizational pages.  You most likely use those pages to simply announce specials, deals, make a plea for donations or let folks know about an event.  Unlike your personal profile where you're involved in conversations, these types of organizational postings are primarily one-sided.

This isn't how humans interact with other humans.  Even on sites like LinkedIn, where your interactions are more professional and formal, you're still often having a conversation, it's rarely just a one-way street.

The problem is, if you attempt to involve yourself in more casual conversations from your organizational pages, it may not be received very well by others in the group or conversation.  They'll probably look at it as an awkward intrusion by a company trying to sell something.

You can certainly build a network on your social media pages of people who "like" or are "fans" of your brand, but that still doesn't mean they want you involved in their personal conversations.  Plus, commenting on various personal posts can potentially damage the brand image you have worked so hard to build.

So does this mean you have to continue the one-way conversation rut that you're probably already in?  No, you don't.  You may never be able to get folks to view your brand as a warm, fuzzy friend that can converse in casual conversations at will.  But you CAN humanize your brand to the point where your network contacts feel comfortable interacting on a less-than-formal level.

The Solutions:

First, understand that we're talking about "humanizing" your brand.  In other words, you want to make your brand feel less than a faceless entity and more like a welcome friend that can be trusted and conversed with regularly.  At worst, you want them to feel like you're brand is a familiar acquaintance.

You can do this easily without breaking your bank. 

1.  Put a human face on your organization
2.  Be more interactive

There you go.  Simple, right?  Actually yes, and we'll show you how.

The Human Face:

Think about the 'O' Network.  Think about Virgin Records.  Think about Maytag.  What do all of these things have in common?  They each have a human face attached to their names.  Oprah Winfrey is literally a corporation unto herself.  She owns magazines, runs a TV network, makes movies and television shows.  And yet, she is, in the end, simply Oprah. 

Virgin Records IS Richard Branson.  He jet sets around the world, loves music, give generously to charity.  He's a playboy adventurer that exudes confidence and fun.  Oh, and he owns one of the largest music retail outlet chains in the world.  Virgin isn't just a music label anymore, it's virtually a way of life.  And that's because, as an organization, it's practically synonymous with Branson.

Both of those organizations have real-life individuals behind their brands.  In fact, those people ARE their brands.  They embody everything about their brands.  But what about characters, a fictitious face to an organization?  That's where Maytag comes in.  You know the guy.  The loveable loser repairman who has nothing to do because of the quality of his product.  Like Mr. Whipple, Mr. Peanut, Mr. Clean, Tony The Tiger, the Travelocity Elf, Charlie Tuna, the list goes on and on, The Maytag repairman doesn't really exist.  And yet, each of these characters have helped to create a brand that consumers love.  Perhaps the most famous of this type of branding belongs to one of the most successful companies in the world, McDonalds.  What would McDonalds be without the clown?  Just another burger joint?

This type of branding works because now you have a face to front for the organization.  Just like you should have a human face when pitching a story to a news outlet, having a character to represent your brand works.  It works because now consumers have something or someone, a person or character that they can relate to. 

One of the primary reasons this tactic works is due to a few important elements:
1.  The characters are relatable - They're funny, charming, frustrated, in love, pursuing a goal.  They represent many of the human hopes, strengths and frailties that people instantly connect with.

2.  They are personable - These characters don't preach, they don't yell or scream at the consumer, they simply talk.  This is important.  They interact with consumers.  Even in ads, you often see them interacting with regular consumers. 

3.  They stick around - Repetition matters.  Like radio and TV ads, quality is important, but quantity is vital.  You can't just toss out a character a few times and hope consumers catch on.  You have to use your character all the time, over a long period of time. 
Being Interactive:

This second part is perhaps the most important part of humanizing your brand.  We've discussed this in this space before, but it's so vital to your social media success, that it bears repeating.


There, that wasn't so hard, was it?  When you post, whether it be on LinkedIn, or Twitter or Facebook, don't just tell people about your specials, or your product or your service.  Ask questions, look for feedback, get your network involved in what you're doing.

An example of a brand that is using social media to successfully interact and build their brand is "TempurPedic".  This is where I say I'm not being paid by any organization mentioned in this posting...so you know.

TempurPedic is running ads that don't just tell the consumer how good their beds are.  In fact, the ads make very few claims at all.  Instead, they ask consumers to interact with their social media and online platforms.  The ads ask viewers to go to their website, check them out on Twitter and Facebook and find out what OTHERS are saying about their product. 

This is a brilliant approach.  Particularly since they actually use the phrase, "join the conversation" in the ad itself.  It's not asking them to log in and receive information, it's asking them to be PART of disseminating opinion and information.  It makes the consumer feel like they are an active part in building the brand.

I know what you're saying right now.  "But I don't have the money for a national television ad campaign."  I get it.  Who does?  But that doesn't mean you can't have a similar message in your postings.  You can encourage your network to participate in conversations.  Ask questions, solicit for advice, open a forum to discuss specific things.

Then there's the issue of video.  One of the best things about living in 2011 is that anyone, ANYONE, can shoot video, edit it and post it as a kind of ad for your brand.  You can use a character as part of these videos, you can have a call to action, you can open conversations with these "ads".

In fact, if you're NOT using video on your social media platforms yet, you need to start, immediately.  People like watching videos, they will share videos, all of which helps build your brand. 

When you do put your video together, here are a few things to remember:
1.  Keep them short - Anything over 30 seconds isn't likely to be shared or watched all the way through unless the video is REALLY good.

2.  They don't have to be funny - Funny is relative.  What's funny to you, might be offensive to others.  Simply consider your message and the best way to deliver your message.  You want the feel and image of your video to reflect and build on the image you are creating for your brand. 

3.  Have a call to action - At the end of the video, or during the video, make sure you let the consumer know what you want them to do.  If you want them to join a conversation, tell them.  If you want them to do something else, tell them.  Just watching a video will help raise awareness, but it doesn't necessarily get consumers to support your brand.
That Human Touch:

In the end, you want your social media network to not only like your brand, to feel affection for it, you want them to help you build your brand.  If your friends and fans can start relating to your brand on a human level, they will start to relate to your organization on a more personal level.

Eventually, you'll find that your network will begin to actively help build and humanize your brand through conversations with their own network and mentions of your brand as they might mention other friends they have. 

This doesn't happen overnight, but it DOES work.  Just make sure that the human face to your brand has a warm smile.  I mean, we may live in a technological era, but some things never change.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How The World Has Changed!

So, where were you Sunday night when you heard the news about the death of Bin Laden?  Actually, a more pertinent question should be, HOW did you hear about the death of Bin Laden?  This question matters because it reflects how technology has fundamentally changed how we receive information.  Again, this isn't a newsflash like lightning from the sky.  Technology has a history of changing information gathering and dissemination.

It started with the printing press, moved along into radio, then television and ultimately computers.  There's no denying that smartphones have been the next evolution in that process.  But what happened Sunday night was surprising. 

I started a tweet...that started the whole world cheering!

I actually found out from a post on Facebook.  A friend of mine works in a Washington D.C. newsroom and posted the news on his Facebook page just minutes before I received the breaking news alert on my iPhone.  I was watching some cable TV show, blissfully unaware of the world-changing events taking place.  But once I saw the FB post, I immediately switched to the networks in an effort to make sure it was real. 

Being the news junky I am, I switched between CBS, ABC, FOX (always interesting to see how they handle their news).  I even took a moment to peek at ESPN, just to see how they might be handling the information.  Remember, this was about 40 minutes before President Obama made the official announcement on television. 

Of course, the networks were all over the breaking story.  However the most fascinating moment of the night for me emerged from Philadelphia, where the Mets and Philly's were playing a usual early-season nighttime game.  Suddenly and without warning, a buzz started to rise from the crowd of 40-thousand in attendance.  Within minutes, the crowd erupted into an impromptu chant of "U-S-A, U-S-A!"  There had been no official announcement made over the P.A. system, or flashed across the scoreboard at that point.  Just thousands of folks receiving the news on their smartphones.

Instead of waiting to hear the news on network TV, instead of dealing with vague rumors until the President confirmed the facts, Americans, heck, the world, was flashing the news as quickly as millions of fingers could type and hit send.

An Avalanche of Tweets

And the numbers back this up.  According to Twitter on Monday, a record 12.4 million Tweets were sent per hour following the revelation that Bin Laden had been killed.  Mashable.com noted the following from Twitter:
"At 11pm ET, just beore Obama's speech, users generated 5,106 tweets PER SECOND, the highest single volume of tweets during the night.  At 11:45pm, just when he finished his speech, Twitter users were sending 5,008 tweets per second."
Even the average from 10:45 pm to 12:30 am ET, three-thousand per second, resulted in a whopping 27,900,000 tweets in just two hours and 35 minutes.  That's impressive, no doubt.  But, like everything else, these numbers need to be placed in context.

There's no doubt that the flood of Tweets prove, once again, that it is a powerful tool to relay information.  It's easy to type in a few keystrokes, hit send and now someone else knows what you know.  But what happens to that information?  Certainly getting the news at light speed is valuable, however what happens after that initial blast of information remains crucial.

News has been changed forever by Twitter and Facebook and other social media sites.  But ask yourself what you did immediately after you heard the news.  The majority of individuals, when possible, did what I did; turn to a news network to get more information. 

Twitter hasn't destroyed news.  In a way it's enhanced it.  It has opened the lines of communications between newsroom and the average Joe.  It increased the speed in which we get news headlines.  What it hasn't done is replaced news itself.  In the end, all Twitter can do is provide headlines.  While those may catch the eye and raise interest, we still need those headlines, those bits of information to be filled out with details and context.

I didn't sit around waiting for more Tweets to tell me what had happened.  I went to my BBC app on my iPhone right away for any details.  I then checked out my AP app., all while switching around the networks to get more information.  Twitter can only raise the flag, it can't tell the whole story.

So what does this all mean?

From a news standpoint, it's a bit comforting.  When news breaks, it alerts folks to tune into their local tv stations or check out the networks, or news websites for more details.  And as long as the headlines continue to be newsworthy, people will continue to tune in. 

Ultimately, though, it means that despite the power and the reach of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, they're only good up to a point.  At some point you have to provide them with the meat of the story.  FB and Twitter can tease and inform, but they can't tell the whole story. 

As a small business or non-profit, you should pay attention to this point.  It really comes down to the old problem with advertising.  If you advertise one thing, and the product or service is completely different, eventually consumers will get wise.  The same thing goes for quality.  You may do a great job getting people to try out your latest dish, but if it's not good, you can be sure they won't be coming back.  Worse yet, they'll tell everyone they know how awful it was.

If you're using Twitter to get information out about your latest special or deal or interesting tidbit, you have to follow up on that tweet with real quality.  If you tweet about a blog, that blog had better be worth reading, otherwise, it will eventually be ignored and your readership will decline. 

What we did after we saw the initial tweets about Bin Laden's death is typical of what folks do when they see an interesting tweet about any topic.  The first thing they do is to check it out.  People are cynical, they are cautious, particularly when it comes to their pocketbook.  Your tweet may get them to check out your website, business, non-profit, blog, YouTube site, etc., but if you don't have the quality to back up your Twitter headline, you'll lose those followers and Twitter will become useless to you.

Don't think of Twitter as a singular marketing tool.  Think of it more like one part of a bigger machine.  Before you can even begin to use Twitter effectively, you HAVE to spend time creating your product or service.  You have to make sure your blog is interesting.  You have to make sure that the final destination is worth the trip. 

Because remember this.  Twitter can be used by larger entities to get the message out.  But it's at its most powerful when in the hands of the individual user.  You may get your tweet out to thousand of people, but that is only the beginning.  Once those people have tested your product, they'll have the last word.  If they liked it, they'll tweet their friends and let them know.  They may even retweet your future tweets. 

If they didn't like what you're selling?  Then you could be in trouble.  Because just as they'll tell friends if they like you, they'll tell EVERYONE who will listen if they don't like you.  That aspect hasn't changed, despite the influx of technology.  In fact, it's just enhanced that typically human behavior. 

In the end, if you can't produce what your Twitter headline promises you could end up in the worst place of all, and that's simply being ignored.  If people are complaining, they're at least talking about you and you have a chance to answer the critics.  If you are ignored, your organization becomes persona-non-grata.  And on Twitter, there's nothing worse.