Saturday, April 6, 2013

Remembering Roger Ebert

Two days after the fact, I'm marveling at the impact of Roger Ebert's death on the cultural community.

I, like so many others, was also affected. What was it about this man, known primarily as a "film critic", who somehow was able to touch so many people's lives? From as far back as I can remember, Ebert was bullheaded, opinionated and self-righteous. His on-air debates with fellow Chicago film critic (and equally bullheaded) Gene Siskel were legendary, often funny and great theater unto itself.

After two decades, I held an established stereotype of Ebert as a scowling disagreeable sort, that is until the 1999 episode of "Siskel and Ebert" in which he paid solo tribute to his former sparring partner. The look-back (and deeply personal) episode, filled with classic "Siskel and Ebert" moments, was moving and revealing. Underpinning their on-air partnership, as boisterous as it was, was deep respect for one another and genuine friendship. Airing his grief on-air seemed to somehow humanize Ebert - for me at least.

For those that weren't around at the time, or weren't fans of the duo, it's hard to convey how deeply entrenched the names "Siskel and Ebert" were with one another. We're talking a brand by any definition. "Ebert" without the "Siskel" was scarcely imaginable. Think "Laurel" without "Hardy", "Procter" without "Gamble", "Macaroni" without "Cheese" - it just doesn't compute.

For a while, the show carried on, at first with a variety of replacement film-critics (eventually settling into a successful run with Richard Roeper). But it just wasn't the same.

The new century held serious health challenges for Ebert, cruelly robbing him of his physical voice and dramatically altering his physical appearance. Blows such as these would fall lesser beings, but not Roger Ebert. Aided by the support of his devoted wife "Chaz", along with his own unconquerable spirit, Roger emerged with an even larger voice than ever before. I'm not talking vocally (surgeries and the removal of his lower jaw had seen to that), but with something else altogether - his thoughts, and words that could still be communicated via his wholehearted embrace of technology. The speech synthesis software that mimicked his own speaking voice comes to mind, but more-so, the medium of social media - that intentionally or not, Ebert helped to legitimize (via his blog, twitter postings and other forms of digital media).

It should be said that Roger Ebert's love of film never wavered, nor did his honesty or passion. As his constituency on the internet grew, we (or I) became exposed to a broader picture of the man, especially his left-leaning views on politics and outspoken admiration for those he found to be personally inspiring. Whether you agreed with him or not, Roger Ebert remained as opinionated as ever, provoking argument, debate and impassioned defense of views for and against a wide variety of subjects. He clearly did not, and never was, willing to suffer fools. At the same time, he seemed more gracious than ever, expressing sincere gratitude to his audience and especially his wife (whose job going forward will be to carry on and promote his amazing legacy).

An entire generation, unborn or too little at the time to remember his heyday as television's premier film critic, instead think of Roger Ebert as a standard-bearer for their voice - ironic to a degree, but ultimately amazing.

What are the lessons we can take away from this man?

Well, that's a debate for the ages and presumably one Roger Ebert himself would relish. I think:

  • Engage. Converse. Put yourself and your beliefs on the line - frequently and without reserve.
  • Listen. Retain an open mind. Expose yourself to many points-of-view (even if you don't necessarily agree with them). Respect other people's opinions.
  • Prepare. Research. Come ready to defend and articulate your position, clearly and concisely.
  • Soldier on in the face of adversity.
  • Stay positive. No matter what curves life throws at you, there will always be things to smile about and be grateful for.

Those are the qualities of Roger Ebert's life that I choose to inspire me, and it's clear from where I sit in the balcony, that I'm far from alone.

"Thumbs Up" Roger for a life will lived.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Being Nice Never Hurt Anyone

One of the perks of getting older is the opportunity afforded to keep learning. My curiosity never abates, so I'm always on the hunt for new knowledge and deeper levels of understanding (I just find it so darn rewarding whenever I come across new insights that I can incorporate into my worldview).

Of late, I've been using this blog (and other social media forums) as an outlet to share what I've learned about marketing, graphic-design and communications (obvious areas to focus on given my professional choices), but it occurs to me that I also have an opportunity to talk more broadly.

Today, I want to talk about one of the most important lessons I've learned. A lesson so profound, that it impacts every aspect of my waking life - personally and professionally. I'm talking about how you treat others around you. Okay, I'm not the first person to talk about this - that's obvious. And there are clearly countless experts who can give far better voice to this subject than I ever could, but given how impactful this topic has been to me personally, I can't shake the sense of obligation to talk about it.

"Being Nice Never Hurt Anyone" - you've all heard this phrase. I'm not sure who coined it originally, but does it really matter? The fact is, it's true. I really can't think of a single instance where making the conscious choice to be nice to someone ever resulted in a backlash. In fact, in my experience, it almost always generates tangible rewards. Let me explain.

Helping other generates its own rewards
Have you ever held a door open for someone? Most of the time, that simple gesture will result in a verbal or physical acknowledgement of appreciation - a "thank you" or smile usually. I don't know about you, but that momentary acknowledgement makes me feel good. Even if the person for whom I'm holding the door open passes through without acknowledgement, I still take solace from the fact I'm not like that person. It's a win anyway you look at it.

From time-to-time (though not near frequently enough), you'll hear the media report on a phenomenon known as "pay it forward". There are many iterations of this, but here in Canada, the most widely reported involves the institution known as Tim Horton's - as well known for its long line-ups through the drive-through, as it is for its coffee, donuts and sandwiches. What happens is that upon reaching the cashier window, a customer will not only pay for his own order, but that of the person immediately behind him. Imagine the surprise when it's your turn to pay, only to have the cashier tell you your order was already taken care of? In Winnipeg recently, this behavior triggered an unprecedented 3-hour marathon of "pay it forward" transactions at one particular Tim Horton's location. The story both startled and amazed Canadians across the country.

How does something like this happen? Well, it's not that complex. Going out of your way to do something nice or unexpected, even for complete strangers, has its own set of tangible rewards. In the case of Tim Horton's, the paying patron is denied the opportunity to see the immediate reaction of the customer behind them, but gets to imagine their response, based on their own experience of having been the recipient of somebody else's generosity. That's "feel good city" - and rewarding by anyone's definition!

By no means is being nice to someone the exclusive domain of individuals. I read recently where a Chili's restaurant went out of its way to accommodate the needs of a young autistic customer. The story as reported goes like this: Chili's institutes a policy of slicing hamburgers from the children's menu into two halves (for easier consumption). To 7-year old Arianna Hill however, the appearance of the hamburger was akin to being "broken", resulting in untold distress. To their credit, the Chili's server and her manager swung into action offering not only to repair the "broken hamburger", but also proffering a complementary plate of french fries while "repairs" were being effected. The result? Crisis averted and an ecstatic Arianna Hill, whose visage of her kissing the replacement hamburger immediately went viral.

7-year old Arianna Hill at Chili's Restaurant
Don't think for a moment that the happiness surrounding this moment was contained to young Arianna. I can assure you that everyone involved in this story took something positive away from the incident.

Terry O'Reilly, whose fantastic marketing radio show "Under the Influence", recently spoke of many such stories with similar outcomes. If you can spare a few minutes, pop on over to his website to read of other such inspirational tales in the corporate world.

The point is, whether in business, or in your personal life, going out of your way to help or be nice to others comes with its own set of rewards. Most of the time, it'll just be a warm fuzzy feeling, but every now and then fate will return the favor big-time. In the case of Chili's, they couldn't have scripted the story of Arianna Hill or possibly planned for what happened, but the quick-thinking actions of a few kind-hearted employees, not only made one little girl's day, but in its wake brought forth a tidal wave of goodwill for the entire restaurant chain.

I'm not overly spiritual, but I do believe in Karma. Over the years, I've learned to be more tolerant and respectful of other people - even those I don't know personally or professionally. My only motivation in holding that door open is to experience that brief moment of appreciation from the person walking through. It may not always come, but if nothing else, I feel good about who I am at that precise moment - and I always half-joke with whoever's with me at the time, that I'm banking "Karma points". I say "half-joke" because I actually do believe that good things eventually come to those that go out of their way to do good things for others.

It seems to work for me, and it just might work for you.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

My Thoughts on Content Marketing

Content Marketing is all the rage these days. Why? Because it works.

Before explaining the how and why, I need to address what it is exactly.

Simply put, Content Marketing ("linkbait" as it was called in its infancy) refers to the use of any type of content that serves to attract consumer attention.

Think "Samplers".

On the Internet, content most often takes the form of  any type of media that manages to tell a compelling story (or enrich the lives of the audience in some meaningful way). Its true function is to attach credibility to you as a presenter and bestow upon you trust from the target audience.

Credibility and trust are the most important attributes any seller could hope to have. Content, if done right, provides you with the means to build a strong reserve, and with enough credibility and trust in hand, you can anything to anyone.

Crucial to the success of this type of marketing is the calibre of content being proferred:
  • Content MUST have take-away and share-worthy value: news, how-to articles (tips and shortcuts), editorials, guidebooks and infographics are all useful and easily-distributable.
  • Content must be original and unique, free of errors and inaccuracies.
  • Content should invoke an emotional response or reaction that triggers the instinct to share.

Take Your Content Seriously

The end-game may be to sell more product, but the content itself must never be seen to be overt in terms of its sales message. That means steering clear of the hard-sell and leaving out the sales pitch. Opportunities for you to talk about your product offerings will come after you've had a chance to establish your credibility and trust. That's easy to do if you commit yourself to producing the kind of content people want to consume. Sooner than later, you'll have masses pounding at your door, credit cards in hand.

Content Marketing Works

Once you're committed to the idea, here's a few helpful pointers to keep in mind:
  • Creating good content takes time. Be prepared to set aside hours, days and weeks if necessary to produce it.
  • Original ideas are worth their weight in gold. Place a high premium on individuals that are not only well versed in the industry you serve, but who are willing to think outside the box.
  • Hire artists and graphic designers. Those who can articulate concepts with drawings and visuals are invaluable to have on staff.
  • People who can write in a clear, engaging style are equally invaluable.
  • Social media is the principal information distribution outlet. Encourage your whole staff to get involved.
  • Have faith. Good things come to those who wait.
In many ways, Content Marketing is not unlike the little toys that come in a Crackerjack box, the free samples served at your local grocery store or a test drive in a luxury car. They all serve the same purpose - to whet the appetite for "more". Content Marketing as a concept, may be the latest craze, but in reality the principles behind its success have been ensconced since the dawn of Marketing's golden age. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Social Proof and the Challenges Facing Paywalls

These days it seems more and more publishers are opting to barricade their content behind metered paywalls. I'm not a fan of paywalls, not because I have any objection to paying for content, but because I just can't see how they can work over the long haul - at least not the way they're currently administered.

I've given a lot of thought to this, and while I understand the reasoning behind it (and will steadfastly support the right of content providers to be compensated for their intellectual property), paywalls as a solution to dwindling publishing revenues just seem so ill-conceived.

  • Syndicated articles, still the backbone of local news dailies, are found readily around the Internet. No need to reach for my wallet to gain access to that content.
  • The culture of the internet is still centered around the idea of free information. Asking readers to pay for something they otherwise feel entitled to is actually perceived (rightly or wrongly) to be offensive in many circles. You're really swimming against the tide if you hope to convert that crowd into paying customers.
  • Some advocate the uniqueness and value of local news, but doesn't Twitter do a much better job of covering that town hall meeting or car crash? In real time no less!
In making your content inaccessible to the masses, what does this do to your virtual circulation, and by association - your advertising revenues? Maybe they weren't that great to begin with, but I just can't see how this helps things.

Editorial pieces, once the exclusive domain of the op-ed pages can now be readily found on sites such as LinkedIn in the form of articles written by "Influencers" or "Thought Leaders". Blog aggregators and sites such as Huffington Post offer ready access to dozens of articles written each day by high profile contributors.

There was a time when verification of an article's value came from its association with a big name publisher. Any piece seeming to have originated from the offices of the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the New York Times and a few other publishing heavyweights was always going to get broadly read (beyond their jurisdiction).

In the age of social media, verification comes from a new source - Social Proof.

Readers now have the ability, via sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook, to access articles written by their favourite business leaders, political leaders, sports and entertainment celebrities, authors and whoever else they might admire. If an article touches them in some way, tools are immediately at hand to "like", "share" and "comment". The most interesting and provocative articles are widely circulated in the form of a shared link. Occasionally, an article may even go viral. If an article appears to be garnering a large response, it will be deemed to be read-worthy. THAT's social proof!

And that's what paywall publishers are up against.

I'm not saying paywalls can't work at all. I'm of the opinion that some kind of all-access pass, one that that gives me exclusive access to all sorts of content, including news sites, might have some appeal. The price would have to be right however and the value proposition clearly spelled out.

In the meantime, I'll be getting most of my news from LinkedIn and the trending sections of my favorite social media sites.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

5 Memorable Advertising and Marketing Stories from the Past

I'm a huge fan of marketing and advertising history.

It seems the best campaigns resonate well after their initial run, changing consumer perceptions and rules for advertising executives along the way. Though the stories below originate from long ago, they're still interesting and contain timeless lessons useful for modern day marketers. Here are five of my favorites:

Ivory Soap "It Floats" - 1891
Whether by accident or design, the appearance of floating soap bars gave rise to the idea that Ivory Soap was somehow more "pure" than its competitors of the time, a point reinforced by their famous "99 44/100 % Pure" campaign that followed a few years later. The slogan was so effective, that decades after the fact, the phrase "99 44/100 % Pure" fully entered the cultural lexicon as an informal means to describe near perfection. Of course, the tag line remains trademarked and can only be legally used by Procter & Gamble (the manufacturers) to this day.

Wheaties "Breakfast of Champions" - 1927
This campaign was among the first to solidify the idea of product endorsements by a celebrity. Wheaties had already made history as the subject of the first recorded radio jingle in 1926 (for Minneapolis radio station WCCO), but it was the "Breakfast of Champions" tag line for which they are best remembered. The tag line first started appearing on Wheaties boxes in 1927 as a result of their sponsorship association with local baseball broadcasters. By the 1930s, prominent athletes of the day began to appear on boxes alongside the tag line, and a tradition that continues to this day was born. Jesse Owens, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are just a few of the many sports celebrities that have lent their visage to Wheaties over the years.

De Beers "A Diamond is Forever" - 1947
If not for a fateful meeting between Harry Oppenheimer, heir to the De Beers Mining company and Gerold Lauck, president of legendary ad agency N.W. Ayer & Son, in September of 1938, the diamond as the universal symbol of engagement might never have happened. At that time, diamonds were not held in the same regard as they are today. In fact, with war around the corner and elevated levels of anxiety prevalent, the price of diamonds on world markets had been in steady decline. Wanting to reverse the trend, Oppenheimer, on behalf of De Beers approached Ayer. Turning their attention to the US market, Ayer proposed to strengthen the association between diamonds and romance. A blitzkrieg of advertising followed with the message, firmly targeted towards young men and women, that the gift of love was somehow incomplete without a diamond component - the bigger the better in fact! Ayers efforts met with immediate success, but it wasn't until 1947 that the famous phrase "A Diamond is Forever" was coined by the now legendary copywriter Frances Gerety. With that, the idea of diamonds being a necessity to the engagement ritual was cemented and the rest is history.

U.S. School of Music "They Laughed When I Sat Down at the Piano, But When I Started to Play!" - 1926
With that famous opening, the rules for direct response marketing were rewritten in ways that continue to reverberate to this day. John Caples, a then 25-year old copywriter working for Ruthrauff & Ryan, came up with the phrase (and accompanying ad copy) to sell music lessons. The tag line was a grabber intended to draw reader's attention to the copy beneath it describing a young man's triumphant experience turning taunts into cheers. The cleverly written storyline made clear to its intended audience that sending away for the "free" booklet would set into motion events leading to acclaim, and by association, "popularity" and "happiness". John Caples moved to BBDO in 1927, eventually going on to become one of the twentieth century's foremost authorities on art of copywriting.

Energizer "The Energizer Bunny" - 1989
Energizer put itself on the map with a series of unforgettable television spots that introduced several now commonplace advertising innovations. It's generally forgotten now (an intended consequence?), but Energizer were not the first to use a pink toy bunny in their ads. That distinction belongs to Duracell, who in 1973 produced ads featuring toy rabbits drumming away until only one remained - the one with the "Coppertop" batteries.

Energizer's ads burst onto the scene in 1989, showcasing a prime advertising innovation that would be expanded upon and mimicked in the years that followed. The very first television commercial for Energizer is essentially divided into three parts. The first twenty seconds pokes fun at the Duracell ad with an indignant narrator warning viewers "not to be fooled by ads where one battery company's toys outlast the others", further clarifying that "Energizer was never invited to their playoffs". As this is being pointed out, a bright pink bunny wearing shades and blue sandals, barges onto the scene pounding a large bass drum, while the narrator goes on to proclaim that Energizer batteries "keep going...and going...and going...". Twenty seconds in, the scene abruptly changes to what appears to be a new commercial hawking an antihistamine product, only to be interrupted by the bass drum pounding bunny and the narrator continuing, "like we said, nothing outlasts the Energizer - it just keeps going...and going...and going". Forty seconds in, the gimmick repeats itself with the Energizer bunny invading yet another commercial, this time for a wine company set in an upscale restaurant - Boom Boom Boom, in comes the Energizer Bunny - still going! The Energizer ads were brilliant, employing parody, deception and humor to maximum effect.

They say mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, and to that regard, the Energizer campaign has much to be proud of. Most recently, a variation of this theme appeared on Canadian TV for Subaru, whereby an (already much lampooned) ad for Snuggie was mercilessly and literally dismantled. This spot differed from the Energizer ones in that the ad being interrupted was in fact real - obviously a coordinated campaign, because I recall seeing the original Snuggie ads appearing around the same time and waiting to see the Subaru intrusion, which didn't always happen. Having me pay close attention paid off big time in terms of imprinting both brands on my subconscious (though I've never owned a Subaru or a Snuggie for that matter).

Listed above are just a few of the marketing and advertising stories that for one reason or another left an impression on me. What marketing and advertising stories do you recall as being particularly memorable or effective?

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Evolution of Copywriting

For decades, the role of a "copywriter" was relatively easy to define: Someone who comes up with memorable words and descriptions that:
  1. Clearly communicate to prospective customers what it is you're selling
  2. Do it in such a way as to be memorable and convincing
  3. Adhere to rules of good grammar and spelling along the way
While the role of copywriter was never going to be confused with rocket science, the position did call for considerable creativity and skill. In fact, so much does creativity enter into the equation, that I believe it apt to compare the role of a copywriter to that of an artist (versus a novelist or reporter, who also write for a living). Like an artist, a copywriter must be able to paint a picture, the only difference being that the canvas in this instance is the mind's eye.

It's been this way since the dawn of the printed word - and still is today.

In the 21st century however, there are many more factors that come into play (I've had to learn this the hard way). A good copywriter today must not only concern themselves with developing compelling verbiage designed to sell and inform, but must be able to traverse a far more competitive landscape in an age where the accepted mediums for information delivery have fragmented into dozens (if not hundreds) of disparate devices.

  • People's attention spans are probably at their lowest point in the entire history of the human race. Messages need to grab the reader FAST - literally within seconds!
  • Beyond print, we live in a digital world comprised of digital devices, interactive technology, television, video games, computers, tablets, smart phones, electronic billboards, radio... each with their own unique audience metrics and technical implications to consider.
  • There are web sites, forums and countless social media platforms to take into account. Which ones are deserving of your attention? How do you engage with those audiences?
The point is, its a far noisier and complex world than our copywriting forebearers had to deal with. The check list for being an effective copywriter 2013 has grown substantially to include not just excellent and creative command of language, but also the requirement to possess technical knowledge and many other considerations. As a minimum, one:
  • Must possess excellent command of language in general (Ex. must have an expansive vocabularly comprised of traditional words as well the latest buzzwords, key phrases and selling terminology).
  • Must have impeccable grammar, sentence structure and spelling skills.
  • Must possess a persuasive storytelling style of writing that both informs and convinces.
  • Must be well versed in the media as a whole, able to appreciate, critique and tap into emerging trends in entertainment, fashion, technology, consumer goods, etc.
  • Must be creative with words, not just in knowing which ones to use, but in terms of how to assemble them into headlines and taglines that grab an audience and never let go.
  • Must have dependable sales and marketing instincts that allow you to analyse and identify areas where messages are most likely to resonate.
  • Should be schooled (or at least be self-taught) in marketing and advertising disciplines.
  • Must have excellent conversational skills. Copywriting today isn't just about writing a clever tag line, it's about engagement, knowing when to agree and when to disagree in a public forum. It's about knowing how to take control of a conversation and steer it towards a selling objective.
  • Must be able to communicate across cultural, age, gender and social status lines.
  • Must buy in completely to the idea of social media as a medium to give voice to products and service. Blogging, tweeting, answering questions in a user group, knowing how to attract followers - mastery in each of these areas is absolutely crucial and requires a serious commitment to the use of language and cultural decorum of every forum.
  • Must know how to craft copy that is optimized for maximum search engine visibility (SEO).
  • Should be well-read and a bit of a pop-culture junkie. This will provide necessary perspective and context for whatever you write.
  • Must have a genuine love of writing.
And so it goes... there are probably many more that could be added to the above list.

Being a copywriter today is extremely demanding, and for those that do it well, you have my deepest respect. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts on this subject.