Archive for June, 2011

Revisiting The Debate On Paid Media Versus Owned Media

earned vs. owned vs. paid media

The quandary on how to best deploy different media types to build brands will be with us for some time.

Just because Facebook worked in Egypt doesn’t automatically mean the platform positions your company as revolutionary.

By virtue of being part art part science and the dynamic nature of the internet, there’s plenty of complexity in the media world to keep everyone busy.

I was reflecting on one of the threads that surfaced during the panel I recently moderated on the topic of media during the Innovation Journalism conference at Stanford.

There seemed to be a consensus that good content is good content.

tim lincecum red bullThen I saw this quote from Raymond Roker, the associate publisher for Red Bull’s latest foray into owned media, a magazine with retail distribution called the Red Bulletin:

“The perception is that there is content and there’s advertising. We’re challenging that perception that the media industry is still holding on to. The audience grows up and understands their athlete has brand logo stickers all over the board and the helmet, and that’s OK. If the end result is a good piece of content, parsing where it comes from is missing the point.”


It’s true that the NASCAR phenomenon has permeated all walks of life. Hopefully, President Obama never greets us at a press conference wearing a John Deere hat as his part to cut the national budget deficit.

But I have to respectively disagree with my esteemed panelists and Mr. Roker.

Parsing where the content comes from does indeed carry importance.

Look at the recent debacle in which PR agency Burson-Marsteller represented Facebook without divulging to journalists that Facebook was a client.

Why did this cause such a firestorm?

Because it meant the journalists couldn’t fully interpret the content with the context of knowing who was behind the curtain.

The same holds true for content in all forms of owned media.

In short, ownership matters.

You can take a great story on Amazon in The New York Times and if the exact same story (same author) runs on, it’s still terrific storytelling. But it’s not going to have the influence on the reader that comes from a third-party media property with no financial stake in Amazon.

I’m still a huge proponent of owned media, especially for those companies in niche markets.

But the more valuable credibility is to your brand, the more it makes sense to dial up the effort for earned media. 

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Five Interviewing Techniques for Corporate Storytelling

I’m convinced the craft of interviewing is one of the most undervalued skills in corporate storytelling.

Consider PR’s version of what came first, the chicken or the egg.

Would you rather enjoy an excellent relationship with a journalist, but be stuck with lame content?

Or would you rather have man-bites-dog content, but no relationship with the journalist?

I’ll take the great content every time.

Sure, knowing the journalist means I’ll get a listen, but trying to foist a weak story undermines the relationship.

That’s why our storytelling workshops devote a chunk of time to interviewing.

By probing and cajoling company sources, you’ll generate content that stays far from the lame quadrant.

Here are five interviewing techniques that will fuel the storytelling process.

  1. Do Your Homework: This means not only understanding the topic but the person or people you’re interviewing. Before meeting an engineer slated for a sourcing session, I found out he had immigrated from Cuba. How did I learn this ditty? Just took a look at his LinkedIn profile. Great ice breaker.
  2. The Interview Starts Before the Interview: Email a few questions to the interviewee ahead of time to get the wheels turning. I always include one question that establishes I’m after drama, not a tutorial in molecular physics.
  3. The Warm-up Act: Most human beings don’t automatically open up to someone they don’t know (even though you’re part of the same team). Start with a few easy questions designed to simply get the person talking. This way, you build momentum leading into the tougher questions.
  4. Too Many Cooks Won’t Spill the Beans: Often, multiple people are involved with the topic of choice. Don’t interview them together. It’s better to talk with each in a one-on-one setting with the content taken from the initial interview building into the second chat and beyond. Such an approach takes more time, but you’ll end up with richer content. Notice the boys on CSI never interrogate multiple people together. Same concept.
  5. Improv Produces “Gold:” Listen to what’s being said. While it’s good to have questions prepared, be willing to explore unexpected areas that come out of the discussion. In talking to a client CEO, he casually mentioned he was originally hired to figure out if the technology could be salvaged. That got our attention; i.e., drama in whether the venture would live or die. What was it like asking for employees’ cooperation when their cooperation might mean the end of the line? Was there a single moment when you thought, “This has a chance?” Digging out the humanity always makes for compelling storytelling.

I welcome your additions to the list.


The Anecdote Earns Assist in Jason Kidd Story

Long-form journalism remains a mainstay of sports.

I consider Sports Illustrated one of those pleasures up there with the “Dining Section” in the New York Times and the Red Sea blend from Philz Coffee.

A story in last week’s edition on Jason Kidd called ”The Old Man And The Heat,” caught my attention.

First, it’s great to see the headline writers at SI don’t worship at the altar of the Google algorithm.

But the point of this post is to revisit one of my favorite topics, the anecdote.

This particular story kicks off with a classic.

Take a look at the first paragraph:

The first horn sounds and four Mavericks hop out of their folding chairs and rush over to the scorer’s table. Tyson Chandler turns to the crowd and flexes like a cage fighter. Jason Terry waves his arms as if he’s forming snow angels. Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion find a spot on the court and fidget. Fifteen seconds pass. The second horn sounds. Only then does Jason Kidd slowly rise from his seat and join his Dallas teammates.

The writer Lee Jenkins is setting up a terrific anecdote about Kidd, the oldest starting point guard in NBA Finals history, on how he buys more rest time during games.

Here comes the anecdote:

Over 17 years a man can learn every nuance of his workplace, and this is just one quirk that Kidd has uncovered about the NBA: A full timeout lasts 100 seconds, but play does not actually resume for 115 seconds. The differential might seem insignificant, but it adds up. Each team gets six full timeouts per game, plus breaks before the second and fourth quarters. By consistently spending every possible second on the bench, Kidd accrues an extra three-plus minutes of rest per game, which is more than four hours extra per season.

Very clever.

Roughly 12 stops in play per NBA game X 15 seconds = 3 minutes.

Roughly 80 games X 3 minutes = four hours of extra rest over the course of a season.

This tells you everything you need to know about Jason’s mentality to extend his energy.

As I’ve shared time and time again, this type of storytelling technique can be applied to business communications.

More than make a company’s story more interesting - no trivial consequence in itself – the anecdote often helps reveal a company’s humanity

If you’ve recently put an anecdote to good use (is base use possible?), please weigh in with the story. 

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Translating a Technical Invention into a Story That Resonates with the Mainstream Media

I rarely use this forum to discuss the Agency’s work.

Today, I’m making an exception.

We’ve been preparing to launch a start-up venture called SuVolta.

What does SuVolta make?

Another product that fits under the social networking umbrella?

A web infrastructure play?

Not exactly.

SuVolta has invented a technology that greatly reduces the amount of power consumed by transistors (which make up integrated circuits). Equally important, the SuVolta technology can be applied within the current semiconductor manufacturing infrastructure.

As you would expect, the science behind the technology is not for the squeamish with slides such as the following providing context.

Got that?

Good. I thought so.

While plenty of technical materials were prepared for the announcement, SuVolta bought into the idea of shaping a story that could be understood by all media, not just Electronic Engineering Times.

With this in mind, we crafted a news release with the headline:

SuVolta Emerges from Stealth mode with Game-changing Technology to Reduce Power Consumption in Digital Products

We figured if Intel can use revolutionary in its 3-D transistor release, SuVolta has the proof points to support “game-changing.”

Now look at the initial graphs in the news release:

LOS GATOS, Calif. – June 6, 2011 – SuVolta, Inc., a Silicon Valley-based company previously in stealth mode, today announced its PowerShrink™ low-power platform, a technology that reduces the power consumed by electronic chips by 50 percent or more while maintaining the same performance levels.

Reducing power consumption is generally regarded as the biggest challenge in chip design today, a problem which limits the functionality and battery lifetime in portable products including smartphones, tablets and notebooks.

SuVolta tackled the power problem at the heart of electronic systems by addressing the physics behind transistor variation.

Left up to me, I probably would have simply said “the physics behind the transistor” but that’s a quibble.

The point is, you don’t need to be Nathan Myhrvold to understand the story and why it’s significant.

This storytelling mentality also came through in the briefings with journalists, industry analysts, and other influencers.

SuVolta’s executives understood it wasn’t just about the core technology. They shared stories about the creation of the company, things that didn’t go according to plan, and how it felt when the breakthrough was achieved.

We discussed different stories.

We didn’t script different stories.

The payoff came in media coverage ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Reuters to GigaOm.

Kudos the SuVolta team (SuVolta MARCOM + Agency) which kept pushing and pushing to rise out of the technical weeds.

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Groupon’s Secret Weapon: Storytelling Techniques

groupon blog post

Naturally, this New York Times headline from last week caught my attention:

“Funny or Die: Groupon’s Fate Hinges on Words”

The piece goes on to explain that Groupon differentiates through words, depending on storytelling techniques as its version of Google’s search algorithm.

Here’s what the NYT article doesn’t say.

You don’t need the narrative gifts of a Hemingway or even a Grisham to enhance a company’s brand with words. Just having fun with language, a turn of a phrase or a play on words, can do the trick.

Because amusing language (much less humor) scares the bejeezus out of the vast majority of companies. As a result, this type of writing rarely factors into the band-building effort.

Yesterday’s Groupon deal for San Jose provides a good example:

Grapes generally have two options in life—be harvested in their prime and fermented into delicious wines, or grow into raisinhood to be shunned in Halloween giveaways. Bask in grapey glory with today’s Groupon: for $45, you get …

You can never go wrong personifying fruit.

As discussed in previous posts, the “About Us” section on a company’s website serves as a litmus test for storytelling. Often, this valuable turf gets wasted with vanilla language.

Here’s what appears on Groupon’s site:

Launched in November 2008, Groupon features a daily deal on the best stuff to do, see, eat, and buy in more than 500 markets and 44 countries, and soon beyond (read: Space). We have about 1,500 people working in our Chicago headquarters, a growing office in Palo Alto, CA, account executives based in local markets across North America and regional offices in Europe, Latin America, Asia and throughout the world.

Our company philosophy is pretty simple: we treat our customers the way we like to be treated. That boils down to a few key things:

We sell stuff we want to buy. A great price is only half the battle – it’s also got to be a great product or service. Between our top-rated business partners and unbeatable prices, you should feel comfortable venturing out and trying something new – just because it’s featured on Groupon. We want Groupon to be an addiction you can feel good about.

No BS. We really want you to love Groupon. “Gotchas” and buried conditions that sour the experience are a terrible way to accomplish that goal. We want each Groupon purchase to feel too good to be true, from the moment you buy to the day you use it. If there’s anything unusual about a deal (e.g., an inconvenient location), we go out of our way to point it out.

Unbelievable customer service. Like you, we’ve suffered through hour-long “transfer-athons” with customer service departments, or waited days for an email reply to a simple question. If you contact us, we’ll do what it takes to make things right – and we’ll do it fast. Email us, or speak with a human (during normal business hours): (877) 788-7858.

More than being conversational, the story empathizes with the reader.

My only quibble is the kick-off pargraph which gets weighed down with how many people and location.

Jumping into the fray with an opener like the following better reflects Groupon’s voice:

Groupon features a daily deal on the best stuff to do, see, eat, and buy in a zillion markets around the world.

I’m looking forward to reading Groupon’s prospectus after it files to go public.

Now that should make for a good story.


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