Friday, February 16

Making Radio: ProComm

Nobody likes to give away all their secrets, but I'm about to give one away: ProComm.

ProComm, which is located in North Carolina, is often my first choice among radio and voiceover production companies. (Yes, we might be based in Las Vegas, but we really, really like ProComm.) So do a lot of other people: Time Magazine, Disney, and MasterCard among them.

ProComm was one of the first production companies to pool its voice talent from other markets like Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Miami, and Atlanta and then offer clients (people like me and my clients) an opportunity to screen them online. All the production participants (technicians, talent, and producers) are then patched in from various locations, allowing people like me to call in and effectively produce a national-caliber spot (whether it's local, regional, or national).

You never really appreciate such a tool until you have a very bad cold like I did about a month ago. We had a very busy production schedule with eight spots as part of a multi-market campaign for one of our favorite clients. At a walk-in studio, I would have had to reschedule the entire job or send someone else to produce the spots and hope for the best. Not so with ProComm. I climbed out of bed for a few hours each day and got to work — at home.

The quality is outstanding. Time after time, ProComm has demonstrated it keeps pace with our scripts. In fact, just last night (although I was teaching), the same client I was producing spots for about a month ago was recognized for its "Summer Gas Prices" spot that aired last summer. It received an IABC/Las Vegas Bronze Quill award for communication excellence in radio.

The client is Black Gaming, better known for its three resorts CasaBlanca, Oasis, and Virgin River located in Mesquite, Nevada, which is about 90 minutes north of Las Vegas. It's owned by Randy Black, one of the nicest and most authentic resort owners in the gaming industry (he also plays himself in the spots, which were recorded locally by Dave Martin).

The spot that won last night was the joint concept between myself and Scott DeAngelo, vice president of marketing for all three resorts. Scott noticed a trend last summer that people where reluctant to travel as far due to the perception that gas prices were just too high (prices were well over $3 per gallon in Las Vegas). So, based on that idea, he let us run loose to write, cast, and produce several spots that pitted Black, the "people's resort owner," against "greedy oil companies" who were, in effect, preventing people from taking a vacation. Add to this concept three great resorts for the right price, and you have everything you need to produce results.

While I won't share the entire case study here, I will offer up that the spot drove occupancy to record levels (about 10 percent higher) than previous years during the same tracking period and received some fine compliments from, believe it or not, other resort owners and marketing directors. Unlike many competitions, results are an important factor in the IABC/Las Vegas Bronze Quills.

So, kudos all around. A great product, a top marketing guru, creative scripts, great production, solid talent (including Randy Black and ProComm professionals), and a smart media buy (also DeAngelo's handiwork), and it's easy to win. No, I don't mean win awards: I mean win customers, which is really what it is all about.


Wednesday, February 14

Dissecting Demographics: Verizon

Marketing demographics are wonderful things for advertisers, allowing writers and designers to tailor the messages to very specific audiences based on any number of factors: age, income, automotive preference, etc. Although we benefit from such information, every now and then I wonder if we're dissecting our audiences too thin.

For instance, Verizon released information today to inform the media about its new campaign: "To inform African-Americans about Verizon's latest bundled services, Verizon Double Freedom and Verizon Triple Freedom, the company has launched a new television and print ad campaign that focuses on personalization."

The decision to create this campaign is based on extensive market research that "African-American consumers have a long history of customizing and personalizing their environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever more means).

Personally, I had no idea that African-Americans differed so greatly from other Americans on this point. But it is starting to make sense to me, given that all other Americans are virtually identical in terms of "environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means).

As a result, Verizon's new campaign, with the theme "Personalize Life," portrays ways in which African-Americans can customize products and services from Verizon to fit their lifestyle and their needs.

"Verizon has had a long history of providing relevant messages specifically to our African-American customers," said Jeff McFarland, director of multicultural marketing for Verizon. "This new campaign lets our customers know that they can choose the services they need to help them enrich their lives and be on the best network, known for its 99.99 percent reliability."

Oh, I thought we were talking about African-Americans and their apparent dominance over "personalizing environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means). Today's image, by the way, is of Verizon employees closely monitoring the reliability factor of at least 99.999. I cannot be certain, but there is something missing in the context of this topic. Look closely. Any guesses?

I'm not even going to discuss the commercial, which basically shows bundled packages that would probably appeal to most consumers, regardless of ethnicity. To me, the only thing African-American in the spot, as it is described, are African-Americans.

Is it any wonder, given this new campaign, that SnapDragon Consultants, a "brand insights firm," today released (just minutes before Verizon's release) that "Asian-American youth feel excluded and misunderstood by most brands. It's made worse by the fact that they see advertisers actively wooing the African-American and Hispanic markets."

This insight is one of ten things that SnapDragon Consultants says every brand should know about Asian-American youth.

Some other insights include: Asian-American youth are secret fans of "easy listening" adult contemporary music (lite FM is a hidden passion); there's a "hero gap" among Asian-American kids, which is being filled for many by activists from other cultures like Martin Luther King, Jr.; and they are not fond of 15 minutes of seemingly benign American Idol fame for William Hung, who perpetuated the worst stereotypes about Asian people and gave non-Asians permission to indulge in two years of racial stereotyping and mocking.

All this was released in honor of the upcoming Chinese New Year and an "ongoing initiative to deliver qualitative research and high-level insights on Asian-American youth to marketers interested in reaching this influential and growing demographic."

Look, I'm not saying Verizon is wrong for an attempt at marketing to a specific audience (though the news release seemed silly to me) nor that SnapDragon Consultants is wrong for bringing attention to the plight of Asian-American youth (it bordered on questionable to me). What I think is wrong is that marketers sometimes cut too deeply into their research and deduce erroneous conclusions because they either wrap an advertising campaign that appeals to everyone in ethnicity or collect too much qualitative data that seems to lack substance.

Sure, sometimes ethnically targeted marketing is smart, but in terms of research, I've always found "lifestyle choices" are much more revealing than racial profiling. And no, I don't mean lifestyle choices such as personalizing their environments, from music and other artistic expressions to fashion to personal living spaces and more" (whatever 'more' means).

I mean things like what magazines do they read, what artists do they listen to, and where do they go on vacation. That is much more revealing than people who are "secret fans" of a specific music (which I guess means they lie about what they listen to) or people who prefer to "personalize environments," which, the last time I checked, pretty much included everyone who could afford to.


Tuesday, February 13

Faking The Net: Sony

I've written about anonymous posters and blogs before, most recently about The Branding Foundry's ill-advised critique on anonymous posters. However, there is one time that the spirit of anonymous blogging is truly abused.

It's a growing trend that breaches ethics and crosses over to fraud: anonymous blogs written by companies to bolster positive reviews. It's not surprising to me that some companies would use anonymous blogs to bump up sales, but I am still surprised by which companies have engaged in spinning fiction and then attempt to justify their actions under the label stealth marketing.

Sony was just one of the companies exposed in late 2006. Considering Sony's annual sales exceeded $16.7 billion with plenty of products considered among the best in the field, it didn't make much sense that it would approve a fake blog, created by viral marketing firm Zipatoni to promote the PSP.

Although MR Wavetheory incorrectly suggests "all publicity is good publicity," the retired Silicon Valley venture capitalist turned blogger was right to say Sony may as well kept the "flog" up when it came under fire. That would have been a fine place to begin some crisis communication efforts.

Of course, the main reason this 2006 news is relevant today is because Sam Coates, writing for TimesOnline, reported and brought additional attention to the fact that "floggers" could face criminal prosecution under new rules that will soon come into force.

Businesses that write fake blog entries or create Web sites purporting to be from customers will fall foul of a European directive banning them from “falsely representing oneself as a consumer,” he writes. The change will also become law in the United Kingdom, establishing that floggers can be named and shamed by trading standards or even taken to court. This includes people who write fake reviews on Web sites such as Amazon. (Amazon did tighten its review procedures in 2004 after John Rechy gave himself a five-star review while posing as a reader from Chicago).

Incidentally, what consumers do not know is there are plenty of "pay-for-space" Web sites, magazines, tabloids, and television/radio shows that have been acting as neutral reviewers since publishing first came into fashion hundreds of years ago. Many of them do not provide the consumer any disclaimers or evidence that the reviews and/or puff pieces are paid advertisements, generally called advertorials.

Whether the new law will spill over to the "pay-for-space" arena is unclear. But what is clear is that business people in the United Kingdom and United States posing as supposedly independent customers in an attempt to boost sales is ethically wrong. It's a shame too, because all they have to do is offer up the smallest disclaimer to fall on the right side of the line.

What's also a shame is that "flogging" is completely unnecessary, but some less ethical people in my industry make a living at it, convincing their clients with a kindergarten argument that it's all right because everybody is doing it. Sure, "astroturfing" as Frank Ahrens of the Washington Post correctly calls it, it is not new. Companies, politicians, and governments have hired "influencers" in specific demographics to spread the word about a product or service or political issue for years.

Microsoft even landed in hot water after it offered to pay a blogger to change technical articles on Wikipedia, the community-produced Web encyclopedia site. Microsoft's defense is that the articles were heavily written by people at IBM Corp. Microsoft also claims it has gotten nowhere trying to correct what it defines as "inaccuracies" by following Wikipedia protocol.

To me, the Microsoft case pales in comparison to a business pretending to be a consumer (maybe Microsoft is right and maybe Microsoft is wrong in this case), but it certainly reminds us that Wikipedia is hardly the end all to research. Still, Microsoft would have been better off commissioning an article that refuted Wikipedia or simply finding someone sympathetic who would have done it for free. (Oh right, that would mean developing a public relations strategy. How silly of me.)

The bottom line is that no one needs to fake it to reach the same effect. There are plenty of publications that will run feature releases without a single edit (sometimes, anyway). There are plenty of journalists and bloggers who become product fans. There are plenty of consumers who seem perfectly willing to accept advertorials as fact, even with disclaimers.

And, of course, it doesn't take much to realize that if your advertising is ineffective, maybe you have the wrong message. That seems like a great place to start, at least much better than spending even more money trying to cheat the public.


Monday, February 12

Pickling A Candidate: John Edwards

When John Edwards hired bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, his plan seemed simple enough. Pick two bloggers with an existing audience and have them make a grand slam on the Internet, Babe Ruth style. Unfortunately, he didn't hire two babes.

So far, the Marcotte and McEwan blog batting average is the worst in the league, giving the campaign a black eye and placing Edwards in a bit of a pickle, somewhere between first and second base. It's not a good place to be when you're trailing in third place, according to the latest Fox poll.

As a quick recap, visit YouTube for the CNN scandle coverage or read my earlier Being Semi-Public post. Keep in mind, both CNN and I passed on referencing the more hateful posts penned by Marcotte and McEwan.

What interested me the most, from a communication standpoint, is what would Edwards do facing a no-win communication situation (as I alluded to last week: if he fires the bloggers, he looks like he's pandering to the right; if he keeps the bloggers, he looks like he's turning his back on those offended). Edwards, forgetting that standing between first and second base is hardly safe, tried to play both ends toward the middle.

"The tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte's and Melissa McEwen's posts personally offended me. It's not how I talk to people, and it's not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor or anything else," his statement read, just before standing firm against the right, saying he intended to keep them.

Huh? I guess he wasn't that offended.

"But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake. I've talked to Amanda and Melissa; they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone's faith, and I take them at their word. We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in," he said.

And therein lies the pickle. No one is happy with his decision, probably not even Marcotte and McEwan, who also participated in Team Edwards' first example of "discipline, focus, and courage."

"My writings on my personal blog, Pandagon on the issue of religion are generally satirical in nature and always intended strictly as a criticism of public policies and politics. My intention is never to offend anyone for his or her personal beliefs, and I am sorry if anyone was personally offended by writings meant only as criticisms of public politics." — Amanda Marcotte

In other words: I did not have the discipline and focus to write satire that can be distinguished from hate speech, nor do I have the courage to stand behind those words today. Please, please, please, let me keep my job.

"Shakespeare's Sister is my personal blog, and I certainly don't expect Senator Edwards to agree with everything I've posted. We do, however, share many views - including an unwavering support of religious freedom and a deep respect for diverse beliefs. It has never been my intention to disparage people's individual faith, and I'm sorry if my words were taken in that way." — Melissa McEwen

In other words: I am not really apologizing for what I wrote, but I will apologize for those who took it the wrong way, er, exactly the way I meant it. I don't believe in everything Edwards stands for, but a paycheck is a pretty powerful convincer.

As I wrote last week, there was only one clear solution to solve this mini crisis communication problem: Marcotte and McEwen could have resigned. Then, Edwards could have been offended, but not fired them. Marcotte and McEwen could have stood by their ill-advised opinions, ensuring their rhetoric readers didn't see them as sellouts.

Instead, Edwards sent out one of the worst statements ever released in a bid for President of the United States. And, if Edwards' attempt to play the middle and his staff's attempt to offer faux apologies is any indication of how he will run his upcoming campaign, then I just don't see how he can get to home plate.


Friday, February 9

Resigning For Others: Cartoon Network

Wow! Kudos for Harry R. Weber over at the Associated Press for breaking the news that, yes, indeed, the notion that all publicity is good publicity is dead. At least, that is the way I read it as Jim Samples, head of the Cartoon Network, resigned following a marketing stunt that caused a terrorism scare in Boston and led police to shut down bridges and send in the bomb squad.

According to the Associated Press, the announcement of Samples' resignation came in an internal memo to Cartoon Network staff members. He said that regretted what had happened and felt compelled to step down in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under his watch.

"It's my hope that my decision allows us to put this chapter behind us and get back to our mission of delivering unrivaled original animated entertainment for consumers of all ages," said Samples.

The resignation of Samples also follows the news that "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" demographic remains unchanged in the wake of the bomb scare. The cartoon averaged 386,000 viewers last week; 380,000 viewers a week prior. I suspect Samples may be the first, but not the last person or, perhaps, company to slip from sight over guerilla marketing gone wrong.

“Interference did the slimy Sony Ericsson campaign on the Empire State Building, and now this. But most importantly, the people they hired have zero remorse,” Buzz Marketing CEO and author Mark Hughes told Adotos, seeing it much the same way we did days ago.

Sure, Interference, Inc. apologized, but there comes a time when one wonders whether an apology is enough. You can usually tell by measuring the sincerity of the apology along with any course correction or offer of restitution. Isn't that right, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan? Oh right, we're saving that for Monday.

You two could learn a lot from Samples, who did the right thing, and in his case, it might not even have been necessary. With sincerity, good luck, Mr. Samples.


Experimenting With Blogs: Recruiting

A few weeks ago, as I was introducing just over a dozen University of Nevada, Las Vegas, students to my "Writing for Public Relations" class, I noted how social media (blogging) and the internet have made public relations a moving target. The rules of engagement are changing and public relations practitioners would be wise to stay ahead of the curve.

In some cases, I said, some of the information I'll share over the next 11 weeks will be obsolete (the structure of a news release, perhaps, among them). But some things, I stressed, will remain unchanged. For example: you cannot choose what the media says about you, but you can choose how you react to it. The same applies to bloggers, which tend to be even bigger wild cards in the game of communication.

In answering by example, I referenced how while writing about my living case study on Jobster, one blogger attempted to take me to task, going a bit beyond the difference of opinion and giving me the moniker “Mr. Mustache" and calling me a sissy. The majority of my students were, very literally, slack-jawed and appalled.

Look, I'm always up for a game now and again, so given that most of my students are working professionals in addition to attending UNLV, I asked what they thought I should do. Of all the answers, ranging from ignoring him to considering a slander suit (imagine!), one still sticks in my mind because only one student got the joke.

"You should have shaved off your mustache," she said. "And that will be that!"

No, I have not shaved my mustache; I only do that from time to time, temporarily, if someone pays me $100. (I'm not one of those guys who is "afraid" to shave it off). I did not file a slander suit (they meant libel, but that's why they are students) and I wouldn't even have a real case if I was silly enough to do so. I did not ignore him.

What I did do was choose how I would react to the labeling and I chose to find it funny, because, well, it was funny. Then I applied the most of basic public relations strategies, responding to his argument (but in my style), which generally does not include name calling. We agreed to disagree on the issue, and both offered up that we were mutual fans despite our different styles.

Since, I've written about two other recruiting companies (Talent Zoo and Monster) for different reasons related to communication, mostly because I'm tracking Jobster to wrap up the case study sometime in the near future. Or maybe not.

You see, Recruiting Animal e-mailed me a couple days ago, inviting me to join the growing group of talented bloggers over at Recruiting I've visited the blog a few times, and know that two other bloggers I met while tracking Jobster (Shannon Seery and Amitai Givertz) also contribute there from time to time.

So I accepted the invitation from the blogger who called me a sissy, despite repeated warnings that I could expect equally fiery and unabashed comments and critiques: "Also note that participation in a joint blog would not hamper our ability to criticize each other as fiercely as is common online."

Certainly, Recruiting Animal is not everybody's cup of tea (though he prefers to be called, in his words, a "prick"), but I find his posts a nice blend of practical and entertaining commentary. He also encouraged me to check around about him; nah, I already had a sense of what other people thought of him and also know I generally get along with people who aren't vanilla (not that there is anything wrong with vanilla). I look forward to getting to know him more: good, bad, or indifferent.

In sum, it's an experiment, which I find especially interesting because this seems like such an unlikely association. Heck, Recruiting Animal has already asked that I quit saying "thank you" so much, noting he never got that I would from my posts. That's okay. I would have never guessed Recruiting Animal has a real name (he does, you know ... shhhhh.)

Of course, I also look forward to getting to know the other writers, authors, and bloggers at Recruiting ... I've read some good stuff over there. So in addition to mentioning that some posts "here" will be reframed for "there," this can also serve as my post first-post introduction, which hopefully is more entertaining than writing "blah, blah, blah" about me.


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