Friday, September 28, 2007

David Lynch's "A Goofy Movie"

Offered without commentary:

How Not To Do Blogger Outreach, With Translation of PR Nonsense

I have never been contacted by a PR firm to get me to cover something on this blog, but some of my blogging coworkers have. One of my coworkers was recently contacted, although we're a little unclear as to why - he basically blogs about marketing and PR like I do, so the closest we can figure is these guys created a list of "communications/marketing blogs" and spammed them with the same form email, inserting their names and nothing else. Remember when I talked about individual communication? This is the opposite of that. The exchange that follows is priceless. Note that all names have been removed, as have all references to the company and product to protect the innocent.

    Hey there [blogging coworker],

    I have been bursting to tell you about [product] but I have been under embargo until the big press conference in New York this morning. Well, since the embargo has been lifted, both you and I are free to talk or write about [product] until we’re blue in the face, so here’s what [product] is …
    If you’re as excited about [product] as I am and think it will appeal to the [coworker's blog] community [note: my coworker's blog does not have a "community"], I hope you’ll take a few minutes to let your audience know all about it.
    Either way, we’re also letting bloggers into our private preview in a few weeks, so that you can have a sneak peek right before [product] opens to the public – but you’ll need to reserve your spot.
    So let me know if you’d like to be added to our private preview list, and feel free to ping me if you have any questions.


    [PR guy]

    [PR guy's contact information]
    P.S. If you want to learn more before checking out the social media release, here’s the official Press Release.

    [press release pasted]
Um, yeah. So my coworker really doesn't have a "community" (as much as I love you Puppeteers, you're not a community either - not by the new marketing definition of the term anyway). And until he received this, he'd never heard of the product and "bursting at the seams" comes off as so disingenuous and fake it's not even funny (or rather, it is!) My coworker also figured out that the PR guy who sent this added him as a "friend" on Facebook about a half-hour before this email was sent, and did a little detective work to trace this back to an interactive PR company. So my coworker responds with:
    Hey [PR guy] -- sure, would love to check out the preview, thanks for the invite. Not sure if I'll blog about this soon but I am interested in what you are doing.

    FYI, I don't mind the e-mail, but might be better next time to send a private message via Facebook, since that is where you found me, instead of pinging my public e-mail address. If I didn't figure out who you were and who you work for, I might have felt "spammed" :-)


Now here's where things take a turn for the strange. PR guy comes back with:
    I see where you're coming from. I must admit that that is an issue I deal with because I try to maintain a "list" two which I send "pitches" and I am trying figure out the best way to make this happen so that folks like [NAMEDROP OF FAMOUS NEW MARKETING GUY THIS GUY ACTUALLY WORKS FOR] and you don't feel SPAMMED, but message you indeed were! I cannot deny that -- my only defense is that I only "spam" bloggers, who are public folks, anyway, and I try to be a little bit neighborly about it :)

    Thanks for getting back to me, however!

    [PR guy]
Well intentioned, but I'm guessing this fellow didn't ace writing class. My coworker sends me:
    Okay, help me out -- what the fuck is he saying, that spamming bloggers is cool?
So I have a little fun with this. Here's my translation:
    I see where you're coming from.

    [Oops, you caught me.]

    I must admit that that is an issue I deal with because I try to maintain a "list" two which

    [Twin Acres Community College Education ahoy!]

    I send "pitches" and I am trying figure out the best way to make this happen so that folks like [GUY] and you don't feel SPAMMED,

    [I also spend a lot of time on 4chan, and I have no real clue what I’m doing as far as blogger engagement goes.]

    but message you indeed were!

    [This just doesn’t make sense. “Message” is not a verb as used here, and even if it was this still isn’t grammatically correct.]

    I cannot deny that -- my only defense is that I only "spam" bloggers, who are public folks, anyway, and I try to be a little bit neighborly about it :)
    [Fuck off, spamming a big old list of people I made up is easier than writing them all, but it’s OK because your email is out there publicly so I’m really little more than a spambot farming email addresses, but that’s OK too because I at least personalized the email with your name and created some folksy language that the Bush administration wouldn’t even use.]

    Thanks for getting back to me, however!
    [Eat it.]
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how not to do blogger engagement. I hope you had a good chuckle at least - we did.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007 1. Steve Jobs: 0

One of my only complaints about Apple and the iTunes / iPod format (aside from the shitty, shitty hardware - "just works" my ass) is the DRM'd music you "purchase" from their store - not that I want to share it, but because it locks me into buying Apple products so I can continue to play my purchases. I love my iPod, but I can imagine a day when another company makes a viable alternative and my brand loyalty only goes as far as what's most functional in my life. But Apple was smart, because the couple hundred dollars (at least ) of DRM'd music I've purchased from them must be played on Apple devices until the end of time. Considering that includes at least one exclusive Peacemakers album, I'm loathe to switch.

But today, launched their own MP3 online music store. What's the difference? A slightly smaller selection than iTunes, a crummier search function (it never was Amazon's strongest point), but DRM free, 256KBS MP3s. Often for the same price (and many times cheaper) than iTunes' DRM'd songs.

And I can just drag and drop them into iTunes, and they're good to go. Or into whatever other future service I might want to use, on a future player that hasn't been released yet.

iTunes just lost a customer today. Congrats, Amazon.

Also, the other thing I don't like about the iPod / iTunes? No multiple genre tags. That, and the crappy quality of the hardware that has necessitated the replacement of the device even though I'm hardly what I'd consider a "hardcore" user. But man, those iPod Touches are sexy.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Life Toxic

After my last series of posts, I had a reader ask me a very good question: how do you deal with a toxic community? A community so entrenched in its negativity that anything you say or do with them will be turned around, thrown in your face or used against you?

Do such places exist? Are there really people out there who devote a good deal of their time online to complaining, albeit passionately, about something? Yes, there are. I've seen several varieties of these kinds of communities in my time. Here are a few off the top of my head. I've kept things general and intentionally not linked to anything, and none of these examples represent any of my current clients:

  • A blog by an ex-employee of a company that claims insider information of wrongdoing, but offers no hard evidence. Any press release made by the company is dissected and twisted by the blogger, who claims to want "open discussion" - but blocks the company's IP addresses from viewing the blog, thus shutting out the institution they claim to want to change.
  • A forum devoted entirely to how biased and unfair the moderators on another, much larger forum are, populated largely by people kicked off the larger forum for breaking rules.
  • A blog devoted entirely to how biased one particular moderator on a forum is - with daily updates of the moderator's posts and moderating decisions, often deriding the moderator for his "stupidity" and bias.
  • A forum created by a "clan" or group of gamers who were annoyed enough at the game company's decisions to change their game that they created their own forum where they could openly criticize nearly every decision the company made.
  • A blog whose writers posts news neutrally, but then offer consistently negative commentary which is echoed by the community members, with comments often numbering in the dozens to the hundreds on each post.
Also, since I'm getting a lot of traffic from Fallout communities following my use of Fallout as an example, I need to clarify that none of those examples are a Fallout community.

So to my reader's question - how do you engage with a community like this? The short answer is, you don't. Period. Sometimes, there is no strategic advantage to engaging with a community so toxic and hostile that they have the time, effort and inclination to do nothing but be negative on the Internet, especially towards a company or a product. While it's true that there are companies out there that certainly deserve ire, consider the kind of person who would make a blog only to post about how awful a game company (rather than, say, a political figure) is and then update it constantly, regardless of whether anyone aside from a small number of like-minded individuals actually read it. That's the kind of mindset you're dealing with.

But rarely do communities get this bad, and a little research will typically be more than enough warning to avoid a truly toxic community. Note to fellow PR stooges: this is why you can't just do "parachute bloggerism" and expect results. You send your email to the wrong community, and they're really going to make you regret it. So step one is avoiding communities like this.

Step two is realizing that not all community members out there are this way. Nine times out of ten, there are other outlets for discussing a passion, be they blogs, Facebook groups, forums, Listserves or something else. Find those communities instead, and engage there. The toxic community members will either close themselves off further - in which case you lose nothing - or take an interest in engaging you outside of their comfort zone, on another site, where you have at least gained their attention. That's progress.

Step two and a half is what happens if there isn't another place to engage. This is not an either-or situation, and the image above comes from one of my favorite Star Trek references: the Kobayashi Maru, or the "unwinnable scenario." In Star Trek, a Starfleet cadet is introduced to a simulation where they are forced to choose between rescuing a ship in the Klingon Neutral Zone and destroying their own ship and killing their crew, or ignoring the ship's distress call and abandoning the people aboard to certain death. Kirk was the only cadet to ever pass the test (as of Star Trek II anyway) by coming up with a unique solution: he reprogrammed the simulator to let him win. The lesson of the Kobayashi Maru is that there's typically another solution to any seemingly dualistic problem - and in this instance, you have to fiddle with the community a bit to win.

I don't mean hacking into the toxic forums. Rather, create your own community. Not for the control over its members, but for the initial control over its content. This can be as simple as starting a blog where you have well-defined rules about low-content, hostile comments and delete such as necessary. Or it can be the creation of a forum where you start driving conversation, and let things evolve naturally on their own. Or - and I don't mean to bandwagon here - a Facebook or Gather discussion group was made for this sort of thing, and they're not that hard to create.

The best way to deal with a toxic community is to simply remove it from the equation. I don't mean ignore it, because often times a company's harshest critics can provide it with some of the best feedback. But there's also no reason to set yourself up for failure when engaging with a community that tends to be toxic. The fact of the matter is, it's just not worth it. Sure, there may be more of them than there are of your positive community when you first begin engaging - but that demographic will change over time. And the payoff is worth it.

Note: Thanks to Mike Reed's famous Flame Warriors for the picture above. Support his work, it's seriously awesome.

A Rare Occasion

I'm marking this event with a blog post because frankly it happens less than me being hit on by hot Hollywood actresses. Last night, President Bush said something I agreed with regarding the invitation and subsequent circus of Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Columbia University:

    When you really think about it, he's the head of a state sponsor of terror, he's—and yet an institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedoms of the country.
Well said (uh, kind of) Mr. Bush. My first thought when I heard of this stunt was that there's now way a university in Iran would ever extend the same invitation to President Bush - and if they did, how many assassination attempts could radical Muslims squeeze into one visit? The very fact that America allows people of all varieties, even the most repellent anti-gay, Holocaust-denying, woman-abusing elected heads of state, their say is a testament to why I at the bottom of my heart love this country and the freedoms upon which it was founded.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner by Randall Jarrell

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from the dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

An Example of Piss-Poor Customer Service

I've read horror stories about Bank of America's customer service but never experienced it firsthand until yesterday. I went looking on their website for information about BoA locations outside of the US; there isn't any information on the site. So I called the customer service number, and was routed through a labyrinthine "press 1 to hear your balance, press 2 to order a duck in a box" process. Thankfully I didn't have to speak my choices - it gave me the option to use a touchtone phone rather than use the voice-driven menu system, and that's the only good thing I can say about the experience.

I went through the system no less than three times, first trying to get an answer to my question, then simply trying to talk to a person. I would have settled for some Punjab-based broken-English customer service rep by the time I was done ready to take down my personal information to feed to Allah and the Great Jihad against the American Satan, but even that wasn't an option. So instead I go back online and discover there's an email form I can fill out.

I'm redirected to a secure server where I fill out my name, email address, contact info and my account number. I'm promised an answer in less than 24 hours. About 12 hours later, an email arrives stating that since I didn't go through the login process before filling out the email form, they can't process my request. Even though I followed the instructions posted on Bank of America's website precisely.

So here's a big "fuck you" to Bank of America and their joke customer service. I was going to see what I could do to keep my account, but now I don't feel bad about closing it down and taking my business elsewhere. And let this be a lesson: as more companies are discovering that the can interface with their customers online, there's a move away from providing good customer service. This baffles me. Why would you go online to talk to a blogger whose negative experiences were created by your shoddy customer service, and not fix the customer service issues? Customer service is front-line PR. It's individual engagement before us PR stooges were online talking about individual engagement. And there's a backlash against Punjab Allah for a reason - people like to know they can talk to someone, preferably without having to ask that person to repeat themselves just to understand simple concepts - and get clear, concise, accurate and fast answers.

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Value of Engagement: Appendix

Brother None made a really good comment challenging something I said in my third post (and the Fallout 3 blog gave me a nice shout out too.) He raises an exceptionally good point, one I'd like to talk about here. Money quote:

    The example of how to do modern community management and PR "right" is BioShock, and going strong at 1.5 million sales, it's shown to have worked...

    And there's there real puzzling bit. How is Bethesda doing it "right"? They're doing exactly, and I do mean exactly, what you advice PR people not to do in your first posts. They made their press packets, they sent them out, and they're getting their hyped-up posts, on over a 100 sites and magazines that I've seen.

    It's all cut and jib stuff. In the meantime, the community FAQ is the only bit of real interaction given, and it was indirect and slowed down, and failed to create any significant buzz anywhere (it had only about 400 posts on their forum, compared to, say, the 800+ posts on NMA's preview).
The bolded bit is the important one, and upon further reflection I think he's right, or very nearly so.

2K did do some of same kinds of things with BioShock, at least in the very beginning. It had a showing at E32006, which kind of kickstarted the campaign, and there were articles in magazines. But otherwise, I think Brother None's point stands. Through a function of writing a post at three separate times and trying to reign in thoughts that are evolving, I didn't articulate exactly what I wanted to say in the third post, so let me make an addendum.

Bethesda is doing some things right. They still have a year or more develop their program, and the "20 community questions" is a step in the right direction, but thusfar their interest has been in engaging traditional media rather than engaging the community on an individual level. And, as BN notes, that could end up being an Achilles' heel as the chatter in the community becomes more negative.

I'd rather not dwell on what they're doing wrong, but instead make some (free - my agency might kill me for this) suggestions about what they can do to improve.
  • Engage transparently on their forums. A lot. A community manager should spend 60% - 80% of his time engaging with the community. Even if he isn't answering questions about Fallout 3, he can be talking to fans about things. Post-nuke books and movies. Wasteland. Shared experiences. Favorite beers. These are the kinds of things that show you're not a PR stooge, you're a person.
  • Engage on other sites. Yes this is hard because you won't be in your own playground anymore, but make accounts on Duck and Cover and NMA. Roll up your sleeves and get into the discussion. Be ready to be called names - this takes a thick skin - but get in there and do eet.
  • Here's a novel one and Brother None will no doubt enjoy this. Offer to do some guest posts on the Fallout 3 blog. It can't hurt.
  • Set up a Fallout 3 Twitter. Twitter is now so popular that the White House has a Twitter you can follow. Whether you'd want to is up to you, but you can do it. It's easy, and it's a good way to stay in touch.
That's not a comprehensive list, but this isn't a new business pitch either so I can't give away too much for free.

It's going to be very interesting to see how this develops over the next few months. I'm definitely going to revisit it from time to time, not only because it's a topic of personal interest but it's a very interesting test case.

The Economy, Stupid

Alan Greenspan: The Bush Administration's economic policies are "fiscally irresponsible" - ie, not at all the conservative economic policies sold to the American public in either election, and are bad for the American economy.
Dick Cheney: Nuh uh! (Registration required for article, read assessment of rebuttal here.)
Canada: Our economy is just as strong as yours and our currencies are now even, despite our universal health care. Beauty, eh?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Value of Engagement, Part Three: Taking It To the Community

For context, see my first post about the value of both listening and talking to the community and how it differs from traditional PR, and my second on how engaging with blogs is only the first step in online marketing. I concluded with this:

    I have said before we need to figure out "how" to do this - frankly, we know how. It's a challenge dealing with individuals, but that's how you have to do it. It really is throwing out the old rules of engagement (to use CC Chapman's description) and not so much writing a new process as dealing with things on an individual level. You can no longer spam a press release to 500 people, get 100 hits and call it a success. But one good post on a forum related to your target audience, where 500 interested and passionate individuals might see it - now you're cooking with gas.
Engagement of individuals is where this industry is heading, and this is especially important to agencies. I've thought more about what I was asked that initially sparked this entire train of thought. While engaging with blogs is within our area of expertise, engaging with so-called "top tier" blogs isn't much different than engaging with a magazine. By "top tier," I mean the blogs that have grown to begin replacing print media - the Engadgets of the online world. I do not mean this in a negative way; it's the natural progression of things, and a PR professional would be a fool to ignore them. In fact, I've seen people in my agency on the traditional PR side begin taking ownership of outreach to these blogs and relationships with the bloggers/reporters there - which makes perfect sense as well, because talking to these bloggers is a lot more like talking to traditional media, except things happen in "Internet time," something that really requires an entire post of its own to explain.

But going back to the main thrust of the two previous posts, the underlying "thesis" here if you will, its actual individual engagement with community members that offers the potential for the most value. When a blog like Engadget covers something, dozens if not hundreds of other blogs pick it up - and the news often gets posted to specific forums dedicated to whatever the item is. For example, if Engadget covers a new cellphone it's a shoe-in that cellphone enthusiast forums are going to pick up on the post.

So why go on those forums to talk to the community members there, if they're already getting their news (or if you've got an online agency sending them news?) What's the value in that? The answer to that question is what I've been trying to set up - that the value, although somewhat immeasurable by "traditional" means (hits, key message playback, and so forth) lies in the emotional attachment to the brand and the feeling of investment created in the community by such interaction.

What ho! says the traditional marketer? Isn't this also an opportunity to control our message, to disseminate and throttle and control information as well?

Well sure, I suppose. But there's an underlying disparity in how the traditional marketer views information flow and how the new marketers (should) view information flow.
  • Traditional Marketing Wisdom: Engagement is how we control information, revealing only what we want and when we want and not worrying about transparency.
  • New Marketing Wisdom: Engagement is about transparently providing context to information, whether that information has been released by "us" or not.
Transparency has been a major point of discussion in the marketing blogosphere in the past, and something I've weighed in on myself. But "context" is word I've been thinking more about recently. Context implies framing information in a certain way, but in a transparent world context is the next logical step in the sharing process (the "opinion" of the Opinions section, to steal from my first post.) I realize "context" comes close to "influencing information," but that's not the way in which I'm using it. Context should be providing more information to make the information that's out there make sense.

So how does this work exactly? From my own personal experience at WizKids, it involves someone (me) watching forums, answering questions, recognizing when the community may have missed something or simply doesn't understand what you've said for whatever reason, and then trying to address it. But from a professional standpoint I'd like to look at what was originally going to be a couple of examples from the video game world, but has since kind of melded into one big example. Transparency declaration: the examples involve a game that is due to be released on the Xbox 360. I have not worked on the Xbox 360 account officially since the end of June, and the last billable work I did on the account was long before that, but I needed to say it anyway just so there's no confusion.

The game is Fallout 3, and (transparency again) it is a franchise I have been involved with for 10+ years if you count chatting on the Wasteland forums on Prodigy. I wrote the original Fallout PnP back in college, I worked on the d20 Modern translation that will never see the light of day, and I've been involved with the community from a fan's perspective since 1999 at least. And I've posted before about Fallout and the various things Bethesda was and wasn't doing to engage with the community, including the "Community 20 Questions" in that last post.

Engagement. Engagement never changes. Bethesda runs a pretty tight ship on their own site, and they have been focusing the lion's share of their engagement efforts thusfar on both traditional gaming media like Game Informer magazine and gaming-related websites like IGN, Kotaku and so forth. Fallout has a really active fan community - No Mutants Allowed and Duck and Cover being the two largest and most active - that even before Fallout 3 were announced, some eight years after the last Fallout game shipped, were still receiving dozens of posts a day on their forums. Let that sink in: eight years since the last product shipped, and the community was still more active than a good deal of communities dedicated to current games / products. How's that for a dedicated and invested fanbase?

Bethesda's engagement efforts, though, did not include that fanbase - at least initially. The reason they gave, and this is not a bad reason, is that they wanted to focus more on gaming sites and magazines. A company with limited resources needs to choose its battles, and the gaming press can have a major impact on how well your game sells, especially when you're investing a "metric shitton" (official measurement) of money into producing a game. You need to make a profit, so your game needs to sell to a wide audience.

OK, cool, and Bethesda has said they plan to engage with the community at a later date. The "20 Community Questions" were asked and answered. And Bethesda asked the fans themselves "what do you want to see us do to interact with the community moving forward?" But in the midst of all this, some community members decided that the promised future outreach wasn't enough and secured an interview with Pete Hines of Bethesda at the games convention in Leipzig. They did this by "becoming" members of two European gaming sites, and then publishing their interview / demo impressions on No Mutants Allowed, which the Fallout 3 blog reported on as well (along with many other outlets too numerous to link to here.)

The language used in the post on the Fallout 3 blog is telling: the two reporters / community members were "intrepid ninjas," and their operation was, in the words of Fallout community manager Matt "Gstaff" Grandstaff, "Very sneaky indeed." It's important to note that Brother None, in announcing the interview, doesn't use language to denote that he was being sneaky at all - but he does note (quite importantly) that while he and the other community member were allowed into a demo, a NMA member who registered as a member of NMA was not.

There's a lot of things to learn here, not the least of which is: in an information vacuum, community members can go to great lengths to get information being kept from them - and to actively seek out engagement with company representatives. Brother None and the NMA crew were certainly within their rights to do this, just as Bethesda is within their rights to react to it in any way they choose (and it seems that the interview kind of forced Bethesda's hand on community interaction, which in my opinion is not a bad thing - see an interview with Pete Hines about community for more information.) Another thing that one must keep in mind is that even members of the most traditional media can be bloggers, and what appears on a personal blog is not subject to the same standards as a press site, let alone a traditional media publication. Rather than rattle off a list, I will simply mention that to my knowledge no blogger or community member has been successfully sued for libel or slander over something written on the Internet (feel free to correct me in the comments if I'm wrong, and I'll update.) Even though a community member may be a reporter (or in my case, a marketing stooge) they're still community members with opinions, passions and a love for the product.

It's clear that Bethesda is doing a lot of things right insofar as community interaction. Proof positive of this is their dedicated Fallout Community Manager, Matt "Gstaff" Grandstaff. One of the most impressive online gaming-related campaigns I've seen recently was the frenzy whipped up by 2K for BioShock, and I'm not the only one: the Hollywood Reporter did a great article on it. Money quote, as quoted on the Fallout 3 blog:
    “As with, say, science fiction movies or other genres that are considered ‘cool,’ fans tend to look at marketers as ‘clueless suits’ who hype everything,” says Bass. “We knew we needed to be careful to do things in a way that was cool … not to build hype but to build buzz. Especially when we started marketing the game two years before it was finished. I mean, how do you go out on the E3 floor and say you’ve got one of the greatest games ever made when there’s nothing for anyone to see or play?”

    Rather than label “BioShock” as “the next big thing,” Bass decided to create a Web site into which he could keep releasing assets to show — not to tell — how good the game would be.
Bass makes a very important distinction between hype and buzz, and one that will probably be the subject of a future post. Hype is something that builds expectations. Buzz is something that builds awareness. And the tricky thing about expectations, especially in the gaming space, is that they're very easy to create and very hard to live up to. When you create buzz, you accomplish your goal (selling more units) while still keeping the trust of the community because expectations aren't out of control. By all counts, BioShock was a great success and even though there were some hiccups around launch time they seem to have been ironed out and the community is that much stronger for it.

Neither Fallout 3 nor BioShock would be driving the kind of buzz they're driving (and drove) simply by engaging with blogs. Both stores - one evolving, one almost over - are examples of interacting with the community as individuals, and the "value" is clear. You can begin to win over a negative community, and you can create the kind of buzz that turns a hard-to-sell game into a success.

I will be the first to admit that this strategy won't work in all cases. If you're selling dishwasher soap, chances are there isn't an invested community out there interested in discussing dishwasher soap. But there very likely is a community out there that's passionate about some aspect of your product (maybe your soap is good for the environment, or fights germs better than other soaps), and finding those communities is the key.

Which brings me to the end of this series of posts. I've thought of some other things I want to talk about, but they will be more appropriate in other places.

And if you read this far, I'll give you a cookie.

The Price of Green Power

Is apparently lower than regular power.

You'll remember earlier this year when I implored Puppeteers to consider switching to green power for only $16 a month, and mentioned that PSE gave me coupons to buy CFL bulbs to replace the regular bulbs in our house. That was a follow-up to previous posts about my switch to green power. I spent those coupons and about $40 more on switching to green power, and since I just got my PSE bill for the last month I wanted to note a trend.

For the fifth month in a row, my power bill has been below $100. Last summer - I just checked and did the math - my average bill was $114.59. Since, if anything, I've been running the Xbox 360 more this summer than last, I can't help but think those CFL bulbs had something to do with the savings.

PSE told me my bill would be about $15 more a month, but instead it's dropped by about $16 a month. When compared to last summer's power bills, I've already saved the cost of the CFL bulbs and from here on out the savings are just money in the bank. Or, it offsets and even one-ups the cost of "going green."

Rethinking the whole green power thing? Yeah, I would too.

So what have you done lately?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Blogging Habits Revisited

At the end of May, I wrote that my blogging habits had changed considerably since I started this blog back in 2003. With the addition of the Share feature in Google Reader and the new widget on the side of this blog, it's changing even more. Posting a quick link with some commentary is now redundant, especially because Google Reader looks like it will let us comment on shared items in the future as well. But the shift in habits I noticed before seems to be continuing as well; the last couple of posts I made about marketing took several hours to write apiece. At least, I wrote them over the span of several hours, putting them down and coming back as I would a magazine article rather than a quick one-off blog post.

That's how I've started to treat the blog - more like a personal magazine I'm publishing rather than a list of links or an account of what I had for breakfast. I think the end result is better (and hopefully the Puppeteers agree!), and it's awesome that Google gave me the tools to really focus on adding more valuable content to the Puppet Show while still continuing to share the things I think are cool.

I'm sure I'll be updating this thought thread yet again in six months, so stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


It's safe to say Google Reader has completely changed how I receive information. I'm basically living in an RSS world now; Google Reader has become a second inbox where I obsessively look for updates on blogs, conversations and other sources of news (I love that my Xbox 360 activities are streaming through an RSS feed - say what you will about Microsoft and the Xbox 360, they hit a grand slam with the machine's Web 2.0 capabilities.) And the best part is, I can easily share interesting posts (see the new sidebar, which has - yes - supplanted my blogroll) and keep them for later - and as of a few days ago, I can search them too.

A long time ago I signed up for, but haven't really used it for much. I gave it another look last night, and realized that I can stream my bookmarks as an RSS feed right into my Google reader, removing yet another degree of utility spread out over too many applications. Now I have a " tag" button on Firefox, and when I read an interesting webpage it's a matter of tag, label, receive in RSS and share/store if I want.

What a great toy.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Value of Engagement, Part Two

For context, catch up with The Value of Engagement Part One.

So in the last post, I alluded to engaging with blogs as not the destination, but the first step in online marketing. So where does it go from there? What's at the end of the river, and where does the rabbit hole lead? More literary references and mixed metaphors?

This isn't comprehensive by any means, but if the Internet is the next evolution of media then the Opinions page really is the precursor to online conversation, whether that conversation is taking place on a forum, in a newsgroup or in a blog post's comments section. The analogy isn't perfect; you could make the case that the Talmud is an extremely long community dialog between Torah scholars, for example. And it's true that newsgroups predated actual news websites by several years. But even in those mediums discussion had a logical starting point, whether it was an interpretation of the book of Genesis or early discussions (with spoilers!) of Return of the Jedi.

Of course, I was a little late to the party by Usenet standards, rolling into the party at 1990 or so when I first dialed into Prodigy (my 2400-baud modem was too fast for the phone lines in the area, so we had to dial it at 1200 baud.) It's also worth noting that I beat the Long September by almost three years, but more and more that's no longer a point of pride as a point of "oh Christ, I'm old!"

BBSes followed soon after, but Prodigy was my first real taste in real-time online conversations, and not coincidentally I was discussing games online with other gamers. My game of choice was Wasteland, still one of my favorite RPGs, and what made discussion on Prodigy awesome was that a representative from Interplay occasionally signed on to discuss the game with us. I still remember that first taste of online marketing - if you can call talking with fans of a 2-year-old game marketing - and how inclusive it feels when a company representative is talking to you directly.

That's the taste I tried to bring to WizKids when I engaged fans on the forums there. Sure I was the guy who dropped hints about new characters in coming sets to "chum the waters" and get them excited about what was next, but there's also a certain value to being able to interact directly with a company representative. One of WizKids more mercenary brand managers rightly called it an "added value," and I absolutely believe this is true when broken down into its simplest (IE, Business 1.0) form - online interaction is adding value to the end user experience.

OK, online interaction? What the hell is that? Let's do a step-by-step:

    1. Get on the Internet and find sites related to what you're talking about / selling / marketing / whatever. This is also the time to figure out things like how often people on those sites are talking. You want to make sure, at least at first, that you're hitting the most active sites. Ideally these should be sites created by the company, but we all know it's not a perfect world.
    2. Create an account if necessary, then start interacting.
Easy peasy. Maybe what I didn't say is more important. Note these not-steps:
    -1: Email the blogger without an introduction sending a press release.
    -2. Spam a forum with a press release or announcement with a zero-post-count account (one you just created just for that purpose, and you'll never use again.)
These seem really really obvious to me, but for the 99% of traditional marketers out there, they want to wring their hands and go [DRAMATIZATION] "why? Why must I do this? If I have to spend all this time actually interacting with my customers, when will I have the time to create workback schedules and smarm up with reporters? When will I have the time to flood my coworkers inboxes with step by step accounts of the useless old marketing strategies we used today?"

I kid, but there is actually a massive debate occurring in new marketing circles about this very topic right now. A few weeks ago, a popular and "influential" blogger in England named Tom Coates, who runs, was outreached to by a PR rep to sell something even though Coates didn't want to be solicited for anything. Coates himself blogs about social media, and attacked the problem from a social media angle - by creating a post and a now-famous Flickr image to make it very clear what happened and his stance on further solicitation. This was really the opening salvo of the debate.

Edel-colleague Simon Collister in our London office made an excellent post about this topic the other day, and weighed in with the following opinion - one I agree with 110%:
    So... [two penneth alert] for me the issue is two-fold: it's retrospectively about how the PR industry is missing the point about the social web and going forward how PR can engage with the online environment properly.

    Firstly, the PR industry misses the point with the social web/live web/blogosphere/whatever because it is far too process driven. PR people are ever used to writing a release, creating a media list and blanket mailing it out. This is partly the problem at the heart of Tom's predicament... [snip]

    However, working in an online social environment the PR industry needs to abandon process and adapt to working in a networked world of individuals. This invokes real effort, spontaneity, trust, genuine dialogue with real people. It's the stuff PR should have been about from day One but which got lost in the world of mass communications.

    It would mean that PR people would know who Tom is and know not to appraoch him. Tom is vociferous about not receiving press releases from people/companies/etc but other bloggers aren't.

    But it also means more than just pitching bloggers which is really a glorified version of media relations, but media relations done properly.

    PR done in the real way of the social web will - and I say 'will' because we haven't got there yet - mean companies (both PR and clients) being social. That way there will be no crow-barring of bloggers and social networks into horrible mass marketing campaigns. The social worth of an organisation will be there for people to choose to engage with from the outset.

    The problem is, of course, that this requires giving over control of the campaign to the 'crowd' and that is a huge wrench for most marketing and PR types. This means that their beloved 'process' is taken over by other people - YIKES!
Simon hit it out of the park with this by articulating something I've felt and attempted to implement for a long time. It's an uphill battle, because we're literally fighting decades of tradition - lazy tradition, the worst kind. The kind of tradition that doesn't want to change. The kind that says "this is the way it's always worked for us in the past, why should we do anything differently? Or my favorite label for it, dinosaur tradition.

Frankly Coates' case was just the beginning. This July at the BlogHer conference (a conclave of women bloggers, mostly but not exclusively mothers) the women there voiced this opinion, and last week as I was composing this post professional colleague Kaitlin Wilkins posted the "Blogger Outreach Code of Ethics" at Ogilvy PR's blog (source: link from a coworker on Friday.) They label the below as "take one," and I agree there needs to be some refinements (but I work for the competition, so others' mileage may vary!) but the code as it stands is:
  • We reach out to bloggers because we respect your influence and feel that we might have something that is “remarkable” which could be of interest to you and/or your audience.
  • We will only propose blogger outreach as a tactic if it complements our overall strategy. We will not recommend it as a panacea for every social media campaign.
  • We will always be transparent and clearly disclose who we are and who we work for in our outreach email.
  • Before we email you, we will check out your blog’s About, Contact and Advertising page in an effort to see if you have blatantly said you would not like to be contacted by PR/Marketing companies. If so, we’ll leave you alone.
  • If you tell us there is a specific way you want to be reached, we’ll adhere to those guidelines.
  • We won’t pretend to have read your blog if we haven’t.
  • In our email we will convey why we think you, in particular, might be interested in our client’s product, issue, event or message.
  • We won’t leave you hanging. If your contact at Ogilvy PR is going out of town or will be unreachable, we will provide you with an alternate point of contact.
  • We encourage you to disclose our relationship with you to your readers, and will never ask you to do otherwise.
  • You are entitled to blog on information or products we give you in any way you see fit. (Yes, you can even say you hate it.)
  • If you don’t want to hear from us again, we will place you on our Do Not Contact list – which we will share with the rest of the Ogilvy PR agency.
  • If you are initially interested in the campaign, but don’t respond to one of our emails, we will follow up with you no more than once. If you don’t respond to us at all, we’ll leave you alone.
  • Our initial outreach email will always include a link to Ogilvy PR’s Blog Outreach Code of Ethics.
Overall, I agree with what they're trying to do here and think this serves as a fine reference point for conversation (and others agree - see Jeremiah Owyang's post for more.) I'm not sure this goes far enough to address the point Simon so elegantly made in his post:
    [W]orking in an online social environment the PR industry needs to abandon process and adapt to working in a networked world of individuals. This invokes real effort, spontaneity, trust, genuine dialogue with real people. It's the stuff PR should have been about from day One but which got lost in the world of mass communications.
The Code still treats online PR as a process rather than working in a social network of individuals. In a network - in the "real world" - there are simply things that don't fit into a structured set of rules, into a process.

I have said before we need to figure out "how" to do this - frankly, we know how. It's a challenge dealing with individuals, but that's how you have to do it. It really is throwing out the old rules of engagement (to use CC Chapman's description) and not so much writing a new process as dealing with things on an individual level. You can no longer spam a press release to 500 people, get 100 hits and call it a success. But one good post on a forum related to your target audience, where 500 interested and passionate individuals might see it - now you're cooking with gas.

Next post: the rights and the wrongs of community interaction, from a couple of case studies in (what else?) games.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Value Of Engagement

I had an interesting discussion yesterday with a coworker who asked a common question when dealing with the folks here in EIS: "what value are you adding?" If I had a dollar for every time I've heard that, I'd have a lot of dollars.

But underlying that question is a sentiment that lies at the heart of both PR today and specifically what I do, and where I think we need to go from here. We (meaning, the New Marketing folk) have trained the traditional marketers to see the Internet as something of which they need to be aware, and in which they need to participate. That's good, but it's only the first step on a long road and unfortunately it seems that more and more, traditional PR practitioners see it as the destination rather than that first step.

The traditional PR "comfort zone" modus operandi is this:

    1. Examine product or service and create a catchy strategy for getting people exited about it.
    2. Call or write or email (aka, "pitch") magazine or newspaper with catchy product idea. This can be a clever press release, a press kit that may or may not relate to the product itself, or a "product sample" that the reporter can play with and then choose to keep. Or a combination thereof.
    3. Set up an interview with the reporter, where the PR person prepares the company's spokesperson with a series of questions the reporter could ask, the important things the spokesperson needs to talk about, and a little bio about the reporter that details what the reporter likes and dislikes.
    4. After the interview, the reporter writes the story, and PR provides them with images, answers follow-up questions, and so forth.
I realize I squeezed a lot of traditional PR know-how into four sentences and obviously glossed over some things, but if you reduce the total to four main components, it would look something like that.

Traditional PR people like that because it's safe and controlled (to a certain degree), but more importantly they can measure the value in such a thing. Another way of saying "what's the value" is "what's the ROI" (return on investment.) That's a marketing and advertising term that bled its way into PR after people realized the importance of our industry, and advertising and marketing people started migrating over to PR jobs. ROI can best be expressed by an equation:
    ROI = ((X*Y)^Z)/A, where X is the number of stories about a product, Y is the tone of those stories measured on a standard scale, Z is the circulation numbers of the publications, and A is the "investment" in time and resources (AKA $$$) spend on securing the coverage.
There's a reason people like this method: it's quantifiable, it's trackable, and in the end you can present hard numbers to a superior (or an auditor) and say "look at what we did with our budget!"

Author's Note: I was not a PR or business major, so I'm sure someone who studied this stuff will correct me on the formula and definitions above - but the spirit of it is correct.

So when faced with the Internet and "the blogosphere," it's not surprising to see traditional PR people looking for something sane and familiar. They see blogs and think: "blog = news outlet, blogger = reporter" and want to engage and measure appropriately. Several times I have run into the question, "why are we planning on outreaching to this blog when this other, completely unrelated blog has a much higher readership?"

Here's the thing: this really is the first step in a much larger process, and "success" should not be measured by the number of stories appearing on blogs and the total readership of those blogs. Why? Because that isn't where the interesting things are happening on the Internet. Sure, you should try to get bloggers to write about your stuff, but what's really interesting is in the comments sections in the blogs, and on the forums and newsgroups and email lists where real people are sharing their opinions of the product. The real measure of success isn't stories, it's sales, and you can have all the great stories in the world - but it ain't the reporters who are going to line up to buy your product. It's the people doing the commenting, the people engaged in the conversations.

Here's another way to look at it: when I was a tyke, I read two sections of the newspaper every morning, the comics and the Opinions page. The comics because they're funny, and they were still publishing Calvin and Hobbes back then. And the Opinions page because it was the most interesting section of the newspaper. Who wants to read the news, when you can read what people think about the news? What gives you more insight into your community (I use that term here to indicate "the town in which you live") - news about your town, or what the people in town think about the news about your town?

Of course, a lot of bloggers put their own opinions into stories, which is good - and it's one of the things that differentiates them from traditional news sources. Just like in literary studies, there's kind of an unwritten rule in blogging: if you're quoting a source (say, an article you picked up somewhere else or a song you're posting), then you should write at least as many lines discussing the quote, if not double the number of lines. It's a rule I haven't always followed, but it's one I try to follow as best I can, and many other bloggers do too.

But like the Opinion pages of yore, the most interesting perspective of the online community is in their discussion of goings-on. At WizKids, I used the community's reactions to identify short-term problems but also long-term trends, which we could then use to adjust our overall strategy. It's definitely an investment in time, but it's one that companies would do well to invest in more often.

UPDATE: Next post in series: the current debate about how to engage bloggers, and why it doesn't go far enough.

Memo: RE: Early Adoption

To: Early Adopters
From: The Management
Re: $200 Price Drop of iPhone After 2 Months on the Market

Body text:




Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Public Service Announcement From the Subversive Puppet Show

The Smashing Pumpkins are:

  • Billy Corgan
  • James Iha
  • D'arcy
  • Jimmy Chamberlin
I will also accept:
  • Billy Corgan
  • James Iha
  • D'arcy
  • A drum machine replacing Jimmy Chamberlin
The Smashing Pumpkins are not:
  • Billy Corgan
  • Jimmy Chamberlin
  • A bunch of people I've never heard of
  • A shitty new album with exclusive tracks that you only get at Best Buy or Wal-Mart, depending
Beware imitators. The fake Smashing Pumpkins could be touring near you. Proceed with caution and protect your memories with earplugs at all times.

The (f)Utlilty of Art [UPDATE 1]

During a long weekend of camping, I can lose myself in thought about things I don't normally get to think about during work. This weekend, I've been turning over something about art and creation that I read on SA last week. In the thread discussing Inland Empire, someone commented that Lynch's latest movie was nothing more than "masturbation" - a charge I've often seen leveled against art in many forms, be it movies, poems, abstract sculpture, whathaveyou. It's also something wielded in more academic circles (and those Puppeteers who run in such circles have a much better concept of this than I do, to be sure), with the label "academic" or "intellectual masturbation."

This label is something used almost exclusively as an insult, as it was originally used in the SA thread about Inland Empire. But this got me thinking about something near and dear to my heart as a writer, and one working in a creative field: what does "artistic masturbation" mean, and why is it an insult?

Masturbation has a lot of negative connotations, and this post isn't designed to be a discussion of sexuality and whether those connotations are deserved or not, so I'll leave it at that. But it's a selfish, solo action designed (most of the time, I'll grant you) for the pleasure of the person doing the deed. It's for no one else; it's (again, usually) a private affair and one that specifically pleases the individual nature - likes and turn-ons - of the masturbator.

So what is a movie created as "artistic masturbation?" Read the definition again, but instead of imagining some scary guy with his hands down his pants, imagine a painter standing in front of an easel, and replace a couple of sexually charged words. "It's a selfish, solo action designed (most of the time, I'll grant you) for the pleasure of the person doing the deed. It's for no one else; it's (again, usually) a private affair and one that specifically pleases the individual nature - likes and taste - of the artist."

Isn't that what we want from our artists? How many times have we heard the refrain "well, he's sold out. George Lucas sold out with the Star Wars prequels. Billy Corgan sold out when he released the new Smashing Pumpkins album without two key band members. Cormac McCarthy sold out when he went on Oprah to promote "The Road."

So which is it? Do we want artists to create art solely for themselves, or do we want art that "sells out?" This was a conflict I ran into at WizKids quite a bit: what role, if any, did the marketing department play in game design? On one hand, I heard game designers claiming that marketing interfering with the game design process ruined the process, the "purity" of it. On the other hand, if a game failed, it wasn't because of bad design, it was marketing's fault for not selling it correctly - even if marketing raised some serious concerns about the game.

I suspect the answer lies somewhere in the middle, for a multitude of reasons. You may not be "selling out," but you have to pay your bills. You may not be "selling out," but if you're working for a game company, it makes sense to work with marketing to make a game that will sell so you and the fine folks over in marketingland will both continue to work for said game company. Should you write exclusively to pay your bills, or design exclusively to sell? No, because that invites a kind of cynicism that ruins the "spirit" (for lack of a better term) of what you're creating. Something designed only to sell will sell, but it's the Backstreet Boys compared to the Smashing Pumpkins. Seven years later, which would you rather listen to?

And to loop it back to David Lynch, making movies like A Straight Story, Dune and The Elephant Man give him the leverage to make the movies he wants. True artistic "masturbation" is a luxury afforded only by the rich (or the financially sound), the absolutely principled, or those too poor to give a fuck. For the other 95% of us, we have to continue to ride that middle road. But just as the principled and the rich should consider that we're putting food in our mouths when we work, so too should we consider that the principled and the rich are doing what the fuck they want. Neither "sell out" nor "masturbation" should be wielded in weaponlike fashion as they are; both can be compliments, or at least signs of respect.

Update: Roger made an excellent and informative post in the comments worth repeating here, both for context and fact:

    "Intellectual masturbation" is nothing more than a reactionary non-argument against a work of art because the one making the argument can't connect to it. I never listen to those arguments because they are self-affirming prophecies. There is no argument that can counter an "intellectual masturbation" claim.

    The phrase was first coined, incidentally, by Byron when he was first reviewing Keats's poetry. Keats's poetry, to him, was "a sort of mental masturbation" and he thought that Keats was "frigging his Imagination." Byron also referred to Keats as the "self-polluter of the Human Mind." Leon Waldoff argues that Byron was reacting to not only the language of Keats's poetry but to the fact that Keats was trying to rise from his working middle class background and become a leisure class poet like Byron. Not surprisingly, "intellectual" and "mental" masturbation is often an argument reserved for lower class or young upstarts who are trying to enter into the inner sanctum of the art world.

    Ironically, after Byron used the phrase against Keats, it was eventually used against him by reviewers in a literate middle class who was tiring of poetry in general and turning to the form of the novel. Poets started to be labelled as "highly sexual" producing work that did nothing and created desires that were hardly kosher with the increasingly conservative values of the proto-Victorian world. The novel emerged as the literary form for the working bourgeoise and poetry became increasingly marginalized, a process that continues today.

You Really Can Hack Everything

I believe I have reached the proverbial end of the hacking road: a project to hack a Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Using Linux, natch.

Is it bad that I want one?

Spotted in an unrelated discussion on SA.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Vis a Vis: Emily Dickenson and Poe

A fellow Allit sent this poem to me this morning, and it reminds me of the song beneath it.

One Need Not Be A Chamber To Be Haunted by Emily Dickenson:

    One need not be a chamber to be haunted,
    One need not be a house;
    The brain has corridors surpassing
    Material place.

    Far safer, of a midnight meeting
    External ghost,
    Than an interior confronting
    That whiter host.

    Far safer through an Abbey gallop,
    The stones achase,
    Than, moonless, one's own self encounter
    In lonesome place.

    Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
    Should startle most;
    Assassin, hid in our apartment,
    Be horror's least.

    The prudent carries a revolver,
    He bolts the door,
    O'erlooking a superior spectre
    More near.

Haunted by Poe:
    Come here
    Pretty please
    Can you tell me where I am
    You won't you say something
    I need to get my bearings
    I'm lost
    And the shadows keep on changing

    And I'm haunted
    By the lives that I have loved
    And actions I have hated
    I'm haunted
    By the lives that wove the web
    Inside my haunted head

    Don't cry,
    There's always a way
    Here in November in this house of leaves
    We'll pray
    Please, I know it's hard to believe
    To see a perfect forest
    Through so many splintered trees
    You and me
    And these shadows keep on changing

    And I'm haunted
    By the lives that I have loved
    And actions I have hated
    I'm haunted
    By the promises I've made
    And others I have broken
    I'm haunted
    By the lives that wove the web
    Inside my haunted head

    Hallways... always

    I'll always love you
    I'll always need you
    I'll always want you
    And I will always miss you

    Come here
    No I won't say please
    One more look at the ghost
    Before I'm gonna make it leave
    Come here
    I've got the pieces here
    Time to gather up the splinters
    Build a casket for my tears

    I'm haunted
    (By the lives that I have loved)
    I'm haunted
    (By the promises I've made)
    I'm haunted
    By the hallways in this tiny room
    The echoes there of me and you
    The voices that are carrying this tune

    Father :
    What is it Annie?

    Daughter :
    You think I'll cry? I won't cry!
    My heart will break before I cry!
    I will go mad.