Crosstown Digital Communications

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Retaining a Sense of Awe in Research News

One of the themes of my presentation “Storytelling as a Framework for Higher Ed Web Marketing” is that we in higher ed are in the business of celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. The feats of the NASA scientists who orchestrated last night’s landing of the Mars Curiosity rover certainly fall under that category.

What’s remarkable – beyond, you know, lowering a rover to the Martian surface with a skycrane – is how NASA told that story. They did it with amazing content that informed, entertained and engaged a rapt online audience (even at 1:30AM EDT on a Sunday night) with not just personality but also humor and drama. (Tim Nekritz wrote a great blog post this morning talking about how they expertly leveraged shared experiences and the real-time web.)

But most importantly, their content had a heaping dose of awe. Through videos, tweets, live-streams and blog posts, NASA conveyed unabashed acknowledgment of the fact that the events transpiring were absolutely amazing, reflecting a very human longing for knowledge and thrill of discovery. And that, to me, was one of its strengths.

Why So Serious?

I couldn’t help but think about higher education (as I often do) and how we talk about research. We want to own our research accomplishments. We want to be noticed because of them, in order to attract funding, faculty, students and partnerships. In doing so, we often think organizationally, clinging to journal citations, jargon and internal priorities in shaping how we communicate about research. Research, after all, is a very serious thing.

But as I read about Curiosity – a highly important scientific undertaking with not just societal impact but also very real, hard science behind it – I wondered why we in higher ed can’t talk about research with the same level of personality, (appropriate) humor and downright inspirational quality that NASA employs. Research is serious business, sure, but it’s also important and awe-inspiring and creative and, sometimes, beautiful. We could be covering a technology that will help save lives on the battlefield, or a treatment for a rare disease that gives thousands of sufferers hope, or environmental analysis that will renew a community. These are amazing things that matter, and our faculty and students are diligently pursuing these solutions every day in the lab across the quad.

Sure, we need to write for the grant funding agencies, and sure, we need to write for the tech transfer partnerships. But if we’re trying to convey to the world how we are relevant, essential and innovative, can’t we find a way to retain that sense of awe in our communications? To capture some of the secret sauce that kept people up way past their bedtimes last night?

Telling the Story of our Research

Employing some of the basic elements of storytelling can help enliven our research coverage while embracing that sense of awe. Just look at the drama pervading the above “Seven Minutes of Terror” video (while still conveying the science and showing off some of the engineers behind the mission) and the quirky character of the (absolutely awesome) @MarsCuriosity Twitter account. Even NASA’s tagline for the mission, “Dare Mighty Things” (borrowed from a quote by Theodore Roosevelt) brands the initiative with historical significance, making it feel like just the latest chapter in an ongoing narrative of American ambition and accomplishment.

As if we needed more drama, NASA is facing major budget cuts. Their need to demonstrate relevance and value is urgent. And what is one of their key strategies for doing so? Telling (and owning) their story, of course, through smart and savvy use of various content tools at their disposal, while making it something in which we could all participate and be invested. For a cost of $7 per American, they gave us a hell of a show – and the curtain has really just gone up.

True, we may not be landing rovers on Mars at our university. (Or maybe we arehat tip to Kyle Judah.) But we’re doing things that matter. Can we find a way to inspire and engage in our research coverage the way that NASA has done?

Do you have an example of higher ed research coverage that not only informs and educates but also inspires and engages? Please share in the comments!

The Continuity of Caring

Emotions are powerful. Feelings drive actions. They shape decisions and change minds.

Evoking emotion should be at the core of our marketing efforts. Do we want to encourage someone to apply? Enroll? Give money? Support a campus expansion initiative? Volunteer? Write to their congressperson on our behalf? They won’t do it unless they care. Unless it matters to them.

Since our content does our job for us, we have to create content that matters to our users. We have to convey how our activities align with their values, interests and beliefs.

I was pleased to see two recent blog posts touch on this topic. Jeff Kallay from TargetX talked about how all purchasing is emotional, particularly the decision of where to attend college. And on the other end of the life cycle, mStoner’s Fran Zablocki says that we should “operate under the assumption that every alum cares about something your institution does (or could do) enough to support it and you are left simply with the task of finding out what that something is and how you can enable people to support it.”

I mentioned the concept of the life cycle rather casually up above, but it’s a very serious consideration. For us to understand what our users care about (and thus drive action around it), we need to care about our users. To know what matters to them, we have to know them. And to truly care about and know our campus population — from prospective student through to alumni status, whether we’re marketing and communicating to them or on the phone trying to answer questions about financial aid — we can’t put an expiration date on that caring. It needs to be ongoing throughout the course of their relationship with the institution, which creates an (oft-neglected) obligation of knowledge transfer and information sharing on our part. And here’s a bonus — by truly caring, you naturally have that elusive authenticity thing everyone talks about.

You may be Bob and you may be Sally and I may be Georgy, but to a member of our community, we’re not separate people, in a sense. We’re the institution. And when it comes to that individual, our knowledge and understanding of them should be shared and continuous, both so they feel supported and special and so our content efforts are more effective. To not know them, as Zablocki has said before, is to not care.

After all, as the Lorax says: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Exploring Music 2.0 in Boston

On Apr. 20, I made my way to the Microsoft NERD for the second annual Music 2.0 showcase of tools and tech for musicians, marketers and managers.

As event organizer Charlie McInerney said in his introduction, Boston has two tremendous scenes in music and technology, and the more they can come together, the better off both will be. He couldn’t be more right. Frankly, my mind was blown by how many cool innovations are taking root right here in Boston to advance the music industry, for fans and bands alike. Here’s an overview of the presentations I saw at the event.

  • Put Your Brand Out to Stand Out: Mic Control is a consulting firm that helps bands execute successful social media strategies. Their three core actions for execution are 1) networking 2) engagement and 3) relationship building. The goal, according to Jonathan Ostrow and Chris Taylor, is to find a way to help your brand stand out from the social media clutter. “You need to brand yourself or no one can relate to you.” Rapper Wiz Khalifa was cited as an example for the way he has branded himself in relation to hip hop, pot and Pittsburgh. Well, okay.
  • Git’r Done: Ryan Spaulding of Ryan’s Smashing Life urged self-starters in the crowd to think about their objective and to find who they are and what makes them happy. “You only have 30 to 35 functional years of adulthood to get this done,” he said. “If you find your answer immediately, you didn’t look hard enough.” Another good blurb from Ryan: “You opportunity is found where others failed.”
  • Empowering City Kids with Music: Gary Eichorn talked about his awsome program, the Music + Youth Initiative, which he founded seven years ago in response to cutbacks in music education in public schools — in Boston, he said, only 20 percent of high school students have the opportunity of receiving music education. So his program works sort of like a franchisor with existing nonprofit “bricks and mortar” organizations with a proven record in youth development to create “music clubhouses” for underserved urban youth. The program helps build self-esteem, self-confidence, social skills and an appreciation of music by letting kids learn and play on professional grade equipment. Partners include organizations like the YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, Berklee and Northeastern, and corporate sponsors such as Avid, Zildjian and Harmonix. There are eight clubhouses total, six in Boston, that serve 1600 kids a week.
  • Helping Bands Rock: Ben Maitland-Lewis, a presenter from last year, gave a quick update on his company Indie Ambassador, which helps music entrepreneurs manage their careers.
  • Better Fandom Through Frictionless Commerce: Marcus Whitney of Moontoast discussed his company’s goal of “monetizing social”. His three key points: 1) Authenticity wins in social 2) You can own your fans through commerce 3) Place buying opportunities where the fan wants to be (e.g. Facebook news feed), not where you want them to go — remove the friction from the commerce experience.
  • Bringing Sheet Music Into the 21st Century: ZMX is working to revolutionize the sheet music industry, a part of the music business that has a high barrier to entry for artists, high prices, low quality and poor selection for fans but yet is very profitable for the print companies. If you want to buy sheet music, you typically have to buy a whole book for $12 or more and not a single song. If you do buy online, it may be $5, but that’s not even for a download, just an opportunity to print once. Composer royalties are paltry, as well. ZMX allows for affordable, downloadable, embeddable and trackable sales of digital sheet music.
  • Aspiring to ‘Chaotic Cohesion’: Mike King, director of marketing for berkleemusic.com and author of Music Marketing: Press, Promotion, Distribution and Retail, cited the “chaotic cohesion” of Wu-Tang Clan as a model musicians should aspire to. He cited the case study of the British band Tigers That Talked who made the most of DIY web marketing. The four horsement of successful music marketing, says King, are awareness, acquisition, engagement and monetization, and the best way to execute these is in an integrated fashion that works online and offline.
  • Portland Rocks: Patrick May of Skyline Music and Portland Music Foundation, talked about the latter organization as one dedicated to help showcase Portland musicians.
  • ‘Make It Easy’: Nimbit gave an update on their service, which provides direct to fan marketing and sales. What works, according to them? Knowing your fan, selling directly, updating merch frequently, constant innovation, rewarding fans for good behavior in order to drive sales. In summary: Make it easy.
  • Blog in Boston, Beers in Berlin: Matt Dyson, who blogs at Dysonsound, talked about how awesome it was that “one guy with a domain name” can connect with musicians all over the world. “All it takes is my small voice that has now penetrated worldwide,” he said. “If I go to Berlin, I’ve got beers waiting for me.” Though the highlight of his talk, for me, was when he disclosed how much he cares about his bounce rate. Heh.
  • Saturday Night in Your Inbox: Chris Marstall of Tourfilter showed off updates to the interface of his website, which allows fans to easily set up e-mail alerts notifying them when select bands are coming to town. Tourfilter now works for 60 cities. Tourfilter also recommends bands based on shared fans and shared concert bills.
  • Google Docs for Music: Joe Berkovitz talked about Noteflight, which he called “Google Docs of music.” The service allows users to create, share and embed sheet music. The service, which works on a freemium model, has tripled its user base in the past year and is being used for interactive music composition in some K-12 settings. The company’s next goal is to shift from Flash to HTML5 in order to branch into mobile.
  • Going Digital: Steve Theo of Pirate! talked about how, with help from Paul Kamp of Backbone Networks, his promotion firm is shifting to a digital model for the music they provide to radio stations, in order to save money.
  • Five Alive: Alastair McDonald of Bocoup talked about HTML5 audio, the W3C audio working group and more.

Checking In: Mayor of My Blog?

Third in a series of posts about the rise of check-in services

Originally, this post and the previous post were all wrapped up into one, but it got a little unwieldy. So let me just recap a couple of the core principles with which I opened my last post:

Watching a TV show or visiting a website is as much of an experience as patronizing a restaurant. It’s driven by the same motivations to seek value. And as a value-rich experience, content demands the following things to thrive. (And these are not new or only true of the web — if you think about it, this is true across history.)

  • Order (schedule, structure, organization, purpose, data)
  • Community (conversation, audience, shared interest)
  • Mobility (sharing, accessibility, malleability)

Alright, let’s get to it. When it comes to blogs and websites playing the check-in game,  Wayne Sutton, social sentinel that he is, summed it up succinctly:

Offering a way for visitors to check-in to your website or blog provides a way for you to reward them with badges, points and can increase time spent along with social sharing. Just like with a few popular location-based applications these platforms are building on the success of adding game mechanics to increase visitor loyalty and engagement. There’s always talk about moving beyond the check-in and rewarding customers, in this case you could reward your visitors if they check into your website or blog.

According to Clinton Bonner, who works for the company behind content check-in service MOJOthere are six benefits to web-based check-ins:

  1. Gamification (using game dynamics to boost engagement with content)
  2. Loyalty (rewarding advocates over time)
  3. Push video content (boost and measure video consumption)
  4. Revenue generation (through context)
  5. Reward collaboration (take advantage of cross-blog content creation — like hashtags on steroids)
  6. Achieve your goals (tying content to desired behaviors)

Web check-in services like MOJO, BadgevilleOneTrueFan and Meebo (Sutton rounds up a few more) use similar principles —  giving users ways to earn points and win badges while allowing site owners to get a better look at how visitors use their site — when and how often they visit, what and how they share. Meebo also tries to connect site visitors who have similar interests (an interesting application, in light of the rise of niche websites).

It will be interesting to see how the application of game mechanics to content evolves, since gaining understanding into how people behave around content is only going to become a bigger priority for content creators of all stripes. One of the areas where this will have the most direct applications is online news, particularly as the journalism industry continues to struggle to adapt to a web-centric world. Studying how people behave with online news will be important to figuring out what’s next for news on the web. Researchers are exploring ways to better predict how users will share and discuss news content online.

With this in mind, one of the most interesting of the aforementioned services is Badgeville, which is focused on “helping publishers improve their audience loyalty, gain true insight into their communities, and increase behavioral conversions on desired outcomes.” Here is Badgeville co-founder Kris Duggan talking more in-depth about how the service works:

Chris O’Brien, a blogger for PBS’ Idea Lab and Knight Challenge award winner, recently launched a project called NewsTopiaVille “to explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news.” The seeds of this idea can be found in a blog post from last year, in which he asked “Do virtual goods have anything to teach us about the economic value of news and information?” (Or more to the point, “Why will people spend $1 to send you a virtual beer on Facebook, but not to read a news story online?”)

In the IdeaLab post announcing the NewsTopiaVille project, O’Brien wrote:

I can imagine any number of areas where game mechanics might address some of the most important and challenging questions facing news organizations:  How do we improve commenting? How do we get more people to participate in creation and processing of news and information? How do we think differently about monetization?

This will be the next step for content behavior beyond check-ins and leaderboards. The Wall Street Journal’s usage of Foursquare, to share tips and offer badges, has been interesting as a foray into bringing the media property into new contexts, but the next step is to apply those check-in and game dynamics principles to the content on its own turf.

Coming next: Establishing dynamic context

Photo by futurilla/Flickr Creative Commons

MITX Panel Discussion: Grow Your Customer Relationships With Branded Content

On Dec. 7, I attended the MITX panel discussion “Grow Your Customer Relationships With Branded Content.” The panel, moderated by Holland-Mark Digital principal Mike Troiano, featured:

Carissa Caramanis O’Brien - President at Red Box Communications
Eric Oliver – Director Digital Brand Communications, Converse
Matt Drinkwater – Senior Director, Yahoo!

As Troiano put it, the old tactic was to cram your view down the customer’s throat with self-serving copy. The new tactic, content marketing, focuses on delivering web content with intrinsic value. It hits the sweet spot of both what customers want and what serves the brand’s interests. Why is this effective? One, because people have become better able to filter unwanted noise. Two, people are becoming savvier at finding the information the way.

What is Branded Content?

As O’Brien put it, while in the past we strived to create a slick, finished package, the challenge now is to offer something incomplete that invites the audience to continue the dialogue. Our responsibility is to start the story and enable the connection with the customer. This participatory experience is becoming a default expectation for the digital natives we market to. In describing the web show “Chronicles of EMS,” which covers the evolving field of paramedicine, she spoke of a program designed by and for paramedics to elevate the profession and create community. Sponsored by a defibrillator manufacturer, the product is embedded in the field with the paramedics featured on the show.

Oliver says that the relevance of the content generated at Converse is driven by their audience’s passions. Converse doesn’t want to talk about itself; they want to know what their customers are doing in their shoes. One of those passions is music — historically, the Ramones, Kurt Cobain and James Dean have all shown off various flavors of Converse. Converse’s Rubber Tracks initiative allows bands to record music in a state-of-the-art Brooklyn studio and keep their recordings in exchange for Converse sharing the content created during the recording process. Converse supports the initiative by creating how-to videos for musicians and engineers. Oliver described it as “putting our money where our mouth is.”

Drinkwater echoed the audience-centric perspective, lending ut a more data-driven approach that Yahoo! has the ability to execute by mining search and click behavior. He shared the example of the branded web show The Thread in its women-centric Shine channel, focusing on celebrity fashion. This joint initiative with Proctor and Gamble adheres to three main pillars:  1) is the content compelling/engaging? 2) can the product integration be done tastefully? 3) discoverability. The Yahoo! editorial team doesn’t fall into the advertorial trap by posting content that doesn’t pass the “smell test” of  what women want to consume organically on the web. The effectiveness of the venture is measured, with Nielsen tracking in-store product sales. According to Drinkwater, Comscore ranks Yahoo as having nine of the top 10 branded content programs on the web. The key, says Drinkwater, is commitment – these efforts take time.

Troiano talked about his firm’s work with Notch, a session ale (high flavor, low alcohol) looking to gain traction in the craft beer community. On NotchSession.com the makers of Notch aim to build rapport among craft beer drinkers and provide “information with objective value” about craft beer, session ale and other related topics. All of their social media efforts drive back to NotchSession.com. On Twitter, they follow targeted bars in a target market (in this case, Boston) as well as the people who patronize those bars. They set up a listening station to pay attention to commentary about session ale and craft beer, and comments left on those blogs have become a major inbound marketing vehicle for them.

Challenges for Content Marketing

Troiano mentioned how it can be a challenge to recruit content contributors from within the organization. It is important, he said, to share the strategic context of this work, so people see its value. Bring the content creators around the table from the beginning. Curation is also a valuable complement to creation, by getting people to react to select third-party content with their own context. In his projects, Troiano institutes content checkpoints at 30, 60 and 90 days, providing opportunities for high-ranking people in the company to weigh in on the value of the content work and help breed an internal culture of others wanting to contribute.

O’Brien seconded this, noting that sometimes, you have to play to the egos a little bit. Sometimes, she added, the problem is beyond simply finding contributors — it’s getting any buy-in at all. Content marketing is still new and tough to understand for some fields, including health care, which has the added complexity of regulatory challenges to contend with.

Budget can also be a factor, but as Oliver detailed, you can get high-yield content with a low budget, while adhering to the principle of creating content that is a draw over advertising that is a push. This video of the hot band Phantogram shows these ideas in action:

Troiano added that budget is not just a question of money — it’s also time, and an organization needs to culturally get what content marketing is about in order to allocate the necessary time to any content marketing initiatives.

The Future of Content Marketing

Drinkwater says there is an increased interest in content marketing (including a push toward microcontent), and thus an increased push to find newer and cheaper earned distribution channels. Relatedly, the barriers for content production have fallen significantly. A challenge he faces is giving his branded content more legs outside of Yahoo!

Oliver foresees that brand-sanctioned, crowdsourced content — through services such as Poptent – could gain in popularity, challenging the brand-agency model with a more community-driven approach.

O’Brien said that as brands grow more comfortable with losing control, they will more readily embrace user-generated content.

Troiano summed it up well, noting that in time, content marketing will become the core of marketing, and less of a side-project. This is because a human approach to business is becoming more and more vital.

“If you’ve ever tried to say something interesting at a party,” said Troiano, “you understand the essence of content marketing.”

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