What Journalists Can Learn From Phish.

They’ve only made one music video — and that was back in 1994. Their concerts last hours — and sometimes feature as few as four songs. Fans say they’re the group that’s taken the torch — an already-lit, funny-smelling, tightly-rolled torch, I might add — from the Grateful Dead.

They’re the most popular jam-band on the planet. (1) I’m talking, of course, about Phish.

But this band isn’t just about playing extended jams for potheads. They’ve made a living out building a brand so powerful, fans spend the summer driving around the country following them.

Any band with that kind of power over their fan base might have a few lessons worth learning. That’s why Phish is the focus of the latest edition of “What Journalists Can Learn From….”

1. Adapt to Your Audience: Back in the 1990s, when most bands were just selling tickets via concert venues or Ticketmaster, Phish came up with an interesting concept: Phish Tickets By Mail. Explains Wikipedia:

For each Phish tour…, specific instructions for mail order were listed in the band’s newsletter, “Doniac Schvice” (and, later, Phish.com), usually involving envelopes of a specified size, postcards and return postage in the event the ticket order was not fulfilled. There were very specific details that needed to be done, in an effort to deter scalpers and ticket brokers. The ticket orders were then outsourced to a business to fulfill the orders. In the final years of the mail order process, ticket orders were processed by the staff at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont. The order in which ticket requests were fulfilled was random, and no seniority or special treatment was given to any fan. These tickets were printed in limited amounts on colored paper with foil and some sort of design as shown above, and only issued through mail order.

Weird? Certainly. But weirder than having using an army of 12-year-old boys on bicycles as your primary method of news distribution? Probably not.

But here’s the interesting thing: old-fashioned newspaper distribution is still around, but Phish Tickets By Mail has evolved. In 2001, the band moved all pre-sales online. At first, some fans were inconvenienced. But here’s what Phish proved: if it’s easy enough to use, fans won’t mind that initial inconvenience. Phish concerts sell out faster than ever — and a team of mail-opening employees at a theater in Vermont are no longer needed. The lesson: keep production costs low and operate in a lean way, as long as it’s in the best interest of your fans.

2. Make It Your Own: Phish is famous for their covers, from Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” (see below) to ZZ Top’s “Jesus Left Chicago.” They’ve covered so many songs, they needed a separate Wikipedia page just to document them all.

What makes Phish’s covers unique is the way the band adapts them into their set. You’re not getting a bar-for-bar cover; if anything, you’re in for a Trey Anastasio guitar solo, or maybe an a capella rendition of a southern rock classic. They’re just covers, but to fans, they don’t feel like them. The lesson: The song doesn’t need to be an original, but the way it’s being delivered does. The way you package your stories matters.

3. It’s Okay to Be Weird: Phish has become famous over the years for unusual stunts. Here’s an example straight from their Wikipedia page:

During this fall tour, the band challenged their audience to two games of chess, with each show of the tour consisting of a pair of moves. The band made their move during the first set, and, during the break between sets, the audience members could vote on their collective move at the Greenpeace table. The audience conceded the first game at the November 15 show in Florida, and the band conceded the second at their New Year’s Eve concert at Madison Square Garden. Having played only two games, the score remains tied at 1-1.

There’s so much to love about this, but here’s my favorite part: it’s fan engagement on a massive scale. Fans can actually see the impact that they’re having, and they’re deeply invested in what’s going on. The lesson: If it seems weird, or unfamiliar, or out-of-the-box, then that’s probably not such a bad place to be. Some of the best ideas are the uncomfortable ones.

  1. Sorry, Dave Matthews.

Why Twitter is Like Times Square, and Why Nike Ads Are Best Shared on Facebook.

In 1999, in an attempt to defeat the morning ratings Cerberus that was Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker, ABC countered with an unusual move:

They built a studio in Times Square.

If you’ve been to Times Square in the last decade, you know which one I’m talking about. Other networks have studios there, too — MTV’s ‘TRL’ studio among them — but the ABC studio stands out. Their wrap-around ticker is the reason why.

Around the edges of the building is this wavy, double-deckered contraption that was Disney Imagineered specifically for the studio. Short news bites scroll across the ticker 24 hours a day.

Now I want you to imagine going to Times Square. You’re standing in the middle of the busiest intersection in the busiest city in the world. There are thousands of cars streaming past you, thousands of people walking past you. A giant Coca-Cola bottle is magically refilling and emptying itself, while a dozen Jumbotrons flash ads nearby.

The distractions are endless.

Now look over at that double-decker ticker at the ABC studio, and consider this: you’re standing there, all the world whizzing past, and you’re watching words scroll past you on a screen.

In a way, this is a lot like how Twitter works.

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The problem with the Internet is not a lack of content. In 60 days, according to YouTube’s latest numbers, more video is uploaded to the site than was created by ABC, CBS and NBC in the past 60 years. There are 400 million active Facebook users, and more than 75 million Twitter users.

But that’s before you factor in mainstream media sites, blogs and — most massive of all — e-mail.

All of these sources are creating content (1) The problem is — and I am by no means the first person to suggest this — a shortage of filters to sort through all that content.

There are only two filters that most consumers use to find stuff on the Internet:

1. People you know
2. Google

This is kind of a problem.

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Mark Cuban said it well at South by Southwest: it’s not the production of Internet content that’s expensive — it’s the marketing.

If you’re creating something on the web, you’re up against an infinite amount of content.

But that’s not the case with Twitter. On Twitter, it’s even harder to stand out, because the amount of content that Twitter produces each minute is astonishing — the site records more than 50 million tweets per day, at last check — and the filters for Twitter are even less developed.

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What this is all coming back around to is this notion that it’s even possible for a brand to stand out on the Internet.

It is.

But it takes a really impressive effort to pull it off.

So consider the example of Nike. The World Cup starts in exactly 21 days, and Nike’s heavily invested in some of the biggest soccer stars in the world, including Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba. So Nike did what it always does for a big soccer tournament: they pulled out a massive marketing campaign.

What they came up with — and I’ve embedded it below — features the biggest names in the soccer world. Plus Kobe Bryant, Homer Simpson and Roger Federer. And some awesome footage from around the globe.

This afternoon, over at one of my favorite soccer blogs, I saw the ad for the first time. I clicked through to the YouTube page. The video had only 300 views.

But below the video, there was an unusual note: the video had been “unlisted” on YouTube, which meant that it wouldn’t show up in search results or on Nike’s YouTube channel. The URL was secret; unless someone pointed you to it, you’d never know it was there. It’s the YouTube equivalent of Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4. Either you know it’s there and can get to it and experience it, or you can’t. You’re not going to be able to just stumble upon it unless someone else shows it to you.

What Nike was saying when they unlisted the video was, To prove how loyal our fans are, we’re going to make it as hard as possible to find the ad. We’re betting that the video will go viral anyway.

So I tweeted the link to the video and went to take a nap. When I woke up, I saw that my initial tweet had gotten a few retweets. I went back to the YouTube page for the spot to see how it was doing.

It had over 97,000 views.

What the hell happened?

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I went to bit.ly to see if they could offer insight. They did. The link I’d tweeted  — http://bit.ly/czPBdf, which redirected viewers to the YouTube video — had been clicked on over 7,000 times. (2) 114 of those clicks came from twitterers, some tweeting in English, Portugese, Spanish and even Korean.

But 5,700 people had shared the link on Facebook. Another 1,100 had “liked” the link on Facebook.

So I followed the trail of links.

Nike has only 8,000 followers on Twitter. On Facebook, they’ve got over 600,000 fans.

And how did Nike mobilize that Facebook audience to action? They’d invited them onto the virtual red carpet.

On May 15, they announced that they’d be screening the video on May 20 at 6 p.m. They invited their fans to watch.

On May 19, 80,000 people had RSVPed on Facebook to watch. On the morning of May 20, that number was 108,000. At launch time, 120,203 fans had confirmed themselves as guests.

So what happened? Nike leaked the video at the appointed time. People showed up to watch it. And then people starting sharing it. And sharing it.

And suddenly, an invisible link on YouTube had 100,000 views in a matter of minutes. (3)

And the best part for Nike: these were people who actively wanted to watch the video — a video that, I should add, is actually a paid endorsement for shoes and soccer balls. These were people who, technically, were going out of their way to share the video with their friends.

But it didn’t feel like those people were going out of their way. When the barriers to sharing are as low as a click, how could you?

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A few months ago, my dad was asking me about something I had written. He thought more people deserved to read it.

“But I thought you put it out on Twitter,” he said.

I did, I explained. To my 200+ followers. A few clicked; a few retweeted it. And that was it.

“Doesn’t being on Twitter doesn’t make something viral?” he asked.

No, I told him.

But I don’t think my dad’s alone in his confusion about how something gets exposure on the web. He’ll notice content when it rises to the top. He’s rarely aware of that content’s journey to that point.

So here’s the takeaway:

Twitter works best in tandem with an actual event. An election, an inauguration or a big Congressional vote. The Super Bowl. A conference or a class. Anything, really, in which there are large amounts of people gathered and discussing/watching/listening/reacting to a single thing. That’s when you really get to see Twitter at it’s best, because that’s when great discussion is happening in real time.

But when it comes to sharing content, Facebook is still tops. Facebook taps deeper into those Dunbar circles. Twitter tends to hit the outer edges.

If you’re standing in Times Square, Facebook’s that friend from New York who says, “Hey, see that thing over there? That’s what you’re supposed to be looking at.”

Until Twitter creates the filters to replicate that experience, people will still turn to Facebook first to share.

But they are sharing. And for any brand, that is very, very good news.

  1. Which I’ll simply describe as words, pictures, sounds or some combination of the three.
  2. To be clear: I was not the first person to tweet that specific bit.ly link, though if I was video view no. 300, I must’ve been among the first.
  3. Some 48 hours later, the video is closing in on 4 million views. As for the initial link I tweeted: the number of times it’s been tweeted hasn’t changed. But an additional 125,000 people have shared the video on Facebook, and another 70,000 have liked it.

Why We Need to Change the Concept of Time — Immediately.

Today is my birthday, and my annual reminder of how much I dislike the concept of time.

Truth is, time is unfair. When I see someone wearing a watch, I don’t see someone with punctuality in mind. I see someone slowly counting down the seconds until the grave.

What is a day, after all? It’s a very strange segment (1) of a larger year, which we define as the time it takes for the Earth to circle the sun. And if you’re like me, you can’t get enough reminders that the Earth is spinning blindly at 67,000 miles per hour through a vast and unknowable universe.

Point is, I’m just not a fan of time, especially on birthdays, when it serves to remind me that I’m getting both older and no closer to figuring anything out. Human years are so scarce; if we’re lucky, we get 70 or 80 years to live, and that just doesn’t seem like enough.

What I wish was that there was a way to make time seem less scarce (2). So I’m proposing here, on May 16, 2010, that we adjust our notions of time.

The human attention span is, depending on which Google source you trust, somewhere between five seconds and 20 minutes. 150 years ago, the Lincoln-Douglas debates lasted anywhere from five to seven hours at a time. Today, those debates would be reduced to mere soundbites, because our attention spans are shrinking. Who has time for five hours of political discourse? Hell, who has time for any political debate involving more than a few bullet points?

In the 2010, we have more distractions than ever, and we’re as easily distracted as ever.

But if that’s the case, then why are our standard units of time not adjusting to our shorter attention spans?

Let me put this another way: when Andrew Carnegie died, he was worth $475 million. But $475 million in 1919 isn’t worth what it is today. Luckily, we’ve got tools to compare the dollar from 1919 to today’s dollar. (3)

We adjust to each age. When humans got taller, we raised the height of our doors. When people got fatter, we widened the space in the supermarket aisles. A news cycle used to last months. Now it lasts hours. We constantly recalibrate to what’s happening now.

But we still allow time to remain constant. I don’t think that’s fair.

If a piece of paper can become more or less valuable over the course of time, then, well, why can’t time, too?

The best part is, there’s some precedent for this.

Abraham lived to be 175. His wife, Sarah, continued to have kids well into her hundreds. Biblical time clearly didn’t use our rigid time structure.

So what’s stopping us (4) from altering our concept of time? I’m okay with seconds and minutes and hours — anything that can measure the length of a YouTube video seems like it should stay — and I’ve got no problem with sun-up-to-sun-down days. But why shouldn’t we alter our concept of years? Does any modern human have the capacity to actually pay attention to something for an entire year?

How’s this sound: let’s decree that each season is considered a year. The modern calendar year gets split into fours, so today, I’d have just turned 92 — and I’d still be entering my prime.

What happens to everyone else?

Dick Clark becomes four times as valuable. Gyms get four times the number of resolution-related membership drives. Champagne companies see four times the rate of sales.

And best yet: wasting a year doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, because there are so many more of them to waste. Sure, it’s just a way to trick the brain into believing that we’re not screwing around as much as we really are.

But it’s working.

Our concept of time is changing. It’s time to make it official, I think.

When I die, I want my rabbi to be able to say, “Here lies Dan Oshinsky, who died at the age of 375.” The crowd will nod appreciatively. Honestly, who’d believe that a man so old could have accomplished so little?

  1. Do we divide anything else by 365?
  2. This, in itself, is a pretty strange thought, because time is infinite. What I really mean to say is that I mean to make my available time less scarce, though I’m not sure when I became so possessive about it.
  3. In today’s money, Carnegie’s fortune would be in the billions.
  4. Besides common sense

When Suggesting That a French Man Needs to Move Lands You on New York Sports Talk Radio.

Posterized.

The first thought was that I was being pranked. Sure, I’d just written a fairly controversial column about why the Spurs should trade Tony Parker for Kens5.com. It had generated quite a few hits on our website, and I’d gotten plenty of e-mail feedback from readers about it.

But a radio station in New York City calling to ask if they could chat about the column? That’s a first.

And yet, I made my Big Apple debut on ESPN 1050 Wednesday night, talking with Bill Daughtry about, of all things, San Antonio Spurs basketball. And for a full 10 minutes. For loyal danoshinsky.com readers who missed it live, I’ve recaptured it below. Next week, I hope to land 20 minutes talking all things Matt Bonner on a morning show in Milwaukee.