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.
- Sorry, Dave Matthews. ↩
At some point today, you will probably be watching college basketball. Your favorite team will be playing, and it’ll be a good game — maybe even a great game.
And then, for reasons unexplainable, this man will appear on your screen.
You will go nuts at the sight of this man’s face. He’s interrupted your game for no good reason, you’ll say, and there’s no amount of TiVo-ing that can make him go away.
Meanwhile, I, too, will go nuts, because I love Greg Gumbel.
Actually, it’s not that I love Greg Gumbel. It’s that I love what he represents: the Live Look-In.
That’s why it’s the focus of the latest installment of “What Can Journalists Learn From….”
Be User-Friendly: I am a college basketball nut. I love college basketball. But more than anything, I love a great finish to a college basketball game.
CBS knows that their target audience is, essentially, me, the college basketball crazy who’d give up a month of Sundays to get the first day of the NCAA Tournament off work. So instead of making me work to find the best games, they just do it for me. Back at mission control, they’re monitoring all the action, and when something great happens in a game, they have Greg Gumbel deliver it to me. It’s college basketball nirvana — on demand. Except that I don’t even have to ask for it; I just know that if there’s a great finish going on, CBS will bring it to me. It’s the most user-friendly experience on TV.
Even better: I have placed my full faith in CBS to do exactly this. I trust them completely. My brand loyalty towards CBS college basketball is basically unbreakable, and I think most college basketball fans feel the same way. The experience of March Madness on CBS is that good.
Deliver the Best Content Available: There’s nothing in sports quite like the adrenaline rush of three or four NCAA Tournament games all coming down to the wire at once. Thanks to the Live Look-Ins, you’ll get to watch all of them. Better yet: if you’re watching a blowout, CBS will automatically switch you over to the best game available. You’ll never watch the tournament and worry that someone else is watching a better game than you. If it’s good, it’ll be on your TV. CBS filters out all the bad content and just gives me what I’m interested in: great basketball.
Don’t Make It Hard For Your Audience to Share: Here’s a bit of a twist on Clay Shirky’s sharing lecture from South by Southwest Interactive.
We love to share information and ideas. But nothing compares to the experience of shared emotion.
Which brings me to Drew Nicholas, and this shot from the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
I remember where I was (my living room) when he made that shot. I remember who I was with (my dad and my buddy, Shoe) and what I spent the next 20 minutes doing (jumping up and down uncontrollably). Across my block, I remember hearing what sounded like the entire neighborhood explode in cheers. There’s shared emotion, and then there’s ‘HOLY CRAP DID HE JUST MAKE THAT!!!’ kind of shared emotion.
As a Maryland fan, that shot’s one of my favorite NCAA Tournament moments, so you can imagine how I felt when I found out that AT&T had produced a 30-second ad featuring that shot for this year’s tournament. The ad shows a half-dozen fans, watching the game at home, online and on their cell phones, and they’re all going completely nuts. (2)
What’s incredible about that moment, looking back, is that it wasn’t just the entire state of Maryland watching. At that moment, every CBS station in the country had cut to the Maryland game. It wasn’t quite the audience of the moon landing, but when Nicholas hit that shot, America was watching.
Without the Live Look-In — if, like most sporting events, the highlight had been seen only regionally, and only the highlight played nationally — would anyone outside of D.C. even remember Drew Nicholas’ shot?
But the power of that memory isn’t in the shot. It’s in the knowledge that millions shared that buzzer beater with me. Great moments deserve to be shared — and good journalists will find ways to share them as widely and simply as possible.
It’s been a while since my last installment of ‘What Journalists Can Learn From’ — it’s the first in this Jewish new year, actually — but I’ve just finished reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent “Team of Rivals,” and I saw more than a few lessons in Abe Lincoln’s words. Three especially pertinent thoughts for journalists:
Pick your words carefully: Here’s something I didn’t know about the Gettysburg Address: Lincoln wasn’t the featured speaker of the day. That honor went to Edward Everett, who gave what amounted to two hours of play-by-play about the battle of Gettysburg. Then Lincoln came up and delivered his 10-sentence-long Gettysburg Address.
After the speech was over, Everett told Lincoln, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
There’s something to be said for brevity, for giving careful thought to each word. And for this, too: A man should start talking only when he knows what to say. (1)
Give the audience time to react: With any new initiative, timing is key. With any really good idea, the creator needs to give the audience time to understand and adopt the idea. Take Twitter, for example. The site was around for more than a year before it started to really gain traction. But when it caught on, its growth was exponential.
Or, consider this incredible fact about the Gettysburg Address: when it was over, no one clapped. Lincoln took it as a sign that the crowd didn’t like his speech. Really, they were too astonished by what they’d just heard to even react.
The point is this: push the limits with your ideas, and give them room to grow. The audience might really like your idea, but they also might need some time to show their appreciation.
Brace yourself for any result: Of course, it’s important to remember that plenty of good ideas fail. So take the advice that one supporter gave Lincoln before the Republican primary in 1860. No one knew whether or not Lincoln would be able to pull off the upset, as he had entered the convention as a long shot. Lincoln had Presidential aspirations, but he had no idea if he’d even get a chance at the presidency. So his so supporter’s words? “Brace yourself,” he said, “for any result.”
For the uncertain world of modern journalism, truer words could scarcely be spoken.
- That, actually, is a quote from a former Washington Nationals beat writer. ↩
Tomorrow is the first night of Rosh Hashanah, and for the second time in the last four years, I’m headed to services in a city not renowned for its Jewish population. (My previous experience in Columbia, Mo., was especially enlightening.)
But with another year upon us — we Jews are up to year 5770 — I wanted write about someone whose teachings have a few lessons that journalists might want to take note of.
I’m talking, of course, about God.
To succeed in a digital age, I believe that journalists need to create and distribute original content. But when it comes to original content, nobody’s been more prolific as a creator than God. (N.B.: the platypus.) God’s gone multi-platform. (Anybody else operating in both the heavens and the Earth?) And talk about keeping readers entertained: have you read the Passover story recently? As far as storytelling is concerned, you won’t find more epic game-changers than the plagues or the parting of the Red Sea.
So with a L’Shana Tova in mind, this New Year’s installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From…’ is all about The Man Upstairs.
1. Engage Your Readers. If God has time to talk one-on-one with some of the chosen people, I know journalists can make time to talk to readers. Via chats or Twitter, or in the comments, good journalists engage readers in a conversation.
2. Be Upfront With What It Is You Stand For. I believe that news organizations should come out with statements of purpose, explaining what is it they do and how it is they do it. Consider these each news outlet’s basic commandments. (1) Note an older statement from a paper like the San Francisco Chronicle. Check out how a 21st century outlet like Politico states their purpose. Both are examples of the founding principles upon which journalists have announced they’ll work. They set the tone for readers, keep news organizations transparent and, most importantly, allow the public to understand and trust the stories being told.
3. Sometimes, Rest is a Good Thing. We work in a 24-hour news cycle. But oftentimes, ‘news of the day’ isn’t what journalists excel at. Finding stories, analyzing complex issues and serving the public good is. Sometimes, we need to pause to remember that. And maybe we should do it more than every seven days.
More than Dirk Nowitzki or the hole in the roof of their stadium or even the words “Who shot J.R.?,” I think the thing the majority of Americans connect with the city of Dallas is their cheerleaders. And it’s a strange thing, really, because cheerleaders are so ubiquitous now that one exclusive group of females in north Texas shouldn’t make such an impression on Americans. Every sports team in this country has a squad of short short-wearing ladies, but somehow, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders have become the preeminent name in cheerleading (even moreso, perhaps, than L.A.’s famed Laker Girls).
And if not for the Radio City Rockettes, the Cowboys cheerleaders would be the most famous high-kicking organization in the entire country.
But there’s something odd about group so visible despite the fact that they perform only eight times a year (not counting preseason or playoff games). Somehow, they’ve managed to take cowboys boots and the simplest color scheme this side of Syracuse University and turn it into a cheerleading empire.
That’s why the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders are the focus of this installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From….”
1.) The Brand Comes First. Quick, off the top of your head, name one member of this year’s Dallas Cowboys cheerleading squad? How about any cheerleader on the squad dating back to the squad’s inception in 1972? You can’t, because the squad isn’t about individual achievement. The Cowboys cheerleaders are a brand, one of the most powerful ones in sports. They’re carefully managed to make sure that the brand — not the individual members — is the star.
Now look at a news organization like Politico. They’ve managed to connect their brand with politics, and with great results. When one of their writers breaks a story, it’s hailed as a victory for the entire organization, because at Politico, the brand comes first.
2.) Sell It — Across Platforms. Throughout the team’s history, the Cowboys have done a remarkable job of marketing their cheerleaders. Their cheerleaders have appeared in swimsuit calendars (in print and on TV), toured internationally and even had their own feature film (starring, quite naturally, Jane Seymour.) The Cowboys cheerleaders were platform agnostic long before the concept even really existed. They’re a model for journalists willing to brave the multi-platform world.
3.) Be Visible in the Community. I don’t think journalists are doing a good enough job actually making their way into the community and interacting with the public. Some are doing a good job of it digitally — N.B. The Washington Post’s ‘The Fix’ — but actually getting out of the newsroom and being visible is another matter. It’s one thing that the Cowboys cheerleaders excel at, especially when it comes to showing up at public events or youth camps. For journalists, maybe it means attending more forums or speaking at schools. But whatever it is, journalists have to do a better job of reminding people that we’re out there, working for the public good.
Of course, there’s one more thing that any journalist can learn from the Cowboys cheerleaders: whatever it is you’re putting out in the public sphere, make sure it really kicks.
H/T to KENS 5’s Jeff Anastasio for the photos.
There are few advantages to being 6’6” and unable to dunk. Three come to mind: 1.) It makes it easy for people to find me at crowded social events; 2.) It makes it easy to dust hard-to-reach places; and 3.) It gives me a decided advantage when catching t-shirts at sporting events.
In my lifetime, I’ve caught far more free t-shirts than I deserve, and it’s mostly been because I have the wingspan of someone who’s 6’9”. But when I catch a free t-shirt, I don’t just toss it in a dresser somewhere. No, I wear that Verizon-sponsored Washington Capitals shirt for about three to six months longer than public decency will allow.
And I know I’m not the only one obsessed with the concept of ‘free.’ I’ve seen it at sporting events throughout my life: people will do anything for a free shirt, no matter how obnoxious it looks or how oversized the advertisement on the back is.
That’s why the free t-shirt giveaway is the focus of this installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From….”
1. You’ve Got to Make People Want It. Last year, at a Mizzou basketball game, a fellow student dove face first into the row in front of me to catch a foam finger that had been dropped from the rafters. It was just a yellow “We’re #1” finger with a massive logo for a local business on both sides, but the student nearly came up concussed in his bid for the thing. Now, maybe we’re not looking for the public to risk bodily harm to get their hands on news, but certainly, we need to entice them with strong content that consumers are willing to seek out.
2. Engage Consumers Wherever They Are. Just a decade ago, you had to be within the range of a strong-armed cheerleader to catch a shirt. Then the slingshot came around and expanded the number of fans that could catch a shirt. And then the t-shirt cannon was invented, making it so that fans seated in the upper deck of a pro stadium could catch a shirt. The idea here is simple: engage the widest audience possible while still keeping a focused message. We’ve got our t-shirt cannon: the Internet. Journalists just need to harness that power to better distribute the news.
3. Free Can Be Desirable. Sure, the shirts are ugly, and no, I don’t really want a foot-wide Papa John’s logo on the front of the garment I’m wearing to every game. But if the option is a free shirt or a $25 one available at the team’s store (geez, talk about a pay wall), you can understand why fans are so willing to stand up or even dive for a free one. But think of it this way: on free t-shirt days at the ballpark, teams won’t bring out the t-shirt cannon. Why? It’s because fans won’t care; they’ve already gotten what they wanted. The shirts are only desirable if it’s the only free option.
So maybe media should be creating targeted, premium content — that, just maybe, consumers will be willing to pay for — while still engaging the rest of the crowd with free, non-niche news. (And I can’t imagine that Rupert Murdoch would be pleased to hear that his business model is being replicated by interns in mascot costumes around the country this summer.)
I went searching last night for a video of Bill Nye. I do not know what cued the idea in my head; I wasn’t reading about science or bowties or Seattle, or even about Nye’s arch nemesis, Ed Begley Jr. I have no idea what could have placed the thought in my head, but suddenly, I found myself standing up, walking to the fridge to grab a glass of milk and thinking: You know, I should really write a thousand words about Bill Nye.
And so I went looking for the video, or, more specifically, the theme song. Because that’s what you’ll remember about Bill Nye the Science Guy, the lanky engineer whose self-titled science show on PBS was a favorite on days when my sixth grade science teacher didn’t have any idea what to do with the class.
Mr. Avila would push a tape into a VCR, and after PBS’s opening message – we never did figure out who was behind the Carnegie Foundation that seemed to underwrite every show that aired on that network – the Bill Nye theme song would come on.
Timing in at just under thirty seconds, it’s a surprisingly catchy tune. The hook sounds mildly like a mid-90s Beastie Boys B-side, except that the base is replaced by a man repeatedly yelling out the name Bill, and the guitar solo is ripped from a mediocre Van Halen cover band. The only words spoken in the song are “Inertia is a property of matter”; unsurprisingly, a full decade later, it’s one of the few scientific facts I still know with any degree of certainty. Meanwhile, images of old TV sets and upside-down astronauts and Bill Nye’s face float across the screen.
What’s most remarkable is that – despite having not seen the video this millennium — I still remember the song almost beat for beat.
To create a song – and a show – that catchy, Nye was doing a staggering number of things right. It’s why he’s the subject of this week’s “What Journalists Can Learn From….”
1. Experiment, Above All Else: Yes, Nye’s show was about scientific experiments, but I’d like to go beyond the obvious. Nye actually holds two patents: one for ballet shoes, and another for a “collapsible, water-filled magnifying glass.” He wasn’t just a TV host; he’s an innovator, even in his role today as a one-man experiment in environmental living.
2. Know Your Audience: On the show, half of his sketches were “Benny Hill” rip-offs. He repeated concepts entirely too often. He’s always wore a baby blue lab coat and a bowtie, and he played both the smartest guy in the room and a jester simultaneously. And somehow, it worked. Because Nye knew who his audience was: teenagers with absolutely no attention span for science. If you’re going to draw them in, you’re going to have to be goofy. Sure, he took it too far on the show, especially for the audience that had already reached Bar Mitzvah age. But for a good chunk of young Americans – myself included – he remains one of the most influential scientists of our generation. He’s the only one who bothered to talk to us on our level.
3. Routine Can Be Habit-Forming: Nye’s shows were unthinkably formulaic. Each show had the same introduction, the same sequence of experiments and sketches. Basically, it was a plug-and-play script that was slightly altered from show to show based on the theme of the particular episode. But familiarity meant that viewers always knew what was coming next.
If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s guide to “Blues Clues” from The Tipping Point, then this should sound familiar: there comes a moment when children are able to comprehend – and actually learn – concepts. Up until this moment, children do not retain a significant amount of what they’re being taught.
Nye just happened to figure out both the tipping point for the pre-teen set and the elements that lead to that point.
Here’s the application for news: readers aren’t necessarily familiar with the journalism process. So part of working with new mediums is teaching the public how to interact with them.
An example: web video hasn’t broken through yet, partially because readers aren’t sure what to expect from it. Unlike a news article – where the most important information is found in the opening paragraphs – non-TV news video tends to bury the lead, if it has one at all.
Viewers watched Nye because they knew what they were getting out of it (an interesting look at basic scientific concepts), and they knew when they could fast forward through an episode (the “Benny Hill” parts), since each episode was structured the same way.
The news organizations that build the best web video will also create identifiable structure within their web video, so readers know why they’re tuning in and when they can tune out. Better yet, they’ll create this structure while still allowing space to be as creative, goofy, or informative as Nye was.
And one more thing: readers need familiarity and routine in their news. They need to understand when we’re blogging or Tweeting, and they need transparency to know to how we do it. They need to understand our niches – Nye owned science to the point where’s he’s been quoted about the science behind both baseball and Pluto – and they need to know why we cover the topics that we do.
Routine breeds familiarity, which, ideally, breeds trust. With that in hand, news organizations can build just about anything.
Two weeks ago, Slam Magazine named Shaquille O’Neal the fourth greatest basketball player in NBA history. Now, argue all you want about whether or not Shaq is better than some other names on that list — like Oscar Robertson (no. 5 on the list), Magic Johnson (no. 6) or Juwan Howard (weirdly, not ranked). I’m not here to argue his place in history.
But here’s what I find remarkable: unlike most of the players on that list, when I think of Shaq, I don’t think of basketball first.
Sure, Jordan’s synonymous with all sorts of YouTubeable highlights. Dr. J cues up an image of a man finishing a reverse layup from behind the basket. Say John Havlicek’s name, and immediately, four words come to mind: “Stole the ball.“
Then there’s Shaq. I’ll remember him not for his four NBA titles but for what he did — and said — off the court.
That’s why he’s the subject of this week’s “What Journalists Can Learn From…”
1. Control your brand name. Shaq’s a perfect example of how to — and how to not — build your brand. He’s cultivated this larger-than-life image by being wildly quotable and media friendly. ESPN’s run a Top 10 of Shaq’s most famous quotes — my favorite: “We’re not worried about the Sacramento Queens” — on more than a handful of occasions. His “MTV Cribs” episode is awesome. His arrival in Miami a few years back was brilliant. But then there’s the flip side: his movie career was a flop, and his notorious Kobe Bryant-themed rap landed on the web. Building a brand means giving people unique content, and Shaq’s certainly as quotable as any in pro sports. But he’s also been prone to poor decision making in public.
2. If you tweet, tweet well. Shaq’s closing in on 1.5 million followers, and it’s because his Twitter feed is among the most innovative anywhere. He engages users in ridiculous contests — today, he asked followers to send in their best “Yo Momma” joke — and retweets regularly.
3. Evolve. Shaq — the basketball player — in 2009 is not the same as the Shaq of even a few seasons ago. But after his recent trade to Cleveland, many pegged the Cavs as a title contender. Shaq’s slower, and certainly not the dominant force that he was earlier this decade. But he’s evolved into something else. He’s a role player who’s said publicly that he doesn’t mind coming off the bench, and there aren’t many stars who are willing to sacrifice their own stats for the team. He’s finding his niche as he ages and staying relevant. I’ve said it before: if you have essential skills to offer, you can always find an audience that needs your services.
I’m finishing up a road trip, so this Friday’s installment of “What Journalists Can Learn From…” is all about business travel. When I’m on the road, I’m just looking to be treated humanely. But sometimes, it seems that companies forget to do even that.
The photo at right — me, standing next to an entirely-too-low shower head — will be addressed in a moment.
That being said, I’m thinking about three things that journalists can learn when traveling:
1. Serve the Public Good. On my Southwest flight from Baltimore to San Antonio, we’d only been waiting on the tarmac for 10 minutes when the pilot came over the loudspeakers. “So, we could be waiting here a while,” he said. “You can turn on your phones if you’d like.” Then, an hour later, he announced that we would be heading back to the gate, because the airport was probably going to shut down due to severe weather. So they allowed passengers to disembark.
Meanwhile, out the window, we could see that other airlines were leaving their passengers trapped on the plane during a thunderstorm.
An hour later, we reboarded the plane, and the pilot continued to keep us up-to-date about what was happening and why we weren’t taking off. The flight left some six-and-a-half hours late, but passengers didn’t complain. The Southwest crew kept the passengers informed, and they weren’t afraid to say that they were frustrated by what was happening, too. I’ve never been on a flight that was delayed that long, but I’ve also never been on a flight where we were so well informed about why the delay was happening. (The pilot even threw in a nice plug, asking passengers to write in to their Congressman about our nation’s outdated air traffic control system.) Southwest’s crew acted with the passengers’ best interests at heart, so the passengers were willing to cooperate despite the delays.
2. Be Easy to Reach. During the delay, I was trying to reach Enterprise Rent-a-Car to change my reservation. I called both numbers from my confirmation email; neither line got me through to a real human being. So I used Google’s 411 service to find Enterprise’s customer service line, and eventually, an actual person was able to direct me to the San Antonio Enterprise location. Still, if I didn’t have more than a few dollars at stake, I’d have given up. Any organization should be imminently reachable, especially by phone or email (but also via Facebook, Twitter, comments on blogs, etc). Meet your community, wherever they are.
3. Know Your Clientele. So that photo at the top of this post is of me in my shower at the La Quinta. Now, this is a hotel that gives you what you want: a clean bed, good air conditioning, and a nice bathroom. But the shower head is unbelievably low. I know that at my size — I’m 6’5” — I have to crouch to shower sometimes. But the La Quinta shower head would be too low for someone a foot shorter than me. La Quinta’s simply forgotten to do a basic thing really well, and the next time I’m considering a La Quinta, I won’t remember that the hotel had a free breakfast and a pool outside. But I’ll absolutely remember that I had to go to my knees to wash my hair.