Thursday, August 28, 2014

Slinging the Red Bull: How to find stories everywhere

Stories are everywhere. This can led me to the Cutty Sark, Fencetech 2015, and a TV show I hadn't thought of in decades.
Stories are everywhere. This can led me to the Cutty Sark, Fencetech 2015, and a TV show I hadn't thought of in decades.
I tried Red Bull once, and I was so surprised that it wasn’t Hawaiian Punch red that I can’t remember what it tasted like. I haven’t tried it since primarily because Red Bull has never asked me to.
Frankly, they have no use for a 54-year-old male with 2.4 children (my daughters are quite tall). Red Bull targets kids who want to jump out of balloons that are bumping against earth’s celestial ceiling. I, on the other hand, didn’t want to jump out of bed this morning.
My first exposure to Red Bull was through their James Thurber-esque cartoon commercials that featured various scenarios where some guy “gets his wings.” And even though I wasn’t their target market, I did connect with those TV ads in a nostalgic way.
They reminded me a TV show I use to watch when I was a kid, “My World and Welcome to It,” which was based on the life of the cartoonist James Thurber. That show was cancelled 34 years ago. The star of the show was born in 1923. James Thurber died in 1961 … of old age. None of us is Red Bull’s target demo.
Last week, Amsterdam Printing (“the leader in laser engraved promotional pens and personalized calendars”) posted a blog about “3 Brands Rocking Social Media,” with Red Bull being the first. In it, they made the insightful observation that, “the key to Red Bull’s social media success is the staggering amount of quality content it shares.”
Red Bull, they wrote, is an “immersive” brand because “it seamlessly immerses itself with other stories in order to tell its own” … not unlike what Amsterdam Printing did with that post … and as long as we’re being honest, not unlike what I‘m doing with this post.
Now, I need to point out that this wasn’t the point of my post at its inception. (See what I did there, Karlyn Boe?) I actually had planned to write about the Red Bull can fence-post cap that I found yesterday. I thought it would be a nice addition to my fence-post cap oeuvre. But having only had one unmemorable sip of Red Bull, I didn’t have a single story about it. So I did a little digging and found Amsterdam Printing’s informative post.
I bring all this up to show that there is always a story. Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper. In the past few weeks, I’ve written about a bug, a one-armed tan-colored plastic Army man, and a fence-post cap. And I came up with stories because each of those treasures (eventually) triggered a memory.
Here’s the trick: Free association. Take the topic you want to write about and boil it down to one word or phrase (if you can tie it to a tangible object, all the better). Then find a quiet place away from any Internet access and start rummaging through your memory for incidents that involved that word, phrase, or object.
If you can’t churn up any of your own stories, Google your phrase and use someone else’s.
For example, say it was your job to entice people to attend the Fencetech 2015, the trade show of the American Fence Association being held in Orlando in February. And say the theme of the show was “Charting a New Course” emblazoned over the silhouette of a three-masted schooner.
Not much to work with, right? You’d be surprised. Here’s what I’d lead with:
“Back in 1972 on a family vacation in London, we toured the dry-docked clipper ship Cutty Sark. The captain’s log was in a glass case opened to an entry made on April 3, 1881—exactly 79 years and one day before I was born. [True story.]
“On that day, two seamen were swept off the deck never to be found again. Their names were John Clifton and John Doyle!
“To this day, I wonder how differently things might have turned out if the Cutty Sark’s deck was equipped with a durable, lightweight fence. If you would like to see the kinds of fences that might have saved the lives of those two young men, join us at Fencetech 2015, in Orlando, Florida!”
And don’t worry if you don’t have a similar story. You could always lead with a picture of a Red Bull can serving as a fence-post cap.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Creative License Revocation: Calling Shenanigans on 21st Century Snake-Oil Salesmen

And for a limited time, we'll throw in our
Unlimited Gravity Guarantee. If your
diamonds ever float off into space, we'll
replace them FREE!
The Internet has not been kind to snake-oil salesmen. Today, you can debunk claims that seem too good to be true with just a few keystrokes. Still, the chicanery persists. Marketers have just gotten a little more creative.
Zales guarantees their diamonds "for life," which is a pretty safe bet since diamonds are the most durable gemstones on the planet, scoring a perfect 10 on the Mohs Scale.
"Hold still, knucklehead, or I won't get an accurate reading!"
"Hold still, knucklehead, or I won't get an accurate reading!"
Dawn promised to donate $1 to wildlife conservation groups with every bottle of Dawn Ultra Dishwashing Detergent sold ... after you log on to their site and register the code found on the bottle ... where you will see that they're already reached their goal, thanks to "Everyday Wildlife Champions like you." (Do you suppose they meant "every-day"?)
But if you try again later, you'll learn that "There was a small glitch with our website that falsely announced that we had reached our goal last month," so you can go ahead and register that bottle after all. Oh, and we've upped the donation limit to $1 million, so we're cool now, right?
It's worth a visit to the site to become a "virtual volunteer" to see how they rescue oil-coated baby ducks, which in this case looks a lot more like Hershey's syrup.
I'll be posting more Interactive-Age Chicanery in days to come, but until then, I'd love to hear from you. What "creative" marketing tactics have got you calling shenanigans?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Harmless Sand Wasps and Charmless Dog Cops

"Wait. Could you take another one? I think I blinked."
"Wait. Could you take another one? I think I blinked."
I often think of the 1975 cult classic “A Boy and His Dog,” starring the then-unknown Don Johnson, when Lucy and I walk through the parks in Arlington. Not for the obvious reason, but because Arlington County reminds me a lot of the parts of the movie that take place in “Downunder,” a (relatively) beautiful underground biosphere that protects its inhabitants from the dystopian dessert that the world above has been reduced to.
Here’s why: when the boy is lured into Downunder, he’s told that he’s been brought there to help repopulate the place with the help of what appears to be the evening shift of the Las Vegas Playboy Club. Great, right? But he learns that the procedure is more clinical than he had hoped when they strap him onto a gurney and strap him into a … well, it looks like something you’d find in a dairy barn.
Arlington, like Downunder, is a (relatively) beautiful aboveground biosphere that protects its inhabitants from the nearby morally bankrupt dessert that Washington DC has been reduced to. It’s got bike trails and dog parks, food assistance centers and pub crawls. It even has a sign that explains that the large wasp you see digging in this playground sandbox (or in this case, posing near the sign) is a harmless little critter that just wants to lay its eggs in the sand. Cute, right?
But not 20 yards from that sign, you’re very likely to be stopped by a badge-wearing animal control officer who will explain to you in excruciating detail that it is against the law to allow your dog to roam off-leash outside of the designated dog park even after you explain that you are well aware of the law but you choose to ignore it on days like this, “because there isn’t anyone else in this entire park except you and me and Lucy and she’s about as dangerous than that sand wasp over there in the sandbox.”
So Lucy and I are done with dog parks and no-dog parks and grumpy badge-wearing animal control cops. We’re going to stay down near the river where the only thing that can bother us is snakes and snapping turtles, drunk day-laborers, and the occasional bear sighting.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Today's Treasure: Some Ethical Dilemmas

"I'm just saying that if it is performance art he wouldn't want us to disturb him."
"I'm just saying that if it is performance art he wouldn't want us to disturb him."
Right between the Weenie Beenie and the river is a day-laborer pick-up site where a bunch of our Central American friends--predominantly El Salvadoran--gather in hopes of being picked up for some very temporary day labor (hence the name).
During the warmer months, some of the guys set up camp along sections of the river where nobody--except Lucy and I--ever goes. They're pretty cool guys and none of us yelps anymore when we accidentally stumble upon each other ... until this morning, when we came upon a body.
Now, we've seen stone-still bodies along the river before, but they were always in one of those well-worn camps which meant that our would-be corpse was just some guy sleeping it off. But today's body was in the middle of some thick and nasty thicket, thicket that's filled with thorns and vines and snakes and poison ivy and, today at least, dead bodies.
We had just started our walk so I was reluctant to see if the guy was really dead because if he was, we'd have to call the cops and we'd miss our morning river walk. And if he wasn't we'd have to engage in an awkward conversation consisting of several different configurations of the same few Spanish words I know, and I just wasn't in the mood. So I told Lucy that if he was still there when we were heading back home, I'd check him out.
Now before you get all high and mighty about how I should have checked right away (Ethical Dilemma #1), I need to point out that I've seen dead bodies before and this particular body, even at 20 yards away, didn't seem to have that unique dead stillness to it. And I couldn't see any blood on him so it was very likely that he had just staggered into the thicket and passed out.
Further, it's is extremely dangerous to wake up anything--people or animals--in the wild. Back in 1983, my friend Mark Burger and I snuck up on an enormous sea lion sleeping on the beach just north of Big Sur, CA. Unfortunately, we had made the terrible mistake of approaching it from the shoreline. When it woke up--startled--it roared (yes, it freaking roared!), lifted most of its 2,000-pound self high in the air, and started undulating toward us with alarming speed. I was literally too frightened to move.
Mark wasn't. He shoved me out of my stupor as he bolted by me. I jumped in the air and started running as fast as my adrenaline-fired legs would carry me. But, as physics would have it, my legs were pumping so fast that I couldn't get traction in the sand. I looked like Wile E. Coyote trying to outrun a falling anvil.
With that experience forever seared into my brain, I calculated that it was in everyone's best interest that I give our new friend a little more time to offer proof of life.
Well, he was still there an hour later. So I told Lucy that we should head home for some coffee and breakfast because if he was actually dead, he'd still be there when we got back and if he wasn't then he surely would have woken up and wobbled over to the day-laborer pick-up site by then.
When we got home, I realized that I should have at least taken a picture of him for my Today's Treasure collection. But that seemed a bit ghoulish (Ethical Dilemma #2), so instead I "decided" that the right thing for me to do was check on the guy, and if I happened to get a photo, so be it.
He was still there.
And I took his photo.
And once I did, I realized that I now had a moral obligation to check on him ... which meant I would have to wander into that nasty thicket like Hans Solo in that trash compactor scene only without the boots (Ethical Dilemma #3).
So I did.
As I walked down the embankment and into the thorns and snakes, I looked back and saw the vines closing up my escape route. And for a moment, I actually hoped he was dead because at least then I wouldn't necessarily have to make a mad dash out of there through those living, breathing vines.
I didn't want to alarm the guy as I approached, so the whole way in I kept saying, "Hey, amigo, you OK?" figuring that we shared at least three out of those four words. But he wasn't moving.
Finally, I got close enough to see the top of his face-down head move ever so slightly in a manner that could be construed as a nod. So I asked him again if he was OK, and once again I saw the nod-like response. I mean, I'm almost certain it was a nod (Ethical Dilemma #4).
Figuring my work here was done, I said, "Bueno," wished him a good day, and scooted out of there at a fast clip, but not so fast that it looked like I was running away from a murder scene, if in fact that's what it turns into (Ethical Dilemma #5).
I'll be heading out there shortly with a box of Pop Tarts and a bottle of Gatorade to make sure my new friend is feeling OK. And if he isn't, I'll let you know. But in the meantime, I'm curious. What would you have done?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

6 Content Rules You Can Learn from a Fence-Post Cap

Capo di Tutti Capi
Capo di Tutti Capi
Lucy and I thought we had found real treasure when I dug up this chain link fence-post cap on our walk by the river this morning. It was just a few feet from the existing fence, but it was much more substantial and ornate than the flimsy aluminum strap that was capping the fence post now.
I was pretty sure that my fence-post cap was once part of a Civil War-era chain link fence that protected a long-forgotten Union Army outpost from Indian attacks. (I know. I know. Native American attacks. But if I’m being honest, I imagined Indian attacks, not Native American attacks.)
Post-Modern Cap
Post-Modern Cap
Anyway, my treasure fantasy was short-lived because the next fence post was capped with an older and less flimsy model than that cheap aluminum band. And 10 yards down from that, the posts were capped with my Civil War-era treasure.
I did a little research when I got home and learned that my fence-post cap was from the mid-20th century, which means it’s most likely from a Cold War-era fence that protected a long-forgotten stash of uranium-235 from commie spies. (Yeah, I said “commie.” What of it?)
fence post1
A capital investment at $95 a pop
I also learned that fence-post caps were heftier and even more ornate decades before that, as evidenced by this pair of horse-head fence post caps that you can get on etsy for a mere $95 (each). Unfortunately, 20th century technology did to fence post caps what it did to most of our once hefty and ornate culture, including the way we communicate—it mass produced the charm right out of it.
But here’s the good news: Internet technology is forcing all of us to be much more creative and thoughtful with the content we create. Your mass-produced press release just ain’t gonna cut it in the Interactive Age. If you want to be heard over the din of millions of self-publishers screaming for attention, you have to infuse some creativity and craftsmanship into your content.
Here are six lessons about creating great content you can learn from a mid-20th century chain link fence-post cap.
Be attractive—Do you know how many people would take the time to dig a modern-day fence-post cap out of the ground? Zero. Separated from the post, today’s caps look like something that fell off a bicycle. If you want to attract eyeballs and make sure they come bouncing back to your site day after day, you need to toss a little spice into your copy. Here are two tips that will help you right away: Thesaurus and active verbs.
Develop a style—The team that designed my fence-post cap didn’t have to put a decorative little thimble on top. But they did. Why? Because it looked cool. And it gave that fence-post cap a style that allows me to identify it in an Internet search decades after it was designed. You need to do the same with your content. Don’t be afraid to put a thimble on top.
Be functional—Sure, my fence-post cap looks cool, but it also performs a valuable service—it keeps the top rail from falling over.  Unless you’re a fiction writer, your copy should provide valuable information as well.
Be enduring—I found my fence-post cap very near where I found the fossilized vertebrae of some mammal that wandered around these parts in the Pliocene era. I’m not saying my fence-post cap is going to be around for four million years, but it will be around centuries after its modern-day counterpart rusts away. When creating content, you should occasionally—maybe once a month—produce something more long lasting than, say, a tweet or a vine video of your cat.
Be prolific—One fence post does not a fence make. Just like the guys who produced my fence-post cap, you’ve got to churn out a bunch of content if you want to fence in some online real estate that you can call your own.
Be brief—The thimble was a nice touch. But there simply is not enough time to design and produce horse-head fence-post caps in the Interactive Age. And frankly, no one has time anymore to appreciate the craftsmanship that was commonplace before Henry Ford taught us that mass-produced efficiency was more profitable than artistry. So you need to find the middle ground between functionality and creativity because you’ve got a lot of fence-post caps to churn out to get the job done.

Monday, August 11, 2014

6 Communication Lessons from the World’s Worst Army Man

"I need the Tonka front-end
loader, a bag of marbles,
and Stretch Armstrong up
here pronto, son!"
If you go back to the 1960s and asked six-year-old me which Army man would be the absolute best one to find wedged in the rocks of a riverbed while on a walk with my dog Lucy sometime in the next century, I’d probably say, “All of them but except the radio guy because you know why? He doesn’t even have a GUN! How come there’s more of them than of the bazooka guys? I don’t like the tan ones cause Army men are green not tan.”

This morning, wedged between some rocks in a riverbed, I found the absolute worst Army man in the world—a one-armed tan-colored radio guy.

I was a bit excited when I first spotted that little guy. I hadn’t seen an Army man in decades, at least not one on deployment, as it were. Still, I was a little disappointed when I saw that it was the radio guy. Then I started thinking about the role the radio guys played in combat and I realized they were actually the baddest dudes on the battlefield.

Want to carpet bomb that Barbie Glamour Camper RV Motor Home Park over there where your sister is playing? Talk to your radio guy. Need a laser-guided missile to take out that underground bunker that’s really just a hole covered with sticks then grass then sand? Radio guy’s your man. He can deliver every weapon you’ve got stockpiled in your twisted little imagination.

But nobody appreciated the value of a talented radio guy in the 1960s because—off the battlefield—20th century communication wasn’t a two-way radio conversation. It was a barrage of one-way messages projected with overwhelming force to inflict the greatest response possible from the targeted audience. There was no dialogue, no networking, no “sharing,” no “liking.” There were just the unremitting monolithic monologues from the media, politicians, and corporate titans—the collective “they” in “they say…”
Related Resources from B2C

The Internet has changed all that, of course, but it’s obvious not everyone has fully grasped how profound that change really is. A lot of organizations still reach for the bazooka guy when they launch their communications campaigns. (And by the way, if your organization still “launches” communication “campaigns,” you might just be working for one of those 20th century dinosaurs.)

It’s not difficult to learn how to communicate effectively in the Interactive Age. You just have to know the rules. Here’s Radio Guy to tell you the six things you need to know to communicate effectively on the Internet battlefield.

“Listen up, folks. I may be the most despised plastic Army man on the playground, but when hellfire is raining down on us, it’s me they turn to. I know how to communicate effectively under the toughest circumstance, so I want you to listen good.

“That was lesson number one. Listen good. When you listen to what the other person is saying you’ll learn what he’s focused on and you will be better able to connect with him on his level.

“Lesson two: Be brief. There’s no time for chit chat on the battlefield. You’ve got to know what you want to say before you say it and get to the point as quickly as you can.

“Three: Be specific about what you want. We’re all bombarded by information the second we set boots on the Internet, so we don’t have time to decipher some mealy mouthed backdoor request. If you want something, spell it out.

“Four: Mind your manners. Brevity and specificity are no excuse for poor manners. When you’re in the middle of a firefight, the last thing you want to do is tick off your allies. You need that person you’re communicating with and ideally you’ve got something they need, too. Don’t scotch the deal by being rude.

“Five: There are no secure lines. Everyone—including the enemy—can hear everything you say. Be mindful of what you share.

“Last and most important, lesson number six: Offer something of value. If you can’t inform, then entertain. You’ve got a hell of a lot of competition for mind share. You’ve got to cut through that flack by bringing you’re A Game to every conversation.

“You remember what I taught you here today and you’ll be just fine. Now get back out there and find my arm, soldier!"