Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Power of Experience over Tchotchkes in the Interactive Age

"The struggle is important,
but I got what I came for."
Marius Overhand’s first run-in with the law—and Billy Clifford’s last—occurred in the R&S Auto store located right across the street from the Middletown, NJ police department back in the summer of ’71.
As a prank, Marius stuck a tennis ball in the front pocket of his jeans. He was pretending to shoplift to scare Billy who was such an altar boy that he’d hang his head after stealing second base in Little League. The joke backfired when Marius couldn’t get the ball out of his pocket before store clerk caught him.
Within seconds—literally—Middletown’s finest were screeching into the R&S parking lot with their lights blazing and their sirens screaming, which is a bit much since they were stationed right … across … the street.
(Now, there is some debate as to why an auto parts store was selling tennis balls. The most logical response I got from my twilight bark was that they were probably sold as potential trailer-hitch covers, which is good enough for me.)
Anyway, the reason I brought up the now-legendary "one too many balls in the jeans" caper is to demonstrate that, prior to the Internet, “stuff” was a lot more important to kids. Today, young people value experiences far more than the material possessions needed to have those experiences.
Case in point: on our walk yesterday, my dog Lucy and I found a baseball … and a complete set of catcher’s gear that had been left behind the night before. Think about that. In 1970s suburban America, some of us would risk arrest to pilfer a tennis ball.  Yet today, a kid will “forget” to bring home his catcher’s gear.
There are a couple of reasons for that. First, cool stuff was a lot harder to come by when we were kids. Back then, an $8 Timex watch was your “special Christmas gift,” an electric typewriter (with eight-character memory erase!) was your high school graduation present, and a new color-TV console in the neighborhood led to an impromptu block party.
Today, every kid in America is walking around with an HD TV in their back pocket. Not to mention a computer, a “hi-fi” stereo system, a video production studio, and a better two-way wrist TV than Dick Tracy ever had.
Second, young people don’t actually need to own as much stuff because they can rent practically anything in today’s sharing economy. I loved my ’69 Chevy Impala, my lime green Schwinn 10-speed, and my beat-up record collection. But my daughters wouldn’t dream of owning any of that when they can simply Uber, Bikeshare, or Spotify.
The new way of thinking about “stuff” is neither better nor worse. But it is something you’re going to have to take into account if you want to communicate more effectively with your audiences.
One simple step: lighten up on the tchotchkes. There ain’t no room in a micro-apartment for a shelf full of baubles, especially stuff that promotes the organization more than its cause.
Which leads to a more nuanced but no less important point—when promoting your organization and its cause, keep in mind that your audiences see your organization as the vehicle and your cause as the experience. And there are plenty of other vehicles out there.
So lead with the experience; lead with your quest. Connect with your shared vision. And take the time to develop a relationship based on your mutual goals—perhaps over a nice cup of coffee—before you offer them the mug.

Friday, May 15, 2015

In the Interactive Age, it is better to give THEN receive.

"Tell me more about how much you
 like my ring tone."
I had already dropped three quarters into the meter before I saw the flashing message: “No parking. Construction only. You will be towed. January 2, 2007.”

It had taken me 40 minutes to find that spot. There was no construction nearby. And I was pretty damned sure that it was 2015. That is until I heard the theme song from “The Little Rascals” coming from the suit pocket of the guy sitting at the cafĂ© I was parked in front of. At that point, boiling over with rage at this effed-up city and temporally unhinged from the anachronistic no-parking notice, you might have convinced me that it was 1969 and I was sitting in the big red chair in my mom’s living room, playing hooky and watching The Little Rascals.

The guy let the song play out its natural break before he answered (wouldn’t you?), staring at me with that “dig me” look that this town is known for. Rather than irritate me, the guy’s ring-tone home-run trot actually reminded me of a very important lesson about successful communication that I’d been meaning to talk to you about.

On October 24, 1936, Hal Roach released “Pay as You Exit,” The Little Rascals 148th and arguably most important short comedy film. You see, the 74-year-old “Pay as You Exit” short actually holds the secret to successful communication in the 21st century—it is better to give THEN receive.

The plot of the show is simple: in order to attract an audience to their production of Romeo and Juliette, Alfalfa invites everyone to see the show for free and tells them to pay as they exit only if they enjoyed the performance.

And it is precisely that simple formula that is separating the communication winners from the losers on the Internet. Organizations that freely give away their best material are attracting people who are interested in their key issues—some of whom would be willing to pay for a deeper dive in the info pool.

Those who are still hoarding their cache of information in hopes of attracting pay-to-play customers are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a world where knowledge is free. Sure, your organization may be the uncontested champion of the arcane details of your “highly specialized” field, but if you are hiding that info behind membership dues, outrageous download fees, or other monetary considerations, you won’t be the champ for long. People will find a free way around you.

You will fare much better giving away as much information as you can, attracting those interested in your topic to your helpful, free platform, and developing a reputation as the go-to resource on your given issue. If you’re content is as good as you think it is, you’ll have plenty of people paying as they exit … and even more when they tell their friends about your amazing website.

A little known fact: The actual title to the Little Rascals’ theme song is “Good Old Days,” which presumably referred to a simpler pre-20th century era—a time before people viewed information solely as a commodity.  Back in the 20th century, nobody gave away information. (You think Hal Roach let his audience “pay as they exit”?) So when we start giving away our content, we are not marching forward into some brave new world. We’re actually returning to a much more natural way of communicating with people.