A Radio Strategy in a Digital World

Last fall, I met with a friend who had recently spoken with an executive at another (not the Mets) professional sports team in New York.  The exec said that the single biggest change in the sports world in recent history was the advent of sports talk radio; specifically for you New York sports fans, WFAN.  Before WFAN, teams had a cozy relationship with beat writers and newspaper columnists — that is, the media — and the reporters and columnists would, by and large, echo the company line as gospel.  The team controlled information and access; in exchange, they left to the media the “right” to distribute the story.  It was a win-win, as the team got positive press and the journalists were glistened the experts.  For any baseball fan, this is self-proving: the Baseball Writers Association of America decides on the end-of-season award winners and Hall of Fame inductees.  (In any other industry do journalists decide award winners?  Could you imagine if the editorial page of the Washington Post named the Nobel Peace Prize winners?)

Sports talk radio changed all that, for at least three reasons:

  • All of a sudden, there was a lot of space for analysis, even if the analysis was mostly blather.  When a radio host has to fill four hours a day, five days a week, he has to say more than the snippet the team gives him.
  • The snippet gets challenged — especially by fans.  Radio gave the fans a chance to sound off, via call-in shows.   While not the focus of talk radio, there was no equivalent in sports.  Most newspapers and magazines published letters to the editor, but not about sports minutiae, e.g. whether a specific player should be sent to the minors.
  • Reporters and columnists became sources.   Literally.  Radio hosts would invite them to call in; the hosts would put the questions to the writers.   Writers reply, and are challenged by the host (e.g. “Why did the coach call that play at that moment?”).

The end result:  Beat writers no longer had a monopoly on the sound bite, and when that went away, so did the teams’ cozy relationship with those beat writers (and the rest of the media population, for that matter).

The media wanted more access, as individuals wanted scoops; the team wanted more control, as stories took on live of their own.  The two goals don’t mesh.  That’s why we have an era where it’s not uncommon to see players yelling at reporters (or pushing away cameras); why Theo Epstein once donned a monkey suit to avoid reporters; why Allen Iverson talks about practice.

But today, the landscape has again changed.  With Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, ideas move way too rapidly to play the cat-and-mouse game between teams and the media.   And even more importantly, the new landscape is participatory, not broadcast.   There is no need for the team to play this cat-and-mouse game because they can — and should — manage their own memes.

Unfortunately, the radio era harmed the notion that “conversation” and “participation” are laudable goals, for in the radio era, attempts at either were doomed to backfire.  So, I suspect, it will be a long time before those once burned get over their new media shyness.

Managing Your Memes: The Three Ds

Imagine you owned a Major League Baseball team; well call it the Mets.  Your star player (“David Wright”) is, inexplicably, striking out a lot, and your team is having a bad year.  What message do you expect the sports media to hook into and spread?

In the Mets’ case, the media has hooked onto a meme.   “David Wright is striking out a ton, and it’s hurting the team.”

But it’s not true.   Yes, he’s striking out a lot — but he’s also outperforming the rest of his team.   He’s second on the team in home runs, leading in runs batted in, gets on base more often than anyone else, and even is second (by one) in stolen bases.   He is on pace for a “30/30” season — thirty homers, thirty stolen bases — and 100+ runs batted in.   Yes, he’s striking out a lot more than in years past, but he’s having a good, if not great year.  He’s an asset, not a liability.

The Mets should combat this, just like any organization should if an asset is being treated like a liability by the press.  While the example above is sports related, the solution can apply to anyone in the public sphere.

The Three Ds of Meme Management

1) Develop your own soundbite.

The term “soundbite” may come off as negative, but it’s descriptive here.  You need to find a message and boil it down into a sentence or two.   I did that above.

The message has to be short and to the point.   The more you say, the more things there are for the chattering class to analyze, refute, and often (and unintentionally) distort.    Be clear and succinct.*   Stay on message.   You want to tee up your idea and hope that it spreads, winning the day; or at least, is something you can keep reiterating across various media channels.

* And, it should go without saying:  Choose your words carefully to make sure you don’t sound stupid.  Last night, when the Mets removed their starting pitcher from the game after five pitches, the pitcher claimed that he was not injured and was appalled by the decision to remove him.  The pitching coach’s response: that the pitcher is a “habitual liar” when it comes to his playing condition.   Big mistake.

2) Distribute the message yourself.

You cannot control your message, no matter how hard you try.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

But the definition of “trying” has changed from the press conferences, interviews, and press releases rubric of years past.   It’s not enough to sit around, crafting the message and choosing which media outlets you’ll speak with.    Nearly any organization can distribute the message themselves.  Have key stakeholders (the general manager? the owner? even a PR representative or spokesperson) start a blog.  Create an organizational Facebook page.  Use Twitter accounts, etc.  None of this is groundbreaking advice, so it is rather absurd that organizations have not yet caught on.  Again, take the Mets for example.  To the extent they use any of these tools — and it is minimal — it’s for marketing purposes only.

3) Defend your message.

Once others hear, repeat, rehash, and discuss your take on the goings-on, some will criticize it.  You need to be ready to defend it.

That means engaging the critics on their turf, as the Mets and other sports teams often (and sometimes poorly) do take the media to task, head on.  But rarely do you see a team do this.  Instead, they hold press conferences, go on radio shows, issue statements, etc.  They don’t ever engage the fan directly via media properties they control.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Twitter, Facebook pages, and blogs is that you can receive — and reply to — feedback right then and there.  And the replies are public, so even if you don’t convince the skeptic, you may convince someone else listening or watching the argument.  Overlooking this value, in the current “social media” climate, is fatal.

* * *

Applying the three Ds is not difficult.  It simply requires time and consistent effort.

One such example occurred last week, when Fox News ran an article claiming that Wikipedia founder (and my former boss), Jimmy Wales, was stripped of editorial rights due to an unrelated scandal.  He took to Twitter (and to TechCrunch, a third party blog) to set the record straight and defend himself:

The defense consisted of pointed replies to those who reacted skeptically:

Effective?  You bet.   The passion plus the time investment means that he’s taking it seriously; that this is important; and that the current media-driven meme is incorrect.  It’s believable and simulteaneouly remarkable.

It’s the approach everyone should be taking in managing the media sentiment of their organization.  Don’t follow the sports teams’ model.

What Starts With “T” and Can Let You Broadcast a Message to Millions?

I know the theme song to the horrid TV show Step by Step.   By heart, even.

Step by Step aired for six years on ABC’s “TGIF” lineup, and then for a seventh on CBS, totalling 160 episodes.  At thirty minutes per episode (including commercials — this was pre-DVR), a person who watched the entire run wasted over three whole days of his or her life.  It is still being aired in syndication on ABC Family: once a day on weekdays and twice-daily on weekends.

The show featured six children and later, a seventh and one cousin.  It was not significant enough, however, to vault any of those eight actors and actresses beyond the show itself.  A quick perusal of Wikipedia confirms this; in fact, one of the actors is so insignificant that he did not even have an entry in Wikipedia until 2009.   That’s not terribly surprising.  Step by Step was not something you commiserated over the next week at school.   No cultural icons came out of the show; there was no Balki Bartokomous or Tony Micelli or Mike Seaver.  Even in retrospect, the only things I can remember about the show is how across the board stupid the characters were (except for the nerdy kid, who was hardly praised for being smart) and, of course, the theme song.  Heck, it was only marginally funny.

Yet, I watched it often enough to be able to sing a significant part of the theme song by heart, over a decade after it ceased production.  And apparently, I am not alone.

We’re enamored by the lure of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and social media generally.  But don’t underestimate the power of television.

Can Big Bird Convert Twitter Followers Into Facebook Fans?

I work for Sesame Workshop, the non-profit behind Sesame Street.   I’m the Director of New Media Communications, which means, in part, I get to figure out how we use Facebook and Twitter.   I have been collecting a lot of publicly available data about one of my projects, and the results have proved interesting.

Earlier this year, we opened up a bunch of official Fan pages (when they were called that) for various characters.   We started with Elmo, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and Ernie, Rosita, Oscar the Grouch, and Abby Cadabby.   Each proved popular, and on March 25th, we invited our then-60,000 plus Twitter followers to become Facebook fans of those characters.

The bitly link did about 550 clicks.  Before the tweet, most of the existing character fan pages had fewer Facebook fans than we had Twitter followers by an order of magnitude.  Each of these pages fan counts grew by about 10%.

But the more interesting feedback I had to gather by hand.   People tweeted at @sesamestreet with their requests.   Almost 20 different characters — including human actors and one teddy bear — were suggested.  Many characters were suggested by only one or two people, but three characters stood out.

  • Big Bird lead the way by a lot.  For indexing, say he scored 100.
  • He was followed by Snuffleupagus.   Using the same index, put him at roughly 75.
  • The Count (officially Count von Count) came in third, with an index of 40.

A week or so later, we announced the new pages on Twitter.

I intentionally did not announce it on Facebook because I wanted to see how well our then-70,000 Twitter followers would translate into Facebook fans.   It was slow going, taking about 90 minutes to get one of the three characters to 100 fans, despite roughly 650 clicks overall that day.  I stopped checking once the first character hit 100 fans.

Given the response to my informal poll, I expected Big Bird to come out to a quick and decisive lead.  I was wrong.

Snuffy and The Count were neck and for the 90 or so minutes it took for the latter to prevail.  Big Bird was a laggard, not even coming close.  It was the exact opposite results of the poll.

Small sample size, perhaps?  Maybe I wasn’t hitting the same audiences?  Perhaps the responders on Twitter were not also using Facebook?  Or maybe they were, but they did not want their Facebook (real?) friends to know they were fans of children’s television characters?

Any are likely explanations, but none are very satisfying.   Instead of coming up with some answers, I instead ended up with another question:

Which “survey” was more accurate?

In effect, I conducted two surveys on Twitter.  One was an explicit ask: Which character pages would you want to become a fan of?  The other — “we’ve created these pages!” — was, implicitly, the same thing.   The former was more theoretical while the latter concrete.   Which one is better?

Yesterday, I checked these three characters’ pages again.  The results changed, reflecting closely the results of the earlier poll:

Indexing Big Bird to 100 again, Snuffy comes in at 77 — not far off from his original Twitter score — and the Count at 67.  It makes sense that these are a bit higher because while the Twitter responses naturally limit the # of possibilities (140 characters and the memory/imagination of the responder being two factors), there is no such mutual exclusivity or memory leaks when presented with options on Facebook.

Some general takeaways:

  • Twitter followers do not convert to Facebook fans at as high a level as I thought.  Cookie Monster, who is obviously incredibly popular on Twitter and the Internet generally, jumped only about 300 fans.  That is, about 0.5% of our Twitter followers became Facebook fans of Cookie Monster — a paltry sum.
  • Twitter followers may act as a good focus group.  While the conversion to Facebook fans for Big Bird, Snuffy, and the Count didn’t come overnight, the original “poll” seemed to accurately predict who would be the most popular.  For what it’s worth, Cookie Monster, whose tweets are retweeted with alacrity, has nearly 25,000 Facebook fans — to Big Bird’s 1,250 or so.
  • The natural growth of Facebook pages is impressive.  We’ve done very little to promote Big Bird’s inclusion on Facebook, yet his Fan count is growing.  The same is true for each of the other characters as well.

I’m sure some of that is wrong — and that it’s certainly incomplete.

Leaving the Wheelchair Behind

The headline — it’s not a metaphor.

Let’s say, heaven forbid, you lost the lower half of your body in an accident, and were confined to a wheelchair.  Under what circumstances would you venture off and leave the wheelchair behind?  To sleep, take a bath/shower, and… that’s pretty much it, I’d guess.   And you would never, ever leave it behind.

Or so I thought.

At just before 9 PM tonight, I got on the subway.  I noticed a man with no legs — nothing below the waist, roughly — in a wheelchair.  My first thought was that it must be very difficult for him to get around, given the wheelchair, because very few of subway stops are wheelchair accessible.

We both got on the first car of the train.   Before the train reached the next station less than two minutes later, the guy was in the middle of the car, panhandling.  Nothing too strange, except he wasn’t in his wheelchair.  He was scooting along, pushing himself forward with his arms while simultaneously carrying a coffee can of change and small bills.  He said nothing — the jingle of the change and the spectacle of a legless man moving slowly though the subway car spoke volumes for him.    And when the train stopped at the next station, he didn’t.  He moved on, reaching the end of our car just after the train disembarked.  Then he went through the doors at the end of the car and into the next one — leaving his wheelchair behind.   I waited a stop or two and, amazed, took the picture to the right.

A few stops later, I got off the train.   The wheelchair was in front of me, still laying fallow in the lead car.   As the train doors closed and the subway left my station stop, I watched the man pass from car three to car four, going further and further away from his wheelchair.

Maybe, in retrospect, it makes sense; it’s not very likely that someone is going to steal a wheelchair, the guy can probably do better panhandling if he’s scooting around in half-a-body; it may even be easier to maneuver between train cars without the wheelchair’s bulk.  But for the life of me, there’s one thing I can’t shake — where did this guy ever, possibly, get the idea to leave his wheelchair?  And not just that, but leave the car it was in!  I cannot imagine it would ever occur to me that the “best” thing I could do, if I were in his situation, is to leave the wheels behind.

Tailoring Your Message or Tailoring Your Audience

Here’s some quick and dirty data from my last 10 Facebook status updates.  “Comments” are unique commentors, and do not count me.

February 1 (status update): three comments

February 5 (shared link): 1 “like,” and I believe one or two others shared the link with their friend.  I explicitly asked for people to share the link.

February 9 (status update): one comments

February 11 (status update): four comments, but this was a specific question to a subset of my friends

February 12 (shared link): one comment

February 12 (status update): four comments

February 13 (status update): nothing.

February 18 (status update): one private message, but let’s ignore that.

February 19 (photo upload): 4 likes, 1 comment

February 19 (status update): 4 likes, 2 comments

All together, that’s about 25 public responses over just under three weeks.  I have just under 200 Facebook friends.

Another one of my friends has about 850.  Over the last month, he has somewhere between 150-200 status updates. My 10 updates to roughly 200 people meant that my updates were received (albeit not viewed) 2,000 times.  His volume and network: 150,000 times received.  His broadcast volume is seventy-five times greater than mine.

And received 17 public responses.  Seventy-five times the updates yielded seventy-five percent of the public responses.

The truth is, we’re both outliers.  Me? I typically won’t post something to Facebook unless I expect it to get a response, and looking back at my last ten updates, that rule was true for at least seven of the 10.  I aim to engage and converse.

He, on the other hand, is a broadcaster.  He publishes what he’s thinking and does it, literally, all day long.  He pushes (presumably all of) his off-Facebook content to Facebook. And he is a very active Twitter with over 10,000 tweets in about three years.  That’s one every two hours, if you assume he spends four per day asleep.  He’s also active on FourSquare, blogs much more often than I do, uploads pictures to Flickr, etc.  I don’t do much if any of these things.

Taking Facebook as a vaccum, mine clearly is — but Facebook isn’t a vacuum.  My friend is one of the most active people in the New York tech sector, and by broadcasting everything — and by doing it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. — he hits people wherever they are.  I get better quality and surprisingly, quantity on Facebook, but he bests me when you look at a larger picture.  I tailor my message for my audience; he tailors his audience for his message.

Neither is necessarily better; rather, it’s a question of style or personal preference.   Which do you do?

It’s Time To Shoot The Messenger

Here in New York City, we expect snow.  A lot of snow.  Enough snow, in fact, that as a precaution, the New York City public school system is closed.  That’s very rare, and for a lot of parents — whose places of work are very much expected to be open, especially — it is also exceptionally inconvenient.  (Not I; my office is closed.)

Let’s say you are a parent of a school-aged child or, like me, someone who solely wanted to know if school was canceled tomorrow.  Say someone in your office mentioned it in passing and you needed confirmation.   One of the many things you could do to get that confirmation is to go to the New York City Department of Education’s web site, like I did.  Here’s what you’d see — click to enlarge, if you’d like:

NYC Schools Website

Yes, it says that there schools are closed.  But it does so ineffectively.  The language is wrong — “Chancellor Klein Announces…” yawn… — and there’s no visual cue telling us that this is important.   In both language and aesthetics, the important content blends away from the reader.  In this case, that reader was me.  Not seeing the one sentence I expected — “SCHOOLS ARE CLOSED, WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 10TH. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION” — in bolded red letters, I moved on.

On, that is, to the City’s website.

City of New York Website

Again, click to enlarge.

And again, same problem.  The announcement blends in with a larger story about snow preparations, replete with a yawn-inducing picture of Mayor Mike behind the podium.  No big notice, no clear language.  The only thing which catches the eye, at all, is in the upper-right.  There’s a small box, titled “NYC Right Now,” and right there is the notice I’m looking for.  Except that it scrolls away a few seconds after the page loads.

Thankfully, I caught it quickly enough, and clicked it — sending me back to the school board’s site. So I guess that worked — somehow.

One of the great downfalls of the Internet is that it is very, very easy to publish your message.  But failing to deliver the message renders the message moot.  Don’t let the messenger neglect his duties.

Introducing BitMe.Me

On December 17th — eleven days ago — I emailed my friend Ashish over at Setfive Consulting with a pretty simple idea: a topical meme tracker, using pre-selected RSS feeds to limit the scope of acceptable articles and bit.ly to weight and further filter the wheat from the chaff.   Specifically, as a die-hard New York Mets fan who has a second identity on Twitter, @metstweets, I wanted to be able to tweet out “hot” Mets stories.  I considered using TweetMeme, but I really didn’t want some generic article from an out-of-market newspaper, something non-English, spam, or even worse, something entirely unrelated to the “Mets” I’m talking about.

(Also, I wanted to test a model for a startup: a reverse-incubator.  But that’s a story for another day — probably later this week — so if you’re interested, subscribe to my RSS feed.)

Limiting the universe of potential sources seemed like the right starting point.  So I quickly wrote it up and sent it to Ashish to see if it was a reasonable build.  The end result is BitMe.Me, and you’ll note that the front page has nothing to do with the Mets.  The tool itself applies to any vertical, which is why I liked the idea so much, and can be adapted incredibly quickly.  When you see how it works, you’ll see why.

We started with my target vertical — the Mets.  I read enough Mets content to know that there are fewer than 100 key sources, and while I’m sure there are diamonds out there in other sites, I am willing to forgo them in my meme tracker.  Why?  Because as the volume of content expands out from beyond the core group, the signal to noise ratio decreases.  Also, because the number of sources is relatively small and, in any event, finite, this allowed us to build an index without having to worry about spidering, discovery, etc.

Ashish instinctively expanded it to bigger verticals — technology, sports, gossip, politics, and news — and that’s what you see on the site right now. Yes, there’s a Mets section as well, but that’s not the focus of the site.  (And we’re working on a problem which causes MetsBlog content to not register correctly.)

Pretty straight forward.  Check it out and let me know what you think in the comments, or by shooting me an email.