Morbid Inspiration: Lessons Learned from New York Times Obituaries

When is the last time you visited the obituary section of the New York Times (NYT)? For me, it had been a good number of years until my interest was recently piqued by—of all people—Alec Baldwin. In his “Here’s the Thing” podcast, Baldwin revealed that the obituary section is one of his favorite components of the paper and a daily read for creative inspiration. So, I followed his lead, began exploring past articles and was somewhat surprised to uncover some compelling takeaways that relate to the modern day marketing and media landscape.

Compelling storytelling. From the perspective of both a consumer and marketer, the personalization of brands through storytelling is in high demand. Chronicling a person’s life is much like the chronology of a brand.

Cultural depth. Context is now king (dethroning content’s long-standing reign), which means that now more than ever marketers need to keep a better pulse on the world around them to effectively garner attention. The obituary section of the NYT is a valuable shrine of cultural grit — from ring shouts to concentration coats—this captivating content is sure to spark creativity.

Vocabulary-stretching syntax. The words ubiquitous, musculature, and polemical make rare appearances in my daily news feed—as well as memorably vivid descriptions such as a “sharp-elbowed world”, “triply marginalized” and “prolific procurer.” Drawing inspiration from the obituaries can help freshen your vocabulary and add distinction to your message.

Astoundingly succinct headlines. In a world of 140-character tweets, there’s something to be learned from a powerfully pointed headline. The NYT’s formula for headlines requires intricately crafted wordsmithing—an incredibly valuable skill across a wide variety of marketing tactics.

While the analogies might end here, there are ample opportunities for further exploration. Check out www.nytimes.com on a daily basis or purchase the entire collection online.

Shameless Self Promotion

If Anne Hathaway can do it, why can’t you?

I am a sucker for the Hollywood awards season. The Golden Globes, the SAG Awards and the Oscars all have me glued to my TV each year. I have already seen eight of the nine films nominated for Best Picture and have many of the acting nominees already under my belt.

In no way am I a Hollywood odds maker, but I can tell you this: shameless self-promotion will get you an Oscar. If you’re going to win, you probably have to butter up the voters. Show them love on the press junket, take out an ad in Variety or the other trades. Those For Your Consideration DVDs are very important. Anne Hathaway is campaigning HARD for that Oscar. After all, It’s not acting alone that gets the job done.

Yours truly has used shameless self-promotion to win the Miller Brooks Cook for the Cure cook off three of the last four years. Of course, I give loads of credit to my teammates for two of the wins. But, I also give a ton of credit to pushing our “brand” through any and every mean, much to the bane of my co-workers. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m in marketing. If I can’t market myself, I’m probably not in the right career.

All joking aside, the same is true for what we do each and every day. You may have an amazing product or service that you’re selling, but if no one knows about it, no one is going to buy it. Very, very few products move themselves off the shelf without some help.

And don’t forget, just because you (the marketer) know each and every facet about the product doesn’t mean the entire world does. You and your co-workers may be tired of talking about a particular product and think you’re beating a dead horse. But, the reality is very few brands have 100% awareness. And, let’s face it, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s did not become ubiquitous by being shy.

Tell your story. Tell it again. Tell it once more. Then start telling it in different ways. Stay fresh. Use any outlet that makes sense. And even if it doesn’t make sense, be open to an off-the-wall idea. There might be a way to morph the crazy idea into something that could work.

And remember, that Oscar isn’t going to win itself. But good marketing will get you closer.

[photo via]

Humans have personalities. Robots don’t.

A brand’s personality makes it unique

I love a great, entertaining movie. Action, adventure, drama, romance, comedy… I have favorites in just about every genre.

But there are two kinds of movies I purposely stay away from: Dog movies, because I can’t stand to see a dog in peril—and 99% of the time the dog in the movie will be in peril. And robot movies, because they seriously creep me out. I’m all for advancing technology, but I’ve seen enough films to believe that we probably shouldn’t be trying to create artificially intelligent machines.

One thing that (for now) separates robots from humans is the machine’s lack of a personality.

Brands are made of people

Until robots become entrepreneurs, all brands today have humans behind them. So a brand should have a personality—a combination of personable characteristics that defines it. Because of the unique makeup of the humans inside it, no two brands can be exactly alike.

And yet many brands are afraid to let that personality shine—even if that personality could be the key element that draws a customer in.

Personality makes each brand unique

I’m not talking about going crazy—a brand can take expression in baby steps, gradually becoming more comfortable with sharing its personality. But take this recent Twitter exchange between AMC Theatres and Oreo: These two brands, in knowing themselves and their audiences, and allowing flexibility in their social media presences, saw amazing engagement not when they engaged with their customers, but when they engaged with each other.

It’s no secret that movie theatres don’t want you bringing outside food and drink into the theatre. They want you to buy your sweets and salties from them. But it’s also no secret that people sneak in food anyways.

But rather than put a corporate smack-down on Oreo—or ignoring it entirely—when the cookie brand asked a question of its Twitter followers about sneaking cookies into a movie, AMC Theatre’s Twitter voice, Shane Adams, had the freedom to show some personality. And Oreo’s Twitter author responded in kind, leading to both brands garnering positive attention among fans, followers and marketers alike.

Adams shared the background story and his thoughts following the exchange on his blog afterward, summarizing it perfectly: “If you’re a brand representative in social spaces, be sure that you understand your brand voice. Fight for an amount of autonomy where it makes sense so you can be agile and respond not just to customer service-related questions, but to the pop culture zeitgeist as well.”

Take a page from Oreo and AMC Theatres’ books

What we can all learn from this exchange, B2B and B2C brands and stewards alike:

  • Put people you trust in positions to represent your brand
  • Trust those people to represent you well, and let them do their jobs
  • Brands are made of people, so they shouldn’t sound like robots. People have personalities.

So go on. Embrace your humanness.

Because who wants a world where scenes like this become commonplace?

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There is no General Public

Even large audiences have unique qualities

A co-worker and I recently volunteered to help a local organization judge communication and marketing plans, campaigns and tactics for another state’s annual awards. We judged roughly 10 of the nearly 100 entries, and were shocked by the number of communication and marketing professionals who felt their campaign, plan or tactic was geared towards the “general public.”

Let me make this clear, there is no such thing as the “general public.”

Even the campaigns for the current Presidential candidates and a new brand of sugar-free fruit snacks are not targeted to general audiences, but rather specific groups of people. You would never launch a new product or initiative and toss it out into the world with hopes that it sticks to anyone who will listen.

Third-graders and baby boomers have different interests

One of the entries we reviewed was for an education institution that claimed a certain tactic was targeted toward the “general public.” My co-worker asked me what I thought about it, and my response was simple: “Would my eight-year-old niece be interested in this? No. Therefore, general public is an inappropriate audience.” My niece has zero interest in what’s going on beyond third grade and her gymnastics class. What might have made more sense in this particular case, would have been a defined audience of 18-54 year old men and women, living within a certain distance, who were interested in pursuing an education that could be flexible with the realities of working adults.

This is just one example of what we encountered while judging, but the unfortunate part is that out of the roughly 10 entries we reviewed, only two had well defined audiences. How does this happen? How can smart, educated marketing and communication professionals forget one of the most critical elements to any successful plan, campaign or tactic — the audience?

Define your audience, even when it’s broad

When identifying the target audience for a communication or marketing campaign, or specific tactics, it’s critical to define the audience. Which gender should receive your message; should they be within a certain age range; do location/proximity, education or wealth matter? What about psychographics? These are all questions that must be answered in order for any campaign or tactic to succeed.

In today’s hurry-up-and-get-things-done environment, it’s easy to maybe not review materials or documents as closely as we should, and if someone has worked with an organization or client for a long period of time, it’s easy to forget to communicate the fine details of the target audience, especially in a short award submission.

I’m confident that if most of the professionals who submitted the award entries went back and thought more about the question, “Who was the target audience?” they could come up with a more specific segment of the population than the general public. But, regardless, all of us need to keep the audience in mind when putting together materials and communication and marketing plans.

Live-Tweeting a kidney transplant surgery

IU Health shares what they learned from their live Twittercast

Combine health care, education and social media, and what do you get? A first-in-the-state live Twittercast of a living kidney transplant surgery, broadcast by Indiana’s IU Health (@IU_Health) in June 2012. Earlier this week, I attended an Indy Social Media breakfast at which the two orchestrators of the Twittercast (@kristoferkarol and @callmegeno) shared a behind-the-scenes look at the campaign and results.

Live-Tweeting a surgery: an idea one year in the making

Kristofer Karol of the IU Health PR team first started contemplating the idea of live Tweeting a surgery in 2011. A few other hospitals had successfully live-Tweeted surgeries, including Aurora Health Care in Wisconsin, which IU Health ended up using as a model for its own campaign, learning from their objectives and experiences.

When done, this would be the first live surgery Tweeted in Indiana, and it offered great opportunity as an educational tool.

Selecting the best surgery to Tweet

How do you choose the right surgery to broadcast in your first live Twittercast? The team chose a living-donor kidney transplant for four main reasons:

  • Needed to be a relatively short surgery: for a living-donor kidney transplant, both the donor and recipient surgeries would be completed within a 4-5 hour window
  • Best possible outcome: they wanted to select a surgery with the best chance of patient safety and a positive outcome
  • Scheduling: Because the donor is alive, a team can easily schedule a living-donor kidney transplant surgery
  • Expertise: IU Health does 250 kidney transplants a year, so the surgical teams have a great deal of experience

Preparing for the surgery

The idea for live-Tweeting a surgery may have originated a year in advance, but when the transplant team was asked to recommend a potential donor and patient, the selected pair’s scheduled surgery was only nine days away. It posed a significant challenge for the Twitter team, as they had a little more than a week to get all parties on board, including legal, risk management and the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer.

Once they had approval, preparation began in earnest. Among their list of 27 pre-surgery tasks, they:

  • Researched and prepared factoid Tweets and answers for possible questions in advance
  • Selected a hashtag—#CalebsKidney—that would be catchy, easy to use, and personable
  • Planned for possible complications
  • Assigned day-of roles for all team members, including one person dedicated solely to fielding questions
  • Did a dry run during another transplant surgery, enabling them to test their equipment in the basement operating room
  • Selected a platform for Tweeting: initially, they planned to use Tweetdeck, but when they realized that no IU Health employees could access it, they ended up just using Twitter itself

Live Tweeting #CalebsKidney surgery

During the surgery, the team used two laptops and three smartphones to maintain a steady flow of Tweets, each of which was reviewed by a member of the medical staff for accuracy before posting.

Campaign results

The campaign was wildly successful. Not only was the surgery itself a success for both the donor and recipient, but IU Health easily surpassed its initial objectives.

  • Objective 1: gain 500 new followers. Actual result: gained 1,363, with 500 on the day of the surgery alone
  • Objective 2: get 50 mentions or retweets. Actual result: 1,754, including one from Alyssa Milano, who retweeted @IU_Health’s tweet to her 2 million followers
  • Objective 3: secure 25 media placements. Actual result: 100, including one from the LA Times

What’s next for the understandably excited and exhausted team? In support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, they’ll be hosting a Q&A Twitterchat with two breast cancer doctors on Oct. 2 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern with the hashtag #ThinkPink.

Another presentation attendee created a great summary on Storify, which you can check out to learn more.

Did you follow #CalebsKidney on the day of the surgery? Or have you ever considered live-Tweeting something that makes your brand unique? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo via @IU_Health.

What does your desk say about you?

For many, their workspace is like a home away from home. But what does your space say about you?

I ran across an article in Marie Claire that provides some food for thought: Everything in your office inspires a snap judgment, even if it isn’t really true about you at all.

For example:

  • Messy desk = lazy
  • Shrine to your kitten = serious dating issues
  • Shot glass = well, you get the idea…

For those of us in advertising, let’s just say I think the rules are a little more lenient. Still, we all need to be aware of the vibe that we are intentionally or unintentionally giving off.

To me, your workspace should include things that give you inspiration. Things that motivate you. But based on this article, my office might be telling people that I am “counting down the hours until quitting time” due to the many displayed photos of my children. (I actually counted, and there are 12 photos of my kids. Yikes.)  However, I also have a photo of Don Draper posted, as well. I am hopeful that might make up for my slacker perception.

Whether you believe these judgments or not, this article should make you stop and think. What does your desk say about you?

The faces of MB

Meet: Cheryl Meininger, Creative Director

We have many team members at MB whose jobs keep them occupied with a select few accounts, and we don’t often get the opportunity to introduce them to the rest of our clients and the world. As part of an ongoing weekly series, we’re sharing a fast, interesting Q&A with one of our people that will let you (and us!) get to know them a little better.

1. What do you have in and on your office desk?

Computer screen, keyboard, laptop and its stand, paper, stapler, tape, pens, markers, office phone, more paper, scissors, iPhone, 2 lamps, water bottle, 2 Coke cans, coffee mug, pink bear, more paper, business cards, purse, briefcase, paper clips, DVD, Advil, notebook, post-it notes, snacks, dental floss, bottle of Tabasco and a few dust bunnies.

2. If you were a teacher, what subject would you teach?

Science. Minus the Bunsen burners, please.

3. How do you remember playing with siblings?

Well, I don’t recall playing with my two older brothers very much; although, my best friend, Linda, and I spent one entire summer spying on them. We were perfecting our “Spy Girl” skills. My little sister did a lot of tagging along with my neighborhood friends and me. When she and I did play together, it usually involved some form of pretending.

4. If you could have any television program back, not in reruns but in new episodes, what program would it be?

I miss “The X-Files” and would love to see it come back. But, only if they brought back Duchovny and Anderson as Fox Mulder and Agent Scully. Any other actors just would not do.

5. Are you a doer or a procrastinator?

If it’s something I’m interested in doing, I’m definitely a doer. I am all over it. However, if it’s something I’m trying to avoid, I’m a world-class procrastinator. In fact, I will procrastinate my procrastination.

6. With what tool, implement or utensil do you feel most at ease?

A No. 2 pencil.

We’ve started back at the beginning of our list! You can learn more about Cheryl in last year’s profile. Check back next week when we interview a member of our media team.

[The X-Files image from IMDB.]

Spring cleaning for the mind

Lessons learned from a field trip to the Children’s Museum

New ideas and solid strategy come from fresh, energetic, curious, clear minds. I was reminded of this when I had the opportunity last week to chaperone a couple dozen six-year-olds as they explored the world’s largest children’s museum in Indianapolis. Just being a part of their intrigue and excitement was rewarding—and eye opening. As adults we spend so much time trying to teach the young about life. Ironically, it is often through their teaching that we learn what life is really about.

As a result of my recent field trip, I am issuing a request to colleagues, family and friends: fully embrace spring, beginning today, and take some time to explore and recalibrate.

While many might say I am pushing the season, I am 100% okay with that. For me, spring starts at the beginning of March (I find credibility in the fact that some meteorologists agree). Yes, there was snow on the ground earlier this week, but I also saw the little crocus poking through the hard, cold dirt to soak up some sun… the sparrow shopping for a new nesting spot… the crisp air and a general feeling that it is time for some fresh thinking.

Let’s slow down a little bit this spring. Explore new things. Listen harder. Learn from each other. Share good work. And make a positive impact today.

A few ideas to clear out the cobwebs and gain some fresh perspective:

  • Change up your daily routine. Changing something as simple as your daily travel route can stimulate your mind as it forces a remix of ideas.
  • Do some spring cleaning. Literally. Give your home and office a once over to de-clutter your space. Throw away the old, simplify.
  • Splurge on a massage to refresh your mind.
  • Draw like a child. Create a scene in your mind and then draw it out.
  • Leave your connected devices at home and take a walk (or even better a nap) outside. Listen to each sound.
  • Sign up for a class. Being a student is a great way to get your mind exploring.

When we take time to recalibrate and refresh, great things follow.

Thank you Rousseau McClellan Montessori School #91 (Class of 2024) for reminding me to take it all in and to be energized by curiosity.

“A light exists in Spring
Not present in the year
at any other period
When March is scarcely here.”
– Emily Dickinson

What have you pinned lately?

Pinterest: The latest site climbing the social ladder

Earlier this year, I received an email from a friend inviting me to join Pinterest. At first I thought, “Great, one more social media site to keep track of”—but this was the same friend who invited me to join Facebook several years ago, and I decided to check it out. What I discovered was a treasure trove of information, ideas and possibilities.

What is Pinterest?

In his blog post “What is Pinterest? And should your brand climb aboard?”, Matt Wilson phrased it best when he said to think of Pinterest as the “reverse Twitter.”  He’s exactly right. Most people are visual learners and want to see pictures and videos, which is what makes Pinterest different from other social media websites through which content is shared mostly via text and links. Similar to Twitter, however, the best way to gain traction is to follow other users and interact. On Pinterest, users “pin” images and videos to organized “boards,” which are shared with their followers. (Check out a rather complicated infographic here illustrating how the pretty simple idea works.)

Should you be pinning?

Organizations reviewing their social-media plans should consider how, if at all, Pinterest could help them engage with their target audiences. For example, a furniture manufacturer could upload images of its products for designers to consider in future projects. An architect could post photos from their portfolio and ideas to share with potential clients or partners. As long as visuals are available, the options available through Pinterest become endless.

Pinterest currently includes a recommendation in its “Pin Etiquette” that users avoid blatant self-promotion—but more and more brands are jumping in.

Some of the early, and successful, business adopters to this new medium include Time Magazine, Nordstrom and Williams-Sonoma. They’ve each used Pinterest in similar, yet different, ways to introduce users to their brand. Time Magazine uses it to highlight writer profiles, covers and images, while Nordstrom shares the latest in fashion.

Pinterest creates an opportunity for brands to connect directly with end users and share the visuals they likely already possess. Although Pinterest currently draws mostly young and middle-aged women, don’t let it fool you. It is currently one of the fastest growing websites out there, and chances are by this time next year, several hundred brands will be sharing their products, services and causes via Pinterest.

Further reading:

Mashable: How Pinterest is changing website design forever
APM Marketplace: Pinterest is a rising star, driving tons of traffic
Fast Company: Chobani Yogurt tickles the tastes of Pinterest addicts, and so can your brand
LLsocial: Pinterest is quietly generating revenue by modifying user submitted pins
BlogWorld: Why I don’t mind Pinterest hijacking my links

The faces of MB

Meet: Holly Sommers, Designer

We have many team members at MB whose jobs are more behind the scenes, and we don’t often get the opportunity to introduce them to our clients and the rest of the world. As part of an ongoing weekly series, we’re sharing a fast, interesting Q&A with one of our people that will let you (and us!) get to know them a little better.

Name: Holly Sommers

1. As a teenager, what were your part-time jobs?

Hands down, the telemarketing gig was the worst and most repressible. Calling people at dinner, having to give them your real name, asking them questions about their bathroom habits and product preferences, cringing knowing that you were being monitored by the boss in the glass booth above you who would buzz you every time you apologized or abbreviated a question, counting yourself among the most hated people on the telephone, disrupting your feathered hair with a headset… This is when I officially dedicated myself to college preparation. Art would save me.

2. What do you wish you had started to learn as a kid?

Oh, how I wish I had stuck with the piano lessons and developed a better/more natural musical core. We have musicians in and out of our house all the time to record in the studio, and I am endlessly jealous of that outlet. It’s a slow catching-up process when you’re pushing 40 and playing “Hot Cross Buns,” but I’m trying.

3. Would you rather be a half hour early to a party or an hour and a half late?

Early. It’s fun to help and be around folks while you can still hear, and there are still snacks.

4. If you could watch only one hour of TV a week, what would you watch?

We’ve never had cable and rarely bust out the rabbit ears. I like getting into a series on Netflix. We are so inappropriately up on our drug culture right now, it’s embarrassing. But I am also very much in love with documentaries about creative people I’ve never heard of. Yinka Shonibare—I want to hang out with that dude.

5. What bargain items do you look for?

Used art books, hideous musical instruments, expired rolls of 120 film. Also, tiny non-manufactured things that can be turned into tooth-fairy treasure.

6. You would jump up and down and shout with joy right now if someone told you _____.

America has decided to adopt the metric system. And colored money. These are my simple imagined pleasures. Other than that, I’m typically jumping up and down a little all the time anyway.

Next week, we’ll introduce a member of our account management team. Until next time…


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