Archive for the ‘ journalism ’ Category

Look Before You Tweet. Lessons From a Hockey Player

Bookmark and Share

Do you know Dan Ellis?  You should.  He’s a hockey player who’s trouble on Twitter can teach the rest of us some important lessons about social media and the importance of understanding your audience.

More than a sports story

Ellis is a goaltender for the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose tweets have been much discussed in the sports world, but they should be just as interesting to folks who care about communication strategy.

It all started when he tweeted about the way the NHL’s labor agreement holds a large part of players’ salaries in escrow.  It’s a complicated issue that was guaranteed to come across poorly in 140 characters.  And it did.

I didn’t take long before he was called a whiny millionaire.  And as word spread online, he quickly became the new poster child for ungrateful athletes who shouldn’t complain when they’re getting paid to play a kids’ game.  DanEllisProblems even became one of Twitter’s trending topics.

The ensuing tweetathon set off passionate debates about the NHL’s labor situation, the fairness of the escrow deal, athletes as ingrates, transparency in online communication, and cyberbullying.  All are worth discussing, but I’d like to focus on something that’s simple and universal, the importance of understanding your audience.

Should have know better

I realize celebrities get ridiculous amounts of positive feedback from their starry-eyed fans, but those fans have no interest in hearing about players’ money woes.  Never have, never will.  I’ve been covering sports for more than 25 years, and fans almost always side with owners against players, and mock any player who thinks he should be getting paid more – no matter how reasonable the concern, no matter how well it’s explained.

I often talk about The Golden Rule of Communication – that the most important part of any message is the receiver – and in this case, the reaction of these receivers was remarkably predictable.  In fact, Ellis’ audience was not only guaranteed to disagree with his statements, it was highly likely to mock him, argue with him, and trash his reputation.

So, why didn’t he see it coming?  How could he tweet “Kind of bored today … what can I stir the pot about today?” without realizing the consequences?  Either he was totally disarmed by the positive echo chamber of athlete-fan communications, or he wasn’t properly trained.  Probably both.

Tools are not strategy

Ellis was actually  considered a pioneer among jocks on Twitter.  He had 12,000 followers, and was known for open interaction with his fans.  But knowing how to tweet is far different than knowing what to tweet – or why.  Just ask any company that’s trusted its social media to a cool kid who seems to know what he’s doing.  Or ask Kevin Love, who had his own brush with Twitter immortality when he tweeted about Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale getting fired – before the team announced the move.  It became a cautionary tale for athletes in all sports, and drove Love off Twitter altogether.  The same scenario – the cautionary tale and the exit from Twitter – is playing out with Ellis.

Like many businesses, most teams are run by people who don’t quite understand social media.  They realize there are opportunities available on these new channels, but they’re concerned about the impact of open communication.  As a result, they provide little , if any, social media training for their athletes.  Agents also see the potential of social media, so they’re also encouraging their players to “get social,” but since they’re also new to the game, most of the training still comes from college friends and personal experience.

Send everybody to training camp

Players get plenty of media training, because teams realize their public comments are key components of their brand.  Why not include social media? Those comments are just as public, and just as important.  I got great reaction at the Social Media Breakfast when I said that “in TV we treat all microphones like they’re open, and I do the same thing with Twitter.”  At the very least, teams should use that rule.

Social networks provide plenty of wonderful opportunities for players and teams to interact with their fans, but like all businesses, they must remember that information going out over these informal channels is just as official as anything else going out under their brand name.  At least that’s how the audience is likely to see it.  So, while transparency is a wonderful goal, it should always be balanced with common sense.  We shouldn’t expect companies to air their dirty laundry, reveal key business strategies, or badmouth competitors online – unless it fits into some kind of well-thought strategy.  We shouldn’t expect it from teams or athletes, either.

What else can we learn from athletes’ experiences in social media, and what business experiences are similar? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Stand Up For Innovation

Bookmark and Share

Have you seen The Six?  It’s our new 6:00 newscast, with anchors who stand, and a style that’s a lot less formal.  It has some people talking, more people watching, and a few feeling a bit uncomfortable.

It’s an attempt to respond to our audience, break away from the standard style of traditional newscasts, and break down the stereotype that all newscasts are basically the same.  It’s a way to make the newscast more interesting, informative and entertaining, and fortunately, it’s already paid off with better ratings.

Standing For Something

So why are the anchors standing? Some people think we’re just doing it to be different, but we’re really trying to create a more informal look and feel for the show, and encourage more informal communication between anchors and reporters.  It’s not just window dressing.  And I think it’s been effective.

Others disagree, though.  One viewer complained that they look homeless.  Another said they must be angry about losing the desk.  And MinnPost’s David Brauer wondered if we actually sold the furniture.  Funny stuff, but I hope one cosmetic touch isn’t overshadowing an innovative attempt to change the style and substance of our newscasts, and turn them into separate, unique, stand-alone broadcasts.

Look-alikes?

We’ve heard the criticism for years, “all newscasts look alike.”  And in some ways that’s right.  In general, we’re all covering the same stories, using similar techniques, and relying on similar research.  So, we often end up with similar stuff, the same way Time and Newsweek often end up with similar covers.  And it makes even more sense that our 5:00 and 6:00 newscasts, products of the same newsroom and editorial leadership, would seem similar.

So, when people said they weren’t watching at 6:00 because it felt like a rehash from 5:00, we listened.  We’re done being Time and Newsweek at 5:00 and 6:00.  Instead, how about Time and Esquire?  Or, maybe Newsweek and Newsday?  We’re trying to tell the 6:00 stories in a different way, avoiding overlapping stories whenever possible, and when a story is big enough to be in both shows, we’re trying to take different angles.

Storytelling Techniques

The whole approach is different on The Six, with anchors and reporters talking to each other, rather than at the viewer.  The goal is to be more conversational, ad libbing whenever possible, to let the information and personalities shine through.

That’s why we have a feature called, quite simply, “Need to Know.”  When was the last time you heard an anchor say “here is what you need to know?”  Why sugarcoat things?  Why get caught up in flowery writing and fancy terminology?  Instead, we give you the information you want, and the important facts you need – what you “Need to Know.”

We’re also trying to bring extra context to The Six, with a project I’m leading, called “The Flip Side.”  Again, it’s a simple concept: take a story that might appear in any newscast, present those basic facts, and then look at “The Flip Side.”  On the day that gas prices peaked, we looked why high prices are actually  worse for gas stations than for drivers, and when a new LRT line was in the news, we looked at more efficient ways to spend transportation money.

We’re still working on ways to pick and present these stories, but none of them would make it on an old-fashioned newscast, all of them are (hopefully) interesting, and they definitely give The Six some extra depth.

We’re also finding ways to use The Wire, our interactive website, to get the audience more involved in the on-air product.  And we’ve got some other projects that are ready to launch.  But we don’t want to go with too much too soon, because we don’t want to jar our audience.  It’s a fine line, delivering new stuff to attract new viewers, while moving slowly enough to hang onto the old ones, and so far it seems like we’re pulling it off.

Immediate Success

The May ratings are out, and The Six not only won in total viewers, but the prime demographics that are the lifeblood of  TV advertising.  That means we kept most of the old viewers, folks who expected to see a traditional newscast, and we recruited some of the new viewers that we targeted.  That’s amazing success for one month of work, and it certainly bodes well for the future, because word will spread, the new projects and storytelling techniques will become part of the audiences expectations, and we’ll have more of a chance to promote the product.

But we still need your help.  Watch the show, and let us know what you think.  If you like it, let your friends know.  And if you don’t like something, let me know.  This is a unique project, trying to mold a newscast based on audience feedback, so we want as much input as possible.

The Golden Rule Of Communication

Bookmark and Share
Every once in a while, a tweet really gets my attention, proving that 140 characters really can convey a complex message.  That’s what happened when a friend retweeted this gem from Fred Cuellar:  “There is Always An Audience, Even If You Don’t See Them.”  So true, because without an audience, there is no communication.  And those 11 words work nicely with my own Golden Rule of Communication, that the most important part of any message is the receiver.

I work in a world where audience is everything.  TV ratings determine how my work is judged, and how much CBS gets paid.  But I believe focusing on audience is the key to success in all kinds of communication – and beyond that, I believe the communication model reaches far beyond the standard definition.

Many channels of communication

Like most writers, I spend a lot of time analyzing other writers’ messages, and over time, I’ve come to realize that just about everything falls under the broad umbrella of the communication model.  Sales, marketing, customer relations, coaching, teaching, managing people, running a website – even raising children – all require effective communication.

I’ve also noticed that the common bond between most successful people – whether they are coaches, politicians, salesmen or marketers – is that they are excellent communicators.  Their styles may differ, but they all understand how to connect with their audience – whether it’s one person or a million.  And I believe their secret is audience awareness.

Trump’s trouble

Still, some of the best make mistakes.  I’m sure Donald Trump is furious about this week’s episode of Celebrity Apprentice.  In fact, I bet he’s mad enough to fire somebody.

The show featured country star Trace Adkins and two emerging singers in a clear attempt to attract country music fans.  But the strategy failed, because the show ran against the Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS.  How could this happen?  An opportunity was lost, and a smart strategy was ruined, because somebody forgot about the audience in the middle of their planning process.

Audience awareness

Don’t worry, though, I’m not suggesting style over substance.  Far from it.  I’m simply suggesting that the best style, strategy and substance will all be wasted if you lose sight of your audience.  Create your strategy, choose your channel, and craft your message, but always remember the receiver.

For example, if you’re designing a website, prioritize the user experience, even if that means dialing back some of the bells and whistles.  On the other hand, if being on the leading edge of technology is your ultimate message, those bells and whistles may be the best way to convey it.  In other words, always look at your message through the eyes of the audience – throughout the process – because what the user understands on their end is what defines how much of your intended message actually gets through.

Learning from Zappos

This is very similar to the ICEE theory of Twitter, a popular concept created by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. He says all Tweets should either Inspire, Connect, Educate or Entertain, which resonates for me, because it’s so similar to my own ideas about writing for TV.  For years, I’ve taught writers that they should use all of their writing and video production techniques to inform, interest and entertain our viewers.  Each theory is simple, focuses on the audience, and can be easily applied to other communication platforms.

In fact, Hsieh’s success showcases this communications cross-over. He’s successful in e-commerce because of an easy-to-use website, and customer-friendly policies.  In other words, his success is audience-based.  So, it’s no surprise that he’s also good at social media, and just about everything else.  He’s simply a great communicator, who realizes that focusing on the audience works across the spectrum.

Born communicators

In reality, most of us do this instinctively.  Even as kids, we knew which parent to ask for something special, when to ask for it, and how to word it.  As adults, we realize some people respond better to a phone call, others to an e-mail.

Yes, it’s just common sense, but that’s really what communication is, isn’t it? You’re simply creating a message to get past any interference and connect with the audience.  So, if you anticipate the interference, and adjust to avoid it, your results will be even more successful.

What do you think?  Do these theories apply to your business?  Or are there times when audience should be secondary to your point?  I’m always interested in my audience, so please let me know what you think.

Why Journalists Should Use Twitter

Bookmark and Share

I get asked a lot of questions about social media.  Fellow journalists wonder why I spend so much time on Twitter, while online friends wonder why so few of my colleagues do.  This blog seems like a good place to answer those questions, and explain why they matter.

The journalists’ questions make sense if you put yourself in our shoes.  Why write messages for hundreds of people, when you’re used to writing for hundreds of thousands?  And if your entire professional life revolves around daily deadlines, how do you justify taking days or weeks to learn about these new tools?

Facebook First

Journalists want information now, and we want to distribute it immediately. That’s the way we’re wired, and that’s why our first (and often only) step into social media is the easiest:  Facebook.  I did a story about Amelia Santaniello learning Facebook, almost exactly a year ago,  that had some excellent analysis from David Erickson of Tunheim Partners.  He said Facebook is so popular because it’s “easy to use, and simple to understand.”

That’s also why it’s popular with so many journalists.  But while it’s a great first step for using social media to interact with friends, family and maybe even colleagues, it misses the real benefits – particularly network expansion – of Twitter.

Advantages of Twitter

Twitter is a much better tool for journalists, because it’s built to connect people who don’t already know each other – something journalists have traditionally done over the phone.  In fact, when Twitter is done right, it’s basically phone-work on steroids.  Thanks to Twitter, I now have hundreds of extra contacts, places to find stories, and people to poll for information (crowdsourcing).  Better yet, those hundreds turn into thousands whenever my connections retweet my questions.  That tool has paid off so often, I actually quit counting all the tips and stories I’ve gotten through Twitter.

Social media sites also allow for extra access to news sources.  Sometimes, it’s planned,  like Norm Coleman announcing plans for the future on Facebook, and sometimes it’s not, like Kevin Love  Tweeting about Kevin McHale before the Wolves had a chance to announce he’d been fired.  These days, a good follow list can be just as valuable as a good contact list.

Still, one of the most effective uses of social media is rarely discussed:  market research.

A Virtual Water Cooler

We are constantly searching for “water cooler” stories, things that get people talking, which is what Facebook and Twitter are all about.  Particularly Twitter, with a chance to watch EVERYTHING in your tweet stream.  The random, coded conversations that intimidate newcomers can be incredibly valuable for journalists.  They can help us identify trends, measure buzz, and react to it immediately.  In other words, there’s a virtual water cooler right there on your computer.

In fact, while I was working on this post, the New York Times discussed ways to use Twitter as a tracking tool, calling it a personalized news feed.  Whether watching  the Trending Topics list, searching Twitter directories, or simply observing the comments in your own tweet stream, there are so many ways Twitter can help you analyze the audience.  And the information is not only free, it’s available immediately.

I realize that TV already has valuable measurement tools.  But overnight ratings have limitations, because they aren’t posted until the next day, and they only measure the audience in 15 minute increments.  Since most of our news stories are only one or two minutes long, those ratings provide relatively imprecise feedback.

We’re pretty good at analyzing those numbers, extrapolating them, and figuring out what works for our audience – but when you’re looking for an edge, extra information is always helpful.  Yes, the analysis needs to be strategic and targeted, but if you agree that the audience is the key to communication,  you shouldn’t turn down anything that helps you better understand it.

Other Businesses?

My question is, how does this translate to other businesses?  We’re all trying to connect with our customers/audiences, so how do you use social media to improve your business and understand your customers better?  Please let me know.  That’s how I’ll get to know this audience better.