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Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post about my adventures traveling from New York to Los Angeles by car, where I lived for a month, working from our LA office.   My family flew, and joined me before embarking on an unforgettable 2-week journey back East.

After 8,000 miles, 23 states, 5 national parks and 2 countries (almost three), you could say I spent a lot of time reflecting on the road.  But seeing the country through the eyes of my daughters, who I like to think my wife and I have taught them about the world beyond their front door, was an experience I completely underestimated.

Eyes wide open and bright, they saw unimaginable beauty that this country has to offer, and together we met people from all over the country – and all over the world.  This kind of priceless education will be a family milestone for sure, but it also got me thinking about how this adventure had practical business applications.

So, as part 2 of my blog post – here’s what I learned on the 4,000 mile journey back East, with family in tow:

1)      Where’s the “Wow”?

The first week of the journey was pretty easy – it’s impossible not to be impressed by the magnitude and magnificence of Yellowstone National Park.   Every 5 minutes was a “wow” in that park, including closer-than-bargained-for encounters with Bison.  But heading east afterwards, it’s hard to find the “wow” in places such as Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Chicago’s O’Hare airport and Detroit, Michigan – three of our many overnight stops en route.  But along the journey, my wife and I required the kids to find beauty or something special – and journal about it – every day of the drive.  They came up with things such as unique cloud formations, funny-looking billboards (hello, Wall Drug) and the cool fountains inside the hotel lobbies as their “wow” for the day.

In business, I consider myself and my teams to be a creative bunch.  It’s hard to do something that really stands out, but we must continually push ourselves to think outside the box and find beauty / excitement no matter what the challenge is before us.  As we think through planning for the year ahead and push ourselves to counsel clients, I’ll be asking my teams a lot more to “show me the wow”  that inspires them, so we can put forward programs and services that will help us continually evolve.

2)      The Whole is Greater than the Sum of its Parts

This part may sound more like a customer gripe (OK, I admit it), so let me explain.  Bryce Canyon National Park quickly became my favorite “Canyon”, but the accommodations in southern Utah are limited.  We chose to stay at the Best Western, where we had two choices as they were located literally across the street from one another.  We checked in and the kids headed to the pool, only to learn it had been closed for the day.  After the 300 mile drive, the kids were bummed but my youngest came up with a great idea – why not see if we can use the pool across the street at the “other” Best Western?

Great idea.  And how could they refuse two kids in bathing suits?  Well, they did – you see, each Best Western is independently owned and operated.  We turned it into a valuable teaching opportunity that you can’t always get what you want in life, and those are the breaks.

What bothers me is that these two sister companies failed an easy opportunity for teamwork.  Acting independently in this instance damaged the perception I have of the master brand, and left us disappointed overall.  In business, you can clearly see the parallels of how independent working can be counter-productive.  It’s why I love and embrace the W2O model of “one P&L” that not only allows us, but encourages us, to work across all practice areas and regions – and help your fellow colleague when they need assistance.  Even if you don’t get the credit, we all rise together.  Independent thinking doesn’t help anyone.

3)      What’s Old is New Again

I’m extremely lucky that I have two kids who travel well and are the best of friends.  They rarely complained, even when their technology gadgets ran out of battery, or an Internet connection wasn’t available.

So, what did we do?  We did what I did as a kid on long road trips.  We made up games and improvised.  Hangman, license plate game, “I Spy” and singing songs were simple solutions.  We quizzed each other on experiences we had to test our memory and recall the fun parts of the trip so far.  At night, we unplugged and gazed at the stars, rode bikes and read.

Honestly, these are the parts of the trip I’ll likely remember the most;  the time when technology wasn’t necessary to fill the hours, and we bonded with one another.  I know as the girls get older, this will only get more challenging to replicate, but it goes to show that nothing replaces the ‘old school’ ways of connecting.

In my years as a marketing practitioner, technology has fundamentally changed how business is conducted, and mostly for the better.  But one thing I’ve always known to be true – nothing replaces the old-school telephone and in-person connectivity with staff, clients and prospects.  This is how most of the magic happens, and we could all use a little forced ‘unplugging’ from email and the Internet to realize that the old way of doing things can be just as effective – if not more – in conducting business.

It’s unlikely my family will do a repeat performance next summer, but wherever our adventures take us, I can’t wait to see how it will positively change my perspective to further advance the company, our clients and our colleagues.

This summer I embarked on a crazy road trip adventure.  I left New York headed to Los Angeles (solo) where I’m living for the summer, before turning around and driving back home; this time with my family in the car.

Along the 3,900 mile journey (I took the long way, through Austin) I had a lot of time on my hands to reflect; here are the top lessons learned, applicable to business, while driving west:

1)      Undivided Attention is Key

OK, sure – you could say I was driving and talking, but when you’re on long stretches of roads with no cars anywhere (hello Route 10), it was the perfect time to have 1-on-1 calls with clients and staff.  Too often in meetings I’m constantly interrupted by incoming emails or other distractions; rarely do we unplug entirely and devote  100% attention to person on the phone.  I did some of my best thinking and provided the best counsel/advice when all attention was on the person I was talking to, and I vowed to myself I will do more of this more often when I’m back at my desk.

2)      Face Time > FaceTime

I’m very fortunate to work for a company with multiple offices; plotting the drive where offices are stay-overs turned out to be a great decision.  I spent quality time with my team and “pop in” visits with extended teams who have nothing to do with my business.  I learned about things they were working on, immediately saw how their thinking could be applied to my line of business.  Too often we’re caught up in our own worlds; going outside our comfort zone can result in great new POVs and incremental business.

3)      Go the extra mile

I’ve done this x-country drive before (4 times, actually) and even the best plans require a change when opportunity strikes.  In my case,opportunity to meet a new business prospect was a 200 mile detour, which was not only a scenic drive, but could result in more business.   In this example, I literally drove the extra mile, but it reminded me that going the extra mile for current clients is what it’s all about in a service industry.   With nothing but asphault ahead of me, I pushed myself for new ideas that no one else is thinking about and looking at things from a totally different POV.  Back at my desk now, I keep asking: what more can be done to go that extra mile?

The journey back to the east coast begins in a couple of short weeks, with the wife and the kids in the car together.  I can’t wait to learn what my family teaches me along the 3,500 miles home; it may prove inspirational for part 2 of this post.

Failing to Seize the Moment Through Compelling Content is the Bigger Miss

The “gulp” seen round the country – Poland Spring water was thrusted into the media spotlight the moment Marco Rubio quenched his dry mouth during the Republican response on Tuesday night.  Immediately, it lit up twitter boards, and the brand was trending for, what I’m guessing, was the first time in its history thanks to the hashtag #watergate.

Since then, there’s been limited response – and media including the Huffington Post and Fast Company and others are criticizing/questioning the brand for missing the boat and being slow to respond.  On the surface I can understand where this is coming from, but I don’t think that Poland Spring even had boarding documents for the boat in the first place.  Comparing their slow response rate to Oreo’s during the Super Bowl blackout is like comparing Starbucks to the mom & pop coffee shop across the street.  No doubt, Oreo’s social media team nailed it and seized an opportunity that most of us who manage a brand’s online presence covet the most.  But to expect the same nimbleness from Poland Spring is highly unrealistic, and the criticism for not responding sooner should be kept to a minimum.  Here are a few reasons why, I’m assuming (or defending), Poland Spring couldn’t have done anything much faster than what they already did:

  • “On Your Guard” – Oreo had an army of people in a war room who were on duty during the Super Bowl, given their $4MM ad placement during the game.  Included in that mix were community managers in addition to brand teams who could authorize and approve the content in a moment’s notice.
  • Agile Creative – Brands like Oreo are creative powerhouses.  Given this, I have to assume they have an arsenal of pre-approved photography in their wheelhouse, given they are already one of the most socially savvy brands online.  Affixing an Oreo against a black background to signify the blackout was probably fairly easy, by their standards.  Poland Spring has photography too, but it’s not like they could lift Marco Rubio’s likeness without legal consequences.  Creating original content from scratch takes time when you’re not prepared to do so, and the approval process can be even longer if they’re not at-the-ready the way Oreo was.
  • Channel Readiness – it’s clear that Poland Spring isn’t active on Twitter.  They have a little over 700 followers, follow 3 people and have sent out only 38 tweets in the brand’s existence.  So while all this conversation was happening on Twitter, it seems they’ve long ago made the decision that they aren’t Twitter ready, or their audience isn’t primed to accept Poland Spring communications via Twitter.  Not every brand or topic deserves a Twitter presence, and other than having this sudden fame, the other 364 days in the year would have little Twitter communications.   I’m assuming here, but I doubt highly they’d have the expertise or capacity to respond in real-time even if they wanted to. If they’re not set up to respond to this once-in-a-lifetime event, there’s no way they’d be set up to create a meaningful engagement strategy that seizes their new fan base, either.

The bigger miss in my book was the creative response.  It was cute, but barely memorable and not shareable, so it only lived on their Facebook page.  The brand turned the attention back on itself, rather than creating something that was highly relevant to the moment.   It conditioned itself to a celebrity walking down the red carpet, basking in its own glow.  In the social media world, the brand needed to take on a playful humility to extend the engagement – not a “look at me, I’m so popular” image.   The image failed to leap out of their news stream and become shareable to the 1 Billion people on the channel – so that’s the bigger missed opportunity, in my opinion.

It’s true that brands today have to be able to respond quickly and effortlessly when a golden opportunity falls into their laps, such as this.    If rapid response is a barrier, as was the case for Poland Spring, then the content has to be smart enough to compensate.  But, even more importantly, the brand also has to be prepared to maintain the audience with a meaningful engagement strategy going forward.

I’m excited.  Earlier this week, it was announced that Twitter bought Bluefin Labs and plans to integrate it into their offering for quantifying the value of the millions who use their “second screen” devices when their favorite television shows / movies are being shown.

For quite some time, the stats have been staggering.  According to Nielsen, 88% of tablet owners and 86% of smart phone owners are using their devices while watching TV.  The growing popularity of apps such as GetGlue (which claims 3 million users) and Dijit (which recently acquired Miso) shows that people are talking about the programs regularly, and these companies believe it contributes to either increased viewership and/or attention to the ads within the app themselves.

In our work with analytics in the entertainment industry, I’ve seen first-hand how conversations happening online have correlated to sales and ratings increases.   And, I’m a firm believer that Social TV has been largely responsible for bringing back “appointment television.”  Don’t get me wrong.  I love my DVR, but for many shows it’s just more fun to watch with a crowd and feels like a modern day version of the 50s when everyone gathered around the television set for a unified viewing experience.   When that happens, I want to be watching live.

So the news that Twitter bought BlueFin Labs, along with their existing partnership with Neilsen is yet another positive step forward in validating what many of us marketers already know to be true, but have a hard time justifying – that social TV positively contributes to ratings’ success.  Take for example Bravo which saw that last year, nearly a quarter of their audience base followed ousted “Top Chef” contestants onto “Last Chance Kitchen” and the episode where the winner was revealed became the show’s highest rated episode of the year.

Widespread adoption of these standards within the entertainment industry is the next hurdle, but it’s on the way.  According to Forbes, this should start rolling out in this fall’s ratings.  And hopefully, finally, the value of social media will be articulated and quantified for all marketers to gauge moving forward.  Amen to that.

I know what you’re already thinking. Absolutely. Where else can I get 7 million+ hits on a piece of owned, branded content, if not on YouTube before the big game? It’s a hard argument to convince anyone otherwise, as I don’t know any other time of the year when consumers are more open and willing to invite branded commercials into their leisure time. For that alone, the answer is probably yes.

But all the controversy around this years’ ads got me thinking. If you spent $4M to air a commercial during the game, would you put it on YouTube in advance and give critics the opportunity to pick it apart? Or, wait until it’s shown in its regular airslot without all the pundit’s comments? I know the rule of controversy – a healthy debate adds fuel, and thus, more people watching.

The commercial for Mercedez Benz featuring Kate Upton was probably filmed knowing it wouldn’t ever air and it would ride the publicity. But in defending the ad, Kate created a bigger “oops” by admitting that she doesn’t even own a car.  Compare this to the 1992 Pepsi commercial featuring Cindy Crawford which is revered as one of the best commercials in Super Bowl history.  Obviously, in the pre-YouTube era, Pepsi didn’t exactly have to wrestle with such a decision to syndicate it ahead of time or not.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcroQsUN60s[/youtube]

Given their history of past ads, GoDaddy.com played their cards early this year. But wouldn’t a supermodel kissing a tech nerd receive more online buzz for its “shock value” had it first broken during the game? The fact that the controversy was the story lead, the effect has all been diluted before the game-time commercial. Same can be said of the Budweiser ad featuring the Clydesdales. I’d have been more interested in the storyline and it would have resonated more for me, had I not seen it already.  Maybe that’s why I loved the Jeep ad so much.  It packed an emotional wallop and it debuted during the game.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FadwTBcvISo[/youtube]

And finally, there’s Volkswagen who practically wrote the book on the pre-airing concept in the YouTube generation. “The Force” (still one of my favorites) received 13 Million views before it aired on the big game. I don’t believe VW deserved the unnecessary negative spotlight for this year’s ad, so I’m glad to see it air during the game. But I have to wonder if its shelf life was cut short merely because it was released so far in advance that pundits could pick it apart.  I really hope not.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H0xPWAtaa8[/youtube]

Only time will tell if this year’s crop of ads that waited until game day to air will outrank the ones that chose to release it early.  But I have to wonder, given the response of this year’s critics, if ads of the future will continue to release their spots so far in advance or if they’re better off waiting until game day to put them up on YouTube.

This was an exciting week within the halls of WCG. The analytics team, now approaching 40 people, was assembled in Austin for two days of training and development. It was the first time that the entire group has been assembled to talk about our models, our work and, most importantly, share our collective experiences with the goal of producing high quality work for our clients.

The WCG analytics team has grown tremendously over the last three years. When I joined the team in January of 2010 we were in a small office outside of downtown and there were only a handful of us doing analytics work for clients. Now, the team brings a wealth of experience beyond social analytics. We have a strong, and diverse team now with skills in web analytics, search, and traditional market research. These new team members have come in and built on our strong footprint in social analytics.

These two days in Austin have left me super-charged to be back at a firm that places such a high value on analytics. WCG is unique because everyone has bought into the idea that analytics is at the foundation of everything we do. It’s one of the reasons I was excited to rejoin the firm back in January. Want the rest? Well, here you go…

  1. Executive leadership has a deeply rooted belief in the power of analytics Jim Weiss, Bob Pearson, Tony Esposito, Diane Weiser, Paulo Simas, Gail Cohen, Jennifer Gottlieb, Leslie Wheeler, Craig Alperowitz and a host of others at the senior leadership level believe analytics is at the foundation of everything we do. They’ve invested time and energy in helping to build analytics models that benefit clients, and also position the firm as an innovative thought leader in a very crowded space. For someone who works in analytics and had their value challenged frequently, having senior leadership approval is a comforting thing.
  2. Jim Weiss and Bob Pearson – I know I mentioned Jim and Bob above, but I want to call them out separately for taking a chance on me – twice! I asked to come back to a place that I left, and they welcomed me back with open arms They have also given me a simple mission: “Help us do great work for our clients and continue to innovate.” How can you not be charged up by something like that?
  3. The best analytics team in the business – As I mentioned above, the team has grown and added some incredibly strong people like Tim Marklein, Seth Duncan and Amy Jackson. If you don’t know them, you should. Keep watching for what the analytics team develops. Shock and awe doesn’t even begin to describe it.
  4. Brian Reid – There are not many people in communications whose opinion on the media I trust more than Brian’s. It could be because he was a writer at the Washington Post, but more likely it is his intense curiosity to understand the evolving digital landscape. I have had some great discussions about the topic of online influence with people who you might know better than Brian, but I’ll tell you that few (if any) will make you rethink your stance on the topic more than him.
  5. Everyone who has welcomed me back or believed I could make a difference when coming back – Again, it could be seen as cliché to say that it feels like I never left, but it’s true. It really feels like I never left. This group of people is literally too long to list, and I’d be afraid of leaving someone off. If I haven’t thanked you in person yet, rest assured that I will at some point soon.

So there you have it… I could literally list 60 reasons why I am happy to be back at WCG, but that would make for the longest blog post in history. It’s great being in a place where I feel like I belong. Lets keep doing great work for clients, and making some serious thought leadership waves. It is time to GO. AHEAD.

Last week at SXSWi I had the opportunity to listen in on two different panels talking about social television and transmedia – the art of telling stories across multiple devices, often known as the “second screen”. The first panel featured representatives from Nielsen, ESPN, Oxygen Media and MTV with the subject “integrating brands into social television.”

During this discussion, the broadcasters unilaterally agreed that social opened up new revenue streams giving brands additional avenues for sponsorship and advertising. They also agreed that broadcasters are leading the way in social television. This point is hard to argue – broadcasters are finding clever ways to maximize fan engagement during live broadcasts; ESPN greatly benefits from live event programming, while MTV succinctly said “we know what happens next” and therefore match online content to fulfill the needs of their fan base.

And, where broadcasters are treating their shows as brands themselves, they’re winning – reaping the benefits financially, and creating fan advocacy/loyalty too. Take, for example, Bravo TV where also at SXSW, Lisa Hsia, EVP of Digital Media of Bravo gave impressive stats surrounding “Last Chance Kitchen” (the online competition allowed fans to vote back eliminated contestants). Hsia proclaimed that 26% of the audience who watched “Top Chef: Texas” were actively involved in “Last Chance Kitchen,” and the reveal episode (where Bev won) was the season’s highest rated episode. Further, she said that social engagement shattered all kinds of records for NBC Universal, and left me with one of the more memorable quotes of the day regarding content: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.”

Two terrific panels, overall. In fact, a great Time Magazine article was written last week about the Bravo case study, saying that broadcasters stand to reap the most rewards if they continue to drive fan engagement, increased ratings…and lucrative sponsorships.

So, this keeps me wondering: why aren’t brands rising to this level too? Today’s consumer brand has every opportunity to become broadcasters themselves – creating relevant content and [ultimately] driving social commerce to reap the rewards. Through clever content and fan engagement, brands can become their own media channels. In fact, one brand that’s clearly risen to this challenge is Red Bull, as illustrated by a recent Fast Company article. They’ve completely immersed themselves in content its customers crave – and they’re reaping the benefits, financially.

Through advanced analytics, brands have more insightful knowledge about their customers than ever before, but even better – direct access to their fans is only a few keystrokes away. What an enormous opportunity. So while it may be true that broadcasters are leading the charge right now, it seems to me it’s only a matter of time before brands rise up and move from looking at social as another sponsorship/integration opportunity and shift their attention to creating or co-creating transmedia content that builds real advocacy and brand loyalty which will turn into real commerce, too.

Aside from Red Bull, what other brands do you think are doing a great job of rising to the challenge? Would love to know your thoughts on other examples.

It only took 1 second for me to give Clint Eastwood my undivided attention during halftime at the Super Bowl. This is what I was waiting for all day – not the farcical ads, the spoofs, the cameo celebrity appearances. I wanted to be wowed, to be impressed with smart thinking that makes me believe in a product.

The reason I tune into Super Bowl commercials is because of the precedent set by Apple’s 1984 ad. It was unlike anything you’d seen before: that’s what the Super Bowl commercial is supposed to do. Chrysler moved us last year with Eminem and the “Imported from Detroit” theme, but this year they did themselves one better. They transcended beyond the brand – and evolved the campaign to stand for the American Auto Industry as a whole, brought to you by Chrysler. It packed an emotional whallop that made you believe in the power of innovation and was a rallying cry for the American spirit which has stalled in recent years. Hear our engines roar. Powerful copy, a great story – delivered poignantly and powerfully by Clint Eastwood.

I can’t remember the last time a brand achieved all that in 60 seconds. As I started up my Jeep this morning, I felt more connected to Chrysler than I had since I bought my car. Well done.

In its broadest definition by Wikipedia, the Age of Enlightenment was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in the early 18th century…that sought to mobilize the power of reason to reform society and advance knowledge.  During this period, communications between intellectuals were spread via word of mouth, and in written form via encyclopedias which ultimately helped form public opinions and policies by developing nations, including America.

When you think about it, no other time in history have we experienced such a parallel of intellectual knowledge-sharing than we have in the last decade of growth in social networks.  Early entrants such as Friendster, MySpace, Bebo and others blazed a trail for Facebook, which exploded onto the scene and demonstrated the true power of knowledge-sharing that I’d argue is on the scale and magnitude of the early 18th Century.  Consider how German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s defined this critical juncture: “Mankind’s final coming of age, the emancipation of the human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error.”  This powerful language is applicable to today’s modern world.  Social networks, mobile devices and our connectivity to one another means we are more informed and empowered than ever before; our ignorance has been emancipated.  What an incredible, exciting time to bear witness.

But what’s most exciting to understand is that the Age of Enlightenment led directly to the Industrial Revolution.  This is when the power of knowledge and information transformed from reason into action, positively affecting mankind’s entire way of life.  The enlightened turned prosperous and, in turn, income and population grew at unprecedented levels.

Even in a down economy, such advancements in today’s social networks and technology lead me to believe we are on the cusp of greatness once again.  Consumers are turning enlightened reason into action every day, and companies are finding ways to monetize and grow their businesses in ways they never dreamed possible.   As consumers, how we perform transactions has changed, with friends and family influencing our purchases long before the point of transaction.  Why?  Because we are empowered by our newfound enlightenment.

As more and more businesses begin to identify and interact with their core customers, the age of digital enlightenment will yield to an era of explosive growth and prosperity.  Some companies have already figured this out (e.g. Apple’s App store) and are far along on the journey.  As more companies transform their enlightened audiences into modern industrialists, we will all be propelled into the new era of a modern industrial revolution.  Is your brand ready?

Craig Alperowitz is Group Director, Consumer Brands at WCG