Monthly Archives: July 2011

How My Broken Blog Led to Me Getting Interviewed on the CBC

A few weeks ago, my blog imploded.  For whatever reason, my backups weren’t actually backing up, and one day I awoke to a tweet from a reader informing me that none of my posts existed anymore.

That’s never good.

So I contacted my tech guy, Shawn Smith, who’s been saving my digital ass since 2003 (at least).  He was able (while on vacation) to restore the most recent uncorrupted backup of my blog… which was from January of 2010.  And while 18 months ago isn’t so long in people years, in blog years, that means most of my content had simply disappeared.

That’s a blogger’s version of the end of the world, right?

Well… not quite.

Eventually, Shawn fixed my corrupted WordPress blog (here’s how he did it) with help from our server, MediaTemple. That’s why things are back to normal now.

But in the interim, the most recent posts my blog was showcasing were decidedly dated.

And yet, in a paradoxical twist, they were also incredibly timely.

Here’s Where the Story Gets Interesting

Somehow, Dan Hughes, a producer for several Canadian Broadcasting Channel (CBC) news programs — and who frequently uses Twitter to schedule interviews — stumbled across my blog on the day it was broken.  The post that caught his attention was one of those “ancient” posts about how hard it is for us to manage our increasingly media-saturated lives, and he emailed me to ask if I’d like to be a live guest on an upcoming episode of Connect with Mark Kelley, to discuss Twitter’s five-year anniversary.

And by “upcoming,” he meant “in a few hours,” as in, at 8:30 PM that day.

It was around 6 PM when we finally spoke by phone.

I said “sure,” but I’d have to reschedule a shoot for The Baristas, and the cast was en route.

So while I was rearranging the schedules of half a dozen people on almost no notice, Dan was trying to figure out where I’d have to go in Pittsburgh in order to reach Connect via satellite.

In two hours.

Tip: Always Dress Like You MIGHT Be Interviewed on National TV

Realizing my behind-the-scenes wardrobe of a t-shirt and cargo shorts wouldn’t exactly scream “authoritative” on the CBC, I zipped off to the closest GAP to buy a shirt that wouldn’t get me shamed off Canadian television.

So many choices, so little time.  I texted a photo of my options to my girlfriend (since she’s the one who takes fashion seriously), but she never got the message.  Time passes.  I buy the shirt that seems least objectionable.

At the counter, I’m served by a cashier trainee, and the sales process ground to a halt while she attempts to figure out exactly how to detach those pesky security tags, then possibly rings my whole sale up wrong.  Precious minutes are ticking away.  I’m well aware that “I’m running late for an interview on the CBC” isn’t a reasonable excuse to ask minimum wage employees to please hurry, so I wait it out and then hustle back to my car.

It’s 8 o’clock and I zoom off down the highway toward… well, I have no idea.

Why Aragorn Would Have Hated Pittsburgh

The video production facility that Dan had emailed me an address for was somewhere in Gateway Towers.  These are a cadre of nondescript office towers at the very tip of downtown, straddling Point State Park.  Alas, the address I was given didn’t say which of the towers the facility was located in.

I call the phone number for the facility.  No answer.

I’m forwarded to their alternate answering service, which is way out in Plum, which is as far from downtown as you can be and still say you’re in Pittsburgh.  They have no idea which towers the facility is in either.  They forward my call to someone’s cell phone, whom I can barely hear.  As I’m explaining my situation, the call is dropped.

8:10 PM.

I get downtown and find a garage.  The cell phone connection has called her Plum colleagues back and explained where I should be parking, but still hasn’t specified which tower the facilities are in.

I park, change shirts in the car (like a boss), and run a few blocks to…

… all the wrong towers.

Because I’ve checked Google Maps, and it insists the facility is inside the Wyndham Grand Hotel, which is not true.

Nor is it in Gateway Towers 2, 3 or 4.

I finally ask a guy having a smoke break outside an actual broadcast facility where this mystery facility might be.  He’s just guessing, but based on process of elimination, it must be this tower of office condos that’s otherwise completely unmarked.

I doubt it.

But, on the off chance he’s actually right, I run to that building.  No address listed.  The security guy inside looks at me with about as much suspicion as I’d probably have for someone who looked as shady as I must have looked at that particular moment.

So I run to a different tower.  Someone else lets me into the lobby, where I ask the security guard where this phantom address could possibly be.  He agrees that it must be the office condo tower.  I tell him the addresses don’t match.  He tells me it’s not listed in any other tower.  I say fine, and run back to that damn unmarked tower.

Fucking A, the facility is in that goddamn tower.

So I’m in the Makeup Room

With no makeup people.

It turns out the facility was opened specifically because I had to film there, so only the two technicians who had to be there had come in.  Neither of these dudes are makeup pros, but they do let me sit there and drink water for a few minutes while I rifle through the drawers and blot my face with a cotton ball.

It’s 8:29.

They tell me I’m supposed to be on between 8:30 and 8:45 PM.

There’s a backdrop of “nighttime Pittsburgh” behind me.  One tech asks if I want it changed to daytime instead.  I reason that it’s nighttime as we’re filming this, so no, nighttime Pittsburgh seems like the right call.

I get in the chair.  They mic me up.  One guy asks if I can hear the live feed in my earpiece.  I say yes.  He says “Does it feel like it’s going to fall out?”  I say no.  He turns away.  It falls out.

While I’m fiddling with the earpiece, which keeps repeatedly falling out of my ear, the two techs get embroiled in a discussion about the medical properties of certain hallucinogenic substances.  This causes them to miss the incoming CBC phone call.  Several times.

Finally, the CBC producer calls one of the techs on his cell phone.  She gets him to promise to take the call the next time they place it.  They hang up.  The call comes in.  Apparently, I am the only one of the three of us who hears it.  But I can’t answer, because I’m in a chair with an earpiece that keeps falling out.

Silence.

The guy’s cell phone rings.

This time, they’ll try a different line.

Connection.

“Justin, can you hear Mark?”

“Yes.”

(A more accurate answer would have been, “Yes, barely.”)

“Great.  We’ll bring you in after commercial.  You have three minutes.”

My earpiece cuts to commercial.

Chit chat chit chat suddenly Mark Kelley is in my ear, talking about Twitter, and suddenly I’m on the CBC.

Justin Kownacki, Social Media Strategist, on the CBC

I stare straight ahead, because I want to focus on the reflection of a white check in my shirt pattern, so it’ll look like I’m making eye contact with Mark Kelley (whom I’ve never seen, met or spoken to before), but also because I’m afraid that if I move my head my earpiece will fall out on national television, simultaneously making a mockery of me, Mark Kelley, Pittsburgh, Canada and Twitter.

The interview goes relatively smoothly, if you ignore the fact that I manage to both wink at the camera and raise my eyebrow like The Rock as a form of punctuation, both of which, I think, would make anyone who’s never worked in social media but who sees this interview immediately believe that social media is exclusively a playground of douchebags, which would mostly be true.

Mark Kelley goes to commercial.  I’m informed by the producer that I’ve done well, and she thanks me for my time.  The whole interview lasts approximately five minutes and costs me exactly $25.99 in GAP receipts and parking fees.  You can see it all here, starting around the 42 minute mark.  (You’ll have to fast-forward the player manually.)

Justin Kownacki on the CBC's Connect with Mark Kelley

Incredibly, in the actual broadcast, it looks like Mark Kelley and I are staring right at each other.

In reality, I’m in a tiny room in the lobby of an office condo, staring at my own shirt.

What Did I Learn From All This?

A few days later, my blog was resuscitated and the January 2010 post that earned me a CBC interview was once again relegated to the archives.

And now, looking back on that day’s insanity, I’m honestly not sure what the lesson in all of this is supposed to be.

“Don’t back up your blog after all?”

“Trust the guy who’s on a smoke break?”

“Always keep a freshly-ironed dress shirt in your car?”

Who knows?

But the next time you see an expert being interviewed on your favorite news channel, you should probably give her the benefit of the doubt.

You have no idea how long she had to wait in line at The GAP.

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The Problem with Being Good at Something No One Cares About

If you haven’t heard, the US Women’s soccer team is in the US Women’s World Cup semifinals.  They got there by beating Brazil, traditionally one of the global powers in soccer, in a thrilling comeback that was settled by a shootout.  It was, by all accounts, one of the most dramatic exhibitions in recent US sports history.

And if you didn’t hear about it, that’s okay, because nobody else did either.

Not in America, anyway.

And there’s a lesson in all this that applies to your business.  Read on.

Understanding the Problem of Audience Indifference

While soccer may be the sport that drives headlines around the world, in the US, soccer practice is what suburban housewives drive their kids to until their children turn 16 and can finally drive themselves, and then all thought of soccer is mercifully forgotten.

Soccer is a sport with no cultural relevance in the US, partly because it is so important to the rest of the world.  And if you haven’t noticed, America has a pathological desire to celebrate its own invented culture as a means of flipping off the rest of the world (see: “the metric system”).

So, how do you sell what should be an incredible story of athletic prowess, culture clashes and underdog victory to an audience that couldn’t care less, even when they’re the ones the story is about?

That’s the question Georgina Turner asked on Sports Illustrated after the US’s win over Brazil, when she pointed out a few sobering facts about the state of women’s sports in general — and women’s soccer in particular — such as (bold text is mine, not hers):

According to a study of TV sports broadcasting by the Centre for Feminist Research (CFR), air time dedicated to women’s sports has actually dropped since ’99, from an already trifling 8.7 percent to a minuscule 1.6 percent.

In a recent article for the Financial Times, Simon Kuper presented an interesting theory on those stats: that men watch sports to see “ideal men”, whereas women turn to glossy magazines to see their own ideal image, leaving women’s sports without an audience.

That issue of gender identity is a huge hurdle for women’s sports to clear.  As Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, notes about the debate over the “fastest man alive”:

“My bedrock feeling about sprinting is that we only get excited about it because boys are better than girls. Men set the entertainment agenda, so we pick the events that give us an edge over women.”

Turner then cites the flaws in the way soccer (for either gender) is broadcast, promoted and discussed in the US, which is to say intermittently, if at all.  With no sustained media interest in the sport, and no effort made to import soccer into our cultural lifestyle beyond a token nod to multiculturalism and good sportsmanship, soccer is doomed to footnote status on our national stage, even when its story is infinitely more compelling than the alternative.

Lastly, there’s the problem of redundancy: the US women already won the World Cup in dramatic fashion in 1999.  And since we’ve “been there, done that,” future squads will never be able to generate the same ridiculously high level of interest we’ve already shown this sport once before. Thus, they’re damned if they win (because we expect them to) and damned if they don’t.  (Dream Team, anyone?)

What Poor US Women’s Soccer Coverage Means for Your Business

First, let’s be clear: your business is a story.

People pay for the stories they like, and the stories they want to share.

If your job is to sell that story, you need to keep finding new reasons why that story matters to new audiences and existing audiences.

You can’t take your existing audience for granted, because another story always wants to steal your audience away.

You can’t expect your past success to remain interesting forever, because new audiences want to buy into your story on their own terms, not out of a sense of tradition, obligation or a lack of alternatives.

You can’t expect people who should be interested in your story to find it more compelling than the story they’re already used to — especially if those people aren’t yet looking for an alternative to their existing story.

The good news for US women’s soccer is that their story is being appreciated, slowly, as an “under-the-radar” sports story.  And maybe that’s their best strategy for US attention: to market themselves as media underdogs, even when they’re beating the world.

Because as long as we’re a nation that’s more interested in whether or not millionaire athletes are “well-prepared” to handle a lockout than we are in seeing actual feats of athleticism being performed — especially if they’re being performed by women — some stories are going to have a steeper uphill climb into our national dialog than others.

Does that make us sexist?  Or stupid?  Or hypocritical?

No.

But it sure does make us American.

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Why Bad Blog Traffic Is Good For You

I usually blog about social media or social marketing (yes, there’s a difference), but I also have a few other recurring themes on this blog: armchair sociology, arbitrary self-help, better storytelling tips, and debunking other people’s bullshit.  And, like any blogger, I’d love it if each of my posts generated thousands of page views and made me rich, famous and / or passionately adored by my growing armada of smart, attractive readers (hi there).

But, in reality, some of what I write fails.  And that’s okay, because maybe it should.

They Can’t All Be Winners

And technically, if they were all winners, they’d really all just be average, right?

When one of my posts fails to live up to my expectations for it (which is to say, it fails to be the best post ever), I find it worthwhile to examine why that may have happened.

Maybe I wrote about a topic that no one else is interested in.

Maybe I didn’t make an interesting point.

Maybe what I wrote isn’t really useful.

Maybe I wrote has already been covered by other, better authors.

Or maybe I wrote a wonderful post, but it was released at the wrong time of day…

… or at the same time as a hundred other, similar posts…

… or during major breaking news…

… or while my tastemakers were on vacation…

… or any other reason why a perfectly good post gets lost in the shuffle.

Or, maybe it was a great post, seen by a lot of people… but they weren’t the right people.

In which case, that’s the good kind of failure.

Why We Write

If I usually blog about social media, and then I spend a day blogging about cars or hats, I shouldn’t be surprised when those posts don’t resonate with my usual readers, because that’s not what they’re expecting from me.  That’s not why they read my blog.

However, that unexpected topic may be exactly what someone else, who’s never even heard of my blog, would love to read… if they only knew it existed.

And that’s the real reason bad blog traffic is good for you: it forces you to refocus.

To me, blogging (or any creative act) really comes down to a pair of motivations:

  • Why are you blogging, and
  • What do you want to be blogging about?

These are worth articulating, especially if you blog about social marketing.

See, social marketing is an echo chamber.  This means blogs that blog about blogging will receive exponentially higher traffic than blogs that blog about tilapia farming, because the cycle is self-sustaining.  Our social marketing world regurgitates itself.  And although this means its numbers are an aberration, its numbers are also used to justify the entire medium’s existence.

Thus, if you start blogging about social media, you automatically feel compelled to blog in such a way that your blog will become popular to other practitioners of social media… even if you really only want “that kind of traffic,” not “that kind of audience.”

When you’re writing posts that you think are great, but which aren’t resonating with your audience, double-check the goals of your audience vs. your goals as a writer.  Maybe your goals have changed, but your audience probably hasn’t… yet.

And, surprisingly, that can the best feeling of all:

The feeling that it’s time to move on.

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Storytelling Tips from The Twilight Zone

If, like me, you watched the Twilight Zone marathon on Syfy this past weekend, then you probably watched a lot of the Twilight Zone marathon.  In fact, I found that no matter what else I had to do, I always found an excuse to watch “just one more” episode… and then another… and another.

So how is it that a fifty year-old TV series, starring a bunch of dead actors, cheap sets* and outdated ideas about science, society and psychology can still be so damn riveting all these decades later?

Let’s take a closer look.

The Opening Hook.

In The Twilight Zone, time is always of the essence.

As a half hour show** with no recurring characters — except for host (and creator / head writer) Rod Serling*** — and no continuing plot, every episode is an entirely new experience.  As a result, the opening scene of every episode must accomplish the following:

  • Introduce the central character(s)
  • Establish the primary conflict or character flaw to be exploited
  • Confirm the rules of that particular episode’s “reality”
  • Plant a question in the audience’s mind

In the episode “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” we open on a country funeral.  We see closeups of the people who knew the dead man, and we hear the priest speak highly of his moral character and his tragically premature demise.  And then the coffin opens, and Jeff Myrtlebank sits up, and the attendees run screaming from the prairie church…

… and then the camera whip-pans (as it does in almost every episode) to Serling himself, who explains that this simple country funeral has just been disrupted by “a little fallout from… The Twilight Zone.”  And even if you don’t normally like stories about prairie towns or funerals, you realize that you can afford to spend the next 20 minutes finding out exactly what the twist in this particular story happens to be… right?

The Twist.

Every Twilight Zone episode has one.

The opening scene creates a level of expectation in the viewer: “I know something about this situation isn’t quite right, so I’ll stick around and find out what it is.”  And then the writers and actors do their best to give you more than you bargained for.

In the episode “A Most Unusual Camera,” a pair of cheap crooks pull a heist at a curio shop, but the wares turn out to be worthless… except for a mysterious camera… which, as they discover, takes pictures of things that will happen five minutes into the future.  But you learn this less than ten minutes into the episode, which means you still have twenty minutes to figure out what the real twist will be…

30 Minutes Is the Perfect Length.

In half an hour, you have time to set up the story, introduce the complications, and then allow the central character(s) to wrestle with their primary conflict just long enough to make the eventual (twist) ending feel both satisfying and appropriate.

A shorter episode wouldn’t give us enough time to feel like the characters had properly suffered and earned their lessons (or their penances), while a longer episode would need two twists to sustain that momentum and a build up to an even bigger payoff at the end, in order to justify the audience’s doubled investment of time and interest.

Smaller Casts = More Time to Focus on the Characters.

Most Twilight Zone episodes feature only a handful of characters, and many take place in claustrophobically small spaces.  Having fewer characters automatically increases the viewer’s likelihood of identifying with the protagonists simply because their attention isn’t being diverted by comic sidekicks or thematic subplots.

In fact, sometimes that minimalism is the whole point.

The show’s official pilot episode, “Where Is Everybody?“, focuses almost exclusively on one unnamed man in an Air Force uniform, who’s wandering through an otherwise deserted town.  He can’t remember who he is, where he is or why he’s there, which leads him (and us, the viewers who are living vicariously — and voyeuristically — through him) to a creeping panic that mounts throughout the length of the episode, until… well, let’s just say that we needed to be alone with him for 30 minutes in order for this story to work.

The Twilight Zone Takes Its Own Realities Dead Seriously.

Since the show is primarily sci-fi or fantasy-based, there’s an element of unbelievability in each episode.  It’s that impossibility that allows the show to make a comment about our own, actual reality.  But credit some of the finest actors of the 50s and 60s with being able to take a seeming impossibility and sell it as an insecapable reality, thereby making their resulting fear, confusion, frustration and panic so gripping.

In “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” When Bob Wilson (William Shatner) sees… something… standing on the wing of the airplane he’s trapped inside, that’s a hook.  When he realizes the creature knows to disappear anytime someone other than him is about to look at it, that’s a mystery.   When no one else believes him because he’s had a previous mental breakdown in an airplane, that’s drama.  And when the creature starts to tear the plane apart, that’s a living nightmare — and Shatner richly sells every sweat-soaked minute.

But it’s the quiet terror that we — and Bob Wilson — see on the face of his wife (Christine White) when he first confides in her, that moment when she thinks he’s losing it (again) and he realizes she’s now afraid of him, that anchors the entire episode in our own, real-life, universal fear of being distrusted when we most desperately need to be believed.

Trust me, it’s not the gremlin that’s kept people awake at night for 50 years; it’s the thought that someday we might someday be the only ones who see it.

Historical Tourism.

Speaking of Shatner, let’s be honest: even if you’re not a Twilight Zone fan, it’s still fun to see your favorite old actors when they were young — and to realize that these are the actors your parents and grandparents were inundated with every day.

Beyond that, it’s fascinating to see what the future looked like in the minds of the people who were asked to imagine it in the 1960s.  Or what passed for “special effects” half a century before Avatar.  Or just how many of the social ills commented on in The Twilight Zone still exist today, sometimes in more insidious forms.

After all, the forced physical transformations Rod Serling predicted for the year 2000 in “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” actually are happening today.  The difference is, they’re not being forced on anyone; they’re being sought out.

And that means our own reality really might be even scarier than anything The Twilight Zone could have imagined.

Cautionary Tales, Fables and Parables.

Although the subject matter of the episodes varies wildly, from astronauts crash-landing on distant planets to swimming pools where children can live forever, they all have one thematic element in common: they serve as a warning.

Maybe it’s a warning that we should be nicer to each other… or to not take something (freedom, love, each other) for granted… or a reminder that most of us live perilously close to the edge of our own demise every day, without even realizing it, and that everything we know could be gone in an instant.

The Twilight Zone isn’t a compendium of feel-good stories. On the contrary: it’s a testament to just how good life can be when you turn off the television, walk outside and reconnect with your fellow human beings…

… while you still can.

* Actually, the average episode of The Twilight Zone cost $65,000 in 1960s money (the equivalent of $496,000 today), and they frequently went over budget.

** Except for the fourth season of the series, which (against the creative team’s better judgment) consisted of hour-long episodes.

*** If you’d like to learn more about Rod Serling, check out this Tank Riot episode about his career, politics and impact on pop culture.

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Hey You: Stop Wasting Good Blog Titles

How many times have you clicked on what seemed like the perfect blog headline, only to land on a blog post or news article that wasn’t worth the time it took to depress your mouse button?  As a blog reader, it’s enough to make you wary of any too-good-to-be-true blog headline, and with good reason.

Now that we live in an era where people understand the basics of SEO better than they understand the basics of meaningful communication, we have a problem: people are highly trained to get our attention but ill-equipped to satisfy us with content that runs longer than 140 characters.  This is why we get TV shows called “The Killing” in which you (spoiler alert) don’t actually find out who the killer is.  It’s also why you get blog posts like this, which can be blamed on blog posts like this and this and this and this and Jesus Christ, people, does it ever stop?

Now, please note: I’m not saying “don’t write killer blog headlines.”

What I’m saying is, if you’re going to write blog headlines that are guaranteed to get people’s attention, you now have an obligation to reward people for giving you their attention.  As Peter Parker learned the hard way, with great power comes great responsibility, and that goes for people who want to be web-famous, too.

When you write great blog headlines, you’re automatically increasing the likelihood that you’ll get more traffic.  But if people show up and they don’t get what they’re looking for, or they get half-baked platitudes and regurgitated ideas, two things happen:

* They trust you a lot less.

* They trust whomever sent them to you less, too.

That’s because part of this problem is also our fault: we, the link-sharers and self-appointed cultural curators whose attention the headline whores are constantly chasing.

See, it’s so easy for us to see a link included in a perfectly-phrased tweet and believe that our social network will benefit from us sharing it, too, that we do it, sometimes all day long… and sometimes without reading what we’re linking to fully (or at all).  And once you start sharing crap, people will start doubting your usefulness as an information source.  That means even when you do have something worth sharing, people will still be skeptical because you were once The Boy Who Tweeted Crap.

So instead of obsessing over your SEO keywords and your ultra-compelling blog headlines, you may want to try writing blog posts that are worth sharing in the first place.  Focus on the basics of storytelling, clarity of communication, and finding your voice.  Invest some time every day on understanding how stories work.  Trust me, being worth people’s attention will make you a much more valuable member of society than simply being someone who can get people’s attention and then squander it.

And that way, the people who actually learn something from your writing will want to share it, even if it has a headline like this.  (Which is much better than this.)

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