Monthly Archives: November 2012

Most Brilliant Use of Stoner Content by a Police Department Goes To…

This is an era of invention in branded content. Lots of breakthrough ideas. Lots of out-of-the-box thinking.

But the Seattle Police Department employing an alternative journalist to write a blog about upcoming changes in marijuana laws — awesome!

Back in March, the Seattle police first hired journalist Jonah Spangenthal-Lee to write a blog for the department. Which was very forward-thinking of the Seattle police. Spangenthal-Lee had become a fairly well-known local crime reporter, first on a couple of Seattle web sites and then for the Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger, which features stories such as, “Cannibis Calendar: Things to Do With Pot in the Coming Months,” and “Sex at Seattle Art Museum.”

The idea, at the time, was for Spangenthal-Lee to write a blog about police actions in the city. As Spangenthal-Lee noted, it’s alarming to see a police helicopter circling overhead and never know why. The blog was meant to help people know what was happening in Seattle. Police officers had been doing that on the department’s site, but police officers aren’t writers. Spangenthal-Lee made the blog more journalistic and compelling.

And then this month, the department collided with a major challenge. Washington State voted to decriminalize marijuana. If the police were going to have to deal with this new reality, they wanted the public to understand the law and how the department would approach it.








Given Spangenthal-Lee’s background with both crime and The Stranger, he was the perfect choice to write about pot for the police. So the Seattle Police launched a sub-section of its blog, called Marijwhatnow? A sample:

Q: Can I smoke pot outside my home? Like at a park, magic show, or the Bite of Seattle?

A: Much like having an open container of alcohol in public, doing so could result in a civil infraction—like a ticket—but not arrest. You can certainly use marijuana in the privacy of your own home. 

Is the blog working? Well, over the weekend a New York Times story noted that the pot posts have “gone closer to viral than perhaps any official police communication in history, with 26,000 Facebook ‘likes’ and more than 218,000 page views as of Friday.”




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As the Crowds Get Less Wise, an Opening for Brands

The honeymoon with the wisdom of crowds is pretty much finito. And that opens up an interesting opportunity for brands to do some public good.

This isn’t to say that crowd-sourced online ratings are dead. But the relationship has certainly gotten complicated.

When the Web first burst onto the scene in the 1990s, excitement took hold for a new kind of democracy. As Rich Barton, the guy who started Expedia and Zillow, once told me: “Everything that can be rated, will be rated.”

Before the Web, if we wanted to know whether a book or restaurant or barbecue grill or dentist was any good, we’d either have to rely on experts (a newspaper, a guidebook) or word of mouth from friends. The Web, though, let anyone rate anything. And while any individual rater might not be credible, the idea was that a lot of raters in aggregate would give you a pretty accurate assessment.

We bought into this, big-time. Amateur reviews on Amazon started to have a big influence on a book’s sales. TripAdvisor could make or break a hotel. And then the big dog moved in: Yelp turned into a powerful force in every community.









As eyeballs moved to those sites, expert reviews withered. The media cut back on book reviews. Guide books lost influence or disappeared.

But, as always, power corrupts. And the crowds have been corrupted. Last month, Yelp started publicly shaming businesses it catches paying for fake reviews. Within a couple of years, 15% of online reviews or ratings will be fake positives paid for by the reviewees, says Gartner Group. That’s enough to skew the aggregate, calling into question the crowds’ wisdom.

Now you’ve even got Lifehacker writing about how to figure out what reviews to trust.

If this trend continues, as Gartner predicts, ratings sites will get increasingly corrupted. At some point, maybe soon, consumers are going to get sick of it. And then they’ll look, once again, for the voices of credible, proven experts.

This could be a really interesting play for the right kind of brand with the right kind of incentive. Old media has spent the last decade laying off expert reviewers. They’re not likely to bring that back. But a brand could pull this off, and generate a lot of good will.

Let’s take business book reviews. Mainstream media used to do a lot of them. Now, publishers will tell you, it’s almost impossible to get reviews for anything but blockbusters from the likes of J.K. Rowling. Business books rarely get written about.

It might be interesting for a brand to hire a journalistic editor and start a serious-thinking on-line business book review site, featuring credible and authoritative writers. What kind of brand? Maybe one that would benefit from a better-informed business community and would want to be linked to concepts like thought leadership and journalistic narrative. A bank like Citicorp? McKinsey consultants? General Electric?

Apply this thinking to anything we’ve been leaving to the crowds: restaurants, hotels, doctors, toys, college professors. The right brand could become the expert we all appreciate having around.

There is precedent in history, and a great example is the Mobil Travel Guide. Mobil funded experts to write reviews of travel destinations, and the guides became trusted companions. Mobil was just the right kind of tangential brand to pull it off: It benefited when people drove and bought gas, but it had no direct benefit in which hotel they stayed at. Mobil played that perfectly.

Here’s to hoping some other brands find new ways to rise above the crowds and bring some expertise into the game.

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Sandy, Ickiness, and “Deadline Branded Journalism”

Here’s one reason why brands should embrace journalists: Good journalists have learned how to be current in ways that feel relevant and welcome — as opposed to icky.

See, when marketing types try to be relevant, they too often come across as more inappropriate than when your drunk best man structured his toast around the story of that time you made a sex tape with two co-eds and a fruit salad.

My old friend Stuart Elliott wrote a New York Times story about exactly those kinds of screw-ups in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Everybody on the east side of the U.S. was absolutely fixated by the storm early this week, and brands wanted to snag a little piece of that interest. But especially in a time of disaster, there’s no room for any message that sounds the least bit self-serving or insensitive. Stuart details a number of such flubs, like this one: The Adler brand urged shoppers on Twitter and in e-mails to “storm our site” and obtain free shipping by entering “code Sandy at checkout.” Adler ended up having to apologize.

Nonetheless, it’s smart for brands to try to be current. I recently stopped by Forbes to talk to Lewis Dvorkin, who is building a platform on for branded content, called BrandVoice. Brands pay to blog on, and the content gets mixed in with all the other Forbes-created content — though BrandVoice pieces are marked as such. For a BrandVoice story to get attention, it has to be good on its own merits — as good as Forbes’ journalist-written pieces.

So what works in getting attention? “Being current,” Lewis immediately said. Stay close to the news, and the stories will get more readers.

But really — brands are terrible at this! If they try to stay close to the news, they often stumble like Adler. And then on the flip side, brands seem like they are news-blind.

In checking several times this week, I never saw one BrandView story rise to Forbes’ most-read list. Two of the most active brands on Forbes’ BrandView are Oracle and SAP. It’s hard to find a relevant story in their buckets. On Oct. 31, while much of the Northeast cleaned up from Sandy, Oracle ran a post from its president, Mark Hurd, titled, “What CEOs want from CIOs.” At that point, on that day — who cared!?

Journalists who have worked for newspapers or news magazines instinctively hunt for relevant angles on a big story, always keeping their audience in mind. The trick is to always know the bigger picture  and filter current events through that.

A simple example: Let’s say a reporter covers real estate. She always has in her mind the big trends and issues that people care about — like housing prices, foreclosures, interest rates. She’s learned those issues and has some expertise in them. So when Sandy hits, she immediately writes about how the storm will impact those curent issues, addressing the topic in ways that matter to readers.

If a brand acted more like a journalist, it would filter current events through the kinds of things it knows about — and match that up with what people care about.

Cape Bank in Cape May, N.J., might inherently know a lot about the history of how a major storm impacts a seashore economy. If it thought like a journalist, it would quickly put that knowledge into words or videos and get its wisdom out to the public, perhaps as an op-ed piece or blog or  video. To hit the right note, the piece could not at all try to promote the bank. The idea would be to share knowledge and help people. By doing so, the bank could seem smart and caring, not to mention quick on its feet.

Let’s call it “deadline branded journalism.” At the moment, it’s either hard to find or badly done. A smart brand might exploit that opening.

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