Monthly Archives: January 2013

What CEOs Can Learn from Stephen King’s “Guns”

Every CEO should pay attention to the success of Stephen King’s Kindle Single, Guns. It points the way to a new form of communication with the public for brands, companies and thought-leaders.

Kindle Singles have quickly turned into an interesting platform — unlike any before it. Amazon.com launched Kindle Singles two years ago, in January 2011, just as electronic book reading was really taking hold. (In its latest earnings report, Amazon said that e-book sales have become a multi-billion dollar business for the company.)

Singles generally range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words — no more than 50 pages, equal to a brisk read on a flight from Denver to New York. Most cost from 99 cents to $2.99 and exist only in electronic form, to be read on Kindles, iPads, laptops or smart phones. All in all, the friction between a Single and someone who wants to read it is almost non-existent. 

A Single is also easier to create than a traditional book. Writing a 10,000-word, well-crafted and researched Single might take a couple of months. Writing the 100,000 words in a 250-page book can take a couple of years. Distribution can be lightning quick. Amazon says that King finished Guns on Friday, Jan. 18, and it was published globally by the next Friday, Jan. 25. It is now No. 1 on the Kindle Singles bestseller list.

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Of course, King is a popular writer, and his fans will help push anything he writes up the charts. But he also wrote about a hot subject, and the combination proved electric. 

So what can CEOs and brands glean from this? 

First — short e-books are a new and interesting opportunity. They don’t have the restrictions of trying to place an op-ed piece. They are lengthy enough to explore a topic in a rich way. If written with integrity and authenticity, they can be content that people want to read — as opposed to marketing material, which people feel is pushed at them.

Second — King’s book shows the power of timeliness in this new medium. And the medium allows for timeliness. A smart communications team could look for news or a hot issue that lands right in their CEO’s strike zone. For instance, is there a well-known CEO who might have something truly enlightening to say about immigration in the U.S.? Probably. Especially if that CEO could eloquently express how immigration reform would benefit his or her company or the industry or the U.S. economy.

But then the point is: Write those 10,000 words while the topic is hot, and get it published almost instantly through an electronic channel like Kindle Singles.

One last thing to hammer home: A Kindle Single is content that people to buy. The content isn’t being pushed at them in ads, or arriving packaged in a newspaper or magazine they already subscribe to. It sits out there naked, and will only be read if a person actively pays money to download it. Which means that the content has to be good or it’s not even worth doing. It has to be well-written, credible, honest, and have something unique and helpful to say. If a CEO can do that, the company might find it can win some dedicated fans.

 

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Pope Tweeting; CEOs Not

When the Pope got into tweeting, we wondered why so few CEOs do the same.

Now a study by Weber Shandwick reveals the sorry statistics. Just 18% of big-company CEOs are active on social networks at all, and just 2% are active on Twitter.

This despite the fact that two-thirds of consumers say their perceptions of CEOs impact their opinions of companies and the products they make. Seems like CEOs would do well to get tweeting.

By the way, the Pope is up to 1.4 million followers. But we’ll see how this goes. So far, 23 tweets since Dec. 12. The last one: “What happens in Baptism? We become united forever with Jesus, to be born again to a new life.”

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IBM’s Think and the Power of Great Owned Publishing

Sometimes we think we’re inventing the future and find someone’s already been there.

Doing some research on branded journalism, I pulled up issues of IBM’s old Think magazine. I read a number of issues of Think more than a decade ago when researching my book about Thomas Watson Sr., but wanted to look at them again through this owned-content lens. And what I found was startling.

Seventy years ago, IBM was doing what some smart companies ought to do now.

In short, Think was a real magazine. It started out in 1935 — the teeth of the Depression — as a pet project backed by Watson. He loved to associate himself and IBM with top cultural and political figures, and he wanted IBM to be seen as what we’d today call a thought leader — not just in technology, but in business and world affairs. So he funded Think, and instructed its editor, Edmund Hackett, to fill it with great writers writing about timely topics.

The July 1942 issue, on the brink of war, has German author Thomas Mann, who fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, writing “The Citizen’s Wartime Duty,” and the King of Greece writing “Every Greek Was Ready.” A 1963 issue featured Sargent Shriver on “What We’ve Learned in the Peace Corps.” In 1968, Peter Drucker wrote, “Education: The High Cost of Low Production” and economist Paul Samuelson wrote, “Lifting the Curse of the Poor.”

Do those stories sound like they’re explicitly pushing IBM’s agenda? No they do not.

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The publication changed over the years, but it stayed true to the idea of gathering high quality work about a range of topics, including the arts, science, and management. The magazines were mostly sent free to employees, customers, and influential people. It fizzled as a public-facing publication in the 1970s and turned into a more internal-focused magazine. By the time IBM stopped publishing Think — in IBM’s crisis years of the 1990s — it was being sent to 360,000 employees in 65 countries.

Did the magazine directly generate business for IBM? Probably not. But certainly in the 1930s and 1940s, when IBM was not yet the powerhouse we know now, Think helped it build a high-minded reputation, which the company still enjoys today.

These days, more and more companies are hiring accomplished journalists to create credible content. But no company that I know of is doing anything as lofty as Think in its heyday.

Maybe they should.

Three Ways Music’s Past Informs the Future of Books

Digital forces are changing publishing faster than Bruce Wayne morphs into Batman as he slides down the Batpole. (Yes, that fast!)

But you don’t have to be a genius to figure out how this is going to play out. Just look back on the music business a decade ago, around the introduction of the iPod. That history puts a lot of perspective into today’s news — and suggests what might happen in branded content.

Barnes & Noble retail revenue dropped 10.9%: Can you say “Tower Records?” Look, I love Barnes & Noble, as I adored Tower Records in its heyday. And I have nostalgia for the days of going into a store and feeling tangibly surrounded by music. I’d hate to see that disappear for books. But it will.

I started buying digital music and stopped buying CDs, as did millions of others. I’ve now stopped buying physical books, preferring digital. As will millions of others. People still buy CDs and they will still buy books, but not enough to keep open megastores on expensive real estate.

Brands considering putting out books need to think digital and how to get noticed on e-book sites — not how to get on shelves at B&N.

Fifty Shades of Grey, which started as a self-published e-book, kicked butt in 2012Oh, and then there’s the book on the history of TV dramas that started out self-published and just got picked up by a Simon & Schuster imprint. These things mean that do-it-yourself, viral books are the future and the big publishing houses are toast, right?

Well, that’s not really what the music industry showed us. Remember when we all thought record labels would quickly become irrelevant and we’d be listening to obscure bands we found on the Web? The story ended up being more complex. Music is now a rich mixture of big-label acts and artists who make songs on their MacBooks and find an audience through social media. The labels can back marketing campaigns and big tours and still play an important role in giving us our Lady Gagas and Rihannas and Taylor Swifts.

So if past is prologue, major book publishers will go through a lot of changes and pain, but they will emerge as an important filter and promoter of mass-market authors.

For brands, that means that while self-publishing can work, you could probably do well to hook up with a publishing house — for now, and for the future.

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E-book readers like the Kindle are losing out to tablets like the iPad: That means that books could be something different than they’ve ever been. E-readers delivered a book-like experience: text only; a one-way conversation of the author talking to you; no interactivity. A book on an iPad could be packed with moveable graphics and videos and links and additional information, and could allow readers to rearrange the story or add material or who knows what.

But we also thought that would happen to music. Todd Rundgren, Aerosmith, Prince and others experimented with letting fans remix their songs or get pieces of songs or suggest stuff. By now we know that just a small percentage of people want to do such things. Most just want to press play and hear a song.

Message for brands: There is an opening now for trying to create the “new” book — something that takes advantage of a tablet’s connectivity. But in the end, most people will still just want to read a good story.

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