Monday, April 20, 2009

Over the hill and overhauls

When my company handled the Sporting News in the earlier part of this decade, the president and CEO was fixated on making a big stink over the magazine's 135th anniversary. Of course, the owners were trying to sell the property at the same time too.

What's so special about 135 years? What makes it more unique than the 130th anniversary? Would it get more traction five years later at 140? Or is 150 the real magic number that we should wait for that people would pay attention to? 135 years is kind of a nowhere anniversary number.

I really didn't want to embarrass myself or my client because if we were going to get behind a campaign, it should have genuine news value. Not necessarily in the eyes of the president and CEO, but in the eyes of the media we would be pitching it to.

My strategy for situations like this was always to stick my toe out very cautiously in a couple of places to see if there'd be any traction. I'd call a friendly journalist or two, gossip about the media for a few minutes, and then just run the idea by them in an off-hand way...

"Sporting News is turning 135 next month, can you believe it? Isn't that the same age Abraham was in the Bible when he left Haran?"

"Uh yeah, that's old. How's your brother doing?"

I would like to think that after many years in the business, and having been a journalist myself, I have a very keen sense of what makes news. Nearly all the time, my clients trust my intuition, but there's the periodic case where they find it hard to believe nobody will write an article about their 8th anniversary, new typeface, wider photographs or enlarged sidebar.

"These days, we do very, very, very few anniversary stories," one major newspaper reporter e-mailed me. "Unless there is some forward-looking aspects, here and now type stuff rather than wallowing in nostalgia."

On the other hand, an entertainment news radio producer said: "It's all about the narrative. A good nostalgic tie-in adds emotional depth. Pertinence relating to pop culture will help it resonate with the majority of the population. I would say those two elements make for a good narrative."

In a 2007 article in the Columbus Dispatch, columnist Joe Blundo sarcastically cracked that "The five-year anniversaries of major world events get abundant attention up to Year 25. Then interest dwindles until Year 50, when it dawn on the media that if they don't hurry up and do some interviews, the principals will all be dead."

Redesigns also have that hit or miss criteria for newsworthiness, and it's interesting to observe what the media deems to cover.

Magazines redesign themselves every time the wind changes direction -- "We've altered the logo!" "We've cleaned up the front of the book!" The media mostly yawns, since they are far more interested in editorial shifts.

The media yardstick seems to be mass consumer product institutions, like Facebook and Tropicana cartons, both of which came under withering criticism upon their unveilings. One marketing columnist confessed to me: "If lots [of] money involved, big brand, long time no changes, that makes it more interesting."

Despite the media's nearly across the board ignorance of any redesign below that yardstick, companies still crank out press releases about visual tweaks that "offer more information," "are more consumer friendly," and "create enhanced navigation." One current press release touts that they "conducted usability testing and heuristic evaluation to provide a new user interface."

Desperate to blow their own horns, companies seriously need to do a reality check of their self-importance.

Stop 10 people on the street. If they have never heard of your company, then you're not that big enough to invite the world to your birthday.

If you're redesigning for your anniversary, that doesn't mean you have doubled your chances making the media care.

If you've made it 10 years in your industry, sure, take a bow to your industry peers and if you're a consumer product, you're entitled to let them know too. Just don't do it again for another 10 years, OK?

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