The Farmer and the Cowman Should be Friends

(In 2008 when I ran the National Education Association’s media production and advertising shop, I was asked by the IT director to talk about – and help shore up – the bridge between technology and creative operations, to give them a brief look into our evolving world, growing more in sync with theirs every year. The audience was 40-50 IT folk at their national conference. It wasn’t a lion’s den, not even a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical feud: I had worked with several of them and attended their gatherings to learn as we built NEA’s first online video channels and web advertising. But in a meeting primarily about technology and assorted products and challenges, let’s just say my assigned topic was fresh.)

Farmer-Cowman hoedown from “Oklahoma”

“I’ve been coming to the IT conference for several years now and I have always come to listen. This time, they asked me to describe our work in more detail, to share some of what I’ve been hearing from colleagues involved in multimedia and basically to make a pitch for wider collaboration. This is different than cooperation and support; we get that in spades from our IT colleagues.

First, a quick look at Advertising & Broadcast Services. We are a unit inside NEA Public Relations with six media professionals. We shoot in Betacam and mini-dv format; edit in both Avid and Final Cut. We have a small studio for multicamera live-to-tape, switched productions and a sound studio with Pro Tools. We can compress media to multiple formats. I have a lot more detail on any of this and invite you to talk to me today or anytime. Our charge is basically to say Yes to any request for this work from the states and then to figure out how to make it work. This is sometimes a budgetary issue, but mostly a matter of scheduling. We typically work in some fashion with 15-20 state affiliates a year.

Only a handful of people in NEA and affiliates are full time multimedia production; video, audio web and integrated. More and more every day, this work is web-based. And I can tell you that many of them have hit the wall or are about to in terms of their individual knowledge and their capacities. In our own case, there is one person in all of NEA that understands multimedia compression well enough to post video to our website and our internet channels. At the same time, multimedia is rapidly becoming democratized and personalized. We’ve all heard the basics – YouTube, blogs, podcasts, search engine marketing, social networking, consumer generated media, sms, mms, virtual reality. There is a clamor out there for us to understand these and other tools and put them to work in order to reach our audiences. Let’s take a quick look.

YouTube – Nearly 70 million unique visitors in December, according to Nielsen Online. And we’re not talking just kids here. Nearly 55 percent of YouTube’s U.S. visitors in May 2006 were ages 35 to 64. This is our association sweet spot, since the average age of NEA members is 43. NEA has several YouTube channels in addition to video and audio on nea.org and one on Brightcove.

Blogs and podcasts – There is not a communications or PR professional in the country who is not operating, developing or advocating both of these. It’s literally in the water and in the air we breathe. Why? Because it gets information out past the gatekeepers. IBM has a blogger in chief and a blog written by 25 designated staff around the world with the full support of legal, HR and top management. NEA has staff blogs on NCLB and highlighting the magazine NEA Today and more are being discussed. We are collaborating and planning with Leona Hiraoka at NEA Interactive Media and Joel Packer at NEA Education Policy & Practice on a podcast about No Child Left Behind tentatively called “Joel Packer Has All the Answers.” Why do we call it that? Because he does. And it can’t be a video podcast because Joel truly has a face for radio.

Seriously, why the clamor for blogs and podcasts? Because they put issues directly to the public. The Annenberg School of Communications at USC says 13 percent of consumers used blogs and give them a rating of five out of 10 for credibility. To put it in perspective, the same study showed newspaper readership at 69 percent and a seven of 10 for credibility. Local TV news was even higher.

Search engine marketing – With an estimated 600 million web searches each day around the world, organizations that want their information and advocacy found like ours need to play. We have been working with Bonnie Gardner at NEA Interactive Media on a project to drive traffic to various highlighted sections of the website. I can provide detail about this, but they key thing here is that we took advertising money and provided it to the webmaster to experiment with words and phrases and positioning. Rather than just build this experience internally in PR, we thought it was better to make it a collaboration.

Social Networking – there’s a whole session of the conference on technology and social networking, so suffice it to say there is a clamor and everyone is feeling their way along. One thing is clear however, when it comes to social networks like MySpace and Facebook, our younger members do not want political messages from NEA cluttering up their interactions on those sites. In focus groups around the country convened by NEA Today, young members rejected the idea of “friend” relationships with their association and insisted that social networks were for individuals, friends and colleagues.

Consumer generated media – This is going to have growing importance. With the Flip camera, you can post directly to YouTube and another sharing site. We know the number of people who are making their own videos is exploding as is number of people comfortable with posting. As an example of the ease of use and accessibility, I opened a channel on YouTube called NEAReadAcrossAmerica. After an event in Austin, TX, I posted a video I edited with software inside the Flip camera to illustrate the size and media coverage of the event. The entire process took less than 10 minutes. This is a great tool for our association and I would expect to see more of it.

How about Virtual Reality? I’m talking here about Second Life. There is an evolution of this technology turning this from pie in the sky to something very interesting. Second Life is the virtual world where 70 percent of participants are content creators. Many of those content creators are corporations and other organizations, including unions and political parties. I mentioned IBM and they are one of those corporations with a major presence in Second Life. Last fall, IBM took and action that resulted in a pay cut for workers there and the union representing the workers mounted a demonstration in Second Life against IBM. Two thousand avatars showed up for a peaceful demonstration and a month later, IBM Italy withdrew the pay cut and signed a new contract with the workers.

SMS, MMS – Mobile phones are such a huge factor in marketing and communications around the world that there is a clamor to use the technology here. Two factors to note: First, texting is free in most of the world, while it’s a major profit center for phone companies in the U.S. In the fourth season of American Idol there was a huge deal made over the fact that viewers sent 41 million votes by cell phone. But at the same time, votes by POTS or plain old telephone service were more than 500 million. Second is a matter of trust and this gets me to a major point I want to leave with you. We know that family, friends and coworkers have the highest credibility in terms of influencing purchasing decisions and social and political action. When we poll our own members about what makes them take action on issues, they consistently say recommendations from colleagues are the most influential contacts they have.

USC’s Annenberg School of Communications found that advice from family and friends is used by 43.7 percent of consumers when making purchase decisions and nearly one in four follows the advice of co-workers. The study said word of mouth can’t be controlled but can be influenced by accurate information creatively presented. Then Nielsen Online compared various types of influencers and found that the trust level for word of mouth recommendations was at 80 percent, compared to 56 percent for television and 50 percent for opt-in email. The lowest of 13 choices is text ads on mobile phones.

But here’s the point. What if it’s not advertising? What if it’s a text or email from a friend or colleague or trusted source about an issue or a vote or website that needs checking out? Then the least trusted becomes the most trusted. It’s not the device, it’s the messenger. It’s not about messages being pushed out to audiences, it’s about messages relevant enough and accessible enough to be pulled in by audiences; it’s about messengers recruited and empowered to use or join in very personal and individualized communications tools to advocate for children, educators and public education. It’s about building partners and giving them tools.

We need to create messengers and get people talking about us, become part of the dialogue, the destination for searches about our mission. And the best part is that almost everything we do together is measurable – did we reach the audience, did they see or hear the message, how did they react, what’s the right number of contacts and what sort of contact is that?

Whatever our members need to do their jobs better, improve their professional profile and pay, become stronger through increased membership and political clout, we have tools that we can put to work together on their behalf and we can measure it to see if it works.

This is a great time to be involved in technology and a great time also to be involved in advocacy for educators and public education. I enjoy working with you and look forward to an even deeper collaboration in the future.”

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