Monthly Archives: January 2009

tackling dummies.

On the eve of the Super Bowl™, the annual showcase where advertisers pay just under $3 million per 30-second spot, some group called Common Sense Media announced it somehow logged more than 5,000 ads during 50 NFL games this season and came to a shocking conclusion. I hope you’re sitting down for it.

Here goes: Ads during football games feature lots of sex, violence and alcohol. Should I get the smelling salts?

Are you shocked *SHOCKED*? Not so much? As an advertising professor, I know there are a lot of bad commercials — in strategy and execution, as well as content. But since football games are the most likely programs holding the attention of the young male viewers advertisers covet, why shouldn’t we expect ad agencies chase the lowest common denominator?

The study found erectile dysfunction ads appeared on 40 percent of games and that 46.5 percent of what the group deemed sexual or violent spots — although we don’t know their judging criteria — were network promos for their own shows (CSI: Jacksonville, Law & Order Titillating Crime Unit, etc.). Again, not surprising.

But wait, let’s check those statistics again. The CSM screams that at least one ad during half the commercial breaks contain the above content. OK, most stopsets are four ads, so that’s 1,250 breaks. Half the breaks are 625. Estimating high, let’s say 1.25 ads per break have this kind of content, and round it up to 800. That’s about 16 percent of all commercials which is … not headline-grabbing. And if 46.5 of those are network promos, that means about 8.6 percent [428] would be buyer content CSM finds offensive.

Let’s be serious though: Have you seen the TV programs themselves? Do you think more than 16 percent of prime-time network shows feature violence, sex or alcohol/drugs? Sure. More than 16 percent, I’d say. Just like the football games themselves feature violent collisions, scantily clad cheerleaders and huge beer banners and/or shots of fans consuming alcohol.

What really offends me is this quote from CSM founder and CEO James Steyer (a Stanford law professor), who says he’s talked to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, then adds: We’re starting with the NFL but trust me, we’ll ask our friends at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission and in Congress to look at the other leagues if they don’t clean up their act.

Um … what? The use of my tax dollars to enforce someone’s standards of decency notwithstanding, Steyer misses the phallic-shaped boat on this one: Who sells advertising? Whose promos represented 46.5 of their naughty content? The TV networks. So why the CSM is pilloring sports leagues — who have less control over advertising content than the networks who sell commercial time — seems fishy.

Or maybe they just know how to find a lazy media horde looking for any football-related news peg. Waving a sports-seeming story about sex and violence in front of reporters on Super Bowl™ week is as sure to get a Pavlovian response as flashing images of half-naked women in front of an amped-up football fan.


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hockey lessons for winning work.

Game on!

Game on!

Maybe I read too much about management, but I couldn’t help but look for lessons this weekend while on the road with the Oswego State women’s ice hockey team (I’m a faculty mentor). Sports is a zero-sum game — if we win, it means you lose — while higher ed is (ideally) about fashioning win-win opportunities. Nonetheless, here are some thoughts.

Hierarchy. We have a head coach, assistant coach, three co-captains and 25 players. Chances are the head coach communicates directly with any individual player. Mistakes are ironed out quickly through direct interaction. No memo from the president to the provost to the dean to the department chair to the faculty. There are drawbacks to a 1:25 supervisor ratio, especially in terms of individualized attention, but communication is clean, clear, results-oriented.

Resource management: The coach has to field a starting goalie, two defenders and three forwards. Rotation is four lines of forwards, three lines of defenders and you hope you can keep your two backup goalies on the bench. You may have a speed line, a big line, or mix and match, plus penalty-kill lines and power-play lines. Staffing is flexible and sometimes lineups (project teams) vary; if you’re a player down due to penalty, you’ll want to put out your best defensive forwards and may have to mix up the pairings. Everyone brings different skills to the mix, and determining successful chemistry of various lines is a difficult art.

Motivation: One game this weekend saw the backup goalie get a start to stay fresh and one forward kept out of the lineup to send a message. Sometimes such positive and negative reinforcements can bite you if all your players don’t respond the way you’d like. But then doesn’t this happen with office project teams?

Reacting/responding: The two games were against Chatham University, and Oswego dominated Saturday’s contest in a 5-1 win. But the home team came out hungry and energized on Sunday, traded blows and capitalized on enough Laker mistakes to win a 4-3 overtime thriller (well, the Chatham fans were thrilled anyway). The Lakers didn’t assume the win — and played better overall (51-25 shot advantage) — but Chatham responded and took advantage of chances. Like in the business world, games are sometimes about how you capitalize on opportunities. Now it’s up to Oswego to respond this week in practice and try to win a two-game series hosting Cortland this weekend to stay in the playoff chase.

Certainly there’s plenty to take away here. The more hierarchy in an organization, the slower and more muddled the communication. As we all try to do more with less, resource management — figuring out the strengths of members of work teams, and how to maximize skills — becomes increasingly important. It’s paramount to find the right motivation to keep workers moving forward in these challenging times. And with the speed of technology, reacting/responding decisively and quickly can be the difference between failure and success.

There are many other life lessons one learns while traveling with 25 female student-athletes, but that would make for a really long blog entry.

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through the looking glass.

Seattle Times columnist Ron Judd has looked at his fellow Americans and seen they all seem to be looking at something else through something else. Of Tuesday’s inauguration, he notes:

Sadly, the thing that will stick with some of us about it was not the stirring words, the historical import, or the celebration of democracy. It was the virtual seas of people standing, witnessing history, and viewing the entire unfathomably huge event through a video screen the size of an open pack of matches.

Two things about the crowd distinguished this inauguration as I watched: 1) never have I seen so many smiling faces at such an event, and 2) never have I seen so many smiling faces hidden behind a camera or cellphone. Judd’s piece touches on those who tramp off into nature and spend all their time photographing and filming what they see. Instead of stopping to smell the roses, people are now cropping to sell the roses. He says that if you must take a picture of a beautiful scene, do so. But …

… then try something radical. Just stand there. Feel the spray settling on your face. Look around you and watch how the sun lights it up in a rainbow arch. Take in a few deep lungsful of that sweet, alpine air. Taste it. Feel it. Close your eyes and let your ears record the river’s thunderous retort to the constraints of gravity. Hold still for a moment and, when you’re ready, tell yourself quietly: Remember this. Never forget. Brand this moment on my soul.

As I watch people around me so often photographing themselves in the most mundane moments, I wonder if we’ve become a nation of voyeurs more than doers. Do we feel compelled to document things — like The Most Photographed Barn in America in Don DeLillo’s White Noise — instead of engaging ourselves in actually experiencing things?

I bring this up as I take a road trip to Pittsburgh later today, with the Oswego women’s hockey team playing two games vs. Chatham University this weekend. When I traveled with them to Boston last year, I kept a journal with pictures later published in the alumni online newsletter. This time I’ll take photos and blog, but I also plan to step back from the camera and enjoy a city in the midst of Super Bowl™ fever. The company of two dozen outstanding young student-athletes. And some exciting hockey. Real life seen through eyes, not filtered the digital looking glass.

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must it be such a trial?

If you ever have jury duty in New York state, you’ll likely have the pleasure of seeing an orientation video that starts with how far we’ve come since the Dark Ages, when an accused’s guilt was determined via trial by ordeal (i.e. thrown into a pond, will float if innocent, etc.). Despite some predictable before and after Person on the Street comments (apprehensive at the beginning, proud to serve at the end), it’s a pretty good video, even featuring on-camera narration by Diane Sawyer and the late, great Ed Bradley.

That declaration of progress notwithstanding, I noticed how outdated much of the jury duty process seemed when I went through it on Tuesday. On the business day before reporting, we call a juror’s hotline where we listen to lengthy instructions left by the Commissioner of Jurors. Why couldn’t this be a Web site? Wouldn’t that be easier on everyone, including the guy who has to record the message daily? Just a boilerplate document where the worker fills in a few words of changeable information?

When we report, and before watching the video, we receive golf-course pencils and carbon-copy paper. I have no idea when I last saw carbon paper. We use the blunt writing instruments to fill out various detailed fields and if our number is called (as mine was), the judge, clerk, DA office representative and defense lawyer all get ever-lighter carbon copies. The defense lawyer, who had the bottom sheet, even admitted some people didn’t press hard enough — so he couldn’t read the information. Supplying unreadable information to an important decision-maker during the selection process? Is that acceptable in this day and age?

Wouldn’t it be great to bring this up to the 21st century? Imagine how much better it would be if each potential juror (or at least those with Internet access) could fill out the form in advance online? For those without Web access, there would be computers on site for inputting their information. And then when the clerk draws Juror 28, lawyers could pull up my data on laptop or PDA, and ask what I do at the college, what I mean by listing hockey among my hobbies or any other questions. So much faster and more efficient, eh?

The film boasts about many improvements built into the system recently. But our day included a lot of waiting and watching. A. Lot. It took from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to select 12 jurors and one alternate (which didn’t include me, to the relief of my employers and I). I understand doing this all face-to-face and carefully — the trial process is important and delicate — but technologically much of the proceedings seem stuck in the Dark Ages. If the justice system is as great as we say it is, shouldn’t we always be trying to improve its efficiency?


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navigating the rapids (and rapid change).

Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars, Kasey Kasem used to say at the end of his weekly Top 40 countdowns. This piece of charming, if slightly oxymoronic, advice brings me to a current dilemma: How do you keep your eyes on the horizon, the coming trends affecting your institution, when your nose is stuck to the grindstone?

And I’ve been through a lot of grinding the past couple of weeks. Having a boss out of our already short-staffed office meant even more responsibilities, and the resulting print (yes, print) newsletter deadline and general publicity tasks meant I had to write 10 stories last week on top of everything else. Hard to see the stars hunched over the keyboard.

Anyway (rant over), this kind of dilemma greets many of us in higher education, especially in public higher ed where squeezed budgets will mean doing more and more with less and less. Meanwhile, the world keeps turning, and seemingly faster, with new technologies, platforms and social-media outlets bearing down on us at alarming rates. How is an honest and forward-thinking middle manager to cope?

Some people are fortunate enough to see the big picture and forge new ventures on their own, such as online friends Brad Ward, jumping from Butler College to form, or Dartmouth’s Karlyn Morrisette, who just launched side project DoJo Web Strategy. More power to them. But what of the rest of us happy working (albeit overworking) for an institution and wanting to do our best?

Here, then, are three thoughts on trying to negotiate the rushing rapids:

Know what to keep, what to cast overboard. Easier said than done, but worth pondering. My decision to move our clips online saved the office a bit of time, mainly for our secretary, and secretaries in other offices. What else can be moved from print to online (I have my opinions) to save time and money? What legacy tasks are we doing that no longer get the payoff for time invested? How can we best streamline and simplify to our most important tasks?

You can only row one direction at once. Again, I’m bad at this. Having 10 stories to write makes me want to go 10 ways at once. Pick priorities and focus on them. The time and stress spent worrying is always wasted time. As for other distractions, well, taking a couple hours away from following the Twitter stream won’t kill you.

Know when to pick up the oars and look downstream. Push yourself back from the keyboard once in a while and get out of the office. Tom Peters has a great phrase, management by walking around, on coming out from behind the desk and talking to others around the organization, and how this can create solutions. Small conversations at the lunchtable or in the hallway have sparked so many ideas in my head, so many otherwise unexpected collaborations benefiting the institution (and our students).

This is by no means a complete list — more of a Monday self-pep talk. I welcome your suggestions and additions!


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paper tigers changing stripes.

Working at a college with a sustainability goal provides a boost whenever you want to move something from paper to the Web. So it was pleasing this week to move a paper-pushing tree-killing task to collaborative online report instead.

One of our office’s more drudgery duties involves a clippings report, where we document our college’s media mentions for the previous week. Traditionally, we put everything into an Excel document, printed said document, typed and printed a two-page cover report, printed the more noteworthy clippings and made enough copies to wipe out a small forest.

While I was vaguely aware of Google documents, I didn’t see the potential until Brad J. Ward created an online spreadsheet for FacebookGate that several of us Web detectives worked on. Under our office’s old clips system, only one Excel user could input into the document at a time. Three of us enter items in the document, and on super-busy Mondays, two of us would be locked out if any user were in it. Now any of us can be in the document entering things in real time. As the Google doc is online, I could even enter clippings I find on the Web from home if I want. (As to why I would want to … that’s a whole nuther entry.)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when proposing the new green format. I e-mailed a briefer version of the summary report, links to more significant clippings and a link to the clippings document. Response was swift and very positive. In a field like higher education where change sometimes takes a glacial pace, a warm welcome for an abrupt shift from reams of paper to online is still surprising.

But I’m happy to have tried something new and have it accepted … and that it saves our time and many trees.


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follow the reader.

It is an ancient Mariner and he stoppeth one of three. — Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

In a way, I envy that ancient Mariner. Stopping one of three, especially in today’s go-go world, is a herculean task. And engaging them? What an albatross!

Links followed from the Visit Oswego page.

Fig. 1: Links followed from the Visit SUNY Oswego page.

After my Pondering the Point (.0) of Web Writing post, Rick the Indispensable Tech Guy sent the above bit of analytics showing where those landing on the Visit SUNY Oswego page go. My beloved body copy fails to stoppeth even one of three.

The most effective link, the one that reads Visit Us and sends people to the admissions visit page, nets 13 percent of readers. Another 11 percent proceed to the campus tour page. Four percent pursue the open houses link. And a big fat zero percent go to schedule your visit online from this page. Wow! Or, perhaps, ow!

The analytics don’t tell all, as we aren’t sure if readers follow the inline links or the related links of the same name. A bit more than a quarter — 27.3 percent — do follow the sibling links under Visit SUNY Oswego on the leftnav. It’s nice to see 5.8 percent check out the Fast Facts feature I sweat over. And while 1.2 percent go straight to the search box instead of navigating by this page, the overall dropoff rate — those who leave the site entirely — looks daunting at first (math is hard).

Since this is a high-level oft-visited page, these are humbling figures indeed. But what’s a Web content creator to do?

Actually, this — analyzing what readers do — is a good start. In a perfect world, you have the time and resources to assemble a focus group of future students to say what they’d like to see on the page. (In this perfect world, chocolate also grows on trees and it never rains til after sundown.) Failing that, you could ask current students their opinions. You could also look at the links people most follow and see if the links most accessed from those pages would make sense on this one.

But also remember that people can only click one link at a time. More than 3 out of 4 (75.7 percent) of visitors at any time click the top 10 links — all contextual, structural or related — so we must be doing something right.

One should also avoid overreacting, just summarily dumping links with lower clickthrough. Sure, only 1 percent click the structural College Offices link, but given the high volume of traffic, that means a significant number of readers jump from this page to find a specific office. That represents an audience being served in seeking more information.

That said, if you’re a perfectionist (as I am), anything less than 100 percent service just isn’t enough. There are readers, readers everywhere; let’s make many stop to link.

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web writing ii: this time it’s purposeful.

The previous post on writing for the Web brought a lot of thoughtful feedback and links, so I figured the topic was worth further discussion and contextualization.

I learned Web writing on the fly thanks to Steve Krug’s excellent Don’t Make Me Think (he’s @skrug on Twitter, for those who want to stalk, er, follow him). The title says it all: Good Web copy should be intuitive; users shouldn’t have to think too hard to understand or navigate. Clear, concise copy with phrased hyperlinks or obvious structural or related links make for pleasant trips through the tubes.

A few interesting Web sites, mentioned in or inspired by user comments, show different ways of treating Web content.


Fig. A: Wikipedia

Dr. Brad mentioned Wikipedia which, as opposed to what he termed scribbling on the Web (Twitter, Facebook), does indeed use complete sentences and narrative structure (questionable accuracy and mangled grammar notwithstanding). We navigate Wikipedia by typing a term into its search box, though sometimes disambiguation is required if you’re looking for the TV show House, not the synonym for dwelling or the Congressional body. The obvious links mean you can learn more about Hugh Laurie or the Fox Network or Sherlock Holmes. But if anything, Wikipedia sometimes overlinks; making every third word a link doesn’t make for eye-friendly reading and can look like just plain showing off.

The Jargon File

Fig. B: The Jargon File

Eric, one of my former students, cited The Jargon File as a facile site that organizes content in a treelike outline form. The main thinking required here, other than comprehending difficult slang, would be trying to figure out where a topic may fall in the tree or subtree. Definitely low frills.

Fig. C:

Eric’s comment reminded me of my favorite no-frills Web site, Content is king here, as it should be, but it’s remarkable that other than the curiously spinning puck on the right, the site is virtually void of design. Yet countless hockey fans, myself included, visit regularly and compulsively hit refresh. Why? Because, to borrow an old Kentucky Fried Chicken tagline, this site does one thing and does it well: delivers college hockey scores/box scores faster than anyone else. With a simple list of scores, each with a link to a related box score, the only things you have to think about are questions like how bad must Worcester State be to lose 7-0 to Brockport?

In writing for the Web, like life, there are no clear answers. The Internet started with dendritic sites like The Jargon File constructed via logical outline. It evolved into narratives, even interactive ones, like Wikipedia. And the hyperinteractivity of Web 2.0 means that many people are mainly Web scribblers. But the important thing, after all, is that Web sites — in any written form — should provide some kind of informative, enriching experience, which is made easier with well-written and intuitive content.


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pondering the point (.0) of web writing.

I’m presenting yet another workshop on Writing for the Web next month, but starting to wonder if I’m using outdated information.

When I served as chief content editor for our campus-wide redesign in 2003-04, prevailing literature suggested using phrased hypertext linking in clear, concise sentences driving a listener to action. I think that’s all still important but, in a Web 2.0 world, it seems like the amount of content in actual sentence form on the ‘Net is shrinking.

Currently, our Web site incorporates three plans for linking within the body of any page:

A sample page.

Fig. 1: A sample page.

Left/red circle: Sibling or structural links = related within directory structure

Center/green circle: Contextual links = phrases sending reader to information that sparks their interest

Right/blue circle: Related links = other pages that may interest the reader

As a creator and reader, I mostly employ/look for contextual links, but then that’s the tendency of someone who’s wanted to be a writer since I was four years old. Some others prefer navigating by structural or related links. Yet others just go straight to the search box and type in their term. All are valid ways of finding information.

But when I look at something like Facebook, arguably the top social-media presence going, the main links are structural or related. And short. Its navigation is certainly intuitive — anyone knows what links that say view photos or send message or view friends mean — but it provides a challenge, if not a full-blown conundrum, for those trying to teach others to write Web copy.

I certainly don’t think colleges should ditch Web writing in complete and grammatically correct sentences. Our primary pages should contain what we would call marketing copy (much as those words make some academics bristle) to make the pitch … but are readers becoming more accustomed to just searching for links or Twitteristic 140-character communication?

But then I took a step back and remembered that Web 2.0 is about conversations. Those conversations tend to take place in sentences, not just through posting links or photos (though links and photos can start/continue conversations). And good Web copy, like good advertising copy, should be in a conversational tone. The rise of Web 2.0 doesn’t demolish Web 1.0 … in some ways, it actually helps us understand traditional Web sites better.


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music to dance to and feel conflicted over.

As much as I look forward to the annual Best of Bootie mashup compilation (a free download), I do feel conflicted. As a writer and musician, I’m uneasy over the appropriation of other artists’ songs inherent in the process. But as a music fan, I find the tunes very clever and catchy.

While copyright questions persist, postmodernists have long referred to this kind of practice as pastiche, taking other forms of art to produce something new. Most Bootie mashups are two songs put unexpectedly together — such as “Easy Heaven,” mixing The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” with The Commodores’ “Easy” — that preserve large portions of the original. That said, listening to that song won’t keep anyone from going out and buying a Cure or Commodores album. In fact, these mashups usually make me more interested in buying an artist’s records, especially if it’s an act I hadn’t heard before.

The most famous masher, Girl Talk (who’s not part of these compilations), argues that he takes so many songs for any particular track that the result is a new work he can sell. While few Bootie tracks are as complicated (although “No More Gas” features Rihanna vs. Kardinal Offishall vs. Akon vs. Ne-Yo vs. Estelle vs. Pussycat Dolls vs. Leona Lewis vs. Danity Kane vs. Madonna vs. Timbaland vs. Justin Timberlake vs. Lupe Fiasco vs. Matthew Santos vs. Britney Spears vs. Flo-Rida vs. T-Pain), the mixes are not sold but given away on the Web and at mashup parties. But while the Bootie camp doesn’t profit from the distribution — so they would argue fair use — they do gain a measure of fame and/or notoriety that makes them in-demand DJs at events where they can charge admission. How does one value that, then?

Legal issues aside, the 2008 compilation of 20 songs with 13 bonus tracks is one of the merry pirates’ best efforts. While putting together the soundalike choruses of Wreckx-N-Effect’s “Rumpshaker” and MIA’s “Paper Planes” should have been obvious, producing “Roxanne Should Be Dancing” by pairing classics by The Police and The Bee Gees, or creating the self-loathing lounge sound of “Every Kind of Creep” by mashing up Radiohead and Robert Palmer take a certain kind of genius.

And bonus songs like “Single Ladies (In Mayberry),” mixing Beyonce with the “Andy Griffith” theme, or the marriage of Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” to Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” to make “Wicked Wedding” represent creating something quite remarkable while making us look at the originals in a different light. That, to me, does seem a kind of art.

I’m sure people could spend all day arguing copyright vs. fair use and reach any type of harmony. I’d rather spend that time discovering new and interesting music.


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