By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (originally posted for Fast Company)

As my little girl grows up and gets interested in television and “brands” that appeal to her, I can’t help but think of those of my own early childhood. The brand she is exposed to the most is Sesame Street: It started with her diapers, moved into plush animals, and has manifested into a full-blown television love, fueled by the show’s release of a “Best of…” of its first 40 years on the air.

For me, Sesame Street existed right alongside one of the most revered figures in television history: Fred Rogers. I haven’t gotten Ms. Emma Belle any Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood DVDs lined up yet, primarily because there’s very little available. (There’s a petition circulating with almost 2,000 signatures to get the DVDs released.) However, I have caught some episodes in re-run. And I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the lessons Mr. Rogers handed down to a young Samuel Earl all those years ago.

So, consider this a bit of a refresher course: the lessons marketing can learn from “the neighborhood”:

1.) Relationship-Building Trumps Flashiness: It’s hard to imagine a children’s show getting less flashy than Fred Rogers. Most of the time, it was him directly addressing his viewers. He took us on trips to see a few guests. And he had people stop by. Even his “make-believe world” was of the decidedly low-tech sort. Yet, I don’t remember ever feeling bored when spending time with Mr. Rogers, because he replaced that flashiness by building an honest relationship with his viewers, by making the show constantly address “our” concerns…at least as best a television personality might do in the days of a one-way medium.

2.) Don’t Promise More Intimacy than You Can Deliver: A few months back, I distinctly remember stumbling upon an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in a hotel room somewhere when the most extraordinary thing happened: Fred looked into the camera, and he said something along the lines of, “I’ve really enjoyed talking with you this week. I hope I have answered a few of the questions you’ve had. I really wish I could know each and every one of you personally, but unfortunately this television show is the only way we have to talk. If you have other questions that I haven’t answered, find someone you love and who loves you in your own life and ask them.” Really, is there a more perfect mindset that brands should take, online or off?

For brands that appeal to a large customer base, the company cannot have personal relationships with everyone. Social media provides a way to be more conversational, to give a venue for customer contact when they have a problem, etc. The key is to take the appropriate tone with customers, to demonstrate approachability but also be honest about the limits, lest customers be disappointed. (In a recent episode of FX’s Louie, Louis C.K. ends up stalked by a fan’s brother who thinks he should eat dinner at IHOP and make out with his sister because she’s a fan. Perhaps Louie hasn’t managed his professional reputation and approachability appropriately…And, yes, I am cognizant of the fact that this may be the first and only time Fred and Louie are compared.)

3.) Be Consistent in Who You Are and What People Should Expect from You: From Fred Rogers’ first show in 1968 until his last in 2001, surprisingly little changed about Fred Rogers. That’s in part because his brand stood as a calm in the changing seas of culture. There were many subtle shifts in the nuances of his shows: the anxieties he addressed and the topics he covered. But Fred always found a way to address them from the standpoint that people expected from his brand. Mr. Rogers was a trusted friend we could always return to. Brands should be responsive to culture, should have their ears on the latest changes: but they should do so always remembering why audiences might come to them and respecting the audience’s desires in the process. Fred didn’t hire a trendspotter to map out every new clothing shift or music shift in American culture to make sure he was part of it, that he was hip. Instead, he listened to the gentle hum of “slow culture change,” and he made sure his show remained relevant for decades.

4.) Customers’ Questions Are Worth Answering: Mr. Rogers answered all our questions, occasionally including the ones that we may have been afraid to ask. He assured us that there’s no way we could get washed down the drain when we take a bath. He helped assuage our fears surrounding war, divorce and other somewhat taboo topics for children’s shows. He talked us through the death of his goldfish we’d watched every day on his show. In short, his staff seemed to do a great deal of research to address the fears of children, from the serious, uncomfortable issues adults didn’t want to discuss to the trivial issues parents might often dismiss or laugh off. Mr. Rogers took us seriously, asked us what our pain points were, and offered the best solution he could. Brands might be well served to do this a little more often for their customers.

5.) Brands Can Take a Stand: Despite his calm demeanor, Mr. Rogers was known for taking a stand for what he believes in, in a way that was consistent with his public persona. When President Nixon proposed cutting the budget of public broadcasting in half to fund war efforts in Vietnam, Rogers spoke passionately to the Senate. When the media industries tried to block the spread of the Betamax, Mr. Rogers testified as a staunch supporter of home recording and timeshifting. And, when Burger King parodied Rogers to advertise their fast food, Rogers held a press conference explaining to parents that he not affiliated with the burger chain and that he was afraid children would be misled by the ads and think that Mr. Rogers endorsed their food. (His response was so convincing that Burger King issued an apology and pulled the ads.) In short, when it was a topic that was consistent with who Mr. Rogers was, Fred was known as being quite outspoken–albeit always in his calm and respectful tone. Brands too often shy away from supporting something, or else–when they do–their “causes” are disjointed from the work the company does and what they stand for.

Mr. Rogers saw the value of cultivating his own brand. But he did so in a quiet and dignified way that made the tone and authenticity of his show–and his relationship with viewers–unmatched by any television property I’ve seen before or after. And, as I consider how many marketers likely grew up with the words of Fred Rogers guiding their way as kids, I can’t help but think that we’ve all too often strayed away from some of those first lessons we heard as children.

By the way, a quick shout-out to others who have written on business lessons from Mr. Rogers in the past (who I came across after writing this piece): Brad Broberg, Mitch Joel, John J. Wall, and Eastonsweb Multimedia.

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By Sam Ford, PepperDigital (Originally published for Fast Company)

Across almost every academic discipline, the process by which professors publish their work–and the ways in which they are evaluated–does not properly reflect the information age of which we now find ourselves. This past June, I had the honor of speaking at Fiske Matters, a conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison honoring the legacy of media studies scholar John Fiske. I took part in a panel that tackled the need for reform in academic publishing. For sake of simplicity, let's look at 10 points:

1.) Academics Are Seldom Rewarded and Sometimes Even Punished for Sharing Their Work More Broadly. For non-tenured faculty, being charged with regular publication in traditional peer-reviewed journals (read largely only by fellow academics–and, in some cases, not even regularly read by peers) alongside teaching and administrative obligations leave little time for writing for other audiences, for engaging in platforms with quicker turnaround time (such as using blogs or Twitter accounts to discuss their research and work), or for engaging in research that may not immediately lead to an essay or report.

2.) Academics Are Too Often Trained to Make Their Ideas as Insular as Possible. This focus on traditional journals lead academics to write in a style and which makes their work somewhat purposefully inaccessible to those not in their field of expertise. The use of academic jargon, insider references, and lengthy literature reviews is encouraged and rewarded by many but serves to make the work much less reader-friendly.

3.) Academic Publishing Contains Too Much Lag Time.Many journals and presses have such long processes to get through the stages of publishing that all research feels overly historical by the time it is printed. While the presses take the brunt of the blame, academics all too used to such a leisurely system of publishing are notorious for extending deadlines to ridiculous lengths (an offense I've been occasionally guilty of myself).

4.)Academics Do Not Easily Have Access to Contemporary Work. Such a long lag time means that academics researching current phenomena often don't have access to the work others are doing concurrently or, worse, work that had been completed but is still in the queue for publication. This leads to inefficiencies, redundancies, and a disjointed body of thinking across any given field.

5.) Academics Often Don't Work Across Disciplinary Bounds.While universities are steadily spouting interdisciplinarity as key to education, many academics know few people on campus outside their department or school. What's worse, many people researching a subject are only aware of the work that's been done in their particular discipline. For instance, recent research from Kimberly S. Schimmel, C. Lee Harrington, and Denise D. Bielby found that those researching fans of popular culture and those researching fans of sports did not read one another's work, despite the many ways in which these respective fan communities behave similarly. Such disconnects lead to research that's disjointed, inefficient, and limited in more widespread application.

6.) Academics Are Too Often Split Between Their Teaching and Researching Selves. Often, the professor's job to teach is perceived in opposition to her or his research, stealing time away from writing rather than augmenting it. In part, this happens because classes are too often not designed to tap into the instructor's areas of research expertise and potentially missing opportunities to leverage the academic's expertise, to bring relevant current issues from the professor's research into the classroom, and potentially to strengthen both the educational and the research experience in the process.

7.) Academic Content Is Not Circulated in Other Contexts.One of the main challenges the academy faces is that, despite the rich amount of content being produced by academics and the digital publishing avenues which allow that content to spread, academic thinking too often remains written for and distributed within limited networks within academia. This lack of more widespread circulation both limits the effectiveness of academic work and deprives other communities of what could be highly relevant work.

8.) Significant Communication Barriers Exist between Industry and Academy. The most widespread gap is often between those working in a field and the academics studying the area. In the world of media studies, we launched the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium to help bridge these divides, a mission that too often was met with not just healthy skepticism but cynicism from many colleagues, despite the fact that conversations and collaboration between academics and the sectors they research within might lead to greater impact for their work and access to relevant information from the field to strengthen their research.

9.) Academics Appeal Beyond Advocacy Research. Why does this matter? First, while academics may be limited by the "publish or perish" attitude of traditional tenure review, they still often bring with them the unique ability to research a question to find an answer, no matter the outcome, rather than doing research that will only be shared if it bolsters a particular perspective or experimenting with a product only if it seems likely to turn an immediate profit.

10.) Academics Are Shaping the Perspectives of Tomorrow's Leaders. Finally, to return to the teaching charge of professors, these researchers are engaging and shaping the people who will lead innovation tomorrow. Thus, the ways academics research and the ways that work engages students, fellow academics, activists, companies, regulators, and many other constituents will have a crucial impact on the ideas of those who will lead us into the future.

Whether you are in the academic world or far removed from it, you should care about what happens to this process. There remains a great deal of deep insights that could impact the world, yet remain siloed in a particular discipline, unpublished in a years-long editing process, or written in a language inaccessible outside the academy. Finding ways to tackle these issues is crucial for fostering new innovation.

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By: Sam Ford, PepperDigital

Earth Recently, I brought up my opinion on “viral campaigns” here on the PepperDigital blog. I previously concluded, “Truth is, if you want something to be spread, it has to resonate with an audience to the point that they’ll want to share it.  And that’s not ultimately up to the producer of the message.”

On that note, early next month, Peppercom will be hosting a free Webinar on this subject. Entitled “Moving from ‘Sticky’ to ‘Spreadable’: The Antidote to ‘Viral Marketing’ and the Broadcast Mentality” the panel will be from noon to 1 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6.

The subject is “spreadable media,” based on a research project from the Convergence Culture Consortium and a book I am currently working on with Henry Jenkins at USC and Joshua Green at MIT. The three of us will be presenting the concept together on the Webinar.

For the past two years, the Convergence Culture Consortium team (where I formerly served as project manager) has been examining some of the issues with brands and entertainment properties basing success completely off the concept of stickiness, which measures based on how many people click onto a page, how much time they spend on the page, etc.

Similarly, we’ve been looking at how communication professionals have adopted the language of “viral marketing” and how that concept has framed how companies build their online presence, in our minds in a way that is ultimately less helpful for brands and their audiences alike.

Peppercom’s own Steve Cody will be joining us to moderate the conversation, and we’ll also be taking some questions from those listening. To register or find out all the details, click here.

Hope you’ll be able to join us

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