Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Get outta here!

It's hard to believe, but yes, our website has officially launched and this blog site has retired. Don't worry! We've got all of the same content and fun in our new blog section, and it's pretty stinking awesome. So stop wasting your time - head to theblacksheepagency.com/blog. NOW.

The Black Sheep Agency

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A site for sore eyes

By show of hands, how many of you have a website? That’s what I thought. Ostensibly, every business that exists in any capacity has a website of some sort. Whether you’ve hired a professional developer and designer or you had your neighbor’s kid design it for his seventh grade computer science project (in 1995), you have some sort of online presence. Your website is your single most important piece of marketing collateral, and if your competitor’s site tops yours, the game is over.

So, take a step back and pretend you are visiting your website for the very first time. Ask yourself the following questions:

Does it look professional? If fonts don’t match, if you have animated GIFs or if you have a background with dolphins (unless you sell dolphins, which seems illegal), your answer is no. If your site hasn’t been updated since Little Johnny did it in 1995, your answer is again, no. We could write an entire post specifically about outdated designs, but that’s for another day. Just remember your website is the first impression of your company, and if it looks amateur, so does your brand.

Do not do this. 

How fresh is your content? If it hasn’t been updated since 1995, you have a problem. Still, if it hasn’t been updated since last month, you also have a problem. A website should serve as a hub for all of the information surrounding your company – events, new products, initiatives, community service projects – all the on-goings of your business should be there and up-to-date. As an extension of your brand, this dynamic content shows your constant progression and commitment to growth.

How valuable is your content? If the only material you have to offer is about you, you are missing the mark. As with social media, your website should be a resource – not an advertisement. Provide information about industry trends and news stories as well as your personal advice and experiences. This will encourage visitors to come back so your brand stays top-of-mind and establishes credibility.

Are you connected? As the central location for all of your brand’s resources and information, your website has to fit seamlessly with your social media campaign. Twitter streams, Facebook updates, Flikr feeds and other widgets that allow visitors to engage are essential to maintaining a web presence and providing a cohesive network for your current and potential customers. This framework magnifies your social media efforts by giving viewers one more opportunity to interact with you one-on-one, and those relationships make the greatest difference in your business.

And here’s the kicker: It’s really easy. Thanks to user-friendly content management systems and robust blog services (like WordPress), you don’t have to speak HTML or any other type of web language. If you can operate a computer, you can operate your site – and once you have that kind of control, there’s no excuse to not comply with our rules. Plus, there’s a good chance your ROI will finally move out of the red, and that makes everyone happy.

We have to admit, we’ve got some pretty big news. Our website is making its big debut tomorrow. We’d like to send a shout out to our partners in creativity, Culture Pilot (WE LOVE YOU!), for their commitment to providing an environment that complements the real-life experiences we strive to give our clients. We can’t wait to hear what you have to say!

We’re going live tomorrow, so join us at the party! Visit www.theblacksheepagency.com on Friday, September 3, as we make our inaugural clicks. 

IMPORTANT: The blog is permanently moving to the new site as of next week, so keep following us over there!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Changing the Landscape

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of life, especially if you are a business owner. Things get busy. Clients come first. You’ve got to prioritize, and suddenly things slip through the cracks and you find you’re neglecting your true passion and purpose – the real reason you started doing what you’re doing in the first place. The stuff that,  deep-down,  sets you apart and drives you to make a difference.

Heck, with all of our client projects and obligations, we know exactly how you feel.

But we’re inspired. We’ve seen the possibilities, and we’ve followed the stories of brilliant people in and outside of our industry. We’ve looked at art and pop culture, music and the city streets, and we’ve reached an important realization: Sometimes, to make an impact, you can’t focus on what exists. You have to change the landscape and make the world your own.

So, thanks to the AMAZING creative geniuses at Culture Pilot (our partners in creative crime), we have. Our new website, set to launch later this week, features an entirely new environment where fans, clients and friends can come together to learn more about how we’re changing the landscape in publicity and marketing. Flying sheep, drive-in movies, winding roads and tweeting flowers set the scene for big plans ahead and all the uncharted terrain the future holds.

In celebration of this much-anticipated addition to the Black Sheep brand, we’re encouraging you to consider YOUR landscape and what you can do to change it for the better. What you can do to take things to the next level. To make a difference. To push boundaries.

This week, leading up to the launch of our site, we’ll be sharing our greatest muses, playing our most motivating tunes and featuring tons of fun activities to get your feet moving.
Whether it’s in your business or just an area in your life that could use a little fixer-upper, do it. Change the landscape in your community, and follow us as we change ours.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Is your head in the crowds?

One of the most prevalent buzzwords in the Web 2.0 community is crowdsourcing, the portmanteau of “crowd” and “outsourcing” (seriously, what isn’t a portmanteau these days?), and simply put, it is the act of calling on the masses for help with a project, idea, design or direction. Really, crowdsourcing works for just about anything. While the concept isn’t new, with the rise in popularity of social media (one helluva crowd), its prevalence has soared, and consequently, controversy and speculation has ensued. 

So what are the benefits? Crowdsourcing allows people and businesses to access a gigantic pool of talent and intellect they would not ordinarily be able to reach. You’ve probably heard of “the wisdom of crowds,” the viewpoint that, in many situations, two heads are better than one. In this case, 2 million heads are better than whatever the size your company is. Those heads might have a unique perception, different resources or generally, just a larger collection of opinions. Crowds can serve as focus groups, freelance designers, business consultants and creative teams… and more often than not, with little or no cost associated.

And what’s even better is that anyone can take advantage of the opportunity. And they have. The New York Times recently covered a one-man operation called Trek Light Gear that has used crowdsourcing for product development, product testing, and market research. Peperami, like many forward-thinking brands, has crowdsourced TV commercials to the general public, saving huge amounts in advertising costs. Do you have a weak spot in your business model? Well if you’re on Twitter or other social media platforms, all you have to do is ask – if you have the right people in your network and the right attitude, you’ll probably succeed.

Peperami, in case you weren't familiar.

But there is a downside. Sometimes you DON’T have the right people in your network, and your questions won’t get answered – or worse – they’ll be wrong. Furthermore, if you become one of those people who get sucked into crowdsourcing, you might neglect your real social media relationships and find yourself constantly asking for more, without giving anything in return.

And we’ve all seen those people. Every other question on their Twitter stream is a question asking YOU to help THEM. They’ve become dependant on their followers to give them everything from directions to the nearest pet store to advice on their tax returns, and there’s no incentive to contribute to those sorts of pleas. If you need more players in your court, then give them a reason to participate. Efforts that will allow them to expand their portfolio, gain credibility or even win some kind of prize, turn the arrangement into less of a favor and more of a trade. And always remember, you too are part of the crowd, and it’s your responsibility to the community to contribute as well, not to mention a great way to strengthen relationships.

Basically, crowdsourcing is just one more way to capitalize on the phenomenon that is social media – as long as you keep a few manageable rules in mind. Have you used crowdsourcing in your business? Black Sheep has, and we love it. Share your experiences in the comments below. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

Your mama’s so phat, she’s bigger than Twitter.

By now, we hope you’ve taken the leap and started becoming active in social media. We also hope that you’ve caught on to the very simple jargon and stopped using phrases like “so-and-so Twittered” and “I was Twittering today, and so-and-so @-ed me.” Mom, for the last time, the verb is “tweet.”

But, because TWEETING is so much fun, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and lose sight of the purpose. We start challenging ourselves to get ONE MILLION followers and we get greedy, using Twitter and Facebook as a platform for quick advertising and mass messaging. Instead of asking yourself how much stuff you can sell, focus on how you can strengthen your relationships and bring your followers into your community.

Which takes a little more strategy. We’ve put together a few tips for how you can not only maximize the quantity of your network, but the quality.

1. Find the people who matter, and follow them. What are you trying to accomplish and who are you trying to reach? Most likely it’s not a cat in Arizona or a scantily clad woman. Search for keywords that relate to your industry or make sense for your customer base. Explore the site WeFollow to find leaders in your field and people in your city who are relevant.

2. Get rid of the people who don’t matter. Not every follower is a good follower. Unless they are providing valuable content, you don’t need to return the favor. And if they’re not following you, then you shouldn’t feel compelled to let them clutter your stream (although there are exceptions). Use the tool FriendorFollow to weed out the junk, and do so on a regular basis.

3. Have conversations. Have you ever been on a date where the other person would not stop talking about him or herself? It’s annoying, right? So don’t act that way on social media. Make sure you’re asking questions and answering them thoughtfully, and focus on two-way interaction. If you’re not doing that, you’re wasting your time and everyone else’s.

4. Cross-promote. If you have a large collection of quality friends of Facebook, use that network to find people on Twitter or to add to your fan page. Encourage those people to check out your blog and website. Provide intelligent comments on other blogs, and start LinkedIn groups. Offer every valuable contact in your giant network to explore your different platforms, and reward them for doing so by presenting unique content accordingly.

5. Track your results. Wondering if you’re doing a good job? It doesn’t have to be a mystery. Record your blog comments, site visits, blog subscribers, social media profile engagement and tweet replies. You can even use Klout or the controversial Twifficiency to receive a score based on the quality of your conversation. While these types of programs are a good measuring stick, keep in mind that the results are based on algorithms and stats that aren’t necessarily indicative of your actual influence on Twitter. Still, you should monitor these metrics consistently to make sure you’ve been staying on track and adjust as needed.

Keep these suggestions in mind as you grow and evolve your social media network. This phenomenon is a 24/7/365 machine that never quits, so it’s important that you don’t either. Successful users will constantly build, weed, refine and refocus to stay targeted and dominant. You don’t have to go crazy – just hold your online community to the same standards as those in your offline one and become the best “neighbor” you can be. Social media networks are dynamic, so you can’t become complacent in your efforts to grow or stagnant in your content.

And mom, feel free to stop forwarding me email chain letters and pictures of animals in costumes while you’re at it. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Movers and Fakers

We’ve all seen the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally. Meg Ryan proved that “faking it” only requires a well constructed performance and perhaps a sense of humor.

And now, thanks to advancing technology and social media savvy, mock PR – whether for the benefit or disgrace of a company – has reached new heights. The good, the bad and the ugly publicity stunts that have recently surfaced got the folks at Black Sheep thinking... How do these disingenuous pranksters change the landscape of public relations?

Example 1: AT&T Twitter Site
Apparently, someone had their call dropped for the last time. While the rest of us at the end of our proverbial ropes would have just redialed, or at the very most resigned to a life without the iPhone and changed providers, the person behind the @ ATT_Wireless_PR Twitter had had enough. He/she started an entire Twitter account dedicated to negatively impersonating the cellular company. Most tweets (while sometimes accurate) are dripping with snark and lacking in cleverness. Plus, it’s just a phone company – not quite a life and death matter warranting the effort and dedication.

Example 2: BP Twitter Site
Equally as snide as the AT&T site, but with a little bit more cause for concern. An activist under the moniker “Leroy Stick” has garnered tons of attention and sold more than $10,000 worth of “free” t-shirts that benefit the Gulf recovery. More than 190,000 followers must find some kind of value in the @BPglobalpr content, which is mostly funny, but also a little petulant.

Obviously, these are not professionally run sites, and they are in no way an example of quality social media. What they do represent is the challenge facing companies today in terms of risk. Whether your business is on social media or not, anyone has the opportunity to criticize your practices on very public forums. While insults can clearly damage reputations, true stories can completely destroy them, so be weary of the dark side of the online force. If your company is in a situation that lends itself to PR crises, prepare a solid strategy for overcoming and managing social media outrage.

Example 3: HeishmanFillard.com
Clearly satirizing PR giant Fleishman-Hillard and the rest of the corporate public relations arena, this website was created in the same vain as our buzzword blog post, and we have to admit, it’s pretty damn funny. Again, it’s not being used to promote or even necessarily demote any particular party, but it’s another good example of the lengths people will go to make a statement, so watch out.

Example 4: General Mills Press Release
As nasty as our previous examples have been, this one takes the cake. Currently under legal scrutiny, someone sent out on wire a false press release announcing the presidentially mandated investigation of General Mills supply chain. The release was picked up (and then dropped) by the Wall Street Journal and other big-name news sources, causing potentially devastating effects and confusing tons of people. The danger of this is not only the immediate consequence, but the diminishing trust of PR professionals and their communication. If journalists can’t rely on newswires, then that’s a big game changer.

Bottom Line: In spoofy PR, the coin flips both ways. Social media gives everyone a voice, allowing two-way PR to take the stage. And while anonymity can diminish credibility, a certain audience will take what they read online at face value.

But does this mean you should steer clear of social media and interactive PR tactics? Definitely not.

Companies that avoid social media because of these fears, concerned that some measure of power is going to be taken away if they get involved on social networks, lose in the long run. What they don’t realize is that this power has already shifted, and whether they participate or not, they’re still fair game – to anyone. Those who avoid the social media platforms give “citizen journalists” the last word and miss the opportunity to be heard.

Instead, companies should dive in – with a plan. Outsmart the potential opponent. Consider all crisis situations that may arise and possible negative backlash. Planning ahead for such scenarios, and having written strategy in place to address each situation gives your business the upper hand. Monitor your brand thoroughly and assign damage control responsibilities to qualified members of your PR team. In extreme cases, respond quickly and tactfully, doing your best to let the public know you’re on top of the issue while providing one-on-one attention in private. If you already have a presence and an established reputation in the social media world, you will be better positioned to not only address criticism, but to use the negative attention to your advantage.

Do you follow mock Twitter sites? Have you fallen victim to online retaliation? What do you include in your crisis control plan? Share your stories and ideas in the comments below!

Monday, August 2, 2010

African marketing: What are you Ghana do?

[Black Sheep Lindsay Bosslet spent some time this summer in Ghana. Here's what she learned.]

Before I left my comfortable Houston apartment to spend some time in a rural village in Ghana, Aimee urged me to think about an important message I could come back with - a truth or bit of advice to share with our readers and clients that we might overlook in the great U.S.of A.

What I've learned about marketing on the other side of the pond is that, overall, Ghana does nearly EVERYTHING wrong. PhotoShop jobs look worse than a romantic comedy movie poster, and copy is downright erroneous 90% of the time. We're talking apostrophes for plural nouns (instead of for possessives, as is actually correct). And taglines?

The worst.


Obviously milk does not get creamier. Gross.

It should also be noted that there is a total lack of irony. I once saw a guy wearing a "welcome to the gun show" t-shirt, and I'm pretty sure it was a legitimate invitation.

Yet, for all of this, there are a few lessons here that can be learned.

1. Even in a place where the majority of all marketing efforts are bad, it still pays to be good. As I mentioned earlier, the billboards are atrocious. However, I once saw a Nike ad - one that would have been on-par with one in America - and it was all the more brilliant. I looked and studied as long as I could before the taxi drove off. And the people do too - Nike is by far the leader in sportswear, and in a nation where sports are king, that's a pretty big deal.

For our clients at home, it's important to keep in mind that the same principle still applies. Just because your competitors are doing one thing, and just because you're not used to seeing clever progressive marketing, there's no excuse for following the crowd. In fact, it's a waste of time. If the standards are low, it's your time to shine. If they're not, well you need to keep up!

2. Innovation and top-of-mind awareness go a long way. In Ghana, the two most marketed companies are MTN and Vodafone (cell phone companies that specialize in pay-as-you-go plans, like Cricket back in the States). And, while they both their fair share of billboards, ads and commercials, those methods are not what make them so well known. These companies literally miss no opportunity to brand an empty space.

Nearly every shack - even in the most remote areas of the country - is painted and logoed by one of those companies. I guess people are happy to have a little extra cash even if it means their home is painted a ridiculously bright color? These are desperate times. The total effect is that no matter where you go, you are constantly reminded of these companies... whether you like it or not.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we start taking out ad space on each other's houses or painting our town with our brand (hmmm... Black Sheep city...). But, we should consider every opportunity for creating awareness and look to never-before-seen and unexpected places to execute our plan.

3. Time is on your side. First of all, the World Cup in Ghana was huge- basically the only topic of conversation through July 11, and even weeks later, the most played feature on television. And the advertisers took advantage - nearly every ad in the month of July contained some sort of tie-in with soccer. While for us, not even the Super Bowl is a big enough event to influence and permeate all advertising, we should always remember that a current, relevant ad is going to elicit a stronger emotional response than a more generic alternative. (Strangely enough, people here are generally running late by 1-2 hours. No joke.)

It's always interesting to study advertising and marketing across the world, across the country and even across the state. Every place has something to offer in terms of knowledge and ideas, and these experiences make us more thorough and creative marketers. (But when it comes to food? There's no better place than Houston! Chips and salsa, here I come!)

Have you been to a different country? What did you notice about their marketing? Let us know in the comments!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Buzzword Bonanza!

Every profession has jargon that is used as shorthand, and that’s great. Using jargon is necessary so a carpenter doesn’t have to say “that big metal doo-hickey” and so scientists don’t have to use long, boring explanations to explain what a uberthermodynamic enthropic reaction is (disclaimer: that’s not real). Buzzwords in business, however, seem to be around to confuse everyone.

We’re not very fond of buzzwords. Tiny Fey and Alec Baldwin of 30 Rock aren’t fans either. Buzzwords are overused in our line of work. Being the marketing and PR superstars that we are, we have a pretty decent idea of what they mean. We’ve waded through our share of acronyms and ridiculous “concepts” (Example: The Hedgehog Concept. It means “do what you are best at.” Really.) Naturally, we’re a bit jaded.

We recently saw an article about the most overused buzzwords in press releases. We realized nobody really knew what they actually mean. So we’ve created a layman’s dictionary of buzzwords you’ll encounter in business, PR and marketing. If this blog was a tabloid, we’d call this article “The Meanings THEY Don’t Want You to Know!!!”
  •  Innovation: New product or technology. Pretty simple idea, but when you think about how many times something is called “the most innovative thing ever,” it gets a little annoying. Artificial light was an innovation; that new flavor of Mountain Dew is not. 
    • Usage: “Announcing a new innovation in the way you drive to work!”
  • Real-Time: Just like it sounds. Instant feedback or answers. We’re in a real-time environment. Twitter is real-time feedback from the world. Morse-code on a telegraph was real-time feedback, too. Remember that. 
    • Usage: “Delivering real-time answers to all of your innovation needs!”
  • Dynamic: Quick-changing. Today’s industry and technology is a lot more dynamic than it used to be. 
    • Usage: “New, dynamic innovation that provides real-time answers to life’s problems!”
  • Groundbreaking: A really awesome innovation (see above). Changes the industry, sometimes the world. Not always great. (Right, hydrogen bomb?) 
    • Usage: “Controlling fire was a groundbreaking technology for cavemen.”
  • Best Practice: We’re pretty sure this means agreed-upon strategies that provide value in an industry. (Wikipedia confirms.) 
    • Usage: “A best practice in the fishing industry is to use bait.”
  • Cutting Edge: New, groundbreaking product or technology (see above). 
    • Usage: “Pre-slicing bread was cutting-edge slicing technology
    • See also: “Bleeding Edge,” meaning something was SO cutting-edge that it made you bleed.
  • Product Integration: AKA “Product Placement.” Paying for your product, logo or service to be in the media. Reese’s Pieces in the movie “ET” is considered the grandfather of product integration. 
    • Usage: “But sir, putting Marlboro in “Toy Story 3” sounds like poor product integration!
  • Seamless Integration: One thing and another thing go well together without any problems. Used most in mergers and acquisitions. I imagine this comes from the garment-making industry. 
    • Usage: “Marlboro is seamlessly integrated into “Toy Story 3” because one of the main characters is a cowboy!”
  • Think Outside the Box: Novel and creative thinking. Term coined by someone who probably never actually thought outside the box. 
    • Usage: “They must have really thought outside the box when they put cigarettes in a children’s movie, because now I really want a Marlboro!”
  • Synergy: Oh, synergy. Poor, poor synergy. Whipping boy of the buzzwords. The scapegoat. It’s a medical term adopted by business that basically means “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” It’s not always a great thing in medicine, but businesses LOVE synergy. 
    • Usage: “By combining our businesses (chocolate and peanut butter), we can achieve synergy by making an incredibly delicious snack! This peanut butter and chocolate candy is better than if you just added peanut butter and chocolate together!”- Whoever invented Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
  • Low-Hanging Fruit: Some sort of fruit-picking metaphor adopted for business. In reality, it just means to reach the easiest goal without much effort. If you were a lion, it would mean to eat the slowest and fattest antelope. 
    • Usage: “We can capture the low-hanging fruit of the fast-food industry by targeting fat kids who already like our cheeseburgers!”
  • Secret Sauce: This was new to us before the list came out. Apparently people use it. Presumably, it’s derived from the fast food industry and means “Thousand Island Dressing,” but in reality it just means “your strategy or product that gives you an advantage over everyone else, but your competitors can’t figure out what it is.” 
    • Usage: “We need more secret sauce! Put that mayonnaise out in the sun!” (Disclaimer: That quote is from The Simpsons) 
    • Business Usage: The secret sauce of McDonalds’ success is its consistency between each store; a Big Mac in New York is the exact same as a Big Mac in Tucson. And the secret sauce of McDonalds’ Big Mac is actually the secret sauce.
  • Paradigm Shift: This should mean “using your secret sauce and thinking outside the box with a groundbreaking, innovative, cutting-edge technology that provides synergy and allows you to capture the low-hanging fruit with more ease to get real-time, dynamic results.” However, it just means something new and different is happening that revolutionizes the way people see your industry, business or environment. 
    • Usage: “Social media has caused a paradigm shift in public relations.”
Captain Buzz
There are hundreds and hundreds more, but it’s your turn to find them. Really, there’s a time and place for everything. Even these buzzwords. We’re not condemning their usage, just their frequency. Writing with buzzwords is like going out for a night of drinking (maybe that’s why they’re called “buzz”words?). Think about it: if you have a few buzzwords or have a few drinks, you feel smarter and more confident. After a few more, you start to feel dizzy and unbalanced. After too many, you feel like vomiting, nobody understands what you’re saying and you wake up in the morning feeling terrible about yourself. Remember, the content you create and the strategy you come up with is more important than the words you use to describe it. Use these words in a way that provides actual value and understanding. Buzz responsibly.

What is your favorite (or least favorite) buzzword? If we get enough responses, we can have a sequel!

(all images via Creative Commons)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Think Responsibly

Back in the day, businesses were only concerned with one thing: profit. In recent years, these same businesses have realized both the benefit to their company and their community when they get involved. Sponsorships, food and donation drives and fun runs are all great examples of such opportunities, and we would never discourage taking that approach.

But, with the advent of the social media craze and the wide-spread acceptance and support of altruistic endeavors, helping out is suddenly one of the best ways to showcase your creativity and make a significant difference. Some really amazing concepts led by large and small organizations across the nation exemplify this new mentality, and while they’re all unique in their own right, they also share a common strategy which has made them so successful.

Chipotle wants your junk
Premise: As part of Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity” campaign, they are claiming there’s no junk in their food. They also believe there shouldn’t be junk in school food, and they’re asking customers to get rid of their junk as well… that is, junk mail. Participants can forward their junk mail to nojunk@chipotlejunk.com, and for every 100,000 emails received, they’ll donate $10,000 to The Lunch Box, a NPO with an aligned cause.
Consumer feel-good factor: Consumers get to help the cause in an active, non-monetary way (you’ll notice this is incredibly important in increasing participation). They can feel like they’re contributing to the greater good without busting their budget or taking a lot of time.
Consumer me-me factor: Clean email boxes make this cause a quadruple win for Chipotle, The Lunch Box, kids’ health AND the folks at home who want to increase the size of their “special parts” and get cheap drugs from China.
Easy factor: You can do this without thinking or getting out of your chair, and that means you might actually peel your eyes away from “work.”
New and exciting factor: We’ve never seen this clever concept, and we bet you haven’t either. Donating junk mail? It’s genius.

Pepsi Refresh Project
Premise: This on-going, monthly project allows participants to submit their ideas (they take 1,000/month) for making the world a better place, and then anyone can go to their website and vote. There are several categories – health, arts & culture, neighborhoods, etc. – and different grant sizes depending on the idea-givers’ resources. Winners receive grants ranging from $5K-$25K.
Consumer feel-good factor: Tons of people have ideas about the types of changes they want to make… if only they had the money. Now there’s a chance! And for the people who don’t want to take all that on, hey, just vote! Again, active participation in a non-monetary way.
Consumer me-me factor: Non-profits, schools, businesses and regular people have their names attached to the idea, and anyone that visits the website will see… aka free publicity on a pretty big platform. And of course, if they win, they get to start their own project!
Easy factor: Submitting an idea and voting takes seconds. Literally, seconds.
New and exciting factor: Each month the game changes, and every day new votes are counted. Plus, the concept is just pure good.

Shade of Hope
Premise: This one’s local. The dynamic duo of the Houston Furniture Bank and Blinds.com is hosting a community arts fair to raise money, awareness and support for The Furniture Bank, an organization that turns houses into homes for the less-fortunate.
Consumer feel-good factor: Being at the event shows your support for the community, The Furniture Bank and the local art scene.
Consumer me-me factor: Participants get to hang out, view amazing art and listen to live music. FOR FREE.
Easy factor: Show up. All you have to do is show up.
New and exciting factor: First of all, we didn’t even know furniture banks existed, so that’s super cool. Secondly, it’s an EVENT. Filling up our calendars with hip, artsy stuff is always exciting. And, if you check out their website you’ll see there are some pretty interesting activities happening that day (artists are painting shades!)

Naturally, Black Sheep is a big fan of these creative causes. Heck, we’ve even had some success with our own. Keep in mind the factors we mentioned (feel-good, me-me, easy and new and exciting), and you too could be on your way to generating a positive impact… and showing off your innovative excellence too!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Twitter, je t’aime

You know how you’re totally addicted to social media? And how we always say it’s essential to a marketing plan because of the connections you can make with your customers on an emotional level? Now, thanks to this really fascinating article in Fast Company it all makes sense.

This article discusses the correlation between levels of oxytocin (affectionately referred to as the “cuddle hormone”) in your bloodstream, its effects on your emotions and why, as a result we can’t get enough.

Allow us to nerd out for a minute. Oxytocin is responsible for love, trust and empathy, and for the longest time, scientists thought it was primarily responsible for the reason mothers bond immediately with their babies. Now, thanks to some hefty research involving voles (basically fancy rodents), we know that oxytocin affects little receptors in our brain that give us that warm, fuzzy feeling and long-term attachment… you know, love. Furthermore, we know that this feeling is totally addictive (yes, Robert Palmer was right). The parts of the brain affected by love and this hormone are not the same as other emotions like anger, jealousy or even friendship. In reality, your response to oxytocin is more like your response to COCAINE.
Kind of cute, aren't they?

So that’s fine and good, but what Dr. Zak from the Fast Company article has discovered (albeit he needs a little more statistical evidence), is that oxytocin can do more than just make us fall head over heels. After giving a group of college students oxytocin or a placebo and then asking them to watch various PSAs, those that received the hormone were nearly 50% more likely to donate to the charity. It stands to reason– with elevated levels we are more inclined to trust and empathize.

But here’s the kicker. In another test, a before and after blood test of someone conversing on Twitter for 10 minutes showed an elevation of oxytocin levels rise as much as 13%! This is comparable to a similar test of a couple on their wedding day. Again, we need more conclusive research, but IF this turns out to be commonplace, its implications could be huge, essentially suggesting that companies interacting with people on social media are not only connecting on a higher level, but connecting at the moment when trust and empathy are at their peak.

Earlier in June a New York Times article documented a family whose addiction to technology was indicative of a much larger trend in our society - the need to be tuned-in, available and communicating as much as possible, sometimes to the detriment of our mental state. To us, it seems like this can further be explained by Dr. Zak’s findings and the addictive nature of oxytocin and consequently social media. Who among us hasn’t been a little distracted at the onset of a new relationship? When love takes over, we do crazy things, and just think – social media might have the same degree of influence.

So to everyone who questions the quality of social media relationships and worries about the decline of communication and real conversation, take note. These platforms could be even more powerful than we think, and the opportunities for capitalizing on this huge forum are endless. And, props to the voles (switch the letters and it spells “loves”!) for taking one for the team… you know we can’t support animal testing, even if it is for the sake of marketing.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

OK Go: Not your run of the [tread]mill viral campaign.

If you’ve had access to the Internet in the past 4 years, you’ve probably heard of indie rock band OK Go. But you don’t have to love their music to have spent hours watching and sharing their videos on YouTube. In fact, some might say that their YouTube fame precedes their music, and more often than not these videos receive better critical acclaim than their albums.

Their first viral video launched in 1998 (so, yeah, really early) and their most famous, career launching video featuring choreographed dances on treadmills debuted in 2006 with the song “Here It Goes Again.” We’ve embedded the video just to “jog” your memory.

And now, their latest Rube Goldberg inspired video creation for “This Too Shall Pass” is following suit, garnering heavy attention (media and otherwise) as well as oodles of plays.

Based on their video success, you’d think they’d be one of top iTunes downloads and leading the charts. Wrong. Well they must make pretty good music, then, right? Not really. It’s certainly not as creative as the videos.

With plummeting record sales, especially from their latest album (about 20K), yet soaring video plays (more than 16 million for “This Too Shall Pass”), they are kind of a marketing enigma. In a recent interview with 944 Magazine, they divulged that their creative process starts with a video concept for which the song is written, and that their sale of funny hats brings in more revenue than their albums and concerts.

At first glance, they seem like they’re doing all of the right things – making watchable videos, capitalizing on cross-marketing merchandise and getting their music heard by people through really successful viral campaigns. But what about the sales?!? This made us totally freak out! From our perspective, everything is working but still not producing what seemed to be the primary goal… album sales.

The truth is, Ok Go is a new breed of band that doesn’t necessarily see their first artistic motivation as the music itself. Nor do they seem to care that they are financially dependent on secondary revenue. While many mediocre bands like them have come and gone because they haven’t had the musical panache to differentiate themselves, Ok Go is still out there making music. And, even if the video counterparts are stealing the show, they’re still being watched and allowing them to get attention and exposure.

The lesson we can learn here is that no amount of marketing is going to make people want and need your product. But really GOOD marketing can give a lackluster product a fighting chance and the opportunity to create a following. Imagine if Ok Go hadn’t made these videos and started campaigning? They’d probably still be at home playing in their garage and selling even fewer albums.

The Black Sheep verdict: They may have OK music, but their marketing is a definite “go.”

Here are some more of their latest little nuggets of genius:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Leaving Las Vegas (with tons marketing of ideas)

Las Vegas. To most people those two words conjure visions of sparkling lights, slot machines and that scene from The Hangover with the tiger, a baby and a chicken. You know, standard Vegas fare. But for Black Sheep, the City of Sin is more about fluorescently lit convention centers, swag and poorly constructed hip hop. No need to re-read… we said hip hop.

That’s right, it’s trade show time for our client, PFS Group, and we’ve spent the last few days living the good life and listening to the same 5 songs over and over again. In case you don’t know, the campaign for this healthcare accounts receivable outsourcing company is centered around a fictional character, Dr. Paid, a struggling rapper “discovered” by PFS Group with a knack for financial jargon and a passion for commercialized music.

Naturally, the bored-out-of-their-gourd people walking around staring at what might as well be third grade science fair projects find our departure from the expected exhibit more than welcoming. And the martini bar doesn’t hurt either.

The entire trade show experience always gets our brains working overtime, considering the next great step for the campaign and how we can help our other clients too. Las Vegas is an interesting place in terms of publicity and advertising, so we just try to soak it all in and let the creative juices (and Champagne) flow. Here’s what we learned:

1. Make it a Wynn-win situation. Now, night clubs aren’t necessarily the types of establishments we frequent, mostly because of the potential for awkward Situations. But, in Vegas it’s kind of unavoidable. Steve Wynn (of the major hotel) and Sean Christie, “nightlife impresario” (his words, not mine) established Surrender when the economy was turning south. His fist-pump haven counterparts cut costs, scaled back and withdrew from scene, but Surrender did quite the opposite. They forged ahead with their plans and promoted the hell out of their new brand.

And it worked! Their expensive bottle service and decadent atmosphere hasn’t deterred customers at all, and because they didn’t shy away, this club is now one of the most popular places on the Vegas strip. We’re not saying you should blow your budget or ignore the economy, but this is the perfect example of why marketing should be the last line item to cross off in tumultuous times.

2. Sweat the small stuff. People say everything in Texas is big, but that seems like a more appropriate statement for Vegas. We’ve stayed in the more famous hotels like Caesar’s Palace, the kind that have elaborate casinos and look like something out of a grown-up Disney Land. When we found out we were staying at Trump, we were kind of disappointed! Where’s the fun, right?

Wrong. It was amazing. And for non-gamblers like us, all of the little things made up for the lack of grandeur. We had free wifi, complimentary gym passes and full kitchens in our room. And that says something that us marketers should take to heart, don’t you think? Keeping the details in check and making sure a campaign or event, even if it’s not flashy or loud, has everything in place. And, if you’re going to make a statement, make one that’s also well thought out and smart – not cheesy and outdated.

3. You gotta gamble to win big. Like I said earlier, we’re not really gamblers… in the literal since any way. But, we had to try out a slot machine just to say we did. We popped in a quarter, pulled the lever and watched the pictures of cherries, dollar signs and pineapples (I don’t understand the fruit) spin around and around. Finally, it stopped. Two fruits and a dollar sign. Boo.

But what did we expect? A million dollars from a measly quarter? Well yes. But, rarely does that happen. And rarely, in marketing, does it work that way either. You have to take risks – sometimes big ones – to get attention. Just look at our PFS Campaign! We were nervous about even PITCHING the idea to our client and now we promote the most highly sought after rapper in the healthcare finance world. Not too shabby!

All in all, it was a pretty good trip. We’re glad Dr. Paid was such a success (he got asked to perform at a regional conference ON A REAL STAGE), and we’re ready to take our Vegas-sized ideas and get moving!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Warning: There has been a GAS leak! (And other TEDx Houston experiences)

Every once in a while, you just have to get up on a soap box and say something. This past Saturday outside the Houston’s first TEDx conference, we chose a University of Houston park bench instead.

Because of our love of learning and progress (not to mention our obsession with the event’s organizers, Culture Pilot), we decided to sponsor TEDx Houston. But, as usual, we didn’t feel like slapping our logo in a brochure really exemplified the Black Sheep mentality. So we staged a protest instead.

The theme of this TEDx was “Expanding Perceptions,” so we wanted to emphasize action, change and our opposition to “average” thinking. We created a fictional, tongue-in-cheek scenario – a GAS leak! GAS (General Apathy Syndrome) was spreading rapidly, and we needed to stop it! Protestors lined the sidewalk warning passersby and TEDx attendees of the imminent danger of succumbing to the terrible affliction and directing them to the nearest medic station. Our medics, dressed in scrubs and gas masks, passed out “antidotes,” stickers featuring a delta (thanks, high school thermodynamics) symbolizing change, and manifestos declaring our mission.

Photo via The Loop Scoop

And, as with all Black Sheep adventures, we learned a lot and confirmed many of our beliefs.

Photo via The Loop Scoop

1. Taking chances pays off. Our protest was mentioned in the first TED talk of the day and even folks in New Zealand are talking about it! Audience members, speakers and coordinators sported our antidote stickers throughout the eight-hour conference, and we received tons of rave reviews about how amazing and encouraging our protest was. We got lots of exposure, made hundreds of people smile and hopefully, we changed many perspectives. Press coverage, enthusiastic participation and a memorable event discussed all day among Houston’s biggest movers and shakers? Mission accomplished.

2. No matter how positive your message, there’s always someone who won’t get it. Keep in mind, our only goals were to inspire people to change for the better and to motivate progress. Who could argue with that? Negative reactions were definitely a minority, but these things come with the territory. Yet, despite those brief moments of let-down, we were able to keep an upbeat attitude. Like we always say, with every brilliant risk or novel idea, expect dissent. So, when you take a bold move, remember you can’t please everyone.

3. Your blood and sweat have to go into it. Cutting out cardboard with dull X-acto knives is bound to cause a scratch or two. Standing in the Houston sun for an hour and a half will undoubtedly cause extreme perspiration. But, putting your creative energy to the test and pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone provides the greatest reward. Nothing is more exhilarating than pulling off a great undertaking, seeing the results and witnessing the excitement on people’s faces as they experience something amazing.

4.Empathy makes all the difference. Most people loved what we were doing, but not every participant can be treated equally. They are, after all, people. For the more reticent folks, we had to do a little hand-holding and ease them into the situation. The gregarious crowd members obviously required EXTRA stimulation. Reading responses and gauging people’s comfort levels is the key to keeping them interested and engaged on a personal level. (And yes, this paragraph is riddled with unintentional innuendo.)

Photo via The Loop Scoop

Ups and downs are inevitable, but at Black Sheep, success isn’t. We were honored to be included in an event as outstanding as TEDx Houston, and we felt completely at home surrounded by the type of people who have a genuine desire to make a difference. So, in the spirit of that day, let’s all do more with less and challenge the status quo – that’s the real antidote for apathy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

4 Things PR Folks Can Learn From Music Festivals

Lollapalooza. Bonnaroo. Coachella. We’re smack dab in the heart of music festival season, and with the Free Press Summer Fest making its second year even better than the first, we Houstonians are excited about emerging as a city with a legit presence on the scene. FINALLY! And, after spending our weekends donning wristbands among the masses of music lovers and hipsters, the Black Sheep team realized we learned a few things too.

Which obviously means we can write our tickets off as educational expenses. And also networking. Uh huh.

Image via Paul Viscontini at The Loop Scoop

Be prepared and chill out. Music festivals are unpredictable, and we’re not just talking about the paint slides. Extreme heat and cold, torrential rain, wind and tons of mud are pretty par for the course, and if you show up expecting anything else, you’ll be disappointed. Do what you can – wear sunscreen and bring an umbrella, but when things turn south, roll with the punches. Dance in the storm, roll in the mud and wait for a rainbow.

PR is no different. Whether you’re hosting an event or speaking with a journalist, do your research and plan for any possible bump in the road. But, as any experienced PR pro knows, SOMETHING will go wrong. And when it rains, it pours.  Which is sort of the beauty of the industry… the challenge of the daily grind. It’s up to us to kick our shoes off and make the best of a bad situation, console our clients and quickly problem solve.

Keep an open mind. At any given music festival there are tons of bands, and even the most well versed music junkies don’t know all of them. Take the time to listen to the acts you’ve never heard of and do so with the expectation that they just might be good. You never know what gems will pop up next.

This is such an important attitude to have in marketing as well. Can you imagine if a company had said, “Twitter? That doesn’t sound like anything I would want to check out.” It’s like saying the same thing about Lady Gaga! Finding the next best thing could make a difference for your company’s strategy and put you at the forefront of your industry.

Share and compare. One of the most exciting things about music festivals are the stories that come from them. Tales of crowd surfing, paint sliding, crazy people and fantastic performances make for ample conversation that prevails for years to come.

Image via Paul Viscontini at The Loop Scoop

And this is the perfect example of an effective marketing strategy. An event or a performance marketing stunt, even a well written media pitch, can have lasting effects if you connect with your audience on an emotional level. It creates the need for pictures, video, Tweets and countless reenactments of the experience, a priceless method for creating top-of-mind awareness.

Stage presence. Both the headliners at Summer Fest, Girl Talk on Saturday and The Flaming Lips on Sunday, were phenomenal. The crowd was totally into it, jumping, dancing and completely committed to the set. And after seeing them, it’s not hard to figure out why. Sure, their music is great. Yeah, they’ve got a lot of fans. But more than anything, they INTERACT, inviting fans to the stage, walking in a giant bubble on top of the audience, showing provocative imagery and encouraging excitement and participation.

Your company should also be doing these things. Instead of passively throwing yourself on a billboard or buying ad space, PERFORM. Give your audience no other choice but to be captivated and invite them to experience your brand in an up-close and personal way. Convey excitement and offer surprises that keep them guessing and watching. And if it comes down to it, we highly recommend a toilet paper gun.

It’s amazing how everyday encounters can reiterate our marketing and public relations philosophy. Sometimes it’s in a funny t-shirt or a political debate. Other times we find brilliance in mundane places like the grocery store or in a parking lot. And a music festival? Well, when it comes to learning there, it’s totally INTENSE, man.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Psst! Your marketing strategy is showing...

We love getting comments on our blog. Our goal first and foremost is to start conversations and create ideas among people with different points of view, so thanks to all of you out there for participating! In fact, last week, we received a comment that inspired this post. Our commenter pointed out the importance of transparency in marketing.

We couldn’t agree more.

Disingenuous advertising is unavoidable, and it’s ruining things for the rest of us. How can we appreciate fashion magazines when models are Photoshopped to look like Bratz dolls? And is it really any better when “celebrities without make-up” grace the glossy pages? Not if their hair is in their face and they’re standing in the dark. I understand wanting to have flawless layouts and attractive people in magazines, but I want those skinny models to be real, dammit!

Of course, the chance that fashion ads will ever be honest is like the probability Lindsay Lohan will make her next court appearance. Not likely.

But for the rest of the advertising and PR world, our expectations are a little higher. We’re all tired of being lied to, cheated and scammed (looking at you, Mr. Madoff), and you’d think after the past couple of years of economic downturn, bailouts and Tiger Woods, companies would start realizing we’re not stupid. And that we have the Internet. If you’re not telling the truth, we’re probably gonna find out about it in .5 seconds because SOMEONE on Twitter is going to know what’s up. We want to know where our food is coming from, the minute details of our politicians’ pasts, and we analyze everything from Lost to Michelle Bombshell’s tattoos. There’s no hiding and no limit to our resources!

Which is why it’s important that we make the following point: No matter how progressive, unexpected or surprising your next campaign is, you can’t cheat the system. Being subversive won’t get you results – it will get you disrespect. A performance marketing act or protest where you pretend you’re something  you’re not will prove ineffective. People are okay with clever strategy that catches them off-guard, but they’re annoyed when they’re unabashedly tricked. Here are a few tips for avoiding backlash:

1. Never lie. Especially to the media. It’s one thing to not give away all the details and to have secrets, but you never want to attract media under false pretenses. They will hate you, and you don’t want to destroy those valuable relationships. And you don’t want your misstep to be tomorrow’s story.

2. Ask first. This one is really hard to do sometimes, but when you’re representing your own business, the “better to ask for forgiveness later” philosophy could get you into a lot of trouble. Make sure you’re not breaking laws or causing distress to the environment you’re working with.

3. If you don’t trust them, lose them. With things like performance marketing acts, you’ll probably be selecting tens to hundreds of people to help you pull it off. While you probably can’t run a criminal background check on everyone, make sure they come with some kind of reference. These guys are still representing your business, and you don’t want them being too goofy – or worse – too creepy.

4. Claim responsibility. If you are producing something on behalf of your company, just like your first grade teacher said, put your name [or logo] on it. You don’t have to detract from your awesome campaign, but you do need to explain, on further examination, where this crazy/funny/shocking collateral is coming from.

5. Be yourself. For instance, if you’re a major oil and gas company, don’t flat-out confuse people by hiring clowns to form a parade through downtown. That doesn’t make sense. But, setting up simple street corner demonstrations teaching people about your company’s advanced animal cleaning technology after an oil spill might be something worth considering. By doing this, you’re admitting a flaw and also showing accountability while interacting with people face to face. Remember, not every “performance” has to be an act.

The line between progressive, interesting marketing and blatant deception is usually pretty defined if you use common sense. Don’t hurt people or damage property, but don’t be afraid to challenge yourself either. Avoiding negative repercussions is just part of the game of creativity, and these rules will never hold you back from a truly amazing idea.