Cultivating an “Awareness of Now” in 2014

More so than any year before, 2013 truly unfolded moment by moment.

2013 was the year of newsjacking – clever marketers were seizing Twitter opportunities left and right, from the Oreo Super Bowl blackout to DiGiorno’s Sound of Music moment of livetweeting glory:


DiGiorno live tweets The Sound of Music

It was also the year of Snapchat, ephemeral pictures and videos that disappear after just a few seconds, Vine’s seven-second clips, and Instagram’s answer to both apps. Even though taking a picture might make you less likely to remember the event or photograph you’re witnessing, people, especially young people, spent most of this year pointing their smartphones in front of them and snapping away. But even beyond the question of medium, storytelling in the past year leaned heavily on the ever-increasing rate of change in our world. One of my favorite examples was IBM’s “World’s Smallest Movie” spot – in which IBM’s scientists manipulated their revolutionary storage technology to animate a story about a boy named Adam and his pet atom using tiny carbon molecules.

The spot works because it connects the idea of people to an impersonal-seeming and oblique technology, while simultaneously illustrating just how incredible and world-changing the research behind the product is. In other words, telling your organization’s story is no longer a question of simple intent, copy and placement. The timeliness factor has become the main factor. This year, cultivating an “awareness of now” became the best thing a marketer can do.

Plenty of tools exist to help you focus on the topics and conversations that are most important to your industry, your clients or your donors – and to find the people who are engaging in them. Twitter is, of course, the best tool for keeping tabs on an industry, but the still-kicking Google Alert, RSS feeds, mention and a well-populated list of bloggers are all good places to start.

Someone, somewhere is having the conversation you want to join. Whether by being topical and funny on Twitter or by providing your expertise to a journalist precisely when they need it for their next story, the best way to get your organization’s voice into that conversation is to be exactly on time. In 2014, an awareness of now will make sure that when the moment comes, you’ll be ready, and – if you’re savvy and timely – you’ll be able to make it your moment.

Messaging in the Age of Noise

Anyone likely to give to one nonprofit group probably also receives fifteen emails a week from organizations in the same wheelhouse. Especially when resources are tight, it can be hard to make yourself heard over the noise.

Between email lists, social subscriptions and the occasional direct mailing, people are increasingly hounded to help out their nonprofits. The Onion, a satire newspaper, lampooned the phenomenon last year in a video about a kidnapped nonprofit staffer whose many emails for help went unopened.

The 2013 eNonprofit Benchmarks Study reflects the same reality – email lists, Facebook likes and Twitter followers all grew over the past year, 15%, 46% and 264% respectively – but email engagement is down. Everyone’s shouting more, so it’s harder to be heard.

The problem boils down to being concise. Your subscribers want to pay attention – they did subscribe, after all – but the competition for a moment of their time is stiff, so you should use it well.

Take a look at these two telephone ads. The first is from 1922, touting the many functions of a Northern Electric telephone:

Telephone advertising of the past

The second is from 2012, advertising an iPhone 5’s myriad uses:

iPhone ad, 2012

These ads make the exact same claim, 90 years apart: “Our telephone does it all.” Where the first does it by listing the multitude of purposes to which the telephone can be put (including my favorite, “shelf”), the second gets right to the point. A smartphone has more potential uses than a Northern Electric telephone, but there’s no sense in listing them to an audience that’s likely familiar with them anyway.

A nonprofit’s audience is the same way. They know what the organization does, and they want to help, at least a little bit – but they only have a second to decide whether to trash the email or follow its call to action. Be brief.

Social Super Bowl vs. the $4 Million TV Spot

This past weekend, we all watched spellbound as Americans everywhere tuned in to the biggest perennial advertising event on television. In between bits of football, we collectively turned the volume back up to watch as brands from the tiny to the institutional threw millions of dollars down – a record $4 million per spot – for a chance to show TV’s largest single audience just how funny, relevant, clever and lovable they are.

When the dust cleared and the blog roundups finished commenting, though, what was left?

For that much money, you’d expect your audience to take away a pretty significant message. Increasingly, though, it seems Super Bowl ads focus on gags, special effects and flair without really trying to communicate.

One of the things a Z10 can't do

One of the things a Z10 can’t do

Although this year’s batch had the usual mix of funny, flat, fantastic and forgettable, there weren’t a lot of brands trying to tell us about themselves. Perhaps tellingly, one of my favorite ads this year was for the BlackBerry Z10 – a spot that focused on what it wasn’t saying.

In that light, AdWeek’s Six Questions video this week seemed especially relevant: they broke their usual format to ask, “Will the big Super Bowl spot ever die?

I think the most on-point comment in AdWeek’s video comes from Nissan’s Erich Marx, who points to social media spaces as the proving grounds for an ad. He’s implying that the strongest showing a Super Bowl ad can enjoy is to engage viewers offscreen and to capture their conversation online.

Erich is right because the best marketing is a guided conversation. To wit, two of the most successful pieces of advertising from this year’s Super Bowl weren’t even on television.

One, for the home carbonation device-maker SodaStream, managed to steal the show without even paying for airtime. In fact, that’s sort of the point – “If you love the bubbles, set them free,” says the ad, cheekily acknowledging the Coke/Pepsi blockade on soda as well as soda advertising, both on Super Bowl Sunday and in general. Commenting on not being allowed into the TV conversation created another one online: SodaStream netted 4.3 million views on YouTube so far.

The other most successful piece of the year also plugged itself into the social conversation instead of buying attention-time on the air. Oreo and ad agency 360i managed to steal the show by capitalizing on the unexpected power outage in the third quarter with their socially shared “You can

Oreo's fleet-footed ad

Oreo’s fleet-footed ad

still dunk in the dark” ad. The windfall? 16,000 retweets, 22,000 likes and 7,000 additional shares on Facebook – not to mention a well-shared Buzzfeed article and thousands of points on Reddit.

At about eight million dollars a minute, advertising should pack a pretty hefty punch. Certainly, there’s still an audience to be found glued to the set on game day, and plenty of people tune in just for the ads – but as with all marketing, the wisest path isn’t just to the viewer’s eyes and ears, it’s to their tongue (and social accounts) as well. Don’t just talk to your audience. Get them to talk.