Media Watchdogs, Brands & Community: Continuing the PR-Media Relations Conversation

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have received of a lot of feedback (mostly positive) on my previous entry in which I discussed the current state of affairs in the PR-Media Relations spectrum.

And the feedback I received in the form of conversations and personal messages came from both sides of the fence, PR pros and journalists alike that have both admitted the tides have changed. Not only that, but they changed a long time ago.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future of PR spurred on by various sources. The first of which was the following tweet:

And a recent conversation in which I was asked: What is the importance of media in the PR plan?

As well as the following: why are media relations important?

With these questions, I immediately thought of the previous blog I had written where I said…

While having the loyalty of journalists working for various publications is a nicety in regards to generating buzz about a product, they’re not needed.

That’s still something I believe. But a recent conversation with an experienced PR professional in the gaming industry offered a different perspective. It’s one that I only briefly touched upon:

The power didn’t escape the media it simply went home to where it belongs, with the brands themselves and the PR pros charged with deriving and communicating the messages.

Upon which I’ll use this space today to elaborate.

American journalism dates back, of course to the colonization of the country in the 1600s, the first newspaper being Publick Occurrences, which was published in Boston in 1690.

pocc1690

The evolution of newspapers, specifically, was as rocky as the evolution as the country itself as we worked to define their purpose, their freedom, and their technology to increase both coverage and reach.

At the turn of the 20th century, journalism had undergone probably its last major facelift when less fictional and sensationalistic content (aka “yellow journalism”) gave way to more in-depth, factual, and “sober” articles. All throughout the century, journalists were challenging the status quo, taking on government entities, asking hard questions while ensuring their protections and freedoms granted by the constitutional amendments remained intact.

From the Great Depression, to World War II to political corruption from the Nixon Administration, the job of the journalist was clear in that they were charged with uncovering and confronting the truth and giving that information to the public. Such a responsibility had a national benefit two-fold: first, to ensure accountability by a corporation or government entity for their operations and actions; and secondly, to moderate responsibility by those same entities by offering a public space for them to directly communicate to the general public in an objective manner.

So why is all this important?

Because in the latter portion of the century, as technology began its seemingly lightspeed evolution into the current century, we began experiencing things in life that affected the way we communicated with each other. Mid-century we got television and by the end, we were already surfing the net and texting each other on our Nokias (gawd, I miss that little phone).

It was also in this time period advertising and marketing changed, and so too did the realm of public relations. The idea that “coverage” in a newspaper, magazine, or even a spot on the evening news, became commonly shared throughout the profession. It was a key component in a communications strategy (for some, it still is, which is why we’re talking about this).

Again, this begs the question why?

Because back then, businesses sought out those whom they would consider the “influencers” of the time.

Back then, the influencers were journalists and critical reviewers attached to huge publications with large circulations both newspaper and magazine. Engaging them meant a large readership (and in the case of broadcast media, listeners and viewers) that would be exposed to information about products and services being offered by brands. And we’re not just talking about paid advertising, we’re talking about more organic coverage that resulted from expert media relations practice by PR pros and spoke of product development features, reviews, and launch articles.

The number of publications in which a product offering was reviewed and covered was monitored, often manually by clipping out articles, obtaining information about the number of readers for the publication pushing out that article, and finding a way to figure it into a metric that would gauge the success of the media blitz.

But that’s the history of it in a nutshell. Coming into the 21st century with the Internet becoming increasingly mainstream and accessible, the media had a new way of reaching a lot of people, which in turn gave businesses and brands even more reason to engage it to enjoy the benefits of their spheres of influence.

Basically, brands and journalists skipped hand-in-hand in slow motion down a hill of daisies while eating double scoop Ben & Jerry’s and giggling like schoolgirls in a Japanese anime while rainbow-haired unicorns galloped in the back with gentle a “whineeeee!” That is, until…

Social Media came crashing down like a rock god wearing a tee-shirt that said, “You looked better on MySpace.” With heavy metal playing in the background, they knocked the ice cream on the ground, shoved Brand Bob and Janet Journalist onto the ground, got in their face with rocker hands and a Gene Simmons-style tongue, mounted the unicorns and rode off into the sunset of what used to be the state of media affairs while exclaiming…

“Welcome to the 21st century noobs!”

But not before they snapped a selfie — of course.

Source: Bloomberg
Source: Bloomberg

Of course.

This leads us to today and where we are going in the future.

Social media created a new batch of influencers; regular joes with cameraphones, blogs, podcasts, small-scale video projects published worldwide, and now live streams of gameplays, interviews and general nonsensories (that’s word I just made up – use it).

I reiterate the point from my previous blog that stated that journalists now find themselves in the Hunger Games arena pitted against, well, just about everyone with a Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, WordPress, LinkedIn, or any other kind of social media channel (and there are much more than you know). A fight for space. A fight for time. A fight for relevancy. But there’s one thing PR professionals should know:

It’s THEIR fight.

Not yours. While they camp out in the bushes and eat snozzberries with shanks fashioned from broken tree branches, PR pros are now positioned to do what they were destined to do, create a narrative on behalf of a brand…

…AND SHARE IT DIRECTLY WITH THE PEOPLE THEY ARE TRYING TO REACH.

Who needs media to do that? Not brands, not anymore. The power of that marketing tool has returned to its rightful place. Journalists do not need to be schmoozed, bribed, have their dinners paid for or any of the things they were unjustly enjoying prior to the advent of social media.

Time and again, I witnessed these interactions between arrogant journalists and eager-to-please military types and for what? A positive outlook on an embedment? An above-the-fold article about a military operation?

Once upon a time, journalism stood for the discovery and sharing of truth. In this new fight for relevancy, perhaps it is time they returned to that basic principle. This way, it forces lazy PR professionals who see the media as a some giant wizard full of empty promises and either forces them out or to wise up to see the short guy behind the curtain.

The future is now. The future is people – community. The stories and narratives in mind must speak to that if PR pros are to navigate the new realm they’ll soon discover is actually a few years old. This is why I admire gaming companies like Blizzard and Riot, and other companies like Coca-Cola, Starbucks and Apple. Their approach to how they engage the community is to speak volumes in the way of relatable storytelling. These stories introduce me to products and ideas and connect them with people – the people who created the product or the people so affected by it they cannot imagine life without it ever again.

This is why I believe in brand journalism. It is an effective tool in this land dominated by technology, the Internet, and social media. Ironically enough, in the digital realm, it humanizes brands and makes them accessible to me as a consumer. I feel like I can contribute to development and the future of a company or product, even if I don’t directly work for said company. That will in turn contribute to a message and a story communicated to others who can then relate to both the brand and me as they make their own decisions.

This is the essence of community.

If one can create and maintain a community that rallies around a brand, they have created customers for life. Such power does come with certain responsibilities. Instead of individuals, a brand has groups of people for whom they will be held responsible should the brand fall short on promises, should products fail, or should hidden truths reveal themselves.

So then let us return to the question posed at the beginning of this piece…

Where do the media and media relations fall in a communications strategy that focuses on people and community using digital social channels that directly links customer and brand?

Imagine an airport. A place rife with people scurrying about their lives heading from destination to destination. Different airlines taking them to different places in the world. In this metaphor, the brands would be the airlines, the people would be the travelers and the media would be the TSA – ha! But think about it, their job is to:

  • ensure safety
  • ask questions
  • investigate possible threats and confront them
  • facilitate transparency in all who expect access to the terminals (you know, with actual technology that SEES RIGHT THROUGH YOU…all exposed, and interscopically naked)

Some are nice, some are rude as hell. But ultimately, they are accountable to the American public who depends on them to give them vital information and diffuse discovered threats. No one is immune to the TSA process, including airline and airport employees. Some might go through faster than others, but EVERYONE is subject to the process.

In business, I would liken media to that because who else would we depend on to be in your face when company shenanigans go down? You bet your ass that if I found out a brand I supported was taking my money and using the profits to fund a prostitution ring in South America I’d want Nancy Grace camping out on the exec’s front yard for months on end screaming:

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So journalists, editors, publishers, in corporate responsibility and accountability doth your power lie. Not in marketing.

And brands, you are your community. They are you. Embrace it. Communicate it. Respect it.

Further interesting reading:

  • Eric Alterman, “Out of Print: The Death and Life of the American Newspaper,” The New Yorker, 31 March 2008
  • Gerald Baldasty, The Commercialization of News in the Nineteenth Century (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), 20.
  • John Tebbel, The Compact History of the American Newspaper (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1969), 108.

A New Roast: Starbucks’ Post-recession Paradoxical Renewal Blend

Note: The following is an excerpt from a discussion I authored that proposes to introduce the concept of paradoxical thinking in a business environment. It’s a little deeper than my usual geeky forays, but I was actually quite proud of this so I wanted to publish it here for safe keeping. It was an interesting topic to research. Enjoy!

Introduction: Setting the Course

whatifItoldyou

Between 2007 and 2009 the U.S. experienced a series of banking failures that led to a prolonged recession considered to be the worst since the Great Depression. Collapse of the American housing market in 2006 and 2007 profoundly affected U.S. and global banking systems. Smith, Meeker, and Sharma (2011) attributed the recession to the many large financial institutions that were heavily invested in mortgages such that the “bursting of the housing bubble led to a steep deterioration in bank balance sheets” (par. 2). While economists have determined the official end of the crisis to be in June 2009, slow economic growth in the subsequent years coupled with high unemployment rates characterized the recovery “modest” at best (Smith, et al., 2011, par. 2).

Most companies felt the sting of the downward economy. One such company was Starbucks. In 2011, CEO Howard Schultz recounted the state of the company to FastCompany.com, which had named Starbucks among the most innovative companies. Schultz recounted Wall Street’s insistence that the company’s best days were behind it in 2009 and how it needed to improve from an economic perception that Starbucks coffee was an ideal thing for consumers to cut back on (Gertner, 2011). Ultimately what saved the company was a series of developmental choices in the realm of paradoxical thinking that reinvigorated the decades-old Seattle-based company.

The purpose of this discussion is to explore how deviation from traditional thinking into one paradoxical in nature allowed Starbucks to not only recover from the economic crisis, but also continue to expand, proving that paradoxical thinking can be learned and applied at any stage of development. First, I will define and explain both paradoxical thinking and cause and effect thinking in order to detail how the alternative paradoxical thinking model exemplifies a masterful approach to solving complicated managerial problems and why cause and effect thinking hinders such mastery. Once defined, it will be applied to Starbucks, a real world case that details how paradoxical thinking saved the company from a bleak future during a time when the economy was faltering. Following this real world example and using pop culture examples in Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back and Finding Nemo, it will be explained how one can learn paradoxical thinking, the challenges it poses and how these challenges can be overcome to become stronger thinkers able to approach complicated issues with confidence. This paper will conclude with the presentation of understanding that paradoxical thinking can improve not only organizations but empower thinkers to approach all facets of life with a new perspective to which they can exercise decision-making with confidence.

Starbucks’ Paradoxical Decisions

To explain Starbucks’ successes it is first necessary to understand what paradoxical thinking is and its effect on an organization’s internal and external practices. Chen (2011) describes a paradox as a statement or situation that contains two or more logically opposing elements, but that may actually be true. He further explains in a paradox, “contradictory and mutually exclusive elements are present and operate at the same time” using the example “less is more” to explain two opposing terms that are juxtaposed to create an “illogical statement” on the surface, but also reveal a wisdom beneath that less information can contain a more focused message than a “verbose” message with several ideas (Chen, 2011, pg. 19). This is in contrast to traditional schools of thought that comprise cause and effect thinking. To best illustrate cause and effect thinking, Dannenberg (2014) uses ice cream to explain a way of thought engrained in people since childhood, “we tell our children that eating ice cream too fast causes a brain freeze and we allow them to eat it at their own pace without correcting them,” essentially parlaying the notion that for every action (cause) there is an accompanying reaction (effect). While cause and effect thinking is useful in childhood development, and likely saves many hands from children learning to not put them on a hot burner, carrying such thought processes into adulthood presents an innovative challenge, especially within the rapidly-evolving business realm. Relying too heavily on cause and effect inhibits one’s ability to “think outside the box” (Dannenberg, 2014). It can inhibit explorative thought that evaluates possibilities with the approach that in one may reside a solution or all of them, at the same time. Cause and effect thinking models engrained since childhood leads people to resist change and attempt to apply simply solutions to complicated issues because of the mindset it instills that promotes such thinking as this is the way we have always done it.

Gertner (2011) profiles Starbucks’ plan of action at the end of the last decade. Schultz received mounting pressure to downsize the company as well being advised to also lower prices and cut health benefits to the employees. He insisted on doing neither of those things, while only closing a few underperforming stores. Instead, he invested in new ideas rather than cut back.

Among those new ideas was the launch of its popular light roast, trademarked Blonde in 2011. The blend itself was a contradiction to its premise that dark roasts are better than light (Gertner, 2011). The blend itself proposed an opportunity to satisfy the tastes of Starbucks’ staunchest coffee drinkers while also meeting a market demand that found forty percent of U.S. coffee drinkers preferred lighter and milder roasts. Different blends, eighty different roasting progressions and 18 months of development culminated in the final Blonde roast formula that hit stores and boosted revenue as seen in figure (1).

starbucks revenue
Figure 1 (Starbucks, 2013)

 

Other examples of paradoxical thinking include Starbucks’ approach to store design. While most chain stores attempt to build in various locations while adhering to notions of uniformity where a visit in one location will mirror a visit in another (Cracker Barrel restaurant and retail stores come to mind), Starbucks designs its vast number of shops to complement the neighborhoods in which they reside – trying to be global and local at the same time (Gertner, 2011). The coffee it sells might be global, but the art displayed to the cups on sale and the tables and chairs upon which purchases are enjoyed speak to the locality of the shop.

Gertner reported that Schultz saw the events of the recession as a case study in what it means for organizations to focus growth as a strategy rather than a tactic. By stepping beyond the traditional cause and effect line of thought that would have seen the release of a new flavor of Frappuccino, something Schultz saw as laziness rather than innovation, Starbucks looked beyond laurels to reinvigorate the brand with an entirely new way of roasting a coffee bean thus introducing a new blend. Line extension like that of a new Frappuccino flavor involves little in the way risk taking, which was a problem with the “old” Starbucks (Gertner, 2011).

The Learning of Paradoxical Thinking

Starbucks is a decades-old company that had grown into its processes. Rapid growth allowed it to expand globally, but the recession forced it into a precarious position of having to rethink how it not only did business, but its philosophies on deriving and executing ideas. Such reframing is not an easy task especially when one considers a rapidly evolving technological, political, and socioeconomic landscape. Lewis (2000) forewarned that increasing technological change, global competition, and workforce diversity would intensify paradox within an organization so much so that it often lead to a “vicious” dynamic. Paradoxical thinking can be learned, but in order to be successful, both individual and groups need to overcome six defensive obstacles Lewis identified that obstruct progress. Splitting entails further polarization of contradictions, i.e. if Starbucks had developed its lighter Blonde roast on the notion that it would never compete with darker roasts because and creating a blend that would ultimately fail. Projection signifies a transfer of feelings onto a scapegoat, i.e. if Starbucks had blamed the consumers for their economic issues rather than their lack of innovation at the time. Repression entails the blocking of tumultuous experiences while regression involves resorting to notions that offered security in previous situations, i.e. Schultz’s example of simply expanding the Frappuccino line by offering a new flavor simply because it was a tactic Starbucks used in the past that was successful. Reaction formation prompts a person to form a supportive feeling toward a notion opposite to the most threatening. Lastly, ambivalence requires one to compromise emotions for both sides, which results in the loss of vitality of the two extremes.

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Image 2 (N.A., 2014)

While these defenses may seem like difficult obstacles to overcome, the benefits of moving beyond them to incorporate a paradoxical thought process outweigh these challenges because of paradoxical thinking’s power to “generate creative insight and change” (Lewis, 2000). Westenholz (1993) also cautions, however, it is important to note that once paradoxical thinking is in place, it is vital it be maintained because if not, people can relapse to earlier thought processes, or, into their old frames of reference. To further explain this process, let us refer to the wisdom of Master Jedi Yoda in Image (2). In the movie Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the hero, Luke Skywalker, begins his transformation from that of a defiant farm boy from Tattoine, to a Jedi hero. But the journey, as Yoda warns, is not easy. Yoda subjects Luke to a series of exercises both mental and physical exercises aimed at tearing down the walls of learning to expand Luke’s thoughts on the powers of the force. The force, one could say, is a paradoxical thinking. It is all-present, fluid and powerful. But to wield such power, one must unlearn the previous methods of learning, such as the cause and effect way of thinking people are taught as kids. One cannot expect to go to the gym to bench press 250lbs from the start. One has to build muscle to gain strength. To gain muscle, one has to tear down the existing tissue through simpler exercises to make room for the additional tissue that will strengthen and lead to the ability to bench press that 250lbs. But the benefit of the added muscle is added strength and confidence. So too will is the realm of possibility that opens up when one embraces paradoxical thinking. Paradoxical thinking requires one to not accept what is routine and to have a skeptical mind when engaging in it (Ravi, 2005).

Paradoxical Thinking and Intelligence

If we further explore both the Jedi and bench pressing analogies and apply them to paradoxical thinking, it is easy to see why it is such a difficult concept for most to grasp. It requires work, hard work, such that if the tendency is to take the path of least resistance, then it is understandable why cause and effect thinking takes precedence to that of paradoxical thinking. But the easiest path is not always the wisest and in fact can be deceptive. Observe in Image (3):

findingnemo1
Image 3 (Disney, 2003)

 

In Disney’s Finding Nemo, there comes a point at which the two protagonists, Marlin and Dory, must make a choice between two paths: the dark and mysterious, scary looking trench; or, the seemingly peaceful calm of the waters above. Ultimately, Merlin decides on the path above because all he can see is the surface of each choice, and fails to look beneath the surface to discover that there is a realm of possibility that cannot be explored with the cause and effect thinking that hinders such exploration, which, ironically enough is the theme of the entire movie. Marlin is on a journey to rescue his son, Nemo, whom he has raised in a shell, or a sea anemone as it were, because of the traumatic opening of the film where Nemo’s mother dies. Marlin states that he promised to not let anything happen to Nemo, to which Dory in her absentmindedness brilliantly – and paradoxically – declares, “That’s a funny thing to promise. You can’t never let anything happen to him, then nothing will ever happen to him” (Finding Nemo, 1:10:54) which she states while they are in a whale’s mouth and she’s trying to convince Marlin to let go in order to escape. It would seem that because Marlin who possesses the attributes of thoughts most people would identify with is challenged by Dory’s thinking. Dory’s quirk is that she cannot retain memory and so it seems that she has not constructed the walls that inhibit paradoxical thinking in the way it does with Marlin and is able to use such thinking freely. To Dory, it is not this way or that or either/or it could very well be both which is why Ravi (2005) describes paradoxical thinking as one of eight signs of intelligence. The others include memory, logic, judgment, perception, intuition, reason, and imagination. He notes paradoxical thinking as the least used skill because it “involves the ability to reverse, manipulate, combine, synthesize opposites” (pg. 2). It is a skill that needs the most conscious effort to strengthen, which often deters people from entertaining it. Dory, in my example, is a master of it because she’s done it since she was born and so the process of breaking down previous notions of cause and effect thinking is not necessary for her as it would be for the rest of us. Westenholz (2011) describes this dilemma as a “deframing” but explains that this is a good thing because it makes one open to possibility and bridges the gap between old prejudices and new opportunities.

In the business world, six managerial competency sets assist to bridge that gap and stimulate organizational change, a process that Clarke (1998) notes starts with the individual. Those competencies are managerial knowledge; influencing skills which include communication, assertiveness, influencing, and developing others; cognitive skills, which involves setting short term goals while still thinking and seeing long-term, bigger picture goals; self-knowledge; emotional resilience; and personal drive. Additionally, managing paradox can lead to further positive development of which there are three methods, acceptance, confrontation, and transcendence (Lewis, 2000). Put together, development of this level of intelligence along with core competencies can improve “reflective” decision-making (Clarke, 1998). Starbucks exemplified this by “thinking outside the box,” as the adage goes, when it chose to forgo downsizing in favor of increased input into research and development which led to the development and launch of new blends and even corporate social responsibility initiatives like its Jobs for U.S.A. program.

The Final Brew…

Paradoxical thinking is the essence of innovation. It allows one to ignore opposing forces as separate elements and enables thinking that accepts both as one. If Starbucks had accepted the premise that dark roasts are better than light, it would have never pushed itself to think beyond those lines of separation and develop a blend that meets the high standards of coffee aficionados while still being a light blend that caters to tastes of the noted forty percent of American coffee drinkers.

Paradoxical thinking is accepting skepticism as a strength, as Ravi notes, and learning to be open. It is accepting even the most seemingly absurd ideas and incorporating them into logical thought processes and making it work. But one cannot forget, paradoxical thinking requires vigilance to maintain because it can easily resort to previous, more elementary ways of thinking (Westenholz, 1993). It is like muscle in that regard. One has to tear down the walls of what currently exists to make room for new foundations and continuing to nurture it because it will make one stronger and more confident in their thought processes and ultimately, his or her decisions. While cause and effect thinking prevents mastery by forcing one to choose one or the other, Paradoxical thinking leads to mastery because of its requirement for thinkers, managers and leaders specifically with regard to the business realm, to consider that the answer between two opposing extremes could very well be both. If managers approach complicated issues with the notion that they will not want anything to happen to the business, then as Dory states, nothing will ever happen and progress and innovation will never present themselves resulting in a failing business.

References

Chen, D. (2011). Creative paradoxical thinking and its implications for teaching and learning motor skills. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(9), 19-23, 49-50. Retrieved from http://ezproxy.nu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/903536100?accountid=25320

Clarke, M. (1998). Can specialists be general managers? developing paradoxical thinking in middle managers. The Journal of Management Development, 17(3), 191-206. Retrieved December 15, 2014, from http://ezproxy.nu.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/216313585?accountid=25320

Dannenberg, M. (2014) MGT 605. Paradoxical Thinking versus Cause and Effect Thinking. doc.sharing

Finding Nemo [Motion picture]. (2003). USA: Buena Vista Pictures.

Gertner, J. (2012, February 7). Most Innovative Companies 2012: 24_Starbucks. Retrieved December 14, 2014, from http://www.fastcompany.com/3017375/most-innovative-companies-2012/24starbucks

Lewis, M. W. (2000). Exploring paradox: toward a more comprehensive guide. Academy of Management Review. 25(4). 760-776. doi: 10.5465/AMR.2000.3707712

Ravi, K. (2005, June 05). Paradoxical thinking. NA. Retrieved December 15, 2015, from http://krravi.com/PARADOXICALTHINKING.pdf

Smith, R. C., Meeker, M., & Sharma, P. (2011) 2007-09 Financial Crisis. Slaying the Dragon of Debt: Fiscal Politics & Policy from the 1970s to the Present. Retrieved December 15, 2014 from http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/ROHO/projects/debt/financialcrisis.html

Westenholz, A. (1993). Paradoxical thinking and change in the frames of reference. Organization Studies, 14(1), 37+. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA14175517&v=2.1&u=nu_main&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=d5e9f9e9c9165c31f30263a93abf20f4

In Memoriam: Leonard Nimoy, 1931-2015

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Not much to say save for the fact the geek world lost an icon today. Leonard Nimoy seemed to live a life similar to the iconic character he played, stressing patience and logic over rushed emotion. But this time, I’m going to embrace the emotion.

The anniversary of my dad’s death is early next week. He died March 4, 2012 and was a big trekkie. Spock, as he was for many others, was his favorite.

These words have even more weight and meaning because in their simplicity they wish well anyone hear hears them:

Live long, and prosper.

LLAP

The Reality of PR & Media Relations; or, addressing the awkward elephant in the room

elephant-in-the-room

So I recently took it upon myself to develop a communications strategy for a company, which shall remain nameless. The project was fully volunteered, but at the same time most illuminating. It really shed some light on the struggle Public Relations professionals are dealing with currently in the media landscape. Some harsh facts and things that are only whispered in closed circles, but you know what…screw it. It’s time things changed and realities were laid on the table.

Are you ready children? Let us begin:

Most content marketing bypasses traditional media entirely, and as such it threatens to further erode journalism’s dwindling advertising revenue…one day soon native advertising may be recalled as a quaint evolutionary step, as brands are increasingly comfortable simply reaching an audience themselves.

-Michael Meyer, Columbia Journalism Review, 2014

Keep that quote in mind as I paint a picture for you:

A few years ago, say last decade or so, a person had a new product offering and wanted to push it out. After the seemingly endless focus tests, beta testing, feedback sessions, A/B testing, and initial announcements of availability, it was truly time to move beyond the advertising and marketing plan to push it out to the general public. The largest step of course would be to engage the media. Editors, journalists, and reviewers of major print and digital publications would be tapped to gain coverage of a product in the media spectrum. A decade ago, the simple act of garnering media coverage was the CORE of marketing efforts because it spread the word about a product to a publication’s respective and large built-in readerships.

Fast-forward to today, and one can see the traditional engine is no longer the case.

I’ll say that again:

THE TRADITIONAL ENGINE IS NO LONGER THE CASE.

Sorry media, but you don’t have the power anymore. I don’t mean that to sound arrogant or rude, it’s a reality. As a former military journalist, it’s hard to see those who I would consider peers suffer in such a manner, but if you refuse to acknowledge the landscape upon which you tread, you risk falling over a cliff.

regulareditor

Ok, jokes aside, I’m really not trying to be a jerk or shoot myself in the foot. There’s a place for us all but we all have to at least ACKNOWLEDGE the reality if we’re going to WORK TOGETHER to navigate it.

Content marketing has empowered brands to take control of their marketing efforts instead of relying on the whims and egos of journalists and reviewers. Smarter journalists recognized this trend as it was happening and have adjusted – some have even left their publications to work for the very brands that used to pitch story ideas to them in order to create content on behalf of those brands. This resurgence of what is known as “brand journalism” made its comeback because of, mainly, social media. More than ever, brands have direct access to their customers. While having the loyalty of journalists working for various publications is a nicety in regards to generating buzz about a product, they’re not needed.

Reiteration number two:

While having the loyalty of journalists working for various publications is a nicety in regards to generating buzz about a product, they’re not needed.

PR specialists can certainly take time pitching content to them about title or product offerings in particular, but measurable success will come more from internal efforts than that of the traditional PR push to media so the recommendation would be to move media engagement to RTQ (respond to query); engage as necessary, but focus efforts in other online communications channels.

And here’s the reality the smarter PR pros have recognized:

You have to do more work. No getting around it, but content marketing, while empowering, also entails more work in the realm of, you guessed it, networking and socializing – two skills that should already exist in the PR skill set. Actually, let me backtrack, it’s not so much more work, just neutralizing what USED to be the norm and refocusing it to where it should be now.

The problem as it currently stands is that PR professionals simply do not realize how much marketing has changed because of social media and the Internet. Still believed is the notion that the media controls what people see, influences how they think and feel about products, and ultimately influences their decisions. That is just not true anymore.

So obviously if the media is no longer in control, it begs the question: who is?

Simple:

The PEOPLE.

This is why companies with active community development teams garnered more success than any other as evidenced by the financial picture painted in the following EEDAR graph that shows the enormity of success the gaming industry had during the 2009-2012 economic recession.

EEDAR_Game Sales Since 1996

On a community team, media is a NOT involved. People connected to the brand are placed in the center of a group of people and engage them front and center, BOTH online and in person. For independent developers, this bodes especially well when the community team is comprised of the very people who made the product (because, well, they can’t afford to hire community team members).

As one can see, the answer for the PR dilemma of how one can generate positive buzz has been right in front of him or her, hiding in plain sight for years.

Think about it…for a properly involved community team (which could be comprised of ANYONE involved with a brand charged with engaging people), what are the tools they are using to do that now? Social media! And what is social media if not a way to take control of your own communications and do your own talking but more importantly…do your own LISTENING from the community.

The question is, PR pros, why, if it is so hard to get media’s attention, are you still engaging them? There are truckloads of online streamers, gamers, and influencers, who are all content starved that WANT you to engage them?

This has been the elephant in the room for the last few years when journalists came to the realization that they were fighting for relevancy.

The fight for relevancy in the online realm and sometimes the physical one began when:

  • Any person with a camera phone could land the front page of a paper or be published above the fold on a news website
  • Any person with a webcam could make their own review show about video games
  • Any person with a blog and an itch to write could speak their opinion and influence people
  • Any person screaming horribly while playing a horror-themed video game could amass a following that rivals a news aggregate and have the same sphere of influence

Now I’m not going to say everyone in journalism has chosen to remain ignorant, some go out of their way to try and hire the top homegrown online talent to manage their online content, particularly in the video realm because they recognized the power of social media. But the entities that have incorporated this thinking are few and far between so essentially it’s up to the brands themselves to do the work, which is where that power should have resided all along.

The power didn’t escape the media it simply went home to where it belongs, with the brands themselves and the PR pros charged with deriving and communicating the messages.

But I do communicate on social media, where is the engagement?

A viable question for PR to ask.

So I have a few questions myself when I get asked that question:

  • What content are you actually sharing online?
  • Are you budgeting for sponsored ads? If so, are you optimizing your posts with those paid/sponsored posts?
  • Are you contributing blog content to major bloggers who would love to have such content?
  • Are you blogging on your own web properties and sharing it?
  • Are you communicating on the right channels? – More on this one in a sec…
  • Are you responding to people who DO engage you?

The point is there are a number of ways to generate buzz about an offering and no two products are alike, as such, no to methods are alike.

But one thing is for sure, to understand the social media landscape, you have to pay attention to the companies who release studies and statistics about where people are active if you’re going to use it successfully in your strategy and bypass the initial traditional media push.

For example the following few facts come from GlobalWebIndex Social as published by TechCrunch:

Source: GlobalWebIndex Social
Source: GlobalWebIndex Social via TechCrunch
  • Teenagers all have Facebook, but ignore it almost completely. They prefer channels with consumable video content, and messaging services that emphasize anonymity like YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram, etc.…
  • Women all have Facebook, but prefer scrapbooking and imaging channels like Pinterest and Instagram, two channels that have seen PHENOMENAL growth but are largely ignored by brands, especially in the video game industry

Hard to believe that anything in the digital realm is “traditional,” but the traditional trifecta of Facebook-Twitter-YouTube is no longer valid. Each product has a different formula and you need to know to whom you are targeting and where they are talking to each other.

On almost every social channel there are people who have taken advantage of the medium and have become well known. Knowing who these people are will make it easier to engage them and pitch content to the THEM rather than media.

Just knowing these things will maximize reach and empower content marketing derived by the brand itself to ignore media completely.

In case one hasn’t noticed, I’m not just talking about the video game industry. I speak openly about businesses in general. Before the Internet, it was on television, radio and in newspapers where others influenced people. As the Internet became more mainstream, that remained the case, just that MORE people could be influenced at any one time.

But all that died once the social media variable entered the equation. The way it is, it’s the people taking control of how they share and receive news, opinions and ideas. Some have risen to what could be considered “fame” by doing as such, but for the most part, traditional, credible media entities are being left behind.

Here are two examples of what it means to be left behind and what it means to get ahead when you embrace the power of online content marketing:

  • Chicago-Sun Times – the home of the late great film critic, Roger Ebert – a man who won a PULITZER for critical review – is laying off more people (technically trying to buy out contracts first) and looks as though it might solely go online. This is one of MANY print publications that have been slow to the draw in online content and as such, is forced to change a business strategy that retains those who managed to jump on board with online content long ago
  • CNN, in an effort to no longer be outscooped by an average Joe with a smartphone, created iReport in which it could encourage frontline participants of an event to share the story almost immediately and CNN would own the content and spread it to its other online properties. This harkens to my earlier point of smarter entities recognizing the power of online social sharing and incorporating it into their communications strategies.

TL;DR

The Internet and social media have changed how we communicate with each other. So much so that traditional media outlets are struggling to stay ahead and some have outright fallen behind or disappeared. If AOL’s closure of its gaming publications was proof of anything it’s that people want more community based publications (as evidence by the massively successful Patreon drive for Blizzard Watch, an enthusiast site raised from the ashes of the AOL-owned and closed down WoW Insider). Take control of the content, seek out the influencers, engage media (as necessary, but not largely or solely) and dive into the community. The tools are there…use them.

Further interesting reading

Journalism’s perspective on content marketing (quoted earlier): “Should journalism worry about content marketing?” by Michael Meyer from Columbia Journalism Review.

The power of corporate blogging: “10 Stats On The Awesome Power Of Corporate Blogging” by Katrina Pfannkuch from The Content Marketeer.

Massive amount of gaming industry data: “Awesome Video Game Data 2014” by Geoffrey Zatkin from EEDAR.

 

In Memoriam: Joystiq, Massively & WoW Insider…You’ve given me more than you know…

wowi_closing

The recent shocking, but not surprising announcement of  AOL shutting down online gaming publications Massively, Joystiq and WoW Insider stopped me today. Like, literally stopped me.

I think it was quite obvious from the blow and the hand-over-mouth pause that a mental spiral had taken flight and came crashing down on a big fat “Why?” that forced me, while in my place of work, to just stop.

I think as a gamer I’ve often taken for granted those that make it their life to report, comment, criticize and more importantly CREATE content about that which I have chosen to pursue as a career.

So before I comment on the situation, I wish to be reflective and retrospective. For that I’ll *clears throat* put on my best Sophia Petrillo voice. Picture it:

May 2008.

A bored Sailor who was months from a pending 7-month deployment to Afghanistan was sitting in a bookstore in Meridian, Mississippi chatting with one of his friends who worked in the café side of the store. After weeks of convincing, the bookstore employee friend had managed to convince the Sailor to get into the latest craze in online gaming, World of Warcraft.

So the Sailor bought the battle chest that consisted of the original game and its first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and spent an entire evening installing patch after patch until low and behold he was ready to discover the world of Azeroth and the mysterious realm of the Outlands.

Yes, that Sailor was myself. Wide-eyed at the expansiveness of the game. Anxious at leveling my character (bounced between Paladin and Druid before deciding to see the Druid to the then level 70 cap).

The beginning months were rough. Completely clueless and utterly nooby. Quite frankly if I had not bumped into one of the very people who I still consider a friend, I probably would have given up on the game. But that friend was awesome. She pointed me in the direction of useful resources that helped me understand the mechanics of gameplay a lot better than, sadly, what Blizzard had to offer for its own game.

Two websites became my best friend: Curse’s MMO Champion, and AOL’s WoW Insider. They were later joined by WoW Insider’s sister site, Massively, as my interest in MMO gaming in particular became that benchmark with which I defined my gaming interest and persona.

For as one can see, as long as I’ve been an MMO gamer, I’ve had both Curse and WoW Insider in my life and it goes without saying that AOL’s decision to close down its host of blog enthusiast sites that include WoW Insider, Massively, and of course, Joystiq, was met with utter sadness.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan, access to World of Warcraft was expectedly limited (logging in during very late night, early morning off peak hours) and so to fill in the time in between log-in sessions, I spent my time reading up on the game and conversing quite frequently on sites like MMO Champion and WoW Insider, equally. With WoW Insider though, it continuously pointed me to fun, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable people that helped me be a better WoW gamer:

  • A profile post on WoWI referred me to Lissanna, an expert Druid player starting up her own blog from whom I gained much knowledge during the five or so year stretch I played my Restoration Druid as my spec/class of choice.
  • The movie watch column pointed me to hours upon hours of creative machinima edited by some wickedly talented artists, some of who were featured and ultimately landed jobs at Blizzard in its cinematics department. Not to mention some of my favorite WoW-parody singles and their videos (like Achievement Whore, and Ninja Raiders).
  • A former shadow priest columnist who I probably had a crush on for the better part of five years who showed me a completely different world of WoW gaming when I had finally leveled my first alternate toon with whom I became quite proficient and enjoyed as a pvp character.
  • And the mistress of lore who time and again, presented well-researched, equally informative and entertaining articles that explored my favorite part of WoW, the story. Lest I forget her most intriguing Tin Foil Hat editions that made speculating about the direction of the story almost as engaging as a high-impact sport.

When my interest expanded beyond WoW, and I decided to try out other MMOs, like Rift, Star Wars the Old Republic, Aion, and Final Fantasy, Massively became my go-to source that compounded all my interests into a single publication. Massively writers were dedicated to sharing their passions for the games, and not simply writing to enrage or bait-click readers for traffic as I’ve seen a few current publications do time and again.

In essence as the years went by and I still continued to turn to sites like WoWI and Massively (and a few other additions along the way), I found myself desiring more and more to become one of those that I considered to be elite. Even if it was just myself and a few others that saw them that way. I started blogging on my own and found a passion about communications within the gaming industry.

See, for years I struggled as a Navy communicator (on the photojournalism side and the Public Affairs planning side) to discover what I wanted to do with my life. And one day I discovered what it was.

In 2009, I was sitting at my desk in Bahrain. It was my second Middle East deployment that followed the several months I spent in Afghanistan as a traveling military photojournalist, only this time my assignment was 14 months. I was nearing the end of my day when I decided to kill the remaining free time I had with perusing my usual batch of gaming news sites that included MMO Champion and WoWI. And I noticed WoWI’s recent post…

…they were hiring…well, sort of. WoWI was seeking out knowledgeable columnists to take over a few of the class-specific columns and there was an opening for a Druid blogger.

Of course, I couldn’t apply. The reality of being in the Middle East, working for a regional command 3-star admiral hit me like a brick wall. But all was not lost.

See, a seed was planted and when I trekked over to Blizzard’s employment page, a PR opening resided there as well. It was then I knew.

I wanted a career in communications in the gaming industry.

Over the years while I finished my military service and my bachelor’s degree, I met some of the WoWI writers, present and former (well, I guess they’ll all be “former” before long), and every single one of them had nothing but encouraging words for an aspirant such as myself. People like Fox Van Allen often asked me questions that challenged my thinking and my actions (or inactions as some of the cases were) about seeing my dreams come into fruition. And for that I’m eternally grateful.

While I currently find myself still pursuing that dream (alas, when I did finish my naval service, there weren’t any opportunities open at the time), I still look back over the years with nothing but admiration to the wonderfully talented people that informed me, entertained me, and INSPIRED me.

Shutting down these publications means AOL is losing its community voices. Time and again I have found myself in front of major business people (including most recently the VP of Marketing at Curse) advocating the need for dedicated and intelligent community development and engagement for respective brands because that in essence is what made the gaming industry as a whole so successful during the economic recession (2009-2012) where all other industries were hurting. I mean, LOOK at this chart:

EEDAR_Game Sales Since 1996
Source: EEDAR via GDC Vault

The gaming industry is known for its loyal consumers because gaming in itself is an opportunity to band together as equals (company to customer, brothers and sisters, etc.), especially since technology is at the forefront of innovation in today’s society. The death of AOL’s gaming publications was painfully slow as we saw content slowly disappear, writers accept opportunities elsewhere, leaving those who heroically stayed behind to pick up the slack and STILL manage to be successful.

For an outsider like myself to see this happen is heartbreaking if only because these publications have been a STAPLE and they weren’t exactly suffering in terms of web traffic, or interest. Everyone needs to say this and say it with a raging determination that if said it might change things (even when it won’t):

THERE IS NO GOOD REASON TO SHUT THEM DOWN.

I’m happy to see these publications not go quietly into that good night too! Bree Royce over at Massively in the announcement post is being fully transparent, dishing out T-laced realness:

We all suspected this was coming eventually a year ago when a VP whose name I don’t even know and who never read our site chose to reward our staggering, hard-won 40% year-over-year page view growth by… hacking our budget in half.

It’s beyond boggling to understand the blatantly idiotic management decisions AOL made with its own web properties.

I think what angers me the most is I represent the very kind of person AOL wants as a consumer. I’m relatively young (34, so not too young but not too old which means I have money and could spend it if properly persuaded), tech savvy, frequent online trafficker, up-to-date on the latest trends in the industry, and yet, in the last year alone up to and including the closing of its gaming publications, they have consciously made every effort to alienate me. And I’m just one person. Think of how many thousands and possible millions of people they have and are affecting with their incompetent decisions.

For a struggling company still trying to find relevance in the new Internet landscape it helped shape, it’s unfathomable to see it ditch the very types of products that appeal to a group of consumers in one of the most successful subunits of the tech industry. EEDAR showed you the numbers.

So that’s that I suppose. The wonderfully talented, ethically-minded, and highly entertaining writers will wander off hopefully to create their own similarly structured gaming news publications, even if on  a smaller scale. Others I hope will land at other gaming publications. Luckily Twitter allows me as a loyal reader to follow them wherever they land.

Specifically, Bree, Dawn Moore, Fox Van Allen, Anne Stickney, Olivia Grace, Alex Ziebart, Elizabeth Harper, Mike Sacco, Adam Holisky, Tyler Carraway, Allison Robert, Matthew Rossi, Michael Grey, Christian Belt, Dan Desmond and the slew of writers over the years I’m unable to through the tears that fall as I write this cannot remember at the moment:

Thankyou

You gave this former Sailor plenty to read, ponder, wander, respond to, write about and most importantly, enjoy about the very thing that has brought joy to my life: gaming.

Be well guys.

Iron-branded; or, adventuring through the beautiful lands of Draenor in Warcraft’s latest knock-out expansion

warcraft10

Ten years. Ten wonderful years of ups, downs, achievements, boss kills, epic story and the endless cycle of loot-hunting.

I’ve happily been a member of the World of Warcraft community in eight of those ten years having started in the second half of The Burning Crusade, the first full expansion to Blizzard Entertainment’s wildly successful MMO.

It goes without saying that because my birthday was two weeks ago, I spent every free waking moment when not working or studying delving into Warcraft’s fifth expansion, Warlords of Draenor, suffering through latency and douchebag-instigated DDoS-ing that caused the entirety of Blizzard’s Battle.net servers to shut down, preventing scores of players from accessing the game, not to mention the massive queues that riddled servers of even moderate to low player populations. A review of the game is challenging considering an MMO comes in parts or stages. And an MMO that’s ten years old definitely needs to be sliced into different equally delicious portions of the celebratory cake.

Questing opens up a story filled with triumph, heartache, loss and hopenagrandfinale

(NOTE: As a discussion of the story is necessary in this write-up, insert appropriate *Spoiler Alert* warning here…)

I had the joy of experiencing the game on both sides; Horde side during beta testing, and Alliance on live. For Lorewalkers such as myself, it’s the only way to play the game. Questing through old world Draenor in short was AMAZING. When the concept of Warlords was first revealed at BlizzCon 2013, acceptance at the direction came with slight hesitation not just by me, but by a vast majority of attendees as well as online enthusiasts of the game. “Time travel…how original.”

But I can see why such a concept was so controversial, because it would mean going back to a zone we had previously conquered to a time before it was necessary to conquer it. The immediate notion of reusing or rehashing old environments for new quests seemed rather lazy based solely off what we were shown.

But over time, we learned that Dreanor was NOT the Outlands as we knew it from The Burning Crusade expansion. The zone was entirely redone, from concept to art to environment. Even some of the wildlife (Talbuks, Clefthoof, etc…) saw some artistic updates.

So, story….

redportal

The dark portal has changed. Something changed. Prior to go time, the color of the portal in the Blasted Lands changed from the eery booger-colored tinge of the fel green magic that had once powered it to the now seen red. Phasing technology took over the zone to show it had been taken over by an army of Iron Horde orcs and prior to launch, it was our job to assess the situation.

Into the portal we went with the help of Thrall (our usual hero), Maraad, Khadgar, and the armies of both the Horde and the Alliance. Our job: to stop the Iron Horde from coming to Azeroth who had usurped the Burning Legion that had previously used the portal to come into the world in its quest for domination.

Why the portal? Why the Iron Horde? What happened to the Burning Legion? What happened to Garrosh Hellscream, the royal douchebag who was the final boss of Mists of Pandaria?

All questions answered as one quests to the now current cap level of 100, with the exception of Garrosh’s escape. If one has neglected their assigned reading, they missed this story in Christie Golden’s illuminating War Crimes, which details the events of Garrosh’s trial post-Siege Of Orgrimmar and subsequent escape.

The short spoilerific skinny of it: Garrosh was in cahoots with a rogue bronze dragonflighter, who ultimately was a member of the Infinite dragonflight (the tea-party of the Bronze flight so to speak). During a commotion at the trial, the two escaped and traveled back in time and place where Garrosh was coerced into changing the destiny of the Orcs by convincing his father, Grommash, NOT to drink the blood of Mannoroth, the powerful Burning Legion pitlord, the blood of which consumed the Orc race turning them into a wild pack of Cujos killing everything in sight.

What we experience in questing is the result of the change that occurred by manipulating that one moment in time. What we also experience is the rise in new heroes and the sacrifices made by ones we’ve known or known about for awhile.

yrelcinematic

I won’t go too much further into detail (play the game!), but I will note something of particular interest. The crafting and development of Yrel a female Draenei paladin who seems to be the hero the Alliance had been shouting for to fight alongside Thrall (something about the whole supporting a former Horde leader that Alliance players found jarring during both Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria). Unlike Varian Wrynn, the official Alliance leader, Yrel’s rise is one of sacrifice (by her and for her by others), determination, and devotion to her people. She makes an excellent counterpart to Thrall who was once a leader, but stood down when the need arose for a champion to lead Azeroth’s combined forces against a global threat. What is most intriguing is the care and attention paid to her development and it’s really one of the best storylines I’ve seen in game in a long time if only for the fact that the game needed a really strong female character. Rather than just placating Jaina into that role (which they could have done excellently in Mists of Pandaria, but then fell completely flat), they decided a new character was needed and saw Yrel’s development through. There was a moment when the notable Avenger’s Wings, a paladin ability for which Yrel made excellent use, made an appearance during a battle and I was actually “Fuck yeah!”-ing in my chair. I think it’s safe to say that we’ll likely see an upsurge in the number of players opting for Draenei Paladins during questing.

Which leads me to the conclusion of the story. Props must be given to the designers, story developers and the cinematics team for expertly interweaving typical questing, scenario experiences, and cinematics to reveal some of the more major plotlines throughout the questing game, the pinnacle being the grand finale in Nagrand. This features a battle between Thrall and Garrosh that is haunting, stoic, epic, brutal, and ultimately satisfying in every way from the story itself to the music and the animation.

And this is just the start of the expansion. Where we go from here will be seen and experienced in the endgame raids currently open and set to open in future patches. Ultimately the timeline has changed and we’ll be spending the next few patches and later expansions trying to figure out the ramifications of that change because the implications are rather extensive (for example the Burning Legion is stopped by the Iron Horde, and without the influence of Mannoroth’s blood, who was killed in the game trailer, that won’t stop the Legion from finding other ways to Azeroth). As a bronze dragonflighter would say, only time will tell.

Exploration is just as equally lucrative as questing

bashiokkilling

There are vast lands to explore on Draenor. Whether you’re a Horde member starting in the cold, snow-covered lands of Frostfire Ridge, or an Alliance member trekking through the darkglow of Shadowmoon Valley, there are rewards for actually taking the time to explore the map.

Expanding off the idea we saw at work on the Timeless Isle during the latter half of Mists of Pandaria, throughout each zone is an array of treasures and rare mobs (some of which are named after a few of Blizzard’s employees and prominent community members, like the photo above) to be found, killed, or simply discovered. Rewards range from simple gold to on-use toys and companion pets, to even rare quality gear. All one has to do is mount up and roam around. It’s easier and most effective to do this as you level, because often the gear rewards are at the level of that zone and would be useful for questing.

What’s also interesting to note is the randomness of the gear. Unlike previous expansions where a rare mob was often killed and on a particularly long respawn timer, rare mobs in Draenor respawn within a 2-3 minutes of their kill, AND everyone participating in its demise are rewarded (the exception being a few of the larger more powerful rares and world bosses). The randomness comes into the quality level of the gear. Where one person gets a rare level gear item (blue) someone else could get an epic level (purple) version of that same gear item from the same mob they defeated. And that randomness carries onto the quest rewards, which often were subject to an internal roll for the quality level and could be the rewarded level, or an upgraded version when actually obtained by the player. Ultimately, it makes for a more exciting reward experience, especially in the later questing zones of Spires of Arak and Nagrand where heroic/mythic raiders begin replacing their gear from the previous expansion. I made it to level 98 before I saw my first gear replacement (which is pretty cool as far as time investment goes on what it took to get that gear in Seige of Orgrimmar).

Garrisons bring the RTS resource management flair into the perpetual online realm

garrisonparty

I’ve always respected Blizzard for not giving in to the whims of the player base and doing what it feels is best for the game. When it comes to the subject of player housing, this is arguably among the most requested game features based on the offerings of Warcraft’s competitor MMOs like Rift, Star Wars the Old Republic, and Lord of the Rings Online. Players want it, Blizzard doesn’t want to devote precious resources to developing it, which is understandable because you’re asking the company to develop a player space for its VAST following (aforementioned games that offer player housing tend to have a smaller pool of subscribers where housing could be feasible). So the compromise is ultimately what we see in game now in the form of Garrisons.

As far as personal space goes, Blizzard dabbled in the idea in Mists of Pandaria with its respective version of Farmville over in Halfhill in Valley of the Four Winds. Where players simply had an instanced farm and tended to it for various in-game resources, garrisons expand on that notion by building an entire base complete with military forces, trade skill practitioners, and resource gatherers. What makes this work is Blizzard’s idea of exposing the player to the garrison concept early, as in, the first thing you do while questing is secure a foothold in this strange new world. Throughout questing, players are asked to keep attending to their garrison offering periodic upgrades and rewards. At cap level, players then work to fully expand their keep by building and upgrading various workshops to entertain profession progression and other useful trade skills. On top of that…in each zone, a player is asked to decide what type of structure should be constructed with each offering various zone-wide benefits (like being able to ride a Talbuk or Frostwolf in and out of combat in Nagrand, for example). That structure then becomes an access point for players to continue managing their followers at local command tables.

Followers also add to the garrison. Throughout the questing experience, a player gains followers they can use for follower missions as well as assigning them to their respective trade skill structure in the garrison. Other followers can be gained through achievements, reputation grinds and contract purchases, as well as other side quests and feats which includes the updated Brawler’s Guild (Meatball can be gained after defeating him at the end of Rank 4 in the Brawler’s Guild). Like gear, followers have a quality level that when upgraded, gain special abilities that enable them to do more and complete more challenging missions. Some followers can be gained at epic level (like gear, randomly selected upon actually obtaining said follower), which fully unlocks all their abilities, while others at uncommon and rare quality will have limited abilities. Followers need to be leveled like actual players and then upgraded from uncommon green to epic purple quality, all of which is completed by managing and tracking their missions at a command table. Various mission encounters lay out which type of follower will be needed and assesses their chance percentage at successfully completing it. Essentially, the quicker the mission timer, the lesser the reward, and the longer the timer, the more lucrative the reward.

Between follower missions, building construction, and daily quests offered by the NPCs within their respective areas, garrisons managed to pull off something magical, a full immersion of the story and a element of progression that extends beyond the simple gear-more-leet-gear cycle that was once a staple of progression in Warcraft. Players feel as if their influence in the game is increasing as you go from commander of a small party, to a full on general (Alliance side at least) when town hall hits tier three.

The 5-Man Dungeons step up their game in mechanics

 

grimraildepot1

As with every new expansion a slew of new 5-man dungeons offer the first step in a journey toward boss-killin’ badassness in the larger raids (raids of which only one is currently available – Highmaul – but others are set to be out in the coming months). But as the story goes with every set of 5-mans, the heroic level ones remain a challenge in the beginning and then teeter off into mass-pull merry-go-rounds courtesy of better gear as the expansion moves along. The cool thing about the current dungeon bosses is the lifetime expectancy is extended somewhat by way of clever mechanics not only on trash mobs, but bosses as well. An experienced group will crowd-control certain mobs and kill others and move along quickly, while the Looking For Dungeon groups (which tends to be a painful experience) will be more challenging. Currently, my favorite dungeon is the Shadowmoon Burial Grounds, which has some familiar-style bosses and mechanics, not to mention the look and feel of the place, all purpley and shadowy. Iron Docks is also fun if only because players get to play engineer and launch some deadly iron stars!

Gear and Stats get the Diablo randomocity treatment

Yes, randomocity is a word. Because I say so.

What makes Diablo a great, repeatable dungeon crawler is the seemingly unending quest to obtain that PERFECT gear item. Stats are random, the quality is random, the cycle continues because there will always be the possibility to get a better piece. Upgrades often come in baby steps, but on occasion, one can see a huge leap with an amazing piece. As noted before, that starts with the questing process. Upon completing a quest, or killing a rare with a gear item drop, an internal roll occurs that determines the level of quality for the piece from uncommon to rare to epic. One can boost their chance at getting a rare or epic piece by constructing a Dwarven Bunker (Alliance side) or a War Mill (Horde side). Continuing from the regular to warforged quality randomization in the last tiers of Mists of Pandaria raiding, similar chances have been extended to the heroic 5-man dungeons.

The stat itemization was both simplified and rejiggered to increase the pool of possible loot drops as any combination of stats can exist on a piece (not to mention a chance at a gem socket for extra oomf). Prior to the launch of Warlords, players saw a much-needed simplification in stats that is now relegated to a core stat (i.e. strength for plate, agility for leather, intel for cloth and so on) and a combo of secondary, or tertiary, stats. My own observation saw myself getting a heroic warforged agility sword with crit and multistrike, while a guild member got a similar agility heroic warforged axe with haste and multistrike and a socket for a gem. The benefits of this system are two-fold. One that extends the shelf-life of raids in the neverending quest for a better gear piece, while the second is simultaneously rewarding players with minor upgrades or sidegrades for their effort should they not get exactly what they were shooting for. It’s likely that optimal stats won’t be fully assessed since the raids just opened up because beta testing was limited in the scope of testing such itemization and focused more on the functionality of the bosses and mechanics. As the adage goes, only time will tell.

Everything is just so preeeeettty……

spiresofarak_env

The completely redone Draenor environment was just the tip of the iceberg as far as visuals go. The above shot is one of my favorite zones, the forrest autumn-feeling Spires of Arak, which boasts some of the most realistic and authentic sceneries of any MMO.

orcmodel1

For months Blizzard had been teasing the revamped character model updates (some praised, some not). Personally I found most of the updates rather pleasing, especially the Orc model, which made them a bit more emotive, and the recently teased Blood Elf Model. As Alliance races go, I’m particularly fond of the Draenei updates which look softer and as equally emotive as the Orc model as well as the Dwarven models which no longer look as if they are constantly smelling a particularly odiferous pile of shit.

So where are we going from here?

Well, considering the normal timeline of releases for expansions, we’ll likely see this content for two years. So far, everything is shiny and new (but also really fun), and a lot of it has some longterm appeal. Really, garrisons though…incredibly addictive fun. Fun I hope translates into an equally immersive mobile experience via the WoW mobile app. I mean, c’mon – how cool would it be to manage follower missions and garrison upkeep from your phone?

And after ten wonderfully-Warcrafty years I have just one thing to say to you, Blizzard:

Thank you.

Here’s to another ten years — and in the spirit of that, a re-sharing of my personal experience with Warcraft.
WoW10th_afghanistan

I am S-M-R-T! Or, Cracking the code on Google’s ‘diversity problem’

googlediversity_comp

I was at lunch with a co-worker when this subject came up in our conversation. We were talking about projects, ideas, the money and minds behind such endeavors, which of course led to the subject of education.

I got to thinking about today’s education system (being that I just started my MBA program, the topic is fresh on the brain).

Despite the fact that education is getting exponentially more expensive (I mean, ONE book alone for a class I’m currently taking was more than $300), availability of schools and programs is better than we’ve EVER seen. Of course we know that technology plays a huge part in this accomplishment.

Prospective students who would have otherwise been challenged by the distance of a dream school are now that much closer thanks to the Internet. Veterans coming home from the Middle East or even just leaving the service in general, have plenty of money and options for post-secondary education. We’ve seen some relevant reform as far as loaning and student indebtedness goes. But the fact remains that if you really WANT to go to school, you can whether in person, online, daytime or after work.

After I finished my Bachelor’s (earned and paid for courtesy of Navy Tuition Assistance), I had the luxury of exploration after leaving the Navy to find out what I really wanted to focus on for grad school studies. In the meantime, I decided to focus on getting my first post-Navy job and using my time wisely to ensure I found the right program in which I could fully commit and see through to completion.

Fast-forward to earlier this week. I have a cool job that gives me the freedom to master my professional development and include the schooling for which my ten years of naval service is funding. I’m also in the final week of my current set of classes pursuing an MBA. I’m glad how things turned out for a former collegiate dropout who once upon a time had time management issues. But that’s also because I WANTED to learn from my mistakes and made every effort to do so and clean up the mess I made in my late teens.

My educational experience is somewhat hybrid, which is particularly fitting for a guy who sits comfortably between two generations (X and Millenial, respectively). My degree programs were a mix of traditional in-class courses and online courses. I found myself more comfortable taking certain kinds of read-only courses in an online environment (like world lit or sociology, for example, where the format was read, quiz, write a paper, read, test, for which a classroom setting wasn’t needed). I love that technology enabled me to start my program while I was serving in the Middle East, and then continue when I moved back to the states. What I also love are schools that embrace this changing educational environment. There were so many schools to choose from when I was selecting an upper-level undergrad program and I was faced with a similar number of selections for my MBA program.

Now my point in discussing this…

I came across an article on LinkedIn from Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President, People Operations at Google entitled, “The Biggest Mistakes I see On Resumes, and How to Correct Them.”

Now, Google is a company I watch as far as employment opportunities go if only because during my job search, I did submit several applications for communications-related positions and for every one in which I was passed over, a piece of me died especially considering that Google had recently announced its diversity challenges (like, really? A gay Hispanic war vet? You really can’t get more “diverse” than that – but I digress).

Needless to say, when a senior VP from Google takes the time to enlighten the masses, I stop to see what he or she has to say. In the case of Bock, his offering was neither ground-breaking or insider revealing, BUT if the leader of the department that oversees hiring for one of the biggest and most successful companies in the world says these are things HE has seen, then obviously they are things worth noting.

As the article title suggests, Bock points out repeated mistakes with applicant resumes, five specifically. All common-sense bullet-points, but still very sound advice in which he explained, “The toughest part is that for 15 years, I’ve continued to see the same mistakes made again and again by candidates, any one of which can eliminate them from consideration for a job.”

While any job recruiter would have similar advice (and some do as I’m lucky enough to have some talented and hardworking recruiter acquaintances in my network that go out of their way to make sure my material has always been spotless), what adds weight to Bock’s advice is as I quoted earlier, his 15 years of experience in which he likely zapped mistake-ridden resumes like an endless round of Galaga.

Just as I neared the end of his last point, one in which he expresses the near impossibility of attempting to get away with lying on a resume, he makes one pointed statement that throws what would otherwise be a very good write-up into a political toilet:

“…sorry, but employers don’t view a degree granted online for ‘life experience’ as the same as UCLA or Seton Hall…”

I actually had to READ that several times. The reason this stuck out so harshly was because this wasn’t the first time I had heard this coming from someone in a position to hire people.

I was quickly reminded of a reserve Navy captain that was a member of my transitional assistance program class (a week-long course the Navy sends you to as you gear up to leave the service) that said pretty much the same thing Bock said in his article.

So let me breakdown all the things that are wrong with this type of thinking because this may very well solve a large chunk of the “WHY?” portion of Google’s diversity problem.

With regards to what Bock said specifically, no, there are no such things as degrees solely based on “life experience…”

There isn’t.

BUT there are schools that award credit as such. Schools like University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s University Without Walls distance learning program, have as part or their program, a portfolio building and review process (things we ALL have to do professionally anyway as part of, wouldn’t you know it, GETTING HIRED) that will result in the awarding of credit based on the scope of the work you present as part of your real-life endeavors. But that only grants partial degree-plan credit; the rest still has to be learned in a class (in person, or online), as any other college program would require.

My own undergrad school, University of Maryland University College, takes the training and school I had already completed in the military and grants credit that way.

So even taking programs like these out of the picture, you still had credit by exam (CLEP, course challenges, etc.…) where you can take your “life experience” or prior exposure to subject material, challenge a course, take a test, and get credit. Needless to say: ANY BILINGUAL PERSON WHO TESTED OUT OF FOUR SEMESTERS OF LANGUAGE COURSES WAS GRANTED CREDIT BASED ON “LIFE EXPERIENCE.”

So excuse me for pointing out the obvious, Mr. Bock, but there is nothing wrong with earning credit for things you’ve already worked on, studied, learned, or applied in life. Nothing.

Degrees earned non-traditionally are on the rise as a result of the direness of the economy

It doesn’t take a brainiac to see that non-traditional adult collegiate programs are the rise because people need to work, raise their families, make a living, but that shouldn’t keep them from pursuing educational goals. This is the case for a lot of minorities and lower income prospective students.

Technology, for what it’s worth, has greatly advanced the way in which we can receive valuable information and an education. AND even the most prestigious of private schools and state school systems are embracing this by increasing the number of programs available outside of their traditional campus offerings.

Let’s consider the recent news Google itself released with regards to its diversity numbers. Some serious conversation resulted from these numbers. Lacking on the employment side were pretty much every currently recognized minority, but more specifically African Americans, Hispanics and Women.

Bock said with regards to it’s diversity (or lack thereof):

“We’re not where we want to be when it comes to diversity. And it is hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.”

Bock’s statement in his LinkedIn article makes it easy to believe that if the leader of the department in charge of hiring is making an assumption about the types of degree-awarding schools from which minorities tend to gain their education (link courtesy of US News & World Reports’ diversity school rankings all of which are schools that offer Bachelor’s degree or higher distance learning programs), then it’s safe to assume such thinking is passed down to the people at Google who do review applications. Because really, do you think a senior VP is actually looking at resumes at this point?

Anyhow, ignoring potentially awesome candidates based solely on the source of their education and/or degree hurts a company’s bottom line, period. And it’s doing so for Google when it has to publish biting self-analyzing reports about how it’s lacking in a cultural diversity.

I will grant that without access to a report about where Google’s employees and recent hires earned their degrees, a lot of this is speculation — so I’m going solely off Bock’s own public statements.

I’m not going to turn this into a “this school’s degree is better than this school’s degree” platform because such arguments are petty. No instead, I’d like to offer that schools are held to the same standard as other schools in their region through an accreditation program. ALL members of the respective awarding authority derive accreditation requirements, and as such, to receive the award, a school has to meet those standards, period. Not only that, but there are even checks and balances amongst the accreditation bodies. Yes! Accreditations for the Accreditors! So when a program like National University’s Masters of Business Administration is accredited by the International Assembly of Business Collegiate Education (IABCE), it is held to the same standard as a school that is accredited by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), Harvard for example, because BOTH accreditation bodies had to work for their acceptance into the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

But now we’re getting into the nitty-gritty. My point is that what was once considered a “gold standard” no longer applies in today’s world because society and technology have advanced our way of thinking and the way information is shared and taught. If schools have the foresight to embrace this change, develop programs around it to meet the needs and challenges of its prospective students, then…

SHOULDN’T EMPLOYERS BE DOING THE SAME WITH PROSPECTIVE CANDIDATES?!

So Mr. Bock, if “employers don’t view a degree granted online for ‘life experience’ as the same as UCLA or Seton Hall…” then perhaps you should lead the charge in getting away from this archaic line of thought because chances are, your team has probably missed a few quality candidates because of it.

justsayin

Twitchazon? Amatwitch? A new partnership that quells the trolls AND allows Twitch to grow

amatwitchLook at it. It’s almost as if it was meant to be. That Amazon swoosh integrated into Twitch’s viewbox. A half cocked smirk that says in a smug Beyonce tone:

beyoncethismyshit

And it couldn’t be more right. Today’s confirmation of Amazon’s $970 million acquisition of the gaming industry’s heaviest live streaming hitter should qualm even the hardiest of trolls that decried such a purchase by YouTube. The latter suitor was in talks with Twitch earlier this year, but it looks like that didn’t pan out.

While more information should be forthcoming about Amazon’s new toy, there are some lingering questions.

Prime Membership: What perks should Prime users get with Twitch?

Once it was announced that Twitch’s purchase was all but final (dotting of Is and crossing of Ts and such), among the first questions I saw on Twitter were how Prime memberships would be integrated into Twitch’s premium subscription policies. Lest we forget, there are two major pay services to think about:

Twitch Turbo: At $8.99 a month, this grants access to all Twitch content, ridding users of advertising both displayed on page and during video content.

Partner Subscription Program: $4.99 a month gets you prime access to HD content for individual partner channels, which includes heavily trafficked eSports broadcasts

How would a Prime membership affect these costs? Would it replace them? Discount them? We’ll find out in time but it’s certainly something I’m sure Amazon will be quick to answer in the coming days. Twitch CEO Emmet Shear did comment on the company’s blog:

“We chose Amazon because they believe in our community, they share our values and long-term vision, and they want to help us get there faster. We’re keeping most everything the same: our office, our employees, our brand, and most importantly our independence. But with Amazon’s support we’ll have the resources to bring you an even better Twitch.”

I’ve highlighted the more poignant of statements which leads me to believe that partnership sub plans will likely stay put, but I really feel if Amazon is going to capitalize on its newfound gamership (lest we forget Amazon has been slowly building its own gaming studio), it’ll likely want to encourage Prime users to join Twitch users by discounting the Turbo plan if not include it completely in the annual membership fee. This will encourage people to join the Twitch community who could then stream Amazon Game Studios’ content, among other publisher content of course (more on that in a sec).

Lastly it should be mentioned that with YouTube out of the way, the possibility of non-partnered streamers being barred from placing donate buttons on their streams (which conflicts with YouTube’s nonprofit donation policy) so too does that restriction go off into that (not so)-good night. Again — if Shear’s comment is to be fully realized, business will carry on as usual in that regard.

Video on Demand Content and Filtering Services Will Remain With Twitch

Twitch’s content filtering system that scans uploaded videos for copyrighted content (namely music) will remain steadfast. This was likely a requirement by not just YouTube but Amazon and pretty much any big name that would have purchased Twitch. Because ANY company willing to buy Twitch for around $1 billion would be faced with music company legal departments just ITCHING to cash in on a big name. Twitch needs to protect itself, its new parent, and of course all its children who don’t like to play by the rules (kids these days, SMH).

But one thing that goes way with YouTube no longer in the picture was the Google’s VAST resources it dedicates to the storage of such media. Sure Twitch streamers can still transfer their broadcasted content to their YouTube accounts as they do now, but not having YouTube around means not having the all-in-one ability to stream and archive VODs.

Amazon’s Marketplace should see beautiful synergy (*shiver* — I hate that word) with Twitch channels

You come across an entertaining broadcaster playing a cool game…well, click on the game’s hyperlink and it will take you to the marketplace page on Amazon to buy said game. Easy peezy lemon squeezy.

So HEY publisher PR departments (and gaming-focused PR firms)! Guess what! Now you have an even BIGGER incentive to run your own Twitch channels to preview your own content. Because you’ll likely then give channel viewers a more direct way to purchase such content. Twitchazon’s combined forces now give you an amazing conversion opportunity with a vastly large potential consumer base. Couple this with your community teams working closely with influencers and well…

That’s a pretty big pie sitting in the window just ITCHING to be violated by Jason Biggs.

AMERICAN PIE, Eugene Levy, Jason Biggs, 1999

Amazon Game Studios will have free reign on streaming content on Twitch

So speaking of publishers streaming content to sell them a video game, Amazon’s brilliance in vying for Twitch really shines with this often overlooked division of the company: Amazon Game Studio.

You did KNOW Amazon was a game developer now, right? From the looks of some Twitter comments and gaming news sites’ comments, a lot of people didn’t.

Well, now that Amazon owns Twitch it will have direct and first access to a service that it could use to sell its own games and possibly force other publishers into retail agreements to give them the same access. It’s fucking genius. It’s like when Apple made iTunes and the forced music publishers into the similar “this is our design, you abide by it” mentality. Now I doubt that Amazon will regulate pricing as Apple does on iTunes, but even still, it’s now a precarious position to do so if it pleases. Twitch is the LARGEST user-based livestreaming service where marketing potential is VAST and the only reason why Twitch has grown so fast in the last three years is because of this fact. Broadcasters use it to market themselves as content creators, and publishers use it to push their titles — all in an everyone wins scenario, including its humble host, Twitch.

Now we amend that statement to read “everyone wins, but now Amazon wins just a little more.”

In the end, this acquisition pleases everyone. Broadcasters, gamers, viewers, publishers and most importantly, Twitch. Because as Shear points out, it was all about preserving the community. While I would have supported a Google/YouTube-backed Twitch just the same, Amazon does offer that preservation that could not be had with YouTube. It’s an entirely different community. That and gamer’s just really really hate Google now for some odd reason and likely would have abandoned Twitch taking viewers with them. Amazon taking the lead gives Twitch the backing it needed and viewers less vitriol to mull over. So, again…win-win.

 

In memoriam: Robin Williams (1951-2014)

Not going to belabor this sad entry…but I just wanted to reflect quickly on the career of a man that inspired happy moments while I was growing up (as there weren’t many). Family movie nights were often delighted by his films as there are so many we enjoyed.

You were among my father’s favorite entertainers and a childhood hero…now the two of you get to goofball it up there…you’ll like my dad, Robin, he was a big fan.

dreamsmaycomeRW

‘I HAVE A HOLE IN MY STOMACH!’ An open letter to #Twitch

Dearest Twitch:

bathingsuit2pieceSo you have a hole in your stomach. Let’s think about how you got that, shall we?

A few weeks ago, we got word that YouTube (Google by extension), wanted to buy you. The gaming community immediately took notice and split not so evenly with the majority of the community taking on a “meh, saw that coming…” approach and the vocal minority taking a “LOMFG you fucking sold out, KKTHXBAI!” trollish attitude.

As you can see by my blog entry on the matter, I was very much in your corner. I support your endeavor to grow and evolve and make a better service because that’s what the gaming community deserves. I even wrote a small guide on how to build an audience. While we never got word that your acquisition was final, pending, had fallen through, or well, anything at all…what we saw then was what we ended up seeing earlier today — the implementation of a policy that would affect a lot of users relatively quickly.

So your content filtering system which automatically detects copyrighted audio and mutes it for Video On Demand (VOD) content was something smarter broadcasters knew would be coming; especially if you were/are in line to be scooped up by YouTube which has a similar if not deeply annoying system. I think I should make this clear before continuing:

I FULLY SUPPORT YOUR SYSTEM AND THE REASONS FOR IMPLEMENTING IT.

I realize that you’ve grown far beyond your means and as such the evil eye of Sauron the recording companies had fixed their gaze upon the millions of streamers broadcasting copyrighted music. I further realize that you needed to protect yourself AND your users from the consequences of such a powerful gaze. As a still-yet small company with gamers who likely couldn’t afford the myriad of lawsuits they could have been faced with should they continue to freely make video content with copyrighted material, I understand your need to derive a system that would enforce people to THINK about the law and apply it to their content as they create it.

But, Twitch…what I don’t understand is:

HOW COULD YOU NOT WARN PEOPLE WHEN THIS SYSTEM WAS GOING TO BE IMPLEMENTED?

I understand the need for swiftness in this matter. But YOU KNEW this system needed to be implemented, probably even had internal mandatory deadlines (perhaps to stave off pending litigation threats?), but those are things that NEEDED TO BE COMMUNICATED TO YOUR USERS.

We use Twitch because it’s awesome, ok. I said it. It’s awesome. And believe it or not, some of us want to help YOU as much as you want to help US. We gamers…we’re a family. Sure there are trolls (what family doesn’t have them?) but the majority of us, we tend to help each other out. We’re capable of great things when we combine our efforts.

So how could you not trust us with telling us you were going to implement this system on a relatively quick timeline? Some users could have started making preparations and changes long ago. Some could have removed the content, cleaned it up, and replaced it so their channels and content wouldn’t be affected. The transition could have taken place with as little interruption as possible (though I can’t promise with little resistance — some people would still whine about it). I mean, it goes without saying that when your new system is implemented so quickly that even YOUR OWN content is flagged…

…something broke down terribly in the communications process. Face it, you let this state of existence perpetuate and allowed your users to get comfortable streaming and archiving content with copyrighted material. It’s an environment you harbored so you owed it to your users to allow them an opportunity to make changes when it became apparent this new policy was going to HAVE to be implemented.

To make matters worse, your vaguely written blog about the policy which didn’t warn people about the impending policy, but rather said “SURPRISE! IT’S LIVE, #SRRYBOUTIT!” left more questions unanswered. Couple this with your silence in the community to legitimate policy questions on social media channels makes for BAD juju in the way of community management, engagement and public relations. Scheduling AMAs and other community discussions not on the day you suddenly implement a controversial policy isn’t how you handle public communications, just, you know, FYI.

So Helen, if you want us to fix that hole in your stomach, you better speak up. This policy (while not exactly desireable to many) is manageable and in the end, is something that is needed. We honestly, in the bigger picture, will adapt and adjust because quite frankly a lot of us don’t care…but treating your community like a strung out Felicia, especially when people have serious questions about that system, is not on the options list.

Change your communications policies because clearly THAT is what needs more work. Otherwise YOU will be become the Felicia and WE the community will simply say…

byefelicia

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