Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Marketing of Paula Poundstone

How an original comedian has built an enduring brand - and what we can learn from her

I’ve been a huge fan of comedian Paula Poundstone for 25 years. I love her product: wry, intelligent and reflective comedy about the absurdities of everyday life in America. I recently saw her perform in Western Massachusetts, and it was a thrill.

It was also a 100% marketing experience – something one thinks about when buying a book or clothing, or staying at a hotel, or eating at a restaurant, or buying a car, but not necessarily when buying a comedy performance.

But Ms. Poundstone “gets” marketing in a way that other entertainers – even those with bigger names and vastly bigger marketing budgets – don’t.

Over the years, she’s built an enduring brand and, lately, is using social media to create a very effective integrated marketing strategy. The Paula Poundstone brand just “pops” from social media, delivering a consistent experience across all media.

For example:

She has an active Twitter presence, with more than 20,000 followers. She tweets frequently, and apparently does it herself (either that, or she has a scarily competent social media marketing person). The tweets sound just like her, and they are hilarious.

She makes goofy short videos, which she posts on YouTube. (Check out her Thanksgiving video.) These videos are low on production quality, high on hilarity content – just like Ms. Poundstone, who famously performs on stage with only a three-legged stool, a Diet Pepsi and a microphone.

She is also on Facebook, where she has more than 9,000 fans. This site allows people to converse with her, see where she’s appearing and so on.

She integrates and repurposes her content across these three marketing platforms. Her web site is pretty basic and unapologetically under construction. Fans can subscribe to her email updates, so they know where and when she’s appearing. Fans can also order her CD here.

Ms. Poundstone adheres to what I consider the three important principles of effective contemporary brand marketing:

Know your brand
Live your brand
Share your brand

Know your brand: Understand your brand characteristics and what they mean to your customers – and understand the risk of precipitous changes. For her comedy “product,” Ms. Poundstone draws on her own complicated life: three kids, 13 cats, motherhood, a demanding job and crazy travel schedule, her frustration at getting older, and a bag of neuroses, including her famous inability to ever shut up. She also questions her own limitations and the absurdities of everyday life. In other words: she’s just like many of us, albeit with a bigger audience and much better improvisational skills. She’s politely querulous, unglamorous, relentlessly untrendy, and refreshingly honest.

She’s been doing this for years. It makes fans laugh, and her fans love her. She does update her brand – for example, she’s become a regular contributor to National Public Radio – but everything she does is consistent with her brand image (wit, intelligence, insightful social commentary).

Live your brand: Paula Poundstone offstage equals Paula Poundstone onstage. (This is not automatically true of all comedians.) After the show that I saw, she met with fans for a few hours. She autographed CDs and her book, posed for photos, insisted that her fans be in the pictures (“I don’t want to look like a dork”), and continued to entertain fans even as she spoke with each personally. In other words, her brand is consistent across all her distribution channels.

When a substance-abuse problem landed her in the news (and, briefly, in jail) about 10 years ago, she handled it in classic Poundstone fashion: with honesty, humility and earnestness. (Note to Tiger Woods.) That consistency helped her weather what could have been a real brand-damaging incident.

Share your brand: Ms. Poundstone shares her brand in order to sell it. She uses social media to keep her brand in fans’ lives, giving fans many different ways to consume her brand and stay connected with her. She invites fans into her life (through her tweets and videos, in particular) and she constantly provides value (lots of free samples of her comedy product) before asking for the sale. After the recent Western Massachusetts show, she met with anyone who wanted to meet with her, saying “you don’t have to buy my book or CD, come by even if you just want to say hello or take a picture.”

Product sampling (sharing) creates interest in her CDs and performances. (I bought the CD on site, then came home and ordered the book. And I am going to share her brand with a few people when I give them the CD for Christmas.)

Entertainers are doing some of the most exciting marketing around today by using the new rules of marketing and PR defined by David Meerman Scott – even as piracy and other trends disrupt their industry and the traditional ways they have made money. Marketers in other industries should pay attention and look for inspiration in what entertainers are doing.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Public Relations Pros: To Get a Seat at the Table, First Get Out of the Highchair

Good PR professionals are always-on, trustworthy representatives of the brand – just like the CEO

Public relations professionals often complain that senior management doesn’t take them – or the discipline – seriously. They say that PR often isn’t involved at a strategic level. This disrespect prevents professionals from doing their jobs effectively in managing the company’s brand image and contributing to business growth.

But PR has to earn that seat at the table. However, some professionals seem to be striving to achieve just the opposite – they sabotage themselves (and the rest of the profession) through unprofessional business behavior. Here’s an example.

This past weekend, I attended a performance in Massachusetts by my favorite comedian Paula Poundstone. Part of Ms. Poundstone’s show involves engaging audience members in an improvised dialog about their jobs. One audience member mentioned that she had retired from a large insurance company. (The retiree mentioned her employer by name; I am specifically NOT mentioning the company by name because I feel it would be unfair.)

Ms. Poundstone then asked the audience if anyone else worked for the company. A young woman in the balcony shouted out that she did. On further questioning, the young woman said “I write corporate propaganda” for the company, working in the “Internal Communications” department. There was some additional bantering about the young woman’s job and what it involved.

I was appalled. The young woman effectively demeaned her employer in public, in order to aggrandize herself. Regardless of whether there is a corporate policy against such behavior – and having worked in another insurance company, I am willing to bet that there is – this person is supposed to be a professional communicator. What was she thinking?

I can answer that: she wasn’t thinking.

Can you picture the CEO of the company doing this? What about the CFO? The chief counsel? The VP of human resources? Or any other senior manager with whom PR wants to “share the table?”

It’s tempting to write off this incident as an isolated incident, and a mistake committed by an inexperienced professional. But I see this behavior far too frequently. For example: there’s the senior VP of a large PR firm who is notoriously blabby about the internals of her clients’ businesses (and her own agency’s business). Her peers joke about it, but I am guessing that the CEOs or chief counsels of her clients wouldn’t joke about it if they knew about it. How can a client trust her – or her agency for that matter?

I would like to think that this behavior is just thoughtlessness or sloppiness. It’s undoubtedly aggravated by our celebrity culture and the let-it-all-hang-out world of social media. But I believe that there’s an attitude at play here: “I want a grown-up responsible job but still want to be able to act like a child.” Companies can’t afford to have people like this staffing their communications departments –let alone giving them a seat at the table with the CEO.

Mature PR professionals consider themselves always-on representatives of their companies or their clients’ businesses, and act accordingly in public and private. Just like the CEO, CFO and so on.

I have met hundreds of mature, trustworthy PR professionals like this – of all ages –and many do have well-deserved seats at the table.

Companies need to be proactive about protecting themselves by hiring trustworthy adult professionals. Search engines and social media can often reveal potential loose cannons.

As for our young friend, she’ll be lucky if her remarks don’t end up on some future CD of Ms. Poundstone’s.