Saturday, November 15, 2008

4 PR Lessons from the Puppy Cam

Free video streaming by Ustream

Right now, I, like 20,000 others, are watching the cutest Web site in the world, the Shiba Inu Puppy Cam on Ustream.

It's simplicity itself: a webcam trained on the sleeping area where a litter of 6 Shiba Inu puppies are growing up.

Yet it's currently averaging a viewership that's about 1/10th the audience of CNBC, a major cable channel that took a decade to build. The Puppy Cam built its audience in two weeks.

It's an amazing success story...the puppies have captivated the world, appearing on the Today Show, in People Magazine, and even in Murdoch's Sun. Just check Google News for "Shiba Inu" and be amazed.

Or better yet, check out the Google Trends graph for "shiba inu":

But while there is a very simple explanation for this (puppies are cute), the Puppy Cam also teaches us a number of important lessons about PR.

1) Start with something genuinely remarkable.

Just look at those puppies. My God. People aren't tuning in for hours each day because of the hype--it's because anyone who sees those puppies and doesn't say, "Awwwwwww" is soul-crushingly dead on the inside. Sorry Ramit, no offense.

2) Recognize what's the real story.

Imagine trying to sell your editor on the headline, "Puppies Are Cute." The real story here isn't the puppies, it's the massive, authentic reaction of the viewing public. The story is how many people are tuning in, their addiction, and the resulting media reaction.

If you started your own Beagle Puppy Cam today, the greatest PR firm in the world couldn't get you coverage, because the Puppy Cam isn't the story--the reaction of people to the Puppy Cam is.

3) PR can amplify excitement, but it can't create it.

We tend to give PR too much credit. Force-feed the viewing public something enough times, the reasoning goes, and they will inevitably succumb.

But this just doesn't work. PR can amplify natural excitement, it can't create it. Just ask Pia Zadora or Angelyne. Who are they? Precisely.

The Puppy Cam works because it was an organic groundswell of enthusiasm. Compare this to the launch of Justin.TV, where every news organization in the country rushed to write about this latest evolution in voyeurism (and how boring it was). After the most hyped launch I can remember (Leno and Today in the same week?!), Justin was averaging about 400 viewers.

4) Leave 'em wanting more.

The Puppy Cam is full of mysteries that encourage speculation. Who are the people behind the Puppy Cam? You never see their faces, just their hands and legs. Even in the interviews, the owners have asked to remain anonymous.

Similarly, the Puppy Cam is scheduled to end in a matter of weeks...the puppies have already been promised to homes, and the fact that they are now international celebrities won't stop them from being sent to loving families.

Leaving people wanting more keeps you from become an overexposed joke (I'm talking about you, Joe the Plumber. You too, Donald Trump.), and sets things up nicely for the future. I eagerly look forward to the inevitable sequel: "Puppy Cam: The Next Litter."

I for one welcome our impossibly cute puppy overlords.

* Disclosure: I am an investor in and shareholder of Not only that, I own a half-Shiba, which means I'm doubly delighted by all the attention these pups are getting--I no longer have to explain to everyone what a Shiba Inu is!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Why Bail Out Banks But Not Autoworkers?


There seems to be a growing wave of indignation against those (like me) who supported a financial system bailout, but oppose a bailout of the Detroit auto industry.

Perhaps it's because our image of financiers runs to Gordon Gekko, while auto workers are embodied by a fun-loving Michael Keaton in "Gung Ho".

(just remember, he's also responsible for "Multiplicity". And Bale was way better as Batman.)

It's also the case that many look upon manufacturing an actual product as a more worthy pursuit than simply moving money around (and taking your cut in the process).

But when you step back and look at the overall situation, it's hard to make a rational argument for favoring the automakers.

1) Detroit automakers are the weak sisters of their industry; American financial institutions are world leaders.

Let's face it, GM and Ford have been totally outclassed by the likes of Toyota, Honda, BMW, and even, gulp, Renault/Nissan. In contrast, despite the presence of major overseas players like HSBC, outfits like Goldman are still leading the pack in innovation and profitability.

If I have to bail someone out, I'd rather not back a proven loser.

2) If the automakers fail, the consequences will be dire. If the banks fail, we're all fucked.

Yes, people like to cite the number of people employed by the Big 3. But guess what--even if they all go under, America will still need cars, and almost all of them will still be built in America. They'll just be built on Toyota and Honda plants.

There may be fewer jobs, but that's just because the Big 3 are bloated and inefficient. I'd rather save the money on bailouts and provide better unemployment benefits.

If the banks fail, we'll be stuck bartering foil-wrapped packets of oily, foul-tasting fish.

3) Trying to save unnecessary manufacturing jobs is like trying to turn back the real life, it doesn't work, even if you have a Delorean.

20 years ago, the UAW had 1.2 million members. Today, it has less than 600,000. I'll be happy to bet anyone $1,000 that in 20 years, it will have less than 300,000 members.

Government intervention can't ignore basic trends. It wouldn't have mattered if Teddy Roosevelt had launched a major program to save the buggy whip industry or preserve the family farm, both those industries were doomed.

In the end, I think Megan McArdle of the Atlantic put it best. She recently wrote a very personal post about her own struggles after graduating from business school; the consulting firm she intended to join rescinded its offer after 9-11, and she had to move back in with her parents while searching for a job:

"But whatever your feeling about government intervention in the economy, or the correct level of income inequality, I think there's one thing we can all agree on: for the world to get better, things that don't work have to fail. We cannot keep alive every company, every car and every job that someone once liked, because that way lies stagnation and death. Places where production decisions are made based on how much labor they can consume, rather than how much value they can produce, make everyone in society worse off in the long run.

I understand that this is not what the auto workers want; they want their jobs. But while I am happy to help the auto workers, I am not happy to help them manufacture undesireable cars at massive social cost. I too, would have liked to keep my job as a management consultant. But I didn't have a right to have the job I wanted merely because I liked it. And it wouldn't have been good for America if I had."

P.J. O'Rourke's Finest Hour

Many of you probably know conservative satirist P.J. O'Rourke. But his latest piece, "We Blew It," is his finest hour.

"We Blew It" is a scorching indictment of the conservative movement for wasting its opportunity. O'Rourke takes a flamethrower to liberal and conservative alike. It is a tour de force, and it gets my highest recommendation.

Here are just a few of the highlights:

There was no need to piss off the entire black population of America to get Dixie's electoral votes. And despising cracker trash who have a laundry hamper full of bedsheets with eye-holes cut in them does not make a man a liberal.

It's not hard to move a voting bloc. And it should be especially easy to move voters to the right. Sensible adults are conservative in most aspects of their private lives. If this weren't so, imagine driving on I-95: The majority of drivers are drunk, stoned, making out, or watching TV, while the rest are trying to calculate the size of their carbon footprints on the backs of Whole Foods receipts while negotiating lane changes.

People are even more conservative if they have children. Nobody with kids is a liberal, except maybe one pothead in Marin County. Everybody wants his or her children to respect freedom, exercise responsibility, be honest, get educated, have opportunities, and own a bunch of guns. (The last is optional and includes, but is not limited to, me, my friends in New Hampshire, and Sarah Palin.)

A "farm" today means 100,000 chickens in a space the size of a Motel 6 shower stall. If we cared anything about "nutrition" we would--to judge by the mountainous, jiggling flab of Americans--stop growing all food immediately. And "bioenergy" is a fraud of John Edwards-marital-fidelity proportions. Taxpayer money composted to produce a fuel made of alcohol that is more expensive than oil, more polluting than oil, and almost as bad as oil with vermouth and an olive. But this bill passed with bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress and was happily signed into law by President Bush. Now it's going to cost us at least $285 billion. That's about five times the gross domestic product of prewar Iraq. For what we will spend on the Farm, Nutrition and Bioenergy Act of 2008 we could have avoided the war in Iraq and simply bought a controlling interest in Saddam Hussein's country."

Conservatives should never say to voters, "We can lower your taxes." Conservatives should say to voters, "You can raise spending. You, the electorate, can, if you choose, have an infinite number of elaborate and expensive government programs. But we, the government, will have to pay for those programs. We have three ways to pay.

"We can inflate the currency, destroying your ability to plan for the future, wrecking the nation's culture of thrift and common sense, and giving free rein to scallywags to borrow money for worthless scams and pay it back 10 cents on the dollar.

"We can raise taxes. If the taxes are levied across the board, money will be taken from everyone's pocket, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and least advantaged will be harmed the most. If the taxes are levied only on the wealthy, money will be taken from wealthy people's pockets, hampering their capacity to make loans and investments, the economy will stagnate, and the poorest and the least advantaged will be harmed the most.

"And we can borrow, building up a massive national debt. This will cause all of the above things to happen plus it will fund Red Chinese nuclear submarines that will be popping up in San Francisco Bay to get some decent Szechwan take-out."

Yes, this would make for longer and less pithy stump speeches. But we'd be showing ourselves to be men and women of principle. It might cost us, short-term. We might get knocked down for not whoring after bioenergy votes in the Iowa caucuses. But at least we wouldn't land on our scruples. And we could get up again with dignity intact, dust ourselves off, and take another punch at the liberal bully-boys who want to snatch the citizenry's freedom and tuck that freedom, like a trophy feather, into the hatbands of their greasy political bowlers."

"What will destroy our country and us is not the financial crisis but the fact that liberals think the free market is some kind of sect or cult, which conservatives have asked Americans to take on faith. That's not what the free market is. The free market is just a measurement, a device to tell us what people are willing to pay for any given thing at any given moment. The free market is a bathroom scale. You may hate what you see when you step on the scale. "Jeeze, 230 pounds!" But you can't pass a law making yourself weigh 185. Liberals think you can. And voters--all the voters, right up to the tippy-top corner office of Goldman Sachs--think so too."

Powerful medicine.