31 May 2011

What My Brush with Fame in Naples Taught Me About Engagement


I arrived in Naples in late July 1990 as a minor celebrity.

My article on Italian-American novelist John Fante had just appeared in the Naples daily, Il Mattino, in a translation by my friend and editor Francesco Durante.

Wherever we went in Naples it seemed everyone I met had read the article, had an opinion about it, and wanted to discuss it with me. 

I met more people who had read something of mine in those few days than I ever have, at least, until the Internet made it easier for me to reach a large, global audience.  What was so interesting about that experience was not the brush with fame..

No, it was how engaged people were with the writing, and not just my writing.  Mine was one of many articles about which they held and shared their opinions.

I wonder whether, more than 20 years later, newspapers in Naples still engender that kind of engagement and dialogue.  And I wonder how we can better capture such engagement on the Internet.  Disqus helps.  Twitter does it occasionally, although dialogue is hampered by that service's forced "retweeting" without commentary.

Some bloggers such as Fred Wilson, who blogs at AVC is a master of fostering such community; whereas another popular blogger, Seth Godin, does not allow comments on his posts.

Within a few days the talk had shifted from my article to the invasion of Kuwait and the first Persian Gulf War, just as we had moved on from Naples to Capri.  I realized those Italians I met were newspaper readers; it was the medium of their day and they formed a community of readers around their reading.

How are you encouraging community among your readers? What kind of reader engagement metrics do you use for your web site?  How are you encouraging dialogue among your readers or your customers?

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27 May 2011

Nissan Leaf Tries to Jolt Sales vs. Chevy Volt with TV Ad

Nissan Leaf is losing ground to its hybrid competitor the Chevy Volt. In fact, some report that Volt has been kicking Leaf's butt -- or at least blowing Leafs off of the lawn?

So Nissan has decided to take on Volt the old-fashioned way: with a TV spot that CNET featured this morning and that will air on June 12 during the NBA Finals.

Imagine a world where all our appliances are gas-powered and you've got the world Nissan wants us to think we live in.

The ad is funny, inventive, even a little steampunk. 

While it's message is delivered in a tongue in cheek manner, it is also a little disingenuous.  Most of your all-electric Leaf mileage will be powered by dirty coal.

Nevertheless, its a spot that will no doubt have people talking, much like last year's Polar Bear ad.

Here is the 60-second version:

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23 May 2011

How Self-Publishing is Like an Upside-Down Urinal

"Fountain," R. Mutt
Long before Amazon and Lulu and CreateSpace made it easy, I had my own foray into self-publishing. 

I was reminded of it this morning reading James Altucher's excellent post on why and how he self-published his new book, How to Be the Luckiest Person Alive!

It was 1987.   I had just returned to New York from living in Germany and France and started working for an international agency representing Latin American and European publishers. 

But 1987 was also the centenary of the artist Marcel Duchamp.

While living in Europe, following the break-up of my band, Active Driveway and the folding of my magazine, Rockstop!, I started writing a book about Marcel Duchamp.

Duchamp, you may recall, was one of the giants of 20th Century art. He, along with Picasso, arguably redefined what it was to be an artist in the early part of that century and re-categorized what was considered "Art."  (Think of Duchamp's urinal turned upside-down, signed "R. Mutt" and titled "Fountain," which he submitted to the Society of Independent Artists show in 1917.)

That fall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art held an exhibit to mark the centenary appropriately titled "Apropos of Marcel Duchamp."

As homage to Duchamp I pulled together three short pieces from my work-in-progress and printed them together with some xerographic collages using photographs of the artist and his work.  I called the little book Endgame: Fragments on Marcel Duchamp. (I just found this reference to it on Google Books; what a world we live in!)

I went to Philadelphia and, as a kind of art performance, sold the limited number of copies on the steps of the Museum of Art.  At one point, a guard came up and tried to remove me from the premises, which caused a scene -- perfect for selling more copies of the book. 

Finally, I was able to convince him to let me stay if I gave the books away rather than selling them.

My little book wasn't going to be a best-seller, that wasn't the point of it.  But in its own way, my book created more of a spectacle than it would have in the hands of a big publishing house.  That kind of niche marketing is so very important today and it is so much easier to get your ideas out there than it was in 1987.

As a parting gesture I asked the museum guard to take a signed copy of my book to the museum curator, Anne D'Harnancourt, who had been a friend of Duchamp.  He agreed.  I don't know whether the book ever made it into her hands.  Quite possibly, one of the few copies sits in the Museum's collection, but it doesn't matter, the endgame in this case was the gesture itself.

Just as Marcel Duchamp would have liked it.

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17 May 2011

Meet BERT, Your Energy Control Freak

Will Ernie be next?
Remember when your mom would shout at you to turn off the lights when you left a room?  Well, now there's an electronic mom that does it for you without the yelling.

They call it BERT, which stands for Best Energy Reduction Tools, and it's a new "smart plug" has the witty tagline that it's "your energy control freak." 

I've written before about smart plugs (see ThinkEco's Modlet and Israel's Greenlet) and other energy demand management solutions, but yesterday's announcement by Ben Franklin Technology Partners (BFTP) of Southeastern Pennsylvania that it was awarding a follow-on investment of $500,000 to Green Power Technologies of King of Prussia, PA, caught my attention.  (BFTP has already invested $250,000 in an earlier round.)

They call it BERT, which stands for Best Energy Reduction Tools, and has the witty tagline that it's "your energy control freak."

BERT eliminates wasted energy from devices that are turned off but still plugged in -- and let's face it, we're all guilty of leaving our devices plugged in when they don't need to be.  BERT software enables you to program up to 100 on/off commands per week, which gives you control of energy use day or night from your WiFi enabled computer or smart phone.

The company plans to manufacture in the US, which would make Jack Donaghy proud.  GPT has contracted with Millennia Group, a manufacturer in Cheswick, PA, to make BERTs.

I'm still looking for a solution that cuts off power to my phone charger when the charge is complete, such as when I charge it overnight, but this programmable smart plug gets closer to solving that problem. 

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16 May 2011

The Day I Served Gilda Radner the "Ugliest Pastry"

Gilda Radner
You never know who your customers are unless you get to know them.

One of my first jobs in New York was as a baker's assistant at Natural Source, a small bakery on 72nd St and Columbus Ave.

Most of my time was spent running baked goods from the kitchen on 71st and tubs of hand-packed ice cream from the basement to the shop on the corner.

It was the early 80s, a heady, gentrifying time on Columbus Avenue.  New York Magazine dubbed it the "New Left Bank," with Charivari's high-end fashion store, the orignal Silver Palate restaurant, numerous galleries, and even a Texas bootery called "To Boot."  (I still have a pair of Noconas they tossed because of a tear in the snakeskin.)

I learned a lot about baking from the baker, a woman named Lesley who went on to work for Sarabeth's Kitchen. (We sold Sarabeth's marmalade when she was still making it out of her apartment.)

But I also learned a valuable lesson about customer service.

Occasionally, during my runs I'd find the shop crowded and offered to lend a hand at the counter.  The counter crew didn't like a bakery "bus boy" crowding in on their territory and tips.  But there were two times where I couldn't resist.

The first was when a woman dressed as a bag lady came in.

"I'll take the ugliest pastries you have," said the woman. 

"We don't carry ugly pastries," said the impatient counter help. "Why don't you try another store."

The woman looked annoyed.  I stepped in and said, "If you want ugly pastry, come back with me to the kitchen.  We've got a bunch that will just be tossed otherwise."

She followed me to 71st Street.  I explained the situation to Lesley and she gave me a paper bag full of discards.  I handed it to the woman.

"Thanks, sonny.  Do you know who I am?" She looked familiar, but I couldn't place her. She shouted, "Live from New York, It's Saturday Night!"

After that, whenever the "bag lady" Gilda Radner came by the shop, she asked for me and I brought the ugliest pastry I could find.  I never told anyone at the store who she was; it was our little secret.

What are you doing to get to know your customers? Are you giving them what they want or what you want them to have?

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11 May 2011

How Newspapers and Manhattan House Taught Me a Business Lesson

Paperboy. (Getty Images)
Like many Americans of a certain age I had a paper route as a kid.  These days, if papers get delivered at all, it's probably by an adult driving a car, but back then it was us kids on foot or by bicycle -- or if you were lucky you got your parents to drive you.

My mother reminded me this week of a story from my paper route days.  One week I had the flu and she had to do my route, by car, no doubt.  She learned a lot about me that week, including how I avoided the houses with barking dogs (toss the paper from the curb) and why I complained about the paper route so much (it was a long route!).

One thing my mother remembered that I had forgotten was when one of my customers complained about not receiving the color supplements in her Sunday paper.  Confronted, I apparently confessed to ditching the color supplements because they made the delivery bag too heavy and slowed me down on the route.

It was all about efficiency and, I'd rationalized, people didn't need those wasteful supplements full of pleas to buy useless things.

I was wrong to alter the product in that way.  Perhaps it seemed like the right decision from a teenager's point of view -- efficiency was improved, waste reduced (sort of) -- but that was a decision I wasn't authorized to make.  I had challenged a system without really challenging it.  I had taken liberties with my assignment and had neglected to talk to my customer about my decision.  (I apologized later.)

My mistake came back to haunt me a few years later in one of my first jobs in New York City at Manhattan House Stationers on the Upper East Side.  Every Sunday morning, down in the bowels of Manhattan House, I put the Sunday papers together along with Pete, a Jamaican guitar player.  We had to make sure all the sections and supplements were there before Leo, the owner of the stationery store, inspected our work.

Then we delivered the papers throughout the entire building -- all 19-stories and 581 apartments!

What goes around comes around.

What decisions are you making in your organization that will come back to haunt your later?  What assumptions are you making about business decisions every day?  What changes are you making to your products without thinking of your customers?

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09 May 2011

Get Rid of All Energy Subsidies: The Green Skeptic on FOX Business

I was on FOX Business this morning with Stuart Varney & Co, taking about oil subsidies and arguing for a balanced use of fossil fuels and alternative energy.

Here is the video:

And here is a link if the player doesn't work in your browser: GreenSkeptic on FOX Business

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06 May 2011

How I Almost Created "The Disaster Channel"

This could have been a real disaster.

About 20 years ago, I was on the editorial staff at Viking Penguin, which as the name implies, was a merger of two venerable old publishing houses.

Our company had been bought by the international media company Pearson, which also bought the venerable old merger-house of E.P. Dutton and New American Library.  It was the early days of the consolidation of publishing.

Pearson decided to move us out of our West 23rd Street offices -- and our compatriots out of their Park Avenue location -- and into the Saatchi & Saatchi building in lower Manhattan.  It was a sleek, stark, almost sterile contrast to the rickety bookshelf-cluttered walls and creaky floors of our old building.
The editorial staff was starting to be trimmed and many of us could see the writing on the walls.  Of course, there were no bookshelves to clutter them up!

I started kicking around ideas with some friends about what to do next.  I felt stuck.  I had worked in publishing and printing for much of the 80s.  What else did I know?

I had a short stint as an assistant to a baker when I first moved to New York and loved baking bread.  My friend Howie said my bread was so good, I should open a bakery.  (I've told part of that story here.)

But I had another idea: "The Disaster Channel."

That's right, The Disaster Channel.  Nothing but disasters 24/7.  There was plenty of existing content (movies, documentaries, news footage) and there were new disasters all the time.  We could have "Disaster of the Week" specials, send people out with video cameras to chase tornadoes, think of the possibilities!

It wouldn't take much to start and it would certainly be a hit.  People love disasters.  It would be worth millions, billions even, I reckoned.

My friends were mortified.  "How could you live with yourself if you did that?"

"Well, if The Disaster Channel was a success, then I could do my other idea for a cable channel," I replied. "The Poetry Channel: an all-poetry cable network featuring poets and celebrities reading poems, poets being interviewed, and films about poets or based on poetry."

Call it my "Evil Plan."

Needless to say, I didn't pursue either idea.  Since that time, The Weather Channel has picked up the mantle of disaster coverage. (Someone has even done a spoof announcement of the concept here.)

Could I have sold to TWC or was my idea too early?  I'll never know.

The road is paved with ideas -- good, bad, and disastrous.

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05 May 2011

Why You Need a Brad Marchand In Your Company

Marchand Takes Ville Leino Into the Boards.
Brad Marchand is a pest.

Watching the Bruins-Flyers Playoff Game last night I couldn't help focusing on the scrappy little forward in black and gold.

Thirty seconds into the game, Marchand banked a shot off the boards behind the Flyers net that Zdeno Chara cranked from the left circle over the shoulder of goalie Brian Boucher.

Then Marchand was crashing into players along the boards, some with 3-4-5 inches on him. Like a mosquito he buzzed around, bothering any Flyers who got near the puck.

"It was one of those games I was angry the whole time, and my emotions kind of get the best of me, just running around trying to kill guys," Marchand said.

Marchand is an agitator, stirring and shaking things up on the ice.  Annoying his opponents.  Sometimes he got knocked down; sometimes he knocked the big guys down. 

I counted seven hits, most of which left Flyers on the ice.  He was a little erratic at times, but totally focused on helping the Bruins win.

Agitators are good for companies and organizations.  They aren't always appreciated.  Without them, however, organizations can be stagnant and stuck. 

Who are the agitators in your company?  Do you recognize or appreciate what they are doing and why?  How can you use their energy to advance your cause or company's goals?

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03 May 2011

How My Readers Saved My Blog

17 - Clash, The - Should I Stay Or Should I Go...Image by Affendaddy via Flickr
Yesterday I froze when faced with the blank page of this blog.  How could I write something that would compete for readers with the news of the day -- that Osama bin Laden was dead?

I put out a call to my readers.  Basically, to paraphrase The Clash song, should I stay or should I go?

My readers saved my blog.

Some of you offered comments; others sent me emails or tweets.  One reader who sent an email pretty much sealed it for me,
"You are far to important to stop doing what you are doing. You are in shock right now, so the best thing to do is to let some time pass, then dust yourself off and get back to what you do best. (Just like the firemen of NYC.) 

Coffee, core exercises and dog walks in the woods sounds like a cure to most anything.  Enjoy and don’t forget that we need you!"
How could I not write after getting such a note?  Thank you, dear readers.

Over at my poetry blog I've got a quote from Walter Lowenfels that has always served as a reminder: "One reader is a miracle; two, a mass movement."

My readers have spoken.  I will not remain silent.

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02 May 2011

How Osama Bin Laden Killed My Blog

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02: Newspapers announcing t...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeOsama bin Laden killed my blog.

Yes, he did.  From the dead. I did everything right this morning.  Drank three cups of coffee (not tea, because three cups of tea is now tainted).  Walked my dog in the woods.  Did my core exercises.  Showered.  Got dressed.  Sat down at the computer...

...and my fingers froze.  What the hell was I going to write about?  I had no ideas.  None.  Zippo.  The latest potential IPO?  A conference I recently attended?  My thoughts on venture capital and cleantech?  Why conservatives have abandoned conservation?

Stumped.  I was completely stumped.

Aw, just shake it off, you haven't posted in a week and a half, your muscle just isn't working. You'll get it back.  Get up and have another cup of coffee, walk around, meditate. Do something.  

How was I going to compete with the death of Osama bin Laden?  And how was I going to write something that anyone would want to read in the wake of all the news of Obama bagging Osama? 
During last night's remarkable news, I thought of my friend Barbara, whose apartment was in the shadow of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  I'll never forget trying to find her on that day almost ten years ago to make sure she was safe.  She was safe, but shaken.

Her life was irrevocably changed that day, as were the lives of many -- of all of us, really.  I reached out to Barbara and found her on her way to New York City from Baltimore, where she now lives. 

But even writing about that seemed half-cooked, uninspired.

Then I thought, maybe I'm really stumped.  After over six years of writing this blog, I'm literally stumped.  It's not writer's block, that I can write through.  No, this feels worse than writer's block.  What's the purpose of a blog that can't compete with a major world event?

Like many things in my life, this blog feels like it's at a crossroads.

I'm in need of a serious rethink and I need your help.

Where does The Green Skeptic go from here?  Where do you want to see it go from here?  What do you want to hear about from me?  What do you want more of or less of?  Would you rather I just retire this blog and move on to other things?

Here's your chance, send me your thought in the comments here or via email (greenskeptic[at]gmail[dot]com.

I want to hear from you.

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