5.11.2009

Coming soon to a life near you: a backpacking adventure for two in Wales

Spring means mud. Spring means long-delayed ACL surgeries. Spring means finding out how much your biking legs lost over the winter. And if you work in public relations in the outdoor industry, Spring means the announcement of Backpacker magazine's Editor's Choice Awards.

As far as PR goes, award season is easily the best of times and the worst of times. Here's why: if you're lucky enough to find yourself on the winning side, the 'best of times' includes approximately 42 seconds of blissful post-award enjoyment and laurel-resting. But the 'worst of times' involves the same $64 question from every client who ever won a piece of the rock: "how can we maximize the reach of this award?"

There is a long-recognized standard approach to award PR, both inside and outside of the outdoor industry: you issue a press release. It's great for client relations, but that's about it. Alerting other media to the fact that one of their competitors likes a certain product is sort of like calling all your old girlfriends to tell them that you're getting married.

So ... in late winter, when we learned Sierra Deigns was to be a 2009 Editor's Choice winner ... the heat was on.

Fortunately, Backpacker gave us some great material to work with. They spent months in search of a location that would provide the most spectacular backdrop possible for gear testing. They wanted rocks and cliffs and coastlines that would translate into spectacular photography. And they found a perfect partner in Wales.

Not only was the landscape ideal, but the weather gods of Wales whipped up a good old fashioned hurricane-style smackdown the night of Backpacker's tent testing. While other tents imploded and tore and spun off, Sierra Designs Lighting XT tent remained standing ... and dry. Not only was it stable in the foul weather, it was roomy enough to house the entire Backpacker testing team (including the missed-his-calling-in-the-NBA editor Jon Dorn) who comfortably spent the entire night in the tent, riding out the storm (LINK).

When they told me about the coming award, I could tell by the way the editors were smiling that the weather was truly shitty that night. I could also tell that they were completely relieved to have had at least one tent that held up well enough to keep the crew comfy and dry.

Great tent. Great venue. Great story. "You had to be there," they said.

So, we took them at their word, and the idea for a celebratory sweepstakes that literally retraced the steps of the Backpacker Editor's Choice testing team was born.

Created with the invaluable assistance of our new friends in Wales, the Wales Adventure Sweepstakes is the trip of a lifetime for any two backpackers. The fantastic prize package includes all the gear you need: a Sierra Designs Lighting XT 4 Tent; two Sierra Designs Verde 20 sleeping bags, and two sets of Sierra Designs Cyclone Eco Jacket & Pants.

Sweepstakes grand prize winners will also win:

* Airfare for two on Virgin Atlantic Airways.
* Two nights lodging in a luxury yurt at the Graig Wen resort.
* Two 1st Class BritRail FlexiPass for transportation around Wales and to Snowdonia National Park (one of the Seven Wonders of Wales).
* Two nights at Escape, a five-star boutique bed and breakfast, prior to flying home.

Entries will be accepted at www.sierradesigns.com/wales through the end of September. Enter now or forever quit whining about how you never get to go anywhere.

CLICK HERE TO ENTER THE WALES ADVENTURE SWEEPSTAKES.

5.07.2009

The great Outdoor Retailer bailout?

Congress, most likely at the behest of the newspaper industry, is debating ways to keep newspapers alive.

There are some excellent conversations on the topic ... going on right now (YAHOO, FORBES, HUFFPO, HUFFPO). But the short story is that they're considering tax breaks for papers, considering allowing non-profit status for papers, and considering subsidies for papers.

Newspaper journalism is an essential part of a functioning democracy, say the men in the blue suits and red ties, and because it's so essential, the Government should consider stepping in to keep it alive.

It's an interesting notion ... macro-community support to keep independently owned media alive ... and it made me wonder: should the outdoor industry be considering the same thing?

Should OIA be looking at an emergency ad buy this summer? Something that would throw a lifeline to the media that is hard hit during the downturn?

What if Outdoor Retailer reached deep and bought a few ad pages in some of our "essential" media outlets -- possibly bridging the difference between survival of a key promoter of outdoor activities and their permanent disappearance?

Should AFFTA be doing the same thing in fly fishing? Would an SIA ad buy have helped Powder owners from going bankrupt last month? What about Interbike dropping a few back covers in the rapidly disappearing bike rags?

Or should we stay the laissez-faire course? Should we take a more conservative, a more Republican position, and let the chips fall as the may, let our media outlets fail, and let the market decide what we need?

5.06.2009

Part II... Is Twitter the soup du jour?


I think most people underestimate Twitter as a publishing platform. It's not necessarily social (read: friends, family, chatty) like Facebook (which of course has other applications too). What it is is an effective news feed, a way to get information out to a varied bunch of people to make it relevant. It also works well for real time conversations (as opposed to more static blog or message board comments). And who knows what other ways it can be used. The initial perception of Twitter was that it was a way to update on every mundane thing you do... that's a waste of its potential. The NY Times had a story about how Twitter only has a 30 percent retention rate (as opposed to 70 for FB). I posit that's because so many of those new users don't really get that Twitter works best as a professional tool, rather than a friends and family fun thing. They think it's going to be Facebook on speed, but it's not. Followers aren't friends.

A big question, I think is when does social media exhaustion set in? Remember how we all went nuts over email when we first got it? Then it became work. Then we all started blogging? Then it became work. Social media will become (or already is) work too right?

The Adventure Life: It's not just for breakfast anymore

Steve Casimiro, formerly of Powder/Bike and currently the West Coast Editor of National Geographic Adventure, started his own website over the winter. A purely independent pursuit, The Adventure Life is starting to attract attention ... at least from me. It should be noted that while Steve is indeed a handsome hairless man, he has no affiliation whatsoever with Lex Luthor or DC Comics.

1. OK ... so you've been a writer for as long as I can remember and you've been a photographer for almost as long, why get into publishing now?

A bunch of reasons. First, I'm an old school print guy--my first job literally was a paper route (the Washington Star), which paid for my first 35mm camera, which I got at age 11--and it took a while for me to turn the corner on online as a credible media source. I mean, one of my first jobs was online--when I was at USA Today, I worked at an online news service startup in 1984 (!!)--so it's not like I'm new to it. But it took a LONG time until I saw it on equal terms. Once I did, though, I wanted to learn as much as I could and the best way to do that was throw myself into it. (BTW, I started shooting long before I started writing...)

Second, I've worked with almost every outdoor book there is. I was at Powder for ages, I started Bike, I'm now West Coast editor for Nat Geo Adventure, etc. But I've also written or shot for Backpacker, Outside, Men's Journal, Hooked, Bicycling, Mountain Bike, Skiing, Snowboard Journal, Ski...and as great as each of those publications is, none of them has quite the same perspective on outdoor adventure that I do. I wanted to build something--for awhile I thought it might be print, but it didn't turn out that way--where I could riff on the joys of powder skiing, the coolness of surf art, the radical nature of space exploration, and still give gear reviews, environmental news, and sick athlete interviews. There was nothing that brought all that under one roof. So I decided to do it myself.

Third, and this is probably a corollary to second, is that there are literally thousands of great outdoor adventure stories that are ignored or overlooked or not quite right for the big four books. Now, I'm very much a part of the NGA family. I've never worked with such a great group of smart and dedicated people. I love and respect the magazine, its work and mission, and the NG Society--the solving of the Everett Ruess mystery last week being just one example of the great work John Rasmus has guided. Outside is a good magazine. Men's Journal got a new sense of life under Brad Wieners. Backpacker does an excellent job year in a year out, its three recent National Magazine Awards testament to Jon Dorn's leadership. But they all have specific, defined editorial views which, combined with the finite space of print, can't help but leave out a lot wonderful little nuggets of outdoor life. Would any of them write about a wallpaper designer who incorporates bikes into his art? A Finnish artist who comments on climate change dressed as a snowflake? The worst songs to have stuck in your head when hiking? (Editor's Note: My suggestion for Suzanne Vega Tom's Diner did not make the cut, though it should have).

Fourth, most outdoor blogs suck. They're unprofessional, amateurish, snarky without being funny, or boring. The few smartly done, online-only media outlets are killing it in terms of readers. If I could pull it off, it seemed to me there was room for another site, if it was well-done, visually engaging, and thoughtful.

2. What sort of traffic growth are you seeing?

Oh, massive. I passed dollyparton.com in March and Facebook just last week. Google, here I come.

Yeah....

I'm averaging about 1,100 visitors a day. But I've seen huge spikes of visitors around marquee stories, as when Apple wrote about my review of outdoor iPhone apps on their Hot News page, followed by the classic dragon's tail shape as it mellows out. But I try to ignore the spikes and focus on what I think is my core daily visitation--that growth has been steady and solid, with a pretty good leap in the last month or so. Tossing out the spikes, March was around 300 a day and now I'm consistently getting 800-900 a day. 1,100 is true and accurate, but I think it's more important to look at the people who find the Adventure Life, like it, and keep coming back.

I guess that's pretty good growth, but I don't know--I don't have a lot of reference points. It looks like I've passed a few of the independent outdoor websites, but it's hard to tell--accurate public metrics aren't so easy to find.

3. It seems like you've really poured the gas on things since mid-winter ... is that true, or am I just spacing out again?

Well, you and I have talked about the Adventure Life since it was just a concept and before it even had a name. And you saw it in beta, so it might seem like it's been bubbling along. But I launched it in January. In February, Apple brought a lot of traffic. Then Shane McConkey died in April and the Adventure Life coverage was among the earliest, most directly reported, and most thorough, so a lot of outdoor people saw it then for the first time. And over the last four weeks my print deadlines have eased a little, so I've been able to get stories posted almost every day and then spread the word about them. Now it seems like there's a bit of buzz about it.


4. Where the hell are you going with this? Is this just a stopgap while the print industry gets it together, or is this the first step of InterCasimiro Enterprises?


My wife, god bless her, has yet to ask me that.

Print is dead, man. Magazines...forget about them. The world has changed forever and for the better and the sooner magazine people realize it, the more likely they will be to survive.

Here's the deal: What the hell is a magazine, anyway? In the old days, it was a bunch of guys sitting around in an office, throwing together ideas and discoveries in print and sending it out into the world. If you got four letters to the editor, it was a good month. You measured your success through newsstand sell-through, which has more to do with how hot your cover model looks and whether the grocery clerk has moved your mag behind Martha Stewart than any talent on your part. Renewal rates? That's reliant on how much cash you pump into direct marketing, whose brightest minds consider a four percent response a whopping success. You spend millions on raw materials, labor, and shipping, then sell your product for four or five bucks, of which half goes to the Mafia-controlled distribution network. Oh--and your product is stale in 30 days when the next one arrives.

Tell me again how this is a model for success?

As I learned at Powder Magazine, where a confused muzzleloading enthusiast would call one a year or so, a magazine is where you store stuff--originally arms and gun powder. And the problem with print publishers struggling to find their way online is that they still think about their products as print publications that somehow have to find a new home in this intranet thing. What they DON'T get is that they're really just communicators, stewards of ideas, instigators, hecklers, keepers of a certain kind of flame. They are the recordkeepers of a culture and sometimes the drumbeaters and sometimes the priests. So, to my way of thinking, a magazine is a voice, a worldview, a perspective that's different from all other perspectives and that, if it resonates and is true, will find a following of like-minded people.

And whether that voice is shared in print, electrons, podcast, micropublishing, film festivals--it really doesn't matter. The delivery mechanism, while important, is much less important than the voice itself.

So, where I'm going with it--I don't know, exactly. For the immediate future, I'm focusing on finding my voice, on developing The Adventure Life "worldview" (gack, pretentiousness alert), on finding people with whom it resonates. My immediate goals are to build traffic and work out some of the technical bugs, of which there are many. After that, I can start exploring commercializing it.

As I've said to any number of people, The Adventure Life is an experiment--I'm testing myself and my ideas. Can I sustain the investigation and writing and reporting every day? Am I still passionate about sharing this info? Can I convince people to come see it? Will they like it? Will they come back? How will this change my print work, my writing style, my work flow? How does the dynamic nature of online change how I approach stories? It's all so very, very cool and I'm having a blast with it. If it can support me and find a place in people's regularly bookmarks, absolutely, I would love it.

The first question most people ask is how I'm going to make money with it. Three times this week I was approached by potential advertisers. And just yesterday a major online retailer contact me about the possibility of working together. Maybe I'm naive or just plain dumb, but right now I'm just focused on the sustainability of the...voice. That seems to be falling into place and I'm still stoked, so eventually I'll start working on the money side. But I really want to have a great, professional, dependable site before I do.

5. I don't see any traditional ads on the site, but you are making money on this.... right?

See answer to question 4. But no--not now and now in the immediate future. Any time a patron wants to step up and help take the pressure off, though, the door's open.

6. Now that you've been promoting your own product for a while, do you have more sympathy or less sympathy for PR guys?

Both more and less. Selling something, especially to the hacks that pose as gear writers (present company included), is about as thankless as it gets. Good luck! On the other hand, if you're pitching something that people want, it's pretty exciting. The levers are there, you don't have to have a huge budget, you just need imagination and the ability to see which levers to pull.

Of course, I say that and I suspect I'm totally full of shit. Keep in mind I'm not actually selling anything, I'm just trying to get people to come see something for free. How hard can that be?

5.05.2009

Is Twitter the soup du jour?

Funniest movie ever. Hands down. But when things are truly funny, truly memorable, it's not because they're dumb.... it's because they're smart.

There's a funny thing happening right now in public relations consulting. We've become the de facto owners of social media outreach for our clients. Which is a good thing. A smart thing.

Not only do PR professionals have the right skill subset for the job (fast typing, caffeine addicted, occasionally snarky, glued to our laptops and iPhones), but the category of "public" relations is actually the appropriate place to house strategies and tactics which engage the public.

The funny thing .... which may or may not be a smart thing, depending on your perspective ... is that social media is on a super-cycle, an accelerated timeline, a bubble of a growth curve. And we all know about bubbles, don't we?

The cornerstone of social media is blogging, aka "reverse chronological participatory web journalism", and it really hasn't changed much since it came on the scene in the late 1990s. The form and the intent has remained almost exactly the same. The only difference is in the players.

As media megabrands, paid authors, celebrities and ...yes ... advertisers have descended into the blogosphere, independent bloggers have gone deeper underground to find a more equitable place, a place where each voice actually counts as one. A place called Twitter.

I love Twitter. I'll admit it. For anyone with a sniff of marketing in their bones, it's a no-brainer. It's fast, it's effective, it's democratic, and Jesus ... who are these people?

Public relations RFPs now come with Twitter requirements as a standard part of the package. They ask for Tweet-strategies, and they beg for quantifiable numbers of the thousands of followers you'll attract .... which is a little like asking two college freshmen how much beer they think they could drink in a million years.

The funny thing about Twitter, though, is that it's the soup du jour. In the last two weeks, I've read about it in the New York Times, heard about it on Howard Stern and our local Vermont WDEV, and been asked about it by my mom.

Yes, Twitter is a natural part of public relations in May of 2009. Yes, it's an essential component of social media outreach this year. But it's only one part.

The truth is that while Twitter might be around as long as blogging, it might also be tracking like the shorter-cycled MySpace. Or it might die as fast as it has grown.

Twitter could be gone by next year, by next fall, or even by next month. And if it does go away to the great Compuserve graveyard in the IT department, what will your public relations strategy look like then?

"Mmm, I'll have that."