Content marketing that wins: Making brands, readers and Google happy

September 23, 2013

As part of my day job at Cramer-Krasselt, I presented at Social Media Week Chicago on the topic of content marketing with my colleagues Steve Radick and Nick Papagiannis. Steve summarizes our talk here and I don’t have much to add to what he says other than this: If you hate it when brands say “LIKE this post if you…” or “SHARE this if you agree!” then this is for you.

My colleague and fellow presenter Steve Radick summarizes it here.

You can view the slides here:

Content Marketing That Wins: Making Brands, Readers AND Google Happy from Steve Radick

…or watch a livestream below.

And after the jump, there’s the Twitter-fueled recap thanks to my teammate Jeana Anderson.

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Learning to climb

September 4, 2013

Learning to climbThere’s this Steve Wynn song called “Bruises” that’s stuck with me ever since I heard him play it at South by Southwest in 2006. The first verse goes like this:

Bloodshot, tired and torn apart
I’m at my best when I can barely start
I fall down easy but I get up slow
I really, really hope that the bruises don’t show

The reason it sticks with me is a lyric in the bridge…

If I came to you late at night
Would you answer to my call
I can’t do anything to make it all right
This is how you learn to fall

“This is how you learn to fall.”

There are so many things I love about that line. Summed up, it’s the acknowledgement that life is not without pain and failure and one should learn how to manage it so permanent damage does not occur. You are not entitled to easy living but there’s plenty to be learned from experience and one can learn to wear it well. Maybe that’s not how Wynn intended it but that’s what it says to me.

I’ve thought about that line an infinite number of times since we had Abigail.

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about being a dad. The list is almost too long to bother with but off the top of my head there’s “Changing diapers never gets more tolerable (just easier)” and “You might give some jackass the benefit of the doubt because you suddenly remember he’s someone’s kid.”

The big one that no one tells you because it seems too obvious  - but it’s the one that terrifies me – is “barring catastrophe you never stop being a dad.” That one gut-punches me out of nowhere when I’m lying in bed at night.

I used to think the early months of child-rearing – those days of colic and reflux and walking around the dining room table while doing lunges with Abigail in my arms because it’s the only way she’ll stop crying – were insurmountable. But they passed. Then comes talking. And walking. First birthday. Sentences. Second birthday. Paragraphs. Intent. Agenda.  Yet each stage is just a minor evolution from the one prior so they’re easy to get your head around.

Then I start to jump a few years ahead and it all goes off the rails again. There’s always so much more ahead of you and the vast expanse of life gets you to thinking of events both reasonable and ridiculous.

How do I react when she starts liking someone in her class? Not just “like ‘em” but “like em, like ‘em.”

What happens when someone bullies her? Do I kick that kid’s teeth in or his parents’?

What if we’re on a cruise ship and she falls over the side? *

Someone is going to break her heart. Wait…what if that person is me? What if I disappoint her in some huge, therapy-inducing way?

My God, she’s going to leave home one day and be on her own.

You’d think the idea of parenthood as an evolving, decades-long undertaking would have occurred to me before. Like when Erin and I discussed having kids in the first place, perhaps. I submit to you that you can know things intellectually and be fine with them and then encounter their emotional reality and find yourself completely unprepared.

A better summary of parenthood I have likely never written.

The other thing no one tells you about being a dad that crops up all the time for me is how it breaks your heart a little when you’re not around your kid. I used to think the idea of being in love with your kid was an exaggeration. Nope. There’s no other way to describe that sense of loss you feel in the middle of the day when you realize you’re working on a project you enjoy yet it pales in comparison to being at the park with your kid. You just want to spend as much time as possible with your favorite person and that person is not here right now and so…blagh. I used to think I felt this way because my job was making me miserable. It was, and certainly contributed to the feeling but I’ve been at a job I really like for the last two months and still have occasional blagh moments.

Feeling blagh is helpful. It gives you perspective into what really matters and a clue as to how much time to spend worrying about something, regretting a project or bemoaning anything that didn’t go according to plan.

This is how you learn to fall.

Remember the castle boat? Abigail used to struggle with climbing it. She eventually figured it out. We also have this glider (or what non-parents just call “a chair”) she spent significant time learning to climb into and climb out of. I figured it was inevitable she would start climbing on things what with humanity’s tendency toward locomotion so it was probably a good idea for her to learn to do so safely and even learn to fall once in a while. So I taught her how to back out of a chair when she was around a year.  She applied this thinking to the castle boat. Sometimes she fell. And she cried. But she got used to it. And she learned to distinguish between a “whoops” fall and a real fall. And cried less.

Then came the stairs.

Our stairs are steep. We live in a classic Chicago bungalow and unless you’re in pretty decent shape the steps will remind you of  your calf muscles’ existence and how tight your hamstrings are.

One day Abigail decided to climb the stairs. Again, she was barely a year old. Part of me wanted to stop her but the other part of me thought “Well, she has to learn sometime.”

It probably goes without saying that my wife was not home at the time.

She climbed all the way up. Fourteen steps. By herself. I followed immediately behind her, centimeters between her back and my hands, ready to catch her if she lost balance. She didn’t. I was so proud. Several months later she learned to climb down them. Since then, she’s developed a love of playing on the stairs. We’re always with her, except in moments when she’s snuck by us. She’s occasionally lost her balance and hurt herself but hasn’t ever done permanent damage.

From there it was off to the park, climbing the wrong way up the slide. Or the right way up a ladder. Ascending a climbing wall. (No, seriously, there’s a kiddie climbing wall. Surprised me, too.) Occasionally missing a step and bumping her head but doing it all the same.

Then there was climbing onto the bed and accidentally falling off but immediately yelling out “I’m OK!” She says that a lot when it seems like we’ve roughhoused too hard, as much to reassure herself as me.

It’s all been an evolution. Parenting is a long process, but apparently there aren’t so many big leaps forward that it’s unfamiliar.

Eventually, Abigail is going to get bullied. And like someone. She will get her heart broken.  And leave home.

By then she will have learned to fall hard and get up slow.

So will her dad.

Probably not going to take her on a cruise ships anytime soon though.

* Since Abigail was born, our family has never been on a cruise together. Erin and I went on a cruise once and didn’t end up overboard and that was back in 2010 because of Oprah which is a long story but what I’m trying to say here is this possibility does not at all relate to our current circumstances and is therefore completely irrational but popped in my head once and now it occasionally revisits me…like hemorrhoids.

Why bad cultural consumption writing makes writers so mad

August 30, 2013

Yesterday, CBS Local published a list of the best martini bars in Chicago. I had a few things to say about it.

The piece is poorly written and not well-informed. Even if you concede the popular use of the term “martini” no longer means a certain type of drink with gin (or, OK, vodka, if you’re a heathen) and vermouth with an olive, onion or lemon twist and instead means any cocktail served in a triangle-shaped glass – which might be fine! words evolve over time! – it’s laden with awkward or repetitive phrasing like “stylish characters have made the drink even more fashionable by ordering them” or the way Fireplace Inn’s martinis are twice described as afterthoughts to the food. And mentioning Martini Club’s name three times in its writeup seems more about boosting the piece’s SEO value, not the reader’s knowledge, especially if you suggest martinis pair well with Cuban sandwiches.

The author of the above also wrote a questionable piece on the best local rock bands in Chicago, the objections to which were summed up by Chicagoist: “This list is great, if you’re looking to travel back in time to 2004…”

So, a site with little authority on either rock bands or food & drink repeatedly employs a writer not gifted with either knowledge or a kind editor. Who cares, right? Plenty of other stuff to read on the Internet. If you don’t like it, don’t read it!


Getting paid (at all, much less paid well) to write cultural consumption pieces in 2013 is really hard, whether it’s about music, food, events or any other where-to-go, what-to-do activities. It’s a really crowded field. So when you’re a freelance writer of some skill and see someone doing a poor job of it, you think “I could do this so much better! Why aren’t I getting paid for this?” Getting paid to write that piece would have meant ramen with chicken instead of just ramen last week. Of course, publications can pay someone without knowledge and skill a lot less than they can those steeped in culture and craft, which literally devalues good writing. In short, a piece like this contributes to scarcity of resources all around.

It’s especially galling when sites with wide distribution do lists like this because they contribute to a dim view of a city’s culture. CBS Local doesn’t have much authority in these areas but it has a lot of distribution and reach, especially when these pieces are constructed for eyeballs instead of brains. A list of bad picks that pops up on the first page of Google reinforces the idea that Chicago lacks for a quality martini bar and its rock output stopped sometime after the Smashing Pumpkins first broke up. If you’re someone who writes about your city because you love it, it bugs you when you see writing that makes it seem like Chicago has less to offer than a place one-third its size.

Finally, writing a piece with “best” picks that can stand up to amateur and professional criticism is tough, way tougher than it looks. Even if it’s a list of solid choices, the hard work comes in the justification. Communicating the thought process that went into why you chose one place over the other is often impossible due to word count or not wanting to sully your text with “inside baseball” conversation that’s best left to Twitter. When someone produces work that makes it seem like anyone can do it, you start to wonder why you bother to put in the time especially when you start to do the math on the number of hours you spend on it versus how much you got paid.

That’s why it’s important to object when someone does a lousy job. Or respond with your own list like Chicagoist did. And praise/link to really great lists like Chicago magazine’s roundup of best craft beers in Chicago. The same tools and conversation that call out bad work should be the same ones used to elevate the good stuff.

UPDATE: According to Anthony Todd at Chicagoist, CBS is in a partnership with Examiner to re-publish its content. It’s not even commissioning its own work.

This week, over and over

August 28, 2013

It’s outrageous, I tell you.

You know what I’m talking about. The thing that happened on television the other night. The whole thing has me so pissed off. I mean, it’s not enough that…right, exactly. Someone needs to think about the children…right, they’re adults but still. And it’s also the issue of…uh huh, right. It’s definitely an issue, racially speaking. Yeah, I don’t know, I think it’s a cultural thing.

Oh and the news story that one network posted about it? Ridiculous. Get with the times, you know? Oh yeah, there’s a hashtag. It’s trending.

And then there’s the government. No, the local government but don’t get me started on those other guys. Did you see the thing I posted on Facebook? That tells you everything you need to know. Just steamroll right over the little guy, you know? But back to the White House a second: they need to do something. I mean, that can’t just go on, you know? Something needs to happen.

It’s always something.

Did you see that list I linked to on Twitter? Soooo stupid. Totally missing…yeah that and also…right, you know what I’m talking about.

More importantly, did you see who they’re putting in that movie? Come on. Totally wrong for it. And the script’s going to be terrible, you just know it. I mean, if they’re going to do what I think they’re going to do.

I totally forgot to mention this: What about those people with the petition for….right, go live in the suburbs if you can’t take city living, pal.

So much in the news to keep track of, you know? Yeah, I’m as guilty as the next person.

Some days you just need to kick back and relax and watch a few episodes of that show with the guy that deals drugs and kills people, you know? Just to take a break from it all.

Right, OK, see you tomorrow.

Ben Affleck and the Batman Armageddon

August 23, 2013

Ben Affleck will be Batman in the new Superman film (or whatever it is Snyder’s making since the title is still a mystery). This post will be one of 1,438 you will read just today on this topic so I’ll try and be brief especially since I fulminated plenty on Twitter last night.

I like Ben Affleck and have since Chasing Amy. He’s a good actor, charismatic, funny and intelligent. Chasing Amy director Kevin Smith thinks Affleck is so gifted he could play the shark in a remake of Jaws. That’s perhaps a bridge too far but I could definitely see him playing Chief Brody.

The truth is, he’s not utilized well in big films that are more about plot than character. Affleck can carry a film easily but what he does well is character work with a movie star’s bearing. A few compare and contrasts in which Affleck is a lead:

Chasing Amy, Good Will Hunting, Dogma, Bounce, Jersey Girl, Changing Lanes, Hollywoodland, The Company Men, The Town, Argo


Armageddon, Forces of Nature, The Sum of all Fears, Reindeer Games, Daredevil, Paycheck

(The one exception to the above theory seems to be Surviving Christmas. And while Gigli seems to be a smaller film the reasoning behind its creation was certainly high-concept. )

A few of the movies in the first list are not good films - Jersey Girl, for example – but he’s still good in them – which further makes my point and puts the lie to the notion that what matters more in the new Batman film will be the script or the directing. You need someone right for the role. Did people object to Michael Keaton and Heath Ledger in previous Batman films? Yes. But the films they were in played to their strengths, ultimately.

In bigger films, Affleck’s asked to be a movie star with a square-jawed, everyman style. In smaller films, he’s given character work and asked to fill the screen with his movie star presence. In the former, there seems to be a belief that because of Affleck’s charisma you can stick him in any lead role in a film, that you can make him the shark in Jaws if you want and it will work. This belief has not been borne out in experience.

“But wait,” you say! “What if, as with Keaton and Ledger, Snyder makes a movie that plays to Affleck’s strengths?” Snyder’s Man of Steela film I really disliked – was big with an emphasis on plot, not character.* He’s not employed to make subtle character-driven films, he’s asked to make big, splashy movies. Exactly the kind of films Affleck gets lost in. And it suggests the filmmakers believe their film is more about its component parts than the overall story.

Hey, it could be worse! They could have finally decided to make a Wonder Woman movie and cast Katy Perry.

* If you don’t believe me think back to when everyone thinks Jenny Olson is buried under rubble near the end of the movie…don’t remember that? This is my point. The movie makes a really big deal about it as if she’s a character we’ve grown to love through the film even though it hasn’t put in the time with her character to earn it. It just happens so we’re supposed to care.

** I still think the whole Superman vs. Batman thing is overblown and the Batman appearance is going to be a mere cameo in a film that’s all about Superman. The lack of a title in yesterday’s press release seems to point to this but I could be wrong.

Scientist admits his life’s work has made people dumber

August 22, 2013

In 1982, polls showed that 44 percent of Americans believed God had created human beings in their present form. Thirty years later, the fraction of the population who are creationists is 46 percent.

In 1989, when “climate change” had just entered the public lexicon, 63 percent of Americans understood it was a problem. Almost 25 years later, that proportion is actually a bit lower, at 58 percent.

The timeline of these polls defines my career in science…

via Welcome to the Age of Denial –

So I guess we know who to blame now.

(Sorry, I know it’s been a while since I’ve written and my first post back should be more than an immature joke, but I couldn’t resist. Here, dear reader, let me make it up to you: Read this affirmation from Ice-T.)

“The Art of Sexting” – Funny Ha-Ha: 05.04.13

July 6, 2013

Funny Ha Ha May 2013This is the piece I read at Funny Ha Ha in May. As you can see, I got to share the stage with some incredibly talented people.

Due to a busy week of work in the days leading up to the event, I wrote this piece the night before. I’m not wild about the close but I liked the rest of it enough to ignore the complete non-sensical nature of the last line. Deadlines, man.

I’ll also note that this is the draft I walked in with but there were a few ad libs along the way. After two years of live readings, I’m finally figuring out how to let the audience be a part of the reading, rather than just relying on the text.

I’ll admit to you right at the outset: I don’t know much about sexting.

I’m a 38-year-old man and have been married for five years so my dating life was largely unencumbered by the complications born of current technology. Thank Christ. While I did a little online dating back in the 90s when it was still considered the sole haven of weirdos and not, say, your divorced parents, I managed to avoid the problems of whether to hide someone from your Facebook wall when you break up or unfollow them on Twitter so you can’t see all the fun they’re having without you.

Sexting seems more like a thing you do when you’re dating, like leaving the house to go see a movie. The closest I’ve gotten to sexting somebody is when my wife and I were trying to coordinate our commute home from work a couple weeks ago and my iPhone accidentally autocorrected “I can come pick you up” to “I can come oil you up.” I re-texted her the correct phrase but – not wishing to lose out on the moment – I texted “I can do the other thing later.” I didn’t.

Oh actually, the other almost-sexting thing I’ve done on my phone is take pictures of my wife topless…but that was because she was having trouble breastfeeding in the few days after our daughter was born so we hired a lactation consultant who taught us ways to hold our daughter at a certain angle while my wife held her boob in just the right way, all of which was supposed to be the best get the flow of milk going.

I know, pretty sexy, right? THIS IS ALMOST 40.

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