All That and a Bag of Mail

It’s Friday, and what a week it has been for Outkick. The site broke the news about the Robert Lee mess at ESPN on Tuesday evening and ever since then we’ve dominated the news cycle. Millions of people have read the site and watched me on Fox News, CNN, and Headline News. It’s been truly amazing to watch.

But that wasn’t all we did.

Late on Monday afternoon we officially launched Outkick VIP and as I’m writing this early on Friday morning, over 500 of you have already signed up for Outkick VIP. I didn’t have any idea what to expect when we launched Outkick VIP — after all, you’re reading the dude who thought he was going to totally dominate the pants business — but I’d put a target number of 1000 subscribers by the end of college football season.

And even that number was a wild guess because we’ve never done anything with a subscription service. Now I’m fairly confident we’re going to have over a thousand subscribers before college football season even starts. I have no idea where the ceiling is, but it’s definitely in the thousands of subscribers. The more VIP subscribers we have the more amazing the private events we’ll be able to do.

So thanks for all the early support of Outkick VIP. We already have VIP events scheduled in Atlanta and Nashville and we’ll be coming to Houston, Dallas, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Memphis, Knoxville, Charlotte, Kansas City, St. Louis, Birmingham, 30A in Florida, and other locations as well over the course of the next year. The other locations are TBD because I’m going to look at the cities where subscribers are from and make decisions on where to go based on the numbers.

So go sign up, $99 gets you a year subscription plus a free tshirt. And our VIP message board has already started to get really active with every possible subject under the sun.

Okay, on to the mailbag.

Jon writes:

“I have a theory that gets very little discussion with regards to ESPN, their decisions, and PC culture in general. My theory is based around marketing executives getting more power within board rooms over the last decade. The reasoning behind their power rise is due to the marketing analytic revolution that has taken place. They are the ones with unbelievable “perceived” insights into their consumers, but this is leading to false positives within a lot of companies’ narratives.

Let me explain.

The cornerstone of every marketing executive’s strategy right now is digital (social, search, etc.), and rightfully so. It is the most scalable and is very easily and precisely quantified and evaluated. Executives love aspects that are easily measured. This alone is not the problem. The problem arises when you start to believe that the data obtained gives you a fair cross section of your customer’s voice. In the study done by Pew Research Center, (found here: http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/04/25/part-2-political-engagement-on-social-networking-sites/ ) the study shows that Liberal Democrats are far more politically engaged on social than any other party + ideology, sometimes by margins as great as 47% ((56-38)/38) over Conservative Republicans. In marketing analytics, this might as well be an ocean apart. These executives are seeing the topics that are getting engagement versus other traditional topics that aren’t and are shifting strategy accordingly. The problem is their analytics are totally missing the silent party that just doesn’t engage equally on social media, but consumes their product at an equal rate. I believe this is the main reason that companies are completely missing their mark, and are honestly oblivious to it.

What is your take, Clay?”

This is such a great question that I’m going to spend the entire mailbag addressing it.

Social media has led to a distortion of what the public actually wants. You can’t serve your entire audience by reacting to social media. And I think that’s what brands are trying to do now. Everyone lives in fear of going viral for a negative reason.

But here’s the deal — nothing happens when a brand goes viral for a negative reason, the story lasts for a day and then it’s over. The impact is negligible. Look at these test cases:

Remember when United Airlines was never going to recover from dragging the doctor off the plane? Turns out that entire awful episode, which lasted a week or more in the news and I think most companies would consider about as bad as it could possibly get, had zero impact on their brand’s earnings or revenue. You know why? Because people still had to fly and if their flight was the cheapest they were still going to pick it.

Remember when everyone said Chick fil A was screwed because they opposed gay marriage and went viral online with everyone ripping them? You know what happened? Chick fil A makes twice as much per store as their next closest competitor even though they are closed on Sunday. By just saying screw you to the protesters they actually ended up benefiting off going viral.

Look at Uber, which has been embroiled in negative viral controversies for most of the past year. You know what happened? People took twice as many Ubers this year as last year.

All three of these stories are emblematic of a larger issue — what companies fear online only impacts their brand if that brand isn’t doing a good job at their core business.

There are tens of thousands of gay people who eat at Chick fil A every day. Do you know why? Because the chicken sandwich is amazing.

The CEOs of Uber and Lyft could come out and say America is being unfair to ISIS and I’d still use Uber or Lyft. You know why? Because Uber and Lyft are infinitely better than a taxi.

Hell, look at all the times I’ve gone viral and people have wanted to kill me online. All of them were beneficial to me because they increased my profile. Yet most media members would be terrified to go through what I’ve gone through. The truth is this as long as you aren’t facing jail time, all publicity is good publicity.

Don’t run from the controversy, embrace.

So I think the biggest issue here is brands live in perpetual fear that their company is going to fall apart on social media. But if you look at negative viral controversies — and United Airlines is the perfect example — even when things are awful there’s no long term impact if the company’s core business is fine.

I always tell my kids to focus on the worst thing that can happen when they have a fear. Most of the time the worst thing doesn’t happen, but if it does, you’ll be prepared. Companies fear the worst thing happening, but if the worst thing doesn’t happen the impact is negligible. Social media isn’t real life, it’s entertainment.

People move on to the next controversy. I bet most people can’t even tell you which airline it was that dragged the doctor off the plane now. They just have a vague recollection that it happened. When they shop for their next flight they are probably going to book whoever has the cheapest seat.

This obsession with social media isn’t new, people in positions of power have always been terrified of the people that put them in that position of power. Particularly in sports. Now that fear is just reflected in social media instead of message boards or talk shows or newspapers.

Back in the day college administrators used to spend oodles of time trying to figure out whether message boards — which they monitored obsessively while claiming they paid no attention to them at all — accurately reflected the overall mindset of a fan base. I can’t tell you the number of times I talked to college administrators who would ask me that question, what are fans thinking? Are message boards or comments online to articles reflective of actual opinions? The answer is, no they aren’t reflective. Message boards, like social media, are a stage and everyone is doing whatever they can to draw attention to themselves. This means strong opinions, pro or con, dominate.

The best story I’ve heard about the false dynamic of message boards came from my buddy Chris Vernon, who talked about how when he first started doing local Memphis radio he went on a Memphis Tiger message board to see what people were saying about the show. There was an entire thread that day discussing how Vernon had the worst show in the history of radio. (He’s actually very good at radio, but the story is reflective of what many people in media deal with. We all get crushed by anonymous people online no matter how good we are at our jobs).

So Vernon read that thread, and future threads about how bad he was, and eventually decided to go to an event where all the guys on the message board met up in person. At the meet-up they all walked around with their screen names on name tags on their shirts. And what happened? He recognized many of the guys from their screen names. And the same exact guys who had ripped him online came up to him and said how much they loved the show.

Turns out their online opinions were entirely different than their face-to-face opinions.

And I’ve found that to be true everywhere.

People are always surprised when I say this, but I’ve never had someone say a negative word to me in person. Not once in my entire career. In real life people, even those who have professed to hate me online, want pictures. That’s because social media — and message boards — are like WWE events where the wrestler takes the mic. Everyone is trying to put on a show and they’re frequently saying things they don’t even mean for the attention.

So you have to be careful about how much credence you give it.

I’ll give you another example in my own career, I put out a poll a few months ago asking how people on Twitter how they listened to Outkick on radio. I gave four options: regular radio, satellite radio, podcast, and streaming through I heart radio. On Twitter the audience split almost evenly across all four options.

But as my boss Scott Shapiro pointed out when you look at the data, regular radio dominates the other three.

Now this makes total sense when you think about it, we’re on 250+ AM, FM radio stations in all fifty states across the country so most people are going to hear our show on radio, but my survey suggested people consumed the show evenly across all those places.

That wasn’t remotely accurate.

It may have been accurate for Twitter, but only 15% of American people are on Twitter and much less that are going to be active when it comes to voting in Twitter polls.

If I just used social media as a gauge of where my audience is, I’d miss out on the vast, vast majority of the audience that isn’t active on social media. And that was an important lesson to me that reinforced one of the guiding tenets of my career, trust your instincts, don’t trust what Twitter tells you.

I used to talk about this all the time when it came to doing terrestrial radio at 104.5 the Zone in Nashville. Just about every security guard, cop, and waiter in the city of Nashville listened to our show. They all wanted to talk about it as soon as they heard my voice. But most of these guys weren’t sitting around on Twitter all day. They had actual jobs that required them to move around and they weren’t able to check their phones and obsessively react every day to every little event that happened.

That’s how most people are.

You still hit the masses on radio and TV, not on social media.

Now I obviously have another show, Outkick the Show, that is entirely distributed through Twitter and Facebook and the audience is large and loyal and almost all from social media. So I love what social media provides us. But Outkick isn’t just a social media brand and that’s important for me to remember. There are millions of people who listen to Outkick every year that won’t ever see a Tweet I send.

In fact, that’s most of the people.

Jamie Horowitz, the former president of FS1, actually made this analogy to me and I think he’s right. He said I spent too much time on social media — not just me, but everyone like me — he said something really smart, which I’m doing my best to quote here: “Why do you read your mentions? You don’t walk up to strange people on the street all day asking them what they think of you, so why would you care what strange people online think of you on Twitter? You’re the person with the opinion, you’re the talent. People talk about their opinions of you and your opinions to other people. You don’t talk with them about their opinion of you.”

He’s right, that would be pathetic in real life. Yet most people spend all day doing it online.

This is why the TV show West World fits our modern culture so well, people in West World become something they’re not online and I believe the same thing happens with social media. Everyone on social media is providing the most idealized version of their life possible. There are no cheating husbands, kids that drive you crazy, parents that are insufferable, everything on social media is a beautiful medley of curated perfection.

But it’s not real life.

What’s more, social media is seductive to businesses because it carries the allure of a definitive answer about what people want. Just do this — and avoid this — and your brand will win!  The problem is companies are so terrified of criticism on social media that they don’t recognize it’s only a fraction of their consumers. Companies are over reactive to the noise there and I think a big reason why is because executives realize that not being plugged in on social media is one of the ways they can lose their jobs. Because being divorced from social media fuels the perception that you’re disengaged and not keeping up with the rapid technological transformation taking place in first world life.

We’ve moved from, “Let’s think about this,” to “JUST DO SOMETHING!”

ESPN’s a perfect sports example of this evolution.

Back in 2012 I was talking with ESPN execs at the Notre Dame-Alabama title game and we were discussing the disconnect between how Lou Holtz and Chris Berman were received in public vs. how they were received on social media. In public these guys were mobbed and people loved them. But on Twitter they got crushed all the time. So the execs were asking, do you consider the real life response or the Twitter response?

At that point in time the ESPN execs were arguing they needed to take into account the real life response instead of the online response. And I was arguing the online response made more sense and was probably more honest. But since that time I think we’ve both flipped on that — ESPN has taken my side and I’ve taken ESPN’s side.

What I think matters on social media now isn’t listening to what people say, I think it’s being yourself. In the past five years I’ve moved much more into politics and pop culture and shared even more of my life. I’ve become an open book. So much so that criticism really has no impact on me. If you don’t like me, fine, just spell my name right in the articles about why you hate me.

Flash forward five years and Holtz and Berman are both out at ESPN, replaced by younger, “hipper” and more plugged in social media users on air. What’s ESPN’s consistent mantra whenever they are criticized for their programming decisions? They’re trying to reflect America. And which America are they reflecting? Not the ones watching their games, they’re trying to reflect the America they see on social media.

And it’s led them badly astray because that’s a false version of America.

It’s like an athletic department trying to run their program based on what a message board thinks, it would be a disaster.

This morning the Today Show had a great interview with Doug Adler, the former ESPN tennis commentator who was fired for using the phrase “guerrilla effect” on air. You guys are probably familiar with that story because Outkick was one of the only places that would talk about how absurd this issue was. We’ve had Adler on the show several times. How did we initially get in touch with Adler? Because ESPN employees he knew listened to the show when we talked about his firing the first time, agreed with us, and put him in touch with me on to come on the show.

Watch that Today Show interview here.

Why did ESPN fire Adler? Because people on Twitter accused him of being racist and ESPN is so hyper sensitive to all criticism that rather than defend a guy who wasn’t racist they tossed him to the mob and rid the company of him. The vast majority of people did not agree with this decision.

That’s because the vast majority of people aren’t on Twitter. And even those who are thought that ESPN had behaved rashly.

With the Robert Lee mess this week ESPN specifically says they made the decision to move him off the University of Virginia game to avoid a few jokes and memes on Twitter. This means they were making a decision to try and protect their brand because they were worried about the 1% of people — and that’s probably too high of a number — who would ridicule them on social media instead of the 99% who wouldn’t care. In so doing ESPN managed to alienate 100% of the people. (Because the 1% would have ripped them either way).

If I were teaching a course in college right now I’d use the Doug Adler and Robert Lee examples in my class of how a company can overreact to social media. Combining that with the apology from ESPN for the fantasy football draft resembling a slave draft and in five years ESPN has gone from a company that trusts its own instincts to a company that is so desperately afraid of anything bad being said about it online that they make disastrous decisions.

Look, I love social media, but it’s a fun house mirror. It doesn’t reflect real life, it distorts it to comedic effect. You have to remember that you’re polling just 15% or so of the overall audience and that 15% that chose to get on social media is overwhelmingly more liberal, young, and “woke” than the rest of the population.

The media is addicted to Twitter because it provides easy stories and controversy and offers an artificial reflection of real life, but it isn’t reflective of their overall audiences. This, for instance, is why I think ESPN has alienated so much of its core audience. They’ve been worried about placating the vocal minority on Twitter instead of serving the vast majority of their audience which never engages on social media.

Guys like boobs, beer, and sports. Twitter likes transgender people, a beer produced by a microbrew that only makes 180 growlers a day, and doesn’t actually like sports. So if I took my lead from Twitter, everyone would hate Outkick except for a tiny number of people. But that tiny number of people would be active online and people would think it reflected real life.

Only it wouldn’t.

So here’s my thought for all of you out there — if you’re an executive running a company or an executive in a position of prominence at a company or just a guy or girl climbing the ranks, how did you get where you are over the past 20-25 years? You got there by trusting your instincts about what people want and being good at your job. So now that you’re in a prominent place in a company why would you make a decision based on what people on social media thought?

It’s one thing if social media has the same opinion that you already have, but if you have a different opinion than social media, shouldn’t you trust your own instincts over what anonymous people on social media are saying? Not reacting to social media at all is a danger, but overreacting to social media is probably even a greater threat to a company.

And right now I think we’re all in the overreacting stage.

There’s wisdom in the masses, but it’s important to remember that most of the masses aren’t active on social media.

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