Sunday, September 29, 2013

Selling to the "Singletons"

People who live by themselves today are not alone. That's because 32 million Americans live on their own, including about half of all adults in New York City and Washington D.C. So we should find out what's wrong and push them to get married? Not if you want to make money. As Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at NYU pointed out, these single people (whom he dubs "singletons") are spending more than those who are married. The average singleton spent $34,471 per capita in 2010, according to the federal Consumer Expenditure survey. Married people without children spent $28,017 and the highest-spending married people with children spent $23,179 per person. Klinenberg, who wrote the book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, wrote in Fortune last year that businesses are already targeting this growing demographic:
Home-improvement giant Lowe's (LOW) released a TV advertisement featuring a lone woman who is renovating her bathroom. Iconic car-brand Chevrolet ran an ad in which a single woman responds to a bad date by going for a drive in a Malibu with a female friend. Even DeBeers, which long pitched its diamonds as the embodiment of a couple's romantic bond, has sold a "right-hand ring" for unmarried women who want to treat themselves to elegant jewelry. Singletons are a rising presence -- and American business has only begun to respond.
So how should this affect our communication strategies? Here are a few ideas:

Target market: You often hear candidates running for office talk about middle-class families struggling to survive. But that excludes millions of people living on their own. Forget families or singletons: just call "them" people, residents, or men and women.

Logistics: Some people don't like communal tables at restaurants, but I do. If the goal is merely cosmetic -- i.e. to avoid the embarrassment of sitting alone -- then make sure you have a plethora of electrical outlets for mobile devices. If you want a more social atmosphere, then people at the table need to order together and share dishes. Not easy, but it works at places with great food in the south, like Buckner's Family Restaurant.

Message: Focus on the universal benefits of your product or service. Eat Life cereal because it's healthy and tastes good (not because Mikey likes it). Use this Ocean Breeze soap because it makes you clean. (Great thinking from Kermit the Frog). Even diapers today could be changed by a single man as easily as a married woman. So don't pigeonhole yourself. Use people, instead of family members, to communicate your message.

Do you have any ideas about how to reach, or not exclude, the growing market of people who live alone? Please share them below.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reduce CYA, Boost KSA

I recently learned about a skill that executives need to use in their emails to move up the corporate ladder: it's called CYA. There are debates about when CYA was first introduced to the English language, but none put it more eloquently than the late William Safire of The New York Times in 1987. Safire defined CYA as "to diffuse responsibility," and related it to another ass-related term that means "to hustle."
The first two initials of C.Y.A. stand for ''cover your,'' and the dread ''a'' word is expressed variously as rear end, butt, behind, backside, tail, seat, or, if you are President Reagan, keister. The objection to the operative word is of long standing; a new sense has evolved that uses the word for the posterior as a synecdoche for the whole person, and now to move one's backside means merely to move oneself quickly. Thus the initials today are an anachronism, euphemizing a meaning that has changed.
While the digital age has made CYA easier than ever before, covering your ass is not a new phenomenon. Before email, there were memos filled in triplicate. And a few thousand years before that, there was the story of Adam and Eve, in which diffusing responsibility (and disobeying God) led to man's banishment from the Garden of Eden. So why is CYA an important skill that we need to learn? What would the world be like if we always had to take responsibility for our actions?

For sure, it would be a boring. It would be like watching one long post-game news conference, with the losing team offering nothing but cliches to explain their poor performance: "We had our chances and just didn't execute. We need to work hard this week and take it one game at a time."

But it would also create a greater sense of camaraderie, where everyone on a business team shares responsibility no matter what the outcome. Call it socialism, or a world of make-believe, but who knows? Maybe there will come a time when employees focus less on covering their ass, and more on kicking some ass.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Commander of Nazi Death Camp or Loving and Loyal Father?

Brigitte Höss of Virginia is an 80 year old grandmother who was recently diagnosed with cancer. But I'm not sure how sorry I feel for her.

Brigitte is not responsible for the actions of her father, Rudolf Höss, who built and commanded Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp where more than 1 million people were murdered. Nor should she feel bad about keeping the stories of her sheltered and luxurious childhood until age 11 to herself. But the way she thinks of her father now, and the way she understands the Holocaust today, gives me pause.

In an interview with Thomas Harding, author of a new book about the capture of Rudolf Höss, Brigitte said she knew as a child that her father ran a prison camp, but still doubts that six million Jews were killed during World War II. "Brigitte does not deny that atrocities took place or that Jews and others were murdered in the camps, but she questions that millions were killed," wrote Harding in The Washington Post. "'How can there be so many survivors if so many had been killed?' she asks."

She said her father was forced by the British to confess that he killed more than million Jews during the War. “He was the nicest man in the world,” she told Harding. “He was very good to us.” She recalled them eating together, playing in the garden, and reading Hansel and Gretel, Harding wrote.

Eight years ago, I wrote a story for The Journal News about the recollections of four residents of the Lower Hudson Valley who were children when victory was declared in Europe in 1945. Among those I interviewed was a man who grew up in Germany during World War II and whose father fought in the German Army. The man said his father didn't join the Nazi party, a decision that both placed him on the front lines during the War and allowed him to move to the U.S. afterward. I remember asking if he was proud of his father. He said he was, and I don't blame him: like Brigitte, he was just a child who loved his dad. But there were also millions of children murdered during the Holocaust. As a Jew, I can never forget.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Where Were You on 9/11? Don't Ask

For 11 years we've remembered the day that terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 innocent people. But I still avoid conversations that begin: Where were you on 9/11? I know it's an open-ended question that prompts us to share first-hand accounts of that tragic day and its global impact. But whether it's survivor's guilt, hypersensitivity, or both, I just don't feel comfortable sharing my story.

Maybe it's because I was a young reporter at a daily newspaper in the suburbs north of New York City, just getting to work with no idea how big a story it was. Or perhaps, it was because my job post-9/11 was to help find out who died and write about them. In the first few days and weeks, it was making calls and knocking on doors, trying to find out if husbands and wives knew the status of their loved ones. Soon, I was covering memorial services and funerals, from Central Park to Scarsdale, learning about the people who died just because they worked in those two towers. It was hard for sure; but I always felt lucky just to be alive. I saw the funerals as a chance not only to write about the lives of victims, but also to learn from them. Some weeks or months after 9/11, the news staff received an email from a top editor, recognizing the work we had all done and offering us the option to turn down another funeral assignment if it was just too tough. I remember appreciating that message: the editors recognized we were all human.

Still, I never turned down an assignment. It was not because I was better than other reporters, whom I hope took breaks whenever needed. But I guess I saw reporting as my duty to the victims and their families. It didn't matter where I was on 9/11; it only mattered where they were.

Monday, September 2, 2013

"The Newsroom" is to "The Wire" as Hollywood is to Reality

Discussing a story in the newsroom of HBO's The Wire.
A few weeks ago, journalists on CNN's Reliable Sources were discussing whether HBO's The Newsroom reflected the reality of life in a newsroom. The answer was, of course, no: it heightened office drama and competition between journalists to make the show compelling. It also sounded a lot like another show created by Aaron Sorkin: The West Wing. While The West Wing brought the White House to life, it was also preachy and over the top, with characters alternating between witty commentary and in-depth policy analysis with more speed and poise than even the smartest of our nation's presidents.

I can't help but think of a show only a few years earlier on HBO that was by the far one of the best written dramas ever: The Wire. The show depicted Baltimore drug dealers, police officers, drug addicts, politicians, and journalists as real people, struggling to survive in their jobs and their private lives. In the fifth season, the show goes into the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun, and brings together the problems that have plagued print journalism in recent years: from a reporter who makes up news (think Jayson Blair of The New York Times), to an executive editor who cares more about winning a Pulitzer than naming a source. There are even layoffs at the paper, something that has plagued newspapers across the country for the past decade.

Still, the most accurate depictions of life in The Wire's newsroom come from the moments that are most ordinary. There's the scene where the city editor is worried that he might have made a mistake in a story, and calls the copy desk in the middle of the night to double check. Many reporters are guilty of being that neurotic; it's part of a job where accuracy is key and your work is displayed in front of the world every day. And there are the scenes where the city editor is in the newsroom: focused and analytical as he assigns and reads stories, and frustrated and angry as he sees the integrity of the paper begin to crumble. It's not as frenetic and sexy as The Newsroom, but then again, life never really is.