How Old-Time Radio Flourishes in the Digital Era

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Photo Credit: Amanda Kulczewski

If you had visited Chicago’s Public House Theater on a recent June evening, you would have witnessed a most curious sight: a dozen actors and actresses adorned in 1940s-era suits, hats, and dresses gathered around microphones and performing an old-time radio comedy in front of a cheering crowd. You would have met a bearded ex-pirate named Captain Jonathan Sunset, four harmonious women sounding strikingly like the Andrews Sisters, the voluptuous Southern Belle, and a space-traveling detective named Joe Jupiter. Welcome to the world of Locked into Vacancy Entertainment (LIVE), a Chicago acting troupe that has re-imagined vintage radio shows for a digital society. In an exclusive interview, LIVE Founder Shane Hill shares with me lessons for making content from another era relevant and engaging to the Millennial generation.

LIVE, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, consists of actors and musicians who perform a mix of comedy and mystery just like radio programs of the 1940s and 1950s used to do. The group — described on its Facebook page as “Harnessing the Sticky Goo of Inspiration” — conceives of, and delivers, a whacky series of adventures featuring characters like the time-traveling Joe Jupiter (portrayed by Hill),who encounters a random assortment of aliens and oddballs while swapping random one-liners that sound like a cross between Adventure Time, Doctor Who, and radio noir. As Hill explains in the following interview, LIVE shows are geared toward families, both parents and kids alike. In doing so, LIVE has a seemingly formidable task: make an entertainment format relevant to Gen X, Y, and Millennials who were not alive in the golden era of radio.

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According to Hill, entertainment from the analog era, if done well, feels fresh because it’s new to the digital generation. And in a sense, by developing characters like Joe Jupiter and Captain Jonathan Sunset, LIVE is doing what Marvel Comics has accomplished on a larger scale by making World War II-era archetypes such as Captain America appeal to the present day.

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Unlike Marvel, LIVE relies on no computer-generated special effects. The LIVE shows are performed in the manner of vintage radio, using live music and sound effects in front of a live audience. LIVE then makes the shows available via podcast on its website and social channels — thus tapping into the surging podcast market.

LIVE performs every few months at the Public House Theater, with its next show occurring September 14. As Hill explains, LIVE is steadily expanding its audience beyond Chicago by sharing its shows digitally. The live shows reward an in-person audience with the visual appeal of a cast mugging as they read scripts into microphones, relying on their voices, clothing, and body English to create energy. On podcast, listeners create their own intimacy with the LIVE team and fill in the details with their imaginations as was done in the radio era.

“LIVE provides theater of the mind,” Hill explains. “Theater of the mind will appeal to anyone if it’s done right.”

Read on for our interview, which provides insight into an imaginative theater experience.

Describe Locked into Vacancy Entertainment in one sentence.

Locked into Vacancy Entertainment is an old-time radio experience with a modern-day approach.

Where did the idea for LIVE come from?

LIVE was inspired by The Thrilling Adventure Hour, a production in Los Angeles also captures the spirit of old-time radio. I have always loved those great radio comedies and mysteries that flourished decades ago, when radio was the primary way that American families brought entertainment and information to their homes. About a year ago, I found some old radio scripts for the holidays that inspired me. Some fellow actors and I agreed that those old scripts would still sound great in a podcast environment. We were inspired to create our own shows with original material. Conducting LIVE shows is like time travel: the audience and the cast together experience a form of entertainment and cultural expression that was popular many years ago.

Where did your love of radio entertainment shows originate? Continue reading

Designing the Unseen Details

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Superior design means getting little details right — even the parts that no one can see. In his landmark biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson tells the story of Jobs’s obsession to detail in the design of the breakthrough Apple II personal computer, down to the engineering of the power supply inside the computer. Jobs wanted the Apple II to provide power without needing to use a fan inside the unit because he believed fans were distracting. So he hired an engineer named Rod Holt, who created a new power system that was more efficient and superior to a fan-based supply. Isaacson writes:

Jobs’s father had once taught him that a drive for perfection meant caring about the craftsmanship even of the parts unseen. Jobs applied that to the layout of the circuit board inside the Apple II. He rejected the initial design because the lines were not straight enough.

One of my favorite examples of designing the unseen details comes from Outpost Trading Company, which created this Beatles T shirt that depicts A Hard Day’s Night:

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The design really gets interesting on the inside, which no one but the owner can see. Beneath the Outpost Trading Company label is an awesome silhouette of the iconic Abbey Road album cover:

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The discerning eye might note that the Beatles look like they are walking the wrong way, going from the right side to the left, instead of the left-right sequence depicted on the album cover. But when you wear the T-shirt, the Beatles are walking left to right as they did on the cover — unseen to anyone, like a private joke shared with the shirt wearer.

The unseen details make the difference between an ordinary product and a special experience that rewards the buyer with a more personalized feel. Unseen details also create curiosity: I definitely want to learn more about Outpost Trading Company in addition to admiring the T shirt. Unseen details also send a message to customers: our brand trusts you. We trust you to take the time to notice something subtle about our product, and we trust that you’ll appreciate the effort we have taken to go the extra mile and do something other brands might not do.

These little details are often associated with premium products and services such as gourmet dining. But any kind of brand can embed unseen details in its products and services to achieve surprise and delight, as fast-food chain In-n-Out Burger has done with its “Secret Menu.” The Secret Menu originally consisted of custom-made food orders off the menu, available only if you knew to ask for them. The Secret Menu eventually became not very secret, but the concept still helps In-n-Out Burger position itself as a hip, even cult brand.

What are your favorite examples of unseen design?

How Four Teens Taught Brands a Real-Time Marketing Lesson

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You have probably heard the story by now: a 16-year-old Omaha resident named Tom White is a media sensation thanks to an amateur photo of White grinning with Sir Paul McCartney and Warren Buffett. But Tom White and the three teenagers who helped him create the moment on the streets of Omaha are more than a passing story. They have taught brands a valuable lesson about how to do real-time marketing right.

As reported via an interview with CNN, on July 13, White, with the help of his friends Luke Koesters, Jacob Murray, and Drew Tvrdy, captured what appears to be a fortuitous brush with fame. Murray photographed White grinning and giving a thumbs-up while McCartney and Buffett sat casually on a bench looking like they were just shooting the breeze. After White posted the image on his Instagram account, the photo went viral. Within 48 hours, the image accumulated more than 4,800 likes and hundreds of comments. Paul McCartney tweeted the photo, and news media such as ABC, BuzzFeed, and Mashable covered the encounter.

Far from being a random moment, the viral photo is a result of four kids hustling to create their own news. Here’s what White and his friends did right — and what brands should be doing more consistently with real-time marketing:

  • Listened. On the evening of July 13, White’s friend Jacob Murray noticed an amateur Instagram post mentioning that Paul McCartney had been spotted on the streets of the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha. In fact, McCartney was in town for a concert and was going out for some ice cream with the legendary financial wizard Buffett, an Omaha resident. Murray did what many brands strive to do on a larger scale: performed some good old-fashioned social listening. Credit Murray for being hyperaware of a rapidly unfolding event.
  • Acted quickly. Uncovering an opportunity is one thing; acting on it is another matter. Murray quickly notified his friends of the Macca sighting. Koesters, Murray, Tvrdy, and White hustled over to Dundee with their smart phones and personal belongings to autograph, including a guitar and Abbey Road album cover. In the CNN interview, note how aware they were of the need for speed. White notes that by the time they arrived at Dundee, the Instagram photo that tipped them off was already seven minutes old — correctly noting that seven minutes is an eternity in the world of real-time marketing.

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New Report: Content Marketing Is “the Show Horse” of Customer Acquisition

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Content marketing is the show horse of customer acquisition and retention — and second only to social media as a digital marketing spending priority among U.S. brands, according to my newly published report for Gigaom.

The report, Workhorses and Dark Horses: Digital Tactics for Customer Acquisition, examines how companies use digital to acquire customers (beyond awareness building). Content marketing emerges as an essential priority along with email marketing, social media, and search engine optimization. Workhorses and Dark Horses counsels brands to apply content systematically across digital touch points to guide prospects them along a path to acquisition and conversion.

64 Percent of Marketers Use Content Marketing Regularly

Workhorses and Dark Horses is based on a new Gigaom survey of 300 U.S. digital marketers. We wanted to understand how brands are using digital marketing tactics across the marketing funnel, spanning awareness, customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. We also asked marketers to tell us about their 2014 spending priorities. Our survey affirms that digital marketing is being used consistently across the entire customer experience. Here’s what we learned about content marketing:

  • 64 percent of marketers use content marketing regularly, making content marketing the fourth most popular tactic behind email, social media, and search engine optimization (SEO). The popularity of both content marketing and SEO together underscores the importance of inbound marketing.

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  • Marketers find content marketing most useful for awareness building and customer retention.

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Email and Referral Marketing: The Workhorse and Dark Horse for Customer Acquisition

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Digital long ago established itself as a channel for brand building and direct marketing. But what are the most popular digital tools for acquiring customers? According to my newly published report for Gigaom Research, the unsexy tactic of email marketing is a digital workhorse, popular for awareness building, and customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. And referral marketing, not used as widely as other tactics, provides an especially strong payoff for its practitioners. My report suggests to marketers that acquiring customers in the digital era is like creating a mosaic: to achieve a beautiful outcome, companies need to apply the right blend of tactics. For instance, brands should consider using social media and referral marketing to complement lists created for email campaigns.

The report, Workhorses and Dark Horses: Digital Tactics for Customer Acquisition, is based on a Gigaom survey of 300 U.S. digital marketers. We wanted to understand how they are using digital marketing tactics across the marketing funnel, spanning awareness, customer acquisition, conversion, and retention. Our survey affirms that digital marketing is being used consistently across the entire customer experience.

Marketers told us that social media, already well known as an awareness-building tool, is also particularly useful for customer retention. Content marketing is especially useful for awareness and retention. And email is consistently used across the entire marketing funnel.

Digital Marketing Spend Set to Increase

Here are the key findings of our survey:

  • Nearly 60 percent of companies plan to increase their digital marketing spend in 2014.
  • Email marketing is the digital workhorse, deemed the most effective (relative to other digital tactics) for building awareness, acquisition, retention, and conversion. In fact, 56 percent of respondents identified email as being the most effective at retention, several points ahead of the second-most-effective tactic.
  • Social spending is set to increase, but we discern some buying on faith with social. More marketers plan to spend more on social media marketing than any other digital tactic. But when we asked marketers to describe their perceptions of social media marketing, more marketers agreed with the statement “It is difficult to prove ROI for social media marketing” than with any other statement.
  • Referral marketing is a digital marketing dark horse. Only 39 percent of marketers use it regularly, but 43 percent of those who do use it acquire more than 35 percent of their new customers with it. These numbers are double the percentage of marketers who report such acquisition rates using email. Brands that invest in referral can gain a competitive advantage over those investing elsewhere.

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