Founder, CEO of NewsPrime, Inc., building a global network dedicated to saving local news.
Want to know how to survive as an independent business owner? Ask a media-savvy teenager about their day.
Don’t do it to discover what’s trending; do it to catalog their actions, their anxieties and their relationships with people and the world outside of their microverse. In particular, pay attention to the way they craft their online persona.
Even though much of our reality has changed in recent years, many of the concepts we use to define that reality have not caught up with the times.
When we use terms like “telephone,” “movie” and “television,” we are most often not referring to a landline phone, a 35mm motion picture film or an over-the-air broadcast television, yet we use these terms because we are comfortable with them. I belong to that generation of artists that Banksy accused of abandoning fine art in favor of advertising (another conversation). Without looking back, I went on to create many thousands of hours of television programming and pioneer many new technologies that have helped change the nature of what we call “media.”
While I can’t remember the exact date, there was a moment when I realized that television as we knew it no longer existed. My colleagues in the newspaper industry, however, continued to believe that they were in the business of printing ink on wood pulp. They conflated their business — news — with their medium — ink on paper. They even called themselves “papers.” Any teenager probably could have told them that was so yesterday.
Today, the concepts we use to define our understanding of words like “society,” “community” and “media,” to name a few, have changed. Many of us, however, have never adapted to, or fully understood, those conceptual changes, and so we use familiar words like “newspaper,” “television” and “store” to identify our businesses in the real world, just as we use the words “Emily,” “Ralph” and “vegetarian” to identify ourselves in the real world.
In the 20th century, the word “media” applied to the different technologies used to convey news, information, entertainment and, later, to the product carried by the technologies. For example, “television” and “magazine” were forms of media, but television shows and magazine articles both came to be labeled as “media.” That was in the olden days.
Also back in the olden days, the words, images and ideas being trafficked by the different carrier media were at a remove. They were not “in the room.” Most people did not see their friends, or their lunch, in the media. That’s not the case now.
All prior forms of media, which is to say all the previous transport mechanisms for words, images and ideas, have been integrated into portable electronic devices. Media is no longer “over there”; it is definitely in the room, and friends, dogs, meals and opinions are a major part of the media we consume.
This is Andy Warhol’s world, where everybody is famous for 15 minutes and everything is a brand. Actors, musicians and artists already understood this, to one extent or another, but this is true of everything now, from artists to cities, food and even buildings. Artists, cities, public institutions, food, water and even buildings have their own separate presence on the internet. They are the signifiers, if you will, for the things being signified.
Andy Warhol, Lady Gaga, Walt Disney, Salvador Dalí and media-savvy teenagers have a lot in common, including the understanding of brand or persona and their relationship to objective reality. One is a distilled essence of the other, with impurities and imperfections boiled out, leaving only superficial indicators, symbols, icons, graphics and emojis.
Here’s where you come in: Yesterday you were just a business. Today you are a media channel. You’re not just the business, but the representation of the business.
You will be found online. Your goods and services will be analyzed and critiqued online, and the entire package — graphics, text and videos — will be compared to similar representations of similar goods and services also found online. Your customer will either swipe right or swipe left.
Now go talk to that teenager again, because they know something that even a lot of advertising professionals don’t seem to fully understand: There is no perception of scale online. Once an object, person, place or idea is represented on any screen, size and location are abstracted. There is little difference in perceived scale between a big company and a little company except for subtle, or not so subtle, distinctions in their presentation. That is to say, a real newspaper and a fake newspaper can look identical, as can a small boutique and a luxury brand, and, to bring it home, a top model and an “Insta-model.” The differences can be subtle.
Use this superpower. Today you are a channel. You are the medium. You are the message.
Teenagers who are active on social media often know exactly which are the most flattering poses for their selfies. Learn from the masters. Your business — your brand — has a personality. Find your most attractive pose.
Your persona is next. What characteristics does your brand embody? Put a little “who” in the “what.” Stumped on how to do that? Here’s a trick: Think of six verbs off the top of your head. Now, describe your brand using those verbs.
Want to learn another trick? Wear the same “clothes” every day. What I mean is if you always look, act and sound the same, you will be easier to remember. Many people would be unrecognizable if they just changed clothes. If the pope changed clothes, would you recognize him? If every McDonald’s restaurant looked completely different, people would not recognize the brand as they drove past it.
Andy Warhol understood the impact of repetition and reproduction. Don’t just get your message out; do it non-stop. Where traditional media had reach, new media has frequency. Repetition is key.
So, go get your 15 minutes of fame as if your future depended on it — because it probably does.