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Media Masters Podcast – Episode 1 – Dan Harbison, Caesars Entertainment (Part 1)

I’m taking up a new hobby in 2014 and launching a podcast. The idea is simple; I’m going to talk to some of the leaders in digital, social and traditional media who I’ve gotten the chance to know (and a few I’ve never met) to learn more about their work and share it with people who may find it interesting and relevant.

My first call was to Dan Harbison (@darbison), who’s currently the Global Head of New Media at Caesars Entertainment Corporation in Las Vegas, NV. I’ve known Dan since about 2005 from his days as the Sr. Director of Digital Marketing and Media at the Portland Trail Blazers, and he’s a guy who I respect tremendously. We talked for over an hour, and probably could have gone on for another hour. We split the conversation into two parts.

The first episode (just over 40 minutes) covers Dan’s outlook on database marketing, the differences between working in the NBA and the gaming/casino industry, what makes a great hashtag, and whose marketing during the Super Bowl actually worked. I really enjoyed our conversation and hopefully a few digital marketing/social media geeks out there will as well.

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The Boston Globe Goes Inside the Celtics’ Social Media Efforts

The Boston Globe gave the Celtics a brief write up for our social media efforts, as reporter Chad Finn spent a game day with myself and others from the front office getting an inside look at our digital marketing initiatives.

There’s a lot more to it than the article covers, and many people in our organization help make this stuff work. Social media is just one spoke on the wheel that runs the marketing engine. It just happens to be the sexiest spoke these days, one in which there’s currently plenty of interest.

One thing is certain: marketing the Boston Celtics has changed dramatically since the days of Larry Bird, and even just in the seven years that I’ve been with the team. When I came on board in 2005-06, it was all about and email marketing. These days, there’s always something new around the corner. Just when we think we’ve mastered Facebook, Pinterest comes out of nowhere. Now that we’ve got Twitter pretty much nailed down, here comes Instagram.

The only real question: What’s next?

Boston Globe: Celtics Applying Themselves with Social Media

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9/11 in a Social Media World

Ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a lot has changed in our world.

Perhaps the biggest difference in American life that separates 2001 from 2011 is the proliferation of information technology and social media. Simply put, had the unprecedented events of 9/11 transpired in 2011, the tragedy would have been drastically different on many fronts, from the way the attack was plotted, to how we absorbed and mourned the catastrophe.

Ten years doesn’t seem like a very long time, but when it comes to the evolution of digital technology, a decade is a very, very long time.

9/11 Tragedy

Technology has changed quite a bit in the 10 years since the 9/11 attacks, and social media would have made that day and its aftermath very different had it existed in 2001.

In September of 2001, text messaging was basically non-existent in the United States, and the smart phone (remember the term “PDA”?) was in its infancy. In fact, the cell phone itself had yet to deeply penetrate American life the way it would over the next few years. But even that fateful day, as I left work in the early afternoon as everyone tried to make sense of the morning’s events, placing phone call was nearly impossible. Connecting to the cellular network was extremely difficult in the hours following the tragedy, and even if you could connect, you’d get busy signals, or misdirected calls.

As long as I live, I’ll remember walking home to the Fenway from my office in Boston’s financial district – it didn’t seem safe to take the subway – trying to call my roommate, a United Airlines flight attendant. As it would turn out, she was safe at home, but I didn’t know if she was dead or alive until I walked into my apartment and found her staring at the TV and crying, clutching her phone. I knew she’d flown that United Flight 175 to Los Angeles many times before, but she wasn’t on board that Tuesday. She took non-stop phone calls from all over the globe that day, with friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances checking to make sure she was safe.

Had it been 2011, she’d have likely posted on her Facebook page that she wasn’t on the plane, giving relief to many of us who couldn’t reach her for hours. She could have sent a mass text to her friends and family. It would have saved many of us several hours of fearing the worst. To this day, I haven’t forgotten the feeling of opening the apartment door and seeing her on the couch.

Terrorism and Tragedy as a Social Experience

In 2001, Facebook was three years from being born, and really about seven years from maturing into a major communications platform. But if you imagine 9/11 with Facebook as it is today, the entire experience would have been quite different.

Victims, realizing that their lives were suddenly about to end, could have posted goodbyes to friends and families to YouTube or other outlets. It’s crazy to think about it, but what would you do if you feared – or knew, for that matter – you were about to die? Would it even cross your mind to make a post to Facebook in this scenario?

While some people had the chance to call loved ones from air phones, cell phones or office phones in the World Trade Center, passengers aboard hijacked flights could have potentially tweeted what was going on (likely sparking rampant retweeting) had there been wifi on board, or moments before impact when the planes were close enough to the ground to get cell reception.

After the first impact in Manhattan, pictures of the burning North Tower would have been taken from all across the city, from street level outside of the building, and snapped by occupants of the South Tower who saw the explosion out their windows. The cameraphone didn’t exist in 2001, but a high-resolution lens is standard equipment on today’s smartphones. With such equipment, the tragedy would have obviously been far better documented than it was, and it’s likely the citizens of New York would have captured incredible first-person footage of the second plane impacting the South Tower.

Reports say that occupants of the South Tower were initially told by building security to stay put in their offices, and that the issue was contained. But if those victims posted status and photos to Facebook describing the North Tower scene, as word spread that a commercial airliner had struck the tower, and friends and family had commented on their posts, possibly telling them to leave the building, perhaps more people may have left the South Tower in time to survive the second impact. It’s all speculation, obviously, but indecision paralyzed many people on 9/11. Perhaps social influence from loved ones could have mobilized more people to ignore building security’s initial instructions and leave the South Tower earlier.

Meanwhile, United 93’s storied passenger revolt is largely credited to passengers calling home after the hijacking and finding out about what had already transpired in New York City. With on-board wifi, providing laptops with access to Twitter, Facebook and the Internet, perhaps they’d have learned more quickly of the crashes at the World Trade Center and had more time to potentially prevent the hijacking altogether. Given the timings of the attacks, there was little time for news to disseminate, but as we’ve learned with the recent earthquake along the East Coast, news travels quickly across the social media relay – sometimes faster than an earthquake itself.

Remember the missing persons signs plastered all over lower Manhattan in the weeks after 9/11? I’m guessing a lot of that activity would have happened on Facebook, given its viral capabilities. Unfortunately, for those lost and their loved ones, the results wouldn’t have been any different. But those messages, limited to street corners in 2001, would have been shared front and center in our News Feeds across the globe.

Social Media and the Healing Process

The dominant technology for rapidly sharing experiences, rumors and misinformation in 2001 was the email chain. In the weeks and months following 9/11, personal accounts of near-misses, tragic stories of loss and, of course, unsubstantiated rumors spread like wildfire across email. Everything from a purported picture of a tourist standing atop one of the towers as a plane approaches to a creepy song-by-song breakdown explaining why U2’s 2000 album All That You Can’t Leave Behind (featuring “Beautiful Day”, “Walk On”, “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”, “Peace on Earth” and “New York”) had purportedly predicted the tragedy, made the rounds on email.

Social media’s real-time sharing is a different story altogether. Messages are much shorter and carry far less detail, but they circulate with blinding speed. Still, as soon as you can share something on Facebook, your missive is bumped down the News Feed by something else. So what would your News Feed have looked like on 9/11? Presumably, it would be overwhelmed with posts of mourning, sadness, horror and anger. People who rarely post would likely feel compelled to suddenly weigh in, caught up in the heat of the moment.

But how much phone or in-person contact would you actually have with your friends and family in the aftermath?

I remember gathering with a group of friends at my apartment to watch George Bush address the nation that night. I remember standing on the rooftop of my apartment building, staring at a silent horizon, occasionally interrupted by fighter planes patrolling the Northeast sky. But mostly, what stands out about that night, and the days following, are the 9/11 conversations I had with friends, family and coworkers with whom I’d initially watched the tragedy unfold live on TV. I remember the uneasy feeling I had getting on the T the next morning heading to work, where I ran into a college friend I hadn’t seen in a few months. We instinctively gave each other a hug.

Over the next week or so you’ll see social media sites ask people to share their memories. Out of curiosity, I made a rare Facebook post myself last Tuesday, two weeks ahead of the anniversary.

“Interrupting your regularly-scheduled News Feed narcissism for a serious question: Ten years later, what do you remember most vividly about 9/11?”

I don’t use Facebook much in my personal life, so I didn’t expect a lot of responses. And let’s be honest: serious questions aren’t your typical status update fodder. I did get some amazing stories about that day, from some people I didn’t even know at the time, that I would likely have otherwise never heard.

It will be interesting to see what’s shared on Facebook this Sunday. People typically aren’t comfortable sharing feelings beyond “loving life right now”, “I have the best boyfriend in the world”, or “look at all of the awesome places I’ve gone planking on vacation this year.” When a mild earthquake interrupts their day, sure, people will feel the need to comment. But few want to share how they really feel about something important with 300 people they sort of know. Ten years later, politics are significant part of the 9/11 dialogue, but politics aren’t polite on Facebook.

In 2001, you had phone conversations. You talked to your friends when you waited together for a flight at the airport. You weren’t looking at your phone every two minutes at dinner. You just talked to each other. That’s how we healed.

We all had our own take on the September 11 experience, and the only place we were really documenting it was verbally, at the water cooler or over drinks after work. And it was part of the therapy. In the years since that date, I’ve probably discussed 9/11 on at least 40-50 occasions, and watching footage from 9/11 still gives me the chills.

You can expect 9/11 references (and a dash of NFL football) to consume your timelines and News Feeds next Sunday. Expect your friends to post stories, memories, quotes and comments throughout the day.

On September 12, they’ll go back to posting about Beyonce’s pregnancy and #humblebrags.

I’m not saying that social media would make us care less if another 9/11 comes along, because despite everything I’ve detailed above, we just don’t know how it really would be. Hopefully, we never have to find out. But given the world we live in, it seems likely that eventually, we’ll get an answer. I’m guessing the sadness, horror and anger and desire for revenge will feel familiar.

The healing process, however, will never be the same.

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Why I hate myself for being hooked on Twitter (but I still love Twitter)

Simplicity and brevity are two hallmark traits of nearly every beautiful thing in the world. Unfortunately, the world is much more complex than we’d like it to be.

I recently tried an experiment, giving up Facebook for Lent, and found it to be a relatively easy exercise that rarely tested my willpower. That said, I’m not sure I could ever do without Twitter. You’d have to pry it out of my hands at this point.

I’ll spare you all the comparisons between the two dominant social platforms; you’ve heard them already and they’re mostly self-evident. But what’s rapidly growing more apparent is that Twitter is the perfect development for a modern world where news happens quickly and no one reads beyond the headlines. We’ve all convinced ourselves that we’re too busy for the whole story.

Case in point: I just tried to read a blog posting that I found through a Twitter link, started skimming the article until I ran into a sub-headline that said, “The Age of Skimming.” So wait, someone wrote a blog post about the fact that no one reads anymore? Wondering if he was in on the joke, I laughed, and stopped reading that article. And then I immediately broke out my laptop started writing my own post on the same topic. (I think that means there’s hope for me yet, but I’m not really sure.)

Sometimes you never recognize your worst habits until you observe them in others. You know, like that friend who can’t go three seconds without looking at her iPhone or texting someone 3,000 miles away when she’s in the same room with you. It drives you crazy — until your brother calls you out on the very same behavior a day later. Then you don’t know whether to sympathize with her or hate yourself.

Similarly, I always find myself wondering why every airline doesn’t offer WiFi, and yet, it dawned on me that the last few great conversations I’ve had with anyone have happened on airplanes. Why? Because neither one of us could look at a phone for a few hours.

Are we all turning into robots? And is Twitter partly responsible?

In this case, it took a headline I almost missed to call me out on a nasty habit I’ve developed since the dawn of Twitter. I rarely read anything start-to-finish, and as someone who’s always considered himself at least a competent writer, that’s disturbing. Why am I wasting time writing, re-writing and editing anything I’ve written if it’s just going to get boiled down to one headline, 140 characters (or typically far less) and one link that only about three out of 100 people will even read anyway?

Newspapers have been going out of business for several reasons, but I’d argue that chief among them is that we want everything to be short and sweet, and we’re easily distracted by stuff we don’t even really care about. When I was a kid, I remember trying to get my Dad’s attention at the breakfast table on a Sunday morning as he poured over the Manchester Union Leader, seemingly lost in a world of newsprint littered with 18-hour old news that he couldn’t have possibly gotten anywhere else.

“Hey dad…can we go to Toys-R-Us today…there’s a new Nintendo game…”


I finally had to bark “Dad! Dad!” to grab his attention. He was usually annoyed for a few seconds, but would answer my question (unless I’d saved enough money, I wasn’t getting Super Mario Bros. 3) and then he’d go back to the paper.

These days, while I’m reading through Twitter, I’ll get startled by a text message that rudely vibrates my phone. When you think about it, it’s basically the same thing. But sadly, most of our interruptions these days are self-imposed, checking our smartphone for the latest fix of sports scores, mindless status updates or a few headlines we already read three minutes ago.

For better or worse, I ingest almost all of my news through Twitter; I rarely surf websites anymore. I almost never find myself looking for news at this point, because someone in my timeline has already enlightened me. Do I click on the links? Rarely. And when I do, I run into headlines like “The Age of Skimming”, laugh, and move on to something else. My middle-school creative writing teacher always told me that an essay should be like a skirt: Long enough to cover the topic, short enough to keep it interesting. Even in 1990, when ATM’s were still a novelty (you can get money on a Sunday?), teachers understood that our attention spans were already getting shorter.

It’s sad but true: In the Age of Skimming and Twitter, who needs a skirt when a thong will do?

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Social Media Insiders Summit Brings the Goods

It seems like everywhere you turn there’s a new digital marketing or social media conference popping up, and it’s hard to tell what you’re getting into when choose to participate in one until it actually starts and you’re in a large room with a bunch of strangers and vendors talking shop.

I just returned from the Media Post Social Media Insiders Summit (check hashtag #MPSMIS on Twitter for complete coverage) and was pleasantly surprised by the quality and depth of content, the format for the event, and sharp and personable people I met over the course of the last three days in Key Biscayne, Florida.

The tropical setting didn’t hurt — especially considering the blizzard back home in Boston that I dodged — and I found this to be the most enjoyable conference I’ve ever attended. Resort quality amenities at the Ritz Carlton made things comfortable, but most importantly, the discussions, panels and roundtables were on topic, and well thought out.

I had the pleasure of leading a roundtable discussion entitled, “Seriously, Do Consumers Like Being Targeted?”, where we talked about everything from what Google knows about you to email segmenting and everything in between. At times it veered off topic, but I erred on the side of letting the conversation flow and keeping everyone involved, and I think everyone who participated walked away smarter for it.

Even the lunchtime sponsor presentations, which at most conferences are brutal sales pitches traded for a dry meal, were far more geared toward providing information, value and analysis than they were aimed at pimping out their services. And the food was top drawer to boot.

Representing a pretty unique and well-known brand myself, I had prepared to be accosted by vendors and sales guys at every turn. And sure, I exchanged a bunch of business cards, picked up plenty of Twitter followers and LinkedIn connections, but there was far more of a networking vibe than I might have expected. Maybe the onslaught is yet to come, but I feel like I made some very valuable connections with some of the smartest people working in the social media space today.

No conference is ever perfectly executed. The #MPSMIS hashtag wasn’t well publicized (although it did catch on by the end of Day 1), and there were no breaks between presentations and panels, which left you with no choice but to walk out mid-presentation for a bathroom break or just some fresh air. A few presenters need to work on their Power Point skills (littering slides with small text doesn’t work in big room) but that’s a minor complaint.

Over three days, topics like data privacy, Facebook advertising, social commerce, user generated content, Twitter analytics, location-based services/check-ins, “engagement” (by far the most overused bailout buzzword of the conference), Mommy Bloggers and niche social networks were all covered in-depth. I tweeted out over 50 notes, quotes, stats and observations and could have easily doubled that if I wasn’t worried about overwhelming people’s timelines.

All in all, it was a solid experience and perhaps the best conference I’ve been to date. I hope to return to next year’s Social Media Insiders Summit.