John Miller: Learning to speak the language of social media

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John Miller,
Chief marketing officer, NBC Universal Television Group

John Miller has an impressive list of awards and career achievements. He has an Emmy. He’s in the PROMAX Hall of Fame. He’s been named Entertainment Marketer of the Year four times, and is widely recognized for his role in launching The Cosby Show, popularizing the Must See TV slogan, and incorporating several acquisitions under the NBC Sports umbrella. But lately, Miller finds himself trying to understand the dynamic social media landscape while untangling the complex relationships between traditional and digital media platforms.

You’ve been at the front lines of marketing for a long time. Can you put into perspective how your job is changing and what you’re doing about it?

The change happens daily and it’s accelerating. I started in the Jurassic era, back when there were only three networks. One of the first shows I launched was The Cosby Show. I basically just put promos on the air, bought a couple TV Guide ads and called it a day. Now there are more than 500 choices, and that doesn’t even count digital and user-generated content. The demand for people’s time has never been as great. So as a marketer, how do you command someone’s attention? How do you cut through? You have to be flexible in your approach. If you’re not embracing new technology, you’re enslaved by the old technology.

What does it mean to embrace new technology?

It’s like learning to speak a new language. If you have a child and an iPhone, you know how quickly they learn the swipe gesture. And pretty soon they start going up to the TV and swiping it, thinking that they’re going to change the channel that way. Every generation learns a different technology language. When I came over to NBC Sports, I said, “Okay, I may not be the best one to know how to speak that language, but I do know it has to be done.” So now the woman leading our social media, she’s in her 20s. The guy that runs digital operations, he’s in his 30s. Things are changing so quickly that we almost need to have a teenager in here. Every day there’s probably 25 e-mails I get about some new digital or mobile concern that wants to come talk to me. A lot of times I will take those meetings and I don’t know what they’re talking about. So, I generally try to introduce them to others on the team to find out if they think it’s real or not.

You’ve hired digital sherpas. How do you manage people who speak a language you’re only starting to understand?

You cannot be intimidated by them. You embrace your lack of knowledge and the strength of theirs. You still have to use the wisdom that you have accumulated as a marketer because some things never change. You still reach people through emotion, humor and the heart. People cry, people laugh, people hurt, and that’s the essence of making marketing resonate. How you do it and where you do it has changed remarkably.

What are you learning about how to do that in social media?

It’s tough. You can’t control the conversation. I sold a lot of crappy made-for-TV movies back in the day and got big ratings. We did a movie called The Beast. It was terrible, but it had huge ratings. That’s because I controlled the message. Throughout the 80s and 90s, I felt like my job was mainly to get people to waste time watching bad television.

Please. You’re Mr. Must See TV!

I can’t say that I came up with that line, but I made Must See TV happen by simply forcing everybody to use the words relentlessly for two years until it became a slogan. You can’t do that now.

Do the conversations happening in social media have real effects?

Case in point, Universal had this movie with Sacha Baron Cohen, Brüno. The first one he did, Borat, was a hit. It was outrageous, kind of funny, but right on the line. Well, Brüno was way over the line. So, Friday night of opening weekend was huge. It looked like we had a $100 million movie. Then the Twittersphere and the Facebookers basically said, ‘Don’t bother. It’s terrible. It’s offensive.’ By Saturday, we had it pegged to do $60 million, and by Sunday, it was $40 million. Before social media, that kind of word of mouth would not have caught up to the picture until Monday. But with social media, which is basically electronic word of mouth, the reaction killed the movie’s chances in the weekend.

What’s the lesson?

You have to put out a product that is good—because if it’s not, you get killed.

Isn’t part of a marketer’s job to elevate the product, to make it seem better?

A marketer has to be savvy about what the product is. You still have to position it in a certain way, but you have to be true to the product. You can’t just fake it anymore. [laughter] The reason Must See TV worked is that at least initially, it had the added value of being true. Once Friends went away, we said, ‘Okay, now it’s just a slogan,’ and we stopped using it because it was no longer resonating as true.

Can you use social sentiment to make the product better? Maybe not with Brüno, but for Son of Brüno?

Sure, this is where the line blurs between marketing and product development. You have to listen to your consumers. You have to listen to feedback about the things that they liked or didn’t like, and so in 2.0, you say, ‘Let’s fix those things.’ You want to have confidence that you know what you’re doing, but not so much that you can’t listen to great ideas. And that’s not only in regards to the consumer, but also people in your organization.

You’re responsible for local, national, broadcast and cable channels under the NBC Sports umbrella. But you also chair the marketing counsel for the parent company, which has 20 channels, several dozen Web sites, theme parks, a film studio…you must be swimming in data. How do you make sense of it all?

We do get inundated with data and you simply have to cut through and figure out what’s the most relevant. Ultimately that comes down to how the business works. Are you moving product? Are you getting high ratings? Are you getting people into your restaurant or to a movie? Getting the most relevant data is essential to making creative decisions. Often, a creative decision has a sort of spark of ingenuity or magic, but a lot of times it’s informed by analytics and data. I like to use as much research and analytics as I possibly can. Honestly, though, sometimes it’s difficult to find what is relevant and sometimes you can be misled by small things.

Like what?

I’ll give you an example: Bad Girls’ Club on the Oxygen Channel does pretty well. Sometimes we’ll get a 1 rating and there’s a lot of engagement with the 18- to 34-year-old young adults—women who very heavily text and talk about it. There’s a lot of engagement between the show and the social networks. It has 2–3 million Facebook fans. With Sunday Night Football, we’ve got maybe 300,000 fans and reach close to 22 million viewers a week. It’s the number one show. Why don’t we have more Facebook likes? We certainly try to get them. It shows you that there’s a disconnect between certain metrics and monetization.

How do you know when to invest in a new analytics solution?

It always comes down to, what good will it do? We had a meeting with a company that works with Comcast [NBC’s parent company] on data mining and customer metrics. They knew who bought what, what kind of income they had at certain levels. They have all sorts of ways of slicing and dicing. I said, ‘I don’t know what to do with what you have here. Unless you can tell me how to directly reach somebody with the Nielsen box, to be honest with you, no one else matters.’

Do you ever do anything in spite of what the data tells you?

Sure. The Olympics is an interesting marketing challenge because it’s the one show on television that’s still sold and guaranteed against a household ratings number. That’s the way all television used to be sold. Now everything is sold against demographics. The best way to get a high household number is to get women 55-plus. On the other hand, if we go after that audience all the time, that’s not building a new generation of viewers. So we spend most of our energy promoting the Olympics against a 12- to 34-year-old demographic, because they don’t have the institutional memory of all of the past Olympics. Once you have three or four Olympics under your belt, most people at that point say, ‘I’m in for 17 days.’

So you’re ignoring short-term metrics to ensure long-term success.

Absolutely. Each time we think of it as an opportunity to create a new generation of Olympic fans.

Do you have any tips about how to make marketing dollars work harder?

Well, let’s look at the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We had money that we could have used to buy some national media, a little national cable, some digital and some radio in a few key markets. Frankly, it would have just disappeared. So we needed a little bit of Barnum & Bailey style. We shifted primarily to New York, because in one market you can control the message to a degree, and because New York is where all the media happens. It starts here and people start writing about it. Suddenly you’re on the AP and it gets picked up nationally. Then we did two stunts. We created a 21-foot Stanley Cup in Times Square and teamed up with the mayor’s office and the water department and we turned the Stanley Cup into a fountain. We had a dedication with the NHL Commissioner and the deputy mayor, and we had 15 film crews there. There was coverage everywhere. Then we made life-size chocolate Stanley Cups and sent those to every radio station where there was a playoff team. They cost us maybe a couple hundred bucks a piece. We delivered them to DJs and they talked about them for three days while eating the chocolate.

A little ingenuity goes a long way.

We made a lot of noise with our creativity. It goes to show that creativity and thought still matter in this business. And guess what? Our ratings on the Stanley Cup are up about 25 percent.

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