Case Study: Events in the COVID Era

Hosting Digital Events in the Era of COVID

The 61st Scholastic Achievement moved online and reached its biggest audience

Virtual Events are the New Norm

We have seen a lot of changes over the last couple months with COVID but one of the most noteworthy has been events. Even as Virginia reopens to the world it will be much longer before business as usual returns and crowds of people come together.

Virginia Media and The Virginian-Pilot recently hosted the first virtual Scholastic Achievement recognizing high school students and their academic accomplishments. While nothing can replace in person togetherness virtual events can add value and fill a different role.

The virtual Scholastic Achievement reached over 34,700 people, fostered an online community, and brought together the voices of community leaders across the Hampton Roads region. We are excited to share what we learned from hosting our first virtual event, including all the road bumps along the way.

What is Scholastic Achievement

The Virginian-Pilot Scholastic Achievement Scholarship and Recognition Program is an annual salute to the best and brightest high school students from South Hampton Roads, Western Tidewater and northeastern North Carolina. We weren’t going to let a pandemic stop the tradition so, after 61 years of hosting an IRL event, we went virtual.

Supporting our community is at the heart of what we do and moving the event online was an easy decision. Creating a virtual event that delivered value to the students, schools, and sponsors – less easy.

How we did it

Every event has a behind the scenes team and this year every aspect of Scholastic Achievement got a major facelift. Working closely with our events, special products, digital, and marketing teams, we created a landing portal to house all of the content for the event, utilized Facebook to “air” the event, and promoted it all with a comprehensive ad campaign.

The website

What was once a newspaper only and a live event initiative, Scholastic Achievement went digital first with the promotion and event platform, with a special section of The Virginian-Pilot, showcasing the winners in print after the event.

The Scholastic Achievement portal was created on VirginiaMedia.events, which allowed us to streamline the submission, data base and content. Each school had its own unique landing page, that housed links and individual pages for each student, providing details on each student. 

The social page

There are many hosting platforms popping up for online events, but we decided to keep things simple and host the event itself on Facebook. The Facebook event page contained the standard content for any event page, including a branded cover, description with hyperlinks for all the sponsors, and a series of posts leading up to the event. The content that was added to the thread of the page contained:

  • an opening video from our Vice President
  • recognition posts to our sponsors and scholarship donors with their logos, links, and details about the level of their commitment
  • videos from sponsors
  • individual posts for each of the schools, with a selection of photos of the students and logo from the school – linking back to virginiamedia.events
  • and over 46 family congratulatory messages with photos for the students (we monitored and approved all messages before going live)

While we knew we had a great deal of content to post from our end, our biggest surprise came from the engagement from the parents and families of the students being recognized. It was overwhelming and added the sincere, two-sided engagement we had hoped for.

This online page became a great community outlet leading up to the online event. The community made the most out of this new experience and practiced gratitude in such a public way.

The promotional campaign

The promotional campaign was robust, and the message was consistent. The content centered around giving these students the opportunity to experience what many were missing – public recognition for their hard work in lieu of canceled graduation ceremonies.

The campaign consisted of:

  • an email campaign to the market, inviting people to join the Facebook event early, and to promote sponsorships
  • a print campaign that ran in The Virginian-Pilot with the same messaging
  • and a series of organic posts and social ads informing people about the event and encouraging them to join

The virtual event

The virtual video event contained messages of support from alumni, judges, sponsors, and community leaders. While the event looked much different than years past, we were grateful it allowed us to reach more people than ever before with over 1,000 views on the video between Facebook and YouTube.  

https://youtu.be/DclcYwiy_Q0

The Print Component 

One thing stayed the same, the special section of scholastic achievement was published on Sunday, June 7th in The Virginian-Pilot to a readership of over 250,000. The sponsorship winners were recognized, along with brief profiles of each of the students nominated for their academic efforts.

The Downside

Yes, there was an unexpected downside to this virtual event that none of us predicted. While our Facebook page allowed us to reach nearly 35k people and create an online community where The Virginian Pilot and parents posted organically – it also attracted the attention of spammers.

Right before the event went Live, spammers took advantage of the open comment section and an engaged the audience to post a false link of the event. We worked quickly to delete the spam and shut down the comment section, but it did cause confusion for the audience. We share this to let our readers learn from our experiences and hope to see more great virtual events in the future! Next time, we’ll be ready.

What we learned

The results for this new way of doing events turned out better than we expected. The in-person event normally brings in the 72 students and their parents, plus sponsors and a speaker, topping out at an attendance of only 200. The move to a virtual platform grew our community of supporters outside the immediate family and attracted visitors from all over the region. What was once an event that attracted the attention of the 200 attendees, expanded to over 35K with more engagement that we could have imagined.

Thank you

We would like to thank the teachers for all they have done this year. We would also like to thank our sponsors for supporting the community and supporting our first virtual event. Thanks to their support we were able to recognize great students and reach its biggest audience yet.   


Virginia Media Brands

Virginia Media Branding Campaign

In 2017, Tribune Publishing acquired The Virginian-Pilot and other publications formally held by Landmark Publishing.  During this acquisition, Tribune also merger our portfolio of products with the Daily Press out of Newport News, forming one entity: Virginia Media. As a brand, Virginia Media was completely unknown to the Hampton Roads and Richmond markets. Over the course of the next year, I worked with web developers and designers to establish a campaign to showcase the many products of Virginia Media. We continue to promote the Virginia Media brand with this creative concept and adapt it to various publications where it is placed.


SEO & SEM

SEM & Social Media: Together Like Ice Cream & Cake

Not much goes together better than ice cream and cake, other than SEM (Search Engine Marketing) and Social Media. Sure you could have one without the other, but why? While many have speculated over which one outperforms the other, there have been positive outcomes supporting the success of combining the two digital strategies for a more cohesive digital plan.

Most are familiar with the benefits of SEM, which leverages massive data troves of search engines to target relevant consumers based on keywords. Meanwhile, social media has quickly flexed its muscles by seeing an ROI from organic and paid advertising through social networks, most notably Facebook and Instagram.

But if you’re trying to choose between these two digital platforms, you may want to rethink that strategy. While each platform has its value, SEM and social campaigns become a stronger digital strategy when paired together because of their strengths and targeting options, as well as their shared goal of driving engagement, traffic, and conversions.

Different But Complimentary

The benefits of the two strategies are apparent, but they’re also very different from one another. Each targets a different stage of the consumer’s path to purchase. As people move in and out and sometimes back into the sales cycle, SEM and social provide exposure at the various points. SEM often targets an earlier part of the cycle, when consumers are doing research but haven’t yet honed in on the type of product or service they want. Social often targets those consumers who are closer to the point of conversion.

Two Approaches to Targeting

Search is an intent-focused channel that relies heavily on a keyword strategy designed to reflect intent-minded consumers. Social media doesn’t have the same sort of intent-focused targeting strategy. Social uses demographics and interests, such as age, location, occupation, interests, etc. to build a character profile of what the desired consumer might look like.

Marketers can set and change these parameters to test how their targeting is working, and they can continue tweaking both their social and SEM strategies to continually optimize their campaigns over time.

How to Create the Mix

Using Facebook increases brand awareness and generates demand. As users begin to learn about your products and services, they further their research through search, where they can be captured and converted.

Leveraging Facebook for remarketing and retargeting is another strategy for converting customers. Let’s say we’ve been successful in getting our ad to high-intent audiences via SEM and we’ve been able to bring them to our site. However, for one reason or another, we were unable to get them to convert. We can leverage Facebook for additional scale on high-intent customers by using remarketing and getting our brand back in the eye of those visitors. We can leverage Facebook’s creative options to take another stab at convincing them (with value props, product imagery, etc.) to convert as well as sending the user to a highly relevant page to finish the job.

If you are a business where users can come and convert multiple times (think ecomm – toy stores, apparel, etc. – or services – spas, food delivery, etc.), you’ll want to use SEM to capture those high-intent users initially. Once they have made a purchase or signup and you have gotten that first-party data (email really), Facebook is a perfect avenue to remind these customers later on about great deals, new products/offerings, etc., to lure them back in for new purchases. Facebook allows you to upload first-party data to narrow out your customer base within their members and will enable you to show your ads directly to that audience.

In the same vein as above, there are a bunch of good options in Facebook to leverage our first-party data to help us capture unique incremental users. Let’s say we have been able to build up a great customer base via SEM. However, often there’s a limited number of people searching for our product/service, and we want to venture out to get our offering to more audiences.

A great way to do this efficiently is to take our customer list (ideally segmenting them out into smaller lists of audiences with a similarity – for example, high lifetime value/LTV, medium LTV, and low LTV) and upload that into Facebook, essentially creating website custom audiences. From those website custom audiences, we can then use Facebook’s lookalike technology to find additional audiences that show characteristics/traits very similar to our customer base.

Double up on your competition by going after audiences who like competitors in Facebook – target them specifically on Facebook and bid on competitor terms in SEM. If we continue to get our brand in front of these audiences, they’ll become familiar with our name, and with the right ads we should be able to capture enough interest to bring them onto our site via either Facebook or SEM.

Why They Go Together

Beyond the benefits of running a diversified paid marketing strategy, there’s evidence that the combination of SEM and social is greater than the sum of its parts. Research shows that campaigns combining paid search with paid social saw an average click-through rate increase of 35 percent. That’s a considerable gain in performance, and it corresponds to stronger ROI for your campaigns. If you aren’t using these two paid strategies together, it may be time to reconsider.


Challenger Brands

Turning it Upside Down and Inside Out: Challenger Brands and Disruptive Marketing

In the last few years, terms like ‘Challenger Brand’ and ‘Disruptive Marketing’ have become increasingly popular. It’s more than the millennials that are trying to turn their industry upside-down. It’s everyone trying to get their piece of the pie. Or widget. Or whatever it is they are selling.

But what is a challenger brand really? And what makes them better from any other business?

“A challenger brand is defined, primarily, by a mindset — it has business ambitions bigger than its conventional resources, and is prepared to do something bold, usually against the existing conventions or codes of the category, to break through.” — Adam Morgan of The Challenger Project, by eatbigfish.

So what does that all mean?

It means that Challenger Brands aren’t number one, but they want to be. They want to so badly they can taste it. These brands are ruled by a state of mind and a willingness to recognize their resource deficiency but push onwards anyway. Successes happen when they lean in, championing the thing they know they are (or sometimes were) great at.

Why do challenger brands matter?

Attention spans are shorter than ever. Marketing experts around the world have estimated that we are exposed to 4,000 – 10,000 ads every single day. Our brains are on autopilot, and we zone out when we’re confronted with boring, unimaginative, and unrelatable forms of advertising.

To grab people’s attention, we need to challenge and disrupt them. That’s where challenger brands and disruptive marketing comes in.

Excuse me while I disrupt this message. 

Before ‘disruption,’ we had ‘best practices.’ AdAge states, “Everyone copied the procedures and practices that were deemed to be the most effective, including in marketing.”

These ‘best practices’ just don’t work anymore. What was thought of as a ‘best practice’ before is now just more like the rest. It’s not unique. It’s just more of the same. And that’s why industry verticals get stuck. To unstick them, we need a challenger brand that radically disrupts the industry.

Think Virgin Records. Think WeWork. Think Uber.

Back to our regularly scheduled thoughts about challenger brands. 

Challenger brands ‘think different’.  Yes, that’s right. They were once a Challenger Brand. They don’t try to spend more; they think smarter. They use different strategies and company culture to compete with the perceived industry leaders.

They’re like Jon Snow: an underdog in a seemingly weaker position that is suddenly capable of conquering his adversaries to beat the White Walkers.

So what is disruptive marketing?

Honestly, disruption is more of an operational model than a marketing strategy. Most companies still tend to advertise through traditional channels, which offer plenty of opportunities for competing companies to disrupt current messages. Think Verizon vs. Sprint. “Can you hear me now?” However, consumers have become increasingly and stubbornly resilient to changing messages, thanks to an increasingly over-crowded market. To fight this, a company’s strategies surrounding the promotion of their products or services must innovate and reflect what consumers are saying. They are delivering precisely what the market wants or think they want.

A disruptive company has one of two goals: design its product or service to match the demand of an emerging market, or re-shape an existing product or service to meet the demand of customers unsatisfied by the current services. Basically, thrive and change or fall to the wayside. From this point, a creative marketing strategy team builds an advertising campaign with disruptive messages that will either challenge the traditional way of thinking in the current market or shift and speak to a new one.

So what’s the takeaway? Be smarter. Shake things up. Disrupt. Do things differently. Believe in what you do even when no one else does. Become a challenger brand and win Westeros and rule the seven kingdoms.


12 Days of Christmas

Case Study: 12 Days of Christmas Campaign

The retail furniture industry is extremely competitive in Hampton Roads. Local brick and mortar stores are not only competing with dozens of local retailers and national chains, but now are dealing with a saturated market of online furniture eCommerce.  Financing is a huge draw for many of these retailers, so creating a campaign that offers a "sticky" quality to bring in consumers is challenging. Consumers have more options than ever before so creating a campaign that puts a client out in front of the pack is key.

Campaign: The 12 Days of Christmas

For two weeks leading up to Christmas, our team created branded content to promote the 12 Days of Christmas.  Specific furniture was selected, creative was designed for multiple digital channels (email, programmatic display, Facebook, and Instagram), and content was created to promote the products and drive engagement through a contest online. Daily posts were made to encourage people to Like, Tag, and Share for a chance to win, across all platforms.

The campaign lasted for 12 days and was deployed across seven different Facebook pages, producing seven different winners. The Fan based increased by over 30% organically throughout the campaign and increased traffic to the stores by 17% over the course of the two weeks.


fan base

Can You Reach Your Fans on Facebook? Sure… and Here is Why (and a Little Bit of How)

For most Facebook Pages, organic reach used to be 15-20%. However, the past few years have seen a significant drop. The last six months even more so. Of course, this is no surprise to any social media marketer who’s paying any attention.

Now, there are strategies to boost your organic reach, including (but not limited to) the “Top 10” posted by Post Planner:

  1. Show your personality
  2. Ask questions
  3. Use images
  4. Provide an inside look
  5. Measure and reproduce what works
  6. Share your Fan’s content
  7. Keep your posts simple
  8. Use a consistent voice and post useful content
  9. Love and appreciate your followers
  10. Have fun and be funny

To succeed on Facebook in 2018, you’ll need to do all these and more.

Pay to Play

One of the most significant Facebook changes is the concept of “Pay to Play.” So, do you have to pay? On Facebook, it’s not so much that you have to, but rather Facebook Ads and Boosted Posts offer a better option for business growth than what organic reach used to be. The ability to target a demo is a great way to reach a targeted audience and invite those who liked the post to become fans of the page. Win-win.

In today’s marketing climate, it’s common for consumers to check out a brand’s social channels before becoming a customer. Usually, they want to get a better sense of your brand’s values and to verify that you are who you say you are. This consumer behavior gives a strong incentive to consistently share media, internal company news, and articles where someone from your brand is being quoted. In doing so, you’re not only solidifying your brand presence, you’re also reinforcing the positive things others have said about you.

Since the only constant with Facebook is change, it’s safest to focus on the channels you control — your website and blog. Spend the majority of your effort creating content (blog posts and long-form content such as case studies, articles,  or videos) that will continue to garner inbound traffic, leads, and customers long after they’re first created. If you have time and budget, share those assets to Facebook for additional reach.


6 Reasons Why You Should Be Working with a Google Premier Partner

Last year Google expanded its Partner program to include tiered levels, the highest level an agency can achieve being Google Premier Partner (GPP). This is a designation reserved for only a small percentage of all Google Partners. To qualify as a GPP, an agency must meet Google’s requirements in several areas: advertising spends, certification, and performance. Being a GPP means an agency has the experience, is knowledgeable, and has a proven success rate. A GPP knows how to optimize and customize a campaign to increase revenue.

While working with a GPP doesn’t guarantee you’ll rise to the top and exponentially increase your investment, it does give you an advantage over your competition.

Here are the six biggest advantages of working with a Google Premier Partner:

1. Google Premier Partners know their stuff and have the badge to prove it

GPPs have to pass the Google certification tests in their area of specialization (search, display, shopping, mobile, video). Google doesn’t give the Premier Partner badge to just anyone who has passed the tests. To earn this distinction, the agency must have extensive AdWords experience. All Premier Partners are required to continuously meet Google’s minimum ad spend, which means Premier Partners are actively managing AdWords accounts. Premier Partners don’t prove they are experts through tests. They show they are experts by continually managing successful campaigns.

"The badge recognizes companies we trust to help you succeed on the web with our products.” – Google

premier-google-partner-CMYK-search-mobile-vid-disp-shop-768x431

2. Mobile is first and foremost, well FIRST!

You can no longer ignore mobile.  In a mobile-first world, consumers are reaching for their phones more and more.  Principles of mobile design and a mobile-friendly website is a must to properly take advantage and employ an effective mobile advertising strategy to accomplish your goals.  

3. Being in the KNOW

GPPs are the first to know what’s new in the Google universe. Something new and exciting coming down the pipeline? GPPs get to Beta test it first. In general, these Betas give access to features and allow a leg up on the competition for Paid Search campaigns, Display campaigns and even Shopping campaigns. 

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4. GPPs have a Google Phone 

Well, maybe not a dedicated line to Google, but they have access to Dedicated Google Partner Agency Strategists to help get solutions and troubleshoot quickly. Being able to have access to Google at the drop of a hat is crucial for an ongoing and successful campaign.

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5. Never stop learning

Training, workshops and Google events are all part of the package with GPPs. Training includes exclusive live events on the latest trends and features from Google as they continue to expand the envelope in the digital space to drive results for their clients.

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6. Testing & Innovation 

GPPs are required to show they are employing best practices. These practices may include actively doing split testing on ads to attract the highest volume of customers to a client’s site and ensuring that there are multiple ads per campaign group with different keywords and messaging. Google encourages continuous experimentation.

A company can lose it’s Partner status if it doesn’t continue to maintain Google’s standards. These standards ensure that a high level of service is maintained no matter the date that Partner Status was achieved.

Here’s the bottom line…. Pilot Media Solutions has a team of dedicated Senior Search Marketing Specialists that live and breathe Google all day and every day. So when it comes to the internet’s most powerful marketing tool, we always know more than our competition, which helps you beat yours!


Family Definitions Expanded

What is a family? Sure, it can be easily defined by Merriam-Webster. A search on Google can give us a definition or two, but it is more than "parents and children," more than "common ancestors."

For many in Hampton Roads, and across the United States, the term family was limited to that of a man and woman, and any children they may have. Times have changed, and the term “family” no longer holds those same limitations and includes so many more variables than ever before. On June 5, 2015, the legal definition of marriage changed to include same-sex couples, thus changing how we view families everywhere when the US Supreme Court formally struck down statutes denying marriage rights to same-sex individuals. UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute and the National Center for Transgender Equality estimated that 96,000 same-sex couples married in the four months following this decision.

According to The Movement Advancement Project (MAP), there are approximately 2.9% or about 183,545 adults living in Virginia that self-identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning. Between 2012 and 2014, Gallup Inc., the well-known public poll organization, conducted more than 370,000 tracking interviews of LGBTQ people. Gallup ranked the Virginia Beach-Norfolk Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) 12th (at 4.4 percent of our population) on the list of the 50 largest U.S. metro areas regarding the percentage of individuals who self-identify as LGBTQ.

Are refined roles in family good for the economy?

Wedding spending by those couples who married after the June 2015 decision and their out-of-state guests totaled an estimated $813 million and generated an estimated $52 million in state and local sales tax revenue. An economic study of the Commonwealth of Virginia estimated that extending marriage to same-sex couples in Virginia would generate up to $60 million in spending within the Commonwealth.

The economy is strengthened after the wedding cake is eaten as well. An increase in the housing market is also impacted.  When people get married, move in together and/or start a family, they usually buy stuff — and lots of it. “When people are happy, they tend to spend more money,” says Sarah Kate Ellis, president and Chief Executive of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a nonprofit organization founded by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the media. “Married couples also fill their new home with furniture and, oftentimes, get new cars.” With DOMA overturned, gay couples can file joint income tax returns and claim the mortgage interest deduction as a married couple.

New ways of defining family create stability and value within LGBT communities

Today’s children represent the future and it is in the country’s best interest to support their development, regardless of whom they are parented by. Marriage, as an institution, helps to foster the well-being of children by providing married couples with various rights, benefits and protections which can strengthen relationship bonds and family units. Around the nation, there are millions of children being raised in households led by same-sex couples and are thriving every day.

Decades of research indicate marriage and being part of a family is good for you. “The research is clear, diverse, and consistent,” according to Abby Rodman, a Boston-based psychotherapist.  “Those who marry have a much higher likelihood of living longer, being healthier, and being happier. These benefits are exclusive to marriage.”

Families in Hampton Roads are no different. With organizations like the LGBT Life Center, resources and support are offered to everyone in the family by providing a safe space, resources, education, and support for the entire community.


Weekly Gif Round-Up: Cats

This is what happens when you have no kids at home and a bottle of wine.

Bonding

Bonding

Fear the Walking Dead
Fear the Walking Dead
Ninja Cat
Ninja Cat
Born Athlete
Born Athlete
Pretty Please
Pretty Please
Is that a Balloon?
Is that a Balloon?
Walking the Walk
Walking the Walk
I'm Fabulous
I'm Fabulous
Kitten, You're Drunk
Kitten, You're Drunk
No Words
No Words
I Feel His Pain
I Feel His Pain
Just Chillin'
Just Chillin'
Snapchat Catty
Snapchat Catty
It's Like Lava
It's Like Lava

A Day at The Virginian-Pilot

Walking Houses
Walking Houses
The Frog
The Frog
The Frog on a Corner
The Frog on a Corner
Entrance
Entrance
No Weapons Allowed
No Weapons Allowed
Mermaid Literacy
Mermaid Literacy
150 Years
150 Years
Monster Stand
Monster Stand
Printer
Printer
Typesetter
Typesetter
Timeline
Timeline
Va Pilot Timeline
Va Pilot Timeline
Inner Workings of Growler
Inner Workings of Growler
Coffee Bar
Coffee Bar
Pilotonline.com
Pilotonline.com


Don’t Count Print Out Just Yet

newspaper advertising“Print is again going to attract advertisers who are willing to say: ‘I don’t care about being cool. I want to drive big sales at a good price.’”

President and CEO of News Media Alliance – David Chavern

With Internet marketing and social media becoming so popular, the more traditional methods of marketing seem to have fallen by the wayside. Is print advertising still a worthy investment?

Everywhere you look, there is talk of using the Internet as a marketing outlet and while social media and online advertising is certainly effective, it isn’t the only method of marketing out there. Print advertising is still alive and well, for a variety of reasons.

Pros of Print Marketing

Credibility 

Despite the cost, there are some serious benefits to having your business appear in a magazine or newspaper. First, it still conveys a certain level of credibility, something that isn’t always evident online where everyone can pay $10-25 to get their ad on a decent website. If you want to be respected, print is still one of the higher quality mediums, simply because of the price. This is one reason you might want to consider it . . . people will look at your business differently than they would online.

“Influentials” Are Swayed by Print

An MRI Survey of the American Consumer found that “influentials,” those consumers who have the ability to sway other consumers, are influenced by print ads, with 51% being influenced by magazines and 53% influenced by newspapers.

Print Readers Have Bigger Attention Spans

The digital age has pretty much killed the human attention span. We surf the web with six different tabs open while someone is instant messaging us, another is texting us, and “The Walking Dead” is on the TV in the background. We’re simply not as receptive to all of the digital advertising happening around us.

Print readers, on the other hand, don’t typically multitask when they read a magazine or newspaper, making them far more receptive to the ads within the publication.

Print Ads Offer More Flexibility and Options

Print marketing tends to target a very specific audience, which means your ad will reach plenty of people who are more likely to be interested in your products and services. When it comes to magazines, you are placing your promotional materials in front of people interested enough in that specific topic to purchase a magazine about it.  

About Newspaper Audiences:

Effective and Efficient:

Last year, the estimated total U.S. daily newspaper circulation reached 35 million Americans for weekday delivery and 38 million for Sunday. It is an audience that not only believes in the importance of journalism but also understands that print is a pretty good technology. 

Print advertising may not be as popular with some businesses these days, but it is still a very useful method of promotion. Your best option is to use a combination of both online and print marketing, to reach as many people as possible in as many ways as you can.


Client Promo Videos

Project Summary

Just a series of pre-roll videos to use on display ads, social, and website for the client: Carefree Boat Club


The Scene: Intro to Series

 

While working as a Producer for WHRO Public Media, I had the honor of working with an amazing team of videographers and editors and help develop a short-form documentary series, called The Scene. I met artists from all over Hampton Roads that worked in every medium one could imagine. It will forever be one of my most proudest projects of my professional life... and one that won me a Capital Emmy!


7 Famous People from Portsmouth Who Aren’t Missy Elliot

Portsmouth may be known as the hometown for Missy Elliott and the following seven famous people, but it’s so much more.

Olde Towne PortsmouthOlde Towne is perfect for history buffs. Take a walking tour of one of the largest collections of antique homes south of Alexandria and explore museums (the Lightship Portsmouth Museum and Railroad Museum will delight people of all ages). Hungry? You’ve come to the right city! From good ole’ southern cooking to international fare, to burgers and fries, the restaurant scene is not to be overlooked.  Are you an antiquing pro, always on the hunt for the next best piece? The number of antique stores dotting High Street will blow you away.  Looking for specialty stores? We’ve got you covered. Visit Portsmouth — a city I personally love — and see for yourself why one of the smallest cities in Hampton Roads has something to offer everyone.

Now, onto the seven non-Missy famous people hailing from P-town you might not have known about:

Wanda Sykes (1964 – )

Before hitting the big and small screen, Wanda Sykes’ first job was as a contracting specialist for the National Security Agency. Sykes has had an extensive career, with dozens of appearances on TV and film, stand-ups performances across the country, and a book detailing her life. Currently, she appears in the ABC sitcom Black-ish and the Amazon political satire Alpha House.

V.C. Andrews (1923-1986)

In 1979, at age 56, the wheelchair-bound and unknown writer published a gothic teen-horror classic. Before Twilight, there was Flowers in the Attic. All across America — and around the world, millions of readers were captivated by this strange, dark, terrifying tale of passion and peril in the lives of four innocent children, locked away from the world by a selfish mother. While her career as a writer was very short, she published seven novels.

Ruth Brown (1928-2006)

Ruth Brown was referred to as “Miss Rhythm” and has been compared to Dinah Washington for her vocal talents in rhythm and blues. Brown began her singing career in the ’30s as a child growing up in the church choir. She joined Lucky Millinder’s big band after winning a contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater and never looked back.

Patton Oswalt (1969 – )

Patton Oswalt is best known for his work on such TV shows as The King of Queens and Veep, along with the recognizable voice as the rodent extraordinaire in Ratatouille. Oswalt is also one of the country’s most popular stand-up performers and received a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album for Patton Oswalt: Talking for Clapping.

Perry Ellis (1940 – 1986)

An innovative fashion designer, Perry Ellis began his career in the early sixties as a sportswear buyer for an upscale store in Richmond, Virginia. Later he moved to New York, where he eventually launched his own company, Perry Ellis Sportswear, and he quickly became a fashion superstar.

Ben Jones (1941 – )

Who can forget the affable, but goofy, “Cooter” from the TV series, The Dukes of Hazzard. After the show ended, Jones ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1986. In 1988, Jones took another stab at the seat and won with 60% of the votes. Along with dabbling in acting and continuing a career in politics, Jones runs a chain of “Cooter’s” museums, dedicated to The Dukes of Hazard.

Chandler Harper (1914 – 2004)

Much of the golf world remember Chandler Harper for the big one he did not win. In 1953, Harper appeared to have won the World Championship. Harper received a check for first place, prematurely, as fellow golfer Lew Worsham hit an improbable shot that stole the victory from Harper. Harper did win seven professional championships, including the most prestigious victory at the National PGA Championship in 1950.

Here are three that we predict will be famous – if no place else, but here in Hampton Roads.

Perhaps not born in Portsmouth, these three have made the city their home and are very proud of it.

Sydney Meers

Born in the Mississippi bayou, Sydney Meers grew up in the restaurant business. His family-owned cafes and played an influential role in his upbringing. Knowing that he wanted to explore the world, Sydney joined the Air Force, which eventually led him to the Hampton Roads. Since his arrival, he has opened several successful restaurants, including Stove Restaurant, while also cultivating his other passion: art. Sydney’s eccentric and expressive takes on politics, religion, and even himself has led to a cult-like status in the community.

Brad McMurran

While not being Portsmouth’s biggest ambassador, Brad McMurran runs and appears in numerous productions of The Pushers Sketch and Improvisation Comedy Troupe. Brad, an ODU undergraduate, is the co-writer of Cuff Me; The 50 Shades of Grey Musical Parody, which played off-Broadway in New York.

Randy Hess

Born in Petersburg, VA, Randy Hess has opted to make Portsmouth his home. An artist, restorer, farmer, and all-around talented guy, Randy works out of his studio, aptly named Nest Home, and can be seen throughout the area in various art shows and exhibitions.

The article appeared in AltDaily Magazine. 


757 Makerspace: Empowering the Community

The 757 Makerspace is like no other. An incubator for engineers, artisans, designers & more, the 757 Makerspace has been coined a "giant mancave." Full of tools, laser cutters, 3-D printers, and most importantly, eager bodies, listen to the founder, Beau Turner, describe all the goings-on that surround this unique initiative.


KRAM: Covering the Surface

Mark Wroblewski, aka KRAM, is known to many as a dope graffiti artist, an immaculate oil painter, or even an über-talented illustrator. However, his new journey into the world of art has led him to Hampton Roads & the world of tattooing. Watch the story of this budding artist to a backdrop of the evolution of Norfolk Arts Districts' newest mural.

Music by Dyska.


Sleepwalking Through Life: Tell Me More… Live Storytelling

In July of 2015, I was talked into participating in a local storytelling event that happens each month at Push Comedy - the local improv/comedy shop. Public speaking is right up there on my list of great things to do, like going to the dentist, post-office, or OBGYN - all on the same day.

Even though it was a terrifying experience, I am glad that I did it. It was something that stretched me emotionally and mentally.

So, now that that is off my bucket list, I can resume more pleasurable, MUST DO items like adult whiffle ball or zorbing.

About Tell Me More Storytelling

Everyone has a story, and there are plenty of storytelling events and podcasts around the world to showcase them. We’re not that different – except we tell stories from a small stage in a mid-size military town.

STORYTELLING NIGHTS: Tell Me More… Storytelling hosts a regular storytelling night at 7 p.m. the third Sunday of the month at the Push Comedy Theater in Norfolk, Va. We showcase storytellers sharing stories inspired by a one-word theme. We include a theme song for further prompting and the fun of it. For upcoming shows, please see our schedule here.


The Avett Brothers: Sounds of A Chef's Life

Anyone who is a fan of the PBS culinary favorite, A Chef's Life, has certainly heard the familiar twangs from North Carolina natives, The Avett Brothers. Here is a brief, yet not so brief, history of the musical brothers, along with my favorite version of the theme song we all hear every Thursday night on WHRO.

Around the turn of the millennium, the brothers finally wrote their first few halfway decent guitar/banjo-based songs and celebrated this victory by imposing their muppet-like energy upon the unsuspecting coffee shop and bar-room patrons across the state (mainly just in Concord and Charlotte, though, really). Around this time, Bob Crawford came out of the woodwork. He was a man full of vim and vigor, natural ingenuity, humor, and goodwill. He was also a natural-born hustler, though slightly weary of the everyday hustle. It had, up to that point, included (but absolutely was not limited to) selling shoes, fronting various bands, working 20-hour shifts on movie sets, taking girls on dates in a 1972 4-door Chevy Impala, and selling grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lot of Grateful Dead shows. Throughout his life, music had called, enthralled, and entranced him. It would ultimately lead him to take countless road trips, a second college degree, and independent study in the thousands of hours. Crawford had migrated south from New Jersey in search of new beginnings, truthful folk music, a job on a film crew, and possibly, a decent cup of coffee. He eventually found each, though not without some struggles. One of the first would be in convincing Scott and Seth that a viable career in music would not magically show up at the front door, merely because they had wished for it and written multiple drafts of their eventual Grammy Award acceptance speeches. Crawford felt, bizarrely to the brothers, that in order to pursue a life in music, a person had to actually go out and play music. They took his word for it, albeit with a good deal of suspicion. They then recorded Country Was in two days in their dad’s workshop/garage, surrounded by sawdust-covered fishing rods and tackle boxes, stacks of 1980’s country LPs, a drill press, and various tools bought at the flea market. The now trio went to work booking their first tour, using landline telephones, the U.S. Postal Service, and the still somewhat novel medium of electronic mail to pester ‘music venue’ owners into either booking The Avett Brothers or telling The Avett Brothers to leave them the hell alone (the latter response took less pestering than the former). The result was a run of shows throughout the southeast and east coast regions – 14 shows over 21 days. Coming from the limited performing experience of basically playing Charlotte over and over again since they were teenagers, for the brothers, this tour might as well have been Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ complete with rhyming, celebrations, frustrations, earth-shattering realizations, challenges overcome, and sirens. Unlike the ‘Odyssey,’ there were (fortunately) no cycloptic villains, slaying of suitors, six-headed monsters, or verses written in dactylic hexameter. It may bear mentioning that later, like Odysseus, they would be very happy to reach Ithaca (New York, not the Greek island). Everything was changed after that first tour – it set wheels in motion that are still turning. Each new place made a lasting impression, and in doing so, ensured their imminent return and hopeful building of a relationship with that town. Time passed. Songs happened. An unlimited variety of settings found their way into the performing history of The Avett Brothers. They played in most of the fifty states, at parks and in parking lots, bluegrass festivals and middle schools, 5-in-the-morning local TV news shows, corporate events in big white tents, weddings and memorial services, Mexican restaurants, rock clubs, open mics, house concerts, a Super Bowl party at a bar-b-cue restaurant (…”we’ll still pay ya’ll but can you stop playing so we can hear the game?”….”uhhhh, sure”).

Around 2007, Crawford dragged Joe Kwon into the mix – a Korean-born cellist and guacamole expert who had recently volunteered to leave a lucrative position and bright future with a massively successful computer company for the bleak and uncertain future of a musician. As a talented cellist, he immediately got work bussing tables and serving food at multiple restaurants. In the limited time he had away from work, he booked his days and nights solid, performing with the band ‘Bus,’ honing his skills as a chef in his own tiny kitchen and yelling, full volume, at the TV during Carolina Tar-heel basketball games. As a youth, growing up in High Point, NC, he spent much of his time ignoring pop music to drive himself mad studying Bach, consequently leading to all kinds of odd and questionable behavior later in life, including purposefully quitting a perfectly good computer job, yelling at televisions, and eventually jumping out of a perfectly functioning airplane nearly 300 times. After Joe’s cameo on the album Emotionalism, The Avett Brothers felt it made sense to hire a cellist full time. Since they didn’t know any other cellists, the open try-out process was brief. Kwon joined, committing fully to playing music which was, technically and culturally, primitive in comparison to his lifelong training. He thereby took one step closer to a career in the performing arts, while adding yet another job to his schedule that barely paid. On the bright side, through Kwon’s skillful playing and classical background, the band at long last achieved a vague semblance of sophistication.

However, this newfound fanciness was to be short-lived, as any sophistication would soon be obliterated (though at times also somehow heightened) by the inevitable addition of pianist/bassist Paul Defiglia. A singular case of Winston-Salem-raising-meets-New-York-City-swagger-meets-Old-World-Italian-joy, Defiglia grew up listening to jazz, punk rock, bluegrass, classic rock, and anything else he could get his hands on. Starting on the bass at age 14, he got the fundamentals from his professionally bass-playing father, learned quickly, and eventually went on to study music theory at the North Carolina School of the Arts, then at NYU. He performed in various projects in New York City and beyond, eventually playing the only upright-bass solo in the 35-year history of the nationally-televised Late Show with David Letterman. He made the acquaintance of the brothers around 2005 while playing bass with Langhorne Slim (an unusually prepossessing songwriter from, well, Langhorne, Pennsylvania). With Slim for many years, he blazed a trail through the U.S. and Europe, regularly performing in a hot-pink tank top. A late bloomer on the piano, he crammed about 5 years worth of study in his first 2 months on the instrument, regularly practicing for 8 to 10 hours at a time, breaking through the formidable challenges on a diet consisting primarily of cheap cigarettes and much, much more coffee than any man should ever drink. Musically, he rose to the occasion without delay. It became clear to The Avett Brothers early on, that for this man, contributing to the songs would not be a challenge. However, it does remain to be seen if Paul will survive the endless frustrations provided by cellphone-entranced pedestrians, intoxicated neighbors in hotel rooms, selfie sticks, overpriced records, overcooked pasta, Chicago Cubs losses, and people crowding the gate at the airport whose zones have not been called yet.

In the mid-1970s, a child was born in Miami, Florida. 13 years later, that child started playing drums. 22 years after that, the boy turned man (Mike Marsh) walked into a studio by the ocean in California and for the first time in the history of the band, The Avett Brothers had rhythm. Initially confused and angered by the concept of tempo, the brothers eventually relented, begrudgingly agreeing that having a reliable beat in a song wasn’t altogether terrible, as long as they could continue to not tune their instruments. Bob, in his patience, spared them the obvious ‘I tried to tell you guys,’ and yet another record appeared, ushering in the post-Emotionalism chapter. However, long before I and Love and You, there was Rush’s Moving Pictures, Ghost in the Machine by The Police, and Led Zeppelin I -albums that captivated the adolescent Marsh and called to his volcanic energy. Appropriating a ‘drum kit’ his brother fished out of a local garbage heap (complete with ripped heads on each drum), little Mikey, without cymbals at his disposal, would use a rotary-style pencil sharpener in their stead, quickly reducing the little machine to pancake status. With the discovery of this newfound passion, there would be no looking back. Drumming would inform and direct his life from then on. Receiving no formal training, he would pick up different techniques by ear and by working in a drum shop, watching and absorbing a culturally and stylistically wide variety of drummers as they tried out new gear. He played in multiple punk and rock bands, eventually making a name for himself as the rhythmic force behind Dashboard Confessional. His career in drumming was briefly threatened by a ruinous-though-promising dedication to skateboarding, but by sheer practicality, hitting things with sticks eventually triumphed over hitting concrete surfaces with his body. The Avett Brothers hired Marsh full-time at the end of 2012, and while they are generally beyond delighted with his playing, they have occasionally considered hiring his 10-year-old daughter as his replacement.

By late 2013, it had become clear that the band – 6 dudes on stage and 6 or 7 dudes on the crew – were decidedly lacking in feminine sensibility. Though perhaps as in touch with their feminine side as a group of 12 or 13 dudes can be, as made evident by their collective intuition, inexplicable wisdom, sensitivity-themed songs, and appreciation for artists such as Prince, Bette Midler, Meryl Streep, and Brad Pitt…something was missing. Although the band made a fairly decent showing of some womanlike qualities, no member had actually achieved any real level of womanhood.

Enter Tania Elizabeth – a genuine, real-life woman. Born in Australia and raised in Canada, Tania first picked up the fiddle at age 3 but felt it didn’t make sense to start performing seriously until she grew up. So when she finally turned 9, she began to get serious about music, performing and collaborating extensively, starting her own label at 15, releasing her first recordings at 16, and touring internationally by 17. Her life experiences, including her education, friendships, and adventures, would largely be directed and driven by and through her love and commitment to music. Her playing would mirror, as it often does in great players, her personality – intuitive, harmonious, powerful, friendly, playful. Eventually, she joined with a whole group of exceptionally-skilled musicians/vocalists called The Duhks. At some point during her near decade-stint with the group, she crossed paths at a music festival in Indiana with a whole group of not-so exceptionally skilled musicians/vocalists from rural North Carolina. She was blown away by them, and so without even a moment's hesitation, she joined The Avett Brothers…8 years later. In one fell swoop, Tania not only rounded out the lineup musically with her dynamic fiddling, but she also took the entire organization to a level of femininity which had been previously hoped for but fundamentally impossible.

Ultimately, The Avett Brothers joined together to present songs about experiences that they as humans have known to humans who know what they mean. Subject matters are tragic, joyful, and inexhaustible. They sing and play often, as long as they are not too busy walking around the mall, changing kid’s diapers, buying coffee, making coffee, washing dishes, going to the mountains, going to the beach, taking a run, moving into a different house or apartment, visiting St. Jude, producing a record, talking before thinking, nursing thought-induced headaches, getting married, getting divorced, falling in love, falling out of the top bunk, building cardboard spaceships, complaining about whatever there is to complain about, painting, planting a doomed garden, befriending a rabbit in the backyard, getting the truck inspected, watching Doc Watson on YouTube, paying a small fortune for an old book about how to play the banjo, counting blessings, forgetting blessings, going to the Fischl exhibition, going to the Estes exhibition, building a dining room table, making a podcast, teaching children how to fiddle, petitioning a governor, practicing an instrument that they’re already supposed to be good at, making a print, making a mess, taking kids to church, taking kids to school, taking kids to soccer practice, cleaning up after kids, laughing in the kitchen, sending flowers, pacing in the waiting room, thinking it over, talking it out, watching it go, or leaving it be.


Heather Bryant & Lorraine Fink: An Unlikely Pair

With 60 years between them, most would assume that Heather Bryant and Lorriane Fink would find very little in common. However, after further examination, the similarities between the two aren't just personal and the look and feel of their work, but also in their whimsical personalities and look at life.

Heather Bryant | Lorraine Fink

About the Artists:

Lorraine Fink

Lorraine Fink’s time-traversing vision and artistry bring obsolete and discarded gymnasium light fixtures back to life by incorporating other scratched, dented, discarded, and found offerings including circuit boards, remote controls, washers, CDs, plastic laminate samples, non-recyclable VHS tapes, toilet paper inner tubes, and newspaper delivery bags, to transform each into a fixture of a tribe complete with facial features, ritual adornments, body paint and transcendence of place and time.

Heather Bryant

Heather Bryant’s lithographs use animal imagery to create sacred stories of how the creatures in real or imaginary worlds behave. An eclectic mixture of color, pattern, and repetitious ornamentation adorn Bryant’s mixed-media drawings created with watercolor, gouache, ink, and Sharpie. Dots are scattered throughout the composition attempting to, and often, making contact. By connecting the dots across the compositions we are woven into a patterned existence, which alludes to the interconnected experiences that we all share. She illustrates encounters between beings faced with the choice of accepting or rejecting each other. Her goal is to promote harmony between variant entities by having diverse characters with shared visual attributes to emphasize their common experience. The investigation of opposing forces is a focus of her research, which concentrates on the struggle between vice and virtue, being in this world but not of this world.


How Do You Make Change? Get on the Bus…What Else?

In anticipation for Lobby Day at the Virginia General Assembly, a group from the LGBT social change group, Equality Virginia, I created an articled using humor and of course, animated gifs, to get people engaged. Through a series of formatted e-newsetters, a strong social media campaign and articles like this, a local contention of LGBT activists made the trip to DC to meet their representatives.


1. We should all be nicer to each other.

2. Kids know it’s ok.

3. Even big kids.

4. We all just want to be ourselves.

5. Really, what’s the big deal anyway?

6. You’re gonna have to tell your mom sometime – why not do it while making change?

7. The LGBT Community is made up of every type of person.

8. We still have a lot of educating to do.

9. We all want the same thing.

10. Enough said?