Why Journalism Still Matters: Interview with Alsy Acevedo

If you ask journalists for recommendations on what career to choose, I bet not many would recommend their own: uncertain job security, new responsibilities added every week for smaller salaries. But many of them would also praise the lessons learned in their career: how to find and pitch an idea, searching beyond what is said, persistence.

Alsy Acevedo believes journalism is a discipline with lessons which can be applied anywhere. She started covering hard news at an early age producing a political radio show in Puerto Rico. She then became a staff writer for various newspapers in the US (El Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, Ashville Citizen-Times). In 2012, she was named by Huffington Post as on of the Latino voices to follow on Twitter. Currently, she is a Senior Communications Strategist at Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international humanitarian agency dedicated to disaster response, where she stills finds ways to uncover stories and bring the public’s attention to current issues.

How would you describe what you do?
I tell stories of people in distress, but I also tell ways of solving the issues that distress them.

When you talk about people in distress, what are some examples of that?
People in distress because of war, because of natural disaster or because academics. I’ve been following the violence issues in Central America very closely. I’ve also worked in emergencies such as the Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines providing communications support for that and also epidemics like the Ebola outbreak last year … They are very tough circumstances.

When you are describing communications support, what is it that you provide to them? Are you bringing awareness of any issues?
It’s everything: from telling the stories of the beneficiaries I meet overseas to doing social media around the issue, to promoting legislation or supporting legislation on a bill, setting interviews with experts or sometimes giving interviews myself on the issue, (also) speaking engagements with different audiences like students or community leaders that are interested in this subject…Certainly, more diverse than what I used to do in the newsroom.

You describe your current job is more diverse of what you did in journalism…How would you describe the similarities of both?
The fact that you can listen to people and understand story lines and trends and communicate what others say in a way that someone who has no idea of that reality can understand, that’s definitely a skill that I’ve applied in both. In journalism I covered the school board or a particular election or some obscure city code, so I would need to explain that so the person who has no idea of those topics could understand it. With people in distress and emergencies and war and epidemics, it’s more of the same because people understand that these realities take place but usually you are so detached, or is overseas, or it is something that is not immediate to us. It takes some creativity and some understanding of both realities in order to make sense for the general audience.

Even though you are based on Maryland you are dealing with people in Latin America and other parts of the world as well, trying to communicate that message, understanding their concerns. Are there any particular strategies you take on to ensure that you have conveyed the message?
I think its having open dialogue with colleagues overseas and the people who implement projects outside of the Unites States. For example, when I went Mexico recently, we were covering the violence issues and also the farmworkers rights issues. I had to explain to the beneficiaries and my colleagues overseas what about these issues was relevant for the audience in the United States because there are different takes on the same issue. So for one of the audience that I work with, who are a Catholic audience, so the faith aspect is very important…I was able to bring everyone together on the same page. So it’s a matter of finding similarities of what people are interested in.

Being a reporter working for El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel, did people want to put you in a certain coverage area because you are a Hispanic? Was there good integration in your experience?
In El Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel Hispanic issues were definitely my beat. In North Carolina I had the health bit and I brought in the Hispanic beat myself because I thought it was relevant and nobody was doing it. I just started reporting in those stories as well. I think that in North Carolina I was more integrated to the general newsroom and in Orlando I was mostly covering Hispanic issues. That is tough place to release yourself from. A trend that I am seeing is Hispanic reporters who will not do the Hispanic beat no matter what and others who would, but it is very difficult (for them) to get out of there. The good thing though is that if you are in the beat its not going anywhere, it will be growing. If you are an expert then you have leverage and its something you can run with eventually. I think specialization is definitely a trend within the Hispanic market.

In your experience working in North Carolina, what is an example of a story that was about a Hispanic issue or maybe had a Hispanic angle that you brought up to the health coverage?
There were many Hispanics in western North Carolina but they were not in the paper, nobody spoke to them. So that is a way to integrate their voices in any story. One of the first stories that I did was actually about law enforcement and I did it in conjunction with one of my colleagues. They were talking about secure communities and this program that was implemented under that gave law enforcement the ability to ask on immigration status. We were covering a town hall so there was the sheriff, there were community leaders and there were like three Hispanics from western North Carolina who were Hispanic leaders and nobody talked to them. My colleague did not talked to them and I did. So when we got back to the room and I provided my quotes he was like ‘well, the story is to long’ and ‘I don’t think is necessary’ and I was like ‘I feel very strongly that it is necessary that they appear in this story’. We brought it to the editor and the editor did choose some of my quotes. It’s just a matter of shedding light to the reality that is already there and others don’t see it or don’t have the ways or the intention of covering it.

Do you see journalism as a career that is evolving? Or do you believe is a hype when people think that journalism is in decline?
I am optimistic so I think journalism will live forever and ever and will prevail (laughs)… I think journalism is changing so rapidly and definitely it does not work as the business model that it used to be Papers are declining but other forms are evolving and sprouting so I think content is king. As long as you have very good content and you bring journalism ethic and integrity to your stories, you will be contributing to journalism even if you are not on a paper anymore.

What do you think makes a good journalist?
I think fairness makes a good journalist and objectivity. It is such a complex concept …I don’t think it necessarily exists as definition suggests but being fair and admit that you have you own biases… Also in that fairness is giving the voice and the credibility to the people that have the voice and the credibility.

For people who are in college right now, will you recommend them to go into the field?
Well, I should know better and tell people not to study journalism because it’s hard to find a job and make a living out of it. But that is not what I believe. I believe is a great career and it gives you the skills and provides you the openness and the courage and the curiosity to question the world… I have a lot of friends who are former journalists that are in classrooms or in communications with different organizations like I am or who are doing a completely different thing like running a business and knowing how to market it to the general public.

I think (journalism) is a tremendous opportunity to learn about the world and get out of your comfort zone and really put yourself out there. I think that is a real skill to have when you go to the real world. And maybe the real world is that there is no newsroom that will hire you because its shrinking, but the fact is that you will have skills to enrich other working in environments juts because you went into journalism school and know how to listen to people and ask really good questions.

Follow Alsy Acevedo on Twitter at @alsyacevedo

Marketing Puerto Rico: Interview with Alan Taveras

In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on the local podcast Empresarios I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.

Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the disapora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.

The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.

Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.

During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.

Note: The interview has been edited for space.

… It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico… (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start… (One day) My brother was reading out loud an article… It said like monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.

(…) We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.

We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots… (We decided to) make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.

In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder institute?

Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.

How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?

I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that… We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.

Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.

In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.

Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.

In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?

In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of nos: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’

It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face… Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.

In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?

Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.

We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market…We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.

What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?

For Brands of Puerto RIco and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States… Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.

How many brands do you have?

I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago… but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post… Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.

If they are not registered, do you help them?

We help them with everything… We’ve done logos for people… A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.

Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?

I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it… We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.

Would you recommend people to study advertising?

I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market… If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.

I think it’s important the way you communicate things.

Follow Brands of Puerto Rico on Twitter @brandsofpr or email Alan at info@brandsofpuertorico.com

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

She Likes Long Text Messages Because She Appreciates a Complete Thought: Interview with Alex Wall

The title of this blog captures the beginning of the career of Alex Wall in digital marketing. The Lead Marketing Strategist at Roar Media (and Muay Thai fighter) started delving into this field while in college at University of Central Florida using a variation of the text above (read on to learn more). In her career, she has continued searching for the latest trends and applying new approaches, including tactics learned from science.

During a recent presentation during Social Media Day Miami on ‘Social Neuromarketing,’ Alex used images, quotes and stats to tell the story of what social media does to our brains and how can marketers and content developers use it to their advantage. In our interview we talked about applying science to advertising, how Internet has been her tool to learn and connect, and her love for ads. She wants people to love ads too as a “meaningful experience or exchange, not a corporate apparatus.”

In terms describing what you do, how would you describe your roles?

I am a full stack digital marketer so I manage the digital department at an integrated PR marketing communications agency. More or less if it happens on the internet is something that I have some purview over. I cut my teeth on the bread and butter of SEO (search engine optimization), social media, web design, and copyrighting… I build out from there with a really heavy emphasis on persuasion marketing using psychology to increase conversion and analytics using math. I think I take a pretty scientific approach to it.

What is your background? Do you have a background in all those fields or is it a passion of yours?

It’s kind of funny. I don’t really have a background in marketing prior to actually doing it… My degrees are in English Literature and Philosophy. I was not ever really in Business or Marketing or Advertising, but I started building websites when I was 11 or 12 years old. My first website, I think I was 11, was a Pokémon website. I had some friends on the Internet who also loved Pokémon. The weakness of the gateway system at that time was that in order to be able to play against somebody, you had to be standing right next to them. I was like ‘that’s garbage because I don’t have a lot of friends in my immediate periphery because I am a weird little kid, but I have lots of friends that I can stand on the internet’ because I think I was like one of the first kids on my block to have computer.’ So I built websites where I could host my Pokémon data and then run simulation Pokémon matches against other nerdy children out there. I started coding when I was about 11.

How did you learn?

I just looked it up. There were a bunch of tutorials on the Internet and I just looked it up…There was no WordPress; I just coded in just straight HTML, XHTML because that was the thing back then and I was into that. I had fun with it. I played around a lot. Then I moved on to college and studied the Humanities and I studied classics and I studied communication. I was a debater. I was also a speaker… and I did copywriting to make extra money.

Then one day I was fucking around on the Internet on Facebook, which was a relatively new thing back then. It was before it was opened up to everybody and it was just for college students. So I was messing around on it and this was back when you could make Like pages, just like anything, like the cool side of the pillow…you could make these Like pages so I made one. Just being a condescending English major, I should have made some trademarking around it because you now can Google it to this day and find it everywhere, I wrote ‘I like long text messages because I appreciate a complete thought.’ I just thought that was hysterical and I liked it, 13 of my friends liked it and that was cool and I walked away from it. You know I won’t do like a slow build up here but within 3 or 4 months that page had 1.6 million people following it.

(…) This was the precursor to Facebook pages as something that was done for businesses or brands or locations.. So I had all these people following me and advertisers started reaching out to me… offering to post links to their online t-shirt shops… The ecommerce sites that were sarcastic in nature, these smart ass t-shirts shops… would say ‘we’ll give you X dollars to order, we’ll give you 15% commission and kick back.’ So I basically started doing affiliated marketing through that Facebook page, just goofing off and I ended up making a substantial amount of money figuring out affiliate marketing and running that page.

Is that page still available today?

No, I actually got out at a good time because Facebook completely changed the way they do their pages now. You are no longer able to create a page that represents an idea or sentence…That taught me something important abut social media and about Internet marketing and making money on the web which is don’t build your house on someone else’s land… If you build your model around someone else’s platform like Facebook and they change their platform and they disrupt your model, you’re screwed. Sorry.

That’s why email has always been such a dominant format cause you always own our email list. If people subscribe to your stuff or whatever, you always have your email list…. It was an accidental breakneck speed education I would say.

 Is your specialization neuromarketing?

I am a specialist in it but I am not practicing specialist. I sort of moved on to broader topics and here’s why: there is not that many people in Florida talking about neuromarketing. I think that a lot of people in marketing come from two angles: they come from a communication and a journalist angle, or they come at it from a sales angle, and neither of those is sufficient to really grapple with the complex problems that neuromarketing tries to solve.

(…) I’ve spent a few years as part of a passion project really getting into neuromarketing and learning as much about it as I could. I even consulted with a neuroscientist in California. But there is really nobody else talking about it.

I became fascinated by it and the reason that I originally became fascinated by it is because I thought it was bullshit. I was part right, because what people say about neuromarketing and what people think about neuro-marketing is mostly bullshit. Someone posted a video a few days ago about subliminal marketing and how advertisers found the ways to hide the word ‘sex’ in Coke cans and that make Coke cans sell more. No, it doesn’t! Nobody thinks that. They experimented with shit like that in the 1960s and 1970s… Unless you are selling condoms there is no business advantage in trying to show dirty stuff in your ads, so when I see stuff like subliminal messaging, trying to get you to buy stuff by showing stuff about sex, that’s garbage, that’s total pseudoscience and that’s garbage.

There are principles though that we learn from the study of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing really is not a practice, the practice is in learning from neuroscience and occasionally being able to conduct real tests, which are very costly… Some of the principles that I went over in my talk like contrasts, things like narrative instead of statistics, pain marketing, fear marketing, show people what their life is like without your product and then show them what is like with your product. I guarantee you, if somebody is not doing that and starts doing that, the sales are going to double. The sales are going to double and if they are not, call me Sally.

 It is interesting and it seems like a topic that should be addressed more. People want to know what the foundation for all of this is. They want science to be behind this. They want the evidence.

John Wanamaker said once ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ I only think that neuromarketing combined with analytics seeks to answers that question…With either one, with good data analysis or with neuromarketing I think you can figure out where you are wasting money because with neuromarketing you learn which messages are more effective before you send them out, whereas data, metrics, analytics… can help you understand on where you are making and losing money once your campaign is live. And that’s helpful with an ongoing digital campaign, with something you can start and stop and turn on and edit. But if you are doing a study because you are going to spend 30 million dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial or whatever it is, you kind of want that information up front. You can’t turn it on and adjust it on the fly. You need to film that shit way, way in advance. It’s those types of campaigns that benefit the most from neuromarketing tests…Pretty much everything else you just learn from what is already being learned.

From your particular experience, what do you see to be the trends to look out in the future?

I’ll tell you: chat app marketing, for messaging apps. You are going to see brands trying to get on WhatsApp, on Kik and other one to one messaging apps.

(…) Video has been blowing up year over year, its still headed in that direction. The best investment a small business owner can make right now or somebody who wants to be a digital marketing consultant or start an ecommerce or retail business, the best investment they can make right now is invest on a nice camera. Because visual content is the future for the Internet, absolutely.

How do you see yourself in the future? Are there are aspects of marketing that interest you more?

What I like to do is being involved at developing new types of ads, new types of marketing messages, new ways to communicate with people… When you go and you spend money to place ads on the Internet, that is where the money of digital advertising in. It’s not in SEO or organic social media management. It’s in content and good content and it’s in paid media. That’s where 95% of the money is. If anybody else tells you differently they are either lucky or lying.

I love marketing, I love digital marketing, I love the Internet, I’ve always have. I have a very philosophical take on the Internet and the opportunities it presents and part of it is sentimental… (Growing up) kids would come up and say, ‘can Alex come out and play’ and I would go tell my mom ‘can you say that I can’t go out and play’, ‘can you say that I am grounded so I can’t go out’? I did not have the spine to say ‘no fuck off.’ I do now.

I wanted to be liked but I also did not wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to do my own stuff. The Internet to me gave me a lot of opportunities to get in touch and to learn stuff. Almost everything that I’ve learned about marketing, media and social and everything, I learned online, I learned by doing. I’ve taken online classes, I’ve gone to seminars, I’ve gone to conferences, done a couple of workshops. But mostly I just read, and tried and failed and tried again, failed and read and that’s just it. That’s it. And I failed Algebra 2 twice in middle school and high school so if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.

I think I am just so stubborn that I won’t stop doing something until I get my way.

Follow Alex Wall on Twitter @AlexlWall

Follow the author @yadicarocaro