The Vaccine Project
B.L. Ochman: Hi, I’m B.L. Ochman and I have the good fortune to be here today with Steve Madden who I am interviewing for the Beyond Social Media Show - the podcast for marketing, advertising, PR and digital communications professionals. Hi Steve. Thank you so much for taking the time. I know you are busy because you wear so many hats. Thanks for having me.
Steve is a general manager of MM+M which is part of Haymarket US and you wear so many hats! You're a writer you're a reporter you're an editor, you're a journalist you're a promoter! So, I’d like to discuss the Vaccine Project and also get your insights and your advice on what it takes to grow a successful newsletter. So first of all the Vaccine Project: the first issue describes it as kind of a molecular Manhattan Project. It's written by Jeff Forster and it addresses all the many moving parts of this whole vaccine situation we're all in. I know that it came from the COVID Report newsletter. What made it necessary to have another newsletter just on the vaccine?
Steve Madden: Well Haymarket has several titles that operate in the market space: MM+M, PR Week, Campaign US among them. We realized when the vaccines were about to come to the market that you know essentially what our colleagues in the laboratories have done is a molecular Manhattan Project - that great phrase from Jeff Forster. It was now going to become the marcomm sector’s responsibility to deal with all the messaging around why you should get vaccinated. And as we know,there's vaccine hesitancy and they're just anti-vaxxers. We decided that because our audience is the people who are going to be responsible for these campaigns,and in a lot of cases the actual creative, that would be encouraging people to get vaccinated and assure them of its safety, that that we should pull together a newsletter that had all of our best content on this and also contained not just the market pieces but pieces that would be of help to anyone working in this space or working on the messaging around it
We had already been doing a COVID newsletter that we started last march that was for all of Haymarket not just for the marcomm sector. Haymarket has more than 30 different titles in the US and in the UK and in Germany and there was an awful lot of information that was relevant to anyone who's following the pandemic closely. This the Vaccine Project Newsletter is a sort of a subset of that, if you will, in some ways. It's even more important though because the messaging work is so vital.
Vaccine Project Newsletter
B.L. Ochman: Is there more to the Vaccine Project newsletter than the newsletter? Is it part of a bigger piece?
Steve Madden: No, it's sort of an offshoot of the of the COVID-19 newsletter
B.L. Ochman: I’ve had both my shots by the way
Steve Madden: Congratulations I’ve only had one
Marketing The Vaccine Project Newsletter
B.L. Ochman: You know there is such confusion around getting them and it took a week just to make an appointment. I mean really seriously a week like night and day and trying all the crazy different sites! How is the newsletter being marketed
Steve Madden: Haymarket, as you can imagine, has several, probably approaching 100 different sliced and diced email lists and we market by sending the newsletter directly to people on these lists. Sometimes there are stories that are created specifically for the newsletter. Those are placed on individual websites and then there's a whole social media strategy around promoting those individual pieces that drive subscriptions to newsletters
B.L. Ochman: Do you have numbers on how many people are getting this? I know it only started a little while ago. Like not that many issues right
Steve Madden: The actual the Vaccine Newsletter has been out for about a month - yeah it just started at the end of January. So that's about five weeks. And then the, the larger one, the COVID Project that started late March last year, early on in the pandemic. That was daily. We moved the cadence to weekly in June, and the Vaccine Project newsletter is weekly as well.
It's a really exhaustive, deep dive into the news. And, you know, the big issue, as I see it, as a marketer, is changing minds. And there's so much disinformation. There's so much outrageous disinformation. And this newsletter has what people really do need to know.
Social Media Marketing Of The Vaccine Project
B.L. Ochman: So, what's the social aspect of it? How is it being promoted in social media because that's where so much of the disinformation lives.
Steve Madden: We have like, a big push into social media with the newsletter. The individual pieces that make up the newsletter will appear on social media. We haven't been doing anything in particular just for the singular newsletter. But I can tell you it's an enormous amount of work. The whole Coronavirus newsletter idea came from Steve Barrett, who's the editor in chief of PR Week US. And he and I worked together to do the first couple of these newsletters. We're both big fans of Axios and everything that they do, so we modeled what we were doing on them. But keeping the focus within the Haymarket brands.
When I was writing the first one, and the first one mind you just a sample it wasn't meant for publication. I sat down on a Saturday morning with a cup of coffee and said I'll just I'll just knock this thing out for an hour and then go do something else. Well, that coffee turned into a beer five hours later, because it took an awful lot of work to pull everything together. Because the production of a newsletter with that many links is a lot of work. We got faster, we get better at it as time went on. We would sort of create shared documents that were that were a series of links with briefs on what the article is about. And then it was up to the writer to go through that, pull it all together. I think Jeff is doing these things. Now it's probably taking four or five hours, still to pull it together. But Jeff is generally a much more thorough writer than most.
What Is The Best Newsletter Frequency?
B.L. Ochman: He says it's a really immersive process to do. And one of the things that I like about it is that it that the end of the issue includes songs that are related to the topic of the week. And I've really never seen anybody else do anything like that. So, what's really the best frequency for newsletters? And how many of you in charge of?
Steve Madden: Well, it completely depends on the topic, right? You know, MM+M, sends out a daily newsletter five days a week, called “Five Things for Pharma Marketers to Know.” That’s sort of a must read and in the medical and health marketing space. It's important that it come out daily. And it's important that it come out, you know that it'd be in everyone's inbox first thing in the morning when they when they when they sit down to start work.
I also oversee brands that are part of a suite of products that cover long term care and nursing home facilities and things like that. They all have newsletters, and a lot of times you know, it's in some of them. Every one of our brands has a daily newsletter. And then there are specific newsletters on given topics that come out weekly, that feel right. But, you know, a weekly newsletter on the Vaccine Project feels feels right.
Newsletter Subscriber Engagement
B.L. Ochman: And how do you interact with the subscribers? I see there are a lot of comments on a lot of the newsletters but not so many on some others. Is there you know, is there some way that you interact with the audiences?
Steve Madden: Yeah, it's commenting. You know, we encourage commenting on the individual articles. And these are relatively small communities. A lot of times we actually know who the person is and might have a personal relationship with someone who's replying to something that they read. Different parts of our audience have different takes on a lot of the issues around it. We all know that somehow, for some reason, wearing a mask became a political issue, even though it was a tenet of basic science to wear a mask to help stop the spread. Most of our titles are rooted in reality, we like to think including science. We still heard from people saying you know you guys are squishy liberals and foisting this stuff on us and everything else.
B.L. Ochman: They could unsubscribe you know.
Steve Madden: That's right. You know you don't like what you're seeing on tv, turn the channel and that's the case here too.
B.L. Ochman: I know that PR Week is a paid subscription how many of the newsletters in MM+M -which is so hard to say -category are subscription paid newsletters?
Steve Madden: The newsletters are free for anyone who wants them. You can just sign up for it on the subscribe button at the bottom or there are places on our other various sites to sign up for that newsletters and when you click on an article that carries you to an article that's gated, it's coded in such a way that you even if you aren't a subscriber, you'll be able to see and read the article
B.L. Ochman: So, then advertising is how they're supported?
Steve Madden: Yes, we have a great sponsor W2O. They have taken the Vaccine Project on as a cause that's just so important. When I said that our colleagues in the labs did a Manhattan Project, W2O and some other large marketing agencies see spreading the word about the safety and efficacy of vaccines to all communities that need them - they see that as their personal Manhattan Project. I think everyone working in marcomms around this topic realizes that this is probably the most important thing that they'll work on their career and certainly the most rewarding. So yeah, W2O sponsored us with advertisements and we're doing roundtables and podcasts and then webinars with them as well
How To Grow A Newsletter
B.L. Ochman: I was listening on Saturday to a group of doctors on Clubhouse talking about the vaccine and talking about the issues with the disinformation. Some of the doctors who are promoting vaccines have actually reported getting death threats. You know this is just become such a crazy political thing but I think that what you're doing with this newsletter and the COVID newsletter are really a great service to people who work in communications because it is so hard to keep up with all of this. So, for me this is required reading because I am trying to follow this as a marketer and trying to understand what's being done to change this situation. It's a very hard thing to do so it seems to me like information is the more the merrier. But I wonder how do you define a successful newsletter? What are some of the ways that newsletters can become more successful? You know, if you have a small audience and not a ton of money, how would you grow your newsletter?
Steve Madden: I mean it's it sounds trite and it might even sound like I’m evading the question but it's all about quality and relevancy. You know if you get a newsletter - I know we all get tons of newsletters - and if you get one and you know after two or three days you realize like I don't need this, it's not telling me anything I don't already know, or it's not telling me anything I feel like I must know, then I unsubscribe. So, I sort of feel like a successful newsletter, to answer your question, is essentially an agenda memo for that day or that week's meeting. You need to read this because this is what everyone is going to be talking about or what everyone should be talking about. So that's why producing great content, aggregating it carefully, being respectful of the readers time while at the same time realizing that you still have to engage them. That's sort of where the, you know, you mentioned earlier the five songs that we selected the end of the newsletters. That's kind of where that comes from. Early in the days of the Coronavirus pandemic, we had a single person, Deborah Stoll dedicated to writing this. Deborah was brand new to the company. We've never, no one has actually ever met her personally
B.L. Ochman: Lot of that's happened in the last year!
Steve Madden: And she was, she was hunkering down out on Long Island to stay socially distanced. So, she's off there by herself writing about what felt like the end of the world, you know. And so, she started adding songs at the end just cheer herself up and to say, to the readers, like, you know, "Here Comes the Sun" by George Harrison and "A Lovely Day" by Bill Wither, stuff like that, just to perk people up. And then it just became this thing. And it's a super important engagement tool. People love it, people really look for it.
B.L. Ochman: I play the songs at the end of the newsletter, because it's fun. And like you said, I mean, you just need to cheer yourself up, you know, especially after you read all the news about COVID. But it does look like the Ad Council is trying really hard to encourage people to get the vaccine. But it doesn't look like enough is coming out. I'm not seeing it on the side of buses. I'm not seeing it everywhere that I go. And I wonder what it's going to take to make that happen. And I know a newsletter can't be the only answer to that. There has to be some involvement on the level of industry and of government. And, I mean, it's a big project you've taken on!
Steve Madden: It is, and I think that I agree with you that I haven't seen like, you know, display or public place advertising. But what I have seen, just because I'm following this, is I'm seeing that the marcomms industry is using every conceivable channel that's available to them. You know, if Black communities have a special hesitancy toward this, because of the Tuskegee project, the communicators are becoming very adept at selecting the right KOLs to help them spread the message. So, you might not see it on the side of a bus, but you might see it on Instagram or TiktTok feeds that you might not otherwise be following. And I think that's where a lot of the work is being focused. My colleague at W2O, Aaron Strout, said, he put it, I rip this phrase off from him so much: He's like, Look, we're working on the swing states here. If something is solidly red, or blue, we don't need to focus our work there. We need to focus our work on the people who are movable. And so, I think that's where a big focus of the work is going.
The Mutable Middle
B.L. Ochman: What did you call that in the newsletter, "the mutable middle" or the there was a word or phrase for it, saying that was the target - people whose minds might be changed, as opposed to those who might never change their minds? But even there, it's a huge job.
Steve Madden: It is and what I've found, personally is how surprising it is, that some of the people who have said that they're gonna wait and see, because they feel like this thing was rushed. These are, you know, other otherwise very intelligent, college educated people who just, for whatever reason, have their reasons. It's like, I don't do pharmaceuticals, like I don't even take aspirin. So, I'm not going to get this.
B.L. Ochman: And honestly, that was me at the beginning, I was thinking, like, I'll just wait and see how everybody else does with this and, and wait. And then I started reading, and then I started listening. And then I started researching. And, the thing that's clear, is that, so far, nobody's died from the vaccine. But half a million people in this country alone have died from COVID. And if you do get it, you may have it for the rest of your life. So, you know, whatever side effects there were - and there were side effects from the second shot - they were not the same as ending up in a hospital on a ventilator, which is not something anybody want to do. But as you're saying, there are intelligent people and I think, to a large degree, it is a matter of information. It is a matter of hitting them over and over again with factual data. And, you know, that's why we have to love Dr. Fauci so much.
Steve Madden: It's also a question of talking with people and finding out like, what's the root of that hesitancy. A friend of mine I just had a call around Christmas just to catch up with an old friend, and we were talking about the vaccine and you know this is an extremely smart guy who's worked in science and medicine communications his entire life, son of an academic chemist, so not someone who's averse to the scientific process right. I said so are you gonna get it? And he said no, I probably will but I’m like really really hesitant. And it turns out that that he is deathly afraid of needles! And that's so much of the imaging. Let's say you're coming up with a poster for why you should get vaccinated and it showed pretty graphic images of the needles: I don't know about you I’m not afraid of needles but I was really struck by just how big that needle was before they stuck it in my arm
Fear Of Needles
B.L. Ochman: And you see it everywhere every time they discuss the vaccine all you're seeing is people poking needles into people. And I think I read that 25% of people are needle phobic. I am not a phobic but I sure don't want to know too much about it!
Steve Madden: It's really important to realize that if 25% of the population is deathly afraid of these things, then maybe the messaging shouldn't include images that that set off a visceral response in them
B.L. Ochman: And also, on the needle there seems to be some sort of device that sticks out of the needle. Like what is that?! Does that hurt you? I mean I gotta say, the shots hurt, you know, but shots do, and it was quite temporary. It was no more than any other shot really
Steve Madden: I've been immunized for yellow fever for travel. And the yellow fever vaccine injection was by far more painful than this. But on the other hand, I put up with some short-term pain so that I could travel to central Africa and not get yellow fever. That to me is a miracle of science
Bike Town Africa
B.L. Ochman: On to Africa! Tell me a little bit about Bike Town Africa
Steve Madden: Bike Town was a project we created sort of in the middle of winter to fill pages when I was the editor in chief for Bicycle Magazine way back when. We went to Portland Maine and gave away 50 bikes and followed people around for three months to see what they did with the bikes. And then then we reported on it. It just became this thing. Like the next year we did five towns and then the next year after that we did 20. And while all this was going on a friend of a friend of mine who works for Bristol Myers Squibb came and said “have you ever thought about doing something like this in Africa where there's a really acute need to get anti-retroviral drugs for Aids out into the field right and these are places that you know people are walking, like if nurses or med techs, are walking six kilometers 10 kilometers a day to visit patients. If you give them a bike, they'll be able to increase the number of patients they could see dramatically.” So, we worked with Kona Bicycles who very generously took a sketch from us about the bike that would meet the very specific needs of riding in rural desertified Africa for the first part of the project where there were terrible thorns and dust that really gum up a bike's works.
Steve Madden: And we brought over I think the first batch was 100 bikes and eventually we've given away about 3000 bikes to help out. When this project started in 2006 it was about distributing Aids meds and food. The drugs were kind of harsh and needed to be taken on a full stomach. And now that Aids drugs are more widely available and the transmission has slowed,we've sort of turned the focus to education, giving bikes to kids - particularly girls - so that they can get to school
B.L. Ochman: What a wonderful project!
Steve Madden: It's a great project. My partner in that, David Brianza, carries the lion's share of the work now and keeps it going. I can't wait to be able to travel again to go back and do it
B.L. Ochman: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I think The Vaccine Project is a really important one, and I look forward to telling our listeners about it. So, thank you very much.
Steve Madden: Well, this has been great. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks.