Halloween: Our Most Visual Holiday

For those of you reading this in the future, today is Halloween. If Halloween does not exist in your time, I can tell you that it was an ancient custom filled with magic, during which kids dressed like monsters, men dressed like women, and women dressed like they were in Las Vegas. Everyone got candy, except for the kids who went to that one house where they gave out apples and toothbrushes.

If you are a time-traveling visitor from the past, here are some interesting facts about today’s Halloween: We don’t carve jack-o-lanterns out of turnips anymore! Now we use pumpkins. (Did you know that pumpkins are actually a fruit, not a vegetable? It’s a crazy world we live in.) And jack-o-lanterns, instead of welcoming the souls of deceased loved ones the way they used to, now welcome ungrateful, entitled children in plastic masks from Wal Mart.

Halloween is one of the most striking holidays from a visual perspective. It has a distinctive color palette: ominous, somber black, and the official color of prop comedian Carrot Top, orange. Centuries ago, Halloween was associated with orange and black because of the season of the holiday (fall) and the time of day that the holiday was observed (night).

These days, the visual vernacular of Halloween is spooky and ghoulish—ghosts, demons, witches, and all sorts of gruesome stuff:

Halloween has lost most of its original reason for being as a religious holiday, and it’s now perpetuated almost entirely through a commonly accepted visual aesthetic (also through the promise of candy). Ultimately, when the trick-or-treaters come by our houses tonight, we’ll all be aware that we’re witnessing a really well-branded product, with a well-defined color palette and visual voice.

That said, I hope you’ll share photos of your costumes with us either here on the blog or on our Facebook page. Happy Halloween!

The “So What?” of Social Media

When it comes to social media, there are basically two camps: the adopters and the resisters. The adopters jump into some or all of the social media outlets with both feet, tweeting, poking, tagging, posting, and doing all those other social media things that 10 years ago would have had entirely different meanings (I still giggle when someone tells me they’re “Googling”).

Meanwhile, the social media resisters spend their time sending the social media adopters snarky images like this:

This particular image, a Venn diagram available as a T-shirt from Despair, Inc., was sent to us by social media resister Phil Broder. And of course, we immediately posted it on our Facebook page.

I am firmly in the social media adopter camp, not just personally but for organizations as well. It has the ability to benefit your site (physical or virtual) in two distinct ways: cultivation of a core community and exposure to a vast, anonymous audience.

We use the IBD Facebook page partly to help build community and partly as a repository for JibJab videos. We don’t have as many followers as, say, Starbucks (we’re about 18.7 million fans shy), but Facebook has become a place where IBD readers share photos, links, and jokes about Shea’s wardrobe. It’s another venue to carry on the conversation, and that’s why we do this in the first place. (Note: As I was writing this, I became aware that IBD should be on Twitter, if for no other reason than to know what it is and how it works. So we started a Twitter account last week.)

We’ve both mentioned in the past that we’re obsessed with numbers, specifically the number of daily hits that we get on this blog. We’re aware that we probably have about 25 actual readers and that the rest of our hits come from Russian teenagers who accidentally stumble on our site looking for tips on stylish suspenders. While that core community of 25 readers (okay, 23 readers, plus our wives) is essential, there’s a certain thrill to seeing a post go even moderately viral.

We’ve enjoyed several occasions when social media unexpectedly drove lots of traffic to IBD.

August 2, 2010: At the time, “Ill Monday” was our heaviest day of traffic ever. On that day, an IBD post about a T-shirt that says “Ill” in the Phillies font got posted to the Facebook page of the company that makes the shirt, Philavania, driving a small fraction of their more than 17,000 fans to our page.

October 30, 2010: We set a new high on “Blue Saturday,” when a post about the color blue got Tweeted by a site called COLOURlovers to its 430,000 followers. The post got retweeted a handful of times and social media landed a bunch of people who had likely never before heard of us on our site.

December 5, 2010: This is the most random one of all. If you’re on Facebook, you surely noticed earlier this month that people changed their profile photos to cartoon characters to raise awareness about child abuse. I don’t know whether the campaign met its goals, but on “Tassie Sunday,” it did succeed in driving a record number of hits to our site, nearly all of them people doing Google image searches for the Looney Tunes Tasmanian Devil character and landing on an IBD post about the actual animal from back in May.

December 11, 2010: Just two days ago, COLOURlovers tweeted another of our posts, Yellow Makes Babies Cry, and we had just installed that green Twitter button that you see at the top of each post, allowing readers to easily share the post with their Twitter followers. The post got retweeted 44 times (as of this writing) and we had a new record.

This begs the Freeman Tilden question: So what? What’s the advantage of having a bunch of random people looking for cartoons stumble across our website, surely only for a few moments? It’s not as though Phillies fans who want to read about a trendy T-shirt are suddenly going to buy up the remaining stock of the book.

The nature of social media is that 99.9 percent of the people who accidentally stumble across this or any other site leave without a second thought. We tend to incorporate a lot of nonsense about baseball and our personal lives into posts about interpretation and design, so a lot of our traffic is from people who are not in either field, but that remaining fraction of a percent may stay to become part of the conversation, or at least lurk in the background like teenage Shea at a high school dance.

It costs nothing except time to maintain a social media presence, and the benefits can be exponential. Suppose your interpretive site deals with a specific historical event. A regularly updated blog, Facebook page, or Twitter feed about that event may cultivate a core readership—which to me is where the real value is—but the occasional post that unexpectedly goes viral will expose your interpretive site to a vast audience of new readers and potential visitors.

And for those readers (or fans or followers or whatever) who become part of your core audience, social media creates a distinct and important sense of community. For instance, I’ve been told that the conversations that take place on the National Association for Interpretation’s Facebook page help bridge the gap from one NAI Workshop to the next.

I’ve also been told that I am an awesome dancer, which I am not. I’m pretty sure that has something to do with JibJab videos. And I’ve been told that I have a lumpy head. I thought this had something to do with photos of me getting my head shaved at the NAI National Workshop last month, but it turns out it was just people being mean.

If your site does not have a social media presence, I’d encourage you to get one. The benefits are hard to quantify, but they are real.