Thursday, September 30, 2010

Is Amazon My Friend? Making Sense of Online Marketing

Tyler Clark is optimistic about the benefits of social media and all those (largely) invisible tracking tools that companies use to analyze our interests and buying habits online. Part of his business is helping companies figure out how to use such tools well, so I suppose his attitude isn’t surprising, and he does think critically about all this means. And he approaches his work thoughtfully, attentive to both the technology and the issues facing organizations and their audiences.  He reminds us that what works for the corporations can also work for neighborhood associations and non-profits, so online marketing isn't just about getting us to buy things.

I remain skeptical. I tend to ignore all of the suggestions Amazon and iTunes make about books and music I “might” like. Whenever I can, I skip the “create an account” option when buying products online. The only updates and newsletters I subscribe to come from cooking magazines, though I still get plenty from organizations and companies I never contacted. It’s not that I think all of this online marketing is going to harm me. Yes, I suppose there are security and privacy issues, but I don’t worry too much about that. It’s not malware or viruses I’m concern about, either.

What bothers me is the clutter and intrusion of online marketing. I don’t appreciate friend requests from local businesses or e-mail messages announcing what’s on sale at Giant Eagle this week. I wish all those progressive political groups would leave me alone already, not because I don’t support the cause but because I don’t want to read about it in my email every day. And if someone can figure out how to get Portside to accept my repeated requests to be taken off their daily distribution list, I’d be most grateful. The online world takes up enough of my time every day that I resent intrusions of things I didn’t request. I am quite capable of locating information when I want it, thank you very much.

But, Tyler would tell me, that’s exactly the point. I have the option to filter out most of the things I don’t want. Sometimes, I have to take a few minutes to unsubscribe from something I never asked to join in the first place. At other times, I simply have to look for the box to click to ask not to be sent updates. I only check Facebook about once a week, when I’m really bored. We’re far from having complete control over the information coming at us, but neither are we completely at the mercy of online marketers. Yet.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Working Hard to Help Children

For the past 15 years, YSU's Rich Center for Autism has been providing education and support services for children with autism and their families.  As I talked with Georgia Backus, Director of the Rich Center, I was struck by two things.  First, autism seems to be a growing, changing phenomenon.  That may be due primarily to better diagnosis, and as Georgia acknowledges, even some tendency to over-diagnosis, but it also reflects continuing research and better understanding of the various ways autism might manifest itself.  Second, because children with autism have such a range of needs, and because the Center aims not only to provide services for those affected by autism but also support research, work with area educators and counselors, and improve public understanding of autism, managing this Center is a huge, complex task.  How do you organize individualized education for dozens of children, manage a staff, work with YSU students coming to observe or tutor, consult with scholars on their research, and serve as the public voice for autism in the community?  It's a good thing Georgia has a lot of energy.

And I forgot one more thing:  raising money.  The Rich Center is funded primarily by grants and donations.  If you want to help, visit their website to find out about fundraising events or just make a donation online. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Art(s) of Economic Revitalization

I've always liked Lynn Cardwell's work.  Her pottery is at once useful and beautiful, as you can see if you visit her page on   I've also taken claywork classes from her, and I enjoy her laid-back, supportive teaching style.  This fall she'll be teaching at the Davis Center at Fellows Riverside Gardens and at the Davis branch of the YMCA.

But I have to admit that what I appreciate most about Lynn is the creative work she does helping to build and promote the local arts community.  Together with Marcie Applegate, she founded the Artists of the Mahoning Commons, which will hold its next open house and art show November 20, 21, and 27.  That organization, built around the artists who have studios in the Ward Bakery Building, supports the artists by helping them find audiences -- and customers.  That might sound crass, but if artists don't sell their work, they can't support themselves. 

That said, this group and other local arts organizations do more than support artists.  They contribute to the quality of life of our community.  They help us think creatively about who we are and what this place means.  We need them every bit as much as we need new businesses or jobs. 

Friday, September 10, 2010

Serving More than Coffee

Over the past few weeks, I've been spending a lot of time in committee meetings discussing what "student success" might mean for YSU. Part of the committee's definition of "student success" is the unlovely phrase, "productive post-collegiate performance." For many of those we've talked with in focus groups, that has a simple meaning: a job.

Jacob Harver offers a different model. He doesn't just have a job. He's an entrepreneur, founder of the Lemon Grove Cafe downtown. But in my book he counts as a good example of "productive post-collegiate performance" because he's doing business in a way that reflects the things he learned in History, Sociology, and other courses -- lessons that have less to do with how to run a business and more to do with how society works. He's a great reminder of the productive value of a liberal arts degree and of why it matters that so many YSU faculty make understanding Youngstown part of the curriculum.

Talking with Jacob Harver is always fun, in part just because he's so enthusiastic about almost everything he does. He believes in downtown, but even more important, he believes in the power of people, the arts, and organizing. What I admire most about his work in creating The Lemon Grove isn't just that it's a good addition to the downtown entertainment district, but that Jake has such a strong sense of using it as a venue for what we might think of as purposeful entertainment. Lemon Grove events support local artists, both visual and musical, but the cafe also sponsors film screenings, discussions, and meetings. And that happens not only formally, at scheduled events, but also informally. It's become my favorite place for small meetings, and every time I'm there I see other tables where people are not just sharing a meal but also figuring out how to solve a problem.

Jake offers a great answer to the perennial question facing students who major in history or English: what are you going to do with that?  

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Youngstown Goes International

Eric Planey believes in Youngstown. Like many young professionals who've left the area and returned -- some call them boomerangs -- he's studied and worked in other cities and around the world, and he's come back to Youngstown with the specific goal of helping revitalize this community. As Vice President for International Business Attraction at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber, he combines that positive attitude with knowledge of international business and a fair amount of patience as he works to attract international companies to set up shop in the Mahoning Valley and help local companies find global opportunities.

It's Eric's job to focus on the positive, but I appreciate that he was also honest in talking about the gap between potential and accomplishments. He's been on the job just over a year, and economic development is always a slow process. We want fast, concrete, dramatic results, but I think most people understand that creating new jobs involves exploring multiple possibilities, building relationships, and navigating financial and legal mazes. None of that happens quickly. But instead of simply touting how great things are, Eric acknowledges the limited concrete results of his efforts so far. He clearly doesn't feel discouraged; he's just realistic. In a community that has sometimes tended to be either overly negative about the possibility of local growth or idealistic about the latest turn-around, that moderation is refreshing.