And Now, Some Advice From Abby
Susan Solomon | June 19, 2001
When you begin to have doubts about whether people still take content seriously, who can you turn to? Dear Abby, of course. Here are her secrets to writing a successful column -- and some reassurance that content is still serious business.
I attended Internet Content West in Los Angeles and was a little disturbed by the meager attendance. What gives? Could it be that organizations are simply paring down their conference-attending budgets? Or -- and tell me this isn't true -- is it that content is falling off the radar screens as dot-com shakeouts continue? Please, Abby, tell me this isn't true. After all, you're Queen of Syndicated Content. Surely content will live on even in these crazy, mixed-up, wacky Web-site days.
-- Concerned About Content in L.A.
Believe it or not, I actually got my answer from none other than the great Abby -- or at least her daughter, Jeanne Phillips, co-creator of the column. Dear Abby is now electronically syndicated by uclick, and Phillips was at the conference to promote Abby online.
Her talk was classic Abby fare. (I loved the story about the parents of the bride who set up a "Help Us Pay for This Bash" collection basket at the wedding.) When I caught up with Jeanne later, she let me in on some secrets to her column's success -- and some reassurance that there are those who still take content very seriously.
So, dear readers, here are some insights from a lady who's been writing influential content for a very long time:
- Get off the pulpit. Jeanne insists that she provides practical information, not the Sermon on the Mount. "People are more receptive if you simply tell them what works and what doesn't," she says, adding that she is the "direct opposite" of the always-moralizing Dr. Laura Schlesinger.
- Establish trust. Can you name a more trusted brand name in the U.S. than Dear Abby? There aren't many. Jeanne says the secret to her success is that readers know she will be honest and compassionate when she writes to them. And when she's wrong, she will readily admit her goofs.
- Recognize that people are fascinating. Dear Abby never lacks for content, because she recognizes that so many elements of the human condition are utterly fascinating: life-and-death issues, office politics, pet peeves, and (a timeless favorite) outrageous breaches of etiquette, such as the couple who hosted a 10th anniversary party complete with a money tree they used to fund their divorce several weeks later.
- Great brands are passed down through generations. Jeanne started her Abby career when her mother allowed her to respond to a few letters from troubled teens (back then it was addiction to cheeseburgers that prompted adolescents to write). That was a long time ago, but the Abby audience is still strong and comparatively young (82 percent are between 18 and 49). Loyalties to truly great brands are passed down to children and even grandchildren.
- Never underestimate the power of words. Jeanne and her mother have used the column to collect millions of donated frequent-flier miles for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, to raise awareness for women's health, and to educate people on rarely discussed topics such as end-of-life issues. Jeanne says she's always taken the power of Dear Abby very seriously and recognizes that the Internet has raised her column's clout to enormous levels.
- Work with passion. Jeanne can become teary-eyed talking about some of the lives she has touched in simple, but highly influential ways. She says she "just knows" when a letter must be answered in her column: It's an insight she has gained from years of reaching out to readers.
There are, however, a few concessions that Jeanne has had to make since entering the e-age. For example, stationery and handwriting used to provide her certain clues as to the personality of the person writing to her. Now, she says, sentence structure and turns of phrase are all that help her read between the lines. But "email is very democratizing," she says, adding that even though it's made her job that much harder, it's probably a good thing.
And Jeanne is thrilled with the potential of transmitting Dear Abby via wireless. "Imagine flipping open your phone to get your daily dose of Abby," she says with enthusiasm.
Imagine. Honest content that's lasted through the ages and has more than 95 million readers. Now that's a track record that holds up better than most dot-coms.