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7 posts from September 2010

09/28/2010 Digital Strategy is the What not the Where

I admit that I get a kick out of seeing articles proclaiming, “SEO needs to be the cornerstone of your digital strategy” or “Base your digital strategy on social media.” These types of articles, and there are a lot of them, help blur the idea of strategy with tactics and channels.

Rather than focus on where a brand should show up in the digital ecosystem, good digital strategy would instead focus on what a brand should do or stand for. If you can figure out What, then the Where makes a lot more sense.

You can see the reverse happening all the time. That’s probably why we have so many terrible banner ads. The strategy says “display ads” and then its time to backfill the space.

The What, of course, is a lot harder to figure out than the Where. A great place to start is to try to move away from the promotional part of the What and instead dig into the business or organization itself and ask the question:

“What does this business do really well with people offline and how would we bring these interactions to those in the digital space?”

It’s surprising how much you’ll find once you take the time to uncover these nuggets. You’ll also need to help your team break down the barriers to bringing these actions to your digital marketing. Any great customer service or interaction is a potential winning What. Sales people who have a special routine, or classes you provide the community are two easy examples of taking real life connections and trying to find a way to bring these to life digitally.

Is there a way you treat your best customers? Do you provide tools or tests for people to use before they buy your products?

Digital strategy needs to take real business/people interactions and map out how to translate those to space where people can control the interactions. Once you’ve done that, figuring out the where (and the how) will have a lot greater impact.

The biggest challenge? Having the time and resources to figure out the What.  But that is time and money well spent.


09/27/2010 It’s not the media; it’s the social

A few weeks ago I spoke at the #140Conf in Boston on why smaller towns might be better at social media than bigger ones. One idea I put out there was that the chances of you meeting most of the people in your stream was far greater in small towns than it is in cities. I think that this helps with two things: it makes your social media world more relevant, while also encouraging more positive discussion and behavior.

More importantly, though, it places a greater emphasis on the social and less on the media. The media ends up acting as a conduit to face-to-face connections and as such, builds much stronger relationships than virtual ones.

I know that in the past 2 years, since diving into social media, I’ve met more people in Burlington during that time than I had met in the previous 10. And it’s not limited to Burlington either. But the small town-ness of the place means funny things will happen.

One of the panelists at the #140Conf, Cathy Resmer, told a story about car trouble in Burlington. When a guy stopped to help her, she looked at him and said “Hey, you’re @swichi293.” He looked back and said “Hey, you’re @cresmer!”

At my daughter’s soccer game, I sat next to another dad and we Dad-yelled and laughed during the match. When we got up and finally looked at each other, he said “Hey, you’re @rnadworny” to which I replied, “Are you @daveburkevt?”

We all end up repeating this stories to our non-Twitter friends again and again, as we’re delighted at the random meetings with people we already “know.”

The media set the stage for social connections. And it’s these in-person connection that lead to greater interaction and community. A recent study by the Keller Fay Group showed that most word-of-mouth for teens still happens overwhelmingly offline, in person. And while this was a study about teens, there's no reason to think the same isn't true for adults.

In Burlington, it sometimes happens more naturally. But in all places, we should think about how we can use the media to build more social, in-person interactions. These are the ones, after all, that leave a much longer lasting impression on us.

It happens to us all. Just ask yourself these questions: Which members of your stream would you really love to meet face-to-face at the next SXSW? And why?


09/23/2010 Airlines of Facebook: Beyond Promotions

Airlines have soared into Facebook with great energy. JetBlue recently ran its “All You Can Jet” promotion in a Facebook tab, while SouthWest promotes its “Bags Fly Free” campaign.

Two others have taken this to greater heights. Lufthansa just launched a virtual site within Facebook including a booking tool. In doing so, they’re playing catch up with Delta, which created its own Ticket Window app, allowing you to book at trip without ever leaving Facebook.

Kudos to both companies: they integrated their most popular Web tools and functionality into social media, where people can use these easily. But there is a big difference in their approaches.

For Lufthansa, the booking tool, like all of the its features, links you over to the Lufthansa site. Now, it does link you to specific pages, so you don’t waste time finding things. But in doing so, it acts more like a huge, online display ad more than anything else.


Delta’s approach is the opposite. It keeps you on Facebook through the entire booking process. This is smart for a couple of reasons:

  • It reduces the risk. By keeping it on Facebook, Delta asks for much less of a browsing commitment from its friends. You know you can quickly and easily get back to your real friends’ stream in click.
  • It encourages imagination. People talk about trips and vacation all the time on Facebook. By including the app right in the social site, Delta lets people take a simple step from fantasizing about a trip to actually checking on real travel dates and costs. It’s easy to go from thinking to doing.
  • Flight tools are about planning. It’s rare that you book a trip the first time you check it online. Usually people check out multiple trips. By including the flight-booking tool within Facebook, Delta has given people an easy first planning experience and first is sometimes strongest.


I find it a little mind-boggling that more airlines aren’t doing this, but I checked most of the major ones and came up empty. 

Delta wins this dogfight, this time. They show a great example of how to integrate online business tools right into the social experience.

09/20/2010 Empathy: The Key Ingredient to Digital Marketing

In all of my work as an interactive creative director and digital strategist, my main task in every project was to attempt to get into the shoes of my intended audience to imagine how they would use the things we built. In the digital business, we want people to feel emotions (like in traditional advertising) but we need for them to do something right away. 

Click, buy, give us your email, post on Facebook, forward to a friend, or just play; the actions are key in digital since we're creating two-way communications. But how on earth can we succeed if we don't shed our own preferences and embrace those of the people who will use our work?

Peter Drucker: "The number one practical competency for success in life and work is empathy."

If you plan, design, program or write for digital you need to have a high level of empathy. One of the biggest problems marketers have is the delusion that they themselves are the target audience. Even if you use the product or service you're trying to market, once you're on the inside you lose perspective. In fact, declaring, as countless have done, that "I'm the typical client" serves as nothing more than a power grab to own the decision making process.

empathy  [( em -puh-thee)]
Identifying oneself completely with an object or person, sometimes even to the point of responding physically, as when, watching a baseball player swing at a pitch, one feels one's own muscles flex.

There's great power in trying to understand other people. From a design perspective it helps you understand how to create intuitive design. From a development and UX perspective, it helps make things as simple and elegant as possible. From a strategy standpoint, it helps put the customer firmly at the center of the equation rather than the client.

Empathy helps remove the ego from decisions. You become an advocate for someone else rather than simply defending your own ideas. 

So how do you become more empathetic? 

  • More listening, less talking. If you don't listen to other people, you'll never understand them.
  • Get out of your comfort zone. I mean, really, get out of it. You may need to hang out with people you're not really that into, for a while. 
  • Act like an anthropologist. Observe, take notes, and don't interject yourself. If you do, you may end up changing what you see.
  • Read what they read, watch what they watch. 

It won't mean that you'll perfectly understand them. And you probably may not observe them doing the exact thing you're designing for. That's okay. As long as you can get into their heads and wear them like a costume, you can make the conceptual leap to acting like them.

Anyone can develop empathy skills. There are lots of books, including one by author Dev Patnaik called "Wired To Care" that help people and businesses develop those skills.

Or, you can think of yourself as a great method actor like Brando. Brando refused to learn how to rid a horse for the movie "Missouri Breaks" with Jack Nicholson. Instead, he studied people who did know how to ride, and he acted like them. Simply put, he acted like he knew how to ride a horse, even though he didn't.

Empathy is not the sole property of planners and persona developers. They can certainly help a lot, but everyone needs to add their own dose of empathy to the mix.

In marketing, especially digital marketing, empathy is the secret ingredient to great work.

09/16/2010 The Creativity Conundrum

For most of us who work in marketing, we consider ourselves to work in a “creative” industry. That is: we’re charged with coming up with creative solutions to marketing problems and, usually, the ones with the best creative ideas win. If you work in an agency, you’ve probably heard, ad naseum (Latin for: until it makes you sick) that Creative is King.

The bigger question for me is: where does this creativity come from? Or maybe a better question is: how do you foster a creative environment?

A number of recent articles make some interesting points and seriously call into question the practices of so-called “creative workplaces.”

The first article by Timothy Williamson of Oxford University, talks about Imagination. He posits that rather than fictional flights of fancy, early humans developed imaginative skills built on real experiences. It was the evaluation of alternative “realities” that gave imagination its evolutionary power. Imagining different ways a saber-toothed tiger might eat you increased your chances of survival.

Imagination is the critical ingredient for creativity. But you have to have lots of real-life experience to have a really good one.

In a similar vein, Jonah Lehrer, author of “How We Decide” penned an article that shot down one of Malcolm Gladwell's aha points of Outliers. He jumped on the idea that practicing something singularly for 10,000 hours will increase your chances of becoming a superstar. Instead, a recent study of professional athletes showed that those who group up in small towns and played a variety of sports growing up were most likely to become professionals. It flew in the face of the Tiger Woods theory that focusing on one sport, intensely, was the best path to stardom. Variety of experience, and lack of success in many of those experiences, actually makes us perform better.

The same is true of study habits. In our schools today we think that immersing ourselves in specific topics and studying them intensely will increase our knowledge and test scores. Actually, studies show the exact opposite to be true. Varying the types of materials studied, or even varying the content studied, yielded better results. Here’s the money quote:

“The finding undermines the common assumption that intensive immersion is the best way to really master a particular genre, or type of creative work, said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College.”

Finally, once you have all of these experiences and have gathered knowledge in different ways, what do you need most? Time off, actually. In studies about our “always on society” research shows that what our brains need most is time to process all of the different inputs we receive during the day. Always on is stimulating, but it doesn’t make us smarter. Here’s why:

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

So you’d think that business that specialize in creativity would:

  • Encourage people to experience many different things
  • Allow people to work on a variety of projects and clients to increase their reality-based experiences
  • Provide an array of research and creative materials, across disciplines, to make people smarter
  • Make sure people don’t do the same thing all the time, every day
  • Ensure that people have enough down time, either at work or at home, to process everything

In short, companies would be in the business of develop more renaissance, or hybrid, people (See more here, in an older blog post). It’s those people who should have the greatest chance of creative thinking and doing, which in turn should drive business results.


Unfortunately, today’s creative workplaces are nothing like this. People toil long hours focusing on the same types of work and projects day in and day out. Companies talk the talk about interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration but they walk the walk of siloization and isolation. 

And time? We’re expected to work longer, and more intensely, with every passing year. It would be one thing if creative companies provided down time, or thinking time, at work, for everyone, another if they provided sabbaticals or longer vacations to do the same. But if they’re doing that, I haven’t heard much about them.

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Some are born creative, some achieve creativity, and some have creativity thrust upon them. 

As creative business people, we should help our people achieve creativity. But we won’t succeed unless we radically alter the way we’ve built up our business and employee practices.



09/13/2010 Social Strategy is Like the Sledding Hill

Creating social strategies should involve examining a businesses opportunity to provide value, content and connection opportunities to customers and potential customers. Rather than trying to create something out of nothing, a social strategy identifies the areas of greatest potential and maps out a plan to develop two-way channels in the social space. 

When I help organizations develop social strategies and then watch those organizations doing the tactical executions, I can't help feeling like I'm on a sledding hill, with my kids, in the winter.

My job on the top of those hills is to give my kids the biggest push I can so they'll have the biggest momentum I can give them. I try to steer them toward the best possible path down the snowy slope as I watch and hope that they make it down to the bottom in one piece.

Sometimes they find the perfect path with their sleds and zip down with great speed and élan. Sometimes they lose their line and end up way off to the side. Other times, their sleds start to spin unexplainably and they wipe out half way down the hill. 

Good run or bad, my job on that hill is to shout words of encouragement, help them back up the hill, and give them another great push for their next run.


It's the same thing I do as a social strategist. Once an organization steps up to the social media plate, it's up to them to deliver. As a strategist, I can try to give them directions for the hill and give them a huge push with smart strategies. But it's up to them to actually act socially and steer their way through the social course.

At the end of the day, the strategist is like me at the sledding hill: yelling words of encouragement to my kids, as organizations race down the social media slopes, spinning, going wayward, or nailing the run.


09/07/2010 In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king

I heard an old Tom Waits tune this weekend and when that line popped up, guess what I thought of? Social Media.

Perhaps I’m a little impatient, but for all of our excitement about the possibilities, our talking about the future of communications and our expectations of the transformative and chaotic power of social marketing, we don’t have a lot to show for it.

Or, we only have a few really transformative examples of how its changing life both inside and outside of companies.

We can talk about Zappos, of course. They certainly have taken their customer service focus and used the social channels to expand and reinforce that focus. We can talk about Starbucks who have used social channels effectively for everything from location-based promotions to HR hiring.

The larger question, to me at least, is whether social has succeeded in transforming any older brands or whether its simply another marketing channel brands now pay a little attention to. And I mean a little; while growing, when you compare social media budgets to the marketing budgets brands still put toward traditional media outlets, social is still teeny-weeny. While Pepsi might have won some props by not running Super Bowl ads, they still spend a boatload (an aircraft carrier’s worth) of money on traditional media compared with the little (a dinghy’s worth) they spend on social media.

The inner transformation within companies across silos and in service to customers is an incredibly slow, expensive slog. Let’s not forget that inner transformation costs resources. Which companies have really put down the cash to make that happen?

I wonder if the recession has helped promote the idea that things are changing more rapidly than they are. Spending on traditional media is down, but it would be anyway in our economy, social or no social. Transformation is easier to talk about when you’re facing a cliff economically.

It’s easy to promote the early social brands as winners today, but I wonder if they’re truly winners or just a little bit better than all of today’s mediocre social brands.

In the land of the blind, a one-eyed man is king.



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