Confession of a Digital Generalist

I am not shy about sharing that I am somewhat of a digital generalist. If there is one area of digital I have spent most of career working it is content strategy, but I have done a little bit of everything. Experience strategy, social media, email marketing, SEO and periodically paid advertising. I started out in this industry in 2006 working for startups, nonprofits, and political campaigns, all of which didn’t have large online teams and expected digital staffers to be jacks-of-all-trades. It was the Wild West of sorts, as we most of us were trying to figure out how to leverage the internet to really drive growth for business and organizations.

Aside from a training I did with the New Organizing Institute back in February 2006 and a few industry conferences I have attended over the years, I haven’t had any formal training in digital strategy. I am self-taught. I remember, while working as a community organizer in 2005, spending my free time trying to build websites and my own money placing small Google Adwords buys to learn the trade. It paid off, I feel like I have gotten to do a lot in my relatively short digital career, but my journey has been one that is atypical to say the least.

Being a generalist is not a bad thing. Some people are just good at a lot of different things. One person I use as an example of this is a former developer I worked with who taught himself to code, but was also a great writer, content strategist, and project manager. You can’t pigeonhole a guy like him, he was jus too good at whatever you gave him to do.

One thing that I find makes a generalist able to change hats to work in almost any area of digital and be effective at it is their adoption of a philosophy around using digital to connect brands with consumers. A former colleague of mine strongly believed that brands can build stronger relationships with customers by wholeheartedly addressing the needs of the individual before the business objectives of a corporation. That is a philosophy that can be applied to any area of digital. If you apply it to content strategy, focus your content on providing useful resources to customers to help them be better at X. Or, if you apply it to social media, structure your community management strategy to incorporate customer service.

My general philosophy is that strategy – whether that be content, experience, brand, creative, etc. – should be informed by data, not the other way around. I have been an analytics nerd (not an analyst) since I started in digital. I learned from a number of political campaign veterans how to use CRM and digital analytics to test and optimize campaigns based on performance of past efforts. My general approach with any type of strategy is to leverage the swath of data available to me to profile audiences based on demographics, interest, and campaign performance, then develop campaigns based on what will most likely drive increased engagement with an audience segment. This data-driven approach can be applied to any facet of digital strategy, the only thing that changes is the tactics used to implement a campaign.

I strongly believe that it’s not just your skills that make you good at what you do, it’s the philosophy that drives your approach to your work. Good strategist – adaptable strategist – are not tied to any particular medium or marketing channel. They are able to apply their core beliefs to any area of digital and succeed.

My advice is to find that approach to digital that works for you. Whether you are great at developing big ideas that peak the interests of thousands, or are better at leveraging data to take an incremental approach to developing campaigns, find your sweet spot and make it work for you.

Not every company will appreciate your philosophy, but that is fine. It is more important that you apply it in a place that embraces it and will allow you to be successful than trying to be a change agent in an organization not ripe and ready for it.

How Brands Should Approach Audience Development

The concept of audience development started within the arts. Theater and other performing arts companies developed tactics they used to attract new ticket buyers, typically from demographics that did not attend these types of performances. This concept has been adopted by media companies as they sought to increase readership, and now by brands from all verticals who are seeking to adopt the editorial processes and traffic growth strategies of major online publications.

The Art Council of England developed a very good definition of audience development:

“The term Audience Development describes activity which is undertaken specifically to meet the needs of existing and potential audiences and to help arts [and cultural] organisations to develop on-going relationships with audiences. It can include aspects of marketing, commissioning, programming, education, customer care and distribution.”

When I first read this definition, the words “develop on-going relationships with audiences” struck me, because audience development in the context of the marketing field typically focuses on website traffic, not relationship building.

Audience development within the context of a media company traditionally focuses on traffic growth. Through a combination of tactics – paid media, content syndication, SEO, etc. – publications seek to drive as many visits as possible to their content. The more visits they get, the more ad revenue they generate. It makes sense for their business model.

While this makes sense for media companies given their business model, this does not make sense for most brands. Increased visits to a website can be good for brand recognition, but consumers typically don’t buy products or services after one read of a product page. The sales cycle is longer if you are trying to get someone to purchase a TV or life insurance than if you want someone to read about the latest developments in the budget debates in Congress.

Tactically, brands should adopt what media companies are doing to build their audience, but the their strategic goals need to focus on audience engagement and retention. A bounced visit to a media brand is still an ad impression. A bounced visit to a product company means the loss of a potential customer.

Don’t go for the short win with your audience development strategy, and don’t focus on just the amount of traffic you drive. Take a bigger picture approach and look at what level of engagement you are driving from each audience group you are targeting content to, and the success you are having in converting those individuals into customers, members, supporters, etc.

The Role of Human Identity in Customer Experience Design

I don’t talk about this much, but about this time three years ago I was homeless for a few months. For various reasons – mainly that I was trying to go at it on my own as a consultant with not enough business to live off of – I found myself nearly broke and sleeping on a friend’s couch when I was actually able to get into his place.

My bank at the time decided they didn’t want to do business with me anymore because my account was overdrawn a few times. I remember pleading with the assistant manager not to close my account because I had a wire transfer coming in, but he had made up his mind. During that conversation, he said something to me that stuck to this day:

“…why are you fighting to do business with a company that doesn’t want to do business with you? There are plenty of other banks that would be happy to give you an account.”

When I look back on that event in my life, I realize that I found a piece of myself in that bank. It wasn’t just an account to me. I had been with that bank for a few years. I opened my first business account with them. The manager at the branch I opened my account at in DC would always chat with me about the DC Latin culture when I went in for transactions. I associated that bank with an important part of my identity – my finances.

But, he was right. I walked down the street and opened another account with a bank and it was great. I had a better experience with them than with my previous bank and recommend them to friends to this day.

In that experience I learned a lesson about human identity. We seek validation of who we are in other people and other things. Our friends, family, and coworkers provide social validation that makes us feel secure in our gender, skills, knowledge, etc. It’s not a bad thing, it’s human nature. We need social validation in the same way we need air and water.

Continue reading The Role of Human Identity in Customer Experience Design

Put people at the center of content strategy – The Common Theme of Confab 2013

This is cross-posted on the 4Site Studios blog

Eight days after Confab 2013, and I have finally come down from my conference high. The conference was insightful to say the least – it is by far the best industry conference I have ever attended. This past week, I have sifted through notes, read recommended articles and reports, replayed in my mind all the thought-provoking presenter one-liners, and had many a conversation about the value of things like content “chunking” versus “blobbing”…the usual things you do when you come back from a conference feeling equipped with the knowledge you need to change the world.

I had a moment, as I sat down to write this post, where I asked myself “why does any of this matter?” There seemed to be something missing in all my thoughts and ideas after Confab. It all seemed very…tactical. I felt like I was missing a larger theme that timed all of these topics together.

Continue reading Put people at the center of content strategy – The Common Theme of Confab 2013

It’s just Facebook

Early last year, a former colleague at Hill Holliday and I had an interesting conversation about Dunbar’s Number. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, it is the result of an anthropological study that showed, on average, a person cannot manage more than 150 personal relationships at a time. That is a high level recap, and I suggest researching it more. It’s rather fascinating.

He told me that he actively tries to keep his friend list on Facebook under 150 friends by removing people he doesn’t interact with every month or so. His rationale, rooted in Dunbar’s Number, intrigued me, so I adopted this practice for the past year as an unstructured experiment.

My general criteria for whether I kept someone was:

1. I had to genuinely be interested in knowing what is happening in that person’s life.

2. We had to have been in contact within the past 60 days via any type of communication, online or offline. I even included a person liking or commenting on one of my posts or vice versa.

3. My memory of the last interaction with the person had to be a positive one, and I had to feel like we would be in contact again.

I, at the time, had 1,200+ friends on Facebook. In an hour I cut the list down to about 220. Over the next day, as I periodically looked through my friend list, I asked myself the hard question: “is this person really my friend?” This allowed me to slim the list down to 180.

Continue reading It’s just Facebook