Your Words Build Community

Posted on February 29, 2012 by 1 Comment

It’s easy to overlook the daily stories we tell and how they interconnect us with one another.

As a student of Gonzaga University’s online communication and leadership program, I recently spent a weekend in Spokane, Wash., discussing the principles of good storytelling. Unlike many of my classmates, I get to talk about storytelling and writing principles all the time. I wasn’t expecting to hear anything too revolutionary. But, silly me, I forgot about the power of community.

Your Words Build a CommunityOur intimate group of 20 was made up of vastly different backgrounds and stories. We formed a community around our mutual interest in learning, and shared pieces of ourselves that we rarely share with others. For instance, our instructor asked us each to find a quote that spoke to our hearts, and read it aloud to the group. Each beautiful line gave us a peek inside one another’s personality: One man recited his wedding vows; another read hip-hop lyrics from The Roots. Some students chose quotes from their favorite books; others read poems from their childhood.

These snippets painted images of one another that conveyed our personal histories — one of many storytelling lessons I learned from my educational community and Prof. Kristina Morehouse that weekend:

  1. “Stop in time, and pay attention to the power of words.” What we say builds community — and sadly, sometimes breaks it down. We need to be mindful of the words we use because someone is always listening.
  2. “Concise messages are most important.” If you find the right word, you don’t need as many.
  3. “Show, don’t tell.” When telling a story, don’t leave out the details. Oftentimes, we’re writing for an online audience that reads fast and suffers from information overload, so we skimp on the background information — the interesting characteristics — and focus solely on the lead, aiming to quickly grab attention. But when the next newsworthy headline hits, your lead is long gone.
  4. “Everyone needs one really good editor.” Find someone you trust to read your work. Ask for constructive criticism, and grow from your mistakes.
  5. “You can’t write if you don’t read.” Even the best writers find inspiration in other people’s words, and they appreciate how others phrase their musings. We should all read to better learn about the basic rules of grammar, and to uncover the magic behind parallel structure and cadence.

I found myself nodding along to each suggestion, excited to share them with my broader community of writers, editors and storytellers. Even if we’ve heard them before, it’s always nice to reiterate their importance in our industry.

And as for my inspirational quote? Always the grammarian, I read a quote that demonstrates parallelism at its finest:

“To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else’s heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Love in the Time of Cholera”

Image by wallyg.

Co-Creation: Empowering Your Community to Create Ideas

Posted on September 19, 2011 by Comments Off

Knowing what a community wants – it’s the thing that often stumps communication pros. You can run a poll, or simply ask, but does this usually spark the kind of feedback that leads to innovation? Not always.

Last month I had the chance to attend BlogWell in Seattle and heard from some big brands that were using social media to engage with their communities. Most were engaging with audiences on Facebook and Twitter to increase awareness and elicit enthusiasm around a brand. Few were using it to start conversations and generate ideas. Co-creation is a logical answer for many companies.

Co-Creation: End users designing products that they would love to use.

The Clorox Company is one of few big brands actively empowering its consumers to develop ideas and build buzz around upcoming launches. To engage with its customers, Clorox launched “Clorox Connects,” a co-creation effort in which a select group of community influencers help develop product ideas. Taking inspiration from and, Clorox wanted to tap into its influencers to discover what ideas they had to make products better. First challenge was identifying who its influencers were. Clorox scoured mommy blogs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to pinpoint its group members, who were then invited to join the exclusive Clorox Connects community.

Motivating these audience members to take time out of their busy lives to contribute ideas was another challenge. A monetary gift is an incentive and is awarded pending the quality of ideas presented in a given time period, and is paid whether the idea is sent into production or not. This community is fairly new, and no ideas have yet been sent to production.

 Benefits of co-creation:

  • Better designs and functions
  • Engaged customers – they feel valued when they are a part of a process
  • Word-of-mouth army upon launch

There’s truth to the saying “the customer is always right.” Your customers are the ones using the product. They know what works for them, what doesn’t, so they often have great ideas for enhancing features. Tapping into this community, and allowing them to express their opinions, can be a great way for a company to innovate. Plus, there’s the bonus of creating a fanbase that will likely talk about your brand on its own social channels.

Treading carefully is key, as there can be a potential downfall to all this, if a solid branding and promotional plan isn’t first set. Otherwise, casting a net for “wow” ideas and not having a way to credit them can be an easy way to get into hot water. Your company could easily be seen as “stealing ideas” and lose all credibility.

What do you think of using your community to create new and better product ideas?


3 Quick Points about Building Your Digital Campaign

Posted on January 18, 2011 by 1 Comment

(The above slide was crafted by Cindi DeHoog, account executive at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, as part of a collaborative effort between the account teams and WE Studio D.)

1. Heartbeats over spikes: Craft your campaign as a sustained cadence of low, modest and high activity. A careful mix of the three can propel the campaign forward while conserving energy (budget) to boost ongoing momentum (and greater adoption). Think of your campaign as an EKG line of short pauses, minor drops and lifts of activity.

2. Invitations over packages: Invite your community into the campaign from the inception; open doors to inclusion and participation. Dropping a tidily wrapped program into social channels will not allow for the same longevity as campaigns that allow for interpretation, organic growth and interactivity.

3. Relinquishing over rigidity: “A tree that is unbending is easily broken.” When considering your campaigns, build in a flexibility that allows for the greatest interactivity and adjustments. Infuse the campaign with a life of its own,  and allow it to grow beyond your initial expectations.

Let me know your questions!

3 Tips for Customer Engagement Indirectly Inspired by Harry Potter

Posted on April 6, 2010 by 2 Comments

Over the weekend, for reasons related to my appreciation of both Brad Neely comics and “Watch Instantly” features on Netflix, I ended up watching an absolutely fascinating documentary about various creative projects inspired by the world of Harry Potter called “We Are Wizards.” Though HP is no doubt one of the most extreme crazes of modern times, it got me thinking about fan appreciation and customer involvement more broadly.

No matter what industry you’re in, there’s an extremely good chance that someone is crazy about the product(s) or service(s) you offer. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying everyone will become your brand spokesperson or company evangelist.  What I am saying is that there’s a tremendous opportunity to tap into the excitement that your customers have toward your brand if done thoughtfully.

The key is to give those customers who are excited about your product or service an avenue to share their positive experience in an organic way. And it bears repeating, this needs to be done thoughtfully.

Even if your efforts to engage your consumers may be well-intentioned, people rarely jump on opportunities to share their enthusiasm about your service or product if the guidelines for engagement are too rigid or disingenuous.

Instead, here’s a list of three simple ways to tap into your customers’ passion:

  • Seeing is believing. In the right circumstances, your customers/fans will gladly upload photos that show them interacting with your product and/or brand in some way. The Bing photo booth at SXSW was a clever way to encourage fans to add their own personalized take on the “decision engine” as part of the Bing Photo for Good promotion. Encourage your customers to share their “Kodak” moments including unboxings, showing products “in the wild,” event photos, etc.
  • Call and response. Though “engagement” has become one of the more clichéd words in the world of social influence, actually engaging with your customers/fans/followers on a consistent and sincere basis continues to yield significant benefits. Have dialogues with your customers. Ask them questions and get their point of view. More often than not, brands on Facebook and Twitter fall on the side of underengaging, and very few push it to the other end of the spectrum.
  • Creative connection. All too often, we see companies attempting to herd their customers’ responses into a predetermined narrative by asking narrow questions or dictating the appropriate medium for responses. Don’t undermine the creativity of your customers. Encourage them to respond in ways that have the most meaning to them, whether that means uploading a photo, posting a comment, writing a song or anything in between.

While it’s rare that a brand will give life to a whole subculture of fan projects including bands, a music genre, podcasts, blogs, and other works of creativity as was the case with J.K. Rowling’s empire, you might just be surprised by the inspired tricks your customers have up their sleeves.

Image by Greg Westfall

Lurker Comes Out of the Shadows

Posted on March 12, 2010 by 7 Comments

Hello.  My name is Barrett.  And I’m Studio D’s resident lurker.

I hide in the shadowy corners of online communities, observing, listening and trying to separate the signal from the noise. You’ll rarely see me contribute to a conversation, but I’m paying attention, considering your arguments, and likely making value judgments on content.

Le bureau de GregI’m not going to tell you what I think, because I don’t know you.  I doubt you really care if I think you’re wrong. Rare is the time that a denizen of the typical message board or comments section actually swayed by response. It’s about waiting your turn to speak, then trying like hell to make yourself heard. I have no desire to contribute to the echo chamber. But I will take everything from it that I can.

This attitude strongly reflects my real-world temperament. Life of the party I am not. I’m that guy hanging out in the corner chatting with the people he already knows, looking around and listening. It may appear I’m not having a good time — that appearance is misleading. I just like to take it all in.

Conversations with friends take familiar turns, self-moderated friendly debate leads to sometimes-valuable insights. If a friend somehow tries to make the boneheaded claim that The Cure was a better band than The Clash, we have the common ground, respect and rhetorical tools to disabuse him of such a sadly mistaken position — tools other than sheer numbers and volume. But if some crazy Joe Strummer wannabe and a guylinered goth kid start a screaming match about it across the room, well who the hell is going to tell them any different? A considered response will just as likely be met with a punch in the mouth (or maybe a crying jag) as any sort of acknowledgment that you have a valid point. I’ll gladly watch others try (and sometimes succeed), but I’ve rarely found it worth my effort to jump in.

I am, of course, aware that not all the net is a breeding ground for open conflict. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of online communities that provide valuable advice, feedback and discourse for their members. If you’re big into your profession, your hobby, your hometown, your whatever, there’s likely a spot for you with a group of welcoming, knowledgeable folks you can seek out. These, however, are not the circles in which I travel. My knowledge and interests run wide, but not deep (a rarity in Studio D — this is a bunch of kids who dove right into the deep end).

Accordingly, my surfing habits lead me not to the small structured meetings of the chess club but rather the general chaos of an assembly in the gym. Class clowns, instigators, student leadership, jocks and honor students in a big shuffle of anxiety, hormones and flop sweat (If there’s a better metaphor for a Fark politics thread, I don’t know what it is).

I’m not trying to say that no one should participate in high-population, high-volume communities. It’s rare that I go through a thread on a topic of interest and find no comments of value. The folks that write those posts obviously find enough gratification in the act to keep doing so. That gratification is not in the writing for me though, and I have little personal need of broadcasting my unsolicited opinion to the world. I unload that venting on my nearby co-workers, Facebook friends and suffering family members, whom I know will actually be justified in calling me a jackass.

This all raises the question of why I’m writing this entry at all. It’s a lot of not-entirely coherent examples and metaphors for someone who’s not into broadcasting his voice into the great unknown. The easy answer is my boss told me I had to do it. The better answer is that sometimes things need to change, even if you have to drag them kicking and screaming. Studio D is all about engagement, and it’s always easy to find reasons not to do things. It’s probably time to find reasons to do them. Let’s see what happens.

Image by Frederic della Faille

Engadget vs. Commenters: Who Runs the Show?

Posted on February 3, 2010 by 7 Comments

Engadget CommentsMy colleagues on our consumer team have an interesting discussion going regarding the Engadget vs. Gizmodo approach to blog comments. For those unaware, Engadget has temporarily disabled comments due to a recent spike in trollish behavior; Gizmodo has responded with a post pointing to the merits of its somewhat more complex tiered comment system. Gizmodo concludes with an observation that the drastic measures Engadget is taking speak to the sad state of Internet commentary – abusive loudmouths are getting the upper hand.

In explaining its position, Engadget notes: “Some of you out there in the world of anonymous grandstanding have gotten the impression that you run the place, but that’s simply not the case.”


The consensus my colleagues have come to – thus far – is generally that conversation is the essence of blogs. That it’s precisely this feedback mechanism that differentiates blogs from static news outlets. And that a strong community should self-moderate – if it doesn’t, then there’s a bigger problem than the individual rogues and trolls.

I think this also unearths a bigger discussion about the role of the blogger and the role of the readers within the context of social media. Is Engadget right in asserting that it’s the editors, not the readers, that run the site? Or as news gathering and social journalism open up the playing field, is the role of an editor more of a social curator?

What’s in a Name? What’s in Your Cup? How Starbucks’ Signage Sneakery is a Sign of the Times

Posted on July 23, 2009 by Comments Off

Matt Whiting, Senior Account Executive, WE Studio D

Starbucks un-branding (Photo by Matt Whiting)

One of Seattle’s most globally recognizable and omnipresent corporate citizens is trying a new experiment that has some Seattleites steaming and others just perplexed.

As it has been widely reported, Starbucks is conducting a trial in which they will un-brand three Seattle-based shops in an attempt to endear the international company with those who prefer to buy their goods from local, independent shops. As reported originally by the Seattle Times and subsequently by many others, the shop on 15th Avenue in North Capitol Hill will now be known simply as 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, a coffee shop that will not only offer standard coffee shop fare, but also will host poetry readings and serve beer and wine.

Stepping back from the caffeinated buzz, there are certainly some key trends to note here and lessons to be learned.

Transparency: Wiping the name from the windows is clearly a step away from the “sunshine” of transparency with condemnation of this move having already reached a feverish pitch online and in the surrounding neighborhood. While it is encouraging to see company spokespeople discussing the plans (at least somewhat) openly, the biggest complaints stem from the fact the company seems to be distancing itself from the brand it worked so hard to create. A good compromise would be for the store to be called something along the lines of 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea: Your Neighborhood Starbucks. Regardless of how they do it, the company needs to acknowledge the obvious or otherwise risk being seen as overtly deceptive.

Authenticity: Clearly not heeding Oscar Wilde’s oft repeated advice (Be yourself; everyone else is already taken), the new Starbucks is being derided for ripping off the style of its neighbors. As the puts it, “[i]f imitation is the kindest form of flattery, the restaurant and bar known as Smith is feeling … well … flat-out worshiped.” Smith and neighboring artisan coffee shop Victrola, among others are feeling less than flattered, but only time will tell if the new Starbucks location will outlast the opinions of those who have negative views of corporate copycatting.

PR Response: As often is unfortunately the case with any move by corporations, the communications intended to connect with their audience often come off as jilted and about as far from human as possible. As Marc Gunther of the Huffington Post aptly points out in a reaction to a particularly unnaturally sounding corporate response, “[t]hose, my friends, are words only a corporate PR person could utter. Any resemblance to spoken English is purely coincidental.” Such words do not serve to endear the company to those they are working so hard to win over by this extreme remodel. There is certainly a place for finely worded responses devoid of human emotion, but any such communications should be saved for legal matters and PR should get back to actually being able to relate to the public.

Knowing Your Audience: For all of the flak that Starbucks is getting for this, something has to be said for their attempt to adapt to what (they feel) the community actually wants. Sure, cynics will argue that the only reason they’re doing this is to make money, but what company isn’t trying to better its bottom line? The gravest error here is the lack of transparency and the fact that people feel they are being lied to. Completely un-branding oneself may be unprecedented, (those with more familiarity with techniques being used in test markets like Peoria and Columbus might know definitely) but trying to blend in with your surroundings is certainly a worthy goal.

Regardless of whether you are for or against the latest move by coffee’s corporate giant, (as clichéd as it may be) it is undeniable that the world is shifting in ways that would have been unimaginable just a few years back. In addition to coping with a recession unprecedented in modern history, Starbucks is forced to compete with a cheaper, even-more widely ubiquitous competitor in McDonalds’ coffee. Perhaps as important, Starbucks and global brands across the world are faced with customers who, through the channels of the internet, have become accustomed to immediate responses and are more attuned to the benefits of buying local.

Whether this experiment works or not, my guess is we will begin seeing more and more companies attempt to humanize their brands in the most efficient ways available. Here’s to hoping such humanization efforts finally add a nail to the coffin of contrived communications (bad corporate PR) as well.

Update: Earlier this afternoon, I received a friendly e-mail from Starbucks Corporate Communications following up on this post. The company rep kindly pointed me to a fact sheet that the Starbucks Newsroom launched at some point earlier today, while also assuring me that the company has thought long and hard about transparency and authenticity. While I don’t doubt the hard work and likely long hours that have gone into the planning of how this launch would be communicated to the public, I call into question the timing of when these communications were rolled out.

Much like the movie studios that are finding that many of their films are deflated by the time preview audiences have a chance to offer negative reviews about their latest offering, Starbucks seems to be the victim of an incredibly rapid news and complaint cycle. The fact that the press, including the likes of AP, The New York Times, The Huffington Post among others have reported on how the 15th Avenue Starbucks, to quote the AP piece, is “wiping its name” from the store, brings up the question of the need for immediate transparency. Since those reporting had nothing to go off of from the Starbucks communications camp, there was nothing to counter public perception and journalistic observation. Look for a broader discussion around the changing timeframes of communications in the near future.

Social Media as Communications Pointillism

Posted on June 19, 2009 by Comments Off

Nathan Misner, Vice President of Digital Strategies

PointillismThe use of Twitter in the Iranian election aftermath and protests has gotten tons of pickup. We’ve seen articlesarticlesand more articles about how the micro-blogging platform has been the voice of people and one of the few reliable communications tools of the opposition in broadcasting events on the ground to the international community. As such its making some converts. Bloggers, journalists and pundits who have questioned the value of Twitter are looking at it through a new lens. One of those bloggers, Andrew Sullivan, addresses this is an artistic way:

“It is a kind of journalistic pointillism. And from a distance, it gains heft. It is history rendered in the collective, scattered mind, and it has never happened before — millions upon millions of tiny telegram messages sent to the entire world.”

I really like that imagery — pointillism — as a metaphor for Twitter. Like a Seurat, up close, tweet by tweet, it doesn’t make sense, there is no big picture, just unconnected pieces of information. But taken together, in aggregate, reading a hashtag feed for instance, you see hundreds/thousands/millions of parts of a bigger view. A communications perspective initiated by the individual but contributing  to a collective experience.

This past fall, Clive Thompson in the New York Times made a similar, um, point. He was talking about the digital communication among friends and family — the ambient intimacy and ambient awareness that posts via Twitter and Facebook updates provide.

“…as the days went by, something changed… [he] discovered that he was beginning to sense the rhythms of his friends’ lives in a way he never had before. This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update — each individual bit of social information — is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisticated portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives.”

This is true for business communications, too and as we communicators recommend strategies for our clients that include social media and micro-blogging its worth keeping this pointillism metaphor in mind. Is this tweet just a dot? Or is it part of a bigger picture?

eMusic and Ambient Influence

Posted on June 4, 2009 by Comments Off

Nathan Misner, Vice President of Digital Strategies

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ve got a passing familiarity with the concept of ambient influence: the news/content/information that we lead with is going to be informed and morphed by constituent conversations, the social nature of the web memes that naturally develop.

eMusicFrom Techdirt today we get this gem — a good example of ambient influence in action and the wrong way to try to regain control of a meme: In short, eMusic — known heretofore as a cool indie music e-commerce site, announced that Sony would be the first major label to make music available on their site. In short order they also announced a price increase for the cost of downloading music, leading customers to believe that the addition to the big bad major label to the catalog was the cause of the price increase.

Users were, um, not happy, and pretty vocal. No surprise. Hundreds posted to the comments section of eMusic and used the hashtag #emusicfail in posts to the site and on Twitter. This in and of itself could probably be managed by being transparent in the messaging, responding about the reasons of an increase in pricing. Ambient influence in full effect. Communicators need to be flexible enough to refine campaigns based on engagement and conversations happening “out there.”

Unfortunately that’s not what happened here. How did eMusic manage this potentially simple communications fix?

“It apparently made them disappear.

commenter on our post, pointed us to a comment on the eMusic blog noting that all of the comments that mentioned the Twitter tag had been deleted by eMusic — not only wiping out signs of the protest, but also screwing up the numbers of comments, which made the conversation confusing, since people are referring to other comments with the wrong number now.
So, rather than address the fact that there are a ton of angry protesters, eMusic simply decided to pretend they don’t exist? It’s hard to see that ending well.”

I’ll say that again.

PostSecret Content Proves Powerful in Many Mediums

Posted on April 20, 2009 by Comments Off

Paul Armstrong, Senior Digital Consultant for EMEA

Highlighting how great content/memes can seamlessly cross mediums, Frank “PostSecret” Warren posts his latest video to MySpace and other video sites today.

In case you are unaware of PostSecret here’s a (very rough) snapshot of Frank’s empire (and it is an empire):

  • Millions of books sold
  • More than 100,000 friends on MySpace alone
  • Around a million views on MySpace Video, another million on YouTube
  • The first video has spawned a series of copycat videos created by fans

Offline speaking events, signings and events (including a picnic) all help turn fans into obsessive brand ambassadors sharing their experiences to their networks.

A great example of a meme that a) shows no signs of stopping, b) how a brand can evolve and c) how simple community activities can drive and be shaped by its community with a little hard work and creativity. Congratulations Frank!

HOMEWORK! What’s your favorite crossover meme? Leave a comment and the best one will get a shout out in a future post.

The First PostSecret Picnic

PS: Here’s another video if you just want the secrets (and a great track by Sia).

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