PROMOTE OR INSPIRE: which will you choose to do?

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

Casey Neistat at the STORY Conference watching one of his videos from behind the on-stage podium. PHOTO CREDIT: Jeremiah Warren @jeremiahjw

I had the opportunity to hear from Casey Neistat last Friday at a conference in Nashville. I was aware of Casey, but not fully dialed in to his body of work, his life story, and certainly not his telling of leaving an HBO series to focus on creating no-frills YouTube videos.

He was funny, engaging, and even a little brash but in a charming kind of way, and this video about bike lanes in New York City seemed to perfectly punctuate who I thought he was.

And then he chose to show us a vastly different video.

One that made me pause and ask:

What do we really want to convey to our audience?

Or maybe the better question to ask is:

What are we afraid to share with our audience?

In this age of story, products and services are becoming less interesting on face value. Yet the words on the wall – mission, vision, values – those things we say we stand for and that matter most, too often serve as business prerequisites rather than ideals to live out every day. It begs me to want to ask:

To the nonprofit, how are you serving your audience beyond the dollars of the coveted donor?

From the toothbrush maker to the business incubator, how are you really making lives better?

To the inspirational speaker who shares the remarkable experiences of others, will others point to your experiences as a source of inspiration?   

To the CEO and the chief marketer of AnyCompany USA, are you willing to break the rules? Will you give people a powerful reason to believe in you – not because the marketing is stellar and the plea suggests it’s worth the risk, but because you’ve continually taken the risks to prove you’re worth it?

To all of us who are confined by the built-in metrics of the tools we use, and fear to step out and do things that aren’t easily measured, isn't it time we swerve outside of the lane we’ve been traveling?

These are not criticisms of what we've done, but challenges to all of us about what we might consider doing differently. Each day we have the opportunity to promote our work. We also have the opportunity to inspire others through the work we do. The choice can be as subtle or dramatic as we see fit, but the choice is our ours.

Kudos to Casey for the having the audacity to lay out a vision that inspired before it promoted, and that cut against the grain of conventional wisdom. And kudos to Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation for making the right decision. Film trailers are to be forgotten, but the way we impact and inspire others through our intentional actions... that's worth remembering and, every now and then, becomes the stuff of movies.        

POSTING & PUBLISHING: confronting the challenges we all face

As a content creator, I am aware that I am in constant violation of many of the rules that lead to success: what to post, when to post, how often to post, the right channels to post on, visual vs. text, and if the latter, knowing how long is too long and what is too short. 

Here's a confession: I struggle with this notion of posting and publishing.

It's not just about keeping up with the frequency demand and aligning with these purported best practices, but also the content merit of any post. Do I really have something that interesting, that urgent, or that profound to share with the world? I doubt I'm alone in my uncertainty. But one thing is certain: I don't bemoan anyone who is nailing the aforementioned rules and enjoying wild success. I'm just not on that page yet, and I question when or if I will.  

I'm also confronted with this reality: as a writer and a communicator, and as a strategist with marketing sensibilities, is it blasphemous to avoid (or recommend avoiding) publishing and posting on social? Wouldn't that be socially unacceptable in any 2016 marketing strategy? And, by the way, shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? 

Before answering those questions, consider these thoughts from an interesting interview with contemporary American writer George Saunders where he responds to a variety of societal hot-button issues, including his decision to refrain from on social media. Here's a relevant excerpt from that interview:  

"I’ve found that my first drafts are not so special. But the more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible. So that makes me averse to jotting things down and sending them out, when I know that my only chance at any kind of depth or profundity is to linger within the story, trying to make it distinguish itself. I’ve also found that trying to be active with social media changes my moment-to-moment perceptions. Instead of feeling, “What’s the deepest version of what’s happening here?” I start to feel, “How can I use (or “claim”) this?”

"The bottom line for me is that life is short and art is long — and I don’t love the way that being engaged in social media makes me feel, or the way it seems to shape my thinking."

Let's be honest: few of us are novelists or essayists. We're often writing copy about services and business solutions, not books. Some of us wouldn't dare claim our work as an art form. The approach Saunders takes is unique to him and by no means are hard and fast rules for, let's say, the OEM supplier or the not-for-profit organization. But Saunders hits on things that resonate with me as a strategist who leverages the power of words and ideas. In particular, this: 

"The more I work on them, the better they get. They are more unique and defensible."  

Isn't this what developers of content, consultants and agencies should strive to deliver on behalf of clients? Shouldn't we be in constant pursuit of those clutter-cutting ideas, those anti-listicles that impart more than a checklist?

So back to the earlier questions:

  • Is it blasphemous to avoid publishing and posting on social? There's a place for all of us to utilize our voices for good on social. I embrace the power of compelling storytelling, so there's always opportunities to utilize these platforms we've been given. I would like to believe that when I publish and post, it's because I have something to say that might provide a different perspective or point of view. 

  • Shouldn't I do a better job of leading by example? Indeed I could, but can't guarantee I will.  

Because, like Saunders, I find that the longer I linger with the story (e.g., the client's story, my own story), the more clarity and focus I get. The stronger the word choices become. This only happens when you and I invest the time and become deeply familiar with our subject matter, seek out points and counterpoints, and stew over the myriad of ways to say it -- whatever "it" may be.

Not everything benefits from hours of wrestling with what to say. The point isn't to navel-gaze, but to take the time to hone your thinking, know your voice and be true to it.  

Audiences rarely care that we miss a regularly scheduled Tuesday post or bi-weekly update. They care when they realize they miss the meaningful content we're providing, not the date or time it arrives. By easing our self-imposed time constraints, we afford more time to focus on creating better content.  

When we choose to publish and share our thoughts, we should slow down and take inventory. In doing so, we are banking on thoughtfulness and contemplative work over immediacy, of writing and refining versus the mere act of posting and sending, of eschewing the easy post for the one that requires more of us.

The end result isn't perfection or guaranteed success via likes and shares. It is the knowledge that the contribution is purposeful and hopefully unique. The belief that it matters and we will not regret the post at some point in the future. And the hope that perhaps we've found a way to say the interesting thing, the urgent thing and, if we're fortunate, the compelling thing. 

"Likes" and "shares" are nice. They're measurable and a quick barometer of interest. But analytics cannot measure the heart.

Perhaps the more heart we put into our work, the more likely our content will resonate with others -- which may or may not translate into a metric-measuring action. The question we must ask is: can we live within that reality and outside of the vanity metrics?

If so, cut yourself some slack. Take a bit more time if necessary. Be intentional. And if you feel so bold, embrace a positive definition of what it means to be socially unacceptable with your content strategy. 

 

Eventually, we all need help (how we ask for it matters)

asking (2).jpg

I know this firsthand: asking for help can be a hard thing to do. Admitting that I don’t have all the answers or the capacity to accomplish what needs to be done can be challenging, sometimes defeating, and almost always humbling. But I’ve also discovered it’s among the best ways I learn and grow – personally and professionally – if I’m being genuine with my ask.

What to ask for

It has me thinking about how I can best offer my help as well. Usually it comes down to having to interpret what the ask is for. I’ve realized through my own “bad asks” that how you ask for help matters, and it starts with clarifying exactly what you’re asking for:

  • Am I interested in insights or just implementation?
  • Do I need advisors/experts to help guide the work or assistants to follow my lead?

Knowing what to ask for brings clarity to the need. Knowing who to ask for help brings focus on the right skill sets and fit. 

Certainly there are tasks that just need to get done. In those situations, there’s nothing more helpful than sets of extra hands. But sometimes more digging and legwork is necessary, especially when it comes to issues of branding, messaging and marketing.

When your brand isn’t performing or its purpose, promise and message are unclear, insights from the outside are going to be helpful. This is where that old adage rings true – sometimes you’re just too close to the work.   

Yet the business of branding and messaging all too often slips into that implementation part of the ask when insights could prove more helpful. But that's what happens when some fast-on-the-horizon marketing opportunity looms.

The benefits of outside expertise

Few of us would be foolish enough to advise our physicians on how to cure what ills us without their expert evaluation, or advise our attorneys how to structure a business deal without their thorough assessment of the terms. Yet with issues of branding, marketing or communication, self-diagnosis and proposed solutions are what usually greet outside counsel. This is what makes the marketing or branding RFP nearly obsolete for thoughtful creatives who place extraordinary value on their relationships, their time and their craft.

Being open to the full potential of collaboration   

Like many of the partners I choose to work with, I’m drawn to the genuineness of connections over the binding of contracts. This is where expertise gets leveraged, trust and potential is realized, and how the best (and sometimes unexpected) work gets accomplished.  

While current challenges might be unique to your brand – they are not unique in general. That’s good news for any organization. Those current challenges likely resemble scenarios that outside experts work through day in and day out. They have familiarity in this territory. There is a knowledge of which questions to ask. And there is a recognition of what works and what doesn’t.

By clarifying the kind of help you’re asking for, you’ll have a stronger likelihood of saving time and, budget while also avoiding the difficult dance of finding the right partner to help.

The perils of not asking  

I’m more accustomed to asking for help these days – creative help, mentoring help, financial help and additional brainpower help – even though it didn’t come natural at first. Better yet, I no longer see it as a sign of weakness or personal failure, but rather a desire for something greater when my own perspectives and talents just aren’t enough.  

Nobody outright asks for trouble. However, there's one clear takeaway I have learned: by not asking for help and clarifying my ask, by default trouble is essentially what I'm asking for.  

On Message (vol. 1)

Recently someone share with me what they thought ratchet was all about – and for the most part they were spot on. But the analogy that was used to describe the work really struck a chord:  

Message is to a brand what location is to real estate.

Indeed, it is that important. People don’t make real estate investments without carefully weighing all the issues of location and, for a business, audience. Yet for some reason many brands jump headlong into identity work, marketing, sales, further product development, and even social media, without giving much thought to developing a concrete and easily understood message. 

Building stuff and focusing time on brand design, marketing, advertising, creative and the potential of social engagement – these are the shiny new things that many of us get excited about. This is the fun and sexy stuff, and we would agree. But there is a caveat. 

Among all this creativity, our job is to pause and ask: What will you say? Why should anyone care? This is creative work. It is a critical part of the creative process.

Don't forget the message ...

Don't forget the message...

Shiny things have the potential to blind us from the proven and somewhat pedestrian ways of success – which starts by articulating the why, the how, and the what. 

Not many people get excited about words on a page. But words do matter. When chosen judiciously and with intention, their impact can be far-reaching. Messages give rationale to our purpose for being and why others should take notice. Stories, which are examples of our messages in action, have the power to connect, ignite, transform, inspire and best of all – linger. The greatest stories are timeless and shared with conviction. They also contain conflict, which is something we shouldn’t shy away from either. That vulnerability is both real and relatable.

Does your brand have a clear message? Do your stories have power? If not, keep in mind that you have the ability to refine, rethink and recreate. 

To borrow from the textbook real estate perspective and a friend’s analogy, perhaps the most important thing about your business and your brand is – message, message, message.  But unlike a piece of real estate, your brand is not stuck on the same plot. 

The Consensus Paradox

Seeking consensus among the masses is good when choosing a vacation destination (nobody wants to embark on new adventures with a disengaged or disgruntled traveler). It’s not particularly helpful when building brands. In fact, it can be detrimental.

Asking for a show of hands and getting less than 100 percent alignment does not constitute a trip back to the drawing board or appeasing every new idea. While thoughtful feedback is fuel for bettering just about anything, discernment on when and how to use that feedback is critical. The buck must stop with someone who is empowered to say – this is the direction we’re headed and why

Seeking consensus sounds noble and democratic in theory. In practice, it sounds flat and uninteresting – the very things that branding and messaging initiatives seek to avoid – or reverse – in an attempt to differentiate.

In your quest to stand out, get comfortable pushing the envelope and, when necessary, reining things back in.

Not everyone in your organization will love the logo, the colors or the choice of type. They may not embrace every word of your message – and that’s okay. It’s not designed for them. It’s for your customer. 

Your extended team can do amazing things when they help shape the brand rather than dictate it. Asking for or falling victim to the consensus paradox won’t create internal believers. To the contrary, it can create pockets of skeptics who can appreciate the attempt but can’t get over what the brand has become versus what it could’ve been. 

Perhaps you’ve heard that a brand is more than a logo – and even more than a message. It’s about consistently exceeding expectations, providing exceptional experiences and connecting with stories well told. That’s where people fall in love with your brand. Your team included.