On Pokemon Go and "Consensus Reality"

A Spearow at the entrance to Powhatan State Park in Virginia. Credit: Virginia State Parks on Flickr.

A Spearow at the entrance to Powhatan State Park in Virginia. Credit: Virginia State Parks on Flickr.

Back when I was a science fiction scholar (okay, I sort of still am... yes, Gerry, I'll have my Cambridge chapter in on time!), I spent a lot of time thinking about different kinds of reality. Diegetic reality - the "reality" within a work of art or literature or media - versus non-diegetic reality, the world in which we all live. The future or alternate realities in science fiction, which Darko Suvin calls "cognitive estrangement" from our own reality, versus the world in which we all live. 

The world in which we all live. It's what Suvin calls "zero world", or what Katheryn Hume calls "consensus reality". I like that second one, consensus reality. It's a term that understands that we all create reality around us as we live: we create systems of government, theories of art, traditions and ways of living and being human. And at the bottom of it all, despite our disagreements, there is some kind of deep consensus among humans: that there is something called "reality" and we are all living in it.

(This is, by the way, one of the reasons why Western culture in particular is so anxious about what we call "delusion": people who believe that the TV is talking to them, or that they are the Chosen One, or somesuch. They haven't bought into the consensus about reality.)

Now, this consensus is a lot more fragile than we often think it is, "we" being those of us raised in generally-Western cultures ruled by principles of rationality; I want to acknowledge here that the concept of reality itself is much more open-ended in many non-Western cultures, though I don't want to belabour it in this post. For more on indigenous scientific literacies, for instance, see Grace Dillon's work or anything written by Nnedi Okorafor.

This consensus is also fragile because, with the increasing popularity of location-based social media as a method not just of communication but as augmentation of our daily lives, what we think of as "reality" is changing rapidly.

Why Do We Want a Pikachu?

Why do Pokemon matter? They're just bits of information on a server. Why do we care if we catch them all, or some, or any? 

This is not a new question, of course. The gaming-inclined among us have been derided for valuing in-game objects since there were in-game objects to value. But why do the proverbial "purpz" (for those of you who didn't play World of Warcraft, that's hard-to-achieve legendary items) matter to us? Because there is a consensus around what they mean. They have become semiotic objects, signifiers of status and expertise in-game. They have also become, due only to consensus, economically significant objects in their own right, available for purchase or sale, and "farmed" by teams of bleary-eyed professional gamers in the same parts of the world to which we also outsource production of other things we buy and throw away. 

They, like Pokemon, are just bits of information on a server, but they hold real value to those who participate in the consensus that they are valuable.

Pokemon Go is a little bit different, though: it represents, I would say, an advancement of consensus-based gaming, a step towards merging "zero world" with the digital one. In World of Warcraft or KOTR, even if you're playing in a team with others, the game-world is separate from the non-game world. You sit down at a computer and put on your headphones and you're in.

But with Pokemon Go, the game world is layered onto the real world in a Baudrillardian simulacrum of the planet. Pokestops and gyms, where you can get items and battle your Pokemon against others', are stationary and generally map onto places of significance; the Pokemon themselves are mobile. The "AR camera" allows Pokemon to layer themselves on top of whatever part of the world you're in: they're on your street, in your bedroom, bouncing on your dog's nose. You throw a ball and catch them. And they're everywhere. They're even in places like Auschwitz and the Holocaust Museum and a children's hospital

Pokemon as Invasive Species

There's been a lot of ink spilled about the inappropriateness of Pokemon being in places like these; I wouldn't disagree. But the problem isn't so much that the game developers are insensitive; rather, in the game, locations have different meanings than in zero-world. Pokestops and gyms are the only locations of difference: that is, the only locations that have any material significance within the Pokemon Go layer of reality. This isn't so much insensitivity as what I might call imperfect semiotic mapping. Because these spaces in-game do often map onto places of significance in zero-world, like churches and schools; it's just that "significance" and "appropriateness" are two very different things, and the consensus that we have about the kind of significance these places hold in our sociocultural memory - the pillars of what Benedict Anderson called our "imagined communities", to borrow a concept - doesn't map very well onto the kind of significance that these places hold in Pokemon Go.

Pokemon themselves... well, they might even be called invasive, in a multivalent way: they have invaded both our sense of consensus reality and the spaces that are collectively important to us. Of course, you as an individual always have the choice not to play. But while Pokemon themselves don't interact directly with zero-world reality, the people who play it do. And if the consensus is that there's a Pokemon in Central Park, then you end up with a crowd gathered around, abandoning their cars, to catch it. If the consensus is that there are rare Pokemon that live at Harbourfront in Toronto, then you end up with crowds of people milling around trying to catch them.

The Impact of Consensus

These consensuses (consenses?), like the consensus of WoW gold being worth real money, have material real-world effects, too. Business Insider reports that because of Pokemon Go, food carts have become permanent fixtures in Central Park, peddling rations to aspiring Ash Ketchums. The game has also been lauded as a way to improve mental health: people experiencing depression and anxiety are finding helpful the game's incentives to leave their homes and walk to hatch eggs, and to go to different biomes to catch different Pokemon. 

Of course, as with most trends, there are naysayers: the Vancouver superintendent who encouraged players to "think about their life choices", for one. As with most trends, there will be those who choose not to follow it, or who think it's silly. But why does the Vancouver signwriter care in the first place? Because they, indirectly, also participate in the consensus-reality of Pokemon in our midst: they are directly affected by players of the game. 

As a marketer, I understand that many kinds of value exist only by consensus. Status symbols, for instance, are only such because there is a social consensus about their significance. As a social/digital communications professional, I understand that the value of a social network's functionality is only valuable inasmuch as it provides that network's users an optimal way to create, share and consume the kind of content that those users - and the companies that would market to them - find valuable. (This includes MMORPGs.) Even when there is little functional value, there is social value, because and only because of a social consensus to find value.

Pokemon Go is perhaps, then, the apothesis of this concept. It is a layer of reality that has zero inherent functional value, and is imperfectly mapped onto our reality, and is significant only because we have collectively decided it is so. 

Pokemon Go is, in other words, the closest thing we've seen yet to a purely consensus-based reality.

A Few Notes on the State of Social

As 2015 draws to a close – and I’ve been so busy with work that I’ve let the blog lie mostly fallow – I thought I’d scribble down a few unscientific observations about the state of social as we head into the New Year.

Social is moving towards simple, easy and image-rich. There’s a reason Instagram and Snapchat are so popular for so many brands (and why Instagram CPMs are so much higher than Facebook or Twitter): they are easy, simple andimage-rich. The reason? Users don’t want to hunt for content; they want content to come to them and be easily digestible, and they want to be able to hop in and out of the content as their time fragments further. Instagram provides a quick hit of prettiness in the 1-minute wait for the elevator; Snapchat lets you communicate quickly, easily and effectively with your friends – and with brands – with the click of a camera button rather than laborious typing.

For some examples of brands that are doing simple, pretty marketing really, really well, check out upstart skincare brand Sabbatical Beauty and jewelry maven Simple Studs on Instagram.

Gifs are the new words. Why say it with a phrase when you can say it with a 5-second subtitled snippet of your favourite television show? This is how Tumblrcommunicates, it’s how people communicate in the Jezebel and xoJanecomment sections, and increasingly, it’s how people communicate on Facebook and elsewhere online.

And, like any developing language, some words are more common than others – and have become standard responses in particular situations. (This one, from Parks and Rec, is one of my favourite things on the Internet – it’s become a common response to anyone behaving badly anywhere.)

Brands: please understand what “Netflix and Chill” means. It doesn’t mean what you probably think it means, if you’re planning to use it or any version of it in a campaign. Unless you’re Trojan. Or OKCupid.

In fact, this goes for any trendy language that you see used. Like “bae” or “on fleek” or “throwing shade”. If you need further instructions, please see the@BrandsSayingBae Twitter account for what not to do.

What trends have you noticed?

3 Big Benefits of Continuous Improvement

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of continuous improvement. It’s so often pooh-poohed as a meaningless management buzzword or corporatespeak, or lambasted Dilbert-style as a euphemism for… well, no one really knows.

But when it’s done right and built into your business processes, continuous improvement can be one of the best things you can do for your business. Here’s why.

Steve Jobs quote/image via leanblog.org.

Steve Jobs quote/image via leanblog.org.

1. It’s a morale-booster.

Continuous improvement allows us to forgive ourselves for not being perfect the first time. And in doing so, it opens up a path forward into learning and finding better ways to do things the second time, and the third time, and the fourth. This mindset is excellent for morale, because it demonstrates that the company sees employees as people with the capacity, ability and desire to learn… and they are given the opportunity to do so. 

In a workplace where management encourages continuous improvement, employees are supported through their mistakes and onto a path of learning. Providing staff with the opportunity to learn and grow in their work is one of the most important things that companies can do to hire and retain top-performing employees, and continuous improvement can help your company do just that.

2. It takes the anxiety out of mistakes.

In a workplace that sees mistakes as sheer liabilities, employees who make mistakes – and all employees will make them, because human beings are fallible – are anxious. They know that mistakes will hurt their relationship with management, even if the mistake was made in an attempt to do something different and perhaps better, and so they may take fewer positive risks.

This is not to say that the concept of continuous improvement should excuse mistakes. Nor should it be used to dismiss the potentially real damage caused by a mistake. Instead, continuous improvement should be used as a shift in the conventional thinking: instead of mistakes being seen as failures, they are learning opportunities – opportunities, that is, to improve.

3. It allows feedback to be helpful, not hurtful.

The art of constructive criticism is a delicate one. When you’re unhappy with someone’s work, it’s difficult to tell them what went wrong without bruising their ego – or potentially making them insecure about their work in general. The best managers find the balance between honesty and kindness, because ultimately, polite but firm honesty is the kindest way to manage.

In a workplace driven by continuous improvement, though, the purpose behind the criticism is different. Every mistake or problem is conceptualized as an opportunity to discuss the status quo and tweak it to improve the final product. Processes become learning experiences. Feedback turns from “here’s what you did wrong” into “here’s how we can do it better next time”. It’s an enormous, fundamental cultural shift, from negative to positive, from punishment to possibility.

I’m going to tell a personal story here, because stories are how we learn… and boy, did I learn from this one.

Not too long ago (but long enough ago for me to have learned from it!), I was recommended for a small contract by someone I like and trust, and who likes and trusts me and my work. It was sort of in my wheelhouse, but enough of a stretch that it was a challenge: a big challenge, in fact. It was for a major client.

I prepared for it. I worked hard on it. And, reader, I bombed it. I am used to doing excellent work and to having very, very happy clients and students. I didn’t have a happy client this time.

My first reaction was to worry that I’d permanently ruined my reputation and good name in the industry, and to be anxious that I’d let my colleague down. And although they were disappointed that the contract hadn’t gone better, they told me that the company is committed to continuous improvement, that I would receive very honest feedback about what went wrong, and that I would have another chance to do better on another contract.

That feedback was pretty painful to read. But I’m glad I set my ego aside and did it, and committed to my own continuous improvement, because reading that feedback allowed me to do two things: to find out about a few weak spots and set about fixing them, and to practice failing. I needed the opportunity to learn how to fail gracefully, and to use what I learned to do better next time.

I’m happy to report that, when the company gave me another chance to complete a similar contract, I did beautifully.

As a former academic, in particular, I have always been uncomfortable with failure; in an academic context, failure in one’s work is seen as tantamount to failing as a person. But in business, the concept of continuous improvement allows me to see myself and my work as a process, and allows me the joy of learning new things and getting better and better at the work I love.

Summer Schoolin’: 2014 Teaching Dates

Now that the Schulich semester is over, I’m focusing on my summer teaching, training and other fun entrepreneurial education projects. Some of the teaching I’m doing is executive education for companies you’ll definitely have heard of, but most of it is bloggable.

First up is the Canadian Institute Women’s Leadership Forum, where I’ll be representing the McMaster MCM program, where I teach. If you’ll be at the forum, come by and say hello!

Next is #socialmediaTO, where I’ll be representing the coolest Toronto education startup of all time, BrainStation, on a social media panel that includes luminaries from Shopify, HootSuite, Twitter and Tangerine. It’s May 21 at 7:30 PM at theExtreme Startups space, and tickets are FREE, so come on out and play with us!

As you know, in mid-June, I’ll be teaching a course on communications and new technologies in the MCM program. At the end of June, I’ll be heading all the way over to Helsinki, Finland to present my research on authenticity and luxury brand communities at the 2014 CCT annual conference. (I’m bringing the baby! By myself! It’s OK to present my poster with a Baby Bjorn strapped to me, right?)

And in July, I am very excited to announce that I’ll be teaching an incredible intensive six-week social media marketing crash course under the BrainStation banner. Details to come.

Speaking and Teaching, Spring 2014

It’s a busy spring around here!

This is the last week of my Marketing Management class at the Schulich School of Business; I’ve loved teaching undergrads for the first time in ages, and I’m going to be sorry to see those students go. They are, almost to a one, fantastic.

Coming up next week, I’ll be heading out to San Francisco and giving a short talk and hosting a discussion on social media and digital marketing for the Pediatric Device Consortium at UCSF. These folks are basically superheroes – their mandate is to develop surgical devices to make surgery on kids easier, less painful and more successful – and it’s really a privilege to be working with them.

In May, I’ll be giving a session on Creativity and Innovation through the Schulich Executive Education Centre for a major financial institution, and will be representing the McMaster-Syracuse MCM program, where I’m on faculty, at the Canadian Institute Women’s Leadership Forum.

In June, I’ll be teaching Communications and New Technologies, a course I’ve developed for the MCM, at this summer’s MCM residency (and online throughout the summer). I’ll also be heading off to Helsinki, Finland for the 2014 Consumer Culture Theory Conference, where I’ll be presenting my current research on authenticity, community and the luxury brand experience.

July’s reasonably quiet at the moment, and then in August, thanks to the generosity of some good friends and their lovely cat, I’ll be heading (at least for a day) toLoncon 3.

3 Things You Can't Do In Business (That You Used To Do in Academia)

Not a lot of preamble here: I’ve been thinking quite a lot about why former academics seem sometimes to struggle in the business world. Here are three of the biggest, most important things that post-academics or alt-academics looking to enter the business world need to understand before they make the leap.

(Since I’m not a scientist, I can’t tell you how much #3 applies to ex-scientists; my guess is that it applies quite differently to quantitative research than qualitative or theoretical research. So please take that into account when you’re reading this!)

Anyway: don’t do these 3 things.

1. Ignore things (deadlines, emails, etc.) and hope they’ll go away.

I can’t tell you how many academics I know who submit pieces late, whether they’re books or chapters or papers or conference proposals or whatnot. And when I say late, I don’t mean on Monday when they promised it on Friday. I mean months late. Years late, in some cases.

And I have a confession to make: in my academic career, I’ve done this too. It’s the norm. It causes no end of hair-tearing frustration for the people who are on the receiving end of these pieces and proposals, but it’s part of academic culture, I suppose.

I also hear this quite a bit: “I was supposed to email my advisor back, but I can’t face it, so I marathoned Breaking Bad on Netflix.” “I haven’t done anything on my dissertation/book in months; I just can’t get into the right head space.” “I’m just not making progress. I don’t know why. I’m avoiding going to campus.”

This stuff flummoxes me.

In business, if you don’t go to work, you get fired. If you don’t make progress on a project for months, even weeks, you get fired. If you turn in an assignment six months late, you get fired. If you don’t create or add value, you get fired.

If you avoid your boss because you can’t face speaking to her, you get a reputation as unreliable. If you avoid a necessary task because you don’t want to do it, you get reprimanded and told to do it. If you cause your colleagues hair-tearing frustration because you just can’t be relied upon to do the things you’re supposed to do… guess what? You’re out.

I’m starting to think that this is the biggest cultural shift that ex-academics need to make in order to get into the business side of things. Deadlines aren’t suggestions; they’re deadlines. Assigned tasks aren’t optional, and they’re on specific timelines. You can’t avoid a client’s calls. You can’t avoid your boss’s emails.

In business, you don’t make excuses. You do your damn work, you do it on time, and you do it well.

2. Revise until something is perfect.

We all know the maxim that the perfect is the enemy of the good. And we all know that the best dissertation is a done dissertation. But the reason we need to keep those things in mind – heck, the reason so many academics have posters of sayings like these up on their office walls – is because often, in academia, there’s so much time spent honing and refining and critiquing an idea that it becomes a shadow of what it was.

There’s something else that’s more destructive, though, that goes along with this endless refinement and quest for perfection (a perfection that, I might add, is impossible): the fact that so much academic discourse is in the business not of building on others’ ideas but of tearing them down. The peer review that excoriates an argument for being flawed, even if there’s something substantive to it; the debate sessions in grad seminars that seem more a game of point-scoring than intellectual inquiry; the smirking associate professor at the back of the conference panel waiting to pounce on any chink in an argument’s armour (and there is always one).

Of course, criticism is necessary to chip art out of roughly hewn stone. But in business, at least in the business environments in which I’ve spent most of my time, there’s much more of a spirit of exploration – which is ironic, because academia is supposed to be about exploration. Failure isn’t personal, and it’s not even bad, really: it’s just the discovery of something that didn’t work, which frees up resources to find something that does work. I’ve never felt more intellectually constrained than in certain academic environments, and I’ve never felt more intellectually exhilarated than in entrepreneurship.

3. Suggest instead of asserting.

Oh, weasel words. You know: “It seems to me that”, “I believe there’s a possibility that”, “It might be the case that”, and all those meek little phrases that peep out ideas without committing to them.

I’ve used those phrases far more times than I care to mention, in my academic work. Heck, I still use them in business… when they’re warranted. But while the surface function of weasel words is to bring an idea to the conversation, they’re often used as an excuse for plausible deniability. The line of thinking is: if all I do is suggest something, then I don’t have to commit to the idea! I can deny I ever meant it; I was just suggesting it, testing it, thinking that it’s a possibility. I didn’t mean it.

Many academics, particularly graduate students and others who are in less secure academic positions, use these words because academic criticism can be vicious, mean and very personal. And by “personal”, I don’t mean that a scathing review of an article is likely to end with a “your mom” joke; I mean that academics tend to identify themselves – and their colleagues – largely by their work, so that a criticism of the work is a criticism of the self.

So why, in business, should you assert rather than suggest? It’s not because you’re more likely to be right. In fact, you’re fairly likely to be wrong. Business ideas change just as much as academic ideas.

It’s because in business, the stakes are different. You’re not trying to be right, necessarily; you’re trying to innovate and bring new ideas to the table that will help the business be more successful. And in business, the stakes aren’t personal; sure, it feels bad to be wrong, but instead of being a personal failing, it’s purely a professional one. And there’s psychological space to try again, in a way that there isn’t in academia.

A wrong idea in academia, is denigrated, mocked, pushed aside or into the dreaded dustbin of Outdated Theories. A wrong idea in business is shrugged over, set aside, and quickly forgotten in pursuit of a more successful one. No harm, no foul.

Can you guess which side I prefer?

Here's how we can fix adjunct teaching.

It seems the mainstream media is finally waking up to the fact that over 70% of American university and college faculty are now teaching part-time. This is generally presented in the form of a narrative about the “plight of the adjunct”, fromthe shameful story of Duquesne long-time adjunct Margaret Mary Vojtko (updated here, by Slate) to the New York Times’ recent article on adjuncts to Rebecca Schuman’s consistently hilarious excoriation of the way things are in universities right now.

The thing is, I think there’s a place for adjunct teaching in colleges and universities. I actually think there’s a big role, more than many of my colleagues. Just as the workforce overall is changing – becoming more part-time, more hybrid, with far fewer jobs-for-life and far more flexibility and agility (for both good and ill on both sides) – so is teaching. My argument here is that this shift doesn’t have to be purely negative. It can actually be a major positive for both universities and adjunct faculty, if it’s dealt with in a way that adds value on both sides.

1. Adjuncts must be paid enough to make it worth their while.

Obviously, “worth their while” is a different number depending on many things: field, market forces like scarcity of qualified adjunct faculty, union rules, etc. But as an institution, if you want to attract the best teachers and ensure that they are able to reach their potential as teachers, you must pay them enough to make it worth their while to teach instead of doing other things with their time, whether those other things are income-earning or not.

It’s true that adjunct teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Happy, well-paid teachers will be better able to teach. This does not mean that underpaid teachers are inherently worse teachers. But it does mean that underpaid and overworked teachers will, inherently, be less able to perform to their own individual potential than will teachers who do not have these barriers in their way.

I teach part time at York University’s Schulich School of Business, at both the BBA and MBA level, and in the McMaster-Syracuse joint MCM (Master of Communications Management) program; I’ve also been asked to do some executive teaching for a major telecom and a F50 financial institution. I teach marketing, which is also my non-academic field of work. I feel respected, valued and very happy at both of these institutions.

Both York and McMaster pay their part-time business school faculty very fairly, which is one of the reasons why I am happy to teach at these institutions. At least one other school where I formerly taught, which I will not name, does not. And that is why I don’t work there anymore. They don’t pay me enough for my time, so they are no longer entitled to it. If you are not paid enough by your employer, and you have other options (which you may or may not), I encourage you to vote with your feet.

2. Adjuncts who currently teach as their primary means of making a living should find an additional career – and should bring that expertise and experience into the classroom.

I recognize that many adjuncts already do this. But my argument is that most or all adjuncts should do this.

I want to be clear here about where this falls in the context of #altac (i.e. alternative academic positions) and #postac (i.e. the trajectory of one’s career outside of academia). Really, this can be anything, from an alternative administrative position within a university to a consulting job for a major corporation to being a baristo at Starbucks. The “post” in post-academia is the “post” in postcolonialism, to hark back to my home discipline: it denotes not a demarcation between before and after, but rather a process of emergence from one state and growing into another state that is indelibly marked by and bound to the first.

Thing is, this is actually the way adjunct teaching is supposed to work. This is why adjuncting started in the first place. Professionals, sometimes retired but not always, brought their outside experience to bear inside the classroom, which was seen as a boon both to the professional (spending money! A way to give back to the students! Teaching is fun!) and to the students (Taught by a working professional! A window into life outside the university! Up-to-date expertise!)

One of the major charges levied against humanities programs is that they do not sufficiently prepare graduates for life outside the university. College and university career centres are great to have, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle, and they’re often understaffed, underfunded and, frankly, behind the times (according toAlison Green of Ask A Manager, anyway, and I believe everything she ever says, pretty much.) There is inherent heuristic value in being taught by someone who is working on the outside and can bring that understanding to bear in the classroom, even if their specific work is not directly relevant to the class material. At the very least, this helps students to understand the role of critical inquiry in the world outside university – and it may help them also to understand that the importance of their class material does not stop at the edge of campus.

So how do you do this? You can start here, with my post on 4 things to do in grad school to prepare for a non-academic career. Or here, with 3 things PhDs leaving academia need to understand about business.

3. The model of adjuncting should change, both from the hiring side and the faculty side.

I am currently working with a colleague on a prospective model for non-tenure-track faculty hiring that maximizes value for both the hiring department and the non-TT faculty member. (If your department is interested in trialing this model or discussing it further, please contact me.)

What does that value have to look like? What has to happen on both sides?

On the department side: Department chairs, deans and other administrators must understand that even if they receive short-term gain in hiring adjuncts at pittance rates, that short-term gain will translate into long-term pain for the institution. Students don’t like being taught by teachers who don’t have the time or energy for them. If your students are your customers – as so many adjuncts lament – then treat them like customers and give them better customer service. Perform a gap analysis and understand that a department with happy, effective and well-paid adjuncts is more likely to provide the kind of service to your students that will keep your reputation high. This is a business problem for which you need to make an effective business decision.

Because as university gets more expensive, and the student loan bubble grows larger, students are more sensitive than ever to the quality of the education they receive – and they’re getting even more so, in part because of the press coverage I discussed earlier. Parents are starting to ask questions. Bad teaching quality means fewer students which means lower revenues. And that’s something that should very much concern you.

On the faculty side: Adjuncts must reject the notion of teaching as calling or vocation, and rather understand it as an economic exchange between themselves and the university. They must be prepared to reject that exchange if it does not offer terms that are acceptable to them. This does not mean that you can’t love teaching. It doesn’t mean that you can’t, privately, see it as a vocation. But what it does mean is that universities are becoming corporatized and you need to be able to understand their decision-making from that perspective, no matter how much you might object.

In that same vein, if and when you do find work outside the classroom instead of or in addition to your teaching duties, sell it as an advantage to the university, along the lines above.

I’m not saying “if you don’t like it, then quit”. I’m saying “stand up for yourselves on a large scale. Understand that you are valuable, your work is valuable, you create value for the departments in which you teach, and you must understand that value and hew to it if you are to strike a fair deal.” This is starting to happen. Keep it up.

 

3 Steps To Telling a Brand Story, Socially

My friend and colleague Chad Horenfeldt of Influitive posted something great the other day. The focus of his blog post was the challenges of email marketing nowadays, but I was quite taken by what he wrote about the importance of storytelling – that is, narrative, to us lit geeks – in marketing, after Gary Vaynerchuk:

“Marketers need to communicate what the story of their organization is (its value proposition). To get the attention of potential buyers, marketers need to engage with their audience. Social media is a great channel to use for this purpose but it can’t be used as a “blasting platform”. You need to really engage your audiences.”

Okay, we know this. Anyone who’s been in social media for any length of time understands that social media platforms are for engagement, not advertisement; that it’s a conversation, not a broadcast (or even a narrowcast). This is old hat.

Where Chad takes it to the next level is here:

“While I agree with Gary that storytelling will win the day as it is the best way to convey a message, it goes well beyond the mainstream areas of social media… Marketers should be leveraging their best customers – their advocates – to help spread this story. It should not just fall on the company to be the storytellers.Your customers and other influencers can assist here. Would you be more included to open or respond to an email that came from a company or from a friend or colleague of yours?”

This is one of the most crucial aspects of social marketing (which, as Chad mentions, goes beyond just email and the mainstream social media channels).  Exceptional social marketing is wholly cross-channel, inclusive and interdisciplinary; it is also radically engaging, and it recruits consumers to help tell the public story.

Here are three of the most important steps your brand can take to help you get there.

1. Establish Exceptional Brandmarks

Successful fashion companies are masters of this. Chanel, for instance, co-opts its target consumer as a brand ambassador through the combination of very brand-specific accessories styling, including prominent brand logo on most pieces, and high price point. Each person who carries a Chanel handbag, generally a wealthy and well-dressed woman, becomes part of the brand’s story: ostensibly one of elegance, but also one of exclusivity, which creates aspiration.

(This is also why counterfeiting is such a problem for a luxury brand: misuse of a company’s brandmark disrupts the brand’s narrative about the kind of person who uses its products. See, for instance, Burberry’s mid-2000s brand crisis in the UK.)

It’s not just the great fashion houses that do this, though. Innocent Drinks, the UK smoothie company, is one of my favourite examples of brandmark best practices on social media. For example:

Can you spy Innocent’s brandmark? It’s the little angel sketch in the corner. Innocent’s social media channels are full of fun content like this: entertaining, highly shareable and engagable, and always subtly brandmarked… so you know who’s amusing you, but it comes across as a service to you rather than an overt request from you to purchase.

(In fact, all good marketing is about providing value to the consumer – and successful brand storytelling provides value at every stage of the engagement process. We’ll talk more about that a different day.)

2. Watch Your Tone

Again, Innocent Drinks is a master of tone. As someone with a lot of education in English and a copywriting background, I am a huge admirer of Innocent’s brand tone. They’ve successfully balanced tongue-in-cheek silliness and whimsy with endearing likeability – a balance that’s very, very difficult to strike. For instance:

The use of lowercase lettering suggests a level of unassuming friendliness, the graphics are bold, simple and endearing in the style of a modern picture book, and the pun is deliberately cute.

Just as style is an essential aspect of a piece of literature, a brand’s tone is an essential aspect of its story – and therefore, its positioning in the marketplace. Innocent positions itself as a bit of an underdog, a fun little company started by two friends who cooked up some smoothies on a whim. It’s pure and natural, but only because it’s so carefree; it certainly wouldn’t do anything untoward, like put trombones in your smoothies. It’s there to take care of you.

Meanwhile, it’s one of the market leaders in the UK in all of its categories. And part of the reason is that it positions itself as a friend, not a product. In doing so, it makes itself highly shareable.

3. Advocate Messaging

One of the more important tools in the modern PR and social media toolboxes nowadays is the “brand ambassador”. A kind of functional descendant of the traditional brand spokesperson, the brand ambassador is more subtle about his or her ambassadorship. Often, s/he is a blogger in a particular lifestyle market, like food, fashion or travel, who is given free products or services and/or paid to discuss the brand in question. An example is the recent Contiki Thai #NoRegrets tour, which sent a dozen bloggers – including Toronto’s Casie Stewart (who has spoken in my class at York University) – to Thailand for a whirlwind luxury trip that was thoroughly documented on Instagram and YouTube.

When we talk about “advocate messaging”, though, we’re not just talking about official brand ambassadors. We’re talking about getting all of your consumers involved in your brand story. You can do that by:

  • Creating highly engaging brand-relevant content that provides value to your fans, and that they will want to share
  • Using broad calls to brand-relevant action, such as a day of action, a collaborative project or process, or a shared priority – this can and often should be done in all of your media, not just social media
  • Fostering brand communities, either within your proprietary channels (like Harley-Davidson does with its Harley Owners Group) or outside of them (like Rebecca Minkoff’s advertising support of the independent Purse Forum)
  • Actively responding to reviewers and other discussants on independent review sites
  • Creating an exceptionally positive customer service experience, every time

If you’re the only one out there telling your brand story, you’re just one voice in the mob. But if you can utilize the tools of branding and social outreach to help your consumers carry your story out into the world… then you’re really getting somewhere.

Upcoming Speaking and Teaching (Plus, Madeline Was On The BBC!)

It seems the BBC World Service is a big fan of ours at ideas in flight. First theyasked me to speak with Mark Whittaker on Business Matters about branding in Japan a few weeks ago (you can hear the interview at about 41:20). Then they called up Madeline Ashby, our copywriter and social media coordinator, to talk about the Rob Ford scandal on Have Your Say. And then they asked her to appear on television as well, via Skype. No link yet, but I’ll post it when it’s up.

Aside from that, I’ll be speaking to Mike Leon‘s BBA students at Wilfrid Laurier University on social media marketing on November 18th. Following that, I’m giving a keynote address on “Social Media 101″ to the Toronto Sikh Professionals group on December 3rd.

October 2013: Media Appearances, Teaching and a New Team Member!

It’s been a busy, busy summer.

Business is good; my clients are wonderful.

My McMaster/Syracuse MCM Digital Branding students have been great as well, diligently “attending” biweekly GoToMeeting seminars on digital branding, with foci as varied as how to integrate digital into your organizational structure and how to apply the theories in Russell Belk’s new conceptual JCR article on the extended self in the digital world to your brand strategy. Now that the course is over, I’ll miss this group terribly.

I’ve been interviewed by various media outlets as well. I was both surprised and pleased several weeks ago to hear from the BBC World ServiceMark Whittaker of Business Matters asked me to weigh in on the “cute” rebranding of a notorious Japanese prison. You can listen to the interview here, around 41:20. (More notes on branding in Japan here.)

In the podcast space, I did a video interview on branding with Marc Binkley of Sleeping Barber, which you can find here. And I did a long interview on entrepreneurship with Mindy and Non of the Nerds For Hire podcast; it’s not up yet, but do keep an eye out. (And no, I’m not offended at being called a nerd; you can’t write a book on postcolonialism and science fiction without being one.)

Finally, I’d like to introduce the newest member of the ideas in flight team:

His name is Nathaniel and he’s pretty cute. (That photo was taken by Alex Wesson, the best photographer; if you’re in or near Toronto, check her out.) Luckily, he likes hanging out in the Baby Bjorn and making googly eyes at birds outside my office window while I work. It is very possible that I sit and read tweets out loud to him.

As an aside, part of the reason I’m making this announcement is because I’ve heard from a lot of women, particularly young women, who are worried about making the jump into marketing and/or entrepreneurship because they’re concerned about family-friendliness. Like Sarah Kendzior, who has two young children as I do, I’m open about being a parent, in part to normalize the fact of being a successful working woman and mother. If anything, it’s made me an exceptional time manager, and really, it’s made me a better marketer as it’s given me an even deeper understanding of the way people think. (And you know, no one works at 2 AM quite as effectively as a parent of a young child…)

Back to your regularly scheduled blogging about marketing pretty soon. In the meantime, I’ve got a ton of client work, and two marketing classes I’m teaching at York University in the spring for which I need to prep. You know what they say about the shoemaker’s children…