The Power in Constraint

When was the last time you felt stuck? Constrained either by circumstance or maybe just an unwillingness to get out of your own way. I’ve certainly been there. And at various points I almost gave into the urge to give up, relinquish hope and sink comfortably into that life I always promised myself I would never live.

Almost.

Many people tragically, stay stuck. They do the same thing over and over expecting a different result. And eventually they even give up on expecting. Before you know it, months, years and decades go by and you’re left with a life of total resignation from what could have been.

But for others, constraints can manifest creativity & growth. And in limitations we discover not only an opportunity to overcome, but to re-invent, often times beyond what we could have ever imagined as our more comfortable selves. It was in a particularly long period of immobility that I began to re-think what was most important to me. I slowly, began taking risks (the responsible variety in this case), exploring new ideas for what I wanted to become and eventually piecing together a roadmap for my own re-invention.


Getting there is the rough part. The process itself can be painful, frustrating and with no visible end in sight. But let’s face it, when things are good, easy and seemingly laid out before us, evolving is the last thing on our minds. Limitations and setbacks keep us on our toes, force us into thinking into the beyond, the unknown and the impossible. There’s a forced sense of clarity that comes with not knowing what the hell you’re gonna do next. 

Innovation works in the same way. With individual problems come solutions for the greater good. Suddenly there’s a set of equations that need solving. A new necessity that begs to be invented. Enough parameters to turn aimless creativity into real answers.

Businesses still clinging to old models and a perceived sense of control are finding themselves stuck in their own existential paralysis. The smart ones are investing in innovation from within, committed to a process that by it’s nature is uncomfortable and vague. Enduring any evolution is hard, but particularly in a real time age. It requires us to find opportunity inside of what on the surface, appears to us as one big ball of blockage. 

Be it in business or life, getting unstuck is a strange and uniquely personal journey. It means finding a balance of letting go and getting strategic. A willingness to explore the unfamiliar and patiently test and learn. But it’s within these constraints that a rare opportunity presents itself to discover the otherwise implausible. And ultimately, what’s more freeing than that?

Image Credit: The brilliant Hugh MacLeod

Laura CiociaComment
Beyond the Sponsored Post: 13 Keys to Modernizing Your Influencer Relations Practice

From Brownie Wise’s brilliant Tupperware party model to an entire cottage industry built on mommy blogging, marketers have been benefiting from the power of customer advocates since the idea of a “marketing concept” first emerged. But as channels, technologies and consumer wants continue to evolve at warp speed, the practice of influencer relations has largely remained stagnant in recent years. We still tend to define influencers in “traditional” terms and influencer relationships as largely tactical and temporary. It’s as if we settled into early 2.0 era definitions of what influencer marketing encompasses, ignoring all of the external shifts that are challenging and re-shaping these notions.

As we move deeper into a participatory economy, influencer engagement must adapt accordingly. With this should come a view of influencers as partners in the growth of our businesses and brands, as opposed to tactical pursuits or conduits for forced engagement. Influence is fluid and diverse and at it’s best potent and authentic. It’s beyond just the “blogger” or the prolific Twitter celeb. And now with so many channels from which influence is wielded, restricting one’s influencer pool to the usual forums and formats is about as strategic as drawing targets out of a hat.

“Nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interests of both consumers and producers.”
— Henry Jenkins, Co-Author of Spreadable Media

So how does one modernize their approach to influencer relations?

Fundamentally, it starts with an understanding that influence relations is it’s own discipline. It’s not paid media and it’s not earned media – no matter how much we try and force the expectation that it should be either. Ideally, it thrives on the principles of the “moral economy”, where mutuality and reciprocity are the norms. It also acknowledges the powerful implications of the makers movement and sharing economy – and the reality that those same people you’ve known only as your customers, are quietly disrupting your entire business model.

For more practical purposes, I’ve put together 13 keys to a successful modern influencer program based largely on my own experiences and learnings over the years. I’ve found that the best campaigns are grounded in smart, audience-centric strategy, brought to life through partnerships that are both innovative and mutually rewarding. Admittedly easier said than done, but like any lasting relationship, well worth the investment in the end.

1. Define Your Goals:

From broadcasters to trendsetters, target influencer types based on the unique goals of your initiative. Are you looking to generate broad awareness? Seed a product? Launch a beta program? Focus on a particular region? Each of these scenarios demands a distinct type of influencer strategy and corresponding tactics.

2. Know Thy Audience:

Don’t let preconceived assumptions or depthless demographics shape your understanding of your audience. Study their interests, their behaviors, their values and their vernacular, to understand how to authentically communicate with them and through the people they trust most.

3. Embrace Channel Agnosticism:

Yes many “influencers” happen to have blogs. But many more do not. When you arbitrarily determine channels and tactics before you’ve done the research and crafted a strategy, the channel by default becomes your obligation, not the audience or even the message. Cutting through the noise requires precision; of message, messenger and medium. Start with the right influencers and meet THEM in their digital habitats.

4. Remain Open:

An overly formal, boilerplate style pitch is like kryptonite to authentic partnerships. Begin a dialogue with your prospective influencer to find out what a meaningful pairing looks like from their vantage point, instead of leading with your agenda. Too many well-intended programs begin with pre-set partnership expectations, all before an actual conversation has even been initiated.

5. Be Flexible:

Your approach to an influential oncologist with a traditional blog is going to be much different than how you talk to a tattoo artist with cable TV show and dedicated Instagram following. And even within a single campaign, a one-sized approach rarely resonates unanimously. Develop partnership opportunities that can be leveraged across a wide array of influencer types and channels. And don’t limit your outreach to only those who have a history of partnering with brands. Often they are the ones who become your most impassioned advocates.

6. Expect Ambiguity:

Predictability is for ad networks, not human beings. Start simply by initiating a real conversation where the aim is discovery. It may materialize into something that supports an immediate program or perhaps plants a seed for something down the road. As with traditional Public Relations, if there are bites you know you’ve got something but if there aren’t, it’s time to adjust your approach. And that should be perfectly okay.

7. Think Long(er) Term:

We’ve had the tendency to treat advocacy programs as short-term and incremental. But how might the quality of our relationships improve if we treated our influencers as long term partners? Nobody wants to be recalled only when they need something. You’d be quick to dismiss that kind of relationship in your personal life, so why shouldn’t the same apply in business? Find opportunities to invest in what’s important to the people you’re looking to build strong, sustainable relationships with.

8. Put in Work:

Personal relationships aren’t scaleable. And while there are plenty of “turnkey” solutions available, there’s nothing that replaces authentic, human connections. Simply put, if you want own the relationship, you’ve got to do the work. If you want someone else to do the work because you find it too cumbersome or difficult to justify, guess who now owns those relationships forged on your “behalf”? A handful of strong and loyal advocates will always trump an army of fair weather “fans”.

9. Deliver Value:

Influencers don’t need brands. Brands need influencers. Remember that before you craft another pitch with the expectation that anyone is interested in a one-sided relationship.

10. Remain Compliant:

If material consideration is being offered in exchange for an endorsement (implied or direct), the endorsee or influencer, must disclose. This is critically important to note when dealing with influencers who may not have worked with brands in the past – as is the case with many non-bloggers. It’s up to you to provide instructions for how to disclose your relationship based on industry best practices and FTC guidelines.

11. Unleash Your Creativity:

Somewhere along the way “sponsored posts” became the defining engagement for what influencer programs were supposed to encompass. And while I’m not suggesting they are without value, they are just one of a multitude of methods through which partnerships can be brought to life. Don’t be afraid to experiment beyond the confines of standard practice and design your own unique blueprint for successful partnering.

12. Amplify & Extend:

It’s customary to declare “mission accomplished” as soon as outreach is complete, bargains met and posts tallied. Yet there are endless opportunities to extend influencer content through paid, earned and owned channels. When done right, these converged programs provide some of the best opportunities to bring scale to authentic and credible brand messages.

13. Get Offline:

The majority of word of mouth still happens in the "real world." But for whatever reason, analog influence is treated as a decidedly separate endeavor when really, the two should compliment one another. Influence so often begins at the local level – through community groups, cultural movements, professional organizations and the many other collectives built in person, around shared interests and values. Use your organization’s local presence to build a comprehensive and diverse network of advocates that can be leveraged both on and off the web.

Original Post on Social Media Today

Laura CiociaComment
Getting Real About "Fauxthenticity"

Many brands want their gold star simply for showing up in the social environment. They believe that they’re somehow ahead of the shift by virtue of just being there. Their arrival is often reluctant, reactive and triggered by fear, through a competitor’s presence or a panicked “why aren’t we doing this?” email from somebody in the c-suite. And regardless of their join date, most aren’t quite sure why they’re there to begin with beyond having accepted that they’re supposed to be. So without a strategy, a sense of purpose or a fundamental understanding of the space, the tendency by and large, is to fall comfortably back onto the familiar. And in the familiar, we find a voice that while perfectly suited for traditional "push" media, is completely counteractive to a medium defined by it’s consumers. So inevitably, they do what comes naturally. They continue to self promote, embellish and dictate but with a few subtle adjustments. And in doing so they give life to a phenomenon I like to call “fauxthenticity”

Fauxthenticity is how I describe the tendency some brands have towards assuming we’re all complete idiots. It represents a very deliberate and measured effort to manufacture transparency through not so clever copy, a monologic tone and the usage of yesterday's tools and resources (i.e. stock photos). But it goes beyond just creative laziness. It pretends that a brand's participation in a community has anything to do with people. Or that the Social revolution has legitimately changed the way they do business. In short, it’s the bastardization of realness. 

How to spot Fauxthenticity? Many brands are guilty of it but here a few of the more obvious cues:

Tradtional paid media units re-purposed for Social channels. Yes, this still happens.

Deleting negative comments. We love you but only if you love us more.

Join the conversation! The statement in and of itself is annoyingly disingenous and overused.

Pleading with fans to “tell us about your favorite _______________” and then ignoring their replies.

Baiting fans with questions that suggest what they say really matters “what do you think of our new __________________?” We don't actually care we just want to appear "social".

Excessive use of “we”. Isn't it bad enough you want me to talk to a logo?

Excessive use of !!!

RT/Like/Share if you think babies are cute!!! A baby actually dies everytime one of these is posted.

Implying that endorsements and/or engagements with paid bloggers, partners, employees, agencies, friends or relatives are just serendipitous encounters with super-passionate fans. Not even technically legal.

Late, thoughtless or irrelevant adoption of memes/trends. Think the “real time content” bandwaggoners still clamoring to duplicate Oreo's infamous 2013 Superbowl tweet.

Editing what is presented as "real time" conversation (example: “see what they’re saying about us”) to include only the most positive mentions.

Dressing up all of the above as “engagement” “transparency” and “conversation” and legitimately believing it to be so.

Now that we've got that out of the way, I’m not here to suggest that fauxthenticity should or will disappear entirely from the collective brand narrative, in or out of the social space. I'll even admit to being an accessory to it a few times (or more) despite my best efforts. We’re all putting on a bit of a show to one degree or another, no matter how “authentic” we claim to be. And brands still have to protect themselves, particularly those in highly regulated sectors.

But continuous fauxthenticity is often symptomatic of an organization’s deeper seeded resistance to change. It reflects a brand’s ambiguity around who they are in the context of the new social economy and a total indifference for the wants, needs and expectations of today’s consumers.

Identifying fauxthenticity requires an honest and often humbling look in the mirror. And by examining and resolving it’s root causes, you may just unlock your organization’s modern brand identity.

Original post on Social Media Today

Laura CiociaComment
It's The People Stupid

It’s been about 7 years since pioneer brands like KFC, Coca-Cola & Blockbuster (cough) first formally arrived into the social media space. Since then, this sometimes awkward relationship continues to evolve, to where over 75% of Fortune 500 companies are on at least one major social media channel. Some excel, others fail abysmally but even more tend to exist in that space between mediocrity and just bad enough to go unnoticed. And while there’s been no shortage of advice on effective engagement, it often ignores one very fundamental truth:

Social media was never supposed to be about brands or businesses.

It was always about people. Regular, everyday individuals connecting, collaborating & empowering one another from every corner of the planet. Remember The Cluetrain Manifesto? Or Naked Conversations? It’s the total democratization ofeverything. Think about it – social is the only media powered by the very same people who consume it. They write the scripts, tell the stories and dictate the rules to a large extent, leaving platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. to bend and adapt accordingly (or else). But rarely is that glaringly simple truth a part of the industry narrative. Instead the focus is on what brands need to be doing in the communities they’ve imposed themselves onto. But who said these communities needed brands to begin with?

From conquests to co-conspirators

I often hear the “cocktail party” metaphor that likens brands in the social space to that annoying, uninvited guest who only wants to talk about himself. But I take it a step further and liken it to a virtual colonialism of sorts. We (the colonizers) have invaded this perfectly sovereign nation with the idea that we could make it better just by virtue of being there. We ignored local the customs, traditions and norms and attempted to force our own archaic sensibilities on the natives. At best we’ve been tolerated and at worst, we’ve been sent packing, back to wherever it is we came from.

But imagine if brands adjusted that perspective. Instead of viewing our fans as potential acquisitions, we viewed them as people, or even collaborators? Instead of treating the next social platform du jour as another opportunity to invade, we view it as an opportunity to listen, learn and ultimately, if it makes sense, offer meaningful contributions that respect the local, cultural norms. It’s from that kind of trust and humility that the most powerful of partnerships can be formed.

Now what?

So how do we reconcile the practical realities of the business world, with all these lofty aspirations of what should have been? How does the average organization even begin to mobilize such a seemingly seismic shift?

Lead with the people who make what you do possible. Who are they? What do they struggle with? What are they passionate about? Dig beyond the rigid confines of demographics, as real human beings are infinitely more complex. The information is out there – it’s up to us to grab it.

Where are they? Yes Facebook may indeed be equivalent to the third largest country in the world but do YOUR users actively engage there? And if they do, can you cut through the noise in a meaningful enough way and offer something of substance? Something that might not have anything to do with promoting your product or service? If the answer is no, you have no business being there. Evaluate channels based on their capacity to better serve your audience vs. another opportunity to invade.

What are they seeking? We have more insight than ever before into what people want but for some reason, most of it gets ignored. Tap into the wealth of information and discover how to make yourself useful – through your existing business and beyond.

Finally, seek to serve, not sell. Whether a single content item, a mobile application or branded community, ask yourself: Does this have the capacity to add meaningful value or is it just more clutter? Is this an experience I might welcome or is it merely another hurdle? If it wasn’t inspired by your audience, it doesn’t matter where you put it, it’s just another thoughtless ad.

The bottom line is we aren’t in charge anymore. From perceptions of our brands to the products & processes behind them, we are increasingly held to standards defined outside of our organization’s walls. Ultimately, it’s those companies who are most willing to listen, adapt and scale to serve, who will help shape tomorrow’s definition of modern business.

Laura CiociaComment
Why Small is the New Big

The big box era has gone boutique. From the quiet slippage of WalMart to the transcendent success of indie brands like Chobani, the monopoly of "bigger is better" is slowly being brought to it's knees. And thanks to a perfect storm of culture, economics & technology, smaller may not only be better, it may just the new “big”.

For starters, consumers are increasingly more willing to pay a premium for quality goods produced locally by skilled artisans. This on the heels of economic disaster. And while household name brands aren’t exactly in danger of extinction (yet), they are undoubtedly feeling the pressure to find their place in a more socially connected, accountability driven marketplace.

Once upon a very recent time, there was nothing more American than the image of a gleaming grocery store aisle, shelves neatly stacked to capacity with more per category options than any one customer could possibly ever process. Choice and limitless abundance symbolized everything that made America great. The antithesis to the kind of scarcity that only occurred in those “other” countries where we were so fortunate not to live. And capitalism taught us that this was GOOD for the consumer. From pricing to quality, rabid competition was supposed to mean a better outcome for the average Jane. 

Or so we thought.

Instead all of those choices at super marked down prices produced massive quantities of marginal. So massive that the good stuff was either overshadowed or altogether gobbled up by a handful of big conglomerates. And what was the consumer left with? 3,000 varieties of mostly forgettable salad dressing. Followed by the worst economic downturn in two generations.

As it turned out, there were limits. To consumer spending and to the good that blind capitalism could deliver on. We’d given up everything for what amounted to merely a perceived sense of choice. When in reality, all of that so called free market competition was really just a handful of ginormous purveyors disguised as individual brands. We’d been buying without questions or consequences and now we had to actually pay for it.

The good news? Our love affair with excess turned us into better more responsible consumers. Or as John Gerzema observed back in his 2009 Ted Talk, our once mindless consumption was turning mindful. And as we began to question our habits both personally and in the context of the bigger world, many of the very things that embodied the modern day American dream started to lose credibility. 

In line with this shift in consumer behavior grew early signs of a longing for a kinder, simpler, more preservative free existence. From slow food to the return of American craftsmanship, the glamorization of big, fast & excessive was beginning to feel increasingly “passé”. Smaller, niche brands and businesses were becoming more intriguing for all of the things that made them more “human” than their big box alternatives. And thanks to more educated, connected consumers, big brands were being placed under unprecedented scrutiny, over everything from their labor practices to where they source their ingredients from.

More recently, these evolving consumer attitudes have started to have an impact on the collective bottom line. A 2013 study of the food and beverage industry (Strategy&): found that small brands (those with under 1 billion in sales) are outperforming the competition in 18 of the top 25 categories, including the largest and most consolidated ones, such as bakery, dairy, snacks, and ready meals. Specifically, in packaged foods, small players experienced a three-year compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 6.2 percent, and gained 1.7 percent of market share. Meanwhile, large players increased sales by just 1.6 percent CAGR and saw their market share decline 0.7 percent.

Big brands have responded as expected – by either trying to buy out or out mimic the little guys. But “small” is probably the one thing that can’t be manufactured. It just doesn’t “feel” the same, particularly for today’s already skeptical consumer.

So how can big brands fit into a more “small-minded” economy? 

  • By re-connecting to what made them great when they were small themselves. At some point in time, every business began as the brainchild of some audacious dreamer. What drove that individual? What problem were they looking to solve? What compelled them to push forward every day?
  • By going beyond superficial, surface renovations and examining how to maximize value through real change.
  • By raising the standard of everything you do and knowing when to cut bait. Even if it means a smaller product portfolio.
  • By committing to a culture of real innovation as if your livelihood depended on it (it does).
  • By ensuring that whatever story you’re telling is merely an extension of real, meaningful actions.
  • By forming real partnerships instead of buying up and ultimately destroying all of the values and practices that made that “little guy” so attractive to begin with. Or by thinking beyond a traditional acquisition and acting as an incubator for successful businesses. Hey, it’s working out nicely for Google.


And finally, by being extraordinary. Because successful small businesses have to be. They don’t have the luxury of hiding behind big passion brands, multi million dollar ad budgets or high paid celebrity endorsers. Their long-term success is inextricably tied to their ability to be exceptional. And there’s nothing small about that.

 

Laura CiociaComment
The Selfless Marketer

I liken bad marketing strategy to the efforts of most religious missionaries. The intentions are well meaning and they genuinely believe that their evangelizing is for a greater good. But the basis of their outreach is largely arrogant, self-serving and has little to do with affecting any sort of sustainable change for the better.

Imagine if missions came without conditions. Imagine if they existed for the sole purpose of improving the lives of other human beings in need? And the only requirement for receiving help was to show up. Now apply that to marketing. What if we stopped offering up solutions to problems we only assume exist? What if we really invested the time, resources and an earnest interest in solving real problems for our fellow human beings? No strings or expectations attached.

Bad marketing is inherently conditional. It’s often reactive, client driven and conversion based (get more sales, more likes, more views, more data, etc..) Bad marketers are impressed with themselves and their big ideas, no matter how disconnected they might be from the people they are seeking to impact. They ultimately define success by their ability to make people do things. And that’s the smart ones.

It occurred to me recently that the best marketers share one common trait: the ability to empathize. And not from a place of condescension or assumption but a real, rare ability to imagine life outside of one’s own four walls. Today’s best marketers are fascinated by the differences among us. They recognize that real people aren’t defined by their demographics. And they don’t assume that customers need their product, look forward to being interrupted by their ads or blindly accept their claims as gospel.

No matter what it is you're selling, forget everything they ever taught you about "the customer". Instead, consider re-directing some of those hours spent in baseless brainstorms to walking in a few pairs of unfamiliar shoes. Study your customers as people with real wants and needs, not as fictional subjects or sales units. And most importantly, get out into the world and start engaging, beyond the confines of your "usual".

Your future customers will thank you for it.

Laura CiociaComment