20 Questions to Ask Before You Expand Your Social Media Presence

I’ve observed an interesting tendency among many of my small to mid-sized business clients when it comes to social media.  Once they’ve made a decision to “be” there, there is an assumption that they need to be everywhere.   And that doing social media is somehow an all or nothing endeavor. 

In other (related) cases, they might be gaining some traction on one channel, and assume that it’s a signal to initiate a presence on a new, unrelated channel.

But more is not necessarily better.  And as audiences grow more fragmented, and content more abundant, thoughtful strategy is more important than ever.  So before you decide to add another channel to your social media mix, consider these 20 critical questions first.  

1. What's happening on our other channels?  Are we fully leveraging our existing social media accounts?  Are there opportunities to remove a channel that isn't driving results or in hindsight, is a poor fit?

2. What are we trying to accomplish?  Why do we think this channel is the best way to accomplish these objectives?  Do our strategic objectives match the channel we're intending to leverage?  

3. What implications will our presence on this channel have on other platforms?  For example, if the goal is to drive online sales, do you have an optimized e-commerce site ready to receive orders?

4. Is our target audience on this channel?  If so, how do they typically use the channel?  For conversation, customer support, as a news source?  Do our intentions for the channel match our customers' expectations?

5. What do we want our audience to do once they've joined our community? Be specific about the actions you're expecting customers to take in order to help anticipate how you will need to engage them.

6. What value can we add? How do we intend to uniquely contribute to what is an already overcrowded party?  Hint: Check out your competitors use of social media for clues on potential content gaps.

7. Who will manage the channel?  This includes posting content, daily monitoring of brand mentions, responding to customer comments and reporting.  

8. How much time will we need to allocate for channel and community management?  Perhaps the most common mistake I encounter among clients is underestimating the amount of time it will require to manage a social media channel.  Depending on the volume of posts and how engaged your community is, you'll want to allocate a minimum of 1-2 hours/day per channel. This doesn't include the creation of content (we'll get to that later).

Good to know

More than half of marketers are spending between 11 and 20 hours on social media per week.

Source: The 2017 Social Media Marketing Industry Report via Social Media Examiner

9. How will we handle responses to customer questions, comments and reviews?  Have we created a protocol to guide how we manage these responses?  Do we need to integrate our customer service teams into this process?  You'll want to be prepared to answer customer inquiries in as close to real-time as possible.  Brands that are slow to respond or worse yet, don't respond at all put their credibility at risk.

10. How many times per month do we intend on posting?  While this may fluctuate, it's a good idea to anticipate approximately how many monthly posts you'll need to create and the implication it will have on how you allocate resources.  

Good to know

Recommended daily posting frequency for optimal engagement:
Facebook: 1 post per day
Twitter: 15 tweets per day
Pinterest: 11 pins per day
LinkedIn: 1 post per day
Instagram: 1-2 posts per day

Source: Various studies compiled by Co-Schedule

Disclaimer: The above is just a guide.  Ultimately, your strategy, industry and resources should inform your posting frequency.

11. Who will manage the editorial calendar?  Generally this includes generating ideas for content, coordinating communications inputs from various stakeholders, writing copy and managing the production of content assets.  

12. How much time will we need to allocate for editorial planning?  This will largely depend on the volume and complexity of the content you plan on creating and how many stakeholders will be informing the process.  In my experience, for a single channel you'll want to allocate around 1-2 hours per post for concepting, copywriting & scheduling.

13. What kind of content will we create? Graphics, photos, videos, white papers? Out of our planned posts, how many will require original creative work?

14. Where will this content originate from? Can we create it in house and on-site or will we need to hire an outside resource?  

15. If we're outsourcing, what is our budget?  If we're developing in-house, what is our process? What (if any) additional tools (hardware/equipment and/or software) will we need to invest in?

16. How will we nurture our audience?  Don't assume that if you build it they will come. Offline promotions, contests, influencer partnerships and social media advertising are all part of a healthy community engagement strategy.

17. Who will manage advertising and other engagement tactics?  Again, is this an in-house resource or something we need to hire a consultant to manage?  

Organic reach across social media has been on the decline.  Combined with recent algorithm updates that prioritize user content over brands, it's all but imperative you have an advertising plan if you hope to meaningfully grow your social media channels.

18. What is our monthly advertising budget?  This will likely require some testing based on your industry, campaign goals and the channel you're advertising on.  Most social media channels offer self-service platforms that allow you to spend as little as a dollar a day.  Start small and test and than increase your budget as you learn what's working (and what isn't).  Also, be sure to consider any costs associated with developing the creative assets for your ads.

19. What does success look like?  What kinds of short and long-term KPI's have we designated to measure progress?  How will we measure and report on that progress?  Do we need to invest in any third party reporting tools for monitoring and reporting?

20. Do we have buy-in from the right stakeholders?  Social media is a team sport and requires cooperation and buy-in from multiple departments across your organization.  Be sure that all of your stakeholders are on board and understand their role in the success of your channels.  

“The ability to ask the right questions is more than half the battle of finding the answer.”
— Thomas J. Watson
Laura CiociaComment
10 Ways to Generate Fresh Content Ideas for Your Brand

Whether you're a small business owner or the digital marketing lead at a major corporation, at some point you've likely struggled with the 'content conundrum':  

'What do we talk about?'  "What can be said, that hasn't already been said?" "How do we cut through the noise and keep our audience engaged?".  

Good content isn't as enigmatic as we might think, but it does take effort.  And perhaps that's the biggest myth about content leaders - that somehow, they are just uniquely pre-disposed to great ideas.  

As is the case with any creative endeavor, generating new ideas takes deliberate practice and experimentation.  It's a balance between knowing your brand and routinely seeking out new methods, tools and inspiration sources for how to bring it to life.  

Below are a few of my favorite tips and hacks to help you achieve both.

1. Re-connect with your values

When was the last time you read your brand’s mission or vision statements? If done well, they should be a reminder of the aims and values that define your organization which can in turn, serve as a framework for content.

For example, if service is a part of your mission, you could create a content series profiling employees who donate their time to important causes.  Your content should not exist in a vacuum but rather be a natural extension of your brand and all that is associated with it.  This exercise can be particularly useful for those who are struggling with how to create content that is on brand but goes beyond product.

2. Search hashtags on Instagram

To find out what kind of content is resonating with your audience, find and follow hashtags that are popular within your target community.  I typically start by identifying the top influencers in a particular space, and then look at the hashtags they’re using.  Clicking through those tags gives me a snapshot of the most popular content items among the people I most want to matter to.  Use this trending content as a source of inspiration for your own or as a way to identify potential content partners.  And with Instagram’s recent update enabling you to follow hashtags the same way you follow accounts, it’s easier than ever to track what kind of content is resonating in any given community.

3. Check out Answer the Public

Answer the Public is a tool that aggregates search data from Google and Bing to identify key questions being asked around a given subject.  Simply enter your topic or brand, and it spits out a collection of related terms (questions, propositions and comparisons) to help inform how you  should “answer the public” with content.  I don’t often hear it mentioned, but it is truly a gem of a tool.  And it’s FREE.

Data visualizations from Answer the Public for the query "content ideas".

Data visualizations from Answer the Public for the query "content ideas".


4. Use Pinterest to create a moodboard

If you’ve haven’t yet established a set of standards for visual content, Pinterest can be a great place to start experimenting.  Combine third party images with existing brand assets to find inspiration that is also aligned with your identity.  My mood boards include everything from fonts and textures and photos to book covers, film posters and quotes.  Defining the visual essence of your brand can help focus your ideation process and give your content design teams a set of references from which to execute from.

5. Expand your visual inputs

I’ve been known to check out a pile of coffee table books from my local library at the onset of a content planning exercise.  Last time I was there I ended up with an armful of vintage nautical books for a client whose brand identity was inspired by maritime culture.  The librarian asked, ‘have you thought about Google Images?’  Ha!  Indeed I have – but there’s something about the visceral act of turning from one glossy page to the next that sparks a whole different kind of creativity in me.

We tend to look in the same places for inspiration and then wonder why we can't generate any new ideas.  Try seeking out new channels to get inspired - be it at a library, a museum or from a creative leader outside of your industry.  Challenge yourself to go where you normally wouldn't go, and see if doesn't spark something new.

6. Stalk your followers

Pick 5-10 public social media profiles of fans who are most representative of your customers.  Study their pages, their likes, their interests and the kinds of stories they share.  If they’ve mentioned your product, look closely for any unique insights or applications you might not have considered.  And even if they don’t explicitly mention your brand, this can be a great way to discover other ways to connect to your audience around commonly shared values and interests.

7. Bring in fresh eyes

One of my clients is a family owned chemical manufacturing business that produces consumer and automotive cleaning products.  In one of our early meetings, I was given a tour of the entire facility, including the factory floor. Having never been inside of manufacturing facility before, it was all surprisingly fascinating to me.  From the rhythmic precision of the conveyors to the rainbow stacks of color dyes - I saw endless opportunities for visual content.  Of course to my clients,  it was just another day at the office. 

Sometimes we are so accustomed to our own surroundings (or products) that we lose the ability to see the magic in them.  Introducing  a fresh pair of creative eyes, can help you re-see content opportunities through a brand new lens.

8. Apply the Jobs To Be Done theory

Pioneered by author and Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, JTBD is an innovation theory that examines the problems consumers are trying to solve when they make the decision to purchase or use a product.  An early iteration of this concept is the idea that “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.”  Jobs theory takes this a step further and asserts that people actually want to hang pictures of their family on the wall. 

If we were apply the Jobs to Be Done Theory to content for said drill maker, we might create a series that highlights creative ways to frame and display your family photos. Try it out by examining why it is your customers hire your products or services and see if it doesn't uncover any new ideas for content.  And for more on how to apply the Jobs to Be Done theory in your organization, I highly recommend Competing Against Luck by the aforementioned Clayton Christensen.

9. Experiment with Mind Mapping

Mind mapping is simply a way to visually organize information and ideas around a particular subject.  It encourages you to collect as many associations as possible, without the restrictions that often come with linear thinking.

Start with your product or perhaps one of your brand values as the central subject.  Identify words or images that you immediately associate with your central subject as “branches”.  Then repeat the process adding “twigs” from those initial branches until you’ve completely exhausted your ideas.  Don’t think too much – the goal is to document the natural associations your brain is making to a particular subject – and not to come up with specific, solutions based on old paradigms.

When you’re done, review your mindmap and see if you can uncover new content themes from the branches, twigs or from reading between the two.

Mind mapping can easily be done with multi color pens and paper.  But if you’re more digitally inclined, check out this list of mind mapping software solutions or these cool, mind-mapping templates from Canva.

An example of mind mapping by  Paul Foreman .

An example of mind mapping by Paul Foreman.


10.  Know What's Possible

Technology directly informs today's creative process by setting the parameters for what can be achieved.  Knowing what's possible through the myriad of available content creation tools and platforms, can help to both ground and inspire your approach to content ideation.   Stay current on social media channel updates and third party tools so you're not limiting your capacity to be creative by what you believe isn't feasible.

What about you?  Please share your tips for creative content inspo in the comments below!


In Praise of Small Things

When we’re chasing growth, the tendency is not towards the small or incremental.  We want big results, so we assume it takes big, sweeping actions to get there. 

But often times the biggest difference makers are much more nuanced. Thoughtful touches that might seem insignificant in isolation, but cumulatively can add up to the kind of growth that money just can’t buy.

On a recent trip across Spain, I encountered several dozen tour guides, restaurants, shops and accommodations through the course of our two week visit.  Barring a couple flat out misses, the majority of my experiences were good ones. 

But there were a few that stood out as exceptional. 

They included:

A hyperlocal tour guide who took the time to research everyone in my party’s social media pages and used the information he uncovered to make the tour all the more special and personalized.

A host who checked in regularly via text to see how our visit was going, ask if we needed anything and offer up a series of local happenings he recommend we check out.

The front window of Les Liles in Barcelona.

The front window of Les Liles in Barcelona.

The waiter at Taperia Ordesa, who after noticing our dismay at the menu all but ordered a sampling of items for us, taking into account dietary restrictions, appetite and our desire to eat like locals.

Or the charming owner of Les Liles, who despite being in business for almost four decades still painstakingly wrapped and ribboned each item we purchased as if it was her very first sale.

Could any of these have made up for a decidedly bad product? Probably not.

But as a compliment to an already quality offering, these touches propelled the good into the exceptional.   They helped turn an experience I might vaguely recall into one that I couldn’t wait to share.

There’s much we can learn from these sole proprietors and small businesses, all of whom managed to make big impressions through simple acts of thoughtfulness.  There weren't any big plans or budgets driving these acts - just a sincere commitment to delight their customers using whatever tools were available to them.

As you embark on your next marketing effort, take the time to first look inward and reflect on your existing customer experience.   How can you deepen the quality of these encounters and go beyond the transactional? What touches can you employ or encourage to make your current customers feel seen?  We don’t have to allow size or scale to limit our capacity to be human.

The front window of La Liles is adorned with handwritten words of encouragement on display for all who pass by.  The owner Adelaide, explains "I just wanted to encourage anyone who is having a difficult time and remind them to think positively." 

Adelaide understands that her tiny antique shop is so much more than a place to buy treasures from the past.  Instead, she treats her business as a vehicle for acts of love and kindness.  And there will always be a market for that.

We must learn to balance the material wonders of technology with the spiritual demands of our human nature.
— John Naisbitt
5 Awesome Examples of Behind the Scenes Brand Content (That Actually Take You Behind the Scenes.)

When done well, 'behind the scenes' content offers a unique glimpse into the people, ideas and processes that make an organization tick.  And as the line between brand and culture grows increasingly blurred,  taking audiences "behind the scenes" is proof positive that a business isn’t just preaching values, but actively practicing them.

While many brands share their version of 'behind the scenes' content, for a narrative so entwined with a company’s unique culture, much of the content follows a pretty standardized formula.  Common examples include: generic group photos from the annual company day of service, badly lit shots of leadership speaking from a podium or the ever popular close-up of a half eaten donut platter.

The theme has become so diluted that in most cases, it conveys absolutely nothing about what actually happens behind the scenes.   Instead, “behind the scenes” content is often the default, low-effort means to filling up the company social media feed.  

But like any form of content, "BTS" still requires thought, creativity and intention, particularly when trying to convey something as proprietary as company culture.

Below are 5 examples of brands that have mastered 'behind the scenes' storytelling through their own distinct lens.

1. Zappos

The culture that powers online retailer Zappos, has quite literally been an open book, ever since CEO Tony Hsieh’s bestelling customer service manifesto Delivering Happiness was released 10 years ago. With their aptly titled Beyond the Box, Zappos turns the traditional website 'About' section into a dynamic newsroom of stories centered around the values that made them famous.  

Some highlights include:

The story of an endearing exchange between a Zappo’s CLT (Customer Loyalty Team) member and a caller ordering a new pair of Dansko’s for her nursing job caring for adults with special needs.


A post highlighting some of the books in the company’s in-house library, all of which encompass at least one underlying theme of the company’s core values and are free for Zapponians to borrow, and even keep.

A poignant video about an employee’s inspiring determination to live her best life, in spite of cancer.


To my favorite, an update on a former Zappo’s CLT member living her dream as a musician, from a series titled “Life After Zappos".

 2. 72 & Sunny
Agency content is notoriously unimaginative.  Most will claim it’s because they’re too busy making magic for their clients, but what better opportunity to demonstrate your creative prowess than on your own brand?
72 and Sunny does just that, using their one of a kind culture as the basis for beautiful content.

From their IG feed, the L.A. based agency offers a thoughtful glimpse behind the scenes from any of their five locations around the globe.  


3. J. Crew

It’s no secret that preppy fashion house J. Crew has struggled in recent years.  But if their social media feeds are any indication, the brand is aiming for a return to basics, taking cues from radically transparent disruptors like Everlane.  In their Behind the Design series, the iconic brand shares behind the scenes peeks into the creative and manufacturing process of some of their most lauded styles.  Each story, available from both their website and Tumblr,  offers a stripped down view of the craftsmanship and raw materials behind the clothes.  

A few highlights include:

A look at their limited edition paint splatter collection, all hand painted in NYC with the help of Parsons School of Design students.


A glimpse into the creative process of their head jewelry designer:


And an up close view of the Italian wool maker behind it’s merino sweaters:


4. General Electric
One of the hallmarks of GE’s creative strategy is their distinctive approach to photography.  Through powerful, architectural images of it’s technologies, GE has managed to make art out of industrial machines.  

In their Tumblr hosted From the Factory Floor series, GE gives users an ultra high def view of the parts that power their manufacturing process.   From thermal shields to turbine blades, everyday components come to life as sculptural works of art.

And On YouTube via a series titled In The Wild, GE takes viewers to the places innovation actually happens, from "behind the scenes of some of their leading facilities". Hosted by Adam Savage of Tested and Innovation Nation's Alie Ward, the series demystifies the backend technology helping to power GE’s latest innovations.

5. Adobe

'Behind the scenes' content can also be a powerful recruiting tool.

From it’s Adobe Life platform, the famed software company shares a view of what it’s like to work at Adobe, centered around the perspective of their employees.  They take an editorial approach to outlining employee benefits, like this post on their newly hired Executive Chef or a story about how a young associate was able to purchase her first home with the help of Adobe’s discounted stock purchase plan.

Screenshot 2017-08-30 10.51.35.png

The platform also features a real-time social media feed powered by the #Adobelife hashtag plus employee contributed blog posts, via the 'A Day in the Adobe Life' blog.   All of it is beautifully packaged inside their InDesign publishing software doubling as a brilliant product use case.

Screenshot 2017-08-30 10.52.51.png
5 "Un-Sexy" Brands Who are Winning at Content Marketing

I often hear from less than sexier brands, that they have nothing to talk about.

That their business doesn’t really lend itself to Social Media or content.  Or that they’ve already said everything that can possibly be said about their product or industry.

But in reality, every business has the capacity to deliver value-driven content.  The myth that content or Social Media is only possible for “certain” brands misunderstands it's actual role.  

Content is about shortening the distance between your brand and your customer.  It’s not about being the slickest, or the sexiest.  Done well it deepens the relationship your audience has to what you do, by inspiring, entertaining or informing.  

To prove it, I’ve compiled a list of a few of my favorite examples of content marketing underdogs in action.

IBM: Use New Mediums to Re-Imagine An Established Brand

You might not associate 'Big Blue' with creative inspiration, but then, you probably haven't seen their Tumblr feed.

Known as IBM’blr, the four-year-old channel is a consistent hotbed of original content, from the irreverent to the awe inspiring.  They’ve managed to turn everything from quantum computing to fractal geometry into irresistible bites of visual delight.  True to brand and context, IBM'bler celebrates their culture of innovation in Tumblr’s native language of gifs and snippets.  The channel is not just delightful to look at, it's a brilliant re-imagination of the ideas and people have powered 'Big Blue' for more than a century.


Can we teach computers how to smell?Rese...

Can we teach computers how to smell?Researchers from IBM and Rockefeller University are trying to sniff out the answer. Smell may be the least understood of the five senses, so the team trained software to identify scents in order to learn more about how our brains perceive them.


Turn Your Community Into Content Collaborators: Grand Central Station

When your brand happens to be a 100-year-old train terminal, maintaining a consistently fresh and inspiring content stream, might seem like a daunting task.  But Grand Central Station has managed to do just that, largely by tapping the photography skills of the entire city of New York.

Using #sharegct, commuters are asked to capture and share their perspective of the nation’s busiest train station in hopes of being featured on the official Grand Central feed.   From an ever growing stream of images (8,000+ and counting), Grand Central curates it's favorites, ensuring the photos that populate it’s feed are as diverse as the photographers behind them.   


Twilight views. #sharegct by @easternamigo

A post shared by Grand Central Terminal (@grandcentralnyc) on


Show What’s Possible with your Product: Fass Fuel Systems

Fass Fuel Systems is the leading manufacturer of aftermarket diesel lift pumps and fuel/air separation systems.  And while the systems are impressive on their own (to people that are into that stuff), Fass understands that it isn’t just about their products, but what their products make possible.  Fans of the systems don’t just love Fass, they love the diesel trucks, semis and other big boy toys that Fass helps to power.  Fass speaks directly to these passions, tapping into the culture that surrounds their products, and building a powerhouse brand in the process.  From funny memes to raw engine close-ups, content is the medium through which Fass let’s fans know, “we get you”.


#fassfriday #fass #fassfuelsystems #madeinamerica #dieseltrucks #diesel

A post shared by FASS Fuel Systems (@fassfuelsystems) on

Become THE Subject Matter Authority: River Pools

You may not have ever heard of River Pools, but among inbound gurus, they are practically content lore.  In just over 15 years they turned a two-man pool installation start-up into the most trafficked swimming pool website in the world – a feat they largely credit to their blog. By putting the customer at the heart of their content strategy, River Pools became the singular, online authority on all things fiberglass pools.  River's content library expertly addresses the questions of pool owners and potential pool buyers alike, through educational blog posts and videos. By providing a specialized service (in the form of free content), directly informed by real customers, they've unleashed their business’ most powerful lead generation tool.


Provide A Public Service: Alabama Power

Alabama Power is 100-year-old electric and renewable energy company serving the state of Alabama.  With 6% of it’s power provided by water, they have a vested interest in the preservation of Alabama’s lakes and rivers.  They’re using this interest as the framework for a cutting edge content resource dedicated to Alabama's waterways.  APC Shorelines isn’t simply about promoting Alabama Hydro Power, it’s about promoting  and preserving Alabama’s natural water resources.  An educational, tourism & public service, the site (and free mobile app) provides detailed guides for each of Alabama’s 14 water systems, including real-time water elevation reports, weather updates, fishing coordinates and even a list of the species you can expect to catch.  






A Simple Litmus Test for Creating Great Content

Any good inbound marketer will tell you that buyer personas are the foundation of a successful, long-term content marketing strategy.  Considering the needs of our segment and what stage they are at in the buyers journey helps to ensure we are serving up the right content, to the right audience at the right time.

But just what is the right content?

Sure, there are best practices, expert opinions and user data to steer us towards the answer. And while those inputs all have merit, there is one, simple, reflective question that can immediately clarify just how “right” that content is.

Is this something I would engage with?

The act of considering our brand’s content in the context of our own personal, consumption habits, acts as a kind of instant quality assurance check against the uninspired.

Start by recalling your own daily interactions with content and media.  On any given day, we are inundated with hundreds of messages from a myriad of mediums and sources. From TV to tablets, it’s estimated that the average American spends nearly half of her 24 hours consuming some kind of media.  Now consider this, out of that 10.5 hours, how much time did you spend interacting with content produced by a business or brand?  According to Havas' global Meaningful Brands study that questioned over 330,000 people in 33 countries, 60% of content created by brands is “poor, irrelevant or fails to deliver”.

By evaluating content from a more personalized lens, it forces us to recognize the absurdity of expecting our audiences to actively engage with content, that we, ourselves wouldn’t seek out or share.

If we can be cognizant of the everyday realities that most modern humans face, from the sheer volume of available content, combined with the often randomized nature of what we engage with, not to mention the myriad of other demands and distractions that permeate our day, then perhaps we have a better shot at creating stories that are worth making time for.

Creating Through A Lens Of Intent
Image Courtesy of  Paul Skorupskas

Image Courtesy of Paul Skorupskas


Think, if you can, of your favorite ad campaign. A message or experience that resonated so strongly, that it inspired a deeper connection to the brand behind it. Now, imagine the thinking behind that ad. Chances are, the work did not emerge from a set of rigid requirements and projected results. Instead, the message was more likely guided by a clear sense of intent. 

One could argue that the difference between intent and say, the more routinely used ‘objective’ or 'goal' are negligible at best. It’s admittedly a subtle, semantic distinction, but one that I believe can have huge implications.

Intent implies a higher purpose. It suggests that what we’re aiming for is tied to to something bigger than just whatever short-term results we’re hoping to achieve.

When we start with a set of conditional results we’ve already required something of our audience. We’ve placed our demands ahead of their needs – all before a single line of copy has been crafted. 

Intent is what we start with not where we want to end up. It’s less quantifiable, more philosophical. Intent is about being inspiring, not demanding. 

Creating with intent starts with a fundamental, shared belief in the brand, it’s products and the values and promises that drive it. It also means respecting the audience and their ability to interpret messages that aren't necessarily explicit or instructional.

The typical creative brief might make a symbolic nod to intent but the urgency that often surrounds the process forces old habits to the forefront. When time and information are in short supply, we tend to default to a mindset of minimum viability. Considering intent can often mean acknowledging an inconvenient truth at a particularly inconvenient time. So we fall back on plug and play creative solutions that only serve the short-term.

But what if we allowed ourselves (and our briefs) the time and space to re-connect with the why behind the brand? Perhaps simply by checking in with an already articulated brand purpose and expanding the scope of our questions, we could help enable more inspired work. So that at the onset of a new creative effort, we can acknowledge any immediate business objectives but insist that they are addressed through the lens of a deeper intention.

Below are a just few sample questions designed to add a layer of intention to your existing creative brief :

What is our intention with this campaign/message?

How does this align with our brand purpose?

How will we demonstrate this alignment between message and purpose?

What do we hope viewers will feel upon seeing this message?

What are the values we want to see conveyed in this message/campaign?

Becoming more intentional in our communications planning doesn’t mean we forget all of the principles of effective advertising. Nor does it dismiss the role of functional brand messages. 

Instead, it aims to breathe some balance and purpose into a process often wrought with fear and control. And maybe by simply adjusting the lens through which we view the work, we give ourselves the freedom and space to create something truly memorable.

Just Say Yes

Inspired by a Holstee piece  on getting curious about where you are, I recently visited a neighborhood art gallery located just a few blocks from my apartment. But this wasn’t just any gallery. It happened to be located inside of one of Atlanta’s most notorious homeless shelters.  

I’d driven by countless times, and was always curious about it’s contents, but never had the nerve to go in.  How did this creative refuge spring up from what many considered to be an inconvenient symbol of the city’s lingering disparities?

Finally one Thursday afternoon, I scrapped my obligatory errands and decided to devote my lunch break to whatever I found inside.

As I walked through the door, I was warmly greeted by the gallery’s only occupant, an energetic woman named *Paula.  She introduced herself as the curator, and asked what brought me in.

I’m not sure who was more intrigued – me as to how this 70-something, southern lady wound up curating art inside a homeless men’s shelter or her at what was obviously a rare and random midweek visitor.

She gave me a tour of the bright and open space which housed the work of resident artists (who also happened to be homeless) alongside a series of portraits she herself had painted. The portraits featured the names, faces and stories of many of the people who the shelter served.  Her goal was to use art to “humanize” the formerly nameless & voiceless members of the local homeless community.  Midway thru our tour, a gentlemen walked in from the street and proudly pointed out his face on one of the portraits.

When I asked Paula how she became involved, she told me that she had recently retired as an art teacher and realized after a few months painting from home, she was running out of subject matter.  She then got the idea to volunteer with a local shelter.  Her pitch went something like this:  She would teach art to the residents free of charge and in return she would gain access to a whole new community of interesting subjects to paint. 

As a sidenote, Georgia happens to have one of the nation’s highest homeless rates, much of it concentrated right here in Atlanta.  But after a series of “No thank you's” from multiple prospects, Paula began to doubt if her idea would ever find a home.

I wondered why any agency would refuse the donated resources of a seasoned artist with decades of teaching experience.  Paula couldn’t say for sure but reported hearing some variation of “we don’t do that kind of thing here” on more than few occasions.

Ultimately, Paula got her “yes” and the rest is local art history.  But the  early challenges she faced  got me thinking about our tendency to reject ideas and opportunities simply because the originate from “the outside” or feel unfamiliar. And how the guidelines that govern most organizations can, without consistent checks and balances, restrict the very things they were designed to protect.  

Despite her wealth of experience, when it came to teaching art to homeless populations, Roberta was just another outsider.  She wasn’t ushered in through any special connections and had no professional experience working inside a social service agency.   She simply had an idea and a willingness to make it happen.   And by most standards, that’s a pretty good place to start.

But as organizations mature,  their reliance on bureaucracy deepens.  Standardized, template driven solutions might help ensure scalability and protection, but they can be an equally effective antidote to creativity and experimentation.  And the more emphatically we work to maintain those lines of division and regulation, the faster we close ourselves off from the very people we hope to matter to.  Until our reflex response to outsiders and outsider thinking alike, is to just say "No, thank you".

For even the most selfish reasons, we need outsiders.  They have the optimism and objectivity to see what insiders often can’t.  What we’ve sworn off as hopeless, they have the capacity to view with fresh enthusiasm and possibility.

And while not every new idea can or should be implemented, any organization can enable and nurture a culture of YES.   We can adjust our policies to build bridges and not walls.  And we can cultivate the kinds of partnerships and programs that embrace outsiders while encouraging outsider thinking from our own.  Because saying yes to that one small thing just might be the catalyst for something extraordinary.

...like an art gallery inside a homeless shelter.  

Laura CiociaComment
Start Something: 20 Practical Tips for Defeating Innovation Inertia

Innovation is sexy right now.  

Thanks in part to a pop culture fueled myth that it's beyond the reach of the average person or organization. And somehow, in order for it to qualify as "real" innovation it has feel inaccessible, even otherworldly to the rest of us. 

I wonder if at least in small part, this fairy tale narrative has impacted our perception of what successful innovation is supposed look like in the context of our own organizations.   And by attaching mythic expectations for what innovation should be (insert famous Steve Jobs quote here), we undermine the opportunity to achieve what it actually is. 

While today’s innovation is faster, and arguably more open than ever before, the process of creating new solutions is as old as humankind. 

In truth, innovation is happening all around us, every moment of every day.  The biggest obstacle isn’t our ability to solve new problems.  It’s in our commitment to starting and sustaining the necessary environments from which big ideas are born.

A similar dynamic has at one time or another, held most of us back in our personal lives. Waiting for a perfect time, or perfect plan or perfect set of circumstances, excuses us from taking any action at all.  And when we attach grandiosity and acclaim to those expectations, it makes the simple act of starting feel like an even more impossibly heavy endeavor.

If we want to give innovation the chance it deserves, we must move beyond the notion that it manifests through a single idea, process, department or leader.

We must let go of everything we believe innovation is supposed to produce and instead, master the act of starting.  And we must create a culture where experimentation and iteration are celebrated across disciplines and hierarchies.  

“Today, not starting is far, far worse than being wrong. If you start, you’ve got a shot at evolving and adjusting to turn your wrong into a right. But if you don’t start, you never get a chance.”
— Seth Godin

In the spirit of starting, I’ve compiled 20 specific actions most organizations can take today to help overcome inertia, normalize change and encourage creative problem solving.  These relatively low risk changes may not all work in the context of your company or situation, but the goal is to simply, begin.   By starting and doing you take the first step in enabling the kind of open experimentation and discovery that innovation thrives on.

  1. Create an innovation manifesto to guide and inspire the organization.

  2. Develop a protocol that embraces ‘failures’ as opportunities to learn and optimize (see Failcon).

  3. Identify the top 3 administrative or technical constraints that consistently frustrate employees and fix them immediately.

  4. Add a virtual idea box to the company intranet and create a plan for engaging employees around it’s use.

  5. Form a steering committee dedicated to supporting the implementation of new ideas.

  6. Organize an internal “hackathon” where employees can collaborate to solve key organizational or customer challenges.

  7. Identify partnership opportunities with local universities, non-profits or government and create or sponsor a community hackathon series (see Goodie Hack or National Day of Civic Hacking).

  8. Ban the use of the phrases like “we’ve tried that already” and “that won’t work”. Turn this into a game where employees are rewarded for using and acting on alternatives like “I wonder if” and “let’s explore”.

  9. Allocate a fund to sponsor employee attendance at conferences and events outside of your organization's traditional scope (see Art Basel, World Business Forum, Future of Storytelling.)

  10. Develop a plan to disrupt longstanding business models and procedures that may be stifling creative capacity or triggering unnecessary stress i.e. meetings, employee reviews, telecommuting policies, etc..

  11. Designate a communal area of your office space and allow employees to transform it into a creative refuge.

  12. Routinely restructure the office seating plan.

  13. Challenge employees to replace traditional presentation decks with prototypes.

  14. Plan quarterly field trips that aim to inspire creativity and foster empathy towards your customers.

  15. Invite employees to teach lunchtime courses on topics they are passionate about.

  16. Welcome outsiders (entrepreneurs, artists, etc.) into the organization to inject fresh perspective.

  17. Borrow from the rapid innovation model to refresh your current approach to brainstorming.

  18. Start a company book club (Some suggested readings to get you started: Creative Confidence, The 10 Faces of Innovation, Make Space, Poke the Box)

  19. Ask employees to curate and share 3-5 weekly stories of innovation in action (from any sector) that they find interesting or inspirational.

  20. And last but not least, form a cross disciplinary “change council” to manage the process and hold leadership accountable.



Laura CiociaComment
Check Yourself: Is Your Company Culture Innovation Ready?

Claiming innovation as an organizational trait is vastly different than creating an environment where innovation can flourish.  Companies with the best of intentions and resources, still have to confront the often nuanced and complex cultural inhibitors to change. Innovation transformation is an inevitably messy endeavor, plagued by uncertainty , doubt and failure.  And while many companies aspire to be more innovative, few are willing to do the difficult, often humbling work, required to support change. 

As a consultant, my work is varied in scope and in context but it almost always involves a discovery phase.   During this time I learn about the state of a business and it’s relative market through research and stakeholder conversations.  And whether articulated or not, innovation is often at the heart of these engagements.  Clients are either looking to become more wholly innovative organizations or they’re looking to partners to inspire “bigger” thinking around specific programs, products or segments.  And while business and customer insights are the expected outcome, the discovery process, particularly the interview portion, will almost always expose the matrix of cultural and psychological dynamics that surround a scope of work.  For context and clarity, it's important to note that most of my experience is with established, Fortune 1000 clients.  These are hugely successful enterprises whose products, services and models also happen to be under serious threat - often by much smaller, more agile competitors who have innovation in their very immediate DNA.  This presents an interesting dichotomy of arrogance and panic - neither of which are traits that are particularly conducive to change.

In my often very candid conversations with employees, it's typical to hear the same issues articulated over and over again - not just within an organization but across clients.  And in most cases, these aren’t just a bunch of disgruntled employees with bones to pick, but passionate, hard working people who desperately want to see their companies progress.  If there is a perception gap, it usually exists between the C-Suite and, well, everybody else.

Rarely though, have I seen clients acknowledge the relationship between these dynamics and the organization’s ability to actualize change.  At best, the observations are noted, but tabled as disparate issues from the task at hand. Management still fully expects big, new ideas to emerge from old frameworks and paradigms.  And as long as we can achieve marginal success, well, that's often enough of a reason to keep doing things the way they've always been done. At least for now.

It turns out, these challenges aren't merely anecdotal. From IBM to MIT, research consistently cites culture as a significant factor in innovation success. And former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner went as far as to characterize culture as "everything" to an organization's capacity for transformation.  

We can all agree that innovation is vital. But for most organizations, innovation isn't the problem.  Culture, and the people, systems and policies that bring it to life, are innovation's most potent enablers (or antidotes).  

So before tackling innovation and imagining all of it's outcomes, get familiar with your organizational ego.  The good, bad and ugly of who you are, why you exist, what you aspire to and what you fear - from the top down, the bottom up and everywhere in between.  Build from that awareness a deliberate culture that promotes discovery, diversity, audacity and collaboration.  Commit to fixing what isn't working no matter how seemingly insignificant or impossible.  And remove the bureaucracy that blocks employees from finding and acting on smart solutions.  So that in the end, you give the next big idea, the chance it deserves. 

Laura CiociaComment