Sunday, March 23, 2014

Twilight of vertical culture

Odd how the Universe creates moments of synchronicity. This morning I was watching a fascinating TED talk, Andrew Solomon's Love, no matter what. And then my dear friend John was in a production this evening of Twilight of the Golds. The two events cover the same general topics -- biotechnology, social and media technologies, their effects on imperfect people -- but from different angles.

The latter: a playwright asks us to consider the twin effects of abortion and biological information in the earlier age of AIDS and homophobia. The former: a NY Times journalist discusses his journey on a story of parental love for children who don't fit the norms of "vertical culture" from his own perspective as a gay parent. Their underlying assumptions are vastly different (though starting from the same place), and so where they end up is different as well.

What struck me from the Twilight of the Golds was a fundamental assumption on the straight characters (and, I think, the playwright himself) that society itself wouldn't change nearly as fast as the technology. In more specific terms: that societal homophobia and a parent's wish for making their children's lives easier than theirs, would not evolve. And yes, in the 10+ years since the play was written, most Western nations have polled consistently in favor of gay marriage and adoption rights. Ask anyone under 25 about gays and lesbians, and more often than not you'll get a shrug. Far different from the outlines of the play's characters' lives in an economically declining New York.

This is the exact journey that Mr. Solomon went through himself as he was researching his book. His thesis: that was have "horizontal" and "vertical" aspects of culture. Vertical -- what is passed down from parent to child like ethnicity, language, even religion -- certainly has an impact on what parents want for their child. But it is horizontal culture -- that which we used to define ourselves via shared communities -- that challenges us yet creates the space for what is new and different. Like the lead character from Twilight says, "That part of me, that thread of me, is woven deep into the tapestry of me. Take that threat out and the entire tapestry unravels. All you are left with is staring at the wall." Even he learns this lesson when, as a gay parent, suddenly discovers the challenge of having a possibly disabled child. Yet not so long ago, he himself would have been "diagnosed" as such.

I believe much more in Mr. Solomon's ultimate choice: the choice of love and of embracing horizontal culture. I think that's what makes our lives such colorful, interesting mosaics. I believe that technology, while certainly can be used for terrible things like eugenics (the ultimate expression of vertical culture), can also be used to expand our reach and connectivity with people we never thought possible (the celebration of horizontal culture). I think that how we make our work and our social networks and our lives so much richer: by learning to simply love what we don't necessarily understand or even wish for ourselves or our children. It's a hard, hard thing to do. But when I witness how dated the Twilight of the Golds felt as I see the progress of LGBT acceptance, of communities of deaf or blind people, or showcasing the lives of little people on television as just another source of both challenge and inspiration like anything else, I really am hopeful. Our shared experiences will come to define us more than our familiar heritage. The twilight of vertical-only culture in favor of a more nuanced, complex, and beautiful mosaic of both vertical and horizontal threads.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Content Marketing - don't worry about viral, worry about relevancy

+Wyatt Urmey and I were bouncing some ideas around the office just before the National Retail Federation show back in January. We didn't have a big presence there, but we wanted to have something interesting to say about social business. Little did I know that this exercise would finally lead me to better understand how to make content more viral. But bear with me as I tell the story.

As we were talking about collaboration, particularly the newer social collaborative tools like Enterprise Social Networks, we discovered a bias in our thinking towards the classical Information Worker: marketing, finance, management. But there are tons of workers who may not sit in front of laptops every day, but still need to collaborate, find, and share information: manufacturing line workers, in store associates, delivery truck drivers, and more.

We know about examples like Apple, with their now famously mobile-clad Apple Store employees who can do everything from their iPhones and iPads: not just look up inventory or check you out, but also read online product reviews, and send questions to other store associates live. We've also heard about Zappos, with their famously social customer service reps. So clearly associates and customer service reps were a good initial target for expanding the scope of social collaboration at work.

For lack of a better term, we called them "boundary workers" -- workers who are at the boundary of information and process, or at the boundary of the enterprise and the customer. So Wyatt and I, knowing the Apple and Zappos ideas best, worked with a small volunteer team to build a short synthesis of the concept into an infographic: The Rise of the Boundary Worker.

Wyatt, being a far better writer than I, turned the idea into a blog post on the Social Business Insights Blog. Which led to Wyatt being asked to write another post. Which another team used to write another one. Which another team then turned into a SlideShare presentation. Which was tweeted and retweeted. And further blogged about. All of which, have, at last count, garnered in combination several THOUSAND page views, millions of impressions, trending on SlideShare, and more.

Which brings me to the a ha moment I had about viral content, and four things I learned about content marketing in general.


  1. Be relevant AND provocative. Our idea took off because it was both relevant to the audiences we were trying to reach and it was just provocative enough to get their attention. It engendered thought and debate and excitement, not just from IBMers but from the community.
  2. Viral for viral sake is not a business activity. I cringe every time I hear "we need to have a viral marketing campaign!". My stuff isn't a mass-market consumer product...why would I want to behave like Old Spice? I much prefer the Blend Tec model: our content took BECAUSE we were not actively seeking to be viral (see Point 1). 
  3. Viral isn't a siren, it's a hockey stick. We didn't add to the noise of the marketplace like some kind of vuvuzela. Rather, we took a smart idea , started slow, and nurtured it as it built.
  4. Viral isn't about volume, but share. No, we didn't break Twitter.  But we had a meaningful, measurable, unexpected impact on our community, customers, and markets. For people looking at collaboration, we were able to break through the noise and engage them.


I'm excited to see how far this idea can go. We've already looked at Retail and Insurance. I can easily see manufacturing, public safety, distribution and delivery, travel, hospitality, process industries, and a lot of other use cases.

What do you think makes content more viral?