Are Paradoxes Trending?

Digital detox.

Authentic brands.

Advertising for social good.

Each trend contains an undeniable tension almost to the point of oxymoronic. For culture enthusiasts and market researchers these concepts are ubiquitous, provocative and irresistible. To read about online. To dream about. To wait for some form of acknowledge on a grand scale, that would enable modern culture to progress to the next chapter. If only Walter Benjamin could help us navigate this stuff.

At a macro level, these trends may connect to the rate of change we’re experiencing in the Digital Age. Perhaps the tension it all creates with human nature is finally coming to a head. Maybe Steve Jobs underestimated how dramatic the 2007 iPhone launch would become in hindsight. He introduced it as an iPod, a revolutionary phone, and a “breakthrough internet communication device” but back then who knew what that truly meant?

Watching visions of the future from the past is a trip.

Watching the 2007 iPhone launch in 2016 feels like watching a sequel to the 1927 silent film Metropolis. I remember meeting at the library one night in college to watch it for a Literature course — Modernity and Fin de Siècle. The psychological and emotional gymnastics of watching a 1927 dystopian film as a college junior a few years post-9/11 was disorienting. I remember leaving the library in tears I was so disturbed, and called my mom for comfort. It took a few days to shed the strangeness the film cast over me.

The mindfulness movement, the struggle for brands to sound authentic, Michael Porter’s idea of “shared value” to fix capitalism, the interest in B-Corporationsall of these trends align with a rising need for meaning. The kind of meaning that escorts the realization that you’re small and the world is large. It’s hard to grasp this when instead of contemplation we insert social media and apps into any down time.

According to an upcoming trend report by JWT, 78% of  respondents “believe that we’re losing some important human qualities by spending so much time immersed in technology”.

I’m inspired by this statistic. It will exist as a benchmark. Which means we can propose solutions to lower it. To start, I will unpack each apparent “paradox” from the top of this rant in a weekly post…as soon as my graduate thesis is done. Stay tuned!

 

BOOK REVIEW: Global Content Strategy: A Primer by Val Swisher

I discovered this handbook on Twitter through a discussion with The Content Wrangler, a member of the content strategy community. This is a group of writers and strategists dedicated to improving the stuff we see on the web. Specifically, the stuff that brands and businesses put on the web, in the hopes that it’s seen by an intended audience. In a way, we’re all in the business of turning hope into reality. How beautiful.

TL;DR

Global Content Strategy: A Primer is good crash course on a complex topic. Ideal for pitching senior management on a strategic approach to large-scale website translation.

Global Content Strategy by Val Swisher

I’d recommend Global Content Strategy as a useful handbook for anyone working with global audiences in need of a multi-lingual website. Specifically, anyone tasked with managing the translation of multiple languages. The information is not relevant for small sites with a few pages or sites translated into just one or two other languages; it’s for companies with large websites and a global audience, interested in translating web content using a cost- and time-efficient approach, without sacrificing on quality. If you want your content understood by lots of people in lots of different languages, here’s a breakdown of how to manage that process.

It covers the basic tenets of content strategy (audience definition, voice and style considerations, having a multi-cultural approach to icons and symbols) as well as technical, project management advice (choosing translation vendors, maintaining a central database of TM, which stands for Translation Memory, and more). It was a good refresh of the basics and a succinct overview of the complexities of large-scale translation projects. Val Swisher definitely knows her stuff when it comes to executing and managing (wrangling!) what can seem an insurmountable mess, known as Global Content Strategy.

Book Review: “Brand Thinking” by Debbie Millman

Brand Thinking is a collection of interviews conducted by Debbie Millman, veteran brand consultant, host of the podcast series Design Matters and co-founder of the Master’s in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. The book explores what branding means as a concept and a profession through a series of interviews with industry leaders in advertising, marketing, design, business strategy and anthropology.

Brand Thinking by Debbie Millman

I found the first half of the book to be much more enlightening and inspiring than the latter half, but this is probably just because many of the core themes were revisited across several interviews. (Interestingly, Malcolm Gladwell’s interview was last, which involved a discussion as to why he doesn’t use the term “brand” in books that explore that very concept. He also points out the fairly obvious yet simultaneously enlightening — classic Gladwell — by stating our love of social media speaks to our biological need to connect to others by communicating our thoughts.)

I highlighted and underlined a lot of this book. Below are a few of my favorite tidbits and quotes pulled from what were the most memorable interviews for me:

Brian Collins – Discussed branding as a source of connection with others, and introduced the concept of “archetypal” brands and Jungian psychology which led me down a serious rabbit hole from which I hope I never emerge…For example, Apple plays the role of the rebel, offering consumers a way to assert their individuality or “coolness” without explicitly stating this (“the art that conceals the art” as Virginia Postrel puts it). Apple is the proverbial “Eve” – a temptress, a seductress, a rebel. By choosing Apple, we gravitate toward this cultural concept known as an “archtype” with which we are all familiar.

Wally Olins – Stresses the importance in possessing a combination of strategic and design capabilities. His advice to young brand strategists or those considering a career in branding is to consider whether they truly want to join what’s a very demanding business. Not everything is quantifiable; he’s highly suspect of analysts who quantify everything with neat metrics. We can see what has not worked in the market, but we cannot quantify what will – which is what the most successful brands predict. And you have to be OK with that.

“In order to be truly imaginative, you must possess an unusual level of self-  confidence and creativity . . .”

“If you are going to create something that is truly a breakthrough, you have to rely on your intuition and your judgment.”

Grant McCracken – Sees designers as vehicles for corporations to take culture seriously. Has a PhD in Anthropology, and points out that while most of the world perceives the passage of time as circular, Western culture uniquely decided at some point to consider time as linear, symbolized by an arrow. We therefore find ourselves in an endless projection forward, for what’s next. He sees designers as uniquely able to “create and interpret” culture within a business that is otherwise focused forward. Designers are like messengers from the holistic, universal, cultural world into the bottom-line-driven world of the mundane. (I particularly loved and identified with this.) It’s an interesting challenge to marry the two sides of the brain and I got a sense that the best designers are also strategic thinkers – which Wally Olins says as well.

“What I’d rather hear from designers is, ‘These are the twelve cultural meanings at issue here, and this is where the world is – this is what the world wants. This is how we’ve crafted the brand out of these twelve meanings. This is how we’ve combined them, and this is how we’ll manage them over the next six or twelve months.'”

Dori Tunstall – A “Design Anthropologist” currently teaching at a university in Australia. She views design as a lens to interpret what it means to be human – and a key element in creating products and services that accomodate our needs, as opposed to imposing them upon us. Just seeing the words “design anthropologist” together made me feel I was meant to (a) read this book, and (b) participate in this field. I actually found Dori on Twitter and she offered to help me find people in New York who are involved in this type of discussion.

“Values like equality, democracy, fairness, integration and connection are values that, to some extent, we’ve lost. Design can help make those values more tangible and ultimately express how we can use them to make the  world a better place.”

Virginia Postrel – Everything this woman said was mind-blowingly interesting and articulate to the point that it was intimidating just reading her words. She’s a cultural critic, essayist and journalist and has written extensively about “glamour” and its relationship with beauty, fashion and style in our culture. She also points out that the internet mimics our brain’s natural “associative” state, making it easy to quickly bounce from one thing to the next. While this is the way we naturally think or daydream, it has led to extreme overstimulation and a serious deficit in attention; this directly leads to the need to compete for the attention of others, which is why our culture values “outrageousness”.

Your outside self projects something to the world and also reflects back into you. The image of you in specific attire helps you imagine yourself as the person you would like to be.

Other enjoyable and noteworthy tidbits:

David Butler – VP of Design at Coca Cola – An early proponent of user-centric design and an appreciation for design thinking/design strategy. Believes in the ability of large corporations to improve the world, with their reach, networks, infrastructure, etc.

Stanley Hainesworth – Former VP Global Creative, Starbucks, Former Creative Director, Nike. Hainesworth is responsible for creating the five pillars of Starbucks’ brand: handcrafted, artistic, sophisticated, human and endearing. Talks about the challenge for brands to retain authenticity (which is definitely a buzzword, but this book was written in 2011.)  He says in order to recapture one’s audience, you must stay on brand, digging deeper into its essence/history/story/mission, rather than creating something new and off-brand that won’t communicate.

Dan Formosa – Co-founder of Smart Design and proponent of user-centered design which designs for people at “the edges”; the democratization of design. He describes himself and his colleagues coming out of college in the 60s and 70s and wanting to change the world, as an impetus for him to focus on people, design and how the two relate, at a time when designers didn’t yet care about concepts like usability or user-friendliness.

The way to think about ‘everybody’ is not to think about the average person in the middle, but to think about the extremes.

Joe Duffy – Celebrated creative director and founder of his own independent branding studio, Duffy & Partners, which prides itself on carefully selecting which clients it works with. They work to establish each client’s “branding language”, a full identity system which serves to inform every design decision made by the brand.

“I don’t want to work with clients who are successful in spite of their lack of design or in spite of their bad design.”

“…Design is really so damn simple. It’s so straightforward. Anyone who tries to make it convoluted or complicated does a disservice to designers everywhere. Anyone who buys crap gets what they deserve.”

Seth Godin:

“Brands must build on past associations but go beyond nostalgia to novelty.”

 A Content Strategy Rallying Cry

The internet makes it simultaneously easier and more difficult to have your words heard.

The trash heap of shitty content increases by the millisecond. We all have the ability to write (technically speaking) and access to the marketplace (social media, blogs, ads, etc.). Because of this radical democratization of communication it’s more crucial than ever to start with why when considering whether to produce content.

The distinction between ads or “sponsored content” and editorial content is becoming so blurry it’s like we’re all swimming underwater, and we all need to clean our goggles with that goggle-cleaner fluid but no one wants to miss out by taking the time to emerge on the surface, clean his or her goggles, and see more clearly. Brands instead choose to churn water, pushing forward with mediocre, unnecessary, uninspiring and even self-defeating content that actually does more damage than good (and is an incredible waste of resources).

Brand managers and content strategists are generals in the battle for authenticity in modern advertising. Social media is where the bloodiest squirmishes are lost, in the form of dull content that falls on deaf ears; no one sees it. At least no one valuable to your bottom line sees it. If they do, they aren’t persuaded to do or think in any meaningfully different way.

If a shitty Facebook post gets no reach, does it make a sound?

The answer is yes – in the form of a digital footprint. It’s easy for competitors or prospective business partners to check out a brand’s Facebook page only to find tumbleweeds. You don’t delete posts that fall flat; they remain there for all to see.

Savvy and strategic thinkers already know this; the problem is getting through to the masses. Fortunately, this means there will always be work for content strategists. Unfortunately, everyone with opposable thumbs and an internet connection fancies him/herself a content strategist.

All we can do is stay calm and carry on.

Check out the (7!) books closely/loosely relevant to this topic I bought yesterday. Reviews to follow!

books on branding

 

 

Design Strategy: Embracing A Dual Nature

This is one of the more personal posts I’ve written here, but I’m going with it because it turns out there are others like me who feel torn between two seemingly opposed aspects of themselves: career-oriented and “businesslike” while also creative, artistic and passionate. It’s been hard for me to reconcile between these two aspects. This is an attempt to do so.

sisyphus

Like most people in their 29th year, I’m going through my Saturn Return. It’s an astrologically-based (so in my opinion totally inevitable and justified) period of evaluation of one’s life, ignited by Saturn returning to the same point in the universe for the first time since you were born. Interesting, right?

I’ve been on what feels like a Sisyphus-like quest for the past 10 years: find the kind of work that energizes me, doesn’t feel like “work” and makes use of my unique combination of skills, experience, knowledge and intuition. This has entailed (1) quitting a post-college job as a paralegal at a fancypants Manhattan law firm to pursue a research internship in Israel; (2) working at a fun, well-funded Tel Aviv startup as an SEO and content strategist; (3) realizing I was extremely interested in what the designers and brand managers were doing; (4) deciding to return to New York to pursue this new career path; (5) working at a digital web agency on social media strategy, until (6) I decided I wanted to be my own boss. This decision came as a result of me recognizing I possess two aspects of my personality, and in order to be truly happy at work I need to constantly draw on them both: a) experience in the corporate world, an interest in business strategy and an ability to analyze information, and (b) creative energy, a deeply rooted appreciation for aesthetic and a strong passion for human connectivity and communication.

Now I’m an independent marketing consultant for small-to-mid-sized businesses. I come up with strategies for companies to boost their online visibility. There’s a ton of methods and tactics I could employ, ranging from quantitative, data-driven insights to creative work that requires imagination and intuition.

This duality of business-&-creativity has firmly deposited me in the lap of branding. I thrive when activating both sides of my brain. (My career coach calls it having an “And/Or” aspect to my personality; she compares it to a mosaic.) I was elated to find an interview with Facebook’s Director of Product Design, Maria Giudice by Debbie Millman, a renowned branding consultant. A former CEO of her own design studio, Giudice discovered she had a natural tendency — and ability — to view problems as “design” problems, whether or not the actual subject was design-related. Possessing a designer’s mindset, which is oftentimes non-linear and highly associative, is an extraordinary problem-solving mechanism. She states the following in her book, Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design:

“The future leaders of the world need to combine the skills of creativity and analytics.”

These words spoke loudly to me today, demonstrating that the path I’m pursuing has begun to be cleared by multi-faceted thinkers like Giudice and Millman.

I’m inspired and motivated to continue pushing that boulder up the mountain.

Further Reading/Programs/Quotes/Concepts:

  • Rise of the DEO: Leadership by Design (2013), Maria Giudice
  • California College of the Arts – MBA in Design Strategy
  • GSD = Getting Shit Done (something design leaders do)
  • “The best design is 50% thinking and 50% doing.”
  • SFD = Shitty First Draft (just hand in something; Done is better than perfect.)

Advice for Brands on Chasing the Facebook Dragon

 

Chasing the Facebook Dragon

Determining the ROI on a Facebook ad campaign is one of the most frustrating parts of social media marketing. And it’s just getting worse. Brands have signed onto the notion that Facebook serves a silver platter of highly targeted, engaged audience members. But it’s not a bright and shiny platter; it’s an oxidized platter with the kind of stains that might not be stains but might just be oxidation but you can’t really tell.

You put up a Page Likes ad to jump-start your page’s growth, you get a sudden spike of fans, and you’re hooked. Then you chase that dragon down a wormhole of News Feed algorithm updates, revised campaign structures and increasingly hard-to-decipher reports.

Integrated Marketing AssClownery: Confusing the Medium for the Message

A comparison can be made between the pitfalls of Facebook advertising and SEO methods in wide use a few years ago. Brands who wanted to rank in search engines relied too heavily on “gaming the system”. Massive amounts of low-quality content combined with keyword stuffing was the formula to success. But Google was smarter, and updated its algorithm to detect websites relying on spammy, superficial methods that don’t actually do any good for real human beings . . . rendering those methods obsolete.

The same holds true with Facebook content and advertising. Relying on the platform won’t get you far. It’s just a method of delivery. It’s not a sustainable strategy.

Three key problems from focusing on advertising (i.e. the medium) instead of your content (i.e. the message):

1) The medium changes on a dime.

Facebook is constantly changing. “Improving”. They roll out changes to their ad platform so frequently that I’ve had instances where the coworker sitting next to me has access to different features in Power Editor than I do. Nothing’s more irritating than convincing a client to invest in a certain type of ad only to discover that ad type was discontinued, and was only offered as a test for a short period of time.

2) Access isn’t guaranteed.

If your ad sucks, guess what? No one will click on it. And Facebook will stop showing it. With more brands than ever competing with each other for ad space, shitty ads that don’t speak to their target audience with tailored messaging and a bit of creativity just don’t get shown. This is why “Ad Optimization” is a key component of a successful ad campaign.

3) Not all impressions are worth the same.

Do you want Fans? Website visitors? Post engagement? Or just impressions? Picking a metric and sticking with it gets complicated when too much focus is placed on the medium, as opposed to your content or your bottom-line. Figure out if it’s brand awareness, community engagement or visits to your website you’re after. Write it on a piece of paper. Stick it on your forehead. Turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about.

 

The Path to Recovery

The true goldmine of opportunity on Facebook lies in getting your fans to share your content with their friends. For free! Having someone Like, Comment or actually Share content you post on your page is what leads to organic, viral success. Lots of people get this; Gary Vaynerchuk and Jonah Berger are two examples. Brands like Magnolia, Martha Stewart and Seamless take advantage of the image-based UI. Does this mean your financial services client should post high-res closeups of tax forms and accounting sheets? Limited resources are better spent elsewhere. Like on providing content that’s actually useful for your existing audience. Thinking creatively about ways to engage people who have already indicated they care about what you’re saying. User surveys with real insight.

  1. Put users first. Understand their needs. Who are they? What are their problems?
  2. Consider your company or product. How does it solve the problems you just listed?
  3. Think creatively. Focus on the message. Then figure out if you’re going to translate this into Facebook ads or posts. Whether you post something as an ad, a post, a link, a photo or a nosehair really doesn’t matter; what are you trying to say!

TL;DR

It’s too easy to focus on the medium at the expense of the message, and pour money into advertising something with low-quality content. X dollars doesn’t equal Y sales. Focus on your users, your content and your objectives. Use Facebook Advertising to boost that effort – not drive it. A sustainable strategy puts users before robots, platforms and delivery channels. A sustainable strategy involves tapping into real, human insights and developing interesting and engaging content.

 

What The Torah Says About Branding & Social Entrepreneurialism

Welcome to week 2 of my new exercise: applying the weekly teachings of the Torah to modern life, branding/marketing and, occasionally, the Middle East Conflict. The Torah is considered the “blueprint of Creation”; I believe it’s also a wireframe for today’s global and digital society. 

lighthouse

Last week’s portion, Metzora, teaches that it’s always possible for someone who has become spiritually “impure” by committing an act of wrongdoing, to be forgiven. Someone who distances himself from his community (or from God) is offered an opportunity to turn the situation around by attaching oneself to the Torah, which acts like a spiritual lighthouse guiding lost souls away from the abyss. Those who choose to climb out of the darkness are rewarded for the effort – but it does require an effort. Forgiveness doesn’t come instantly, but requires remorse, sacrifice and willingness to undergo a process.

 

Relation to Social Change: The Ability to Turn Things Around 

Whoever said there’s no such thing as second chances hasn’t read this Torah portion. Every single day is a chance to turn it all around; a chance for “salvation to sprout.” This is an extremely empowering concept on an individual level; we are allowed to make mistakes and by recognizing those mistakes, we have the power to transform a negative into a positive.

Consider the implications of this on a macro level: entire groups of people may be forgiven and large-scale social change can take place. For social entrepreneurs, this belief is sometimes taken for granted; it’s pretty reassuring to see it referenced in scripture dating back centuries.

The organization Seeds of Peace incorporates this concept into its conflict-resolution efforts. Their approach to peace relies on the connection of people, as opposed to governments. By establishing connections and creating relationships amongst groups who are otherwise divided by hate, Seeds of Peace keeps hope alive by believing it’s never too late to change the conversation. It’s extremely difficult to retain this perspective, especially if you’re living in an area of conflict. But those committed to enacting real change and in bringing peace, the possibility of TRANSFORMATION is of utmost importance.

 

Relation to Branding: The Value of Humility 

Humility = the truth; if you humble yourself, there’s no need to be humiliated by others. The modern trend in branding in which companies and organizations make themselves fully transparent to their users in order to build trust, takes this teaching quite seriously.

Companies like Everlane, with its tagline of “Radical Transparency”, The Honest Company and Innocent all place a value on authenticity and accountability, which translates directly into real business value via consumer loyalty. These brands essentially “humble themselves” and forge an emotional connection with the consumer, establishing a relationship built on trust.

 

The Value of Work, Patience and Appreciating the Process

Change doesn’t happen overnight, and forgiveness isn’t rewarded to those who simply admit to their wrongdoing. It requires remorse and appreciation for what has been committed. I can’t help but make a comparison to the Catholic concept of Confession as an absolution of sin. The path toward forgiveness in the Torah is more rugged, and seems to require more of a personal investment and sacrifice in order for the sin to be truly absolved. The constant struggle for self-improvement and a kind of moral “rugged individualism” is endorsed here. Here, we see an overlap in Jewish and American values. Great opportunities exist, but they require hard work and perseverance.