Monday, September 8, 2014

Achievement Unlocked: Gamification, Systems Theory and the Emergence of the Challenge

It's always fascinating to watch memes unfold and intertwine in the digital space. Most recently, the memes of challenges and achievements are demonstrating how we have learned new behaviors and possibly even realized new powers.

The emergence of the challenge

If you were on this planet during the month of August, you likely heard, or even participated in, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $100 million dollars for research. 

It can likely be said with certainty that this challenge—in which a participant dumped a bucket of ice water on their head, or donated money, and then nominated others to do the same—enveloped us all in a grand experiment.

One might suggest that the success of the challenge was due to its game-like nature. From an anthropological perspective, it was fascinating to watch the rise of our willingness to do what our friends asked of, or rather, dared of us.

There are a number of current challenges happening on 
Facebook, that, while not as bold or popular as the ice bucket challenge, are still calls to action.  For example, there's a daily gratitude challenge in which the participant lists things they are grateful for each day.  There's also an ask to list the most influential books in a person's life.

These asks take effort (more effort than a Buzzfeed quiz for sure), sometimes on a daily basis. They also move the conversation to a new plural dynamic. This new behavior of asking and participating truly displays systems theory in action. If I may borrow from Gregory Bateson, we are no longer in an on / off state (such as reading or writing) but rather we are connected to a more integrated system because we are more deeply connected by an active ask and response.

It's as if we've discovered that, in addition to expressing opinions, sharing, liking and favoriting, we can actually compel another to take action.  Clearly, the social web goes beyond simple or passive connections in this context.   

In fact, in this context the social web is about action, and we are driving that action. We are able to influence each other at entirely new levels.

Unlocking achievements

In addition to this realization, we are in the process of changing our vocabularies to reflect the achievements gained through the actions taken.  While I can't quantify it, I have witnessed a great number of references to "achievement unlocked" in the past few weeks.  My favorite referred to biking home with a milkshake in hand.  Indeed, an achievement to be proud of!

While the idea of gamification is not new to the social web, this application of the phrase applied to personal life events does seem more popular lately. Could it be a realization of our own power, and an acknowledgment that we are heroes in our own game of life?

Realizing our power

These memes of challenges and achievement are, I believe, interrelated. And I think they've helped us realize a bit more of our own personal power and ability to affect change, in the course of strengthening the miraculous system that is the Web.  

While there is negative commentary regarding the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (specifically that it is yet another way for people to "show off") what is important is the emergence of this new behavior.  Specifically, how might we apply this moving forward? And what has this taught us about new ways to interact in the digital space and to use our powers for good? 

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Queen of Photobombs

I was struck happy the other day when I saw this photo. It's a picture of two Australian hockey players in Glasgow, taken and tweeted by one of the players, @Jayde_Taylor.

If you look very carefully, you can also see Her Majesty, the Queen of England, who apparently photobombed these two smiling athletes.

This picture is delightful for a number of reasons.

First, this photo captures what Dell Upton might refer to as the extraordinary of the everyday.  Here are these two young women (who admittedly placed themselves in an area where they knew the Queen would be) taking a selfie, when the Queen of England extraordinarily appears.

Second, it's evidence that the self-documentation of our world brings us together by literally placing us together in the same frame—but not in a planned photo opp. Traditional media has typically enforced cultural classifications and separation.  But today, when cameras are in most of our hands, we have the opportunity to break these frameworks.

Finally, the photo makes the Queen seem so approachable and friendly. She is placed (by herself) in a secondary position, smiling, and really looking like she is enjoying the moment. What's more, she is so very modern.  I mean, who would have thought that Queen Elizabeth II, a great grandmother, would even be aware of the concept of a photobomb.

It really, truly is delightful.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Once More, With Feeling: The Emergence of Social Emotional Technology

We talk a lot, especially those of us who are parents, about how kids use technology these days.  So fascinated are we with their ability to intuitively understand the digital environment and feel immediately comfortable in it.  To kids, there is no online and offline.  It's just one world.

Convent nun using
And this is where we are getting stuck.  
Anyone who has seen 21 Jump Street can attest to that.
My guess is that we are just a few years away from seeing a new digital environment, one that seriously takes emotions into account. We just need to wait for our children to build it.
It’s interesting to think about the technological landscape they will live in as adults.  And I don't mean the ability for their refrigerators to automatically order milk when it expires. I’m interested more in the ability for them to connect emotionally and experience technology in a sensory way.

Over the past ten years, we’ve seen more and more digital experiences that are emotionally driven.  With these experiences, emotions, senses and mood are not just pieces of data, but textures that add dimension and allow us to connect on a much deeper level. is a fascinating experiment in not only gathering emotions, but feeding it back in ways that benefit society, if only by making us more aware and connected. My favorite example is from a convent in England where emotional feedback is used by nuns as a prayer tool. I think Marshall McLuhan would approve.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work on a project for Signature Theatre in New York City. The intent of the theater itself, and of the physical space it resided in (designed by Frank Gehry), was to create collisions among theatre goers.   The experience I helped create consisted in part of a 72-inch touchscreen that allowed patrons to input their feelings around a specific topic, thereby creating a reflection of the community’s thoughts.

But while there are numerous examples of emotional and sensory experience in the digital space, anything beyond emoticons still seems to be considered experimental.

My prediction, or hope, however, is that this will change. And I believe it will change because, while adults are figuring out how to bring emotion into the digital space, our children are more emotionally aware than ever.

That's because the social emotional learning movement, originally founded in the 1960s and eventually becoming mainstream in the mid 1990s has started to make a meaningful difference in how we interact. In just a generation or two, it's made it ok to care--and not ok to be the bully. 

So if our kids are learning about their emotions today, and are comfortable with a new level of expression and sharing, when, I wonder, will our new-found awareness intersect with technology in meaningful, relevant and mainstream ways? 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

When Writing, Less Is Often So Much More

I was enlightened this week—twice—by short-form content.

I know. It’s something only a content geek would say, but it’s true.

The first pivotal moment came by way of LinkedIn where I was reviewing a potential contractor for a project at the agency. Their profile was amazing.  It communicated the essential information, yet it was easy to read, possibly even delightful. One of the key reasons why it was so enjoyable was that the description for each role was only one sentence.

One sentence. 

How many of us can say we have a one-sentence description for a role on our resume?

What’s more, these descriptions were for some pretty big and impressive jobs.  Yet this candidate conveyed their value and contribution in one, readable sentence. 

I have to say, it left me with LinkedIn envy, and immediately made me want to delete every bullet point and boring drivel of detail form my profile (don’t look yet, it’s on my to-do list).

The second moment of short-form enlightenment came by way of a status report, written, I kid you not, in haikus. Here's an example:

Come on, stakeholders. Get your schedule together. Meanwhile, I audit.

Hands down, it was the best status report I have ever read. Not only because it was so clever, but because it so succinctly got to the point. The author did go on to provide more details, but he had me at the top line haiku summary. It was brilliant.

As a former newspaper journalist, I was trained to write by the inch in an inverted pyramid style. Most of us don’t make it through entire articles, so it’s vital to get what matters in that first paragraph. So I've always believed that when it comes to writing, less is more. 

But for some odd reason, I forget about when it comes to writing for business.  Resumes, status reports, and the like, seem to prove our value based on length. Why is that?

In many cases, good writing is short.  Short gets to the point.  It conveys meaning. It’s easy on the reader.  And while it may not be appropriate for every form (I do love a long novel that I can get lost in), it might be more appropriate than we think for more of what we write.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Yet more evidence that the medium is truly the message

Media ecology theorists, such as Marshall McLuhan, believe that communication technologies shape the way we think. Over the past ten years we've seen these technologies become more and more fluid. 

Services such as instant messaging and photo sharing are no longer "add-ons" to the way we communicate. Rather, they are foundational elements. In addition, the media we are sharing on these devices have become the conversation itself.

Here's an example: Ten years ago, you may have had a phone call with a friend, and followed up through sharing a photo via email. Today, you likely share a photo with a friend, and possibly follow up with a phone call.  The basis of the conversation--in other words, the conversation itself--is actually the media. 

In this way, one might suggest that the way in which communication technologies allow us to communicate, as well as our multiple media options, have enhanced communication all together.  This ad spot from Spotify illustrates that.  

The idea of sharing a song to communicate is not new  (those over 35 likely understand the nuance of making a mixed tape for someone).  What is new is the use of media as the basis of the conversation rather than the enhancement of it.

An article in AdAge noted that the Spotify video was inspired by Google's Parisian Love video, which documents key moments in the hero's life through key searches on Google. While Google's spot is not about the communication between two people, it is storytelling through communication technology (screen shot as searches, how very meta). It's definitely worth a watch.

I, for one, never doubt Saint McLuhan, but it is delightful to see his theories continuing to ring true.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Tori And Candace's Super Bowl Twitter Takeover

This evening, my family, self declared non-sports fans, is watching the Super Bowl.  It's actually a pretty great game, at least from the perspective of a Seattle-ite. 

I've also been following the game on IFC's Portlandia Twitter feed which has been taken over by the fictional characters Tori and Candace who own the feminist bookstore Women & Women First. If you're not familiar with the sketch, I strongly recommend watching this compilation. It's hilarious.

This use of Twitter is brilliant. It hits on all of the makers for a good content marketing strategy (meaningful, social, findable and measurable).  But it's also smart for a number of additional reasons.
  1. It's unexpected.
    We've seen fictional characters with their own Twitter feed before.  With 1.4 million followers, the Mars Rover is a particularly popular example.  But the women of Women & Women First are the opposite of your typical football fan.  To place them in a position to cover the Super Bowl is creative, clever and unexpected in a very fun way.
  2. It's targeted.
    Not everyone loves football. And I wouldn't be surprised if Portlandia viewers (or potential viewers) could be counted among those ranks. It wouldn't be difficult to size this potential audience.  But regardless of size, there is a definite and defined target that Portlandia appears to be trying to reach.
  3. It's relevant.
    The Twitter takeover is relevant on a number of levels.  First, it's relevant to one of the biggest annual media events. Second, it's relevant regionally (Portland is just three hours form Seattle) and finally, the season 4 premiere of Portlandia just so happens to be just three weeks away.
  4. It gets it.Twitter is a publishing platform. The more followers one has, the better the ability to reach that audience.  If @IFCPortlandia can increase its following through this campaign, then it can better message fans and potential fans, especially in the build up to the season premiere.  In addition, as TV still earns its keep through media buys which are based on the size of the viewing audience, this campaign make good business sense.  More TV views equals more financial worth and more Twitter followers increase IFC's ability to potentially build its audience. Additionally, this campaign gives IFC a great excuse to constantly message that audience in a short period of time.
They're doing a pretty job of it.  I do wish they would change their Twitter profile picture to Tori and Candace.  (It's currently Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein which kind of breaks character.)  A few videos would also be nice.  I'm sure they could have produced a few short canned skits to work in. 

In any case, if you can break away from the next commercial (assuming it's not David Beckham in his underwear) I'd suggest checking it out.

Go Hawks!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Content Marketing Requires A Shift In Mindset

Content is an interesting beast.

It's a real challenge to create, source, organize, deliver and maintain meaningful content that seamlessly moves through the digital ecosystem, is highly shareable and is easily findable.  This was highlighted recently in an eMarketer report, Content Marketing a Struggle from Start to Finish.

Yet this is exactly what digital content needs to be: meaningful, shareable, finable and measurable.

Content seems like it should be easy.  I mean, we can write.  We can type. Shoot, we all have a Twitter account, right? How hard could it be to develop content for the Web or for a mobile app?  The answer is, well, hard; and sometimes, really hard.

The digital environment we live in has asked us to be publishers, which requires a slightly new and refined set of skills and philosophies. Essentially, it requires a shift in mindset infused by editorial and digital ways.

1. Editorial expertise 

Let's start with editorial expertise. Digital content is not simply marketing.  People want authentic content that is meaningful and/or useful to them. In fact, if you look at the roots of the word "editor," you'll see that it comes from the Latin words "edere" which means "to give" and "datus," which means data or information.  In other words, an editor gives data or provides information.

While there used to be a very definitive line between marketing/advertising and editorial content, that is no longer true. People  are more sophisticated today, and they expect meaning and usefulness from content, whether or not it is considered "marketing."

We see this in the data. A 2013 study of B2B content consumers from eMarketer showed that the most valued trait of content was "breadth and depth of information." Another study noted that more that 65 percent of marketers considered authorship an important part of a content marketing strategy.

That means that the digital content process needs to run more like a newsroom than an advertising agency. It's essential to ask, at an editorial level, a number of key questions:

  • First and foremost, what content does your audience want and need? Advertising agencies understand brand messaging, but not necessarily the process to develop it beyond a tagline. Editorial expertise provides perspective on how messages carry, both long- and short-form, across channels.
  • Second, what is the cadence of the messaging?  This requires an acute understanding of when messaging should change or when new stories should be created.  It's akin to the fishbowl meeting at a publication, but potentially more complex since there may be more than one channel.
  • Third, what format is right for delivery?  For example, is the message best delivered in a tweet or a video or a long-form article? 
  • Fourth, how will content be created?  Again, in the realm of traditional advertising and marketing this is important but in a publication model this becomes more complex. A lot can be translated from the  more traditional editorial newsroom or publication model when it comes to both authorship and process.
  • Fifth, and very much related to the previous points here, is the content compelling enough to be shareable?  While there are digital implications here, the key solution focuses on developing good content. This is an editorial challenge.

2. Digital savvy 

In addition to the editorial expertise required to make a content marketing approach successful, there is a level of digital savvy that is also required to create success. Where editorial expertise ensures that content is meaningful and shareable, digital savvy ensures that content is findable and measurable.

The implication here is that a content marketing approach not only needs to run more like a publication but it also needs to infused from a technical perspective. Key questions include the following:

  • Can people (or more accurately the computers people use) find my content? Content needs to be findable on a site as well as through search engines such as Google.  That means that content must be appropriately tagged, and that elements such as URLs and descriptions must support search.
  • From a channel standpoint, how do we target specific people with the messages that best resonate with them? That means that the right data aggregation and serving tools must be in place.
  • In addition, how can content be managed across channels (so that every piece of content does not need to be re-written every time)?  That means a content management system must be in place to support the editorial process.
  • Finally, how do we measure it all? As we all know, this is quite possible in the digital space. Content can be measured by format as well as by message, which means that future investments can be smarter, not to mention, potentially rationalized.
So never fear! There is a way to create and execute successful content marketing strategies.  It simply takes a shift to a mindset that is more editorially and digitally focused.