Job for the Dress You Want

Late last year in Sydney, I was fortunate enough to be asked to volunteer as a mentor at a SheSays speed-mentoring event. In the lead-up, there was some emphasis on the fact that a bunch of men-tors would be “helping women punch through the glass ceiling” – which seemed to hover somewhere between condescending and patronising – but the event itself was pretty great and constructive. I found myself as one of the only two planning/strategy mentors there, the other being the lovely Dom Hickey (@domhickey).

One of the recurring themes of the evening was people asking me, “How can I become a strategist?” or “How can I become a planner?”

Neither Dom nor I could really point to our own paths as templated plans for becoming a planner or a strategist – it turned out that both of us studied philosophy at university (not generally considered a career move), and when we thought about the other planners and strategists we knew, their backgrounds were unpredictable and diverse: sociologists, ex-music teachers, former museum curators and at least one former pro-kickboxer. The answer tends to be, “We just fell into it.”

Unhelpful for mentoring purposes.

As the evening progressed and lines became blurred, I ended up talking to a variety of interns, students and young professionals in a variety of roles, and the same kind of question kept coming up: “How can I become a _______?” How can I become a UX specialist? How can I become a digital strategist? How can I become a social-media expert?

After a while, I began to realise that most of the time the inquirers were not really asking, “How do I become a _______?” They were asking, “How do I get hired as a _______?” Which is a whole different question.

There is something about our society that breeds obedience, conformity and a constant confusion between labels and reality.

It’s built up through childhood, when parents and teachers set the rules, set the roles, tell you what to do and how to do it. By the time kids escape from high school, it’s a wonder that they’re capable of independent thought at all, but fortunately they’re told that they’re expected to go to university and pick a role to embody course to study. If they’re lucky at that point, they’ll accidentally meet someone, read something or ingest something that derails their sensible progress into the Pick-a-Path selection of templates for adulthood, but luck’s not a common thing.

Having reached adulthood, one embarks on one’s career, which is generally envisaged as a linear path of arithmetic advancement that culminates in retirement and death. And for a significant portion of that journey (sometimes all of it), people look to others to tell them what to do, how to do it, and what to expect.

Rare is the person who cannot mad-lib their way through: “I am a _______. I get paid to _________. Once I’ve done this for long enough, I’ll be allowed to be a _________.”

The marketing industry likes to give itself a big old pat on the arse congratulating itself on being creative and interesting and freethinking, but in actual fact it sits somewhere alongside the armed services as one of the worst offenders in this matter. It starts with the delineation of “suits” versus “creatives” and ends with a granular diversity of job titles like “traffic coordinator”, “email marketing specialist” and “search-engine marketer”.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with identifying the many different tasks that must be executed in the running of an agency of any size. Nor is there anything wrong with recognising that particular people fill particular roles in these complicated organisms. But if the majority of my conversations that night are anything to go by, there’s an unspoken lesson being taught in ostensibly creative agencies that you are your job title – and if you want to be someone else, you need a new job title first.

That’s arse-backwards. (Wait. That term makes no sense. I’ll try again.)

That’s… That’s around the wrong way. That’s… arse… forwards.

If you want to be paid to do something, you’ll have to get some experience in it. Just because your current job title doesn’t describe what you want to do, that doesn’t mean anything is stopping you from doing it. Just start doing it! Do it in your spare time. Do it instead of checking Facebook at work. Do it after hours. Do it when no one’s looking at work. Do it for someone who needs it, for free.

Hey, vaguely discontent project-manager girl who wants to be a designer:

Hey, freelancing graphic designer who wants to specialise in UX:

Hey, account manager who wants to get into account planning:

Don’t wait to be given permission to get experience doing the work you want to do.


If you want to be a doctor, please disregard the preceding.

Smartphone app records and graphs sexual performance

Like a fair number of people, I installed that “wake me when I’m basically awake anyway” app when I got my iPhone. I suspect that most of its efficacy is psychosomatic – believing that the app wakes you up at just the right time gears your mind for wakefulness when the alarm goes off. For me, I ended up being more interested in the graphs it produced: how I slept after drinking, how I slept after a valerian tea, how I slept after exercise, etc.

Smartphones being able to register movement, angles, etc., creates all kinds of possibilities. (One of my favourites is the Star Walk app, providing an augmented-reality view of the stars, labeling constellations, etc.) But I’m especially impressed by this clever safe-sex campaign in Stockholm…

Facebook “People talking about your brand” update

A few days ago I posted on the new “People talking about this” content on the new Facebook brand Pages. The verdict is in, and I’ll summarise briefly.

  • The content appears when a user is viewing your brand page AND a friend of that user has posted content that mentions your brand by name.
  • An extremely complex search algorithm is at work to determine this relevance – theoretically complex enough to distinguish between a mention of Red Bull and a mention of a red bull.
  • This search algorithm is not in real-time, and trawls through a long history of content – one colleague of mine saw a friend’s post about a brand from August last year.
  • The feature cannot be turned off or moderated – though it is appearing on your brand page, it is not considered content under your curation (regardless of how it may appear to the user).
  • The visibility of the content is limited to the audience/privacy conditions for which it was originally intended, making it almost all invisible to page admins, with therefore no opportunity to respond.

Facebook’s justification is that your Page is a public space – you don’t own it, you’re curating it – and their motivation for this is producing the most relevant possible content to Facebook users. Fair enough. The problem is that because of the placement of that content on your brand Page, it appears to the casual observer that it is in fact part of your community content. And if it is a complaint, it will appear as a complaint that has been left without response, possibly for months. And even if the user is aware that it’s not Page content, there is still the potential for a psychological association of that negative feedback with your brand.

Facebook does not appear to have given a lot of thought to the feature’s practical effects on a brand Page experience. This is perhaps understandable, with so many changes rolling out and the emphasis on sponsored stories, new mobile Facebook newsfeed offerings, etc. But I think it’s going to become a matter of some concern for a lot of brands.

I don’t think that Facebook should necessarily nix the content entirely, but I do think it would be helpful for everyone involved for that content to be more clearly distinguished from the rest of a Page’s timeline. Perhaps a slightly different colour or shade of boxing around the content to imply some distance between it and the surrounding Page’s likes, posts by others on the Page and Page posts themselves.

New Facebook timeline “Posts about a Page” a double-edged sword

Note: I have posted an update on this issue.

As brands begin switching their Facebook pages over to the new timeline configuration, you might start noticing something a little weird. Checking out the Coca-Cola Facebook page, I see a post by a friend from late last year saying something like, “So far today I’ve had two coffees, two Red Bulls and a Coke.” She didn’t tag Coca-Cola in her post and she’s not a fan of Coca-Cola on Facebook. Facebook’s just pulled the content in there under the assumption that it’s relevant to Coca-Cola.

Moderating posts by others is optional, but the box I’m seeing these brand mentions in is a separate one from the “Recent Posts by Others” box, which displays fan activity on the timeline itself. In Facebook’s algorithmic quest to provide relevant content, it’s displaying references to brands by friends who have made only passing mention of them. Well, okay.

Here’s what Facebook says about this kind of content:

Posts about a Page respect the privacy settings of the people who create them. Page admins won’t see posts about their Page that people haven’t shared publicly even though people visiting the Page might see them if they’re part of the audience the post was shared with. Pages themselves are public spaces, and posts added to a Page’s timeline will be visible publicly and are eligible to appear in the Recent Posts by Others box.

Cut to me checking out a New Zealand brand’s new timeline page. What do I see? A friend talking about that brand. They’re not a fan on Facebook, they didn’t tag the brand or anything. They just mentioned it by name, so Facebook throws it up there as relevant content to me. She’s a friend who mentioned the brand whose timeline I’m viewing. Sure, it’s relevant.

Problem for that brand is, that relevant post was a massive complaint about them. The complaint doesn’t tag them, isn’t posted on their wall, and was made two weeks ago. It has seven comments, with other people complaining about that same brand.

And for that brand, there’s no way for them to…

a) know they’ve been publicly complained about (and therefore they are unable to respond) or…

b) to know that this is top content for any friend of hers viewing their brand timeline. And she’s got 490 friends, apparently.

Mainly, this is just another demonstration of how something that was always a concern for brands – negative word-of-mouth – is amplified by online social media. You can’t know if someone’s complaining about you at the water cooler on a lunch break, and so you can’t respond. But now it’s not just three people in the lunch room hearing a customer gripe; it’s 490 friends, and the friends of any friends who commented on or liked their complaint. And the transcript of that complaining is being stapled to the front door of your shop, magically invisible to your eyes, but visible to all of those friends.

Sometimes I have to introduce magic to really push an analogy all the way.

So what’s a brand to do?

Unless Facebook’s moderation extends to these passing mentions appearing as notifications in the new admin panel to go along with their helpful relevant-posts search algorithm, brands are not going to be able to respond to all of this negativity, even though it’s being posted up on their own timelines. And, as Facebook says in their FAQ, they respect the privacy of people talking about brands and don’t feel the need to let page admins know about it. They don’t mind that content appearing on a brand’s timeline, because they consider brand pages to be public spaces.

All you can do is be even more proactive in responding to the concerns and complaints of which you are aware, so that the same mechanisms that are spreading around the complaints are also spreading around a clear demonstration to those who see it: you’re a helpful brand, you’re concerned about complaints. And hopefully, next time someone sees a complaint about you, they might throw a slightly different comment into the mix and say, “Hey, you should get in touch with them – I’ve seen them respond really quickly to complaints like this before.”

Because it’s unlikely that Facebook are going to make this kind of search-referencing optional for brands. The first thing brands will do is turn it off, saying they don’t want uncontrollable invisible-to-them mentions of their brand on their own Facebook presence. And so Facebook would lose something they’re really into at the moment: story content being as relevant as possible to Facebook users.

Content Strategy as Storytelling

Last year I was invited by the lovely Gareth de Walters to speak at Auckland Content Strategy Meetup Group, or “Acksumgah”.

After throwing out my first thought – using Tarot cards to inspire digital content – I opted for a more accessible topic: storytelling. And since Cate has kindly sent traffic here from her site, I figured I should provide some kind of value by writing up the essence of that talk. Which was fairly well received, I think.

We live in stories

We love stories. Storytelling is as old as verbal communication, written into our cultural DNA. We grow up with stories, learning our earliest lessons from Aesop and Andersen and Disney. Buddha and Jesus both chose stories as effective means of communicating their ideas. Two of the biggest industries in the world – film/TV and gaming – are based on telling stories. If you’re feeling generous, the other big industry involves telling stories, though the stories in porn are pretty one-dimensional.

Good stories are engaging and get passed on.

Good content is engaging and gets passed on.

And that’s the kind of content you want. So how do we bring the two together?

The anatomy of a good story

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. (You can’t stop me. That works better in a presentation than in a blog post.) Here’s a story you’re bound to be familiar with. It’s the plot of a popular film.

Our orphaned hero is stuck living with his aunt and uncle. Fortunately, he learns that he’s someone special, with talents he didn’t realise before. He’s given an item that lets him use these talents and is taught to use it. He comes under the guidance of a wise old man. The wise old man is killed by the same bad guy who killed his parents.

And then he defeats the bad guy.

So, what’s the story? Harry Potter? No, you’re wrong, it’s Star Wars.

Again, that works better in a live presentation where I can reveal things suddenly.

So while the content of those two stories are different, they both follow a very similar form. Good stories, engaging stories, have some common elements and some common structures. And those common structures and elements can help us create good content.

Digital users are not passive

It’s easy to see your user as a passive reader or viewer. Until digital came along, most marketing was about broadcasting messages effectively to passive viewers – TV viewers, radio listeners, newspaper readers. The same went for most story-based entertainment: books, TV shows, movies.

All broadcasting at passive viewers and readers.

But times have changed. Digital is interactive. You have the power to give users the opportunity to involve themselves directly in your content. And this fundamentally alters the way you should approach storytelling.

See, in the past, with broadcast-media stories, you were telling them the tale of a hero and hoping they’d root for that hero, perhaps identify with the protagonist.

With digital, you can make the user themselves play the part of the hero, make them the protagonist of your story.

Making the user the hero

How does your user’s experience start? One of the TLAs I had to learn…

TLA stands for “three-letter acronym”. Just a little acronym humour for you there.

One of the many TLAs I had to learn when I stumbled into the marketing industry by accident was CTA – call to action. “What’s the CTA? It’s this here button.” “What’s the CTA? It’s this incentivised call to like the Facebook page.” And so on.

But if you’re approaching your content as a story and you’re treating your user as the hero, it’s not a call to action.

It’s a call to adventure.

And how do calls to adventure work in stories? Just think about it. The hero isn’t told about everything he’s going to experience in the story. Bilbo wouldn’t have left Bag End if he’d known everything that was going to happen to him, that he was going to end up doing. In fact, heroes in most classic stories are pretty reluctant to get involved in their stories. And so are plenty of users.

So you tantalise, tease, and offer them the chance of something happening to them, of them experiencing something, rather than just viewing your content.

Escalate challenges

The obstacles a hero faces in a story escalate gradually. Harry Potter faces Draco Malfoy long before he faces Voldemort. (Don’t get pedantic on me there.) Luke Skywalker had to deal with Sand People long before he took on the Death Star.

So the challenges your user/hero faces in your story/content have to do two things. Firstly, they have to escalate from low hurdles to high. And secondly, they have to give an escalating sense of achievement and satisfaction as your hero progresses through your content.

Personalise the experience

It’s digital. Let the user tell you about themselves and most of them will. Then use that information to personalise their story as much as possible, letting them immerse themselves in the experience. Use their name. Let them design an avatar. Use Facebook info. Ask them questions about themselves (their favourite kind) and adjust your content accordingly. There will always be limits, but even being addressed by name can help.

And consider the old Pick-a-Path books. Every page used the second person. “You see this, you do that.” You don’t have to be quite that on the nose about it, but keep your eyes out for personalisation opportunities throughout your content.

Surprise and delight

Everyone loves a good plot twist, like when Keyser Söze turned out to be dead all along, or when Tyler Durden turned out to be a man all along. Surprise your user by leading them to expect something, perhaps even to feel clever about expecting it, and then providing them with something entirely different. Just make sure the different thing is actually better somehow than what they expected, or you’ll run into trouble.

Give your user a happy ending

When I put the presentation together, I learned that it’s difficult to find images for “happy ending” that are appropriate for that context.

On an unrelated note, your user should leave your content…

  • …having felt a sense of release or accomplishment.
  • …satisfied.
  • …not frustrated by your content ending prematurely.

But perhaps most importantly, your story must have an ending. Not just end, but have an ending. It’s really easy to put a lot of thought into the bulk of your content – your clever interactive experience, your little web game, your cool game-entry mechanic – and entirely forget to think about the ending.

Take a step back. Ask yourself some questions. How does the experience end? How does your user know it’s ended? What do you expect them to do next? How will they feel about the experience now that it’s over?

Over and over, I see great ideas in digital screwed up by a lack of a clear ending to the experience (“Is it over? I’m not sure…”) or an anti-climactic ending (“Oh, is that it?”)

Last impressions last. And it’s in the first 20 seconds or so after experiencing your content that your user’s going to decide whether or not to share it with others. So put thought into that last part of the experience. Don’t just hit them with a popup inviting them to share with friends, unless you’re really sure that your content’s so damned cool that everyone’s going to want to tell everyone. Make invitations to share a part of the story. Make incentives to share part of the story.

Remember that if users share your content with friends, that sharing will be their friends’ first contact with your content. What does that mean? Make your sharing mechanics a call to adventure. Of course.

Ask yourself…

While you’re coming up with your content, while you’re developing it and when you think you’ve finished with it, ask yourself these questions:

  • How do they first learn about your content? Is it a call to adventure?
  • What makes the adventure tantalising? Why would they take that first step?
  • Are the hurdles low enough at the start? Is the sense of achievement high enough at the end?
  • Have you missed any opportunities to further personalise the experience?
  • How do they know the story has ended? How do they feel now it’s ended?
  • How do they share your content? Why would they share your content?
  • Does your sharing mechanic constitute a new call to adventure?

Roll credits

Obviously this isn’t a colour-by-numbers content generator. It’s just an approach that I’ve found useful when it comes to digital content strategy. Don’t limit yourself by trying to fit your content into a particular story structure if it doesn’t work. Don’t throw in a plot twist in an attempt to check off all the story elements you can think of.

But people do love stories. So use stories to inspire your approach to content.

If that helps.