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Having just written about The Dark Valley I came across this typically incisive article by Clay Shirky.
Shirky gets right to the heart of the institutional aversion to face an imminent reality:
When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”
The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.
While Shirky’s reply is caustic it contains a deep insight. The trends that disrupted the news industry - more digitisation, more connectivity, more mobility, more sociality – completely rewire not only the business model of news but also customer behaviour and expectations.
People are not going to revert to print for getting the news.
This new behaviour (digital consumption of news) and expectations (deliver it to my device, whenever I want it, wherever I am, and in a sharable format) are set.
Seeing into the future is often just about plotting the graph line of changes we have already seen taking place.
Computer displays thirty years ago were just green text on black screens… Gradually we have seen increasing information density in our visual displays – with images, video and animations living alongside plain text.
The idea that we will adopt the next stage in this journey – immersive, 3D environments – seems inevitable.
I worked with Jon Brouchoud in 2005/6 on several early projects in Second Life – a 3D platform where the residents were able to design their own communities. Second Life generated a huge amount of fanfare at the time but never lived up to the commercial hype.
During its demise everyone mistook the platform for the trend. They thought that since the platform was suffering, so we would see the end of the trend of 3d immersive environments. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
I was delighted to see this little vignette from Jon all these years later. Jon has always amazed me with his commitment to immersive environments and how they can be used to reimagine the future – or take us back into the past. Here Jon is using Oculus Rift to bring his uncle back on board the Navy ship he served on over 60 years ago. Go Jon!
It is an endless city, with nearly every language, culture and cuisine available. Free museums, hipster cafes, boutique shops and layers of imperial history easily overwhelm the best-of-plans to get to know this town.
When adapting to life in a new city you get accustomed to the basics – public transport, following signage, managing coinage and finding some comfort in routines like our morning coffee at Monmouth.
However despite being well adapted you don’t easily shed the tourist’s mentality; gazing, slack-jawed at some new vista, picking through the weekend’s shows and events on offer. On a daily basis there is some visual or sensory prompt that reminds me that I live in London… what a wonder.
It is this state of mind that mixes the familiar with the not-taken-for-granted that I call the Resident Tourist.
Natives are often the least likely to be explorers of their own environment. They reserve that spirit for their holidays. In nearly every aspect of life (work, relationships etc.) we are creatures of routine. While these routines can be lovely and are building blocks for our experience of life, they can also shut down our senses and allow us to ignore our environment or fail to consider new possibility.
I am trying to be a Resident Tourist in all areas of my life – including work, relationship, hobbies. The only question you need to ask as a Resident Tourist is this: “what if everything was new? How would I react to it, what would I choose to do/not do?”
Someone once defined a “robust” strategy to me as a model which will continue to perform without failure under a variety of changing conditions. (paraphrasing here). As we watch the recent upheaval within Google’s method for delivering search results I am advising businesses to consider a robust search strategy. Here is why:
Recently Google made substantive changes to the algorithm that determines search results. This is big news since roughly 86% of people begin their journey online through search. There are untold millions of dollars at stake in appearing (or not appearing) on the first page of results. There are hundreds of agencies dedicated to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) that have plied the waters with their trade… trying to peer into the black box that is Google’s algorithm and reverse engineer tactics to win visibility. Some of these are “white hat” (proper tagging , keywords etc.) and some are “black hat” (spoofing pages, link farming etc.).
Winning in search is coming to resemble a circular battle that looks like this:
Robots (i.e. algorithms) get smarter at trying to understand a human searcher’s intent and context
SEO experts respond with a torrent of operational tactics to try and game the robots
Robots shift the rules to bypass these tactics
It is an arms-race that most companies don’t have the will to win. The numberless businesses trying to win in search are in a vicious cycle – gaming the system only to be outflanked by the robots and need to start over. For a business there is both inefficiency (we are now being punished for our previous approach to search so we need to start over..) and serious reputation risk when it gets carried too far (as JC Penneydiscovered).
What is clear is that robots (i.e. algorithms) are getting smarter at figuring out the intent and context of a query. For example if you type in “nearest Starbucks” Google will apply knowledge of where you are when making this query and it’s knowledge that “Starbucks” is a reference to the business. Google will then present the answer – along with a map of directions (see this post for more specifics) What this means for businesses is that focus on keywords and inbound links (earlier tactics) are diminishing.
Luckily the robots are converging on a timeless truth; make it interesting, authentic, and worthy of attention and you will be rewarded.
So here is my advice (granted I am NOT an SEO expert).
Centralise your technical search operations. Hygiene is still a good thing but it is too complex an issue to be distributed across a broad set of actors. Focus all other attention on creating quality content that is authentic to your business (what you offer) and designed to travel across formats (site and social). Here is what that means in more detail:
Have a point of view. So often any opinion within an organisation passes through the corporate digestive tract only to emerge as… well… you get the metaphor. Content that makes a difference IS different. It stands out and reflects a company’s best self. It is opinionated.
Make sure your content bears a meaningful relation to your business model. In the age of self-actualising branding (see Dove et al) this might be a bit controversial but branded content that has no relationship to what you sell will likely not be deemed as relevant. Google now knows what business you are in and is likely not to reward your coat hangar business for its content on better male grooming.
Be timely, brief and omnipresent. Content has a shelf life. For example, rather than a single annual report in a PDF to communicate with investors (who, after all are constantly making investment choices) consider how you create a drumbeat of good content across formats on the core topics that your audience will care about. This is a new publishing rhythm that isn’t just about more content (though in most cases companies need that too).
Focus on depth not width. 4 themes that are explored in depth will likely beat out 20 themes that are published across a series of topics. Google will be looking for authority in a given area and this means more than farming inbound links to do it.
Be social. The more seamlessly your content allows sharing and exchange (whether that be through “share this” buttons, allowing direct commentary etc.) the more the robots will see social signals credentialing your content.
A robust search strategy is one where the content you produce and the social profile you cultivate represent the authentic ambition and point-of-view that your company has. As Google et al. continually refine their robots seek to deliver relevance to a human being you will do better by the robots by doing better by the human reader.
Recently I put to paper what I mean when I use the word strategy. In a sentence:
Strategy is the art of choice that involves defining a clear intention, conducting a sober assessment of means and context, sequencing actions in priority and developing a clear and communicable theory of victory.
The art of choice is all about factoring your intention against the means at your disposal and the operating context you are in.
The truth for every company is that at any given moment there are more problems than the business can possibly address. Any company by default has limited resources to apply to problem solving. It is like the child’s game of Fifteen Puzzle – a constrained set of options to move the pieces into alignment. Every choice counts and you can’t move every piece at once. While this may seem obvious in the abstract, it is incredibly difficult for organisations to prioritise their problems, build a sequence of action and stop existing projects that are wasting valuable resource.
Those with clear enough heads to focus on the Art of Choice are the ones who actually get meaningful work done, create forward movement and open the board up to more choices. We could learn a lot from children’s games.
In the fog of constant overuse we tend to lose any common definition of what is and what isn’t a legitimate “strategy”.
Here is what I mean when I use the term.
In a single sentence: Strategy is the art of choice that involves defining a clear intention, conducting a sober assessment of means and context, sequencing actions in priority and developing a clear and communicable theory of victory.
Each piece of this description could take a world of unpacking (simply helping an organisation clarify its objectives can be a daunting exercise). A slightly longer description:
Strategy is the art of choice that involves
The clarification of intent; what does the organisation seek to achieve?
The sober assessment of means; what do we have to work with?
The context in which the organisation is operating (customer insight, competitive landscape etc.). What do we know about the world around us?
The sequence of priorities and actions necessary to achieve the intended outcome. These include consideration of things we will not do, or stop doing.
A clear (i.e. measurable) theory of victory that is easy to communicate. This is why we will succeed and how we will know when we have done so.
I believe that any good strategy helps you make choices you don’t yet know you will face. It should be elastic enough to account for an unknown future.
My last post focused on responsiveness in communications as a source of competitive advantage. As the world glorifies the rise of real-time communications I wanted to make a short point on a less-considered aspect of real-time information gathering.
Real time = more time.
We often sell our clients on this idea of “real time” as though a communicator needs to make all decisions now in real time. This is a falsehood. In fact the faster a marketer knows something, the more time they have to consider a response… Knowing faster does not necessarily mean deciding faster. It often means having more time to make decisions…
With the rise of email and mobile telephony we have come to accept a state of permanent and immediate connection. Norms in business have implicitly shifted where response times to incoming email or telephone calls are not measured in days or hours but in minutes. Presence systems (indicators of your current status such as “busy”, “away” or “in a meeting”) within companies are visible to colleagues based on your shared online calendar system or the keystrokes on your computer (they can telegraph whether a colleague is busy or away for example). As a consequence of all this colleagues of mine now set away messages when they are in meetings that will last more than two hours.
Time is the only finite commodity we work with in business and we are asked to give more of it every day. As you get busier you have limited options to deal with the problem. You can:
Work more hours
Become more productive (do more in the same amount of time)
Delegate or remove requests that take time
Working more is the lazy person’s approach to the problem. Personally I have hit the maximum number of hours I can possibly work and still maintain a quality of life so I am left with strategies for productivity and removing work that takes time. The interrupt driven nature of modern communications – beeping email alerts, incoming texts, ringing phone – can quickly destroy your productivity. In an attempt to (1) reclaim my time and focus and if I am honest, (2) to rebel against the business norm of permanent visibility and immediate response I have changed a few of my behaviors.
I don’t set away messages in email unless I am on holiday. I don’t believe that I owe anyone an explanation for not replying within an hour or even two. Emergencies can be escalated to phone switchboards or text messages.
I don’t check voicemail. Period. Part of this is due to living in Europe where my options for visual voicemail and transcription services (google voice etc.) are a bit more limited. What has surprised me about people’s response is that many ignore my voicemail message which clearly says, “don’t leave a message… use text or email since I do not check voicemail” My voicemails pile up nevertheless… and I have no idea where they go. I have not checked VM for six months. The world continues, my projects are all roughly on track, there have been no deaths (unless I was notified via voicemail of course).
I have no idea if this approach is backward or forward leaning; if I am on or off-trend. I only know that it is a personal survival tactic.
Every so often one’s reading of history collides directly with the experience of the present moment. I am currently reading volume two of Simon Schama‘s A History of Britain. Today (election day 2012 in the U.S.) I came across an essay by Richard Addisson. It was penned during the late 1600′s, a time of exhaustion from years of factional bitterness in politics. The language in the essay is wonderfully antique but the spirit cuts across the years like a searchlight.
“There cannot a greater judgment befall a country than such a dreadful spirit of division as rends a government into two distinct people, and makes them greater strangers and more averse to one another, than if they were actually two different nations. The effects of such a division are pernicious to the last degree, not only with regard to those advantages which they give the common enemy, but to those private evils which they produce in the heart of almost every particular person. This influence is very fatal both to men’s morals and their understandings; it sinks the virtue of a nation, and not only so, but destroys even common sense.”
I do not pretend that our politics today is more toxic than at any time in the past. One need only read a small bit of history to know that we have seen far worse… But to me it feels like the polarization of our political discourse diminishes each of us as we retell the tropes that belong to our party line – whether that be Republican or Democratic. For what I take away from Addison’s 17th century essay is this: The character of the discourse we have in love or in disagreement, in politics, business or family, defines the character of our person. That is to say, it is our choice to use divisive language and framing to discuss the issues we care about but in so doing we limit our own capacity for sound judgment, common sense and compassion. Worth remembering on this election day as we witness the transition from campaign 2012 to campaign 2016.
Addison’s full essay is titled, “Mishchiefs of Party Spirit” and is available here.
I was amused by a recent job listing for Social Strategist at Wieden + Kennedy. The successful candidate will need to prove themselves in a harrowing public competition. Here is a sample of the challenges that will mark the “lucky” winner:
Challenge 1 – Create the best original Pinterest board dedicated to the sport of inline speed skating (NOT roller-hockey).
Challenge 2 – Create and post an original piece of content to Reddit that then receives the most upvotes in a single week.
Challenge 4 – Get the most people to friend your mother or your father (or a parent-like figure in your life) on Facebook in a single week.
Challenge 8 – Create the most reviewed recipe on allrecipes.com in a single week using cottage cheese as an ingredient. The reviews don’t have to be good.
Challenge 9 – Upload the most pictures of your armpit(s) to Instagram during the course of this challenge. The pictures must have your face in them to verify your identity and include the hashtag #mypits.
Reading through it one realizes that the veil between job assessment and fraternity hazing rituals are thin indeed.
On a more serious level it raises a long held concern I have about social profiling - that is, using people’s popularity on social networks as a proxy for job suitability. Recruiters in marketing and communications are increasingly putting a premium on your social footprint. What is your Klout Score? How many followers do you have on Twitter? Are you a blogger and, if so, for how long?
Many valuable skills such as inquiry, listening, systems-thinking and deep focus are also character traits – and they are not often associated with an overtly social personality. Yet these skills are highly valuable in business. Some of the best, brightest and deepest thinkers I know keep a low social profile.
Similarly we see the injunction that CEO’s should be on Twitter or keep a blog. While I fully recognize the value this can bring to an organization, having worked with many senior executives I can attest to the fact that for many of them it simply isn’t in their character. It also is not the first characteristic I look for in an effective leader.
All of that said, I will be watching the digital shame-fest that is this job hunt to see who rises to the top of the pile.
; how we structure the flow of information, whether through physical or virtual space, will define the character of the interactions that take place there. If we design public or virtual space for openness, participation and self-determination we get vibrant communities. If we push central planning too far and attempt to control all interactions, we get dead space. I extended the theme slightly during the close of my keynote last week in South Africa and the Integrated Marketing Conference.
Many of my notes never made the talks so I am reprinting them here.
Cities are never static. They learn. They grow and adapt based on the usage patterns of their inhabitants. Take my native San Francisco. Where does Chinatown end and the Italian section of North Beach begin? Where does the fraternity/sorority kingdom of The Marina end and give way to the posh neighborhood of Pacific Heights and so on? The answer is that these communities blend into one another. Their boundaries are necessarily permeable and unfixed because they represent the thousands of choices being made within these communities by individual actors.
Yet these choices share a common impulse: the desire for sociality, for security, a need for commerce and the exchange of ideas in the forum. The cost of admittance is participation – material or spiritual – and each member adds value to and in their part defines the whole. Like any city worthy of the name it is beautiful, seedy and corrupt all at once. It has no singular character and therefore defies neat description. We all live in this online megacity. Our content, links, likes and follows are all acts of participation that define its character.
The connected age is dynamic but immature. We are just beginning to see the outlines of its possibilities to transform culture, commerce, government and civic life. If we always design for openness and feedback, if we structure our organizations to learn from what our communities are actually doing and saying, we are fulfilling an important civic role. If we design our communications for durable relationship, if we put our values forward as a call to action then we are doing a service to the future. The most beautiful cities are the oldest, the ones that have had time to bear the mark of a million tiny optimizations at the hands of its inhabitants.
We cannot see the outer precincts of what we are building on the Internet. This is as it should be. “Progress” is the sum of human actions and as such it is beyond singular control or conception. What we can control are the actions we take online. The quality of our content, the sincerity of our conduct and the civic commitment we bring to what we do.
About Joshua-Michéle Ross
I am a digital strategist focused on how technology opens new possibilities for social transformation and innovation within business. I am a Partner and Director of Digital, EMEA for Fleishman Hillard. I blog here, on O’Reilly Radar, and am a contributor for Forbes.com.