The human factor

What’s the one unifying theme behind why we do most of what we do? Other people. The past year has been an interesting one, because I’ve spent a lot more time dealing with ordinary people who don’t deal with marketing as a regular part of their lives, rather than the previous five or so that I spent dealing with matters of marketing, web strategy and so forth to the schools, business or whoever else was paying for it.

The thing I’ve picked up more and more from people is how disconnected they are from everything that’s going on. They might use Facebook and a few are even tweeting. But many of them don’t understand what the purpose is. They might be searching for meaning in the midst of doing it, a few will adopt blogs and spew whatever sort of content that comes to mind. Yet, it all seems not to make any sense. 

My first impulse is to blame the legions of social media experts spreading their knowledge to the masses, for failing to reach the critical masses in any real way. More and more, it just seems like a lot of this stuff is just people preaching to the converted and leaving everyone else to sink or swim (or pay a hefty fee) to discover what’s really going on and how it applies to their everyday lives.

I have a friend who’s traveled the world and has taken amazing pictures. We have this conversation a lot about how her diverse interests would be great on some sort of public forum like Flickr where other people could see them, rather than just Facebook where her friends can only gawk and comment. I explain that by doing this, she has no idea who she’ll meet as a result and what sorts of opportunities it’ll yield and if nothing else, it would feel good to expose more people to work you’re happy to expose anyway.

Among other things, her reply was to recall a conversation with an older professional who confided that he knew he needed to do “all of this social media stuff” but didn’t understand why necessarily and “there’s no real evidence that any of it works.” I bristled until she repeated it, but chose not to cite case studies galore or even riff off a few books I knew off-hand that would change that perspective. 

Why? I realized the failure to communicate was within the medium that I operate in, not in other people’s inability to understand it’s usefulness. Web professionals seem to bask in the glory of the details and make money from being the smartest people in the room. The vestiges of the IT legacy where this all started haven’t fallen too far from the tree in that way. Some people do amazing work to convert the masses, but their advice doesn’t quite work. 

I teach a college class of people who in many cases are returning to school after fifteen or twenty years away. Many of them have been laid off from jobs they held for a decade and return to a marketplace they barely resemble because it’s so different than the one they started in. Telling these people to merely create a Twitter account, a blog or a LinkedIn account and wait to reap the benefits ignores the complexities of what their lives have evolved into over the years. It’s just not realistic and is tone deaf to what they’re dealing with.

So while exposure to social media is important — and it’s a major component of what I communicate — it’s not the entire story. Many people do great work and create great tools like Tumblr or WordPress and others. It’s easier today to break through than it was at other times, yet it’s more difficult at the same time. 

All of this stuff is about people. These conversations, these debates and all of the tactics and strategy we spend time cultivating is about finding ways to reach people. I think this gets lost in all of the data collecting, creation of personas and ways we seek to encapsulate populations into neat packets that we can digest better. It doesn’t always work that way.

Sometimes, you have to turn off the screen and reach out the real people. Not just the folks in the office across the hall or even people in your own family. But folks a world away from where you exist, whose lives may be dramatically different and who consider issues that not be on your radar. They’re using the same tools we are to get ahead in the same place inhabit, but their issues and concerns are often lost. 

It’s about time we fixed that.

Seth Godin to Higher Ed: Adapt or Die

Link: Seth Godin to Higher Ed: Adapt or Die

Why do colleges send millions (!) of undifferentiated pieces of junk mail to high school students now? We will waive the admission fee! We have a one page application! Apply! This is some of the most amateur and bland direct mail I’ve ever seen. Why do it?

Because everyone else does it? Because innovation and doing things differently is scary? If we don’t make our own solutions, someone will make them for us. Believe that.

Some things worth reading

Here are some blog posts or articles your might find interesting from other people:

User Experience Engagement Metrics (52 Weeks of UX)

When (and Where) Winning Is Every Really Everything (Eric Fletcher)

Northern Arizona University wants to be when students are in class. (Arizona Republic via @andrewcaraega)

Debt, Time and the Job Market for Humanities PhDs (Sociological Images)

My parents’ blog or four years sitting at the virtual kitchen (Dave’s Whiteboard) 

Rutgers awaits a “Big” branding decision (Joe Favorito)

Undrafted college football player decides not to pursuit the “undrafted free agent” route, heads to graduate school (Yahoo Sports)

The composition of a match point

Yesterday marked the last match of the JV tennis season here.

The match was comprised of two diametrically opposed lessons within the span of an hour. First, the match was rough because it was the first time we’d suffered a match loss in well over a month. The other team was very talented from top to bottom. 

One of my doubles teams faced off against a foe that had them down early 5-2. The first team to eight wins. During the changeover, I talked to them and the strategy portion comprised of one question, “what’s really the score?” While it was evident that it was 5-2, I witnessed what seemed to be a change in their posture after the last game. Their momentum shifted and it was clear my two players weren’t leaving the court without the victory. What’s more important is they realized they weren’t leaving the court without the win.

Saying you’re going to do something doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that the other team might have had something to say about this. Nonetheless, they went over to their side and when we talked again, it was 7-7 and headed to a tiebreaker. They left the court as winners and couldn’t stop talking about how they willed themselves, down by a lot, to pull through and win.

The thing about sports at the non-varsity level is that the games really only matter to the parents, the people playing and maybe the coach. That’s it. Those memories don’t make it in any print newspaper and the results are quickly forgotten in favor of more significant memories. But it’s those moments which can change everything. 

On the flip side, one of my best players found herself in a rare JV singles match against a young woman who was at her level. The two of them battled, but it wasn’t close at first. My player led 5-0 and then eventually 6-1. I was sure she had it firmly in hand, but it turned out those last two games were the hardest to get. She eventually lost in a tiebreaker.

The more significant of these examples in my mind, was the latter one. Having something in your clutches and then losing it, can sear an imprint in your mind that you don’t easily get rid of. It can shape your approach going forward and for the great ones, make you work harder in practice because you understand that every moment you spend preparing will make those types of experiences better.

So while it would have been nice to end the year with a win, it felt good to end with a loss in a strange way. In a competitive environment where there are no championships and no real closure, all you have is the desire and will to get better. To reflect on the experiences as they happened and determine what you’re going to do about them, which is a lesson that extends well beyond the tennis court.

Unveiling a brand new camel

My favorite brand identity blog Brand New tipped me off to the unveiling of Connecticut College’s upgrade of their athletic brand.

Out goes the camel of old

and in comes a new, fiercer angrier camel. 

You should read Brand New’s critique of this new mark, because it’s not often enough that small college athletic marks get the sort of critique (or frankly, design attention) that large ones do, despite the immense value these small colleges and universities could gain from their brands if they were more brand conscious.

That’s not just a critique from me, sports marketing guru Joe Favorito said so when I interviewed him for this blog a few weeks back. 

Since it’s Friday and in the spirit of camels — especially since this new one was released on April 5th, my birthday — here’s a picture of me at the Kuwait Camel Racing Club in early 2000 when I was in the Air Force…on a camel. 

They smell terrible, of course. But after our camel pictures and watching a race (where children, not grown men ride the camels) we had dates (you know, the fruit) and drank tea.

Unlike llamas though, you don’t have to worry about them spitting at you whenever they feel like it. I have llamas pictures from the good ol’ US of A, but…that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Speaking of new looks, if you just read the RSS feed or tumblr feed of edustir, you’ll want to check out the new look of the actual blog. I’m pretty happy with it. 

Happy weekend, folks.

Social web forces BCS to change

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS), the cartel that controls college football’s national championship (in lieu of the NCAA like other sports) has gradually worked to reach skeptical audiences who believe it’s methods are less than fair to all of the teams in college football’s highest division.

One of the ways the BCS tried to stem the tide was to create a Twitter account last year. This (somewhat noble) effort largely failed and the BCS has scrambled in other ways to stem the public opinion away from questioning the system that chooses college football’s national champion.

Thursday, the group announced it would publicly reveal the formula needed for conferences that are not “automatic qualifiers” to the most lucrative bowl games to receive automatic qualifier status.

“By putting out the data, we’re hoping we can uncomplicate it,” BCS executive director Bill Hancock said.

As recently as December, the conference commissioners agreed not to release the formula publicly but less than six months later have reversed course. What gives? Who knows precisely, but it’s a safe bet to believe that the vociferous masses railing against the system — many of them fans, the others sports journalists — using the web as their vehicle certainly couldn’t have helped the organization’s massive PR campaign. Perhaps the recent success of March Madness also helped fuel the decision, as the ESPN article cites:

BCS officials have been criticized by not giving details of how the formula is put together and what exactly needs to be done to qualify. Hancock said the BCS released the formula to try to become more transparent.

At the end of the day, whether this move is damage control or an attempt to make the process more transparent, you can credit the BCS officials for at least listening to the criticism that their process was opaque. To people who have less exposure to the new order of social interactions — from companies and their brands, institutions and their students — it might be difficult for a large organization to understand why it would have a need to pay attention to people who are ultimately going to keep paying for their product anyway.

Perhaps they’ve started to embrace the idea that you can’t control the message anymore, you have to cultivate it.

Who knows, maybe fans can influence the NCAA’s choice of what teams will play in the new play-in games added to the basketball tournament too?

Impossible, yes, so let’s get to work.

I watched the documentary Man On Wire, the 2009 Oscar winner about Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings in 1974. 

I took a lot away from the film, but the most notable thing to me was how much preparation went into planning it. It took six years from the time Petit got the original idea in his head to the time he actually attempted it. Included in that time were at least four visits to New York City. 

His team was comprised of an inner circle of friends from France who’d been working with him for years including his girlfriend at the time and his childhood friend; coupled with people they picked up in the US before they tried the feat. 

You get the idea by watching it that so many things would, could and did go wrong that any false move in one other direction could’ve caused the whole thing to go bust. Yet, not only did they figure it out, they managed to pull the whole thing off.

So much of the conversation these days — especially amongst the social web — is centered around pursuing your dreams and believing in yourself. That might be one component of it, but another component is staring down failure in the face and challenging it. Petit and his crew knew that the best case scenario in their escapade of a lifetime was being arrested.

Given the alternative was the loss of a friend and the failure of a feat that would never be attempted again, they were all complicit in something that ended up being much, much bigger than themselves. There is no way Petit could’ve performed this task had he not confronted failure, because it was a very real possibility. (One he admits a lot in the film, incidentally.)

“The merest attempt at estimating, the slightest unconscious recording is shrugged off as an absurd association with some never-to-be-realized dream…as an exercise in futility…

I manage to whisper my first thought: “I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it.”

At that instant, the towers become “my towers.”

Once on the street, a new thought: Impossible, yes, so let’s get to work.”

Taking your own shots

Lately, I’ve had this recurring image from middle school playing out. It goes something like this: My intramural team makes the championship game. Since it’s gym class, there are no subs, teams are broken down into five players each or and so, I have to actually start and couldn’t be relegated to the bench. Our entire gym period is watching the game, save for the ten of us on the court. 

I take my role somewhat seriously, despite being at the beginning of a fledgling tennis career. Fast forward to the game. The other players don’t take me all that seriously on the court, because they don’t have a reason to. Because of this, I end up with about five steals. (Maybe more, I don’t recall.)

Despite all of my tenacious defense, I only took one or two shots in the whole game. Why? Because I passed the ball at every opportunity. I kept thinking there was no way I should the ball in my hands unless it was to pass to someone else. I’d have open fast break opportunities on most of those steals, but I was so nervous to shoot and miss figuring my teammates would hate me that I’d pass the ball to the “more reliable players” instead. Except in this game, those mainstays always came up cold and missed all but one of the scoring opportunities I provided.

I don’t know where this vision came from, since I hadn’t thought about that random game probably since it happened. (I don’t even remember if it was 7th or 8th grade.) I mean, I kept thinking “I should’ve taken more shots.” Even if I missed like I did on the one three pointer I attempted, I just should’ve dribbled, exhibited more confidence and just taken more shots. We couldn’t have done any worse had I done that, since we lost the game anyway.

I never knew it’d be a life lesson, but it seems that’s exactly what it is. I’ve spent the last year doing what I did in the game in varying degrees. Even when I’ve realized it, I’ve failed to really understand what was happening.

This revelation is freeing, but it’s also terrifying, because part of me is really afraid that I don’t know how to shoot. Or that I’ll miss and the team will lose. What that lesson proved is that I’m certain to lose if I don’t do something about it and there’s no shame in going down shooting, even if you don’t always make it.