How I fell into marketing as a career

I can’t tell whether it’s the season for introspection or simply that time of life for me.

But I’ve been preoccupied, thinking about my career as a marketer and free associating anecdotes about projects and product launches, surprising successes and some very painful duds.

Musing about the why of what I do and where it all started for me.

I’ve been thinking about how I grew up in a pre-web world, an English and philosophy major who ended up being the brand and community builder for such a broad array of tech companies.

How my natural comfort zone is at the intersection of technology and consumer behavior with new platforms for delivery and commerce but I was already a very young adult when I played my first video game on a trs-80.

I’ve wanted a big aha, like the successful salesperson who can point to themselves always hustling as a kid, or the CFO thanking their biz school professor.

It’s not that simple for me.

For years now when asked about how I came to define marketing as I practice it, I’ve used the story about my first job in tech, walking into the server room at Atari Corp, to manage their massive BBS enthusiast community.

How community as the core of how people act commercially just clicked for me.

It’s a true story but like most things of import, the backstory turns out to be a lot more nuanced and less poetic.

Very early on, I was a writer and freelance radio commentor for hire.

One of these gigs was ghostwriting early childhood education textbooks and grants for a prominent behavioral psychologist at U of W in Seattle.

I ended up managing a grant for the professor, whose funded mission was to aggregate groups of parents who were writing very early educational software programs for their special needs kids.

I created support groups for them, wrote documentation then published the software through Library of Congress.

I was a community manager of sorts, traveling around engaging with small groups of passionate parents, sharing early publishing tools, creating community platforms.

I fed organic growth for the project by marketing the very software products that I published back to their own local communities. Creating local heroes of the developers (the parents) and an interest group in schools to support the kids.

Most everything I do today was there in a very embryonic and analog state.

I was using community as both supply and demand.  Letting the innate dynamics and formlessness of these small groups gel into its own variant of a self sustaining market.

I was tapping into collective human behavior as the true essence of community.

And that marketing both internally and externally was the organizing and communications bridge between individual ideas and market connection.

This was a long time ago.

As I dug through old resumes tracking this down, I also realized that in most every brand and product I’ve built since, some nascent bit of tech was leveraged to coax out and platform developing behavior, community formation and market change.

For this instance, it was software tools but I can easily list out every data type from then to projects I’m considering right now.

It’s my definition of what ties the tech world together.

Constantly changing waves of tech but a dynamics of adoption that carries through them all.

That’s marketing as I practice it.

Professor Haring, all academic and convivial as I remember him, gave me a chance, and I fell into something about myself that still drives me today.

Not with a big bang.

Not with the buzz of first love or instantaneous attraction, but with some uncanny muscle memory when you find what you are good at.

When that tool or musical instrument or the organizing principle feels just perfect in your hand. When you stand up in front of a group and feel perfectly at ease and exactly where you should be.

To the professor a lifetime ago.

To every board I’ve ever worked with.

Every CEO and VC, every entrepreneur that’s put their faith in me to lead them to make it happen anew, in a unique way.

To the people and teams I am planning on working with in the new year.

All I can say is Thank You!

It’s going to be a great new year.

Commercializing the common good

I woke up thinking about myself as a consumer and how out of whack to my beliefs my spending has been this holiday season.

How while I am passionate about a great many things from animal rights to transparency of what is on our food labels, none of this is reflected in my holiday gift giving.

How the platforms for expression and certainly the capabilities of commerce have evolved dramatically but not it appears around charities, or better said, collective fundraises for common causes.

Our very culture has changed.

Never has it been easier to share our views. Feel connected to communities. Have instantaneous access to that which delights us personally and that which collectively terrifies and angers us as a society.

And never have the building blocks of commerce been so malleable. So easily integrated, so transparent and such a no brainer to us.

Add to that the ability to wire in data to our decision-making process and we have somewhat of a perfect storm of both opportunity and capability.

So I’m wondering while on platforms like Facebook where I’m fairly outspoken about many of the things that matter to me, I find myself discovering new brands in my feed and buying everything from comfy stripped socks to boxer shorts to widgets.

Yet while I view an infinite number of animal rescue videos so far this season I don’t think I’ve made a donation.

Why when I hail a car, it’s a push on my phone but to respond to the homeless as the weather chills I need to find an ATM and drop dollars in a cup or in the guitar case of a performer in the subway?

Why there is a such a gap between the technology and commercialization of commerce and the harnessing the same to collectively change things than matter on a softer social front?

Why we as a culture have flocked to support projects on Kickstarter yet not so to channel this into causes or even societal needs?

This post is rant wrapped in a dose of holiday sentiment yet I think real.

In the last few months, contacts within my networks have battled health issues. Have gathered in sentiment to support a popular wine writer battling cancer with collective hugs and genuine feelings.

Just yesterday in a NY Times editorial it became clear that Monsanto was going to win another victory in the gmo transparency fight.

I’ve gestured support for these from the heart but honestly done very little.

I’m wondering why.

Wondering about the relationship between want and action, between commerce and the things we as consumers should be able to easily support.

And whether this commercialization of the common good is not in many ways an untapped frontier for both innovation and for change.

Whether the gap is not technology nor the intent of the consumer, but the expertise of the organizations on how to do this.

Whether they really understand the very people that would love to support them.

Those of us that are marketers have long understood that in a world wired by social nets and where communities are the markets themselves, how we approach people has changed.

The key to community commerce is about the empowerment of the individual within a broader structure of the community. It is about a collective power manifested in the importance and control of each person.

Underwear and car manufacturers, Hollywood and the wellness market get this for certain. Apple of course as well.

The first thing we learn in business is to feel good about what we are charging for. Create value, position it as want not need, and to make people feel positive about themselves making the decision to buy it.

But when donations are asked for it always feels sheepish, always a bit uncomfortable, always a big ask—when indeed it should be a natural response.
To make a difference even when they do only what they can.

I’m fairly certain that on publishing this I will get emails from buddies that say all of this is already done.

Not so.

It is not the responsibility of consumers to search for anything. It is the job of businesses whether they sell widgets or fund raise for cancer research to get the opportunity in front of the right people in the right way and make it not only easy, but also empowering.

This opportunity is I think substantial.

The reality that companies selling stuff we wear understand this more than communities we belong to is a bit crazy.

That we use Uber to get around yet in New York fundraising can still be someone ringing a bell outside the Salvation Army on 47th street is truly a paradigm of contradictions.

This is something well worth changing that could make a really big difference.

 

Sixth anniversary of my blog

There are things in life that start with a simple idea—often just an impulse—and then take on a life of their own.

My blogs are that to me.

I started them in the Fall 2009 while renting a small villa in Castelnuova Berardenga outside of Sienna.

Part transition into a new line of work. Part self discovery. Part a core belief that the best marketing channel for me was something that aggregated cross my passions and experience.

I hung a marketing and web blog next to a wine one off the same URL and just let it happen.

Led by the belief that the community would discover a unique value in experiencing the aggregate of the two core passions in my life.

On one side continually reinventing marketing as the web evolved the very behavior of the marketplace itself.

And for wine, chronicling how the web itself was enabling an artisanal market for a more natural approach that paralleled the rising of a global ethos of taste.

That these two would morph into a single brand and form a hybrid community of interests.

It worked.

But blogging was hard for me to find a comfortable pace.

I was subject to my own demons, like most of us.

Self consciousness of course that we all get over.  But my obsessive drive for perfection was my nemesis.

I wrote scores of long, well researched and nuanced posts. Gained a fair bit of traction, gathered a strong community but they took way too long to write. Momentum eluded me.

Lapses of weeks happened.

I started a Tumblr blog and built a community on the short form because it was quick.  I aggregated a large Facebook following across various communities because it was easy. But I simply couldn’t find a pace for this blog that felt right.

Yet little made me happier than publishing here. Few things let me focus like working on this blog.

The big aha for me a while back was that writing is not the same as blogging.

Writing is a craft and something I work at and aspire towards excellence.

Blogging is a state of mind. A poise to capture your thoughts within a frame of time.

The discipline to blog a number of times weekly, before first light, with samthecat on my lap, riffing on my thoughts is what blogging has become to me.

Three core realizations came together to make this happen.

First–the downside of a connected world is the debilitating distraction of the social nets.

Beyond the symptoms of wasted time, the nets create a culture of being a follower, not a creator.  Even the content creators on these nets are more than anything else, writing to gain immediate reactions. Following in a closed loop of gestured responses.

Blogging in the long form is the antithesis of this.

It’s your own thoughts. Your own form.

It’s the mental training ground for making each day your own. Letting what wakes you up stylize how you approach what you do.

It’s a powerful way to cycle thoughts and discover your  own point of view as it develops.

Second–blogging is not about writing.

It is about communicating a thought in an episodic format.

Discovering and delineating that thought so you can share it with your community. Getting input through comments that leads you somewhere else.  Each post is a mini chapter not a book. An episode of sorts.

This liberated me and removed the distance between my thoughts and the words themselves. It lets me just jump in without hesitation.

And Third–perfection is largely aspirational and mostly counterproductive.

Perfection in expression does happen but it is not a framework for blogging I can demand of myself each and every time.

When it happens it is a wonder certainly. But often the imperfect posts, probing for an idea or more often with a bit of self confession in them are equally as important.

Learning to accept this, accept that less than perfect is more than acceptable was a bit of a revelation to me.

Feeling free to fire up my ancient La Pavoni expresso machine while the city sleeps. Blogging and publishing being both personally empowering and a necessary exercise in overcoming anxiety.

I care if my posts get read or drive comments certainly. I am a community builder by nature and love when engagement happens. But the act of expression needs to stand alone first.

I’m blogging consistently now and loving it. Comfortable with my web and marketing blog, still finding a new pace for my wine one.

Considering renaming, rebranding each of them. Nervous about this actually.

Considering letting buddies who are experts publish short posts that lead others to their writing. I like this a lot.

I’m harking back to my days as an English and philosophy major and channeling Marshall McLuhan in this instance.

Realizing that the more I embrace the medium of the long-form blog, the more it empowers me to make it my own. That the process in itself is valuable.

The more I let go and find the expression for the thought, the easier and more fluid the process becomes.

Writing this post has been a perfect start to this day.

Now I get to to push PUBLISH and move on.

Both anxious and excited and with a sense of time well spent.

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Writing this post at 4am this morning with Samthecat.

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Can you platform community?

Suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine that community has indeed become the global marketplace.

That your early enthusiast supporters, your networks from university, your church groups, your bicycle buddies that you ride with on Saturday mornings are all atomic connections weaving in and out of interest groups and communities.

That as you make your way through life you are already touching the markets you want to aggregate at zero degrees of separation. That connecting people for selling products, populating events, raising money to support a cause are all within your grasp.

If you wanted to aggregate these communities today, where would you start?

We know the work we need to do to discover the right dynamics that bind people together.

How we work to position ourselves. How we empower people so that they feel ownership of what we do as their own. How to communicate in a language that leaves room for personalization.

We can figure out how to broaden what we do to extend our appeal and use community as a market tool.

As an example, I looked at Little Bits site yesterday and wondered why I liked it so much yet felt no impetus to buy it for the kids in my family. Why they were positioning it as an educational toy rather than a way to spark a new generation, part of a larger community of makers beyond the home and school room? It’s a choice.

The thing that I can’t get my head around though is why there are no platforms to build community on.

When I asked this questions of my Twitter and Facebook networks I got a very healthy response but almost no examples. Nothing beyond the memory of  what happened to Ning.

Here’s the thing.

Community happens regardless.

In today’s world it happens around things, not really on them. Communities as my buddy Kevin Marshall pointed out are  developing around Slack. Connections breed socialization and socialization surfaces common ground cross people and groups.

They form in and around Facebook in massive numbers. Populations have grouped themselves, formed in network and in real life even though the tools and infrastructure within Facebook itself are wildly primitive and prohibitive to community use.

A few years  ago I wrote a popular post around the idea that You can’t airlift communities.  Communities form naturally around moments of engagement wherever it may be. This happens frequently on Facebook when bloggers post a link, the conversations forms there and they are hapless to move it to their blogs.

I’m torn a bit here and wondering whether this idea of a community platform is a next huge opportunity or by structure, not possible at all.

I believe completely that community is an atomic connection not a series of  vertical niches.

See my post on Community as the marketplace where I discussed how platforms like Kickstarter are not communities themselves but the end point of many which gather around an idea or a passion with a connected transaction. They are the  marketing and transactional platform, the community is cross the web itself.

If this is true, can you platform it?

Is the very nature of it being atomic make this counterintuitive? Is the fact that we don’t belong to one but many communities make the idea of one that is atomic impossible by nature?

Or can you rethink simple tools and templates?

Can you dust off what Shopify has done for transactions and build an infrastructure that let’s us have some templates for common activities that occur within all community structures.

People want to do certain things so why not create tools to make it easier? And smart structures to let these be less hard wired, more flexible yet with a common purpose.

Can there be a community api even?

This idea woke me up.

It’s huge one and tied to how we could  be rethinking the very definition of marketing itself.

Imagining a world that capitalizes on the things Facebook doesn’t do well that our behaviors demand is easy to get excited about. Community may be one of those.

It’s one thing for us as individuals unhindered to search around and bump into micro communities that we can support. From animal rescues to communities of programmers we need to hire from or, in today’s world, to debate some of the serious whacky scares that are touching our lives.

But for our companies, be they startups or established orgs like your library, your church, your reading and fitness groups—this is a need that is to big to ignore.

I’m going to leave this open.

I know that today, community happens wherever it can. I know that as a behavioral structure it is indeed the core of our marketplace cross all the things we do, believe in and purchase.

But when I look at the role of marketing and the opportunities to give these tools to a larger slice of people and brands to manage their communities, this is just to important an idea not to think through.

Someone must be tackling this.

It’s a game changer if done right.

 

Thinking beyond supply and demand

The more complex and horizontal markets become, the more capturing a core consumer impulse seems a prerequisite to success.

I can’t get away from this thought.

And I can’t stop wondering whether our traditional way of viewing supply and demand as market determinants really matters any longer.

This hit home in a series of conversations with entrepreneurs after my Community as the marketplace post.

Really top notch entrepreneurs who drew passionate pictures of a world populated by communities that were using their marketplace as core to how they lived their lives.

Their decks made it easy to imagine that magical market moment when network effects took hold and it just all worked for them. Where the synergy between buyer and seller got better the more of them there were.

But here’s the rub.

There is no market we can’t justify by its size, and without much imagination visualize a strong demand.

Supply, especially in a consumer marketplace model, is in most every instance I can imagine over abundant.

Is there really a question of whether there are enough people who want home delivery of groceries?

Or have stuff in their basement that they don’t know how to sell easily? Or pine for companionship? Or want healthier food? Or vacations that are built around a common good?

Since Uber made the impossible crowd logistics possible, I can’t think of a single paradigm where aggregating supply is a barrier to entry.

On the flip side, the question of how big is the addressable market is simply less relevant as niches become less distinct, as markets themselves move horizontally cross demographic and groupings.

I am not saying the core economics of supply and demand have vanished certainly.

And I’m very much aware that on the vertical b2b side, there are markets for goods  like non-gmo wheat, or (so strangely) watermelons grown on their own root stocks not pumpkin stalks. Where scarcity on the supply side is real and key.

But on the consumer front, it seems marginalized.

Two asides that add some color to this.

My buddy Jeff Carter’s post on Due Diligence for investments is a list of all the right stuff—market size, frictionless supply chain, understanding competition, the quality of the founders. The usual suspects.

But in the end of the checklist, it’s simply his gut that tips the scale to say yes to investments.

In Semil Shaw’s exceptional post this week, where he carefully constructs an investment ecosystem for his new fund yet at the end acknowledges that in actuality he is looking for undiscovered sources of kinetic energy in segments and solutions.

Something that translates to what just feels right. Has the right ‘kinetic’ energy.

There’s a meme bubbling up here.

Experienced people cross their T’s and plot out their checklists certainly but we must acknowledge two things:

-That the market has dramatically changed and embrace that with abandon.

-That at the end of it all, what changes the world the most defies logic and is driven by simple and core consumer reflexes.

In my corner of the marketing world, I’m bumping into this for the third time in as many weeks in my posts.

First, that the corralling of complexity on the data side mirrors a drive for emotional clarity and connection on the other. Post here.

Second, that communities as an emotional construct are really the structure of our markets today, moving horizontally, not vertically, connecting to pieces of peoples core beliefs and emotions. Post here.

And today’s post echoing both ideas.

That our nets are not at all flat but they are certainly horizontal and that all the possibilities of supply and demand already exist. That understanding market size is a checklist step but nary more than that.

And that today, where by dint of human habit and the real estate restrictions of our phones front screen, it is getting so much more challenging to connect with consumer intent.

Damn near impossible to crack a handhold in the collective want of a large enough population of people and have it stick.

And that on the other, when you do, it can be massively explosive as it just touches a nerve horizontally cross the consumer world.

Maybe this is simply a shifting of gravity in a marketing sense.

A reinterpretation and refocusing of what engagement means. And burying the idea of guiding ourselves by approximated scales of sentiment.

Post a dinner party at my place recently I watched the guests milling about, finishing their drinks and waiting for their Uber rides to show up before heading down 25 floors to the street and winter cold.

Impulse reaction pure and simple

Need something, tap and move on. The very pin prick top of a massive network of logistics that is simply a twitch of a finger to hail your ride.

With that you have the world. Without that not a thing.

When I look at projects I think of this as my market lens. My behavioral litmus test.

Can Instacart become that core shopping reflex? Can any one of  hundred local delivery services replace the extension of Uber cross the front screen of our phones?

I think we are iterating towards a new definition of personal market dynamics and marketing itself which has lagged far behind.

We see it in out daily lives and the intersection with our mobile habits. Actions that are just reflexes connecting our thoughts to our phones as key to navigating and personalizing our world.

This also determines in many ways how long a play list of actions can really exist on the front screens of our phones and in our conscious thoughts. And limits what can influence us to go here rather than there, do this or something else.

The more choices, the more easy options, the more complex the solutions become to capitalize on a limited number of consumer reflexes.

Starting from that impulse back, not from measurements and approximation forward, is where I think marketing is going and what the market demands.

A blank slate of opportunity just waiting. Unplumbed for the most part.

Discovering and platforming these impulses is I think marketing’s next frontier.