Profit Is Not the Best Measure of Serving a Community

“Without community, none of us feel accountable to anyone else.”
-Colin Beavan

I found that to be a compelling line of dialogue from the movie No Impact Man.

This has me considering the current state of publishing and media. As I watch companies look for sustainable revenue streams that ensure their survival, I often wonder if decisions are made in order to be accountable to shareholders (profit) or the communities they serve.

Dan Blank
I do not mean this in any sweeping anti-corporate manner, nor that anyone at any publishing or media company is intending to do harm within their market or business. I consider it more in terms of how do we measure and value the effects of our actions. And how often does profit overshadow other benefits at a company, within a community, and within our culture. Is that how one becomes a part of the fabric of a community, because they drive more dollars through it than anyone else?

Every day, we read headlines about big negotiations over ebook pricing, partnerships and acquisitions, new product launches, and the like. And often, they are framed in business jargon.

“Community” has become a catch phrase in media and marketing. I discussed this the other day in a post titled You Don’t Sell To A Community. You Support A Community. It is always tempting to believe that revenue equals properly serving a community. That if dollars are flowing, if product is moving, that the community must be happy, and the company must be a linchpin in that market. But I think that’s a dangerous measure.

Cartoon Breakfast

That’s why we have 20 kinds of Pop-Tarts, 60 kinds of cartoon branded fruit snacks, and hundreds of sugary cereals available as breakfast food in a single aisle of my local supermarket. NONE of these products are adequate nutrition for a breakfast, and yet they are marketed and sold as if they are.

So, are the companies producing these sugary treats best serving their market? From a revenue standpoint, I suppose. But from a health standpoint, from a community standpoint of working parents trying to feed their kids nutritional items on a budget? Nope. They are failing by that measure.

Without a doubt, the kids won’t complain. They sugary treats are tasty AND they have Dora on them. What’s not to love? And shareholders at the food companies are happy because revenue is up.

Who complains? No one does until the cumulative effect of consuming this junk catches up with people in 30 years. But then it’s not a cartoon breakfast problem, it’s a health care issue. As if one has no relation to the other.

What does this have to do with media and publishing? Simply illustrating a point – because product moves, because revenue is up, it does not always equate the best way to serve a market and the communities within it.

Not All Cartoons Are Marketing Machines

Why did Bill Watterson never license his Calvin & Hobbes comic strip into products such as stuffed animals, bumper stickers and t-shirts? In the 80s and 90s it was a very popular strip, fans would have loved the merchandise, and Mr. Watterson would have made millions. Consider how much the Garfield creator must have made off of those suction cupped stuffed animals in everyone’s car windows back in the day, in the cartoon revenue, and in the 27 categories of merchandise for Garfield products on Amazon.com.

Why didn’t Bill Watterson follow this route? Because he knew it served the marketing machine, but not his fans. Because a market is not a community. That producing millions of products made in factories didn’t extend the Calvin brand, didn’t better serve his community, but merely lead to taking money from these fans, and filling our landfills with more plastic junk.

Sure, he would have profited, but he seemed to feel there is more to life than money. As Mr. Watterson states in a 1987 interview:

“With a lot of the marketing stuff, the incentive is just to cash in. It’s not understanding what makes the strip work. The motivation is the work itself and having a job I’ve aspired to since I was a kid. I wouldn’t be doing this if I were just in it for the money.”

Do publishers and media companies need products to sell? Absolutely.
Do they need to scale these sales across enormous markets? Absolutely.
Should revenue be the only way we measure how we serve our communities? No, they shouldn’t be.

Revenue is awesome. I have nothing against it, and am not an advocate of the “everything should be free” meme. I believe in paid content, in digital products, in the App economy. I believe publishers and media companies should diversify their product offerings and expand into being service providers as well. I think they would do well to expand the definitions of what their role is, the types of products they offer, and the markets they serve. And yes, publishers and media companies should strive to be VERY profitable.

But they should not confuse this with serving a community, and should consider what metrics do measure their effect within the communities they serve. These companies are a part of a complex ecosystem, one whose needs and health can’t be measured by profit alone.

Let me know if you think I can help you better serve your community.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

Context is the Future of Online Media

I’ve been noticing something recently: People seem to be MUCH more willing to Tweet about a blog post than to leave a comment on a blog post.

There are likely a variety of reasons for this, first and foremost is that the 140 character limit affords less pressure to say something deep – people can just share a link, and say something like “insightful post!” But in a blog comment, there are unlimited characters, and there is a pressure to say something meaningful.

Dan Blank
Below are several lessons for engaging people in online media and communities:

  • Elevate Their Role
    When someone reacts to a blog post, their commentary can be lost, and seen as secondary. It is a reaction to someone else’s lead. When people Tweet about a blog post instead of commenting on it, their role shifts dramatically. Suddenly, instead of reacting, they are choosing to take the lead. They are filtering, sharing, promoting, advocating, and choosing. Instead of being the guy in the crowd listening to someone else on their soapbox, they have jumped onto their own soapbox.

  • Give Them Influence
    When somebody Tweets, they are often hoping to influence their followers. They go from being an “effect” on a blog post, to being a “cause” in their network on Twitter. So many of us want to be a cause, not an effect. We want to drive our lives, and shape our communities.

  • Help Them Build Something
    People are so busy that sometimes they want to feel that their efforts are not just reacting reacting reacting. They want to feel as though they are CREATING. When you post a blog comment, you don’t really own it. You can’t edit or delete it. They don’t really aggregate themselves to build something larger. Sure, some commenting systems like Disqus try to do this, but it’s still not the same level as something like Twitter. When I consider my Twitter account, right away, I see what I have built: more than 5,600 Tweets, not to mention followers or lists. It’s nice to see that all those 140 character updates add up to something.

  • Allow Them To Share With Those Who Matter To Them
    People don’t care as much about a blogger’s audience, as much as they do about their own. Each individual now has their own “following.” This is a dramatic shift that social media has provided us. Even if someone only has 13 followers or 40 Facebook friends or 50 LinkedIn connections, it is their personal community. Sharing interesting commentary to those people is meaningful, and helps them grow those communities.

  • Don’t Interrupt Their Day
    Sharing thoughtful questions or insights is very time consuming. Not just to come up with “a” question,” but a truly insightful one that reflects well on you, addresses a core issue, and does so in just the right way. This is why so many of the smaller social networks failed. Too many try to build online communities assuming that it’s simple for people to ask a question, write a blog post or leave a comment. Really, it’s hard. It causes people to stop and consider, to expose themselves, to invite judgment. Most people avoid judgment like the plague.

Many of these are subtle psychological differences, but they speak to our deeper motivations. These types of things are the keys to helping to grow your community, and to serving those in your market. Let me know if you think I can help.

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

A Handmade Thing in a Machine World

There was a curious phrase in the movie The Art of the Steal:

“A handmade thing in a machine world.”

Dan Blank
The line was used to describe The Barnes Collection of art, as it was compared to the large institutional museums that we are all familiar with.

This had me considering many of the recent trends in online media. That, while businesses are obsessed with systems – with things that can be managed, processed, and scaled – the following ideas are rare and appreciated more than ever:

  • Authenticity.
  • Local.
  • Community.

This is why the web is empowering individuals. Because many people feel encumbered by the machine.

Why did people react so strongly in favor of the actions of the Jet Blue employee who just couldn’t take it any more? Because many people feel trapped by the systems they are a part of. They want desperately to flex their own muscle, to take initiative, to not have to follow someone else’s rules. What is interesting to me is not the actions that the Jet Blue employee took, but people’s reaction to it.

How are you connecting your brand to your customer in ways that don’t just throw a “product” at a “need.” People often look for deeper connections to a brand. How are you doing that?

This is why social media is revamping how people interact, and how brands reach their audience. Not because it is “marketing,” but because it can allow three things:

  • A more authentic connection to the real people within a brand to the real people in the market they serve. It connects them NOT via commerce, but by a shared interest.
  • It gives people pride and context in their location, allowing them to connect in new ways with people and places that they are surrounded by everyday. It gives them a face in a crowded faceless world.
  • It helps establish and strengthen a sense of community, be it regional or virtual.

A quote I read this morning:

“The world is craving distinction. People are looking for that something a little bit different, that can’t be replicated, and makes us feel special.”
— Emma Bearman

How are you helping others feel special? How are you empowering them to not just to buy a product or consume a piece of media, but to have a unique experience that gives them pride?

-Dan
973-981-8882 | Twitter: @DanBlank | dan@danblank.com

How To Write a Great Blog Post in Just 15 Days

I was reading this blog post by Social Media Examiner recently:

How to Write a Great Blog Post in Just 15 Minutes

Dan Blank
It’s actually a really good post, filled with useful tips on how to build good habits to come up with ideas, and create a blog writing workflow that removes barriers. Seriously, you should read it.

Now, I’ve seen posts like these before and tend to enjoy them; but I want to address another issue with creating great blog posts…

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t write a great blog post in 15 minutes. There have been rare occassions where I have written GOOD blog posts in 15 minutes, but usually it takes much longer, even just for a mediocre blog post.

A GREAT blog post? That is rare. GREATNESS is rare in general. So I want to talk about how to create a great blog post in 15 DAYS. Not minutes, not hours, but DAYS.

Because if you can create a GREAT blog post in 15 days, that is pretty special. I think that should be recognized more often. This isn’t fast food – this is GREATNESS.

So here are some steps to consider:

  • Observe The World
    I find that my best work comes from observing the world outside of the topic I write about. That is why so many of my posts use music as a metaphor, talk about history, or how personal experiences relate to the shifting role of publishing and media. Look to nature, look to other markets, listen to those who are wise, but outside of your industry.

  • Don’t Be Reactionary, Create Something Unique
    Get out of the echo chamber of your niche. Ever notice how a few “issues” seem to dominate headlines for awhile, and then are forgotten for new ones a few months later? Don’t focus on the short term, look at issues that affect your community in the long term. Look for topics that are critically important and under-reported.

  • Integrate Ideas
    Sharing a variety of ideas and perspectives can take a bit of commentary from good to great. String together your best ideas to take things to that next level. Consider how different issues relate to each other. The problems facing your community are often much more complex than people make them out to be. Treat the topic with the respect it deserves – don’t simplify.

  • Sketch Out Your Blog Post
    When I write, I may create an outline, and work across multiple drafts. Sometimes these are spread out on two computers, my iPad and my iPhone, as I sketch out ideas over time. I try to bring them together to sort them out, and give the post a purpose and structure that has the most value.

  • Do Your Research
    Oftentimes, other folks will have written about the topic you are covering. Don’t be afraid to find out what they shared, and integrate their work into yours. There is nothing wrong with building on the work of others, as long as you give credit.

  • Let Ideas Breathe
    Sometimes walking away from an idea is the best thing for it. Give a blog post room to breath. Write a solid draft, then take a few days away from it. I do this with a lot of things I create. It’s common for me to get a PowerPoint presentation 75% done, walk away from it for a day or two, come back and revamp the entire presentation. Yes, it’s more work, but the end product is better for it. The goal is not the PowerPoint, the goal is how it helps the audience I present it to.

  • Ask Others For Input
    Send out emails, pick up the phone. People are flattered when you ask them for advice, and would love to be seen as an authority in their field. Don’t be afraid to leak out your ideas to a select few in order to get their input. Challenge your ideas. This will only make them stronger.

  • Edit the Blog Post Across Multiple Writing Sessions
    I often spread out my efforts for a blog post across multiple writing sessions, coming back to it again and again to slowly make it better. This alleviates the immediate pressure to create something amazing in one sitting, and gives you time to process it between sessions. When you can approach a blog post with fresh eyes four separate times, it is likely to be better than if you only looked at it once.

  • Work On the Headline
    Headlines are really important to convey the value and benefit of a blog post. Spend time on them. Consider not just if it describes the topic you are writing about, but if it is compelling enough to encourage people to click. In all likelihood, this huge effort you put into the full blog post could be lost if your headline isn’t great. You may want to consider doing keyword research, and see what types of headlines have worked well for you in the past, or for other bloggers.

  • Build Up Interest Within a Subgroup of People in Your Community
    For many well established bloggers, their ideas and posts are spread so widely because they have established circles of colleagues and friends. These are people who seem to work together to share ideas, to comment on ideas, to spread ideas as far as they can. To give them wings. Build these relationships in your market. Depending on the topics you cover, you may have to focus on many different sub-niches. Content isn’t everything – relationships matter.

  • Cut Away As Much As You Can
    It’s easy to write long, and very hard to write something of value that is also concise. Don’t be afraid to chip away at your blog post, cutting it down to the very best bits. Don’t feel that because you spent days or weeks on it that it needs to be long. Some of the world’s best songs are incredibly short and simple. Blog posts can be the same way.

  • Have Someone Else Edit It
    Put another set of eyes on it, allowing them to check not just grammar and spelling, but the overall flow and purpose of the piece. It can be hard to create in isolation, involve others in the process.

  • Check Your Facts
    It is amazing how quickly information spreads on the web and via social media. Take a moment to check your facts. Don’t always reach for the ‘publish’ button before doing so. One incorrect fact can ruin your entire effort and tarnish your credibility for a long time. Don’t take the risk.

  • Consider How It Relates to Your Business or Personal Goals
    How does this blog post relate to the rest of your blog? How can you set yourself up for where this post will lead? Is it part of a larger topic you cover? If so, how can you link to them? Will you be covering this topic in other ways? When? How? Consider these things before you publish.

  • Plan How You Will Share It
    An inherent part of the content creation process is sharing. How will you deliver this blog post to the world? Are there particular people that you want to share it with, are there certain communities who will appreciate it most? Reach out to them, get them involved.

There you have it. If you are lucky – REALLY lucky – this 15 days of work will not just have resulted in a great blog post, but actually pushed ideas forward within you and those in your community.

And that is how these these types of things should be measured – how did this blog affect those you are trying to serve. How did it help? You can’t measure this by page views or ReTweets. And I DO NOT mean that it is measured by “influence,” a weird term that was being talked about in social media recently.

The goal is to help, not to fill content buckets with new Tweets and blog posts.

Let me know if I can help you in growing your blog: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or dan@danblank.com.

Thanks!

-Dan

The Anatomy of an Online Discussion

I witnessed something yesterday that showed a savvy use of media, connections and community – something that illustrates why nimble upstarts are gaining power on the web.

Dan Blank
On most days, I watch a live interview on Mixergy.com, where Andrew Warner profiles an entrepreneurs. Yesterday, the person Andrew was going to interview had cancelled at the last minute. Here is the timeline of what happened next:

  • With about 10 people in the chat room watching the interview, Andrew simply left the camera on and began chatting with us. He answered questions we came up with, he talked about how he was still trying to make today’s interview happen, and talked about topics he was following on Twitter.
  • One of the topic he brought up was a back-and-forth exchange on Twitter between Matt Mullenweg, a founding developer of WordPress, and Chris Pearson, founder of Thesis theme for WordPress. I’ll spare you the details, but there is a debate about whether Chris’s Thesis theme should conform to the General Public License that WordPress does. A full explanation can be found here.
  • Then, Andrew had a flash – an idea. What if he can get both of them to call in to this live show right now. Andrew had interviewed both of them before, and was hoping he could serve as moderator for a civilized discussion. Twitter didn’t seem like the best place for the discussion, and that’s how they were currently going back and forth.
  • Andrew sent out a Tweet to both Matt and Chris, and some of us also asked them to consider Andrew’s offer. Andrew also had Matt and Chris in his Skype address book, and noticed that at least one of them was online at the moment.
  • Within minutes, Chris responded that he was game. Matt soon responded saying he would prefer not to. Andrew gave Matt another offer – to have a private conversation that Andrew would moderate, and if all parties agreed afterwards, then Andrew could share it with the world. A few minutes later, Matt agreed to the live interview, and we were rolling.
  • Andrew usually does live video interviews where the audience can view him and the interviewee in two separate panels on the screen, and a chat room is below it. For this, Andrew quickly setup an audio chat – so you heard Matt and Chris, but the video was only of Andrew moderating.
  • The discussion lasted an hour, with Andrew ensuring each person had the space to respond, and tried to ask clarifying questions to bring the two together. About 80 people were in the chat room – triple the normal amount, and news of the live show spread through Twitter and Matt & Chris’ communities quickly.

Here are some lessons I can pull from the experience:

Turn Failure Into Success
Andrew’s daily session started off as a failure. The interview he was supposed to have had cancelled, after a ton of work Andrew did to set it up. He was on the video with an audience, and had nothing. Instead of focusing on defeat or ‘what ifs,’ Andrew kept himself open, and let his curiosity explore new avenues. That expression about luck is true – Andrew looks for luck, and finds it.

Look For Opportunity, And Act On It
Andrew identified a key topic at a key moment, and took action even though (I thought) it would be unlikely to pull it together so quickly. But he did, and the result was a compelling online discussion.

Build Your Network Before You Need It
Before the idea to call Matt & Chris came up, Andrew was just chatting with the live audience. One point he made was how surprised he was that more people don’t do what he does – interview people – because it gives you so many great connections and such a large network. Then, minutes later when he had the idea to call Matt and Chris, he knew he could reach them because he had already interviewed each of them. Andrew seemed confident that Matt & Chris would respond to him, and sure enough, they did. Both of them already knew Andrew, and already trusted him. Here they are in the middle of a heated debate, and they trusted Andrew to moderate in a live chat. That says so much about the power of what Andrew has built.

Know Your Tools
Andrew has been doing these live interviews for a long time, and in doing so, has built up his skills to setup calls like this. Even though his normal interviews were two video panels, Andrew quickly setup an audio chat with Andrew on video as monitor. Watching him do this – it took moments for him to conceive the best way to do this. But from experience, I know that many people might hit a wall at that moment, and not think it’s possible to proceed simply because of their familiarity (or lack thereof) with the tools.

You can listen to the discussion between Matt, Chris and Andrew here.

Let me know if I can help you build your community online: @DanBlank, 973-981-8882 or dan@danblank.com.

Thanks!

-Dan

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