Analytics Should Tell Stories and Compel Action

I have become a fan of the power of analytics in order to help you identify what is and isn’t working in your platform, career, or organization. That analytics can be a critical tool in optimizing your efforts to achieve greater return on investment. Whether you are blogging, leveraging social media, trying to increase sales, or create greater efficiency across your organization, analytics are meant to empower you to make smart decisions.

This is a core part of what I offer publishers and media companies I work with, and today I wanted to talk about how I view analytics, and how to best leverage them. If you are a writer, don’t worry, I think this applies to your career as well. Let’s dig in…


Everything is Storytelling

Stories are all around us. Our minds are just WAITING for stories we want to hear. We tell ourselves stories to align to our worldviews. If we walk around a small town and see a bookstore that is closing, we may immediately say to ourselves “Amazon just killed another indie bookstore.” But that is just a story. Perhaps the reality of that indie bookstore is that they are moving, or the owner is retiring, or the landlord raised the rent 1,000%, or it was grossly mismanaged for a decade, or a combination of other reasons. But we wanted to hear the story of the evil behemoth (Amazon) crushing the little guy (the indie bookstore) because it aligns with a story we tell ourselves about the world, and our place within it. Perhaps we see ourselves as “the little guy,” which is why we immediate jump to blame Amazon if a small bookstore closes.

Stories are built into marketing, built into design, built into products, built into language, built into how we communicate with each other. The way an employee greets you at J Crew is different than the way they greet you at a skateboard shop because they are supporting different stories. A J Crew staff member may be preppy and upbeat and engaged, whereas the skateboard shop may be “of the streets,” jaded, untrusting of authority, having a contempt for fake pleasantries. And a customer walking into each store tells themselves a story about who they are, about which of these things they align to. This is why a parent could walk into a J Crew with their teenager who then rolls their eyes. To the parent, J Crew is just a clothing store; To the teenager, it is an affront to what is wrong with the world, it’s not “real” to them.  Two different stories for the same action.


Story is Wrapped Up in Identity

Those you hope to engage already have stories in their head. You simply need to find a thread – a path – into them. You are really picking up their story in the middle, and helping to resolve it.

Do you want more people to buy your book – you need to align to their existing stories. Do you want others in your company to change the way they operate – you need to align to their existing stories.

Don’t underestimate how often these stories are really about identity – about who each of us are. When we see a cat walk by, we think: another animal, one of many, all very similar. But when WE walk around, we carry a set of ideals, of experiences, of challenges, of hopes, of dreams. We define ourselves partly by our past, but also by our aspirations. Who we hope to become, what we hope to do, where we hope to align with.

A good story places the reader somewhere in the center.

When you tell your story that you hope encourages others to take action, ensure it is framed from the perspective of that person. Include them in the story, even if never stated directly. (or especially if not stated directly)


Stories Compel Action

In your career, as you work to identify what compels others to take action, stories are a core part of that.   Stories should ENCOURAGE action. And because of this, when you leverage analytics to reach your goals, they should compel action as well.

When I work with a large media company, they are often trying to create a behavior change within their organization or outside of it. They never say that directly, but that is the goal. They want their audience to grow, or get them more engaged. They want products to perform better, and more revenue added to the bottom line. They want their employees to rethink how they operate and adopt new practices.

The key is to encourage people to WANT to take action of their own accord by aligning them to stories they already believe in, not FORCE them to change because you pressure them to do so.

So when I work with these companies, a key thing I do is tell stories. This too, is never overtly stated. The phrase I found that works is “case studies.” I work with them on specific projects, aligned to specific goals, and create case studies to show the effects of our performance.

A case study project often works like this:

  • Outline clear goals and measures for success.
  • Create a small – SAFE – experiment. So if we are trying to increase engagement at a conference via social media, we will do so in a way that risks little, requires a subset of their resources, and will give us insight quickly.
  • Measure before, during, after. This is critical, many only measure after which makes it hard to show progress or understand what worked and what didn’t.
  • Track every step of the project, and interview key players before, during and after.
  • Create the case study. This is a text document, often several pages long at a minimum. Create a narrative with clearly defined sections that illustrate the goals, process, results, and lessons. Be honest about what worked what didn’t, and what resources were expended. Use data selectively to show hard evidence.  When dealing with numbers, focus on a handful of things, not reams of spreadsheets.
  • Identify key actions to take for improvement.
  • Communicate this broadly within your company, with partners, with those who support your work.

Implicit in this is a process of iteration. Of running lots of small safe experiments, analyzing as I mentioned above, sharing it, and then doing it all again. I have done many of these case studies throughout my career, with different organizations and teams. They are a powerful way to empower change. If you are in publishing, media or a writer, you are neck deep in a time of change!

If I can help you as you navigate new waters, please feel free to reach out to me.


Sarah Bray Interview: Designing a Better Website

I am a fan of Sarah Bray, a strategic web designer who seems to build community into everything she does. In our chat below, we discuss quite a few topics, including:

  • The value of community in the products and services you offer
  • How people connect via shared purpose
  • The methods in which she keeps connections going with past clients
  • How she is investing in her business to help it grow

You can find Sarah in the following places:

Watch the full interview here:

Thanks so much to Sarah for taking the time to chat!


Digital Publishing: Curation vs Collection vs Experience

Content curation can be a powerful way to serve those in your market, and establish a unique brand position that differentiates you from your competitors. Today, I want to explore that challenges of curation, and compare how it differs from merely ‘collecting.’ (Note: by curation, I mean to care for, and carefully select which content is shared, with the idea that removing something can sometimes make a collection even stronger.)

Curation has been a big buzz word in online publishing for a long time now. While the word implies many great things: selecting only the greatest content for your audience – it can be a challenge for media companies to do this. With unlimited server space and free distribution, the temptation can be too great to share AS MUCH content as possible, with the theory that they are better serving the many sub-niches of their market. In other words, you may often see less curation, and more collection.

This can be easy to justify. Many brands serve multiple markets, and within each, there are many niches and subniches. So it’s easy to “unlock value from a content asset,” and these “assets” are easier to collect and store and repurpose than ever before.

This holds true for B2B media companies serving chicken farmers, for a consumer magazine brand serving parents, and for a range of other media brands from music to books.

This reminds me of a behavior pattern I have seen before: collections that people have as hobbies. I grew up in a family of collectors, and I have my own personal collections too. Here’s a quick history of my life growing up:

  • In the 1970’s my family had a stamp business, with and an extensive collection.
  • In the 1980’s we had a baseball card business, with different family members collecting in different things on a personal level: my brother had an incredible autograph collection from the old players; my dad had a Willie Mays collection that took up much of his study; and over the years, we went through thousands of rare items. Weekends were spent immersed in the hobby, and it has always been interesting to consider how the behavior of many individual collectors have shaped how the hobby evolved.
  • We had various collections around the house: hat pins (yes, seriously), toby mugs (yes, seriously), things with ladybugs on them, hot wheels (my dad’s collection, not mine), stamp holders, depression glass, and others.
  • Clearly, I’ve had my own collections over the years, most recently vinyl records and I am a huge fan of LEGO toys.

The Blank Family at a Baseball Card Show in Freehold New Jersey
My family and I at our first baseball card show as dealers, 1982. Left to right: my brother, father, mother, and little me.

I’ve had some interesting conversations with different collectors recently: people who collect very specific items. What I am finding again and again is that their collecting behavior is to collect AS MUCH of something as possible, and not curate or edit their collection at all. Some examples:

  • A guy who was bummed that he missed out on an old Fisher tube amplifier at an estate sale. When I chatted with him about it, he eventually let on that he has a basement full of old tube amps, including the model that was available at this estate sale, and he would likely never have time to restore them all. So they are just collecting dust in piles in his basement.
  • I visited the home of another stereo collector a while back, and noticed his basement was filled with piles of vintage gear too. But what was more interesting was that in every nook and cranny – such as the thin space above the air conditioning ducts, were thousands of boxes of new radio tubes. I asked about them, and he told me he had more than 5,000 tubes squirreled away, including a shed full in his backyard. He just kept buying them and buying them.
  • I picked up an old school BMX Bike at a yard sale recently – it was a sentimental purchase of a bike I wanted as a kid. Once the nostalgia wore off, I listed it and sold it on Craigslist, and had a nice chat with the guy that bought it. I asked what he was going to do with the bike, and he said “Just store it.” He has a garage full of them, plus a storage unit he rents. He just buys them and buys them.
  • Finally (I meet a lot of people), I had a nice early morning chat with a guy who collects all kinds of things. We began talking about records, and told me of his enormous collection. Thousands and thousands, which he too stores in a rented storage unit. He told me that he has multiples of many of them, so he is paying to store multiple copies of the same record in a location that he clearly can’t listen to them.

This is not how I remember collecting growing up. I remember focusing on quality; on being very critical about what to add to a collection and what to keep out; about creating a collection that wasn’t just a bunch of stuff, but a reflection on the tastes of the curator, and the needs/desires of the audience.

In my personal collections, I am constantly whittling things down. Choosing which records should leave my collection, not just which should be added, and resisting the temptation to begin collecting something new, merely because I have an affinity for it.

How many people do you know like this: a car collector who loves 1960’s muscle cars who has 6 of them in disrepair in their backyard, awaitng restoration, but none that are drivable. None that have been cared for and brought back to life. Instead of objects of beauty, they are objects of rust. This, compared to a person who has a single Dodge Challenger that they drive every weekend with the kids. Perhaps this is what separates the desire to COLLECT INSTEAD OF EXPERIENCE.

And this is the challenge that publishers and media companies face. With unlimited bandwidth and free distribution channels with digital media, it can be sooooo tempting to post more and more content, aimed at more and more target markets. Plus, the temptation to seem as large as possible, and to give Google as much content as possible to crawl for all of those searches.

You see this desire for ‘more’ is in many ways:

  • Too much content on their website.
  • Too many products to sell you.
  • Too many email newsletters.
  • Too many sessions at conferences and events.

For that last one – I am always surprised at how many sessions are offered at some events. I mean – for every time slot (EG: 10am-11am), offering 10, 15, 20+ options. Multiply this out to all the time slots available in a 2 day conference, and you have an overwhelming experience for attendees. And what’s more – none of the attendees share a common experience, they are too busy rushing past each other. Sometimes I wonder, what is the role of an organizer to curate vs their role to offer choice.

The drive for offering ‘more’ is not always the best path. It does not always create something unique. It does not always better serve a target audience. It does not always differentiate you from the competition. It does not always offer something that can’t be found elsewhere. It does not always solve a problem, or fulfill a desire.

Sometimes, when media companies do feel they are curating, it is often trying to weed out anything but the biggest hits – the content that will lead to massive revenue. Something like whittling your author list down to Stephenie Meyer, JK Rowling and Dan Brown. But is that curation, a content strategy, or simply a business strategy – a revenue strategy?

Curation and editing is about considering the primary goals of your audience and customers. It is about stripping away all the “nice to haves” to end up with only the “need to haves.” It is about identifying your own goals about identity and long-term growth. It is understanding the complicated behaviors of your target audience, and learning the difference between what they say they do, and what they actually do. It is about confidence – knowing that choosing to do one thing, means you will not do another – and that will make some unhappy, both within your organization and outside of it.

It is those hard choices that define what a brand is, and what it isn’t. And it is the first step in building credibility and engagement with those you serve.


Media Companies Need To Be Developing iPad Apps Today

Yesterday I spoke at the “Custom Media Day” event in New York. About 110 people were in attendance, all from a variety of roles in large and small media companies.

One theme that came up again and again was the iPad. And it is clear to me that the iPad – today – is an opportunity that needs to be addressed. If you wait, it becomes a threat. Media companies should have learned this in the past 20 years – they waited to establish web-centric organizations, product lineups, and revenue streams, and suffered because of it.

Custom publishers have often relied on print media such as magazines as a core part of their business. Sure, we’ve all asked about whether “digital slates” would shift the marketplace, but those questions were often framed in a distant future.

Now, everyone’s perspective is changing. Because of the iPad, we KNOW the future will include this new medium. Those who are more apprehensive are asking “if” they need to address it now, or “when” will the adoption rate be significant enough to begin developing content for the iPad.

Of course, the answer to those questions is: the time is now. If you wait for everyone else to transition their business to include products and content for the iPad, it is not only a product differentiation they have over you, but an organizational differentiation. Start building those muscles from an organizational standpoint – considering how content is different, how sales is different, how interaction is different, how marketing is different.

Do experiments now – even if they are small scale and don’t deliver any business value. It’s better to learn in that manner now, than to wait, and bank the future of your company on your very first iPad venture 2 years down the road.

Here are some ways to consider why the iPad is an opportunity you need to address today:

  • It is a new medium, one that will require different types of products, content, and interaction. Learn what those differentiations are to your current lineup of products and services. Don’t look along traditional lines, such as only judging what magazine apps are doing on the iPad. Look at lots of games, at sketching apps, at productivity apps, at anything that requires interaction. Understand how these iPad work individually, and within the framework the iPad experience. Don’t look at how you replicate what you do now, look at what needs and behaviors make sense to address.
  • Understand how the competition will be able to outmaneuver you before they do. 20 years ago, newspapers would never have considered a free service such as Craigslist a threat. They would have cited bandwidth limitations, internet adoption rates, trust about online commerce, the cost of servers, and the inability for one man to scale a local service into a national phenomenon. And, while they may have been right when it comes to facts on paper, they essentially bet on all the wrong horses. That has cost the newspaper industry billions, taking away a primary source of revenue. Sitting on the sidelines with the iPad simply gives others room to explore and accept the possibilities before you do.
  • The biggest change the iPad will bring is not external to your company. Too many media companies underestimate the challenge of organizational change. This has a huge cost not just in dollars, but time. Most media companies are still grappling with how to evolve for the web. We are 15-20 years into the Internet age, and you still hear about reorganization after reorganization as media companies try to align their offline strategies to online strategies. Don’t underestimate the role of developing the mindset, skillset and organizational structure your employees need. Investing in the iPad will inherently be about investing in your employees.



Everything is Content

One of the biggest challenges new bloggers face is coming up with ideas for content. There are plenty of great systems to help, such as mindmapping, editorial calendars and the like. But today, I want to talk about how content is all around us – all you need to do is harness it.

When I look at great bloggers, it is clear that blogging is embedded in the fabric of their being. They are living their blog. Ideas aren’t external things that they have to go find, every moment of their day is a potential blog post, and they are gardeners, slowly growing ideas, shaping the landscape and harvesting the best bits.

Let’s take an easy example, Fred Wilson’s blog His blog is his life and his life is his blog. When he talks about why he likes the iPad, he tells a story about how his family uses it. When he wants to talk about metrics, he shares the Google Analytics data from his own blog. When he goes to an event, he finds topics from the conversation on stage. When he can’t keep up with email, he writes a post about it.

Fred doesn’t sit at home every day and blog. He is very active in his career, traveling, spending time with his wife and three kids, and with his hobbies. And yet, he posts some REALLY great blog posts every single day. It should be noted that while he isn’t a writer by trade, he has become an incredible communicator.

If that wasn’t enough, Fred updates his Tumblr with little updates every day as well. And yes, he Tweets too.

Fred is a great example of ‘everything is content.’ He lives his passion, and his blog fuels it even further. He has become a very well known commentator in the tech & startup world – based not just on his expertise and experience, but his ability to share and communicate via these online platforms.

For about six weeks now, I’ve been blogging every weekday. Prior to that, I had only been blogging once a week. What I have found is that blog posts are all around me, and that all I need to do is be open to them. To my great surprise, it hasn’t been a struggle to come up with ideas or find the time to write. In fact, I think my spelling has even improved because I am writing so much.

We all spend our day thinking about things: interactions we have, what we are working on, what happened at the food store, and on and on and one. Why not channel these thoughts into something constructive.

When you create a blog, you are sharing a part of yourself. This goes beyond ‘content marketing,’ this is about self expression, this is about sharing your expertise and passion.

When I talk to a colleague, several blog posts can come out of the conversation because I am learning so much about what people are doing, what inspires them, what concerns them. Sure, I may end up only writing about one of the ten concepts we discussed, and I may tie it together with something I read three weeks ago, but still – it’s content. When something doesn’t work – that’s content. When something succeeds – that’s content. Everything is content. Your role as a blogger is to find the best bits and share them in the most compelling manner.