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Fulfilling your brand’s destiny through technology

Mashable continued its “future of social media” series last week with a story about ad agencies and technology, proselytizing bold advances in location-based marketing and group buying. The most interesting of the trends highlighted in the piece, though, is this: software is the new medium.

Software – and, by extension, the underlying technology from which it is derived – will be the single key contributor to a brand’s success from this point forward. The role of a brand manager is rapidly evolving along with all of the agencies that serve it into a blend of IT manager, brand marketer, consumer relations expert and PR person. There are so many ways that technology can boldly empower an organization to become an exciting, customer-driven entity. Agencies, too, are morphing into fascinating shops where hack-a-thons, aggressive experimentation, applet development and software engineers join brand experts to bring true innovation to their client work.

I have picked up some tips in my career that are useful for navigating these new territories, experience applicable to both agencies and brands. In no particular order, summarized in a concise 3-tip package:

1. Know thy limits
As cliche as it sounds, the ideas and engagements enabled by technology truly are essentially limitless and know no bounds. However, the ability for a brand and/or its agencies to execute them generally is not limitless, and is bounded by a variety of externalities. FTC disclosures, privacy policies, time, budget, the economy – all of these can have a direct impact on the ability to push an idea from inception to execution. I’ve seen so many outstanding ideas die simply because they were not grounded in reality.

Agencies can be particularly guilty of this tendency. For example, in the rush to pitch new business and wow a new client, an agency team will devise a devilishly-smart campaign comprised of some pretty advanced technology that does not exist in the marketplace. The new client, impressed by the agency’s creativity and bold thinking, signs on for the work only to find out that the team who pitched it didn’t do a reality-check. Either their capabilities to build it were overstated, or in truth it’s far too advanced for time or budget to allow and would require an army of developers. The idea then gets stripped down to a simpler core that the client feels less inspired by but is obligated to fulfill. Now, you might be saying to yourselves – “technology doesn’t evolve without ideas that push the envelope of absurdity and cause disruption,” and I could not agree more. What you need to be asking yourselves is this – “is my organization (or my client) that bold pioneer?” And particularly for agencies, know precisely how you will scope out and execute an idea before risking your client falling in love with it.

2. Know thy consumer
Technology does not abate the need for all those smart segmentation insights you’ve amassed over the years. An Apple consumer will have very different technology needs and interests from a Clorox consumer although their motivations may be similar. Innovation only works when it’s executed in direct alignment to your consumer and sometimes you have to be willing to just ask them what they’d like.

For example, if you’ve started to think about the role of mobile in your brand’s story arc you need to understand the platforms that are of interest to your consumer. Are they iPhone users who are heavy gamers and would salivate over a sexy game that you give them for free? Or, are they household organizers who relish saving time in their chores, and would respond to a simple SMS-based daily tips program? Brands left and right are launching iPhone apps, when in truth they might be faced with a consumer who skews more to being an iPod Touch and flip phone user. The success of the technology you deploy will be dependent on these insights so be aggressive about discovering them.

3. Be nimble, not obsessive
The thing that excites a lot of people about technology is the pace of its evolution. In the computer chip industry there is a law – called Moore’s Law – that defines the capacity of the processors that make up computing devices. Essentially, the capacity of these chips doubles every two years meaning that their associated functions – such as processing power, memory and speed – double with that capacity. That means the chips you are developing software for today will be replaced in 24 months with something twice as fast. It also means that whatever cool tool you’ve developed today will have an exceptionally limited shelf life, probably much less than 24 months. How can you use this insight to your advantage?

Think in terms of outcomes. There will always be something faster and newer and there will be new devices that require altogether new formats. You can leverage this to your advantage by creating a brand organization that values this innovation versus seeing it as an obstacle, and creating an agency network that isn’t steeped in just one technology. What you want to be looking to achieve is the creation of an innovation ecosystem in which amazing ideas develop and marching orders are written to go find ways to get them done. What you want to avoid is getting too invested in any one platform that will force your hand in future decisions, and prevent you from porting over all of the innovations you have amassed.

These are three pretty simple insights but they’re areas where I consistently see brands and agencies going down the wrong path. Time will sort out a lot of this noise but by consistently asking these questions you will keep your brand (or client) centered and steady.

The monkey on your back in 2011

2010 wrapped up with the usual suspects putting forth predictions for this year, some of which I already wrote about (particularly where measurement and accountability are involved). An additional possibility for this year that I came across in John Battelle’s latest roundup struck a nerve – that is, the changing nature of the “Web” itself. He frames it as a meme lovingly entitled “the Web Reborn,” which essentially implies that the Web we have all been talking has undergone a tectonic shift driven by mobile.

It’s worth considering John’s point, and I actually fully agree with him. The Web has always been this amorphous thing that brands and agencies try to get their heads around and harness when, in truth, the fundamental principles of innovation are driven by forces that no brand will ever be able to get in front of. These broader driving forces, things like Moore’s Law, promise that innovation will always outstrip our ability to fully leverage the expansive nature of the Web. It’s a bit like painting the Golden Gate Bridge.

How is a brand supposed to feel good about getting in front of trends and memes when they know that the moment they pull a plan together, the ideas may already be outdated?

Maybe it is not so much “The Web Reborn” as it is “The Web, Circa 2011.” That will continue to be the monkey on the backs of brands and agencies in 2011, as it has been in previous years.

Think about it this way. Your investments in commercial innovations will continue to be best utilized when integrated with broader strategic goals for your business. That is, don’t partition social and emerging media into its own budget silo, team and agency. This will help you prevent the groan-inducing “we need to find the next big thing” conversations by focusing on longer term platform investments, ones that you can continue to leverage and build upon. Mobile is a great place to start for 2011, and it’s an obvious area of weakness for a lot of organizations. Just yesterday I discovered that my bank of choice, Citibank, actually has an Android app that’s pretty useful. I have searched for such an app in the Android marketplace on my phone numerous times and while there are apps there for Citibank Hong Kong and Citibank Korea, I never found the Citibank USA app. Lo and behold, I happened to be on their website yesterday on my laptop and clicked on their mobile banking link. Buried several links in was the link to the Android app, which required that I fire my up Android browser and type in the URL to download the app.

Now, I had been perfectly content with Citibank’s mobile site, which is well designed and easy to navigate from my HTC EVO. It may be a simple oversight that it’s not in the Android marketplace. The point here is Citibank has clearly invested in reaching and engaging with their consumers through mobile, and they still have some work to do to make the experience seamless.

There are many other brands that haven’t even dipped their toes into the mobile space yet. Virgin America is one that continues to surprise me given its focus on innovation and customer experience. Not only is the airline lacking a mobile app, they haven’t even optimized their website for viewing on a mobile phone. The act of booking a ticket on their website is infuriatingly complex on a mobile phone. And yet, they’ve been on the front lines of using social media to grow and amplify their brand.

John Battelle summed it up best in his round up – “the web is the foundation of nearly everything we do.” Make it your resolution for 2011 to complete that thought by exploring what the foundation means for your brand, and ensuring that you are investing in those areas.

Making your way on Facebook

If you don’t follow PR on Facebook, you should. The resource – published by Facebook’s own internal PR team – is essentially free advice on tactics that you can deploy as a communications professional that leverages Facebook’s 500 million unique users. It’s a must-read.

For example, they shared today a list of 40-or-so Facebook developers that shines with some brilliant minds. These are companies that can help your brand execute exciting work on Facebook, engage with your stakeholders and drive conversations. I know a lot of the folks on the list and am particularly fond of the teams at Sprout and Buddy Media.

PR on Facebook is helpful, and the list of developers is a great place to start. But do you know why you’re engaging there in the first place? Scroll through the agencies that list price ranges and you might suffer some sticker shock. Some list ranges from $5k-500k, others from $50-500k. Those represent large investments for a single platform but there are very good reasons to consider them in your marketing mix. Before you jump on the phone, sit down and ask yourself (and your teams, including agencies) what you’ll be trying to accomplish with that phone call. Think first about the strategy then the results of that breakthrough innovation will get your whole executive team excited for more.

Is Facebook the next [insert failed tech company name]?

The story goes something like this: a brainiac wunderkind (or two) create a technology and make it easy, almost painless, to do something in a creative new way. People are drawn to it like sun on a cloudy winter day. Said wunderkind appears on the cover of Fortune Magazine and breaks into echelons of TechCrunch famedom, only to find his/her platform plateau and be eclipsed by a new brainiac with a new idea that’s just oh-so-much better. The examples cited include MySpace, Friendster, Pets.com (because pets can’t drive!) and Netscape. The slow spiral towards obsolescence is used as a cautionary tale – as in, don’t be the next Netscape, or is Facebook the next Friendster?

These comparisons do not always prove to have parity. The reasons for Netscape’s demise (Microsoft) are very different than the reasons for Pets.com (there was never a business model behind delivering 30 lb. bags of food). But one such query sticks in my mind and is worth exploring – is Facebook the next AOL?

By “next” in this instance what I really mean is this – is Facebook a one-hit utility? Possibly, and I’ll explain why.

AOL has traditionally had its foot in two camps of business – access and content. It has historically provided access to the Internet via its dial-up (and failed broadband) business. It has also curated and published content that has grown increasingly valuable over time. Its Huffington Post purchase is its clearest and most recent signal that it intends to become a content platform and shed its past as an access platform. The problem there is when you think of AOL, what is the first thing that comes to mind for you? Slow Internet access. It’s in the company’s roots and years of delivering annoying install CDs to our mailboxes takes time to undo. I managed the Google Zeitgeist for four years and one of the things that always surprised me is that that people would do a Google search for the word “Google.” That is, they would search Google for Google. Hello, you are already there! People get into routines. They become accustomed to doing things certain ways.

But AOL does have good content, and always has. Remember when brands used to advertise “Go To AOL Keyword: Travel”? That was a curated and walled garden of content, beyond which lay the rest of the Internet. It was for many people the Internet, until they discovered the virtues of the real Internet.

Now back to Facebook, a self-proclaimed “social utility.” Facebook has built its core network on Facebook.com, encouraging interactions and engagement with friends and increasingly with brands and organizations via status updates. It has aggressively opened up its network via APIs to allow others to tap that social ecosystem – the “social graph,” in Facebook parlance – and pursue activities that connect individuals in a variety of settings. Places like CNN, online games, comments sections on blogs. It’s an online identity that goes with you inside and outside the Facebook network.

There are three core areas that challenge the core premise of Facebook as a platform, a trifecta if you will:

  • Marketers: Get big business on board. Big growth means big money. Lots of servers, lots of bandwidth. They have to convince brands to continue investing in the platform. Recently Facebook executive Stephen Haines reportedly said to a group of conference goers that he envisions a future in which so much interaction takes place on Facebook that companies will not bother with their own websites. I can see the logic path he is following with that argument but respectfully disagree with him. Brands have gotten much smarter about leveraging their own media platforms – like their website – since they advertised AOL Keywords a decade ago. They have invested significant amounts of time, money and human resources in building and maintaining websites and while integration of the Facebook social graph can make their website a much richer experience, it probably won’t outright replace the website in the marketing mix. In fact, done right, Facebook should make any website even more valuable to the end-user.
  • Interoperability: Last year Facebook introduced a tool that enables consumers to download their entire history on the platform and archive it for posterity. They even made a nice offline browsing experience for the tool. What they failed to make available are things like contact information for your friends. The Facebook APIs enable very rich social experiences but just like AOL, eventually consumers will want to play outside of that walled garden. You have to give them the tools to remain relevant and valuable to them, and you have to assume that smart people will continue to develop around you. Interoperability is the secret to the rapid growth in Google’s Android mobile OS. It goes beyond APIs.
  • Consumers: This is the critical component and it’s the trickiest of them all. Consumers have demonstrated remarkable adoption of the Facebook platform leading to double-digit growth in users for many consecutive months. Now Facebook must convince those 500 million+ individuals that social graph is so valuable that they need to embrace it across the web. This is what will take Facebook out of the AOL danger zone – a walled garden – and into the broader ecosystem of the Internet. Facebook has shown a remarkable ability to innovate tools but they’ve shown a remarkable inability to read the privacy tea leaves. Changes made to the Facebook platform have left a bitter taste in many mouths. They have to prove to individuals that they are worthy of a trusted relationship. That trust relationship can be perceived to be at odds with making the platform valuable to advertisers. I’d argue that Facebook also suffers every time there is a data breach or loss of personal information reported by other major companies, as it holds the individual back from committing too much of their private information to one platform. I anticipate that Facebook will increasingly struggle with this paradox of what it means to be a true social utility. Are they focused on their users or on driving advertiser value?

There you have it, a trifecta of challenges. What does this mean for marketers today?

  • Continue investing and building your owned media platforms. As it stands now, even minor code tweaks and policy changes on the Facebook platform can wreak total havoc on a marketing program. Leverage Facebook via APIs and make it part of the broader digital mix versus isolating your execution on the platform as a standalone tactic.
  • Revisit your own privacy statements and ensure that your social engagement efforts truly map to your stated policies. If you promise not to use or collect personal information, make sure that you’re fully in compliance and make sure your agencies are, too.
  • As I’ve recommended in the past – and this applies to platforms beyond Facebook – immediately stop advertising “Find us on Facebook.com/BrandName.” Switch that out for “Find us on BrandName.com/Facebook” so you keep your data pipeline filled. Same goes for Twitter, YouTube and any other platform. Think and act like a publisher.

Feedback and comments are welcome and encouraged!

Why experiences are the new swag

Why experiences are the new swag

I’ve been in marketing for 15 years and have seen every manner of imaginable swag. Koozies. Water bottles. Pens. Buttons. Bags. Free merchandise. Even cars. I believe the era of swag is in major decline, and your brand is probably going to be better off for it.

There are many reasons for people’s shifting tastes. Some people see swag giveaways as wasteful, trading away either money or earth’s resources in exchange for a momentary hit of fading brand recall. “They’ll keep this on their desk,” desperate marketers think, “and remember us when they’re ready to buy enterprise software again.”

What’s really happening, though, is consumer behavior is changing. Research has already proven that the millennial generation is uniformly unimpressed with stuff. 3 in 4 millennials would choose to spend money on a desirable experience rather than buying stuff, and those experiences shape lifelong memories. The millennial generation believes they create lasting connections at live events, bonds that tie them to their community and to the world. They’re not wrong – people who experience something together regularly report it be more satisfactory. My friend Bryan Kramer has a whole blog post about that.

The millennial zest for engaging experiences is dripping over into other generations. New research from a team at Cornell University, led by Dr. Thomas Gilovich, has tracked the confluence of money and happiness for more than two decades. Their findings are startling and defy general convention (that’s called the Easterlin paradox or – simply – that money buys happiness). Gilovich’s research suggests that experiences, rather than physical things, are the root of happiness. Humans will adapt to an iPhone and eventually tire of it (maybe good news to Apple), but they will recall experiences for the rest of their lives and that helps foster happiness.

How does this affect your brand?

Well, clearly, if you count millennials among your target demographic, you already should be focusing on building experiences rather than giving away free stuff. Beyond that, it’s probably worth considering if you need to reset your promotions mindset – are you giving away too much, and creating too few experiences?

Experiential marketing itself has been around for many years and is generally thought of as a live event. But think about the digital manifestation of those experiences and you see how powerful they can become. Humans love to watch other humans react to situations, and experience is at the heart of that reaction. For example, you might recall a video, filmed in a cafe setting, where an angry customer feigned telekinesis to the horror of other customers. It was a stunt to promote the movie Carrie. No doubt for those directly involved the experience was borderline horrifying. The stunt has so far captured the imagination of more than 61 million viewers on YouTube. Experiential does not always have to be a live event to be memorable.

This thinking can completely change the game for marketers. Are you focused on continually giving away product, swag, merchandise or discount codes to keep people engaged with your brand? You are probably experiencing declining returns on that approach. Think instead about how you can use experiences to create enduring memories, and how you can use your digital ecosystem to sustain exposure to it.

If you create a live event experience that only a handful of lucky participants can attend, your exposure will be limited those few individuals and their social networks. That’s probably a weak use case for your budget. However, use your digital ecosystem to make the experience virtual and real. You can even use a tool like Periscope or Meerkat to make it a real-time engagement with your fans.

Experience is the new swag. That’s great news for your brand, and it should have you very excited.

Follow the leader

This week’s afterglow of the remarkable piece in Business Week about Sheryl Sandberg’s vision and leadership at Facebook was cut short by the discovery of an ethically-dubious PR campaign undertaken by PR agency Burson-Marsteller on behalf of Facebook.

First, on the Sandberg piece, I have to say that author Brad Stone did a great job depicting her character and her genuine nature. I had the fortune to work with Sheryl at Google and all of the things that he reports about her are generally true. She has an infectious spirit that inspires the team around her.

Now to the dirty news that tarnished the good vibe: it turns out that Facebook hired a PR agency to bring attention to what it believes are privacy-related issues with its competitor, Google. The concept – as reported by Chris Soghoian, one of those targeted by the pitch – involved pitching and working with a blogger to draft an editorial drawing attention to the privacy issues which Burson would then attempt to place in a major news outlet. The client behind the work, Facebook, was not disclosed in the e-mail pitch nor in the follow up conversation with Soghoian. Only after independent review determined that it was Facebook who was behind the campaign did the company confirm it. Shortly thereafter Burson also confirmed the report.

The shocking thing about this is the questionable ethics behind pitching something like an op-ed without disclosing the interests of the parties involved. It seems noone took the pitch seriously, and for good reason. Burson claims all of the information in the pitch is public information although it would appear that they employed the longstanding and reviled PR tactic of hyperbole to make the pitch more enticing. The statements of both Burson and Facebook seem to take some responsibility for the poor judgement but also levies blame on the other party.

After reviewing the stories I’m torn – I can’t decide what element of this story is worse. What do you think? Vote below.

[poll id=”2″]

Making innovation part of your DNA

I write a lot about innovation and explore a variety of methods to infuse it into your marketing efforts. In this post I reviewed four key innovation elements from Google that are broadly (if not universally) applicable to the function of PR and marketing. There was a two elements missing from that list that are worth exploring.

Part of the process of innovation involves a certain mindset that not everything goes as planned. If you try enough ideas and try hard enough, some will work out with astounding success while others will be doomed for the deadpool before they even launch. Still, if you have not encouraged your marketing organization to truly embody what it means to innovate and move quickly you will be missing out on massive opportunities to engage your consumers and stakeholders.

It’s easy for senior leadership to get excited about the buzzword “innovation” and they will likely welcome hearing you talk about how you are making your marketing and PR engine more lean and innovative. It’s the kind of stuff managers like to hear. But the reality of innovation is this – it’s not always rosy. Often, it results in bad results.

To capture all of the upside you also have to accept that there will be downside too. These are a couple of very important mindshifts you will need to consider before you start selling your organization and your agency roster on innovation:

1. It’s OK to Fail
This is such an important mindset to embody and it’s very, very difficult for many managers to accept this reality. A lot of organizations are tuned to extract failure out and in the process make those who may have bold ideas fearful of exploring them. You have to be willing to address that when it comes to marketing and social innovations, some amount of failure is OK. Better than OK, actually, because if you haven’t failed at a couple of things you are probably not taking enough risks. Google was famous for its quarterly planning process involving OKRs (that’s Objectives and Key Results). Each employee was expected to set for themselves every quarter what many might consider absurd performance goals. Most often, we’d fail to reach them and that was considered ideal – the stretch goals usually constituted about 120% of what success really looked like and so by getting to 90% of the goal, major progress was made. This encouraged everyone to experiment and to do so without fear of being tagged “failure.” Note: this is not a license to throw caution to the wind with every project and rush into things. It will be your job to defend every single project coming out of your marketing group to the rest of the company. But you won’t make those strides that will be widely celebrated if you’re not open to failing a little along the way and committed to providing that failure the necessary air cover.

2. Re-examine Your Listening Capabilities
I’ve seen this concept tested time and again and it’s another area where most organizations fall short. What often happens is someone in the marketing organization dreams up a grand idea for a new tactic or social innovation program. They write up a brief and put it out to their agency roster for consideration. The agency team executes on the work, launches the initiative and no budget or bandwidth is set aside to iterate or tweak the program. The thing is, most often you don’t get things right the first time. You won’t have time to send everything through QA. What you should be doing is listening intently to your most ardent advocates; generally, they will be first to suggest improvements to a new program, app or initiative and will also be the first to let you know when something goes sideways. If you’re not listening to that chatter closely you’ll miss the insight and if you aren’t aligned with enough bandwidth to tweak the program, you’ll quickly lose your followers. If you follow the “launch it and move on” mentality, you’re almost guaranteed to have mediocre results. So think about how you can make listening a core part of your marketing innovation process.

3. Know When to Sunset
All things come to the end of their logical lifecycle. Bad programs that go sideways will get there a lot faster and if you keep pumping resources into it will drain your organization of energy, money and ideas. Back to my first point, you have to be willing to accept failure every so often and if you’re moving quickly and pushing out new marketing initiatives as fast as you can dream them up, you’ll probably hit a few sour notes. Shut them down and move on. Don’t pump resources into an idea just because it’s there. It’s OK to sunset ideas. Communicate clearly with your fans and consumers about the reasons behind it, move quickly to the next great idea and capture key learnings as you go to ensure you are moving through the ideastream strategically and not just flitting from project to project.

Combined these amount to a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for a lot of marketing organizations. Corporate politics, budgets and planning cycles do not always permit sweeping changes overnight. But be persistent and chip away at them over time. You can change how you engage your stakeholders and market products and services.

Friday Fodder: Crises causing PR’s decline?

Matthew DeBord this week published a fascinating article about the recent major crises – BP, Toyota, Goldman Sachs, others – causing the profession that for decades has been positioned as the centerpiece of managing them to enter a tailspin. The response (at least in the comments to the article itself) was more muted than I’d thought it would be, given how closely to home it hits for a lot of the industry.

I think there is more than a measure of truth to his assessment, though. I do believe that the smartest PR practitioners today are rapidly teaching themselves and their colleagues the skills needed to manage any communication in an era of social media transparency, be it a crisis, a product launch or an earnings announcement. These are the tools of our profession, and it’s our professional responsibility to adapt to using them.

Sadly, not everyone IS adapting to the new tools. It will result in some attrition across the board as new talent comes onto the scene equipped to manage communications scenarios that are infinitely more complex and instant. But the truth is the tools available to a PR practitioner always evolve, and in the end they’re just channels. Yes, the pace has accelerated and caused some to throw their hands up in frustration. But the need for consistent messaging – even if it requires as few as 140 characters – means those PR people who do embrace these technologies will be even more critical to the organizations they serve. In the face of a crisis in a social media landscape, the job becomes more about managing a team and the flow of their collective thought and response than messaging the media, to be sure. It’s about scale.

That’s it for this Friday Fodder: What do you think?

How much for that tweet?

According to this study from USC, an overwhelming percentage of Internet users would not pay for access to Twitter. How overwhelming?

Try 100%. Paid access to content has long been a debate in the media world, but generally leads to some attrition in the user base. In extreme cases, like the Times’ in the UK, that attrition can be significant (they lost 90% of their online readers). That leads to fewer eyeballs on the content which is a hard sell to advertisers who pay for exactly that privilege.

But the biggest atrocity of parking content behind a paywall is the inability to share it socially. Consumers are a finicky bunch and one of the most impactful ways to get them to read your content is to encourage them to share it. That will drive social conversations about it and give you reach that you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. Make it too difficult to share or read and you lose the benefit of your loyalists, and by extension the benefits of their social networks. Why should I write about an article you’ve published if my readers cannot go read it easily?

It is pretty far-fetched to suggest at this point that Twitter will charge for access to its publishing platform. It would be in their best interests, in fact, to continue making that platform as perfect and portable as they can. Encouraging more people to tweet and consume will drive more value for businesses that wish to reach them.

Using the full power of the medium

CCI puppy and friend practice waiting.

What exactly is it about social mediums that make them so powerful for stakeholder engagement?

Is it that they humanize a brand? Yes, they can.

Is it their speed? This certainly impacts content consumption.

Is it that they give everyone an equal share in the opportunity for discourse? Certainly a factor.

But I firmly believe that the real power of a social medium for many organizations – particularly non-profits and those serving a social need – lies in its potential for something much more profound to an organization: storytelling of a visual nature. Humans are naturally drawn to good stories. We’re captivated by the stories of hardship shared by grandparents, the stories of our youth shared by our parents, and the stories of people we’ve just met which help us come to know and appreciate one another. Stories shape our social interactions and as much as technology has empowered us to increase our connections, it’s the stories that we share that give the medium a sustained presence in our life. They provide us with unforgettable moments.

Last week I had the fortune to attend (and speak at) BlogPaws in Denver. This event is a fascinating coming-together of individuals passionate about animals. Some attendees were vets, interested in how to use social media to grow their practice. Others were deeply involved in animal welfare (either by passion or profession, or both), seeking to network with similarly like-minded people. Others were bloggers with a specific content expertise (sporting dogs, for example) or just getting started and trying to figure out what their unique voice should be.

We all had the fortune to attend a keynote delivered by Pat Callahan of Canine Companions for Independence. Even if you’re not familiar with this organization you’ve probably been touched by their work by seeing a humble dog leading its person through a crowded shopping mall or patiently awaiting their turn for the elevator. The content of Pat’s keynote (see embedded video) could make anyone weep, but it was her storytelling ability and the heavy emphasis on photography that really brought the Canine Companions story to life for the audience. Her keynote alone featured more than 60 stunning images of assistance dogs (and puppies) and their human interactions. Dogs may be unable to speak, but they have an uncanny photogenic quality.

Pat also spoke about Canine Companion’s growing emphasis on social media, and she clearly recognizes the greatest asset in their arsenal are visual in nature and not written. They’re early but eagerly into the social transformation of their organization (they launched a blog at the event) but are headed in an exciting direction. For many non-profits and organizations involved in social efforts, the visual aspects of the story are the best way to bring their impact to life. But it can be valuable for many brands, too. After all, what better way to open your brand up than to embrace it through visual storytelling? That’s working for Domino’s Pizza, and it’s become a differentiator for them.

It’s worth asking yourself – “is my organization doing enough to harness our visual story in social media?” If the answer is not clear, then you’re probably not doing enough. Pose this question – “how can our organization be more visual?” – to your agencies or at your next staff meeting and you might be surprised by the answers.

Here is a short video from BlogPaws and Pat Callahan at Canine Companions. Follow their story as it develops.

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