Can It Please Be November 8th Already?

Ugh. Where to start? I mean, where to begin with this most depressing of American presidential campaigns? November 8, 2016 just can’t come soon enough, right? We’ll just all wake up from this horrible dream, relieved it’s over and get back to normal. Such a peaceful thought. If only we could live our lives through rose-coloured lenses. Truth is, I know things aren’t right in this world when I find myself agreeing with a Globe and Mail columnist. John Ibbitson recently predicted that while Trump will likely lose, “he is the final warning to the elites.” I’m afraid he hit this one on the head:

“Unless political elites of both the left and the right become more humble, unless they once again ask themselves how their agendas will play in Peoria, the next rough beast might slouch over the corpse of the republic.”

We shouldn’t underestimate the strength of the anti-establishment sentiment in the US. It’s not going away anytime soon. Those of us looking for a return to normal are in for a surprise if Clinton wins. Her victory will bring immediate relief to just about everyone north of the border, but we won’t have time to catch our breath before an unsatisfied, unhappy underbelly of discontent rears its ugly head. I’d like to think the anti-establishment movement could shed itself of the racist, bigoted, protectionist elements that make it such a foul movement. But, I suppose that’s probably a pipe dream. I’m not the only one yearning for a return to something a little more—I don’t know—gosh darn sincere.

And for a brief moment, we all got that aw shucks sincerity. You may have heard of him. He was an Internet sensation for a couple days (that’s like 80 years in Internet age). Yep. Ken Bone, ye of perfect meme nomenclature. Amongst the wreckage of personal attacks that plagued the second presidential debate, this man-in-the-red-sweater asked a snoozer of a question about energy policy. Proving just how nerdy we really are, the Internet found love at first sight. In hindsight, I suppose it makes sense; Ken provided a respite from the divisiveness of this horrible campaign—a breath of fresh air in a moist, damp locker room.

What followed was as predictable as a Harlequin romance.

We Find Love

Within hours, people already had their perfect Halloween costume. Ken’s Twitter followers grew from a mere 7 to a whopping 250,000. He got play on the Late Night circuit and for a brief time symbolized all that is right with the world. We wanted to know why he went with a red sweater. We wanted him as a candidate. We couldn’t get enough. Why didn’t we see more of this in this campaign?

I’m not sure Ken knew what predicament he found himself in, but it was pretty much the worse place to be: the Internet’s hero. Once you reach that level, you can only fall, usually with a bruising thud. And when the Internet turns on you, it cuts deep. In truth, we all leave a trail on the Internet. And as we started digging, we found that our shiny new object wasn’t so shiny after all.

Our Hearts Are Broken

The debate question everyone loved…“what step will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”…wasn’t as innocent as it first appeared. Ken works in the coal industry for a company that opposes climate regulations and has dodged current legislation to be environmentally friendly. In hindsight, his question seemed a little more self-serving.

He took to his fame by hosting a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything). Sure, he was a gracious host, and started a T-shirt campaign to raise funds to fight homelessness — but he foolishly used his old username, which made it dead simple for anyone to dig into his past musings. He apparently left a comment on a pregnancy subreddit describing expecting mothers as ”beautiful human submarines.” He confessed to viewing naked pictures of Jennifer Lawrence and, uh…enjoying it. He committed felony insurance fraud and even suggested the shooting of Trayvon Martin was “justified.” He used his fame for a one-off Uber promotion in St. Louis. Just like that, our hero had become an “ignorant bonehead”, and a seedy sell-out.

We Piece Some of it Back Together

With the nasty stuff out of the way, some writers tried to paint a picture of a man—who like the rest of us—has many layers. No single person can be summed up in an Internet meme. This same Ken also wrote that he’s a conservative who likes Obama. He wrote a compassionate response to a rape victim. He condemned Stanford rapist Brock Turner.

Now Ken spends what appears to be considerable effort defending himself. He has clarified some of his comments. “I do not condone the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Justifiable means legal, not right.” His Twitter feed now contains links to threads and articles that defend him. He still has fans who work feverishly to push out a more sympathetic narrative of Ken. But most of us have moved on. We’ve already had enough of Ken. He’s yesterday’s news.

I’ll leave it to Ken and his fanbase to defend his words and deeds. I only highlight his story as an example of how fickle we are. We don’t have time for old news. We move from one meme to the next in just about the same amount of time Usain Bolt runs 100 meters. It’s an unforgiving place—time is never on your side, and people are apt to remember the most negative thing that was last said about you. Never mind the full story or context. That’s boring. We want to be entertained.

But, we’ve gotten to the point where that entertainment is blurry. It’s not fun, even if we try to make it that way. There’s no escaping the slog of this campaign season. There was one symbol—even if we never really took it seriously— that was supposed to provide some kind of light in a dark world. Ken, version 1.0, made the Internet pleasant, at least for a couple hours. Now that light doesn’t shine so brightly. In a way, Ken has become a symbol of this campaign. Whenever we have thought that it might get better, it only gets worse. Everywhere we look, it’s ugly. All of it. And I’m afraid it only gets uglier here on in, no matter what happens on November 8.

On that cheery note, let me get back to what really matters.

As originally published for Navigator Ltd.

Do you have a tribe?

As originally published on Navigator's website.

As humans, we are all ill-equipped to live on our own. We’re social animals who have coalesced into tribes since the beginning of time. And for literally ages, most of our tribes were organized along (often fluid) geographical lines. Our tribal associations led to the beginnings of agriculture in Mesopotamia; the rise of cities that we would recognize 5,000 years later, and the invention of writing, among other achievements. Even in more recent times, tribes were largely organized by geography—our local places of worship, bowling clubs, knitting groups etc. Geography placed such an important role in our ability to gather that national hobby organizations have long been structured around local chapters—think boy scouts, girl guides, home brewing clubs etc.

Today, we’re agnostic towards geography. Thanks to the Internet, tribes that would never have existed in a pre-digital age are now thriving online communities. It’s a completely predictable outcome—our natural instinct to organize and identify with tribes runs deep. In our line of work, we often think about the “ audiences” we need to target to get our message out. It can be easy to forget that these “audiences” are real people—human beings who collectively want to belong to something. We’re often too focused on how we get our message in front of the right eyeballs, we forget to take a moment to reflect on what motivates the people we need to reach, and what shared interests they might have. By addressing those questions, we might stand a better chance of making our content resonate.

In the public affairs and advocacy space, tribes are the vocal supporters and fans who believe in our cause (or worse, in a cause that’s mobilizing against us) to the point that they are willing to tell everyone they know about it. And in exceptional cases, they’re willing to step away from the keyboard to express their support in tangible ways: voting at the ballot box, becoming active shareholders, organizing a hostile takeover, demonstrating in the streets, to name a few.

Of course, it’s a cliché to say, but the Internet lets these same activists bring more fuel to the fire. They can use the Internet to self-organize and lend your movement legitimacy, or bring total disruption if you’re on the wrong side of an issue. One hyper-active member can bring more people onside, growing and cultivating an army of supporters. And while activists were once constrained by geography, this has become a thing of the past. This means tribes can become overnight movements that can either build your reputational equity or make your life a living hell, depending on which side of the tribe’s shared interests you find yourself on. The Internet makes the infrastructure easy: all it takes is an Internet connection, a shared interest, and a digital gathering place, and you technically have a tribe. But that alone won’t be enough. A tribe is a living, breathing thing. Something needs to be the glue that holds these individuals together. That could be you and/or your organization.

The Power of a Tribe

But why would you want to build your own tribe? We often tell our clients that one day soon, some outside force will have a direct (and potentially) negative impact on their business. It could be that government is considering new legislation or regulations directly impacting your business. Or the public has decided to side with third-party interests groups targeting you or your industry; or that you’re on the receiving end of a hostile takeover. You’re always at risk. In our experience, most organizations have the appropriate resources in place to do conventional corporate communications, government relations and investor relations, but few, if any, have a program to build a tribe of active supporters. And by failing to build and cultivate tribes, organizations are at risk of being outmaneuvered by tribes with opposing interests. For example, most companies wait until a legislative or regulatory crisis erupts before rallying supporters to their defence. But for such a cry to have any effect, you need to have an attentive tribe at your disposal. In today’s environment, you simply cannot do public affairs well without having a tribe in your corner. But building that tribe is a laborious exercise. So how do you get there?

Identify shared interests.

As with most things in life, the hardest part is starting out. The work of identifying your potential tribe members starts from the inside. Look around. What type of people are working for your organization or your cause? What motivates them? Why do they care about your line of work? Then work your way out. What common characteristics do your shareholders or members have? Why have they decided to align themselves with you? If you already have an online presence, take a look at your fanbase. Ask the same set of questions. Rinse and repeat and you’ll soon uncover common threads—shared interests that unite them. You may even uncover a variety of shared interests, which could be a sign that you have multiple tribes in your orbit that you could foster.

Understand the tribe’s language and speak it.

In a study by Professor Vincent Jansen from Royal Holloway, even online communities havetheir own language with a tendency to deliberately use misspelled words, much as people have regional accents when they speak. For reasons I will never comprehend, Justin Bieber fans have a penchant for ending their words with “ee,” as in “pleasee.” Of course, these are literal examples, but each tribe has its own language. They approach issues with a certain view. They have a specific vocabulary (e.g., how some right-wing activists refer to the CBC as the Communist Broadcasting Corporation instead of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, or the Toronto Star as the Red Star, for their perceived left-wing bias). If you want to build a tribe, or mobilize one, you’ll stand a better chance if you’re part of the tribe. And that means you have to talk the talk. That’s where public opinion research can be your friend, especially if you tap into big data sources like Facebook topic data.

Map your tribe’s personas.

Now that you’ve gathered data you need to make it useable. That means fleshing it out and putting it in a digestible format. Using the the findings from our first exercise (finding shared interests), and the cursory information gleaned from the second exercise (getting a feel for the tribe’s language), you now need to gather demographic info that can help you paint a complete picture of all the types of individuals who make up your tribe. Can you distill that information down to easily identifiable personalities—a visual representation of who you need to reach out to with all your outbound communication efforts to make an emotive connection?

Test the messages that motivate action.

Now that you have identified the type of individuals that would be inclined to join your tribe, you need to put content out in the ether and see what sticks. You won’t have a true sense of what actually works until you put content out there, but by now you should have a sense of whether it stands a chance.

Be the glue that holds the tribe together.

As you begin to put out and test your messages, you have a much more important objective: build relationships with the people you’re courting. Keep your tribe informed about new developments; ask them for advice; seek their help when you need them to take action; and give back as much as you can. For the most part, email, private messages, and Facebook pages will be the vehicles through which you contact your tribe members. Too often, we’re so focused on trying to get something out of our “list” that we forget how exhausting it is to be on the receiving end of non-stop asks. A tribe will stick with you if you provide value and if you give more than you take.

Building a tribe and then nourishing it is tough work. It takes a lot of time and patience — two things no one can buy. But, with diligent and thoughtful work, it can be done. And these days, it should be done. Favour can change as fast as tribes can be created, and you never know when you’ll need a community in your corner.

Can Your Message Survive A Filtered View Of The Internet?

As originally published on Navigator's website.

The Promise of Information Freedom

Control was the Internet’s great promise when it went mainstream. I distinctly remember logging on for the first time in late 1995. I loaded one of the first search engines, Infoseek (this was pre-Google, of course), which aggregated popular content by subject and went click-happy exploring the “Word Wide Web.”

If you remember pre-Internet life, you certainly remember how thrilling this was. You felt like you were in the driver seat. You could explore topics and find whole websites dedicated to the same interests you had. You held the keys to an instant library curated by a community of freaks and geeks who shared your niche passions.

Within a year, our house had its first Internet-ready computer, and I would subsequently spend hours and hours after school, just “surfing” this massive sea of information. It was freedom. When Google came along and archived the Internet so that you could search just about anything, it truly felt like information freedom.  And until recently, that was always the frame I used when thinking about the Internet. It’s a place of uncensored, unrestricted, limitless information available to anyone who wants to find it.

Or is it?

The Reality of Information Overload

There is so much information on the Internet (in excess of 1.2 million terabytes, by some accounts), there’s simply no way to realistically navigate all it on our own. That’s why we have become so dependent on curators. The most popular platforms, of course, are Facebook, Twitter, and even Google.

Canadians cite Facebook as their number one destination for news. But Facebook gives us a distinct point of view on the world, one that is mostly removed from real-world realities. Its algorithm is designed to populate your news feed with content you are most likely to find engaging.  If you start liking your best friend’s baby pics, you’ll start to see more baby pics. Start an instant messenger conversation with someone and suddenly you start seeing a lot more of their status updates in your timeline. The algorithm is designed to keep you hooked with constant doses of entertainment so you keep coming back. The more effective the algorithm, the more daily users it generates for Facebook, and the more advertising it can sell. It’s a symbiotic relationships that, for the most part, keeps everyone happy.

But, does that come at a cost? Freakonomics Radio has a fascinating episode on this issue earlier this month. The episode begins with a story by Zenep Tufekci  who studies the social impact of technology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She recounts how she experienced the Ferguson Unrest of Aug 2014. When she logged to Twitter, her feed was consumed by this story—an unrelenting stream of tweets about police overreaction. When she switched to Facebook, she saw nothing about. It was as if she had a lense into two completely different universes. And in many ways, that’s each social platform: its own universe, with distinct user experiences that filter information in their own ways.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has left its social feed largely unaltered since its inception 10 years ago; it remains an unfiltered stream of consciousness. Twitter’s most avid users love that feature, but for many, it’s overwhelming. Where Facebook has successfully grown its user base by finding more sophisticated ways displaying relevant content, Twitter has taken an approach that “Internet Freedom” advocates would appreciate: it keeps the faucet open. What comes out of that faucet is largely unfiltered, which, of course, has caused Twitter griefon more than one occasion. Cyberbullying aside, Twitter has been struggling of late, and Wall Street wants it to adopt a Facebook-like algorithm.   But even if it sticks to its guns and continues with its current feed format, it remains a biased view of the world. As a user, you can only diversify what you’re seeing in your feed by altering the list of people you follow.

The lense through which we see, use, and consume information on the Internet is increasingly—almost exclusively—a lense shaped by others, for our viewing pleasure. We let our social feeds tell us what matters, what news to read, what video clips to watch, or which Netflix series to get hooked on next. Precisely because there is so much information, it’s easier to embrace a socially-validated news feed. If our social networks, and the social platforms we use every day do all the hard work of finding the content that resonates most with us, who are we to stop them? It’s too convenient; it simplifies our life.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we’ve reverted to the passive consumption that the Internet was supposed to free us from. In 1995, I took delight in having complete control (or what felt like complete control) over what I consumed. In 2016, I’m so damn busy, and have so much information to sift through, I love having all that hard work done for me through a couple apps on my phone. But I concede that in embracing this reality, I’m letting others tell me what information to consume. And by doing so, I’ve given up control as a consumer of information.

As we consume an Internet that is curated by a small group of highly-influential companies, we should remember, the Internet looks the way it does because we want it to look that way. We can’t fault Facebook, Google, or Twitter for serving up content its users want to see. If we don’t like that idea, we should stop watching cat videos or opt out of the platforms altogether.  Right — so that won’t happen any time soon — which means that as professional communicators, we need to crack the code and find ways to make our content pass the rigorous demands of Facebook’s algorithm, or Twitter’s finicky user base.

How to crack the code

In truth, we shouldn’t even focus on cracking the code. Curated social feeds only work if they display content people want to consume. Our goal should be the same. Admittedly, this is no easy task when it comes to public affairs content. In this space, we’re typically dealing with matters that have some regulatory, legislative, or public administration concern to them.Snooze! Who wants their social feed experience disrupted by content that deals with such serious, and potentially boring issues?  In a universe where people would rather watch clips from the Late Show, inserting ourselves in that space with a serious, cognitive, or alarmist message is jarring and typically off-putting to most people. That’s because they turn to their social channels for distraction or to connect with others, not to hear about why they should sign your petition demanding the government sets a renewable energy target of 100% by 2050. But we know that people will engage on these issues. However, it takes a thoughtful approach, and one that meets people’s expectations for what they will see on these platforms. So, how can we get people to respond to “boring” issues that typically rely on the cognitive side of the brain to make the point?

1. Lead with motive and make it emotional

People are naturally cynical, which means we need to lead with motive and be completely transparent about it.  But to make your message a one-two punch, you need to avoid cognitive arguments as much as humanly possible.  Our brain is wired to ignore the boring and respond quickly to novel, concrete, visual, and high-contrast messages instead. Eventually, you can speak to the cognitive side of the brain with compelling facts and figures, but before getting to that point, the brain needs to be primed. After it’s primed, It will respond much more quickly and be motivated by emotion. When in doubt, remember, people care about people. Obviously, they care about themselves, but they also care about their identity – the tribe with which they associate.  Appeal to both their self-interests and the interests of the communities they align with.

2. Make it enjoyable

Even if you’re campaigning on an issue that will get people worked up, present yourself as a happy warrior. Have a little bit of fun. People go online to have fun, and if you’re going to serve up your message in that context, make sure you fit in. If fun is completely off-brand for you, or if you worry about it backfiring—always a real possibility—then the rest of the user experience needs to be completely engaging. Even on serious issues, make your campaign video absolutely moving from the first frame to the last one. The creative should be beautiful, and any video should be immaculately composed. The copy should read flawlessly. All aspects of the campaign should have an attractive design aesthetic. We’re bombarded with facts and figures all day; we rarely come across quality content. So when quality appears in our feeds, we react.

3. Make it novel

When we’re scrolling through our social feeds, we’re looking for something different—something unexpected. We want something to grab our attention. As communicators, getting that attention is one of the most difficult assignments we could ask for. We literally have split seconds to grab someone’s attention. As Chip and Dan Heath taught us, “before your message can stick, your audience has to want it.” So, spark their curiosity. Shine a light on your audience’s curiosity gap, then immediately fill it.

4. Keep it simple

This is an easy one to get wrong. When we think about keeping things simple, we often think about the KISS method, (Keep It Simple, Stupid), which actually takes us down the wrong path. It gives us the wrong impression that we need to dumb down a message. However, the problem with dumbing down the message is that we look like we don’t have anything to back up or point or that we have something to hide. We should never hide. For our message to have credibility, it needs to be complete. So rather than try to dumb it down, we should focus on the priority that matters most. What’s the core message? That’s what we communicate.  Ah, if only it were that simple, right?

5. Use vivid imagery

People need to visualize our message. They need to see what a perfect world looks like. The best way to help them visualize that future is to paint a picture with language that is concrete. Don’t force the viewer to work hard to imagine the end-state. Show it to them immediately so that the cognition doesn’t get in the way of emotion. Help people “see” what you’re saying.  

First World Problems

Every now and then, our favourite sites go down. Completely off the grid. And when they do, we lose it. We hop on Slack and ask our colleagues if they’re experiencing it too. Just to confirm, for sure, that Facebook is down, we might even step outside our office to check that’s it not just us, that we’re not losing our minds. Of course, by today’s standards, we’re not losing our minds. It’s completely natural for us to have a casual freak out when the Internet breaks. For better or for worse, we’re hooked. And why not? There’s literally a world of information, distraction, and entertainment available to us at a swipe of a finger or a click of a button. It’s empowering to know that whenever we need an answer to something—anything— we can whip out our smartphone and find it, pretty much instantly. We do it so much and at such high frequencies that the moment the Internet is down for a minute, we’re completely thrown for a loop. We panic. We get frustrated. We seek confirmation. And if it progresses beyond 5 minutes, we look at our screens with a blank stare, waiting – waiting for it to come back on so we can get our daily fix of our friends’ photos, see how our stocks are performing, and read the latest celebrity gossip rags. The Internet puts us in control; when we don’t have it, we’re at a loss.