My 5 Keys to the Classroom

On Tuesday evening I wrapped up my 4th semester at NYU SPS teaching Social Media and the Brand. It was the largest group to date- 23 total- and probably the most diverse as well. My students hailed from across the US as well as from South Africa, the UK, China, Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, Venezuela. Experience-wise, it was a strong blend of professionals looking to add to their skillset and full-time students. As a group it was definitely the most engaged and talented bunch I’ve taught so far- which makes me excited for where the Integrated Marketing degree at NYU SPS is headed.

Anyone whose taught will tell you that a class of engaged students is a double-edged sword. It can be incredibly rewarding- because you get a sense that they actually care. BUT, particularly for those of us who battle demons of imposter syndrome, it can be daunting- because they WILL challenge you. This can all too easily turn your classroom into an egotistical clash of wills where student questions feel like a zero-sum game. When I was a student I remember all too well a few professors who fell into that trap- and honestly it was embarrassing to witness for all involved. I’ve also seen this happen in professional settings where insecure bosses feel that they have to be the authors of all worthwhile ideas. In both cases it’s the quickest way to loose innovation.

While students may not choose to drop your class they will check-out- and that’s a sad loss for all concerned. I gauge my success over a semester by the degree to which I feel I’ve created a space for sharing knowledge. There are always quiet students- and I make it my mission to make them comfortable speaking up. I feel a thrill of success when they raise their hand to share an insight or ask a question. It’s difficult- particularly when the language of instruction is second or third for the majority of the class.

Culture also plays a part- the American classroom is one of the more participatory. Over the past few semesters, I’ve learned that going around the room to ask each student to share a thought about the week’s reading is often more productive than inviting them to raise their hands. Because the classroom should not be about a clash of wills or egos or Type A personalities- it should be about a collective learning experience. Otherwise- what’s the point? I’m painfully aware that there digital alternatives to my course and it’s up to me to create a value-add for my students so that they tune into my class. If I don’t want my students to simply treat my class as a necessary check-off on their way to an NYU degree- I have to “bring it”.

I know that the fall semester is just a few weeks away and in that spirit I wanted to share 5 keys to creating a successful classroom culture.

  1. Check your ego at the door:

    This is huge particularly for anyone teaching social and digital media. I actually set the stage on day 1 of teaching. I introduce myself to my students talking about the range of experience I’ve had in professional settings, applying social media tactics to business problems. But I make it clear to them that I too am constantly learning and invite them to share any specialized knowledge they have. This helps to defuse their egos as well- because there are students who enjoy showing up professors (particularly female ones). By defining my role as a discussion leader, based on my professional experience, I keep it from being any type of zero-sum game.

  2. Take time to get to know your students and their personal expertise:

    Again, this occurs on day 1. I go around the room and ask all of my students to tell me their names, where they are from and what they want to get out of my class. I then make sure to take this into account for the rest of the semester. For example, this summer I had several students tell me that they had a background in analytics. I knew that my analytics stand-alone class was one of the shakier ones so I used this information to make sure to invest time in revamping it. I also took the time to weave in analytics into other parts of the curriculum and invited the students who had deep backgrounds in it to share their expertise during those lectures.

  3. Let them talk and share their ideas:

    This is something that is hard for me to do and has taken me several semesters to really buy into. When I was a student I always hated prolonged class discussions- I wanted to hear from the expert in the room. But now that I’m teaching I’ve found that there’s a balance and it’s really useful particularly for students who do have professional expertise. Letting them share this gives them a bigger stake in the class. On a practical side, it also adds to my credibility as an instructor when they share a professional example that illustrates the principle I’m working to get across. A big part of this is also to never EVER dismiss a student’s idea or try to embarrass them by being a smart ass. You can always say something like “that’s an interesting idea” or “I hadn’t really thought of it like that before”. If the student is totally off-base then turn it into a conversation- I often use these instances as examples to students of the different perspectives that come to bare in crafting a social strategy.

  4. Be practical- address what your students NEED to get out of taking this class:

    In my case this is a class for a professional graduate degree. So I try to tie everything I teach back to a professional skill that my students can use when they are either in a job or trying to land one. When I was teaching undergrads at the University of Virginia, I tried to teach them how to make strong arguments and write well. But I also made sure to be transparent about what they needed to do to get the grade they wanted out of the class. Most of your students are taking your class to fulfill a requirement- so get over yourself. It’s up to you to help them realize that this class can actually be useful for them. This is an attitude I SO wish more of my professors had adopted when I was a student.

  5. Set the a tone of professionalism:

    For several semesters I struggled with how to deal with cellphone use, laptop use for other activities, and stupid grammar/spelling mistakes. I finally came up with a solution that seems to be working. I tell my students that a critical component for their careers is pay attention to coming across as a professional. Texting would never fly in a business meeting. Similarly, I tell them, that when they use their laptops to shop, scroll through images, or otherwise not pay attention- it’s sending me a signal that they don’t care. Which, when I grade them, will keep me from giving them the benefit of a doubt. Similarly, not doing a simple grammar/spell-check on their laptop conveys to me that they don’t care. I use all of these as educational opportunities for them. It’s not about my personal preference or something that is irritating- it’s about preparing them for the professional world. I then do the same thing- I treat them with respect, make my guidelines transparent and try to be as organized as I can. This changes the conversation and, ultimately, will help them in the future.

Teaching is difficult. But I’ve found no greater joy than hearing one of my students make an observation that they would not have made at the beginning of the course. In an age of debate about the overall value of a college education, as instructors we have the ability to demonstrate our worth by creating positive and vibrant classroom cultures dedicated to innovation and respect.

Why Community Strategy Matters

Organic reach on social media is an incredibly competitive space, leading some marketers to pronounce it to be basically dead. Those who are more optimistic spend time talking about tactics that brands should be leveraging- from influencer marketing to employee advocacy.

But I’d like to suggest something a bit different. Organic reach in its original free-for all form is indeed mostly dead. Yet this does not necessitate the turn to a paid-centric approach. Rather, the introduction of the algorithm signaled a new era in Organic reach rewarding community-centered content and social strategies.

In this space, platforms filter posts according to a complex algorithm which takes into account the reception of a post by a user’s network to decide whether to serve it to the user. The 2016 US presidential election brought these filtered out “bubbles” into sharp relief. People went onto Facebook believing they were getting an accurate sample of their network’s views when, instead, they were receiving pre-filtered views through the algorithm. (This led KIND snacks to create a “Pop Your Bubble” App  which connects you to 10 people on Facebook with different opinions than your own.) Regardless of the pushback, however, Facebook knows that it’s doing something right. It just hit the 2B user mark and Instagram which also debuted an algorithm last year, is now at 700M users. Most significantly, this past July Google entered the personalized algorithm fray with the introduction of personalized search results based on your interaction with various Alphabet properties.

Social Influencers represent another key group of actors in the organic Community-focused approach. Influencers derive their power from cultivating a strong follower-base and building a unique community. They are driven by the desire to set themselves apart for personal branding purposes and building power niche audiences- such as black vegan bloggers– that brands can appeal to. Influencers work to get their communities to engage with them, which in turn sends a powerful signal to the platform algorithm to continue to deliver the same type of content to those users. Influencers + Algorithm means that suddenly, there could be a whole dedicated group of social media users engaged with the #BlackVeganBlogger hashtags.

Brands embarking on an organic community strategy should assess all of the niche communities that relate to their messaging/product. Every piece of content, and corresponding social posts, should be created with the goal of generating interaction with one of those communities. For example, a brand selling Kale Chips could market to: Black Vegan Bloggers, Mom Vegan Bloggers, Urban Vegan Bloggers, LGBT Vegan Bloggers, Parent Vegan Bloggers, College Student Vegan Bloggers, you get the point- right? Content highlighting these niche communities tends to get shared more simply because it’s less common. This tactic is first and foremost about making sure that your content is geared to speak to target communities with the aim of getting picked up and re-shared.

According to this model, tactics such as influencer marketing and employee advocacy are part of a larger overall community-strategy geared towards increasing social media organic reach. It follows therefore, that the smallest unit of social media marketing is not the influencer or the individual. Rather it’s the niche community through which social media marketing derives relevance.

 

 

 

Facebook is not your Friend

Here’s a scenario- stop me when it sounds familiar. An employee sets up a business Instagram handle then they leave without giving you the email or password information. A year later you decide that maybe you want to give Instagram a go after all and want to retrieve that account. Yep. There’s no way to do that. Go to the platform and you’ll eventually land on this “helpful” article advising you to  contact your ISP. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are little better. Run afoul of them and you quickly find yourself in an automated no-mans land.

“How can they get away with this?” I’ve heard business owners exclaim in frustration when for the umpteenth time I try to explain that I can’t retrieve their original account. “I’m a customer!” But that’s the thing- you’re not a customer in the eyes of social media networks. They don’t have to make you happy because you hold very little power when it comes to their unique bottomline. Successful platforms balance user acquisition with the onus of monetization expected by their investors. To put it into context: Facebook just hit 2 Billion users, Instagram is at 700 Million. You.Don’t.Matter.

This is a harsh reality particularly given just how much of our marketing is invested around these platforms. In the first few years of social media marketing brands operated in the wonderful world of FREE. The idea of brands as humans was absolutely the case. Brand posts and pages were treated just the same as any other post. Remember the “Like Our Facebook Page and Win a Free iPad” contests of 2010 and 2011? That all came crashing down in 2012 when Page managers found out that on average only 16% of their audience was seeing a post. In 2014, Oglivy posted “Facebook Zero” finding that for pages with over 500,000 likes, organic reach was only at 2%Organic reach took another hit in 2016, when Facebook said publicly that the algorithm would prioritize friends and family posts first for organic reach. 

Of course this has all been a boon to paid social practitioners who are reaping the reward of operating in a space of murky attribution reporting where brands are desperate to continue their pre-algorithm reach. But for small to medium businesses paid social remains a slippery slope. Let’s be honest, a business owner who is still coming to grips with the value of social media is not suddenly going to open the purse strings for a paid social campaign.

Facebook’s success with the algorithm combined with total content overload led Instagram, Twitter and now LinkedIn to adopt increasingly stringent algorithms aimed at getting brands to pony up to participate.

If you want to market on social there’s one mantra that needs to be your guiding principle: Social media platforms are not your friends particularly if you’re a brand. At every step you should expect to be foiled and penalized.

The losers in this will always be the small business owner for whom an ad-buy is too pricey and yet by being categorized as a “brand” they suffer algorithm penalties. Yes you should have a paid strategy, but a small business social strategy must be agile and look to milk every opportunity for getting an organic ROI.

 

 

 

Social Media and the Small Business

Social media can make all the difference for a small business and yet for the majority of small business owners I’ve spoken to it is simply another frustrating stressor.

As a business owner you need to be focused on what you know will get you that a return on investment. You barely have time to eat lunch let alone to figure out how to optimize (whatever that means) your LinkedIn Page or whether you should be on Instagram.

You keep telling yourself that you’ll figure out social media once you grow a bit bigger. But let’s be honest, we both know that once you grow bigger you’ll have a whole new set of concerns around ROI and once again, social media marketing will not make the cut.

It’s the small business owner’s dilemma: you know you need to invest in social media but every minute you invest in trying to set up your unproven social media strategy, is time away from tried and true activities that you know will net a given ROI.

Moreover, getting that ROI from social media is much more difficult than it was a few years ago. In the age of the algorithm and content saturation it’s no longer enough for you to simply have a LinkedIn Page, Facebook Profile or Twitter handle. To really see ROI you need to be in the right place at the right time serving up the right content for the right audience.

This typically leads to a business owner hitting a total breaking point and making one of the following very un-strategic decisions:

  1. Delegation: ask your most millennial-looking employee to get your company on social media then get irritated 6 months later when they leave and you realize you don’t know any of the passwords.
  2. Throw money at it: Invest in a service that the sales person swears will fix all of your problems by means of an intricate proprietary algorithm powered by flying blue monkeys (you have a suspicion that you got that last part wrong but it was only $29.99 a month and surely it must do something helpful)
  3. Avoidance: Forget social media. Just forget it. There’s no time. It’s all too much. We’ll figure it out later.

What these 3 points have in common is a desire on the part of the small business owner to solve what they feel is a problem without educating themselves as to the actual nature of the problem. But I get why this occurs. Social media feels overwhelming and when you already have a full plate as a business owner it seems impossible.

The problem is that for social media to actually benefit your business, you need to be directly involved in the strategy at least in the beginning. Social media allows you to communicate to your customers and potential customers. It’s a way for your build up a community that you can tap into throughout your sales cycle. The right social strategy can provide a much needed cushion when you experience dips in sales. But that can only occur if you set up your strategy to do that ahead of time. And that takes your commitment to work with a trained professional who can provide the following solutions for you:

  • Education as to how your business goals could benefit from social media investment. Every business is different and you need to know what’s attainable and what’s not.
  • Realistic assessment of needed investment based on the goals you want to set (some industries are harder than others!)
  • Setting clear performance indicators pegged to your ROI goals that you can monitor to know how you’re doing at any given time.
  • Creation of social media plug and play process that you and your employees understand and can follow.

As the daughter of a small business owner I know all too well the sheer enormity of this task. So here’s the thing, if you’re not in a place where you can invest some upfront resources (your time and money) in a strategy then make the ROI- motivated decision to stay off of social media. BUT, so that you’re not going back into avoidance, create a calendar reminder with a link to this blog post for next quarter when you’re going to do a ROI-motivated reassessment of that decision.

With the right strategy social media CAN be a game changer for your small business. 

How the MLB Wins at Hashtags

Yesterday was a pretty busy day if you’re a baseball fan on Twitter who doesn’t mind spamming your friends. If you’re not a baseball fan then you might very well be a bit confused that seemingly normal people are suddenly sharing tweets with strange gifs demanding you  #ElectElvis or #VoteMoose.

Saner people might ask- why is a Moose on the ballot and, more importantly, isn’t Elvis dead? More importantly, who is Rendon and why is a building in DC telling me that I should vote for him?

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Appropriately confused? Here’s what was going on. Every year ahead of the All Star Game, there’s a final fan choice vote off between 8 players- 4 for the National League and 4 for the American League. Starting in 2012 MLB includes votes by hashtag in the final hours of the vote:

 

As a Nationals fan I was of course part of the Vote Rendon insanity. And yes, my account was suspended more than once in my exuberance.

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How big of a deal was this? Enough that #VoteMoose, a Kansas City Royal, was trending nationally throughout the week. MLB helped the craze along by updating results daily in a nifty graphic and fans ate it up.

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What makes this digital love so interestingly is that fans traditionally have a strong love-hate relationship with MLB’s celebrity-filled and sponsorship-fueled All Star Game. It interrupts the normal season, can break winning streaks, cause season-ending injuries, screw up pitching rotations and, adding insult to injury, is blacked out for MLB.com subscribers living in the US. And yet, fans want more than anything to be able to have bragging rights that their top players are participating.

This type of love-hate relationship is always tricky to navigate and nigh-impossible to measure. Typically in a marketing scenario we have to fly blind and rely on word of mouth, hoping that the pros outweigh the cons.  Yet with the hashtag voting system MLB can actually point to numbers-backed figures showing fan engagement and enthusiasm. Think of the impact this makes when they’re selling sponsorships and trying to get big-name players to participate. They can shift the narrative around from it being all about them to being some that is fan-generated. That is marketing gold. That is also the power of hashtag strategy done well.

Well done MLB. 

Musings on Leadership & Influence

Many years ago I gave a talk on being a leader to a group of undergraduates who were in a leadership program a top 10 university. One of them asked me, in that adorably naive way of type A super honor students, how they could get people to follow them as leaders. It was one of those out of sync moments where I had to do a few mental steps to keep myself from laughing out loud at such a superiorly entitled question. When I finally responded I’m sure my answer was a bit of a disappointment- “You’re a leader when others call you that, not before. Leadership is earned.” I’m sure many were puzzled, if respect mattered so much then what in the end, was the use of the elite university program that they were enrolled in? Thankfully no one actually asked me that question- I was, after all, a guest speaker of said program!

Leadership, like influence, is a concept that cannot be defined in a vacuum. Simply listing “Leader” or, for that matter, “Influencer” on a resume without any context is a misnomer. Identifying leaders or influencers should begin with an assessment of community and/or organizational strength. In a democratic system people choose who they are led and influenced by. That’s why communities and healthy organizations are the bell-weathers of true leaders and influencers. Brute strength and force can accomplish only so much- as Travis Kalanick found out to his chagrin.

It’s for this reason that influencer marketing is such a fickle game. The big money is invested in the celebrity influencers but, with a few exceptions, their fleeting popularity is a numbers game with little community to support it.

Influencer marketing is appealing to brands because of its root in human psychology. We listen to certain key people in our lives and trust them when we make purchasing decisions. Unfortunately, the conflation of influencer with celebrity means that more often than not these are not the people being recruited by brands for influencer campaigns. People may be amused by Kim Kardashian and click “Like” but that must not be mistaken for an act of trust. And it’s trust that gets your community to take measurable actions such as supporting a cause, downloading an app (and using it), or making a purchase.

Until brands and agencies alter their approach to influencer marketing- trading in the “Insta-famous” to a verifiable multi-variate analysis- they will consistently fall short of their potential. Influencers can and should be held to a clearly defined return on investment. But it first starts with turning the process of identification upside down and starting with the community not the persona.

 

A post about baseball

So I warned you that this 31 day challenge might take all sorts of twists and turns. Here it is Day 3 and I’m already going to do a random post about baseball. But honestly I really love it. The funny thing is that this is a love that I really found in my mid- 20s.

I went to games as a social thing when I was growing up but the game didn’t really interest me. Of course it didn’t help that the closest stadium was Dodger stadium and we sat in the nose bleed seats- you’re so far up it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. ( I remember going to my first Angel’s game as a teenager and feeling like I’d never been to a game before! BUT I digress.)

Then my husband’s family introduced me to the Washington Nationals. I went to my first Nats game in 2008 and they were awful. I mean just TERRIBLE. But that first game I could sense the love of the fanbase for their team. In the 5th inning the announcer calls on all the fans to “Stand and pledge your allegiance to your Washington nationals by waiving your cap”. My sarcastic self who wouldn’t be caught dead in such a public show of group activity looked around shocked to see jaded Washingtonians, some still in their work gear leaping up to wave their red hat in the air in time to the music. I was hooked. Of course it took several years before I too would jump up and waive my cap- old habits die hard- but in that moment, deep down I knew that it was only a matter of time.

There’s something wonderfully simple about being a baseball fan. From Spring training in March to the Postseason in October you have a ready topic of conversation. Being a fan is full of ups and downs and if you’re familiar with the Nats you know that I’ve had my share in the past few years! But we share them together as a community.

Over the past 9 years I’ve been to countless games and have many fond memories. When I moved away from DC several years ago I kept my connection to the community intact through my Nats fan girl Twitter account where I do some gentle trolling and fan-spamming with the best of them.

Recently I’ve also started reading books about baseball history as well. This was a big step for me since moving into reading about the game in general and other teams gets you passed the “yeah I watch games” to “OMG I LOVE baseball”. But really it was more of admitting what everyone already knew. A few I’d recommend (because I’m sure you’ll ask)

Learning to be a baseball fan has taught me some very valuable lessons. I’ve learned that there’s always another game- even if you have to wait until spring training for it, that everyone’s replaceable and a trade that feels like the end of the world can end up being the best thing for the club. I’ve seen first hand the importance of leadership and how certain people can be great players but not-so-great coaches. Ultimately I’ve seen that there’s a value to team culture- when the clubhouse is humming then things are going to be good on the field but when there’s bad blood, which you can sense as a fan, then no matter how talented your players, it’s all going to fall apart.

The point of this post isn’t to convert you to liking baseball- many people say it’s too slow or they just don’t get it and that’s fine. I, for one, am completely at a loss to understand American football (and no- that’s not an invitation to try to explain it to me- I’ve made my peace with this). Rather it’s to reflect on what a simple hobby with no practical value has given to me when it comes to insights in leadership and human nature.

Sometimes I worry that in the hustle-focused culture particularly in the tech industry, we can forget about the importance of having these types of simple experiences- like watching a baseball game. There’s so much more to life than the daily grind. The truth is, being a baseball fan has made me a more well rounded person. And yes, if you’re sitting next to me at a game I will proudly be participating in all the chants, hat waiving, jumping up and down and various other traditions that being a fan entails. I’m Suzie and I love baseball.