#sorrynotsorry: How the CIA Could Think More Strategically About Their Twitter Content

This post was originally published on Huffington Post Tech. It was cited in a USA Today article, “Hey, CIA, #betterciatweets are pretty good” (7/15/2014).

The CIA launched a Twitter account about a month ago, and it has quickly attracted over 700,000 followers who re-tweet every item hundreds of times. However, the well of jokes poking fun at itself will quickly run dry, and it’s not clear what the long-term strategic communications plan is for the CIA’s social media. This isn’t a challenge confined to spy organizations or governments, but rather one for any high-profile organization wading taking social media seriously for the first time.

Here are three strategic-minded steps the CIA could take to shape its Twitter stream for the long-term, and presumably coax people to a more positive mindset about the agency:

(1) Think like a marketer and create content with the reader’s frame of reference in mind. The CIA’s global brand recognition is enormous, right up there with Nike and McDonald’s — even people in poor or remote areas of the world have heard of these organizations. Fair or not, in the case of the CIA, their opinions may not be that positive, for obvious reasons. While it’s fine to be proud of your organization, it’s a mistake to be too cavalier and assume “CIA” is a beloved brand and the audience are naive empty vessels yearning to be filled with puppies and candy. Disadvantages can be turned into advantages, however, and the CIA should consider how it can positively highlight itself from its underdog position, not unlike Avis’ classic 1960’s “We Try Harder” ads they (very successfully) ran as the number two car rental company behind Hertz.

(2) Consider how the overall CIA Twitter page content represents the brand. If you woke up this morning and visited the CIA’s Twitter account for the first time, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a new spinoff of The Onion. That’s because a lot of the recent content is a mixture of snarky/hip responses to questions using cute hashtags like #sorrynotsorry, and photos of spy planes from the 1950s to celebrate “U2 Week” (which is apparently a thing). Those kinds of tweets can be good in moderation (The tweet “No, we don’t know where Tupac is” was re-tweeted 160,000 times, well done), but this lowbrow content has been so overdone recently that the content mix of @CIA bears nearly no resemblance to current issues related to the actual Central Intelligence Agency. A simple search of Google News for “CIA” returns numerous current stories about the agency, and while great care should be taken with regard to commenting on various issues, never commenting on anything isn’t a meaningful long-term plan — most high-profile spokespeople have come to terms with this fact. I find it hard to imagine building trust with an organization whose social media channel content is almost entirely divorced from its own reality.

(3) Discuss things besides the CIA (aka you talk about yourself all the time). One of the biggest strategic mistakes organizations — particularly well-known brands — make with their content is focusing only on themselves. Unfortunately, the degree to which the audience cares about an organization’s content is one-tenth of what PR staff for the organization estimate it is (just a personal rule of thumb). People crave current news, thought leadership, entertainment, and variety in their content mix. With that in mind, the CIA could due with a bit less of the humdrum links to their homepage and less of the relatively frivolous spy plane photos and jokes and begin thinking holistically about a content plan and calendar that includes both highbrow and lowbrow material which represents the brand well and keeps things interesting, perhaps confining itself to only discussing the CIA proper 50% of the time. The remaining content might include answering select audience questions, linking to genuinely interesting third-party items like high-quality longreads or interesting interviews, and generally acting like a thought leader on global issues. It’s most likely too much to expect a level of openness whereby the CIA would link to The Intercept’s new story about U.S. government surveillance, but I see absolutely no reason why it couldn’t link to a story from Pacific Standard about the global black market for human organs, for example.

In the end, a social media channel is a representation of a brand’s public personality. Now that they seem to be be embracing social channels, the CIA has a huge opportunity to manage its reputation by creating world-class content, genuinely engaging people on issues related to their mission, and ultimately, (re)building trust.

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MIT’s Washington Office has the best job rejection letters ever because they’re a lesson in branding

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Anyone who’s applied for a bunch of jobs within a short period of time knows that the most common response to your job application is silence. Sometimes – my estimation is roughly 15% – you get an anonymous email telling you that you didn’t make it through the initial screening, but typically you just don’t hear anything at all.

Such rejection-by-silence is just something you get used to because, sadly, it’s the norm. Which is why I was surprised to receive a letter in the mail from a place I had applied for a job about five weeks ago, the Washington Office of MIT. I had met with their #2 for an informal breakfast meeting but then hadn’t gotten a follow-up (I’m not sure it was a great fit from my end, either).

I’ve gotten so used to average and below-average treatment from human resources that I literally couldn’t imagine what could possibly be in this letter. I figured that they had recorded my personal information and were inviting me to an upcoming event that might be of interest. But nothing could have prepared me for what I found when I opened the envelope.


Putting the obvious generic flattery aside, there are some wonderful things about this rejection letter. I wish you could touch it. The paper is really high quality, the kind I would have used in a typewriter a lifetime ago. It has MIT watermarks on it (below the address, and below the signature). It’s hand-signed in pen by the director of the office. And they areappreciative of my interest in them.

And they should be. Applicants have long memories. And no matter where my career takes me, I’ll never forget this particular rejection from MIT because it says a lot about their values. They’re old-fashioned. They take the time to do high-quality things. And the letter is an amazing branding touch-point; MIT took a negative (getting rejected for a job) and transformed it into a positive (a surprise brand experience). I’ll remember it positively and would say nice things about the office if asked, and wouldn’t hesitate to work with them in some way in the future, maybe years and years from now.

Lots of people over think branding and marketing and have really complex ways of measuring its effectiveness. And human resources staff definitely tends toward the cold and impersonal. This simple letter “tactic” (if they even consider it that, which I sincerely doubt – it’s just a genuine expression of how they approach things) had a big effect on me. I’ll be saving their letter to me as a terrific example of how every brand touch point with a human being is an opportunity to make a positive long-term impression.

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#Unplug: Why I Choose To Have One Analog Day Per Week

Just about every week, for one day, typically Saturday, I put away my phone, my iPad, and don’t sit in front of my computer. Sometimes I check my phone in bed when I first wake up, but then that’s it.

This simple act is remarkably freeing. If I’m alone, I can truly let my mind wander about how to spend my day. Do I want to cook a big breakfast? Read magazines all day? (I’m a bit of a print-magazine hoarder. I even listen to Monocle’s The Stack, a radio show all about print magazines.) Binge-watch a TV show season? Go for a three- or four-hour walk without checking my watch? On any given analog day, I’ll do any one of these things and more. I’m not so fanatical that I won’t turn on a TV or use my iPod, but I don’t do anything that involves digital communication, barring something pressing like texting someone about already-scheduled plans, or calling my mother back.

Unplugging also allows me to recharge my batteries from the previous week. Typically, weeks are full of meetings, emails, and responsibilities. It’s really hard for me to relax within that environment. I don’t know about everyone else, but it’s hard for me to switch back and forth between work and play. At any given time, I’m pretty much in one of those modes until I get so tired that I collapse. As a bit of a quiet introvert I really need significant downtime between the last time you saw me and the next time you see me “up” at an event or a meeting. Lots of people think I’m extroverted, but I’m really just an extroverted introvert, and when you don’t see me I’m probably walking alone in Rock Creek Park with my headphones and sunglasses and ball cap on, ignoring everyone.

Finally, these analog sessions are when I typically get my good ideas. It might be an idea for a blog post, or something that “pops” in a magazine article I’m reading, or an insight that helps me with a project in the upcoming week. But despite the fact that I was working on all of those things the workweek previous, I get many of the insights precisely when I’m not working on them, or thinking about them, when my mind is relaxed. I carry around a small notebook and pen where ever I go (typically a Field Notes these days; I also have an all-weather “Rite in the Rain” red pen I bring with me when I’m outdoors).

The hyper-connected Baratunde Thurston famously wrote about how he unplugged for 25 days following his book tour. If you can get past the feature-article length writing, the narcissism of describing every detail of his detox, and the ridiculousness of some of his advice (”schedule a vacation” or “alert your colleagues” is not exactly cutting-edge advice specific to a digital detox), it’s a valuable article because if you’re like many people and you feel trapped by all your devices and push notifications and social channels, Thurston tells you that it’s actually “okay” to leave that for a while.

For me, I’ve never been too hung up on explaining why it took me an extra day or so to get back to people. Especially on the weekend. You know what? I just simply didn’t see your text to me at 9pm on Saturday night or your email request from late-Friday afternoon. I didn’t care to. Now it’s Sunday and I’ll take a look and get back to you. Perhaps not everyone can get away with going analog exactly the way I do it, but I’m sure that if you want to you can come up with your own variation.

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Twitter’s Nonsensical Onboarding Process Suggests Tech Companies Should Hire Some Professional Behaviorists

Owen Williams wrote an insightful post called “Signing up for a new Twitter account shows why the company is struggling to grow” that’s a must-read whether you’re a social media enthusiast, a digital marketer, or a tech startup investor. He breaks down the process of signing up for a new Twitter account on desktop and mobile in explicit detail, and in effect shows how ineffective or even somewhat bizarre some of the on-boarding choices are.

I won’t recap the process because Owen did such an awesome job — just read his article and check out the screenshots. But it’s clear that whatever all the employees of Twitter are doing, very few are thinking about the first experience a new user has with their brand.

Like Owen, I’ve been using Twitter since 2008. I have tweeted more than 50,000 times (!), gained over 30,000 followers, and overall I have gotten tremendous personal value from it in the form of new connections, readers, feedback, offers, new friends, and more. Twitter is unquestionably valuable if you go through the journey of reading about it, experimenting with it, optimizing it, and using it constantly. The people who gain the most from it are continuous learners with a lifehacking mentality.

Unfortunately for Twitter, it’s not just a cool “community service” for super-enthusiasts like Owen and I who want to find out where Gary Vaynerchuk is hanging out at SXSW anymore. It could have been. It could have become an open source resource. It could have become a non-profit to help the world communicate. It could have been any number of things.

But. Twitter’s leaders and investors made the decision to be a “real” company, to sell ads to major corporations and do major collaborations with entities like the World Cup and the White House, and to become a publicly-traded corporation that needs to grow and add value for shareholders. With those choices come new responsibilities, among them getting more people to join and use their platform and like it. But user growth isn’t nearly what it could be. And its greatest “innovations” like @ replies and #hashtags were invented by users, not Twitter employees.

The irony is that new accounts can actually have huge value to users very quickly if done right. For all my tweets and followers and consistency over six years, I am getting way, way less engagement on my @cheeky_geeky account than I used to in 2008 or 2009. (Around the end of 2008, I was one of the top 100 most-followed people on Twitter, and one of the top 50 most retweeted users.) Right now, I’m probably at an all time low. The community and its users have changed. The rules have changed. Now, I’m not running a business through my personal account and I’m happy with what it is. But people are finding things less, clicking through less, retweeting less.

But. But. I have another account. A semi-secret account. It’s only about one topic, a very niche topic, something I want to do more about with in the future. And what’s amazing about that account is that I follow and am followed by only people who are super-enthusiasts about this little topic and there’s a ton of engagement. I can leave and come back two weeks later with one tweet and I’ll see, say, 6 high-quality re-tweets and comments (I only have about 200 followers). These are the kind of people who would click through and read something at high rates, or participate in a Kickstarter on my niche topic, or buy something about the topic from me.

Because I’ve been using Twitter so long and work in tech and media and know a bunch about the space, I have some natural advantages when it comes up to launching a social media play on a niche topic. What Twitter needs to figure out is how to on-board a tech-naive high school kid, or a retiree, or a newly unemployed person to do the same thing.

As a person whose background is in the behavioral sciences, one thing that’s always surprised me is the lack of behaviorists, sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and the like at tech companies and consulting firms who claim to care about influence, user engagement, social interaction and so on. What do you think influence and social interaction and stuff is? It’s just people interacting with each other. It turns out there are lots of scientists who know a lot about that.

Sure, code is important. Designers are important. MBA’s are important. But it seems like if companies like Twitter that depend on positive user experiences, habitual use of product, and user interactions which add value want to grow and thrive, they might consider devoting more resources to actually studying the “human terrain” of people and how and why they behave the way they do.

Tangentially related: ‘A Dark Room’, the incredibly engaging, best-selling iPhone game that no one can entirely explain.

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It’s Not Who You Know, It’s Who Knows You: Breaking Into Someone’s Top 100 List

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, April 21, 2014.

How many times have you heard someone say, “It’s all who you know” within the context of getting ahead in your career? Probably a lot.

Interestingly, just the opposite is true. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

Thought experiment: Consider the social networks of celebrities, national politicians, or CEOs. Obviously there’s a small number of people who they “know,” meaning that they know them by name and remember something about them and wouldn’t mind a conversation with them. However, most their power in society is derived from the fact that a preponderance of strangers know them. That’s why they can get tickets to a sold-out show, or a million Instagram followers, or a private audience with the President to discuss their new charitable initiative.

Now consider the people you “know” (or think you know). Common scenario: You got someone’s business card at an event nine months ago and sent them a follow-up email about how nice it was to have met them. Now, there’s something you want from them – an introduction related to an advertised job, their attendance at an event you’re planning, a donation to your spouse’s charity. If you didn’t make a memorable impression when you met them or subsequently, the fact that you “know them” means nearly nothing. What matters is if they “know you” – in other words, that they remember you and think something positive about you that motivates them to respond to a call-to-action.

Confession: I meet lots of people who don’t make a memorable impression on me. It’s not atypical for me tobecome a victim of the cocktail party scenario where they approach me a year later with a huge “Hi!!” and I look at them with a blank stare. Often, the story is like the above – they met me after a talk I gave at a conference two years ago and we connected on LinkedIn and they read my writing but we haven’t had a conversation nor have I heard anything about them since. It sounds harsh, but I can only keep track of so many people; They know me, but I don’t know them.

Because people can only keep track of the activities of about one hundred people who are currently important to them, business networking is actually far more ruthless than you’ve probably been led to believe. If you can’t break into your target’s “Top 100 List” within a reasonably short amount of time, they have no bandwidth to “know you” and thus can’t really be of any use to you. You may as well have not met them in the first place.

Why do some (non-celebrity) people tend to break into lots of personal Top 100 Lists and others don’t? I previously wrote that your brand is the sentence people say about you behind your back. Simply put, some people’s sentences are more memorable and meaningful than others. Contrast, for example, “Bob’s in marketing, I think he works for a big company in New York” and “John’s one of the most creative marketing execs to come out of New York in the last decade.” If there’s truth in the latter statement, it follows that over time John is more likely to “be known” by many more people than poor ambiguous Bob.

Knowing people doesn’t scale, but being known to people scales infinitely. Therefore, a good strategy for meaningfully expanding your professional network should include activities that grow the number of people who know you (There are also network effects at play here: the more people who know you, the more conversations there are about you, and the more people hear about you, the more people know you, ad infinitum). Such activities might include public speaking, guest writing for popular blogs in your specialty area, or appearing in a television interview. Or it might be an invention that you launch on Kickstarter to much acclaim, or something else physical that you create which garners attention. You should also give careful consideration to the “narrative on the street” about you: What is that key detail that sets you apart from so many others?

It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you.

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Your ‘Brand’ is the One Sentence People Say About You Behind Your Back

This post was originally published on LinkedIn, where it received about 15,000 views and was shared socially roughly 2,000 times.

Not too long ago, Lululemon was a revered brand. Now it’s not, and sales have declined accordingly. Not so long ago, Apple could do no wrong. Now people wonder out loud if it’s innovative anymore. With constant connectedness and infinite information, consumers have never been so fickle about their choices.

According to the American Marketing Association, a brand is the “name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s product distinct from those of other sellers.” That sounds like something from orientation day at Sterling Cooper Draper Price. What does the term “brand” actually mean in practice?

A brand is essentially the one sentence people say about you behind your back. This practical “street” definition based on actual human interaction applies equally well to people, products, and companies. For example, someone might describe Lululemon to their friend as “absolutely the best place to buy yoga gear, ever” or they might say “people say Lululemon great, but I’ve bought a few things and they fall apart, totally overrated.” Someone might describe you to their professional acquaintance as “the smartest person in New York on things related to creativity in advertising, you must talk to them” or “too cerebral and academic, I’m not sure they’d be the right fit for your advertising company.”

That one sentence means a lot. It may be the difference between buying a $1300 suit from Ralph Lauren or a $500 one from Suit Supply, the difference between buying brand-name Tylenol or generic CVS pain reliever, and between you being considered to keynote the a major industry conference or not. These single sentences constantly being transmitted between couples basically mean everything.

A side effect of this is that even well-established brands “can never coast on past performance,” as James Surowiecki recently wrote in The New Yorker. This is not only because people are better informed than ever, but also because they can transmit their learnings easier than ever as well, not only in person but on social networks and through older but still powerful tools like email and message boards. This applies to people’s personal brands too; it is very easy to spread negative and even false information about people using all the social and mobile technology at our disposal.

The good news, especially for people, is that brands can be modified through your activities. For companies and products, that means branding and marketing activities. For people, it means your own personal actions in the community. For example, many people currently identify me with the technology industry, because I recently worked at Microsoft for almost four years. That’s somewhat fair, but I’m trained as a scientist. How would I get more people to think of me and “brand me” as a scientist? Simple: By bringing it up in conversations with people, by writing about my skills and interests, by tweeting more things about science, and so on. It’s gradual. You have to coax people to a new position over time – a year or two, perhaps.

If you accept that your brand is the one sentence people say about you behind your back, it’s worth thinking about what things people are saying about you right now. Write down a list of reasonable things people might say about you to their professional contacts when asked. Are you happy with those? What would you change? How might you begin that process? Your brand is not completely in your control, but you can do a lot to positively influence it and update it over time.

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Technology and Tragedy at the Boston Marathon

This post was originally published at Publicyte and by InTheCapital on April 16, 2013.

On 9/11, I was a grad student at UC-Irvine in California. I found out about the terrorist attacks from a professor on the elevator on the way up to my laboratory. I hadn’t watched TV that morning before heading to school. And remember, I was on the west coast, so at that time I was a couple hours behind the story. When I got to the lab, my labmate MIchelle and my advisor Tony were trying to get on CNN.com – they couldn’t. Everything was jammed. Tony and I took a monitor I was using to videotape (on VHS!) fruit fly behavior from the back room, moved it onto a table in the main lab, and rigged up an antenna made out of a metal coat hanger so we could watch the news. I think we had that monitor on NBC for about a week straight. We worked a little but mainly just stared at the TV.

I don’t even remember if I had a cell phone then. If I did, I sure don’t remember really using it. It was probably a basic Nokia model that made calls. I know it wasn’t a Blackberry or anything of the kind – I didn’t get one of those until I was living in Washington, DC years later – around 2008 or so. During 9/11, there were no apps, no social media, no mobile communications, nothing really that enabled regular people to take photos of something and share them in anything close to real time.

Yesterday, I was on a conference call around 3pm EST and I got a text from a family member in Boston. I grew up in Massachusetts and a lot of my family lives in Boston area. Turns out, two of my family members went to watch the Marathon yesterday. One of them runs marathons, and was supposed to be in the race, but for an injury about six months ago. He would have finished just a bit faster than the time on the clocks when the bombs went off, if he had been running full speed.

I stopped working after that conference call, got some junk food, and flipped between about seven different news channels. I mostly watched Fox Business and MSNBC and CNN because they seemed to have the best video and breaking news and interviewees. I heard CBS was great, too. I watched them this morning. Norah O’Donnell was in Boston near the scene, seemingly on the verge of tears for two hours. I can’t blame her.

I didn’t have my Twitter feed on 9/11, and neither did anyone else. I didn’t have Facebook either (it didn’t exist yet; Zuckerberg was in middle school or so), nor anything else that we today call social media. But yesterday I did, and I tweeted. I tweeted a lot.

Social media has gotten me a bit jaded lately, but I have to admit that I’d forgotten how many people cling to it for information about loved ones and loved things. I follow a lot of very solid people and sources on Twitter and Facebook, and combined with TV coverage, I sent about 20 tweets with heavily curated and interesting news and quotes during the afternoon and early evening. I got 200-300 retweets and comments or so. My friend Tommy asked me last night why people reach out to each other with social media during a crisis. I replied that people always reach out to each other in a crisis no matter what; it’s human nature. Social media scales human nature.

Technology played a big role in telling the story of the Boston Marathon bombing. The mainstream media, of course,broke news but also argued with itself in real time, the White House used Flickr to officially show that President Obama was meeting with homeland security advisers, and short video service Vine seems to have found purposein tragedy. My Facebook feed was nothing but Boston. Somebody set up a public Google Doc so people could offer their Boston homes to those who needed a place to stay. Boston.com used their “viral video” site to post the most horrific and accurate video I’ve seen of what happened; it’s all over TV this morning. The Reddit community is curating everything here.

The last thing I tweeted before I heard about the explosions in Boston was a link to “Photos from the MTV Music Awards photo booth.” I feel a little silly. But at least now because of innovative startup companies and new social media creations, I have the ability to look a little silly in hindsight. A decade or so ago, I couldn’t do anything but watch a rigged up TV in my lab and be quiet in my thoughts.

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How Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Engagement Designs Meaningful Experiences

This post was originally published on the PivotCon blog on April 6, 2013.

Guest post written by Mark Drapeau, Director of Innovative Engagement (Public Sector), Microsoft, @cheeky_geeky


Adam Conner of Facebook dances “Gagnam Style” at the DC show in Fall 2012.

Have you ever made your Facebook profile pic a photo of you laughing with friends at a Microsoft event?

For most people the answer to this question would be “no.” However, a novel social engagement I began for Microsoft in 2010 named Geek 2 Chic has slowly but surely begun to change that answer to a resounding “yes” for a modest number of highly influential people.

One of the nuggets of wisdom I like to drop on corporate folks who ask me for advice about social media is the following: Social media is 20% about what you say you do, and 80% about what other people say about what you do. That’s not a hard-and-fast rule or anything, but it’s a good enough approximation to be an eye-opener.

You see, most large corporations think that talking about themselves and measuring how many hits a corporate blog post received or how many media outlets regurgitate the headline with a modicum of opinion attached is equivalent to “landing the message.” Sometimes it is, but in many cases it’s easy to overestimate its value.


Eric Kuhn of United Talent Agency rocks the hoodie in a Spring 2012 show in Los Angeles.

The reason for this is that even people who see the IMPORTANT CORPORATE MESSAGE do not necessarily experience it – interactively, physically, or emotionally. Thus, there’s a good chance that they don’t retain it in a meaningful way. And therefore there’s a very good chance that they don’t share it by spreading authentic, personalized word-of-mouth to people who trust them.

Geek 2 Chic is a charity fashion series collaboration between Microsoft and Bloomingdale’s which raises money for and awareness of a wonderful nonprofit called the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, or NFTE, which provides mentoring and resources for at-risk youth to start their own businesses while they’re in high school. We produce a true fashion show, featuring high-end designers from Bloomingdale’s clothing racks, and we charge for tickets. But there are no professional models in our show; everyone on the catwalk is a “geek” representing big tech companies, hot new startups, government agencies, academic institutions, and more.

Stylish guests attend a recent Washington, DC show

Our event is most likely the only time that these techies, scientists, and innovators will ever be on a catwalk, so people from the community come out to experience the event, see their friends and acquaintances, take photos, and share. Spouses, employees, and gawkers alike are not immune to the draw of seeing someone transformed from a hoodie-wearing programmer to a tuxedo-wearing stud for one night only. And what we’ve found in cities across the country – Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles – is that people in the geek community share photos from the events enthusiastically, on Twitter, Foursquare, Facebook, and Instagram. They tag them. They become Facebook profile photos, sometimes for months and even years.

Don’t misunderstand my earlier comments about traditional PR metrics – We love mainstream media stories. Geek 2 Chic has received coverage from Vanity Fair, Bloomberg, BBC News, the Washington Post, a host of local news outlets, and a bevy of glossy magazines and fashion bloggers.


Jabious Williams, a recent NFTE program recipient, walks the runway in a tuxedo

But while it’s tempting to point to a slide show on VanityFair.com, pat ourselves on the back, and conclude “we done good,” the real value is not the quantitative fact that we landed a headline in a particular publication, but the underlying qualitative story that the photos tell – people smiling, having fun, celebrating geek culture, highlighting a good cause. And the reason people far away from the cities where we actually do the events know about them is mainly because someone they know was tagged in an interesting photo on Facebook, not because they read a recap of the event on a fashion blog.

Think about it this way. Seeing a headline or a retweet or reading an article quickly forms a short-term memory in your brain: I am temporarily aware that something happened. After 20 minutes or so, you start to forget. Other information infiltrates your brain’s frontal lobe. The details of that headline suddenly…become…fuzzy.

Experiencing something remarkable, interactive and pleasurable, however, forms long-term memories, deeply implanted memories, things you think about while you’re sleeping, facts that literally rewire the neural connections in your brain resulting in a semi-permanent state of change. Microsoft could merely write blog posts about the opportunities we’re providing for youth around the world with our YouthSpark initiative, or about the support we provide for new startups with our BizSpark program, but events like Geek 2 Chic take the storytelling about these topics to a deeper, more meaningful and memorable level.

The next Geek 2 Chic show will be in San Francisco on May 15th. Tickets now on sale.

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Hearst Hosts Fashion Week Hackathon Amid an Evolving Publishing Industry

This post was originally published by PBS MediaShift on February 13, 2013. I reported live from the Hearst Fashion Hack, during Fashion Week, during a blizzard. Totally ruined my shoes.

Picture this: You’re waiting in line at your favorite local drugstore or grocery store and have two minutes to kill. What do you do?

Five years ago, many people would flip through one of the many magazines positioned near the checkout counter: Cosmo, maybe, or Esquire.

In 2013, we still browse and buy magazines in checkout lines, but customers are much more likely to whip out their smartphones — checking text messages, updating Twitter or Instagram, maybe a quick game of Angry Birds. But not so much reading sex tips in Cosmo anymore.

That’s a big problem — not just for your spouse or significant other, but for the traditional magazine publishing industry in general, which has seen it’s single-issue sales plummet because of scenarios just like I described above. Why buy four magazines and a newspaper for a cross-country flight, when you can get lots of media on your iPad or Kindle?

“We do find a number of people, if stalled for a minute, will steal a look at their email or news feed. Everyone that has products at checkout has to battle for consumer attention,” David Carey, president of Hearst Magazines, was recently quoted as saying on the front page of the Financial Times. You see, Hearst Corporation publishes Cosmopolitan and Esquire and a number of other popular titles like Elle, and you’re not buying as much of them as you used to. Roughly 18 percent less of them in the U.S., in fact.

Not coincidentally, I found myself sitting in the auditorium at Hearst Tower the very day after that quotation appeared in the FT, listening to Carey kick off a hackathon with roughly 150 hackers, designers, and fashionistas in attendance to compete for cash and prizes for the best new pieces of software designed in a frenzied 24-hour session focused on fashion and mobile.

If you’re going to look at your phone at Whole Foods, Hearst wants to be in your phone. As Carey said in the Hearst Fashion Hack kickoff, “We are blessed with so much IP.” Now the only question is, what are all these geeks going to do with it? It’s easy enough to come up with some applications of Hearst’s API, but will the new apps be truly relevant to readers as they move from print and across screens? That was the question posed to the hackers by Hearst’s creative CTO, Phil Wiser.

Creativity compressed

Hearst is an old company — over 100 years old, in fact, founded in 1886 by an American icon, William Randolph Hearst. The company is still, to a large degree, controlled by his direct descendents, which is great for control and stability but not necessarily for creative destruction. Regardless, the face of media and publishing is evolving rapidly, and Hearst and similar organizations (think: Conde Nast, News Corp., large book publishers like Pearson) need to experiment with new technologies and business models for their very survival.

And so an experiment began with these hackers and their technology company partners and sponsors, including Microsoft (which I work for), Google, Amazon, HTC, Klout, GILT, and more, fueled by Red Bull, coffee (writer’s note: the coffee in the Hearst Tower lobby is actually pretty great), cookies, and a phalanx of beefy, suited security guards watching over more nerds in one room than they’ve probably seen in their lifetimes.

At some point during the Hearst Fashion Hack, the VP of Engineering at Hearst, Jim Mortko, commented, “There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when you have to get something done in a compressed time period.” And compressed this hackathon was, down to only about 24 hours due to, oh nothing, a Fashion Week blizzard that befell the city the evening before. But passionate hackers arrived on time in the snow and slush, ready to create fashion and mobile applications drawing on Hearst’s API and those of the tech partners present.

The hacks

I write in some detail about the best apps (and particularly about the best Microsoft platform-based projects) elsewhere at Publicyte.com, but here’s a sampler of some that I liked, in general:

  • Co-Fashion correlates static content from Hearst’s magazines with trending social conversations (on Twitter, etc.), filtered and curated by influence and theme. For example, I could pull up all the Esquire articles about coats from 2012 and cross-reference that with what coats influential people are sharing photos of online; I may find that Esquire recommends bold, plaid coats, but that influencers I follow outside of New York City and Boston haven’t bought into the message yet.
  • Zine helps you self-publish your own magazine based on Hearst’s content. Their tag line is “Ziners gotta zine.” For example, if I wanted to I could publish a zine that deciphers women’s fashion trends for urban men (I’d call it Mysterious.)
  • Shop Up extends the retail experience by empowering you to pull up Hearst content about a specific item of clothing. If you’re like me and one dress shirt looks a bit like the next one, you can actually scan the bar code and learn that Esquire recommends, say, the Ralph Lauren dress shirts but never discusses Hugo Boss ones, and that may influence your purchasing decision. (This one would be nice to see on kiosks in in retail stores too, perhaps.)

One new app even projected Hearst’s magazine content onto the inside of an umbrella (how apropos in the bad weather) — take that, smartphones!

With startups like ModCloth, StyleSeat, Birchbox and others merging fashion and technology and making Fast Company’s “most innovative companies in technology” list for 2013, it’s more important than ever for fashion brands, media companies, and other entities in the space to be building relationships with tech-savvy idea people, developers, and established entrepreneurs.

By that standard, Hearst Fashion Hack was a success for its namesake. Wiser summed it up nicely for me just before the final app judging on the stunning 44th floor of Hearst Tower, overlooking Central Park and midtown Manhattan: “This event has already exceeded our expectations…Everything is upside from here.” I’m looking forward to seeing if Hearst Fashion Hack becomes a yearly New York Fashion Week staple.

Mark Drapeau, Ph.D. is the director of innovative engagement for Microsoft’s public sector division, is a member of the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation, and is the producer of the Microsoft-Bloomingdale’s charity fashion show series Geek 2 Chic. You can follow him on Twitter at @cheeky_geeky.

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5 Lessons About Social Media Engagement From the Embassy of Canada’s Inauguration Tailgate Party

This post originally appeared at the Microsoft blog Publicyte and on Huffington Post DC, January 30, 2013.

Seems like forever, but President Obama’s second inauguration was just a week or so ago. I was fortunate enough to spend most of Inauguration Day at the Embassy of Canada. If you’re not that familiar with the layout of Washington, D.C., there aren’t that many private buildings to have an inauguration party near the Capitol or White House or along the parade route. There are a few hotels, the Newseum, the Canadian Embassy, and a few residential apartment buildings. That’s it. Otherwise you’re on foot, in the cold, where there’s not a lot of food and drink to be had.

In true Canadian style, the embassy threw a tailgate party for about 1,000 guests. It was terrific fun. But they didn’t just engage their audience at the party in the real world; they also had a small team of people engaging the attendees and people who weren’t even there in the virtual world. Here are the five secrets to their success.

Step One: Throw a remarkable event to get the right people to engage with you in the first place.

In the planning stages, it’s possible to get so wrapped up in debates about decisions like “what software will we use to display hashtagged tweets with” that not enough attention is paid to real-life aspects of an event to make the overall engagement remarkable (in the Seth Godin sense of the word). That wasn’t a problem at the Canadian Embassy tailgate party. There were friendly staff, quick check-ins, free mittens, hot coffee and cider, hot dogs and hamburgers and pastries and soup, Crown Royal and Molson and wine and soda, Mounties posing for photos, heat lamps, Blackberry giveaways, special messages from Ambassador Gary Doer, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, astronaut Chris Hadfield (the first Canadian to walk in space) videoconferencing from the International Space Station, and more. It was simply an outstanding party, the right kinds of people showed up, and wanted to stay all day.

Step Two: Create and utilize a memorable hashtag that lives beyond the initial event.

When I produce charity fashion shows for Microsoft and Bloomingdale’s, we use the hashtag #Geek2Chic. It’s short, it’s catchy, and it is not strictly tied to a certain day, location, or even event. It has a meaning beyond the Geek 2 Chic event proper. Likewise, the Embassy of Canada used the hashtag #ViewFrom501 to conjure up feelings about watching the inauguration, and especially the parade, from their building (the address of the Embassy of Canada is 501 Pennsylvania Ave., about five blocks from the Capitol and 11 from the White House). “View from 501″ is elegant, easy to remember, in the active voice, and can be used for pretty much any future event at the embassy. When somewhat forgettable embassy events in a capitol city are a dime a dozen, the Canadian Embassy is in a position to launch “View from 501 Hockey Happy Hours,” or any similar such thing and have the idea stick in people’s heads.

Step Three: Use a dedicated staff to curate and deploy social media from official and audience sources.

Staff at the Canadian Embassy left little to chance with social media, leveraging their existing Connect 2 Canada (”Canada’s network in the United States”) team to watch what people at their event were tweeting, find the best remarks and photos, and then curate that into a stream that was not only online but also on a very large screen set up at the tailgate. This didn’t surprise me — I wrote about C2C using social media for “public diplomacy” in an Oct. 2009 article for Washington Life — but it’s great to see them implementing better than ever. Attendees could watch CNN coverage with sound on one jumbotron, and simultaneously look at people’s quips and pictures on another one, adding an entire other dimension to the event. To my eye, the C2C team seemed to choose a lot of tweets with photos, which made the content more visually appealing. At one point, CNN began showing viewers’ Instagrams taken from the National Mall and tagged with #CNN next to the C2C-curated tweets. It all got very meta. Particularly on a day when phone and wi-fi connectivity was sometimes hard to come by, embassy staff using old-fashioned computers and large screens for this work was a very wise choice.

Having a decent hashtag and tweets displayed in near real-time on a screen is not unprecedented, of course. However, diplomats don’t necessarily have a reputation as adventurous technology and social media users, either. I reached out to the embassy to get a sense of what their social media strategy was at the tailgate event. Alexandra Vachon White, the Canadian Embassy’s deputy spokesperson related by email, “As the Embassy offers a unique vantage point to Inauguration festivities, we thought social media would be a great vehicle to provide access to our C2C followers on Twitter and Facebook who were not in attendance. Secondly, the screen featured at the tailgate party provided a vehicle for attendees to share their experiences in real-time. We also thought it was a great way to encourage guests to take full advantage of the activities and offerings of the event.” To briefly summarize that: Engage in-person attendees, share valuable information, and spread the story to a wider audience.

Step Four: Identify and interact with influential people engaged with the event

The tailgating party had a “main event” on the ground floor and in the expansive courtyard, and then a smaller VIP event hosted by Amb. Doer on a high floor of the embassy. Both portions had people of note walking around and enjoying themselves. Not only did the C2C team curate a lot of content from “average people,” but they also had some more specific goals in mind. It was not lost on them that numerous media reporters and editors were invited to the event. Thus, when they noticed tweets from, for example, Steve Chenevey of ABC 7, Brian Bolter of FOX 5, and Garrett Graff of Washingtonian magazine, they retweeted them, interacted with these relatively influential people, and amplified the fact that they had “VIPs” at the party to a wider audience paying attention from elsewhere.

I had drinks with public affairs officer Alexi Drucker, a longtime member of the C2C team, after the event. I asked her how they kept track of the most pertinent information in real time during what must have been a hectic day for the embassy staff. She told me, “In advance of the event, we identified Twitter handles for all confirmed partners, guests and participating media and actively followed their tweets throughout the day. The feed displayed on the screen in the courtyard was curated to showcase a diverse range of content from a variety of sources. We aimed for a healthy mix of images, Canada-U.S. trivia and guest feedback.” Most interesting to me was what must have been a lot of preparatory work prior to the event — Studying attendee and vendor lists, searching for, confirming, and saving people’s public social media accounts, using software to track social sharing, and then using that knowledge to execute a plan in real-time during a six-hour window. No doubt, the work in the week or two before the event saved a lot of time on the day off and removed some of the ambiguity and confusion that social media can contribute to.

Step Five: Promote the brands of your partners and friends in a fun way

Go figure: A lot of the food and drink at the tailgate party was Canadian in origin. But if you’re not Canadian, there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the history of various companies — perhaps how they’ve made inroads into the United States (most people at the party were American). After all, a primary goal of embassy outreach is to inform the locals about their country back home. So, we were treated to bits of info about Blackberry (Research in Motion’s CEO was apparently in attendance; I didn’t meet him), TD Bank (I think there’s a TD Bank pen in my swag bag, too), Molson (and I can neither confirm nor deny that I had two to three delicious Molson beers at the party), and Tim Horton’s, the beloved donut maker (who also provided warm coffee for attendees). This style of content + “advertising” makes both the main communications team (”stay on message”) and the sponsors (”thanks for the shoutout!”) happy, without being annoying to the audience that, let’s face it, mainly came to the event to stuff their faces with free poutine.

Cross-posted from Publicyte, a blog about technology, entrepreneurship and culture impacting the public good.

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