Put the human first, and other lessons from TEDMED

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TEDMED 2013 badge

I’ve happened upon many things on Twitter: advance copies of books, a caterpillar that looks like Donald Trump’s hair, and even several awesome friends I may never have met otherwise. A few weeks ago, I saw an announcement that TEDMED—insert nerd swoon here—needed social media “reporters” to help cover its DC event. So I applied, then promptly forgot about it. (At nearly $5K per ticket, I certainly wouldn’t be going otherwise.)

Then I got the email: they picked me! I arrived at the event shortly after 7 a.m. on a Friday, and after waiting in line with hordes of GW and Georgetown students, got my pass. Then, of course, I went to find the coffee. (They serve hipster coffee at TEDMED—worth the wait.)

Dr. Preston Maring, inventor of the hospital farmers market

Dr. Preston Maring, inventor of the hospital farmers market

Instead of an exhibit hall, TEDMED had “The Hive,” which served the same purpose, only in a cooler way. With better (healthy!) snacks. I didn’t have much time to explore, but did meet the physician who invented hospital farmers markets, Dr. Preston Maring. He was standing next to a lovely display of fresh vegetables, courtesy of Kaiser Permanente (and you know if there’s kale, I’m going to find it).

The first session of the day included five talks, which took place in the beautiful Kennedy Center Opera House, and covered topics from supercomputers to personalized medicine, informatics and the perils of chili fries. (They don’t appear to be posted yet.)

Usually I watch TED talks on a tablet while riding my bike trainer, so this was a novel experience. I wanted to hear more. But I had an assignment: Great Challenges of Health and Medicine. Twenty social media reporters covered the same number of challenge breakout sessions.

Though my experience at TEDMED was only one day, several themes emerged:

Healthcare is broken. Everyone seemed to agree on this. And with a crowd of doctors, CEOs, consultants, entrepreneurs, scientists and med students, that is saying something.

Innovation is happening, but usually not on the front lines. One speaker mentioned that healthcare professionals are just too exhausted to innovate. Strides are increasingly happening in server rooms, not operating rooms. Supercomputers and informatics can predict which patients are at risk of certain problems, sometimes years ahead of clinicians.

Great Challenges poster with illustrations of session concepts

Great Challenge: Inventing Wellness Programs that Work

To find solutions, first you have to define the problem. This is where the troubles began in my Great Challenges session: Inventing Wellness Programs that Work. Our first task included defining wellness, and I’m pretty sure we failed. We failed to come to an agreement, anyway.

Whose job is it to manage wellness? Individual? Doctor? Government? Employer? Depends on your perspective, and we all brought a different view—colored by different real-world experiences. It struck me as we talked that this would be a very different conversation with a wider slice of humanity. Our group (and I suspect most others) included CEOs, doctors, professors, consultants, a vintner, and students from elite universities. Could we really address these challenges from all angles? Wellness programs, maybe. But Impact of Poverty on Health? I’m not so sure.

Put the human first. To effectively tell the story of hundreds, tell the story of one—your own story can be the most powerful.

I’m still pondering many of the concepts and challenges from TEDMED 2013, and I’ll stay tuned for updates from the other Great Challenges. Of course we didn’t solve all of healthcare’s problems at one conference, but attending gave me hope that we’ll get there eventually, thanks to cool science, supercomputers, and—perhaps most importantly—health professionals who are putting the patient first.

For “best of” tweets from TEDMED, check out this Storify by @HealthcareWen


A Fresh Start

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April's "new" office, with green wallsI’m sitting in my freshly painted and de-cluttered office, after spending the last two days in home-improvement-frenzy mode. And you know what? It feels like freedom.

Let me explain.

If you know me in real life, you probably know that I was recently laid off from a company where I worked for 10 years. I know, I know… 10 years is a long time. But—here’s the important part—I was still having fun (and getting results). I rewrote my job description several times over the years. Internal communication? Market research? Digital marketing? I can do that. And that. And that.

But sometimes, even reinventing your position and honing your skills to stay relevant isn’t enough. Nor is doing more “more” with less than anyone should expect. It’s not you (or me, in this case). It’s just business.

The day I received my notice, a couple thousand of my colleagues in the company’s federal business unit did too. (Thank you sequestration.) Someone I’ve never met called me to break the news; I was chosen because my department was what an outside consulting firm considered to be extra overhead. (Yet another reason you should make communicating your value a priority in a one-person shop, but even that won’t protect you from the Bobs.)

Of course, I was disappointed that I didn’t leave on my terms, but I’m choosing to view this as an opportunity to figure out my next adventure. Several months earlier, I realized that though I was having fun and dearly loved my job and coworkers, it was time to move on. Which, of course, is easier said than done … particularly if you don’t quite know what’s next.

Most days I wish I had nine lives, so I could choose a new adventure each time. Maybe next time I’d be a nutritionist. Geologist. Chef. Novelist. Ancient astronaut theorist. (OK, maybe not that last one … but the show is entertaining.) For now, I’m looking for a way to combine things I’m passionate about—healthy food, wellness, fitness, public health, business writing that sounds human—with the skills I’ve built in my 15+ years in communications.

Maybe that’s creating my own path as a contract worker, or maybe it’s with a great organization that’s already doing those things. I’m optimistic that my next grand adventure is just around the corner. For today, I’m going to go make it happen.

p.s. At every life science networking event I’ve been to, nearly everyone I talk to says, “Oh, that happened to me,” and some more than once—it’s a fact of life in corporate America and start-ups alike. These are smart people in the prime of their careers, and most have moved on to better things. Have you? I’d love to hear your story.

Do what makes sense, and more from #FredNMT

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Yours truly, in the role of Tweet Zapper at #FredNMT. Photo by: Jessica Hibbard / Stories and Ideas

Yours truly, in the role of Tweet Zapper at #FredNMT. Photo by: Jessica Hibbard / Stories and Ideas

Last week, I attended the 5th annual New Media & Technology Conference (#FredNMT), hosted by the Frederick Chamber. In my role as volunteer guest-tweeter, it was my job to share key points in real-time… in 140 characters or less. I was a bit overenthusiastic, earning me the nickname Tweet Zapper at the comic-themed conference, and a stint in Twitter limit lock-up. If you’d like to view the highlights, check out the Storify page.

I’ve been lucky enough to attend FredNMT–the brainchild of my friend Jessica–for several years now. The first year or two, the conversation was mostly focused around defining social media and how it could be useful for businesses, and avoiding common pitfalls. This year, I noticed some different themes. (I purposely waited a week to write this post because I wanted to see what stuck.)

Do what makes sense. Whether it’s personal branding, mobile marketing or media relations, we heard in various ways that new media isn’t one-size-fits-all. The sheer number of social media platforms makes it nearly impossible for organizations or individuals to be active everywhere. A better option: choose a few platforms based on your business needs/goals, and use them well.

Curate responsibly. This presentation by Jessica Hibbard and Beth Schillaci covered a wealth of information on finding content, crediting original sources, and avoiding pitfalls of user-generated content (contests, for example). On finding content, I’m partial to Jessica’s analog advice: read books. Finding themes and patterns and adding context for your audience is impossible if you don’t read … a lot.

Be consistent. In what conference attendees would call the “skimmers presentation,” Michelle Kershner talked about the “festival of confusion,” where she saw a festival advertised, but couldn’t locate the pertinent details (or even mention of the event!) on the organization’s website. Think about where you’re sending people. If you say, “visit our website for more information,” make sure the information is there. And easy to find. Having different messages and graphics everywhere confuses your audience and dilutes your brand.

Be yourself. I’ve long believed that organizations with a human behind the brand are the most successful on social media. @AVDawn took this a bit further in her personal branding presentation, talking about how she and others in the AV industry have built a successful online presence. She also made her own Twitter handle necklace, which helps people recognize her at conferences. (Check out Twitter necklaces and geek accessories here.)

One thing that hasn’t changed: it’s always great to see my “online friends” in person, and meet new fellow geeks social media enthusiasts. For those who attended, what conference advice are you still thinking about, or using in your business?

Demystifying Digital Strategy

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Model rocket

Creating a successful digital strategy isn’t rocket science. But, even now, many businesses aren’t sure where to start. Here’s what has worked for me.

1) Look at your business goals. Every piece of your communication strategy should support specific business goals. What traditional marketing tactics do you use to support your business goals? Trade shows? Ads? Direct mail? Think about what’s working, and what isn’t. Could you transform that catchy print ad into an interactive feature for your website? Compile a list of questions you’re always asked at trade shows, and share them as an email newsletter feature or blog? Showcase your quirky company culture on social media to reduce recruitment costs?

The answer is not one-size-fits-all–it requires really thinking about your business needs, your customers and how you can better serve them.

2) Set some clear targets for what you’d like to accomplish with your digital outreach. “We should be on Twitter” is not a strategy. I’ve heard many small business owners lament that Twitter just doesn’t work for them. Unsurprisingly, questions about their strategy are met with blank stares. Don’t jump on the latest social media platform without a reason. Do you want to be known as a go-to resource in a specific niche? Create new (non-sales!) content and share industry news important to that field … and watch your inbound contacts increase. Want to increase online sales by 20%? Post content with links to your “buy” pages, and consider offering follower- and fan-only discounts on social media. ModCloth does a nice job sticking to their brand voice, while driving traffic to their sales pages in a non-pushy way.

3) Make an editorial calendar. It’s not enough to say you’ll create one new blog post a week, tweet 3 times a day and post to Facebook 4 times a week. What are you going to post, and when? What blog topics will you cover this month (and who will write them)? How will you make sure you balance your tweets with a mix of your target content, and not overdo the self-promotion? I like to make my own templates in Excel, tailored to exact business needs. But if you’re looking for ready-to-roll solutions, MarketingLand offers more on editorial calendars for social media, including downloadable templates.

4) Figure out how you’ll measure success.  Go back to your targets from step 2 and determine your baseline. Let’s say your goal is to increase contact form submissions by 30%. Figure out what the number is now, and start tracking progress. One way to do this is tracking conversions with Google Analytics, which lets you set up specifics on your desired outcomes. Then you can use a “reverse goal funnel” to figure out how visitors got to that point. (And, of course, look at what’s working and duplicate it elsewhere!)

To measure contact forms or other non-monetary objectives, use goals in Google Analytics. To measure sales increases, look at your online sales figures now (or averaged across the last six months or so), so you’ll have a baseline. Check out–you guessed it–Google Analytics ecommerce tools.  Or you might just need a simple spreadsheet to track your key metrics. Again, measuring success isn’t one-size-fits-all–the right way will make sense for your business, and not break the bank.

As you evaluate your digital marketing, remember: building relationships–even digital ones–takes time. Be patient. Set clear goals, plan how you’ll get there and follow-through on your editorial calendar schedule. Then monitor your results, and do more of what’s working. Simple? Yes. Easy? No. Worth it? You bet. But don’t take my word for it–that’s what your metrics are for.

Finding Content for your Email Newsletter

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This is part of a guest post I wrote for Marketing Roadhouse.

It’s happened again. Someone said, “Why don’t we start an email newsletter?” Everyone then loudly proclaimed this idea’s brilliance. Except you—the person who will make it happen.

Or maybe you’re a small business owner, and it was your own idea to regularly reach out to your customers through email marketing.

Done correctly, an email newsletter is, in fact, a great idea. It keeps you top-of-mind with your customers and prospects, helps build loyalty, and introduces your products to new audiences. But like so many other great ideas, execution is where the rubber meets the road—and where many great ideas fall flat.

Read the rest of this post at Marketing Roadhouse.

Translate your communication skills to new business areas


Calculator with financial statement

When I went to grad school for an MBA, it wasn’t something a lot of communications professionals did. (You want me to take how much accounting?) I read an article long ago that noted how much better prepared the author had been for many business school challenges coming from a communications background, versus engineering or finance.

I had a similar experience in grad school, breezing through business writing, research and presentations.  School experience is great, but we all know it’s what happens in the real world that counts—a reason employers are so keen on hiring experienced workers.  While it doesn’t immediately prepare you for technical or niche positions, a communications background can help you transition into any number of other jobs, or provide additional value in your current role.

Why? Let’s start with the ubiquitous, yet notoriously ambiguous “communication skills.” Finding a communications professional who doesn’t have better-than-average skills in this area is difficult. Far from impossible, yes, but a better bet than in most other professions.

Of course everyone thinks his own communication skills are impeccable. “I don’t know why Alice, Bob and Clarice don’t follow instructions—I sent them a fax last year.” “No one tells me anything.” “I only copied the people who need to know. What about Doug? Oh, I guess he does need to send that form…” You get the idea. And, of course when things go wrong it’s always a “communication problem” … but that’s another post.

As a communicator, your natural instincts help you make good business decisions. Before sending any message, you think about what action you need your audience to take. You think about how you will make that clear, who needs to be copied, and the next logical questions. Then you go ahead and answer those too, while keeping it concise.

Your research and communications planning skills can also translate to a variety of other business applications. For example, you’re used to creating communication strategies with sound objectives and realistic tactics, all the while ensuring that they’re also measurable (easier said than done) and within your budget.  This approach works well to solve other business challenges too.

Write down the business problem. Research your options—from industry best practices to customer interviews to digging in the data—then form an approach that’s realistic. Plan how you’ll know it’s working (or not), and what it’s going to cost (don’t forget labor hours). Think about what could go wrong, and plan for that too. Think about what happens if you don’t do it (purposely taking no action is also a strategy).

If you’ve ever been a one-person shop, chances are you’re well-equipped with solid business instincts, MBA or not. So go ahead. Get out of your comfort zone, and speak up about how your excellent communication skills can support other areas of your business too.

An Honest Bio

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Christmas with the Daleks

I recently read a beautiful piece in—of all places—Harvard Business Review. The author shares his personal story about how difficult it can be to stay true to yourself in life, and in business. Somewhere between leveraging our best practices, [insert your favorite cliché here], and doing more with less, we forget to be human.

I’ve said before that being human is the best path to success in social media. Books like Unmarketing and Rework make me think that soon, being human will be the path to business success too. I’m ready. Instead of listing degrees and years of experience, here’s the kind of bio I’d like to see more of.

I am a nerd. Since I joined the braces-wearing, marching-band-enthusiast, overachieving-student club, I’ve been a nerd. I’ve worn hipster glasses since 7th grade, and though I won’t say exactly how long ago that was, it was before glasses were cool. I own all seven Harry Potter books. And a Gryffindor scarf. I’m secretly thrilled they made The Hobbit into three epic films. I own not one, but two Dalek figurines (it’s a good way to identify fellow nerds). I’d rather read a book than go to a party. I read about infectious diseases for fun. (Spillover is scarier than any murder mystery I’ve ever read.) I own four pairs of orange shoes. I ran a marathon, just to see if I could, and then did a Half Ironman. (Related: I now understand the difference between could and should.) I hope we’ll have snow at Christmas, and peace on Earth.

I’m a real person. I’m good at what I do because I think. I stop to ask why, and what if, and what happens next. Assign me a research project; you won’t see me for a few days, but I’ll let you know when I’ve found patterns in the data, and brainstormed ways we can use it to achieve a goal or solve a problem. When writing, I put myself in the reader’s shoes. I’ve made some mistakes, but never the same one twice. I’ve learned management lessons the hard way, but still have faith in my team members, and do everything in my power to help them succeed. I won’t tell you something’s a good idea unless I really believe it. If you give me a chance, you won’t regret it.

p.s. Thank you to the ladies of SC (you know who you are) for being kind and supportive, and helping me learn that being a nice person and succeeding in business don’t have to be mutually exclusive. I wish you all a magical holiday season.

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