There is More Than One Way to Listen

how-to-be-a-good-listenerHad a very interesting day today, one filled with a number of moments of mentorship.  As a part of all the learning, there was a lot of listening… and most of the listening really wasn’t about the words people were saying.

What someone is saying is only about half of what they are saying:

What’s being said in a conversation is important, don’t get me wrong, but the ability to understand the context of what was happening and the emotion behind each conversation topic is so important.  We were in the midst of solving the world’s problems, you know because that’s totally what we were doing… and there was a moment when a mentor of mine was asked to deliver an explanation of his idea.  Watching him work was a learning moment – initially delivering the information slowly while he taught the room to understand his point of view, then speeding the pace of his speech he began to develop a concept of urgency behind what he was talking about, finally after some back and forth he stopped explaining things in detail and transitioned to a very high level summation of his thoughts.  In the end, it was the high level concept that ended up in the PowerPoint deck.  The learning moment wasn’t how the idea was present with detail and eventually thru conversation was brought down to a simple two sentences… any good business book could tell you to do that… the learning was in the way in which each stage was presented.  When educating speech patterns were slow, eye contact was very focused, and each new sentence of information was followed by a pause to give the opportunity for questions.  As the conversation moved from education to debate, the quicker pace and use of emphasis on certain words really hit home the point of urgency.  I realize these things seem pretty trivial, but a quality presentation combined with the right idea goes a lot further than just a good idea.

The context of what is said, is often more important than what is said:

Later in the day I got a phone call to help with this idea that was going to solve the world’s problems.  Immediately the person on the other side of the phone could identify the stress in my voice. (I realize this now, but not at the time)  Realizing my stress they took a supporting role as the context from which they were speaking.  Calmer speech patterns followed.  The conversation covered the same information it would have no matter the context each of us was talking from, but because of the context the conversation was in we were able to build to a larger plan.  In this scenario, it was me playing the role asking questions and starting ideas and my counterpart of the phone offering answers and presenting new ways to unlock/accomplish the task at hand.  It’s important to understand who you’re talking to in terms of the context of your conversation, it often makes all the difference in productivity and a wasted 30 minutes.

Words are Words are Words… so don’t use so many of them:

Body Language, Pace of Speech, and the Context of a conversation are important… but also are the words you use, especially the amount you use.  If you can’t tell by this and all of my posts, I struggle with the concept of less is more when it comes to my words.  People don’t want to learn every piece of information about a topic, that just shows you “know” something.  People want you to take all that information and summarize it to its most important points, that shows you “understand” something.  Even one step further, when you’re asked a question that clearly should get a response that is one word… just answer in one word.  (This happened like six times today, I promise one day I’ll answer a question “Yes” or “No”.)

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West


Why a “Favorite” on Twitter is better than a “Like” on Facebook

It’s not news to anyone that there are a lot of behavioral concepts at work when users explore networks like Twitter and Facebook.  While companies keep digging to solve for the value of a “Like” on a Facebook page or a “Follow” on a Twitter account, have you ever stepped back and thought what some of these “actions” mean to you personally.  I had a moment today when Twitter made me smile.  @arifuchs someone I respect, “favorited” one of my tweets, specifically a blog post I did a few days ago.  I’m going to be honest, when similar folks  “liked” the post on my Facebook wall I don’t get the same joy.  So here’s my attempt at explaining why…

Twitter is a very Public platform assuming you don’t have a locked account and Facebook is a very private platform assuming you don’t share everything on a public setting.  In contrast the actions you take on

the platforms directly oppose their overall feeling of public or private.  They both have “ReTweet” and “Share” buttons that basically create a “Hey everybody! Look at this cool thing I found!”  They also have reaction options such as “Reply” and  “Comment” which allow for somewhat private reactions to content.  Finally, there are the passive action buttons of “Like”

and “Favorite” – these I see as having very different functions.  On

the surface both allow you to throw some “Kudos” to the user, but the way the “Kudos” is delivered makes all the difference. ..

Personal vs. Public

When someone “Likes” your content on Facebook they are saying to everyone else who see’s that content, I like this.  While at the same time triggering a heads up to you that they “Like” your content.  The experience is more a public display than private.  When someone “Favorites” a tweet it doesn’t become a focal point of the tweet like on Facebook, rather it is subtly added to the full info of the tweet if a user clicks into it.  All this while again triggering a heads up to you that they like what you tweeted.  The experience is much more personal, given the only incentive behind the action of a “Favorite” is to support the content creator.

Direct vs. Indirect

Going one step further, I see a “Like” as an indirect form of support.  Since there is an incentive to publicly associate one’s self with good content, the psychology that drives someone to “Like” content creates an indirect sort of “Kudos”.  Again with the “Favorite”, since there isn’t a “to be seen” quality to the action, it feels like a much more direct and real action of support.

twitter-bird-white-on-blueRelationships with Many vs. Few

In my private Facebook network it makes perfect sense for those who support my content to be pretty obvious.  (The listed “Likes”)  In a public network (Twitter) however, it makes a lot of sense to really focus on the content first then as sub-content (hidden) offer up who is involved. (“ReTweets” and “Favorites”)  This brings me to something I think is at the core as to the difference between Facebook and Twitter form a high level:  Facebook for most part is a fundamentally private network that creates (because it’s a closed system) one large shared relationship with many, while Twitter for the most part is a public network that creates (because it’s an open system) many relationships with few.  On Twitter short-lived social relationships sprout, grow, and die every day making the platform new (to a point) to the user every time they invest time on Twitter, whereas Facebook is one very large long-term relationship reflected in an ever-growing experience where the user gains their value over a long period of time.  There is a reason your profile (“Timeline”) on Facebook is so important to you as it is built from your content, while most people only focus on the content they post on Twitter in the now (real-time) – their long-term profile really isn’t a big part of the experience.

So if you can’t tell, I like Twitter a lot.  But that’s mostly because over the time I’ve built out my Facebook “Timeline” I had a major change in who I am… and who my network is.  I graduated college and moved on to a working world miles away both physically and mentally, making a large portion of the “Timeline” I had built into only a memory rather than an active long-term relationship.  For me both platforms are great, but only in their purpose, which brings me back to the title.  At the end of the day I’ll always value private displays of support over public ones.  Maybe its just me.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West

If You Know What You’re Doing, It’s Probably Time to Quit Your Job

Recently I found a podcast series called “Foundation” hosted by Kevin Rose the former founder of Digg.  As many of my friends know, I usually spend about an hour a day on the train on my way back and forth to the office.  When I’m on the train I’m usually listening to business books and lectures.  (I’m a nerd.)  In college I used to go running for an hour or so every day and listened to Stanford’s free Entrepreneurial Thought Leadership lectures on iTunes U.  (I’m a long time nerd.)  My senior year I even conducted my own version of founder interviews, asking my peers in student leadership to share their stories with me for a book I never exactly got around to writing.  In all this time I’ve learned a lot from all these people and their experiences, but today I had a eureka moment listening to an interview between Brian Wong and Kevin Rose in the “Foundation” podcast series.

foundation podcastIn listening to 6-7 years worth of entrepreneurs and leaders I’d never noticed that they all had something in common… they didn’t know what they were doing.  Brian in referencing his own success mentioned the concept of a table of skilled poker players having an unskilled player joining the table.  The skilled poker players all know what to do, how to respond, when to take risk… they’re moves are pre-determined.  Add a player who doesn’t know what to do, and all of a sudden all the assumptions that determine the skilled players choices are gone.  The unskilled player becomes the table leader, becomes the person everyone else has to react to.  Sometimes that unpredictability creates new opportunity and the unskilled player ends up winning.

So I’m not sure labeling many successful folks as “unskilled” is the right comparison, but it does a pretty good job of identifying what differentiates many of the success stories in innovation.  When you don’t know what the right thing to do is, you create variations in the process… that’s how discovery happens.  When you don’t know the right way to be introduced to people, you’re tactics for meeting people ends up being different… and memorable… and more effective.  Not knowing what they’re doing isn’t the only key to success – pretty sure if it was we’d all be doing a bit better – but it is something you don’t want to forget.  Knowledge is power, but perspective is reality, and if you let what you think you know fully inform your perspective you’re no longer learning.

Now for the title of this blog post – If you know what you’re doing, it’s probably time to quit your job.  Not sure that concept applies to most, but for me I have a real problem with the idea of knowing what I’m doing.  It messes with the idea of free will for me – if I know what to do next, then my future is predetermined.  I really have trouble staying motivated when I know rest of the story.  (I’m that guy who never buys movies because it’s really hard for me to watch the same movie twice.)  I came into this blog post trying to write an explanation of “motivation”… as it turns out I found one of my own motivations.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West

Social Media Isn’t the Answer to Everything, But It Answers a Lot

Below is a recent chapter I wrote with one of my co-workers Eric Gottloeb (@Gottloeb) also a Social Media Manager @Walgreens – thought it was worth sharing.  You can get the whole book (free PDF) here: (they even gave me a fancy personalized URL)


Rather than attempting to write eloquent paragraphs, we figured you (the reader) probably just want bullets. So here’s a snapshot of Walgreens’ Best Practices:

• Treat your customers with the respect they deserve. Social isn’t an ad platform—it’s a conversation. Don’t interrupt people trying to have a conversation without something relevant to talk about.

• Don’t let “Social” the buzz word drive “Social” the strategy. Social media isn’t the answer for everything. Before coming up with a “social media plan” for something, what you’re actually trying to do needs to be weighed against all the other channels that your digital and traditional marketing teams have at their disposal.

• “If you build it, they will come,” doesn’t work. It’s true for microsites, it’s true for Facebook pages, and it’s true for Twitter handles. Build long-term products that customers can keep coming back to. Social is a long term game not a short-term ad buy.

• How You Keep Innovating: Separate then Integrate. Separate the team from the bigger organization so they can be forward thinking, unhindered and frankly, weird. But never let the whole group fully detach from the bigger team. Then once they’ve done lots of small independent things to prove what the core concepts of the strategy will be, scale. Integrate the winning concepts where they belong, and evolve just like every start-up.  The team has to grow up into the organization, something that both the team and the organization need to have in the cards from Day 1.

Organizational Structure: Each time you integrate something new, you start isolated in a vertical team, then you drive the team into a horizontal structure and integrate it into the larger company. Take for example, customer service. You start with the social team, understand the nuances of how social can play a role in customer service, build up the process and then scale it into the customer service organization. There are many examples like this one, where social media as a utility does not belong to a Social Media center of expertise, but that center of expertise can incubate the utility until it has matured enough to live in the right part of your organization.  We realize there aren’t any trade secrets here, but let’s be honest: The secret sauce isn’t going to be the same for everyone. However, the core concepts behind innovation pretty much apply everywhere. Start with your company’s business model, solve for where opportunities to drive on those models exist, and then scale it.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West

My 2013 Resolutions

Short and sweet.

1.  Enroll in an MBA program

2.  Build and launch that app I’ve now been pondering for 4 months

3.  Write more blog posts – Expect at least 1 a week – for why I’m making this a resolution see Why I write blog posts… Practice, Practice, Practice – Real-Time Critical Thinking

4.  Launch a weekly podcast… for those who don’t know me, while I’m not too bad at expressing myself through the written word, the spoken word is by far my best medium – Look for it in February.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West

Why I write blog posts… Practice, Practice, Practice – Real-Time Critical Thinking

Someone asked me the other day, “Why do you bother writing a blog? No one reads it.”  So I thought about it for a few minutes, triple checked my visitor numbers to save my ego from shrinking too much, and I figured out exactly why I bother to write blog posts.  It’s practice.  Or as the book I’m reading currently, The Talent Code, would call it – “Deep Practice”.


So here’s the thing, I have but one skill in life that differentiates me.  I’m usually able, through real-time critical thinking, to piece together needs or parts of a story to understand the larger vision for an idea.  Literally my old boss called me “the ideas guy”.  I honestly don’t have many unique ideas, almost everything I build out is a conglomeration of many different ideas and needs of stakeholder all rolled into one vision.  That’s what I do.  The thing about real-time critical thinking is that it doesn’t come naturally, it’s a talent I have because I constantly argue… with myself.  All day long I read and absorb as much information about as many things as possible, I read a lot of tweets and blog posts.  Unfortunately reading a bunch of information only arms you with the weapons for real-time critical thinking… it doesn’t exactly teach you how to use them.

There are only three ways I’ve found to actually learn how use real-time critical thinking – all of them are basically practice.

1.  Debate with the people around you.  The trick here is you need to work with smart people with diverse backgrounds, otherwise you won’t learn much in terms of point of view.  For example the Social Media team and entire E-Commerce team at Walgreens is filled with a ton of smart people, motivated by different things, with different perceptions of the world.  It’s a great group to talk to… but the key to it isn’t team brainstorms or over crowded meeting, it’s all about small group conversations.  The one’s that pop up by the coffee machine, or in my case the once that happen when I seemingly randomly walk around to people’s desks and pick their brains.  There’s debate to be found outside work as well (remember my point about diverse backgrounds), my girlfriend works in HR, I spend a lot of my free time with a friend group made up of Insurance Actuaries, most of my college friends work in health care or engineering, and I always have an open invitation to grab a beer with anyone if they’re willing to “talk shop”.

2.  Arguing with yourself is useful.  When I read articles I usually pause a number of times as I’m reading and take the points of the article and walk through all the different arguments in my head.  Most of that time this leads to me taking 20 minutes to read a blog post that should probably only take 3 minutes to read.  On the other hand it makes the information much more valuable to me… not only do I know the data, but now I know how to use it. (in theory)  Think of it this way.  If I give you all the variables (you read the blog post) but no equation what good are they?  The self argument is where I find myself discovering the sets of equations that the variables fit into.

3.  Blogging is the last part of this practice model.  If you’ve very read my blog, it feels a lot like I’m just talking.  (not exactly top class literature)  Often there are a few spelling or grammar errors too.  The reason for this is my writing style, which I learned while writing comedy sketches at Second City’s workshops, it’s basically improv writing.  Meaning you literally write your train of thought.  (Usually you don’t stop you thought to fix spelling or grammar…  Although, I am trying to get better with that.)  So for me, blogging is a form of deep practice where I can pick a topic and write on it… forming an argument and a point of view as I go calling on all the inputs I’ve had access to.  Working the brain muscle that also is used in meeting rooms and brainstorms, where real-time critical thinking is so important to getting the group past a white board of random thoughts.

So that’s my long way of explaining the purpose of my blog.  For those who read it and enjoy the content, thanks.  For those who don’t read it, no worries.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West

Digital Branding Dilemma, Empires vs. City-States and Solutions Driven by Incentives not Logic

So here is the dilemma.  Brands want to be “digital”, so the agency models who serve those brands have re-aligned to offer “digital” services, but the incentives that drive agency decision-making haven’t changed since the TV commercial was invented.  Now step back and look at the digital marketing universe in terms of the brands who use it – there seem to be two very clear approaches in play; Empire Building and City-State Refinement/Centralization.  (I’ll go into more detail on what the heck those words mean in a bit.)  Now here’s the issue… the production/services model of the “traditional” agency drives strategies of digital empire building, but time and time again we see the City-State brands winning online.

Building an “Interactive” Empire

Empire building is a fairly common practice in the business world.  Almost every business metric that measures a company’s performance is based in growth and expansion.  In the retail world it’s often driven by new markets entered by buying competitors or building new stores.  In tech it’s often driven by adding new features or building new product lines.  In the consumer packaged goods space its seems to be all about new flavors and new product types.  At the end of the day it’s about constant “growth”, which is often measured in locations, shelf-space, or installs.  So you can see how when a marketing team or agency pitches to its “business leaders” the idea of growth into new markets they love the idea.  The problem is… that’s not how the digital world usually works.  Last time I checked micro-sites are poor performers unless you are spending a ton of money to send people there, meaning they don’t retain customers rather only offer a single engagement.  Building a micro-site is the equivalent of building a store in a low traffic area, getting shelf space way in the back where no one is looking, or adding a new feature that only impacts 1% of users.  These concepts of growth aren’t going to work over time, rather only when advertised.

ancient-greece-mapThe core part to Empire Building is in the sales pitch, often to a large multi-product or services organization.  It’s very hard to sell in a “strategy” of “we need to continue building on our core properties”.  Rather everyone is happy when you pitch the idea of “expanding to reach new customers”.  The problem is that expansion strategy while sounding smart for business is often not, these concepts often involve building/creating many different destinations inside the digital ecosystem.  However the problem with that is the digital ecosystem is a portal to anywhere in one step – so every website/experience is just as easy to get to as the next.  This is a very difficult concept for most business owners to understand in large matrix organizations, because they don’t see the whole picture, rather they want something just for them.  You know just like in the “growth” oriented business model they follow.

Building a Centralized City-State

A Centralized City-State gets its model from the myth of a brand focused community.  It’s not that they’re aren’t brand focused communities in the world, it just that in 99% of cases your Facebook page isn’t one of them.  Centralized City-States are the brands who have chosen to keep things simple for the customer.  If you search the brand name, you’re only going to find 1 of everything, or you’ll only find the brand in places that directly connect with the brand’s core experience.  In this model the brand focuses on building long-term entities that represent the whole, rather than short-term campaigns that satisfy one part of the brand/company’s “growth” model.  These are the companies that stick to their guns around the idea of “one brand, one message”.  These are the brands that sometimes don’t even bother with social media, or only have one website, or use digital to extend their products rather than their marketing.

The model of centralization was the core of the first digital plan any company puts in place, just like every major power in history basically started as a city-state.  The first extension into digital is often one centralized experience, and often works pretty well.  But that’s the point when harsh decisions about “growth” come into play – what is the trade-off to building many different experiences?  Well I’ll put it this way, from a business perspective I completely agree with a “growth” model of building an empire, compared to history the most successful countries in the old world where larger empires that ruled many resources such as Persia, Rome, China, and even England years later.  That said, the digital marketing space doesn’t have the same resource limitations of the real world, rather it is an infinite space.  The only resource that is actually scarce is people, “users” is the metric that drives digital.  So if that’s the case, it’s not about the real world resources you have, rather the users you influence.  Now look back into history and identify from where the most influence on culture came… great cities were the great champions such as Athens, the City of Rome, the City of Paris, and the City of London – not the empires.

Agency Incentive Models

2012-Digital-Marketing-Cloud1So with those two concepts in place, I’m guessing its pretty clear which way I lean.  The problem I have is that the model from which an agency (the entities most often entrusted with spreading a brand) works in digital doesn’t align the clearly correct way.  Now I’m not saying agencies are bad, just disadvantaged by their incentives in the digital space.

Agencies are a supporting function to the client in most cases.  In a supporting role the entity in charge of the brand is often not speaking to one centralized stakeholder, rather working with many different stockholders.  In this model they often have a brand statement and concept they’re going to apply to all things around this brand.  The problem is while having a tag-line and look-&-feel planned out automatically solves for any centralization problems on TV or Radio, it doesn’t really address digital.  Enter now a number of stakeholder who each want their unique thing.  This puts agencies in a position of serving the client, rather than the client’s brand.  (In theory you hire an agency to say “No”, but their incentives over time will drive them to say “Yes”.)

Agencies are outside entities, this sucks for them.  They don’t really get the insider’s experience… often causing them to missing out on a lot of context that would help them in a situation where they have to protect the brand from a client.

Agencies are self-policing.  I’m not sure how this industry pulled this one-off, but they’re work is judged by their peers.  The way agencies are graded as “good” or “bad” is often determined by a number of awards that are given out by, you guessed it, other agencies.  This creates a major creative dilemma – awards, especially in digital, are given to the most “innovative” campaigns.  This is a problem because the agency in most cases can’t share their client’s results, so the definition of innovative is in the creative.  Meaning to win, creative teams are tasked with creating new experiences, the kinds that often require a new blank canvas to build from.  This drives agencies over time to push for empire building.

Agencies are a business too, this isn’t a bad thing just something that needs to be understood.  In order for them to make money they need to keep checks from clients coming.  It’s not that they need to keep getting more and more work, but that it’s a lot easier to retain a client when all of the various company stakeholders are happy and the company keeps winning awards.

Digital Strategy

I’ve covered a lot in this blog post, so here are the basic points summed up.

1.  Empire Building is a great business model, but it doesn’t translate to digital.  The digital world has only one scarce resource in the user, and because of that centers of influence have more impact than resource driven empires.

2.  Centralization of experience builds extended brand offering in the long-term – the most important of which is the retained user, who begins to view the marketing experience as a destination.

3.  Agencies who have simply translated the original model that works so well for TV and Radio to digital are starting to find it hard to succeed in their new matrix of incentives.

Finally I want to end on something I preach often.  The people in charge of digital marketing in an organization (all of them) need to be incredibly integrated into the business and its needs in order to produce strategic long-term results in growing influence rather than short-term results in one time visits.

Thanks for Listening,

Zach West