Sunday, December 20, 2009

Productivity Tips From a Closet Insomniac

If you've ever suffered from bouts of insomnia you'd know how much wasted energy is spent trying to fall back to sleep. Making mental lists, warming milk, tossing & turning, staring at the ceiling. And my personal favorite, watching the clock, telling yourself if I just fall asleep now I can get 3 hours of sleep, now 2 hours 59 minutes, 2 hours 58 minutes....

I learned a long time ago that the more I worried about falling back to sleep, the longer I was awake. Stop fighting your busy mind and get productive. I don't mean clean the kitchen junk drawer busy, I mean collect your thoughts busy.

I love being a mother to four boys. I love my work as a marketing professional. But let's face reality, being both doesn't give me a lot of time to reflect. The way I figure it, insomnia is my body's way of forcing me to focus on myself. After years of perfecting my tip toeing I've narrowed down my favorite "me" activities.

1. Read - I mean really read. Don't pretend it's going to help you fall asleep. Pick up an indulgent book and engross yourself in the story. Pull out that magazine. You know, the one with the relationship quiz you've secretly wanted to take.

2. Write - Jot down your to-do list for next week, edit a blog post, journal - just write. Your mind is amazingly clear at three in the morning. Most importantly your mind is open to new ideas if you let them in.

3. Watch TV - you know you want to. Turn on your favorite cooking show and really write down the recipe this time. Or simply laugh (not out loud - you don't want to give away you are awake) to an old time favorite comedy you've tivo'd.

However you decide to spend this unintended awake time, make it indulgent and make it all about you! It will be our little secret - no one else needs to know.

And I promise, just when you think your body can't function off of another restless sleep, calm, or maybe better said exhaustion, takes over. And those 8-9 hours of complete and uninterrupted sleep is a welcomed reward for focusing on yourself for a change.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Do's and Don'ts of Holiday Cheer

During the holiday season its traditional for marketing departments in organizations of all types to thank their customers. Unfortunately, these gestures are often thinly veiled attempts to generate near term business. If you really want to make an impression that builds your customer relationships your recognition must be sincere.

DON'T fall into these common traps
  • DON'T send an impersonal card. If you are going to send season's greetings add a personal note and use a real signature. Nothing feels colder than the unsigned greeting card with your company logo.
  • DON'T mistake holiday promotions with loyalty programs. Customers expect you to give them value and discounts are par for the course during the shopping season.
  • DON'T over do the holiday cheer. Holiday music, freshly baked cookies and a friendly happy holidays are lovely tributes to the season. But if you start them in October and combine them with flashing for sales signs the charm is lost.

DO focus on your core values
  • DO let your spirit shine through. The holidays are a time to smile. Whether its a humorous greeting on the home page of your website, or beautiful decorations around the office this is a chance for your customers to see your inner spirit. It's OK to forget the brand colors and get into the holiday spirit.
  • DO offer something truly unique. A week before Thanksgiving I visited a local restaurant for breakfast. They had a simple sign inviting their customers and anyone in need to a free Thanksgiving feast - no strings attached. While I was fortunate to host a family affair on Thanksgiving, I remember with a smile that generous offer.
  • DO remember your employees. Whether its a bonus, free holiday lunch, extra vacation day or simply a hosted cookie exchange; when your employees are full of holiday cheer it shows.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

5 Ways to Show Your Gratitude - No Check Book Required

It's hard to believe but the 2009 holiday season has arrived. The evidence is everywhere. Dozens of catalogs & online coupons arrive tempting even the most prudent of shoppers. The smells of special holiday treats waft from bakeries near and far. And the sounds of jingling bells can be heard from Salvation Army donation bins scattered around the city.

I have a great deal to be thankful for; an amazing family, good job, comfortable home and welcoming neighbors & friends. It's tempting to show my appreciation for these wonderful blessings through grand gestures - donations to favorite charities, over the top generous gifts, an extraordinary number of expensive dinners. While each of these pleasures are welcomed and encouraged for those blessed enough to afford them, none of them truly capture my gratitude.

When I sat down to consider alternatives I realized I was already showing my appreciation in many small ways. Here are five of my favorite.

1. Thank someone unexpected - This is the perfect time of year to pause and send a note thanking someone for going out of their way to do good. For example, my son recently celebrated a promotion in Cub Scouts. The ceremony was thoughtfully planned, the venue charming and the company enjoyable. But what made the event special was the legend of fire that one parent shared and the way the fire "magically" started at just the right time in the story. The next morning, I got up and wrote a short but sincere email thanking that parent for making our night special.

2. Donate your time - Donating your time comes in all shapes and sizes. You can sign up for regular volunteer hours at your local food pantry, you could wrap gifts for Toys for Tots, or cheer up Children at a local hospital. But don't forget the many ways you can help closer to home. You can bring over a warm, home cooked meal to a neighbor that got home late from work. Or help your brother who, say it isn't so, simply doesn't know what to get his girlfriend for Christmas pick out the perfect gift.

3. Say yes to someone special - The next time your children ask you to play Monopoly, or your overly talkative elderly neighbor asks you over for games night, forget the three hours of errands you could be running instead. Put down the keyboard on your next Blog post and break out the dice. You might be surprised how much fun you have.

4. Smile - Whether you are in line at the grocery store behind two dozen other shoppers, or your mail carrier just delivered three pounds of unsolicited junk mail - smile and wish someone a happy day. It's an instant pick me up for you and the recipient.

5. Find a long lost friend - Technologies such as Facebook & Twitter make this easier than ever. Take a stroll down memory lane. Reach out to an old friend and remind them why they have a special place in your heart. Or look up an old colleague in LinkedIn and thank them for something they taught you long ago.

What other ways can we show our gratitude?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Stop Presenting, Teach

Earlier this week I was asked to present for 20 minutes about marketing programs to support specific sales efforts. I pulled data to support my hypotheses, prepared four visuals and practiced telling my 20 minute story. I felt on solid ground.

30 minutes before my presentation, the group moderator whispered - "we're ahead of schedule, I'd love it if you could extend your presentation to an hour". I immediately said "no problem". I'm pretty sure the paled expression of disbelief on my face gave away my concern.

I knew that there was no way I could turn a 20 minute presentation into a 60 minute lecture. So I did what I know best. I jotted down an outline of what I would have prepared if I had known I had an hour session. Then I did something all teachers do - I wrote a list of questions. If I was going to make this presentation stick I needed audience engagement.

With a little preparation, and a lot of enthusiasm I switched from presenter mode, into teacher mode. And you know what? It worked.

The audience was engaged in the material I wanted them to learn. We brainstormed some great ideas together and the energy in the room went up measurably.

So the next time you want to Knock It Out of the Park , as I was told I did, put on your professor hat and turn up the volume, literally. Good presentations aren't lectures, but teaching sessions that generate dialogue.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

5 Ways to Get the Best of New Employees

I've been at my new position for less than a month and already I'm waking up in the middle of the night with brilliant ideas. Truth be told most of those brilliant ideas look pretty silly by the light of morning. None the less I'm fully immersed into my new job - even when I'm sleeping.

It got me thinking. How did the company engage not only my working hour mind, but my heart so quickly? It's true my background matches the job requirements well and I have the experience and knowledge to hit the ground running. But there is more --

  1. My peers, employees and executive team are nice. I want to do a good job in part because I like the people with whom I work. Every person I've reached out to, has not only taken my meeting, they've been enthusiastic about it.
  2. How I am to be measured is clearly articulated, and I have the opportunity and authority to define those measurements with my management team.
  3. I've been given express permission to make mistakes. The company directly tells you that in your first 90 days we expect mistakes. Because it's OK to take chances, I'm jumping right into projects, rather than waiting until I feel confident I "know everything".
  4. Asking questions is not only expected, it's encouraged. People stop by my office to say hello, and see if I "need anything". No agenda in mind, they just want to give me an easy opportunity to ask for help.
  5. Perhaps most effective -- there is lots of chocolate around the office. I've got to love people who need a good afternoon sugar rush!
Was everything in my orientation perfect? No, I still don't have business cards and the commute is a bear. But that hasn't slowed down my integration into the new role. Instead, the company has made a conscious effort to establish a work environment for new employees that pulls our heart and soul into the job - from Day 1. Despite the fact that I still have a lot to learn about the organization, they already get my best.

Day 17 - I'm ALL in, and grateful to be there.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

My New Favorite Apple Recipe

I love fall in New England. The air is crisp, the leaves are colorful and the kids aren't tired of going to school yet. Every October I take my boys apple picking. It's our way of welcoming Autumn.

And each year I have an idyllic plan. I pick a day the sun will be shining. I pull out all of my "apple recipes" and for days the boys and I talk about which apples we want to sample.

Surrounded by near-by apple orchards this should be an easy outing to schedule. Then again, apple picking never seems to work out quite as we expect. And this year was no different.

Although the sun is shining, the wind is gusting.

The lines are long. Apparently, every citizen within 100 miles had picked this Saturday to go apple picking. We wait in line to pay our $52 entry fee. This hefty sum gives us the privilege of picking our own fruit. When we are done we pay twice per pound what our local grocery store charges.

90 minutes and $150 later this simple New England tradition has been anything but simple.

None the less, while I might never have the perfect apple picking adventure, I'd never dream of giving up the tradition. If I had, I might never have giggled with my seven year old as he bit into an unexpectedly bitter apple. Or watched my growing 16 year old reach the perfect Macintosh high up on the tree. And I might never have been inspired to try a new favorite apple recipe (see below).

So go ahead, take the hay ride, dress warmly and enjoy those juicy apples.

Fennel & Apple Salad

2 – 3 green apples – sliced thin
3 bulbs fresh fennel – sliced thin
2 lemons
Pinch of sugar
1 cup orange juice
Salt & pepper
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Fresh shaved Romano or Parmesan cheese

Mix sliced apples and fennel in a bowl
Cover with juice from two lemons
Toss gently with pinch of salt & pepper

In a separate bowl mix orange juice, Dijon mustard and sugar.

Right before serving toss salad with Orange Juice mixture.
Top with shaved cheese & serve

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Beginnings

On Oct. 1st I start a new job.

I feel like tomorrow is my first day at a new school. I've mapped out my new commute, packed my lunch, and set out my clothes. And although it's been many years since I actually started a new class I remember the excitement of preparing the night before.

Thankfully, this time the excitement isn't accompanied by creeping anxiety. My old fears of being the only student who can't open my locker. Or worse, picturing the taunting I'd receive after I accidentally walked into the boys bathroom, are a thing of the past. I don't even think about being called on by a teacher and not having the proper response.

Nope, the fear is gone and its replaced by the knowledge that starting something new can bring with it pure joy. Sure, I may get lost on my way to the lunch room. And I'm sure it will take weeks to learn the company's acronym soup. But after years of doing what I love, I have the confidence to know that's all part of the fun of learning.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Engaging People, a Natural Instinct?

What is it about a good sales person that makes you want to buy more? Why do some customer service representatives solve your problem but still leave you unsatisfied? How do your children know exactly what button to push?

At the end of the day, all of these questions can be answered the same way. A good sales person makes you feel special. A bad customer service representative didn't make an emotional connection through the phone, or across the desk. Your children make it their job to know you best - after all, you are the keeper of all things special - that new video game, permission to drink a glass of soda, or say it isn't so -- giver of that embarrassing kiss good-bye in front of their friends.

Why do some people do a good job of making you want to be around them and others seem to have a force that projects you away. For answers to that I look at my own family. I have four boys, each with wonderful special talents, each totally different. With the same genetic inputs and home environment how come my 8 year old Derick has always had a special ability to make strangers fall in love with him? Whether it was another young boy from San Francisco who happened to stay at the same Mexican resort as our family on vacation last summer, or the bus driver who shuffles dozens of kids to school each day, Derick charms virtually everyone he meets on the first visit. Is he more confident than my other children -- for the most part no. Does he have a better sense of humor? No, they all tell a great story and have funny one liners. Is he smarter, faster, more handsome? No, no and no. But he does have a type of radar for knowing what makes you feel special. He instinctively knows what question to ask that will engage you in a conversation that you care about.

I've found that my top performing sales colleagues share that same trait. They not only know who to spend time with, but how to make them engage. My most successful marketing campaigns have achieved the same - a dialogue.

While the skills are clearly natural for some people, can you learn to be a magnet for your target audience? If the answer is yes, there are a few people I'd like to put through "magnetism bootcamp" -- a certain Comcast service representative, the last webcast moderator I sat painfully through and a grumpy crossing guard top my list.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Before You Talk, Think Like a Listener

Last night I watched President Obama address Congress about health insurance reform. It's a stark contrast to the Woburn Mayoral debate hosted in our local high school earlier in the evening. Yet they both have something important in common. Both forums are putting very personal, emotional issues on the table, trying to solicit support from a wide range of people.

I've long been intrigued by organization change initiatives and while politics is different from running a family, or operating a business, I'm surprised how common the challenges of change are among all groups.

In an attempt to gain a fresh perspective I brought my 11 year old son to the mayoral debate. While we were not able to attend the entire session, it was an enlightening experience. It served to remind me that how you communicate is as important as what you communicate, especially while championing change.

After listening to opening statements and the candidates respond to a few questions I asked Nicholas who he would vote for based on what he knew at the time. To my surprise he answered quickly and definitively, "the man in the brown suit". Perhaps not coincidentally, I would make the same choice, although I had not shared that with Nicholas.

Curious, I asked him why. He responded immediately, "because he's focused on solutions".

Was the man in the brown suit more qualified for the job than the other three candidates? No, most had similar levels of business and political experience. Did he offer solutions that were significantly different from the other candidates? No, in fact they all seemed to provide similar recommendations.

The difference: How he communicated. The "brown suit candidate" was prepared, articulate, and responded to the issues at hand thoughtfully giving a sense of openness. By contrast two of the other candidates were disrespectful of the time allotted to respond, focused on other's weaknesses instead of their own strengths and generally appeared disorganized. The final candidate, the incumbent mayor, was organized, and articulate. But perhaps because he was under attack, or perhaps because of his personal style he focused on past performance, was rigid, and projected a closed persona.

In political debates, in the board room, or sitting at lunch with your friends the lesson holds true -- don't just think about what you want to say, but how you want to say it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Brands: Please Speak to ME

I've been intrigued by recent articles guiding marketers on the use of social media tools including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to market their brand. While the advice is not bad, I generally find it uninspiring, common sense practices. So, I decided to run a very unscientific study of my own.

During the past several months I've followed a series of brands that affect my personal life on Twitter, observed my Facebook friends engage with products, and leveraged LinkedIn to network with recruiters, competitors and old friends. Along the way I've observed some interesting trends and a surprising lack of sophisticated integration among mediums.


Active Listening - I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the brands I touch are listening. I can tell because they respond to my posted comments. For example, I recently gave a Twitter shout out to Norton for an easy install on my home PC. Within a couple of hours they had responded with a congrats and thank you. It made me feel good that the brand was listening. Similarly, I had complained about my disappointment in Six Flags Twitter posts. I had followed them hoping for discounts and promotional news, but instead received a series of on-site scavenger hunts in cities far away. Within minutes they responded, acknowledged my concern and asked me to be patient. Within a week, they had posted exactly what I was hoping to receive, a great promotion program, and it wasn't just for me. Two very good examples of not just listening, but active listening.

Leveraging community - TDWI is a professional organization for data professionals. It has taken what has historically been a very event driven community, and translated it into an active LinkedIn group. I'm impressed by the interactive discussions that flow on a routine basis. I attribute their success to three factors (1) the community drives the discussion topics with helpful prodding of new content along the way(2) the group shares what is happening with those that are not yet active and (3) the group's values as a vendor-neutral education forum are maintained by publishing guidelines for participation and calling out "spammers".

Being Personal - Thank goodness most organizations are creating personas that are real. People use what has in the past been feared: "the first person" (Insert ominous music here...dum, dum, dum). I've always believed that making people feel you are communicating to them as a person is the most effective way to communicate, be it in an ad, direct mailer or email campaign. Social media now gives us the mandate and authority to lead with a first person voice.

I experienced this first hand with Wilton (a cake & candy making supply company). Wilton recently posted a tweet asking how people started cake decorating. I responded. Not only did they acknowledge my response, they gave me a personal story back that related to my experience. We had a "personal" communication in the first person. Wilton got it right!

(if you don't know what this means, you haven't spent enough time on Twitter)

Finishing the job
For a great example of what not to do, check out this link. It tells the story of a great idea poorly executed. A PR professional looking for a job launched personal ads on the Facebook page of his potential employer. It got the attention of a key executive. But the follow on comment trails took a good idea way off track. Lesson learned - don't just aim to get someone's attention, aim to keep their attention with quality content. First impressions are important, but sustained impressions are what matters.

Get the context right
Clearly many brands are tracking mentions about themselves. A few weeks ago I tweeted about how excited I was for the Cubs championship baseball game. Major league Cubs fan clubs came out of the woodwork to engage me. The problem was, I'm not a Cubs fan. I was talking about my son's little league game. And if you read the whole post it was obvious. Those Cub fan sites forgot that you must do more than just watch for your name to be mentioned, you must read the context by which it is presented.

Spamming: it's not just adult video sites
There are some obvious spam offenders but spam comes in many shapes and sizes.
  • Avoid being known as a full time "self-promoter". Talking about yourself is part of creating a personal brand, but balance it with other content. I've been known to even congratulate a direct competitor on a recent announcement they made. No hidden agenda, just acknowledging good work in our space.
  • Be careful about participating in on-line quizzes - they often auto-generate a post with your results. Did you like the activity enough to tell your friends about it?

  • Don't retweet a link unless you've actually followed it - know what you're passing along
  • If someone uses you to promote a product or service without your permission politely call them out on it, report them as spam and then block them from your network
Hello, is any body out there?
The only people who seem to be soliciting my twitter follow are porn producers and social media "experts" obsessed with follower count. Both misplaced efforts in my regard. On the other hand, I am a member of and yet they have made no attempt to let me know about their twitter presence. Yes, I know it is hard to match email membership with Twitter IDs, but in my case the name is the same. Not to mention the "twitter follow button" couldn't be lower on their home page, and to the best of my knowledge I haven't received any Twitter email promotions (or any that got my attention) in the many, many emails I get from them.
Let's look at another example. I follow Jet Blue on Twitter. They aren't the greatest listeners but I like knowing what discount airfares are available. Why is it that no Jet Blue competitors haven't reached out to me? It's not hard to find out who follows the Jet Blue account.
Don't you recognize me?
I am the same person on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Yes, I use the tools to engage my community in different ways, yes I have a different approach to each tool. Yes, there is still a way to weave a thread of connection through all of the ways I communicate. I have the distinct impression that for most brands the individuals engaging in Twitter are different than for Facebook, than for MySpace etc. For example, I have a great dialogue going with the Wilton twitter team. I find them full of tips, responsive and tuned into me. And yet, they have never suggested I join their Facebook fan page. Why does that matter? It matters because my Facebook friends have almost no overlap with my Twitter followers.
While pulling together my thoughts for this post I was struck by how much the brands and people I followed on Twitter told a story about Samantha Stone. A story that every marketer dreams about -- what are my hobbies, whom do I admire or at least listen to, where do I spend my time, what do I look like, how do I describe myself. By now, most marketers should be drooling with possibilities of one to one communication.

Are today's efforts a sign of social marketing immaturity? Perhaps. But in my book it is a missed opportunity for the ultimate dialogue. Maybe instead of organizing by marketing by social tools, companies teams should be organized around the people they are trying to engage. Is that a challenge, heck yes. But imagine the possibilities.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back to Basics: Home Recycling

Note to self, don't choose the hottest week of the year to organize the entire house.

Hot, sticky and surrounded by bags of items to donate, piles of odds and ends awaiting a yard sale, and bags and bags of trash, my seven year old inspired me to go one step further. On a quick break over freshly baked banana bread, he looks up at me with big brown eyes and states the obvious; "we should have a recycling center."

With four boys and a dog no one goes through more trash than the Stone household. My slightly neurotic self knows this because on one of my morning walks I calculated the average number of trash cans posted around my neighborhood . We doubled the average, ouch!

You might be wondering why the woman who switched to low watt light bulbs three years ago, and never waters her lawn to conserve water hasn't set up a home recycling center. I could come up with lots of reasons. The truth is I was lazy. I didn't want to look at three different barrels, I didn't want to monitor the kids habits and most importantly I didn't want to bother going to town hall for the requisite recycling stickers.

Yet looking at Johnny's face I knew he was right. So together we made a plan. First stop, town hall. We picked up stickers for our trash barrels to indicate they were recycling goods and got the town's pick up schedule. All FREE I might add.

Then we went to Wallmart and picked up barrels for inside the house. Not so free, but we took advantage of back to school sales. For $35 we got a white bin for paper & cardboard, a black bin for plastic and metal and a new green trash can for everything else. When we got home we labeled the barrels and gave everyone in the house a quick tutorial.

Then the really fun part started. We had to wash out the outside trash barrels - yuck! They in fact smell as bad as you would imagine. But you'd be amazed how much fun a hose, some bleach and boys in their bathing suits can become. An hour later we were soaked to the bone, our trash barrels were clean, and we had giggled ourselves silly.

The result, a mighty fine home recycling center, a good lesson for the boys (and me too) about social responsibility and freshly cleaned trash barrels. The best part is our trash barrel takes longer go fill up so we find ourselves taking the trash out a lot less often.

Don't get me wrong. I am not be willing to give up the convenience of plastic cups. And I'm not ready to stop serving Sunday dinner on paper plates. But we do recycle. And it's a lot easier than I thought.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Event Lessons From Outside

Last week TDWI hosted it's annual San Diego conference, a show I usually attend in full force but missed. If you're not familiar with The Data Warehouse Institute (TDWI) and you're a data warehouse/business intelligence professional you should check them out

TDWI is an amazing organization with tremendous membership and talent. They do a LOT of things right. They offer highly valuable vendor-neutral content, they teach invaluable skills, and they have a strong community driven presence. For most of the week I was melancholy having missed attending the San Diego conference. I find interactions with customers, prospects, partners and industry friends invaluable.

But when I started hearing from my friends who were at the conference, I began to wonder if I missed anything besides drinks with my industry colleagues - although that alone could have made the trip worthwhile.

Merv Adrian offers a summary of the event on his blog I've heard similar feedback from other attendees. General sentiment has been that although some good hands on content was shared the conference was disappointing. Attendance was extremely low, thought leadership seemed to be missing and general enthusiasm was non existent.

What happened?

While I don't pretend to be an expert on the inner workings of TDWI I have some outside observations that can remind all of us about the challenges of event planning.

You've heard it before. The economy affects travel budgets. But it does not eliminate them. Events that require travel will struggle to attract attendees. Corporate travel restrictions make justification processes challenging for many prospective attendees. And yet, TDWI attendance drop off (average estimate I've heard is around 40% - this is not an official number) is significantly higher than for other events I've attended this year. I believe several factors affected the San Diego event more than other venues.

Go lean, not extreme. Staff reductions will effect the quality of an event.
TDWI is ultimately a business and it like many businesses has had to adjust to a struggling economy. Reducing staff puts a heavy burden on remaining staff to step up their game both before, during and after an event. Individuals must do more with less time. While not a member of the TDWI team, I know from my own experience in similar situations that staff reductions, when taken too steeply, can become a self-fulfilling downward cycle. You cut staff, results suffer, you cut more staff.

More isn't always better.
Make the tough choices - big conferences or local seminars. TDWI has recently introduced a series of regional events designed to complement their larger conference venues. I suspect that these regional events have pulled from attendees that would otherwise have attended the San Diego event. There is nothing wrong with having an intimate event with 100 - 300 people, but the cost structure, vendor participation and industry experts who attend need to adjust to a different formula. When planning events you must look holistically at your audience and sessions to determine the right mix.

Encourage intimacy.
No, I don't mean the elicit personal relationship building that the conference rumor mill feeds upon. If your conferences are going to be smaller, you should embrace the audience in different ways. For example, a vendor exhibit hall might not be the best mechanism for sponsorships. Instead consider sponsored birds of a feather luncheons, or more prime time hands-on labs.

Validate your audience's interests (including sponsors & guest speakers)
It may be labor intensive but constantly evaluating your course make up against the actual list of registered attendees is critical to finding a satisfactory balance for all parties involved, speakers, sponsors and general attendees. For example an instructor plans differently for a class of 50, than for a class of 9. With a smaller classes the course can become more workshop driven focusing on issues of particular relevance to the students. If done properly both the instructor and the student are more fulfilled. But this can not be done without advanced planning.

While I couldn't attend the conference I'd like to think I still learned something from afar. And next time around, I hope to be at a bigger (or perhaps more intimate), and even better TDWI show.

In the interim, I'm going to bring these event planning reminders to my next conference strategy session.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Recent College Grads - Stop Whining, the Economy Isn't to Blame

Over the past few weeks I have been casually monitoring my Alma mater's alumni LinkedIn group. It should come as no surprise that it has been flooded with job seeking recent graduates who left the hollowed halls of school in May and now need to face the realities of full time employment.

There are many who appear frustrated with their job search. They are blaming the economy for their lack of employment. While it is true that a tough economy makes job seeking in some sectors difficult, the hard truth is a college education is NOT a ticket to wealth and job security - and at least in modern history, it never was.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics employment for 20 - 24 year olds has fallen in 2009, but it hasn't crashed. Although the data can not be sorted by education status, I believe it is safe to assume that college graduates aren't taking on a larger burden of the lower employment rate than the average 20-24 year old. And in fact, most studies show employment rates for college educated persons are in fact higher than for those who have not received a bachelor's degree.

What can we conclude? A college education is valuable. It's where we learn to write thoughtfully. It's where we teach ourselves how to negotiate and debate wisely. It's the place we are thrust to live on our own and learn how to organize our lives. For most, its also the place we learn to live off of take out, to pull all nighters, and to funnel beer. If you're lucky it is the place you use intern opportunities to find your passion.

And while a college education is all of these things and more, it has never been a replacement for building experience. Bottom line when you leave college you have new, valuable skills but your dream job must still be earned.

I graduated college in the early 90's. I was 21, and like today's graduates, felt entitled to my ideal job. After buying the perfect interview suit, practicing my confidence building handshake and writing thoughtful cover letters to dozens of potential employers I learned quickly that I was competing for sparse positions against highly experienced personal. Disillusioned but determined to pay my bills I took a job going door to door selling restaurant coupons. In three months I learned I was pretty good at sales but as summer became fall, and my territory became more remote I was cold, tired and unsatisfied. I wanted that "real" job I had never stopped waiting to fall into place. But, something had changed. This time I opened my search to include sales positions. To make a long story short I ended up working for a temp agency. On my second placement I ended up working for a high growth technology company in their channel sales group. Although I had never intended to enter the high tech market, I had found an extremely talented executive team, a mentor and a whole new "un-entitled" attitude that made me eager to learn and fast to succeed.
More than 15 years later I am the Vice President of Marketing for a technology company. I love what I do and I'm proud of everything that I've accomplished.
My advice to recent college grads. Take a deep breath. Stop whining. And buckle up. The ride is just beginning. And if you're patient you'll learn it can be a lot of fun.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Two Days To Perspective

A friend of the family was kind enough to share their lakeside cottage with us. On Monday night I left work, hit the grocery store, and made the two hour drive to our quiet retreat in the woods. Well, it was quiet before I arrived with three of my boys ages 7, 8 and 10.

Along the way the boys asked me to explain how a cottage was different from a house. I struggled to answer that one - it's smaller? Usually on the water or near a resort area? According to my definition was pretty accurate. But it missed the whole point. I should have said a cottage is where we reconnect with each other and make new memories. A cottage is the perfect place to spend two days. A cottage is a place where towels NEVER air dry and the mosquitoes, as large as bats, are bred to attack us city folks.

Over the next two days we hiked, we fished, we braved the too cold water to swim. We made fun shaped chocolate chip pancakes and we marveled at the view. We saw wild fox, and carefree deer. Just two hours away and traffic jams were a distant memory and email was impossible to download.

My favorite part of the whole trip was story time around the campfire. Hopped up on smores and the fresh air, we sat in a circle and told funny stories. I was charmed as my children recalled how we burst into laughter the time Nicky exploded a creamer and it shot all over his face. Or how relieved we were to hear the nurses laugh when after Johnny's emergency c-section he peed on the staff, or how Derick gave everyone the giggles at dinner with an endearing rendition of Buffalo Cow - don't worry, we don't really know what it means either. Or the time Stephen gave us a "TV broadcast" report from the top of the Empire State Building with official anchor voice coming out of his then 7 year old smiling face.

As I tucked the boys into bed that evening it dawned on me that all of our stories involved every day time we'd spent together. I felt both grateful to be a part of my children's happiest memories, and somewhat surprised by their content. Their favorite fun memories were just being together. Imagine that.

Now if I could only have bottled that content feeling for the drive home we could have avoided the "are we there yets?" and "MOM, my brother won't share his book", and of course the infamous - "what did you pack to eat?". My GPS system thought it was counting down the miles, but really it was counting down to sanity. Three boys should never be locked in a car within arms reach of each other for any significant amount of time. Despite the very normal drive home, it turns out that two days was the perfect amount of time to make new memories and gain perspective.

Inspired by our trip we made smores for dessert last night. After all, who said you have to be in the woods to enjoy the gooey snack and tell funny stories. Only this time, we had new stories to tell. Stories about how Nicky fell shoes, hat and fishing rod off the dock into the water when "the big one" tugged the line and got away. And stories about how close the wild fox came to entering a neighborhood garage. And let's not forget stories about the man eating mosquitoes we bravely battled with our bare hands.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

What's Your Legacy?

Aside from Thriller video flash backs and trying to moon walk with my children, the Michael Jackson media craze has had a positive side effect. It got me started thinking about the legacies we leave behind.

Instinctively, many consider personal legacies - our children, the homes we decorate, perhaps even the charitable causes we support. But on the drive to work this morning I was struck by the notion of professional legacies. I don't mean the Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King Jr. legacies that change our very way of thinking on a grand scale. I'm referring to the little parts of us we leave behind at work each day, each month, each year. I think most people are consumed with their day to day tasks and forget about the small legacies they are capable of leaving.

A legacy could be the smile you bring to difficult team meetings, or the shoulder you share during times of crisis. Your attitude is contagious and perhaps the most powerful legacy you can leave behind.

Your legacy could be a loyal customer who turned to you in a time of need. A billing error you corrected, or an upgrade referral that made their life easier.

Sometimes your legacy is not about what you do, but the actions you inspire in your employees. The drive you instill in them to do their best - to mentor a new employee, to find a more streamlined process or to introduce a new service.

Legacies big and small are derived from our actions. By being aware of the legacies we generate I believe we create a more fulfilling work environment.

What's your professional legacy? I for one am not done creating them.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Saying Nothing, the Best Advice

Last night my son finished reading and asked to be tucked into bed. It's our usual routine for me to lay next to him and talk about his day. He was unusually quiet and I asked if he wanted to just cuddle tonight. Enthusiastically he pulled my arm around him and said yes. I had to fight the urge to say anything. I usually use this time to praise him for his accomplishments and to discuss important issues. Sometimes we talk about serious topics like soldiers dying at war, or where babies come from (I always say love). Other times we talk about childhood challenges like how to help a friend who is getting picked on by a bully; or techniques to improve his study skills. We often laugh at silly jokes. The point is we ALWAYS talk, and last night I had to fight my urge to intervene with words of wisdom. I'm not very good at silence.

But I perservered and sat quietly holding my son. After a few minutes I started to get up to go, he pulled tighter and said don't leave yet. Thankful he still wants Mom to tuck him in at night I laid back down; my mind wandering to the laundry that needed to be put away, and my email that needed to be checked.

After a few minutes I felt him visibly relax, and noted that I too had stopped making a mental to do checklist. I kissed him good night, whispered sweet dreams and quietly left his room. Afterwards it dawned on me that perhaps Nicky had showed me the most important lesson of all. It's not always what you say that matters most; its what you do that makes a difference. Last night my son needed, or perhaps more correctly he knew I needed to simply slow down. And he in fact showed me how. Silence really can be the best advice.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's Your Brand All About?

What's your brand all about? No, not your company brand. What does your personal brand represent?

Until recently I never thought I had a personal brand. As a marketing professional I took on the persona of the company that paid the bills (or at least that's what I thought). I've always been selective about the technologies I support. But at the end of the day I projected the company's messages, I followed their informal dress code, and I wrote about topics that mattered to my company's prospects.

Somehow, without trying, I've in fact created a personal brand. And that personal brand is as important to my company, as it is to me. Because the Internet is so pervasive what I blog & twitter are as much a part of my professional persona as what I say at an industry event. What's more, how I say those things gives insight into who I am, and how much credibility I bring to a conversation. And all of those things together make up my personal brand. Your personal brand should come naturally, but not without thought.

If created attentively your personal brand represents a tremendous opportunity to extend your reach, personalize your relationships with colleagues and get more fulfillment from your work.

Keeping this in mind, I've started a list of guidelines for managing my brand identity.

1. Stop. Pause. And Post.
Just like I pause before hitting the send button on an email, I pause before hitting post for on-line mediums. By giving myself a few seconds to review what I've written I've found I insert my foot in my mouth a lot less often. And when that doesn't work, I take blame for my mistake and correct it as soon as possible.

2. Be Myself (mostly)
I believe that your personality is as important as the information you want to share. By being myself I can offer authentic advice and experiences with others. Of course, there are times when being myself means I should be by myself. Honor those instincts!

3. Tell the Truth
Enough said.

4. Be Interested
If you want to be interesting, you have to be interested. Write about things you are passionate about, or at least things that amuse or intrigue you.

5. My Lips Are Sealed
Be respectful of others. If you are told something in confidence, keep it that way. If you aren't sure, ask permission before sharing.

6. Add Value, Don't Instigate
As a young adult I wanted to be a part of every conversation. I would often take the contrary view just to participate. Over the years I've matured and recognized what you say matters more than how many places you talk.

7. I Am Not Who I Work For
While I have an obligation and desire to represent my employer in an appropriate and professional manner, my personal brand is more than just my company's views. Separating who I am, from who I work for, is integral to long term personal brand building. I firmly believe the two can and should live in harmony, complimenting one another.

8. It Takes Two To Tango
My online & off-line worlds are totally integrated. How I act in one place, should be reflected in how I act in the other. If I wouldn't say it at a conference cocktail party, I shouldn't say it in a twitter post.

9. Use Common Sense
Don't let emotions get the better of you. Use good common sense judgement at all times.

Like all policies, my guidelines will evolve over time. In the meantime, its fun exploring new communication vehicles and learning environments.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Are you part of the art department?

I'll never forget the look of shock on my bosses face the first time one of the executive team introduced him as "leading the art department". Mike, my boss, was the Vice President of Marketing for a technology company with a long career and many credentials. While he, like most of my marketing colleagues, is proficient at PowerPoint auto shapes, and can draw a mean stick figure, you could hardly consider us traditional artists.

While the memory brings a smile to my face the general sentiment is dangerous and surprisingly wide spread. I believe that effective marketing is more science than art. And that the most common mistake organizations make when developing their marketing team is to consider it a cost center that can't be measured effectively. Or worse, they devise the wrong set of metrics.

Instead of focusing on a narrow set of marketing deliverables I advise my team to concentrate on a wide range of measures. Here are the ones I've found most important and cost effective to implement.

Brand Reputation - a lot of effort goes into establishing a brand identity for your company/product or service. Just like our personal brands the reputation your company upholds is important to customer acquisition and loyalty goals. Often, organizations think they have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on brand measurement programs. For large organizations this may in fact make sense - after all, you typically have hierarchical management that likes to read long studies. For the rest of us, practical metrics can cost effectively be put in place.
  • Talk to your customers - I know shocking, but you can create simply surveys that ask customers how you are doing. Even better, simply pick up the phone. You'd be surprised how much your customers actually want to tell you.
  • Track social media conversations - even informal scans of Twitter and LinkedIn can give you a good sense of how people perceive your organization. With just 15 minutes a day Twitter search and LinkedIn discussion groups can be great resource to get a gut check pulse on your reputation. If your audience is more Facebook, Digg or YouTube than Twitter go there instead.
  • Ask thought leaders - Industry gurus want to learn about your business and they are willing to exchange a few minutes of their time for more knowledge of your strategies. The biggest mistake marketers make is pitching the whole time, don't forget to pause and ask questions.
  • Meet with internal stakeholders - Once the sales team gets past "I need more leads" what do they tell you about their customer conversations?

Awareness - Does your target audience know who you are? Of course, before you start to measure this you must define who your target audience. Once you've established that it's pretty easy to track.

  • Is your website traffic growing? What is your average visit duration? Did a news event trigger a spike in visitors? This and so much more is available for free using tools like Google Analytics.
  • Establish a list of search optimization key words and periodically test where you show up on search engine rankings. I've found running informal spot checks once every two weeks surprisingly insightful.
  • Track the source for in-bound calls & web inquiries - sometimes we just forget to ask!
  • Don't forget to query those internal stakeholders - what are prospects saying when they call them?
  • What percentage of articles/blog posts relative to your space are you mentioned in?
  • Where do you rank in analyst reports? Are you mentioned at all? Are you positioned correctly? Set goals and measure against them.

Demand Generation - I found it surprising that so few organizations actually track suspect interest all the way to deal closure, and yet this is the most effective way to showcase the value of marketing to your company's sales efforts.

  • Get on the same page with sales - what is your suspect to lead conversion rate? what is marketing programs contribution to pipeline? what is your cost/lead? What sales teams are best at converting leads to pipeline?
  • Create the right product/offer - what messages and solutions shorten the sales cycle? Make the deal size go up? Improve maintenance renewal rates?
  • Does your database measure up? This is a tricky one. Measuring the sheer volume of contacts is an inefficient strategy. Instead you should match your database to target customer goals? How complete & accurate is your profile information? What are your email opt-out rates?
  • How well trained are my sales team? Join them for customer visits - its the best way to tell.
  • What is your caller productivity by telesales rep? Number of calls, length of calls, successful conversion to lead?

Once you know how you measure up against yourself, benchmark your performance against your peers.

  • Talk to your colleagues and find out what they use for metrics.
  • Subscribe to free newsletters like Marketing Sherpa that spotlight industry norms.
  • Take up agencies who want to give you "free assessments" about your performance. I've found this particularly pervasive and valuable for web optimization.

I haven't even touched upon product delivery measures but I think you get the idea. The creative "art" part is important, but its only a piece of the picture. The science of marketing is not about one measure, but about a context driven mindset that combines short and long term objectives. And it doesn't have to cost a lot.

How do you rate your marketing efforts?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Say Good-bye to Youth

A good friend reminded me that today is our 20th graduation anniversary, ouch! After I got over the uncontrolled need to seek out a good plastic surgeon, I started thinking about all of the things that have changed in the past two decades.

Who I am has changed. I am more confident. Perhaps it's because my hair isn't as tall and I almost never wear my trademarked over sized shirts and baggy pants anymore. Suffice it to say, I'm very thankful that digital photography wasn't around in my younger days.

My priorities have changed. I've discovered I actually do need more than three hours of sleep each night. And those awesome shoes that I can hardly walk in aren't worth the blisters; even if I do look hot in them. Instead, I am the mother to four boys. What time and childbirth have shifted physically, has been replaced by love and countless hours of worry. Instead of obsessing about my wardrobe I spend hours contemplating important parenting skills. What's the best way to prepare them for the 'real world'? Will I be able to send them to college? Will they ever stop interrupting me when I'm on the phone?

How we work has changed. Unlike days gone by when information hoarders were king today's successful worker understands how to share. Collaboration is happening everywhere and it is now commonplace for information to be shared across geographic, cultural and generational boundaries. The context by which data is generated is critical during this process, and is often the hardiest element to master. It's where I see most of my professional changes happening in the future.

Despite all of this change some of the most important things remain the same. They still serve soft serve vanilla ice cream with cherry dip at our local ice cream stand. I might not look hip doing it, but I can still rock to 80's hair bands. And the sounds and smells of the ocean can still melt away my worries. Only now, I have twenty years of new friends, four children and dozens of talented colleagues with whom to share the experience. I think that is the best change of all.

What has your ride been like?

Friday, June 5, 2009

Advice for a Retiring Parent

My father retires in exactly 14 days. I know this because he's been counting down with vivid milestone charts for the last two years. After a long and dedicated career in education, most recently as President of International School Services, to say my father is looking forward to having nothing to do, no planes to catch, no long term obligations is an understatement. But after a few weeks I know he'll be itching for new adventures.

While I hear that Sudoku can become addictive, and that Sony has come out with a brain stimulating game for the Nintendo DS I have a hard time picturing my father doing either of those things. So here are some other ideas that can keep his mind fresh and spirit young.

1. Embarrass Your Children - My father has a jump start on this fun activity. For years he's been perfecting the fine art of telling embarrassing stories about my sister and I. In fact, he still brings out the tried and true tale of how I got stuck on a moving sidewalk at the ripe old age of three. Its time to step it up a notch. Now he can make an art of embarrassing the grandchildren. You know do things like show up at their baseball matches wearing a Yankees hat (you should know my children are die hard members of Red Sox Nation).

2. Shamelessly Flirt With 22 Year Old Waitresses - You might want to wait to turn 75 before engaging in this particular activity. That seems to be the turning point when flirting goes from creepy to just embarrassing. Oh, and I reserve this activity for lunches alone when your wife is no where in sight.

3. Take Up a Hobby - I have a hard time picturing my father doing the usual gardening, book club or drinking at the local Chinese restaurant bar. Instead I think he should take up gambling. Not the kind that will wile away my potential inheritance. But perhaps a lottery obsession that gives him something to look forward to during the nightly news. And maybe even the occasional bus trip to Foxwoods.

4. Master the Email Forwarding Technique - There is a lot written about the impact of the Internet on teenagers and young adults. We read about how growing generations of texters, bloggers and Hulu watchers need constant stimulation. What's often overlooked is the ways the Internet has effected our retired community. I like to call it Email Forwarding Syndrome (EFS). With hours of free time retired family members comb through jokes, cartoons and articles that their friends who have an equal amount of spare time collect. Unfortunately, most retires just forward, the forward, of the forward from a friend who forwarded the email. After scrolling through 15 forward messages you get to a joke that could never live up to the anticipation of so much scrolling. If you must get EFS try to limit it to just three forwards a day.

5. Obsessively Watch the Home Shopping Network - Home to thousands of odd holiday presents your family couldn't possibly want. By obsessing about the HSN you can spend hours imagining our faces when we open our pineapple scented back scratchers and politely exclaim "oh, you shouldn't have", secretly smiling with the knowledge that we have to be polite. And this activity comes with a bonus. You get to play lonely old man for the UPS delivery person who must politely hear all those embarrassing stories about your children while you sign for delivery. Because of course, you mark "signature required" for every item ordered.

6. Take Long Walks - Apparently going to the mall an hour before stores open and doing laps is all the rage for pregnant women and retirees. Just don't forget your water. It sells for $2.50/bottle in the vending machines.

On a serious note, I couldn't be happier that my father is retiring. He will be able to attend every Sunday dinner. We'll get our father/daughter breakfasts more than once every two years. And he can finally spend relaxed time with my mother. They both deserve it. And if he should get bored of having nothing to do he knows he can fall back on the six activities listed above.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

So You Think You Can...

I admit it. I'm a "So You Think You Can Dance?" junky. This is somewhat a surprise to me. Generally speaking I don't like contest driven reality show television. I don't watch American Idol, I never tune into the Bachelor and forget about America's Top Model.

I've been thinking about what makes the show fascinating for me. And I think I figured it out. This show is about real talent, pushing limits and having passion that never extinguishes. In an interesting way I like the show because I identify with the participants. While you won't catch me leaping on stage, or doing a pirouette, I love what I do, passionately.

I can't help but wonder if everyone had the passion these dancers share, and mentors who wanted them desperately to succeed, what amazing innovation our businesses could drive.

Kicking & Screaming

I went kicking and screaming into the world of Twitter on the persistence of several great colleagues at Shift Communications. And while it took several weeks for me to understand its value, I finally got it.

In fact, I'm now somewhat addicted. I find myself checking Twitter before I go to bed at night, and its the first thing I do after looking at email in the morning. I even find myself thinking about new ways I can obliterate the English language into barely understandable abbreviations - just to get under my 140 character limit.

During my journey to master Twitter I formulated a few guidelines that if followed can make Twitter an exceptional tool for fun & professional communication.

# 1. There is such a thing as TMI (Too Much Information)
If you chose to follow porn stars, take pictures of your drunken buddies, or describe personal relations with your spouse - don't use your professional persona. We don't want to know that much about you!

# 2. Don't confuse direct messaging (aka DM in twitterland) with email.
DM is designed for witty remarks, defining a spot to meet at a conference, or other quick communication regarding a post. If you can't say it in one 140 character post, or its going to take more than 3 DMs of back in forth discussion - please, use email.

# 3. Size does matter
But not the way you think. For celebrities like Ashton or Oprah having a million followers makes sense. For the rest of us your twitter goal should not be to amass the most number of followers. Your goal should be to amass the most relevant followers. I'll take 200 followers who influence my life & my work, over 5000 random people whom I don't know any day.

#4. Don't forget to listen
Twitter can be a wonderful broadcast tool. A simple vehicle to share good news, ask questions and point out interesting research. But all too many people forget to listen. Twitter is equally good at getting a pulse on your personal brand, your company's customer service and what's happening with your competition.

#5. Go organic
Whatever you do, don't ask someone to RT(retweet which is akin to forwarding for you non twitter readers). Nothing is more of a turn off than someone you follow asking you to retweet, or worse yet, offering you an incentive to rebroadcast your message. The whole point is for organic conversations to take place where people share what is of interest to them. Don't be pushy, let your content speak for itself.

#6. Don't drink and tweet
Don't say anything, I mean ANYTHING, you wouldn't say in a crowded room fully sober. What you say can and will haunt you. Of cource, we appreciate a sense of humor so don't go over board censoring your thoughts.

I hope these guidelines make Twitter an even better place to be.

Your twitter convert,

p.s. You can find me on Twitter @samanthastone