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Archive for September, 2011

Some things actually are black and white.

A conversation with a good friend in the agency world the other day (and particularly her horrified reaction to what I shared with her) prompted me to finally write this post. If your company is working with an agency on building or managing a social media program, you probably need to read this. And if you work for an agency that works with social media, you definitely need to read this.

Here’s the skinny: I work with agencies around the world, and more importantly, I have friends in a lot of places, both on the brand side and the agency side. Every chance we get, we talk shop. When someone does something cool, we talk about it. When someone does something not so cool, we talk about it too. And when we start noticing things that bother us, especially when those things touch on ethics, we most certainly talk about it. Over the last few months, one conversation has dominated all others, and it is this: The existence of two prevailing agency models when it comes to building and managing social media programs for clients. One is primarily client-focused and good, and the other… well, not so much. And yet, the latter seems to be gaining traction in the agency world, and that isn’t good.

Here is what these two models look like:

Model #1: The proper, working model.

In this model, the agency identifies the client’s business objectives and uses its capabilities to support them. Note that in this model, the agency doesn’t simply pitch a campaign or provide a cookie-cutter service. It identifies the client’s goals. It clarifies them, even, if not for themselves, for the client (as this is sometimes needed).

For example, if the client comes into a meeting and says “we need a social media program” or “we want 100,000 new Twitter followers by Christmas,” the agency doesn’t simply nod and set to work building a social media program or acquiring 100,000 new followers. What it does first is dig a little deeper: It finds out why the client wants a social media program or why 100,000 new twitter followers is a significant number for them. It finds out what the social media program is there to accomplish. Is it to attract new customers? Is it to capture more relevant data from existing customers? Is it to improve conversion rates or facilitate positive word-of-mouth? Is it to build the foundations of a consumer insights program? Is it merely to monitor brand mentions for a while, until the executive team has a better idea what they want to do?

Whatever the client’s ultimate goal (or series of goals) is, that becomes the basis for the program or campaign. That complex of end goals becomes the driving force behind the ideas, the mechanisms and the activities that will become the core of the pitch.

Why? Because a social media program that blends customer acquisition and increased buy-rate with facilitating WOM and activating hobbyist communities looks VERY different from a social media program whose objective is merely to “build and fill.” (The self-serving process by which an empty space is built only to be filled by a budget.)

What comes out of this type of model is a social media program that blends into a client’s overall business ecosystem. It deliberately supports its marketing efforts, its PR efforts, its customer service efforts, its sales efforts, and so on. Success is measured not only in social media metrics (net new likes/fans/subscribers/followers, net mentions, sentiment deltas and estimated advertising value) but in business-relevant metrics as well: Net new customers, Net growth in sales, increased buy-rates, net positive customer recommendations, improvements in loyalty metrics, increased market share, faster customer service ticket resolutions, improvements in PR crisis resolution, greater operational efficiency in x, etc.

In this model, the agency works with the client as an integrated partner, not just an outsourced service provider, and the results are concrete. In fact, the question of R.O.I. pretty much answers itself. It is never in question. Whether in a support role or a leadership role, the agency and the client act in tandem from start to finish.

This is the proper model for agency involvement in Social Media with a client. The ideal model, if you will.

Model #2 : The improper, unethical model.

In spite of the amazing breadth of potential for agencies in the social media space in terms of impact, revenues and success, many unfortunately choose to just cut corners and go for the fast, easy money. In this model, an agency knowingly sells what essentially amounts to bullshit to unsuspecting clients.

Let me give you two examples:

1. “We need to be in social media.”

Client comes to agency thinking they need a social media program. Their competitors all have one now, and after years of resisting, it looks like they are just going to have to get into that social media “business.” They don’t know much and they don’t know what they want, so they are relying on the agency to provide them with whatever help they need.

What the agency comes up with is a package that includes the development of an official Facebook page, several customized Twitter accounts, a YouTube channel, some internal training, and a content package to go along with it all. If the client has the funds, some campaigns will be thrown into the fray, maybe a contest or two.

Enter the “win an iPad 2 for liking our new Facebook page or following us on Twitter” discussions.

Enter the 5 tweets per day and 3 Facebook updates per day content packages.

In this model, nothing actually happens that directly impacts the business. Nothing is done to support a particular business objective or outcome. The model is simply this: To create billable social media “activity,” bill the client, and generate metrics that seem to indicate that the social media activity is a success. (We will come back to that in a minute.)

What the client ends up with is noise. Ask the client about his social media program, and he will proudly tell you how wonderful it is. Ask him what it is doing for his company, however, and the answers begin to sound less concrete. “Well, we’re attracting a lot of comments and likes. Like, 30 or 40 per week now.”

Yeah? That’s wonderful. But what is it doing for your business?

2. “We need 100,000 followers asap.”

Client comes to agency with an urgent need to grow its social media reach from 7,359 likes/fans or followers to 100,000 by Christmas. Why? Could be anything: Because the CEO said so. Because their closest competitor is there already and it’s embarrassing to be that far behind. Because the digital manager just came back from a conference during which a social media guru told them that 100,000 followers was a minimum benchmark for a brand.

What the agency comes up with is a simple package based on “the value of a fan” or “the value of a follower.” From this subjective metric, the agency quotes the client on a price: “We can get you your 100,000 followers before Christmas, but it will cost $x.” Negotiations ensue. A price is agreed upon.  The agency throws in a little hat trick: “If we get you to 120,000 followers by Christmas, how about a 5% bonus?”  The answer: No, but if you get us to 100,000 by December 1st, you’ll have your extra 5%.

This is a real situation, by the way. A real conversation.

From the client’s perspective, this is an awesome deal:

1. Internally, nothing is required except signing checks, signing off on activity, and keeping track of the agency’s progress. If the agency fails, no one is really to blame internally. The agency can be fired and replaced. But if they succeed, there will be enough glory to go around.

2. It would cost 5x more to reach potential customers in more traditional ways, even email. Social media really is cheaper!

3. We have a social media program! How cool is that?!

4. The client thinks it could have never gotten 100,000 followers on his own by Christmas. God bless that agency and its amazing social media savoir-faire!

From the agency’s perspective, this is an even better deal:

1. The client hasn’t figured out that social media activity is there to support business objectives. He is so focused on hitting that follower goal that nothing else really matters. All the agency will be goaled on is its ability to reach that number by Christmas December 1st. Nothing else matters. Not conversions, not positive WOM, not FRY, nothing. Just get those 100,000 followers.

2. The client is clueless about social media, and there is no reason to change that. The less they know, the more they rely on the agency to deal with their needs. This is very good for the agency, as we will see in a moment.

3. The agency, like an increasing number of its “competitors” around the world, has been recently and repeatedly pitched by companies out of China, India, South America and Eastern Europe that offer followers, fans, likes, clicks and other digital traffic à la carte. It can, like any other agency with the funding to do it, pay for all the new followers and fans it wants. You can buy all the positive mentions you want too.

Let me explain how this works: Money changes hands. Somewhere in a country where the client has no business presence, 25,000 people either create accounts or use existing ones via proxies and simply click “like” or “subscribe” or “follow.” These people will NEVER become customers, but to the client who doesn’t know, they have just become his 25,000 new followers on Twitter.

The only two details for the agency to worry about at that point are a) making sure to cover their tracks, and b) figure out the optimal markup.

This, boys and girls, is how it’s done, and we aren’t just talking about small fly-by-night outfits. Think bigger. Much bigger. And it doesn’t stop there.

4. The agency doesn’t need to have experienced professionals on their social media integration/management team anymore. Why waste money on that when you can just buy fans and followers?

Agencies opting for this model have two options:

A) Hire someone with an influential blog on Social media and put them on staff as a sort of social media mantle piece. These folks will be there to woo the client and help pitch them. They’ll charm them and do some internal trainings for them. They’ll create content for the agency blog, put a face to the agency’s social media capabilities, speak at events (always pitching the agency’s “case studies,” of course), and serve as a “thought leader” but will never actually work on building anything for clients.

B) Hire or promote someone with zero experience in social media integration and build them up as “experts” anyway. Any intern will do, but someone with a few years of experience in any “digital” field will look better. If you’ve ever wondered how some of these people you have never heard of become “experts” almost overnight, wonder no more.

Think about it: Why bother staffing up with expensive talent when you can just buy your followers and fans? The page builds can be outsourced to developers. The content can be outsourced to any number of content farms. The structure is already in place. If the agency is already working on a campaign, its content can be easily adapted to social media channels. (Add revenue line items here, here, and here.)

5. Once the followers have been purchased and the campaign or program seems to be gaining traction, start beating your own drum. Convince the client that their success could make a great case study, then build it up. In a few months, wouldn’t it be great to present at conferences around the world how “engagement” and “content” took Brand A from 7,000 followers to 100,000 in just a few months? Oh, the white papers. Oh the slide decks. Oh the positive press in Mashable and ZDnet. Oh the blog posts. Oh the awards.

Get on the phone with the PR team pronto.

Meanwhile, those 100,000 followers provide nothing for the business. Sure, it looks good when people check out the account’s profile page. It looks like the company and its agency are doing something right. The stats are easy to graph too. Empirical data, right? Is anyone ever going to go back and check where all of those “fans” came from?

Unfortunately, that number is a smoke screen. The vast majority of those followers will never become customers. They will never recommend the company (unless paid to do so). They’re paid extras, pretending to like your company, nothing more. Chances are, they had never heard of it before an email notification with a Paypal link told them to.

Meanwhile, the agency looks like a superstar. In the next few months, other brands will visit them and these words will fill their conference room time and time again:

“Can you do for us what you did for [Brand A]?”

The answer will always be yes.

6. Do not pass Go. Collect that 5% bonus for spending the client’s money faster than the original timetable called for.

In this type of model, KPIs (key performance indicators) will tend to focus on digital measurement only:

Net new follows.

Net new likes.

Net new subscribers.

Net new & volume of mentions.

Click-throughs.

EAV/EMV (Estimated Advertising/Media Value)

Reports will include fascinating graphs measuring “engagement” and “social equity.” Middle-managers will have exciting (albeit somewhat complicated) reports to present to their bosses that clearly indicate that the agency is kicking ass, doing its job, earning its pay. And yet, nothing concrete will come out of it. No actual new customers. No increases in loyalty. No preparedness for the next PR crisis. No improvements anywhere, except for all that “activity” in social media, except for all that noise.

I’ve been in the room when deals like this were discussed. I’ve had drinks with agency professionals who confirmed, disgusted, that it was becoming standard operating procedures at their firms. I’ve worked with clients who had no idea the extent to which they had been screwed by their own agencies in precisely this manner until they started digging under the surface of easy “social” metrics and “R.O.I. is not really applicable to social business” discussions.

This is happening in your market right now. It doesn’t matter if you’re in New York or Paris, Atlanta or Brussels, San Francisco or Hong Kong. This model is gaining traction because it’s easy, it’s cheap, it generates revenue and accolades for agencies, and the clients don’t know enough to make a stink. (Not that making their disappointment public would be to their advantage anyway.)

Where your choices lead:

Fortunately, because the second model is now so widespread, it won’t remain a dirty little secret much longer. Before long, clients will start figuring it out, other witnesses to it will start talking about it, and the agencies they work(ed) for will be exposed. Careers will be tossed down the proverbial drain, and the higher the pay grade, the harder the fall. Don’t kid yourselves: It is as inevitable as the fall of Enron.

Take a step back and ask yourself: What will clients do when they find out? How many new clients will these agencies attract once the curtain falls away? Who will want to go work for that kind of organization? What kind of professional will they attract (and more importantly, retain)? What future can this sort of organization really hope for?

To use a cycling analogy, do you really want to be remembered as the guy who won the Tour de France only to be stripped of the honor for blood doping a year later?

Cheating to win sucks. Cheating to get paid or to get ahead sucks. And no one gets away with it. No one. Not anymore. What side of the ax do you want to be on when it finally falls? That’s your call.

The agencies who opt for real results, on the other hand, who truly want to be the best in the business, whose relationship with clients is not predatory or parasitic, will stand out and attract solid talent, the people with insights and ideas and the ability to win and help them grow. Their success in recruiting the best talent in the world and use it properly will get around. This will gradually score them bigger clients. Meanwhile, the idiots who ripped off their clients with purchased “success” will just vanish from the scene altogether.

I know this because Tyler knows this. And also because I also know that reputation is everything. People talk. People always talk. And they always remember too.

As I begin to transition from being just an independent consultant (where my impact is often far too limited for my taste) to joining a larger organization (where I will be able to do a lot more), I realize how difficult the next few months will be. Sorting through potential new ‘homes’ for me won’t be as easy as just agreeing on a figure anymore. Now I have this stuff to deal with too, and the big famous name on the door doesn’t mean what it used to back in the day. As sad as that is, it’s the sad reality of where the marketing world stands in 2011. The vetting process on my end will have to be more thorough than it ever has been, adding a whole new layer of scrutiny in my search for #thenextgig.

This should be interesting.

PS: If you are an agency that falls into the first category (the proper model), let’s talk. If you fall into the second, let’s not.

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If you haven’t already, learn how to properly build, manage and measure social media programs at your own pace. Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization will help you avoid common pitfalls of  most bogus social media program pitches and help you develop your own business-focused framework instead. Think of it as a 300-page blueprint for anyone looking to build a proper social media program. Download a free chapter here and find out for yourself if it is worth the paper it is printed on. You can also check it out on amazon.com or pick it up at just about any bookstore.

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With 200,000,000 registered twitter accounts and almost 450,000 new accounts being created daily, some of you are bound to run into a sociopath, a bully a troll, even a complete cyberstalking psychopath on Twitter sooner or later.  Having just had to deal with my own little unpleasant experience with a small group of possibly psychotic individuals targeting friends on the twitternets, I thought I should share with you a little video that my friends at Tweetreports (@tweetreports on Twitter) cooked up for us just for this post.

For tips on how to deal with or report harassment or cyberstalking on Twitter, check out Twitter’s Abusive Users page (click here). The page is filled with information, tips, links and resources that should help you no matter what your situation may be, so no need to republish it here.

The video I have for you today shows you step-by-step how to capture incidences of online harassment, bullying and cyber-stalking for later use – as evidence in a court case, for example. Though Tweetreports is typically used for brand and keyword monitoring, SEO research, tagged bookmarking and other business-focused activities on Twitter, it lends itself quite well to this use as well. Here’s how it works:

If the above video doesn’t play for you, go watch it here.

If you know someone who is dealing with cyberstalkers, online bullying, digital harassment or any other type of abuse being channeled through Twitter, please share this post with them. And if you aren’t dealing with anything like that right now, bookmark this for future use. You never can tell when it might suddenly come in handy for you or someone you know.

Other handy resources just in case:

NCSL’s 2011 overview of state statutes regarding cyberstalking, cyberharassment and cyberbullying.

NCSL’s online child protection page.

IJCC’s Analysis of Online Harassment and Intimidation report.

The National Center for Victims of Crime website.

If you don’t live in the United States, a quick search should identify similar resources for the country in which you live.

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Speaking of kids… Cyberbullying infographic (below) courtesy of ZoneAlarm.com.

Also follow this story on how cyber-bullying may have led to 14 year old Jamey Rodenmeyer’s suicide. Let’s make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen again.

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Bonus Twitter stats infographic (below) courtesy of the Touch Agency. Follow them on Twitter: @touchagency.

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If you haven’t done so already, check out a free chapter of Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media Efforts in Your Organization on the smroi.net website. The book, which outlines for businesses and organizations how to design, implement, manage and measure social media programs that are inherently connected to relevant business objectives, is available at booksellers everywhere.

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“I never knew what I wanted, except it was something I hadn’t seen before.” – Robert Altman

Today, let’s talk about how to really get a competitive edge by hiring the right kind of people. Edelman Digital’s David Armano would call them T-shaped people, or even Sun-shaped people. He isn’t wrong. The point is: A company is only as good as the sum of its parts. And by that, I don’t mean equity, technology or assets. I mean people. Invest in people, really invest in them, and your company will soar. Hire on the cheap and treat them like asses in seats, and your company will falter. It’s that simple.

What do you think makes Apple great? Trust me, it isn’t their servers or cool offices. It’s people. People come up with the ideas. People turn concepts into reality. People fight for their projects and make sure they happen. People invent, design and perfect the iPod, the  iPhone and the iPad.  People explore new ideas and figure out what the next big thing is.  People make customers feel special. People either make or break companies and brands, from the CEO to the greeter, and from the designer to the cashier.

It’s always been like this. Social Media didn’t invent anything. “Putting the people back in business?” Why did you ever take them out to begin with?

“If I complain about a traffic jam, I have no one but myself to blame.” – Steve Wynn

Neither my posts, my wisdom nor my ideas emerge from a vacuum. Everything I have learned until now and everything I will ever learn in my life will come from doing, learning, experimenting, and from listening to people who tried to do the same thing in different ways before I came along.

It is strange to me to hear people sometimes lament that “there are no original ideas left.” I think they are completely missing the point. The importance some people attribute to the originality of an idea is completely overblown. It’s an ego trip. They’re just disappointed because they couldn’t be known as the guy who came up with it. Truth is that the next big product won’t be a completely original idea. It will be an original take on a dozen old ones. What was the first iPod? A portable CD player without the CD. What’s the iPhone? A phone that does more than other phones. What’s a venti latte from Starbucks? A 20 oz cup of coffee with a Starbucks logo on it. What was the first light bulb? A candle without the candle.

Truth: What makes an idea good isn’t how original it is. It’s how relevant it is for its time and how well it works. Who cares if you were inspired by a dozen things other people did? Who cares if you borrowed from artists and designers and engineers who solved a problem or created something great twenty years before you became the precious little center of your mother’s world? That’s how it works. You go out into the world and get inspired by other things. You take bits and pieces of things that work somewhere else, and you adapt them to your needs, then piece them together to create something better.

Here’s something else: Great ideas, real innovation, the next big thing, no one is going to come up with them sitting at their desk or brainstorming with a roomful of  suck-ups.

Great ideas, real innovation, the next big thing, they’re all out there, waiting to be pieced together like a puzzle. And the puzzle pieces, they are scattered all over the place waiting to be found. How are you going to find them? In a meeting? During a powerpoint presentation? At the end of a RE:RE:RE:RE string of emails?

Who are you hiring? What are you doing with these assets? What types of tasks are you giving them? Are you evaluating them based on their ability to respond to emails, schedule meetings and drive incremental points of change, or are you recruiting and evaluating based on people’s ability to truly drive your company forward?

“If you don’t go, you’ll never know.” – Robert DeNiro

You want to find out how to get better at customer service? Take off the suit, get in your car, and go talk to your customers. Better yet, become a customer all over again. Heck, do both.

You want to find out how to design better products? Start looking at every product out there a little more closely. Things that have nothing to do with your industry. Dog toys. iPhone applications. Action figures. Tennis rackets. Bicycles. Sunglasses. Mechanical pencils. Media players. Faucets. Swiss Army knives. Even cat food is designed to look, taste and feel cool. Learn what works.

You want to find out how to become a wiser business leader? Go out and talk to people who have suffered under some really bad ones. You’ll learn very quickly how to avoid becoming the next mediocre suit with a big title.

If you’re too busy to do any of this yourself, then make sure the people who work for you get to do this. If they can’t hire people who will, then give them permission to. Send them out into the world. They aren’t going to learn anything new sitting at a cubicle all day, filing papers.

You want to generate great ideas on a regular basis and execute on them the way Apple and Nike do? Surround yourself with creative thinkers who will challenge groupthink, uninspired corporate obstacles and collectively work together to figure out how to rock the As all the way to the Zs.

Inspiration and wisdom are everywhere. Whatever unbeaten path you may find yourself on, it’s still a path. People have been there before. Maybe the path looked very different then, but it’s still the same path. Find these people and learn from them. Since you probably didn’t have time to clear your schedule today, let me bring a little bit of that wisdom to you… but after that, you’re kind of on your own.

Very few of the little bits of wisdom below were meant to be used as business advice, which is precisely why I selected them. They’re all really about life, about decisions, about integrity, about the choices we make. But it doesn’t take a genius to see how some can be applied to customer service, to hiring, to innovation, to career management, to choosing whom to work with, and to coming out of this recession a market leader.

“If a guy doesn’t have a little gamble in him, he isn’t worth a crap.” – Evel Knievel

You don’t get to be a market leader by playing it safe.

“Let’s see what our competitors do first” is not the path to market leadership.

“Can you show us some case studies first?” is not the path to success.

Every time I hear executives speak enthusiastically about the crazy projects their junior teams are working on, I smell success. Whenever I hear career administrators dismiss ideas from junior members of the organization because they’re too bold, because they’re unproven, because they haven’t been tested by the market, because they aren’t guaranteed to work, I smell failure.

Success – just like good ideas – doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Success is nothing but the final intelligent outcome of a thousand purposeful failures.The light bulb wasn’t invented overnight by a major technology company based in Palo Alto. Neither was the automobile.

Success is a process. It has its own architecture. Its own unique elements. Its very own DNA. Think about the quality of people you hire and promote. Are they just there to be asses in seats? Does their job consist of spending a third of their day responding to emails? Are they merely “head count,” as some companies call them? Do you truly encourage and reward initiative, innovation and courage, or do you make a process of crushing them out of your organization?

Here’s a tip: If you feed your organization average, don’t expect to get anything but average results. If you only feed your business “safe,” don’t expect to get anything but “safe” results (which means no results at all). If you surround yourself with suck-ups and cowardly little self-serving tyrants, don’t expect a whole lot either.

Fortune does favor the bold: Apple takes chances and wins. You could say the same of Pixar. Google didn’t get where it is by playing it safe. Look at what Ford has been doing for the last three years. How do you think Zappos got to be Zappos? Even Old Spice, for that matter, took a chance and scored big – turning a tired, irrelevant brand around with a few deliberate strokes of genius and a healthy dose of courage. Where do you think all of this started? With decisions. Decisions made by people. People who were willing to take calculated risks in order to win. People who were willing to go where no one had gone before and see how far the rabbit hole went. Where did these people come from?

Imagine where those companies would be today if they had hired unimaginative desk jockeys whose idea of advancement was to fly under the radar long enough to get promoted and just “do their jobs and go home.” Your company should be a hotbed of ideas, not paperwork and reports.

So invest in people. Be smart about it. Treat them like the assets they are. Give them what they need to make you next year’s success story. If there ever was a secret to gain a definitive market advantage, it’s this.

But hey…

“Wisdom is knowing when to shut the f*ck up.” – Adam West

Here are a few additional tips from some people far smarter than I am:

“Courage is doing something you need to do that might get you hurt.” – Bobby Bowden

“Change is not threatening.” – Steve Wynn

“I love discourse. I’m dying to have my mind changed. I want to know, you understand? I like listening to everybody. This to me is the elixir of life.” – Jack Nicholson

“Take a bit of the future and make it your present.” – Andy Grove

“If you’re not nervous, you’re either a liar or a fool. But you’re not a professional.” – Jerry Lewis

“Hire people who will treat the switchboard operator as friendly as they’ll treat the managing director.” – Sir Richard Branson

“My definition of evil is unfriendliness.” – Muhammad Ali

“Tell the truth. sing with passion. Work with laughter. Love with heart. ‘Cause that’s all that matters in the end.” – Kris Kristofferson

“Never accept ultimatums, conventional wisdom, or absolutes.” – Christopher Reeve

“If you want results, press the red button. The others are useless.” – Homer Simpson

“Hypocrisy is a detriment to progress. There’s always a hidden agenda.” – Larry Flint

“Money doesn’t make people happy. People make people happy.” – Steve Wynn

“A nickname means you belong.” – Buck O’Neil

“Risk means guessing at the outcome, but never second-guessing.” – Mel Brooks

“The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile.” – Julia Child

“Nothing is just one thing.” – Carrie Fisher

I hope that gave you something to think about. Have a good’n.

 

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Running into snags integrating social media into your business? Not sure how to separate social media snake oil from business-relevant planning? Looking to understand how to connect ROI to your social media activities? Check out Social Media ROI: Managing and Measuring Social Media in Your Organization (Que/Pearson). Not a complete guide to social media integration for business managers (it’s only 300 pages long), but it comes pretty damn close.

Read more about it here, and if you’re still on the fence about it, download a free chapter to check it out.

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9.11.

No memories, no reflection, no lessons. Just remembering the victims and thinking about their families and friends today.

 

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Ugly.

I learned something in the last few days. I learned that there are two kinds of people in the so-called “social media space.” To my left, say hello to the kind, caring, compassionate, I would say normal human beings – you know, those actually capable of empathy. To my right, say hello to the sociopaths, the hypocrites, the soulless assholes more concerned with themselves, with their own little worlds of personal gain and opinions, than of other people’s privacy, well-being and even grief.

I learned this through the painful process of reading through many of the blog posts written about Trey Pennington’s untimely passing, and even more of the comments left behind by other readers. What I found was a distinct split between the two groups, a line, as it were, drawn in the proverbial sand. What is most remarkable to me is the rare absence of a gray area here. I found no compassionate hypocrites in my reading, no caring sociopaths, no empathetic assholes. If you wrote anything about Trey Pennington in the last few days, either on your own blog or someone else’s, you belong to either one camp or the other, and your soul, your heart, your nature have been revealed in this circumstance.

While some of us felt compelled to honor the man and to share our grief with one another, others simply jumped on the opportunity to become part of a news story, to place themselves at the forefront of it, as “experts” and “gurus” once again.

I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here is my painful story of depression.

I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are my insights on why he died.

I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are top 5 ways of deepening relationships online.

I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but here are my thoughts on the dangers of chasing the wrong thing.

If you didn’t know Trey Pennington, why are you writing a 2,000 word post about the lessons his death taught you in all of twenty minutes it took you to realize that was the trending topic of the day? Why are you using his death as a platform to push your dime-store insights about depression or the digital world or the meaning of the term “friendship?” Why couldn’t you just reach out to his family and friends and just say something kind instead? Was the opportunity to exploit his death really too hard to resist? Are you really that focused on your little race to the top of social media blog rankings?

Shame on you, those of you who went there, those of you who didn’t listen to that little voice inside your head telling you you were exploiting a man’s tragic end for personal gain. You know who you are and you know what you did. Shame on you.

I hope your blogs got a lot of hits. I hope a ton of people clicked on your affiliate links. I hope that Trey Pennington’s death generated at least a 15% boost in ad revenue for you this week. I hope it made you feel important to have something clever to say about it, to impart your wisdom of all things social media, to have your followers tell you how clever and wise you are, how smart. I hope you enjoyed stealing the spotlight, no matter how briefly, from a man whose suffering you never stopped to give two shits about before you saw a way to turn it to your advantage.

Here’s what you did, in a nutshell: You turned a man’s death into content.

And it doesn’t stop there. Some of you also took it upon yourselves to pass judgment on a man you didn’t know, to project onto him whatever preconceived notions you had about “guys like him” and the artificial nature of social media “friendships.” Not only did you put yourselves in the forefront of the story now as the professor of the moment, but also as a man’s judge and jury, even though you never knew the guy, even though you don’t know the first thing about him or his circumstances or the fact that “social media” had nothing to do with why Trey Pennington took his own life.

Here’s one of my favorites:

The lesson from Trey Pennington is simple – stop assuming that because someone created a web presence and says things that are attractive to you and seemingly can make your life better, that any of it is true.

It’s usually not. None of it.

I extend my condolences to the family and friends of Trey Pennington, and hope that at least one of you reading this will realize that your shock is only due to your inability to face reality.

Thank you Brian, for that wonderful lesson. God bless you for setting us all straight. I’m sure we all feel better now, and wiser too.

Since those of you in that lesson-giving category don’t want to make this about Trey, since you want to make this about you, let’s go there. Let’s make it about you. We won’t talk about how the fact that Trey was one of the rare individuals in the Social Media world who actually used the space to connect people in the real world, by the thousands. Let’s not dwell on the fact that Trey (whom I met online long before I met him in real life) introduced me to dozens of people whom I now count among my dearest friends – people I would have never met had it not been for him. Let’s not talk about the real work Trey did online and offline, his passion for bringing people together and making their lives better. Let’s not talk about how perhaps for a man as tortured as Trey Pennington, social media was, at least for a while, a life-saving balm, a mode of therapy, a refuge for his tortured heart, even one of the few things that kept him going and brought joy to his life. Let’s not talk about any of that. Let’s talk instead about your world view and your cynical clichés and your infinite wisdom about a guy you didn’t know. Let’s use his death to illustrate your little bullet points on life and social media, or better yet, attract traffic to your blog.

To understand what this looks like, I want you to imagine a funeral for a moment, a memorial service. Trey Pennington’s family is there, occupying the front rows grieving, crying, trying to hold it together. Behind and around them are huddled hundreds of friends and colleagues, all heartbroken, some utterly shattered by the sudden death of their friend. This is the image I want you to create in your mind. Now I want you to pan back. On the outskirts of this scene is an array of soap boxes, and on these soap boxes are people preaching to passers-by about the “lessons” of Trey Pennington’s death. They stand there, their backs to the grieving, their voices booming outward, gesticulating in their best social media guru T-shirts, using the tragedy to attract attention to themselves – all this within sight and earshot of the grieving.

“I didn’t know Trey Pennington, but why didn’t he just ask one of his 100,000 friends for help?”

“I won my struggle with depression. Too bad he couldn’t be as strong and wise as me!”

“The demands of being a social media rock star are difficult on me as well. I even had to turn off my phone yesterday!”

“Here’s what I heard about what really happened!”

Pan back a little more, and you will see “reporters” (and I use the term loosely) updating their barely-researched 300-word pieces on the the death of a man whose life they didn’t bother to look into with an archive photo or a screen shot of a tweet, or a change of nomenclature in the title, just to keep traffic rolling in.

Pan back further, and you will see a long procession of people come from all over the world to pay their respects. The vast majority of them are setting down flowers and candles and cards on a mound of such offerings meant to honor and remember the man. They shuffle by, looking beyond the soapbox preachers at the grieving, wishing they could somehow soothe their pain. But among them are people who just came out for the show, for the spectacle of it, for the opportunity to say their piece and feel important. And so here they are, leaving angry notes to the family or yelling at them outright things like:

“Take a lesson from Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Ebinizer Scrooge, a man who was successful in business and a failure in personal relationships.”

“Not all suicide is due to depression only but can be done as a protest and just plain selfishness and hate. Going to a church with a gun makes me wonder if he had something else in mind more than depression.”

“I don’t know the guy. I’m just saying that killing yourself doesn’t make you a saint.”

“This wasn’t a simple suicide, it was a public act of terror.”

“The depression/suicide paradigm is simply the wrong paradigm to apply to Trey Pennington’s situation. That paradigm may have been proper to Trey in previous instances, but Sunday’s outburst was an undiluted narcissistic fit of rage. He was angry and homicidal. he intended to make a congregation full of children watch him off himself, and probably at least one other person as well. Sympathy for Trey Pennington is misplaced.”

These are all real comments from real people.

I thank these wonderful human beings for their precious opinions, for their empathy, for their timing, for their respect. It is wonderful to know that we are at all times surrounded by people so self-absorbed that they will jump, no leap, at the opportunity to barge in on people’s grief with their precious “two cents.”

That scene I just made you visualize has been the state of the social media world these last few days: A genuine sense of loss and sorrow by a small community of friends and relatives almost eclipsed by a circus of opportunistic bloggers hijacking Trey Pennington’s death for traffic and attention, media outlets getting into cat-fights over who covered the story faster or the motives behind their coverage, commenters speculating about a man they didn’t know, an event they weren’t there to witness, and a tragedy they know nothing about.

Fortunately, some blog posts were respectful and eloquent and genuine. To those of you who wrote these heartfelt pieces, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You’re good people. Among you: Geoff Livingston, Jeffrey Jacobs, Kristi Colvin, J.P. De Clerck, Scott Gould, Rhonda Snowden Norsby, and many others. There’s a reason I count you among my friends.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to look far to find the ugly side of “social media.” You don’t have to go digging at its extreme slimy edges, where predatory $13,000 certification courses and webinar scams tend to live, to find it. It’s sitting in the cubicle next to you, standing next to you in church, waiting in line behind you at the grocery store, following you on Twitter, writing the blog posts that appear as if by magic in your RSS feed every morning. The ugly side of social media has nothing to do with the medium at all. Selfishness doesn’t need Twitter or blogs to thrive. Some people are just ugly inside. It’s as simple as that. They don’t care who they have to rip off to make a buck, who they need to smear to get themselves off the hook, who they have to hurt to get ahead. They simply don’t care. Someone dying is just another opportunity to get a little more exposure, that’s all.

With all the talk this week of façades and online personas and artificial identities, the reality of the social web is that it doesn’t hide people’s true nature behind avatars and “personal brands.” For those with their eyes open, it reveals people’s true nature, big as a billboard for all the world to see. In spite of every artifice in the web marketer’s playbook, we’re all as transparent as jellyfish. Hypocrisy is the dumbest of all our flaws, the one that, ironically, makes us least aware of how obvious our real intentions are to those watching with purpose.

So yes, there are two types of people in social media, in the world, and this week I have come face to face with both. To those standing on my left, thank you. Thank you for being human, for being kind, for being at the very least respectful during a difficult time. To those standing on my right, I have nothing else to say. You know what you did. I know who you are. I see you all. Shame on you.

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Heartbroken.

I know I’m in the habit of writing Proust-length posts but today, I won’t. I can’t. It isn’t that I don’t have a lot on my mind, a lot to share. I could write chapters on the time I got to spend with Trey Pennington these past few years. I could sit here and tell you how much respect I had for the guy and how much I liked him – genuinely liked him – like when you meet someone for the first time and you instantly know you’re going to be friends for life. I could tell you about all of the Social Media Clubs he started all over the South East, about all of the lives and careers he touched all over the world, about the selfless work he did behind the scenes that no one knew about, that he never sought to take credit for. I could tell you about the rat-hole of a hotel he and I accidentally stayed in on one of our trips to London, and in a spectacular turn of fortune, the conversations about life and love and the future he and I had a year later, stretching late into the night in the warm heart of Dartmoor’s luxurious Bovey Castle. I could tell you so many anecdotes about Trey, about his infectious “aw shucks” southern charm, his gentlemanly disposition, his generous heart and the infinite kindness of his spirit. Hanging out with Trey, you got to glimpse a side of humanity that we seldom see anymore. He was the most caring and unselfish individual I have ever met. There was a pure, innocent quality about him that, once glimpsed, inspired you to be a better, kinder, gentler man. There was only one Trey, and now he’s gone.

So… my heart just isn’t in it today. I’ll never again hear the distinctive timbre of Trey’s voice reach for me across a crowded room. We’ll never again run into each other half-way across the world and joke about how, although we live less than five miles from each other, we only see each other overseas. We’ll never again clink glasses and quietly sip perfectly aged Grand Marnier in the world’s most out-of-the-way pubs and random hotel bars. And now we’ll never have that coffee he and I always planned on having. I always thought I was too busy. I always put it off. If there isn’t a lesson here, I don’t know what else to tell you.

I could go on and tell you that the world was better with Trey in it, that we needed more of him, not less, that he should have made a great CMO, the perfect marketing professor, a golden mentor for an entire new generation of marketing and business professionals, but so what. All I know is that he was my friend, and now he’s gone. Gone. Forever. No rewinding the tape. No turning back the clock. No re-do. Gone. I couldn’t have given two shits if he had been a janitor or a fry cook instead of an international speaker. I never knew how many twitter followers he had or how many friends on Facebook or how much klout he had. None of it ever mattered to me. I just liked hanging out with him. I liked talking shop with him. I liked to hear him laugh at my stupid dick jokes. I am heartbroken. Completely, utterly heartbroken.

Guys like him don’t grow on trees. He was the only Trey Pennington, and now he’s gone, and that’s it. I feel like someone just hit me in the stomach with a cricket bat, and writing post really isn’t helping, so here are some pictures I found of Trey, stuff I shot or that other people snapped with my camera. This is how I knew him.  This was the world we shared. Aside from the memories and the record of his blog and Facebook page and Twitter account, this is all that’s left.

Godspeed, buddy. I miss you already.

 

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