On this episode of Amplify, Elin Barton talks with Macon Phillips, Founder at Starling Strategy.
Elin and Macon discuss organic vs. paid growth, how to communicate with audiences, innovative thinking, technology trends, and so much more!
Macon Phillips oversaw online fundraising, organizing and communications for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and founded the White House Office of Digital Strategy, transforming how the President could mobilize Americans. At the State Department, Macon developed digital engagement campaigns in over thirty countries and built a community of over 500,000 young African leaders through the YALI Network. As CARE USA’s Chief Digital Officer, Macon managed the digital infrastructure for the global humanitarian organization, developed applications to digitize program data and created both the policy and capacity to protect the privacy of beneficiaries.
1:04 – About Starling Strategy
2:48 – Building Community in a Corporation
8:05 – Simply Listening
9:29 – Closeness = Blindness?
14:11– Coordinating Different Goals and Ideas
16:45 – How to Cut Through The Clutter in Your Marketing
20:26 – AI in Media
23:30 – Authenticity
26:52 – Why Video Creates a Connection
28:53 – Creating Content that Sticks
32:41 – Video Messaging
34:57 – Organic Vs. Paid Campaigns
39:48 – Measuring Success
44:56 – Technology is Overwhelming
Elin Barton 00:08
Hello, and welcome back to Amplify. I’m your host, Elin Barton. At White Knight Productions, we’re all about amplifying voices through storytelling. And in this series, we connect with industry professionals who know how to boost messages far and wide. Today, we are excited to talk with Macon Phillips. Macon is the founder and CEO of Starling Strategy. Macon’s background includes time spent in the Obama administration. There, he headed up an initiative to create the White House’s first Office of Digital Strategy. After that, Macon moved on to the State Department where he developed digital engagement campaigns in over 30 countries. And he built a community of over half a million young African leaders through the YALI Network. Macon, welcome to Amplify.
Thank you so much, Elin. It’s great to be here. Looking forward to this.
Elin Barton 01:04
Well, I’m super excited to talk to you. And I guess we’ll start out with this, you had this great career in Washington. And you kind of left that behind. I know, you’re still involved with some, you know, politics here and there. But you are working in mainly, I guess, in the private sector. What kind of companies do you guys work with at Starling?
Starling is focused on really, large, complex organizations. And that, I think, as you know, can be found in the public sector, it can be found in the nonprofit space, and certainly, large corporations and companies. You know, my background, as you mentioned, involves a lot of innovation within large organizations and figuring out how to actually drive some kind of change. In my case, it was around a lot of new opportunities for public engagement because of digital technologies. But the change management, the alignment with the overall goals, and the patience, frankly, I think is really important as we’re looking at how we can help complex organizations build powerful stakeholder communities. So within the kind of organizations we’re working with, we’re constantly looking for the social impact angle. We’re not interested in helping a company sell more shoes, per se. But to the extent they’re doing corporate social responsibility work, we very much believe that that kind of work needs to be sustained. And in order to do that, it has to be aligned with a company’s goal. So a lot of our work has been on connecting CSR programs with other elements of the business.
Elin Barton 02:48
That’s awesome. And I really admire companies that are able to have a social impact as one of their core values and strategies. That’s really, really cool. I’m curious about the idea of building communities within, like, the corporate communication world, when you’re communicating out to followers of the, the corporation or even internally, it can be a real big challenge to do that. It’s different from an influencer building a community around themselves. You know, building it around a big corporation is very, I imagine, challenging. What have you learned in all your years of doing this?
You, often, the hardest thing is to just get started. I’ll tell you a story about how we drove change within the State Department. And, you know, it aligns with a foreign policy goal, but I think you’ll find there’s some really interesting sort of digital transformation elements to it. When I worked at the State Department in 2013, there was a initiative called the Young African Leaders Initiative. And it was a great program that offered six-week scholarships for young leaders from Africa here in the United States that ended with an event with Barack Obama. Pretty appealing opportunity. And so when the State Department put up a form on the web, on a website for applicants, which involve like uploading letters of recommendation and all these things, for 500 slots in total, they got 50,000 applications. And that, that created a pretty tense meeting where people weren’t quite sure what to do with this incredible outpouring of interest. “There are so many more people who want to be involved than the constraints of a traditional exchange program. How do we create another way for people to engage”? And we talked a little bit about it and then I left that room feeling like I had to come up with what that meant. So I went and got a MailChimp account and wrote an email, basically asking these young leaders, you know, to take a survey of the kinds of things that would help them, you know, in their career. We tried to involve them in the creation of something that would give value to them, which was essential if we were going to try to build some kind of relationship with them over time. And what they said was, “We really want to have, we really want to learn, and we really need accreditation. We will really benefit by signaling to people different things we participated in, and different things we can point at to say, ‘We understand these topics.'” And so we developed three-minute videos. This was when MOOCs and online learning were really emerging, you know, 2014, 2015. And we developed these mini lessons that would focus on topics like the difference between climate and weather, and how that all rolls up to a climate change agenda. We would do lessons on, I invited someone from the Obama campaign to talk about grassroots organizing, and how to build, you know, sustainable campaigns. And we built a tool, we coded it. It was a pretty simple, but essentially, it asked people a few questions after they had watched the video, as a way of kind of proving that they had taken on board this information. If they did that, they would get a certificate. And that went gangbusters. And I made the mistake of signing the certificate. So now my signature is all over certificates across the continent. But we started building a list of people who had told us what would be helpful and then had participated in this experience and were interested in what was next. And it was an enhancement to the existing traditional program. But what it took to start was just someone, you know, spinning up the MailChimp account, and asking people for help. And that was something that was very, I think, different than the way the State Department approached that kind of engagement. So we went on to grow the program. We had a few years of this kind of scholarship plus the virtual element. And by the time I left, the email list was over, was more than half of the email list had never applied to the traditional exchange program. The virtual program had already taken on a life of its own. So that’s a long story. But you know, when you ask about how you drive change in large organizations, I think just starting, even if you have to correct, even if you have to, to, to walk back some ideas, like that’s the only way I think to really get it going. Waiting for approval is oftentimes a fool’s errand.
Elin Barton 08:05
Yeah, you know what I really like about that story, too, is instead of believing that you or the corporation, you know, the State Department, had all the answers and was going to give people what they assumed they wanted, you did the opposite. And you asked. Simple, it’s a simple act, yet 10 years later, I don’t think enough large companies are doing this where they’re listening.
I think the history, you know. That’s exactly right. And I think the common language you see in sales is understanding your customer’s pain point. And that’s relevant to organizing, you know, in the case of the State Department. You know, what, what is the problem the State Department can help solve for the person we want to pay attention to our updates? I think too, too often, it’s just the latter. It’s, you know, what I like to call a more cowbell approach to public engagement, where you just think, “Well, what if the graphic was more clever? What if I tweeted harder?” But ultimately, you should be learning from your public engagement strategy, as much as you’re informing. And I think everyone could use a moment to pause and reflect on to what extent their outreach is actually about learning, and building that trust.
Elin Barton 09:29
And it’s something about responding to what people actually want, that has the element of authenticity, which people then therefore, you know, respond back to. So it’s really a brilliant strategy, you know, fascinating to hear how you’re able to bring this authenticity to something as I guess bureaucratic and notorious is a State Department, at least in my view. So that’s amazing. Can you talk a little bit about the value of Starling coming in as an outside entity, and maybe being able to see issues within a large organization that they can’t see for themselves. Is there something you know about being too close to it that really leads to a kind of blindness?
Oh, so many different ways. And, you know, let’s take, let’s take an engagement with a company that really cares about chip manufacturing. And you know, they are investing in STEM related things, but they also are trying to sell more chips, but they also are interested in influencing policy around, you know, their agenda to get more investments in chip manufacturing, more investments in science education. So they have, they have pretty clear needs. But more often than not, when I talk to public engagement communications professionals in these organizations, there’s not a lot of social situational awareness for the topics that their target audiences are already consuming. You know, there’s, it gets back to this idea that you need to empathize with your audience, if you’re going to present something that makes sense to them, you know, which is to say, if you’re going after small business owners as a target audience, for example, what are the or you know, current topics that are out there that you can engage on, and then pivot into your own message? I think there’s a lot of strategizing that happens in a small group that all work for the organization, and then they take it and do it to the public, instead of pausing and saying, “Well, who are people that are already in the space? And what are they doing? And you know, what can we learn from all these other organizations?” That’s like an immediate value that Starling can provide in part because of our relationships and just knowledge of, you know, the the advocacy space and the CSR space. But we have a methodology of how we map an ecosystem, how we start developing channels to understand what our target audiences are consuming, which informs a lot of the planning and strategy that we recommend. That’s, I think, one example of a blind spot. I mean, there’s many others, but part of it is really looking at like creative processes. So you’ll have organizations that have a whole video team, and they have old graphic design team, and they have a whole communications team that’s writing a lot of great content. And as a vendor, I can see when I’m working on something, and not able to use another resource, and I’m able to point out how organizations can actually promote collaboration among vendors that are complementary, rather than see each effort as its own siloed thing that needs its own resource pack. That’s been another area where we’ve often felt like a Chief of Staff among other vendors, who are also frustrated that they’re not given the value that they want to. They, they’re worried that this isn’t going to be sustainable, because the organization doesn’t know what to ask them. So there’s a little bit of that synthesis that we provide. And I think a lot of the way we work is reflection, you know. My therapist is great at reflecting back to me what I say. And oftentimes, that’s all I need. We add our own insight, I think we help shape it with experience and some creativity. But ultimately, our clients already have the ideas. You know, it’s about helping them prioritize, be realistic about expectations, be smart about implementation, and honestly stay on top of it. So project management and really driving a rigorous weekly approach, elbow grease, is a big part of it. And that’s another thing that we can provide.
Elin Barton 14:11
Yeah, I mean, I know from personal experience, you guys do bring a fresh perspective, and the idea of the position of Chief of Staff for the vendors, so valuable because you know, as we both know, within these larger organizations, there is so much silo-isation, if that’s a word, where there’s, there’s so many different people with different initiatives and different goals, different ideas, different plans that sometimes contradict one another. How do you deal with that when you’re trying to pull together a bunch of different people with different objectives?
You know, when I’m thinking about goals in a client relationship, I have a kind of a sequence that I, I have a phrase that I ask myself, which is, what is the client’s goal? And how can Starling help? And, frankly, that tends to make us fill in gaps, rather than sort of define our service and sort of be really tight with that. And so every engagement is a little bit different. But what’s important is to see the goal is something bigger than one entity. And that’s the point. It’s about alignment. Ultimately, the work we do should be supporting some goal Starling has, you know, around social impact, around making it, making complex organizations that are important more accessible to people. We’ve been successful in that. So you know, we share that goal, but in the chief of staff role, and just generally in sort of complex resource environments, a lot of, we observed that a lot of vendors, you know, really see narrowly through their scope. And maybe that’s a great way to do business. I mean, I could probably learn from that. But, you know, I think they, they count on the client to have to find every scope in such a way that it’s, it’s quite complementary. But the reality of the way things work and the way that things change, and the way we need to iterate and collaborate, doesn’t work well in these like really defined swim lanes. And so we’re constantly asking our colleagues and our clients, sort of our partners and our clients, let’s come back to what our shared goal is, and then tell me about your role and getting there. So lifting it out of a single organization is really critical.
Elin Barton 16:45
Yeah, I can’t imagine, you know, hearing you talk about this, I can’t imagine that every single large complex organization wouldn’t want to hire you. Because this is so needed, you know, it’s, you’re really solving a big problem. But I want to shift a little bit and ask you, so once you, you know, get into the external messaging part of this and digital strategy and getting message, getting the message or messages out there, what are some things that you’ve seen well, some tips maybe, of how to cut through all the clutter in the digital space? It’s a challenge everybody faces.
You know, I think that one of the trends to pay attention to in emerging digital technologies is a trend to more opaque, private, closed networks, and away from open, global, advertising-driven networks, and networks that are that are primed to get you to consume as many impressions as possible, versus text message groups. When I was getting involved in a lot of this, Facebook was just emerging, and we were looking at opportunities like YouTube. And certainly Twitter’s a really important platform. So they’re going to be around. And Twitter is really defined as an open platform where you can get the news. And that’s what it is. So I think where the opportunity is, is cultivating relationships with people to the point that they find something that you care about, that they think is okay to bother their friends with. You know, how do you get your content shared in the WhatsApp group at scale? How do you have your content on LinkedIn, not come through your corporate page, but through someone who follows that corporate page but wants to write about it and then you can lift that up? How do you bring in people to take your message into these smaller, more private groups of people, as opposed to blasting it out on the wild plains of Facebook or what have you? And there’s not a lot of great answers. There’s a big, big shift happening. You know, I’ve recently talked to someone in paid advertising, who was really remarking about this decision Apple made around privacy that’s now impacting the large platforms. And that’s been news for a while. But his observation is that the ad industry is going to shift from an emphasis on targeting and really the precision at which you can choose the kind of audience to get this content in front of, to content and massive testing and variations to find content that moves into those networks because someone shared it in. And that’s basically saying making content good enough that it moves itself. And we’ve all been part of different viral hits where, you know, you put out something, you didn’t think it was gonna be interesting, but it just goes gangbusters. I think emerging technology like AI, certainly the more data we get from digital engagement every year is going to inform how content like that can be created. How can you design a hit, so to speak? And it was really interesting to consider what that shift means for such a massive industry as online advertising, but it’s very real.
Elin Barton 20:26
You’re talking about AI coming in and helping us hyper target content and, and stuff like that. Do you think that’s going to mean that we’re, you know, we’re doing just that, we’re creating multiple versions of our content and just delivering it to specific segments of people? And is that going to become more challenging as privacy, you know, whatever, comes into play, more privacy restrictions and laws?
You know, Elin, I’m really excited about AI and its impact on media. But I think it’s important to realize this is not a question of should this happen, it’s a question of what you’re going to do about it. Because this is a reality. You know, different tools are being released at different rates, but the lines going up into the right in terms of the capacity of these tools. And you can stick your head in the sand and wait, or you can try to stay knowledgeable about what’s going to happen. But the movie isn’t going to have a happy ending, necessarily, when it comes to where content goes. I’m really concerned about deep fakes. And that’s not just in the political context of oh, I’m going to make a fake video of Joe Biden saying something crazy. It’s, it’s certainly even at a local level, you know. Imagine if you could send someone a JPEG of a face, and maybe a clip of audio from an online video they did, and basically construct an avatar that would look and sound exactly like that person, you know, endorsing a business or, you know, giving customer feedback on Yelp, or scaling this kind of faux grassroots content. I’m just really, I don’t think that there’s a lot of understanding about how good this stuff is, with the things we have now and how the things we’re going to get aren’t twice as good but are 1000 times as good, and what that actually means. So stay tuned there. But all of that is a challenge. The core thing that cuts through all of that, and it’s where I try to focus, I think it’s where we’ve seen a lot of success, is really focusing on trust. There’s a lot more clutter, and honestly breaking through and like being the breathless content that shows up in front of an overtaxed person on Twitter and like hoping they pay attention, doesn’t, you know, feel like a great thing. What you need to do is understand who those people trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer which just came out, always has people like me at the top. So you need to be thinking about how you can empower your allies to reach out to new allies and support that growing network, because that kind of relationship rather than a transaction is going to be how you navigate through what’s going to be some rough seas ahead.
Elin Barton 23:30
I couldn’t agree with you more, Macon. That is the most valuable currency we have is that currency of trust. And I share your concerns with the deep fakes and all of that. It’s definitely even when we figure out how to govern the, you know, AI and all of that, who’s going to regulate it, who’s in charge? Do we trust them to do the right thing? There’s certainly going to be rogue, you know, groups that are going to take advantage of all the technology. So we definitely have to be prepared for that. And you were talking about authenticity and, and building your network, kind of from the grassroots level and listening and, you know. There’s still, no matter what happens with technology, there’s gonna be a desire for that. You know, still and I think you’re 100%, right to think about kind of capitalizing on that, in a way. Maybe capitalizing is the wrong word. Building, building on that.
One of the things that guides my work is the, is what I learned from the 2008 Obama campaign and from the way Barack Obama approached organizing. I’m often asked, “What was the secret?” I can’t even remember at this point. But, you know, “what was his secret? Why, why him? Why did that break out?” And I think there’s a lot of answers for that. The first Black president, the energy around opposition to war in Iraq. And so many other things were in the ether in 2008, that really made it a magic moment. But it was not a foregone conclusion. And I think the candidate was able to apply his skills as a community organizer to really unlock the potential that was there. And what I mean by that is, Barack Obama was doing social long before social media. He walked around the South Side of Chicago, knocking on his neighbor’s doors, and asking them how he could help, which was kind of the same, inspired me when I sent that email to the young leaders. And I think that gets lost, is, you know, being, being a, being a thoughtful participant, rather than a loud speaker. That kind of empathy is critical. So he just had greater scale with these digital tools. But we still approached it from the standpoint of, of empowerment. At the top of the website, and it’s still something that, that guides me, is Barack Obama saying, “I’m not asking you to believe in my ability to change things. I’m asking you to believe in yours.” And ultimately, I think that’s the ethic that has to inform CSR engagement with stakeholder communities, effective social media organizing, to empower your allies to help carry that message. That’s the kind of relationship building that takes work, but is going to be the only way we navigate the turbulent years ahead.
Elin Barton 26:52
Yeah, that’s very well said. And Barack Obama, like you said, he was early in the social media space, I guess, digital space. And he was able to kind of make a connection, he felt like a real human being, you know. Sometimes he was a little goofy, which was endearing. You know, I’m a fan, it was cool that he was willing to do that. So this kind of leads me to my next question, which is about video and why video is such a good medium when you’re looking to make a connection with your audience. Help me define what it is about video?
Well, I think there’s an obvious truth that seeing someone else helps you connect with them and helps you empathize with them, it puts you more or less at the same level. I mean, the idea that, you know, someone can be looking at their screen, and there’s the President talking to them. And, you know, they’re kind of able to see the expressions and the feeling behind the words that are being said, this is, this is pretty obvious. I think that the other aspect of video that has become even more important lately, is this idea of active versus passive consumption. And what we’ve seen with the rise of podcasts, is the opportunity to fill spaces that aren’t necessarily going to work for an internet browser or your phone, you know, if you’re cleaning or other things, if you’re in the car. You know, video and capturing the audio behind it can yield content that gets to people in those moments. And that’s been the story of a lot of new innovation in media is how to get information to people outside of their computer screen. And so video is really the way you capture content that’s most flexible in all of these different ways.
Elin Barton 28:53
Yeah, I love that you just said that with, you know, kind of making video the core and then multi purposing the content is, you know, 100% I’m always recommending that our clients do exactly that. So that’s really great. Are there tips that you have if somebody’s looking to create video content that’s effective, memorable? Do you have like a do’s and don’ts list that are a couple things that come to mind?
That’s a great question. One of the things that I’ve found in my work is oftentimes I’m asked to help with a website. And it becomes a meditation on why the organization exists at all, right? Because there was a moment where they had to figure out what are you going to feature in the navigation, what are your priorities? And so there’s a lot of front-end work that goes into creating an effective video. I mean, unless, maybe you’re trying to vent and you just want to like record a hot take and throw it out to whoever and let them know what’s going on and like, that’s cool. That happens a lot. But I think it’s important to go into these things, you know, understanding of what’s our goal here, you know, what does someone want to take away after the video finishes? Like, if you ask them what they just saw, what would they say? It gets to that idea of really seeing the product through the end users eyes. Is this something I would share with people I know? Or am I not doing it in that sense, I’m kind of performing? So I think that there’s, there’s a real sniff test that goes into a lot of these things. You know, we grew up as kids worshipping the television and like you, you saw something on TV, and it was like, you know, it was almost like a deity. Like we, you know, if it’s on TV, it must be important and famous, and whatever. And that was back when we had three channels. And so people took a lot of, you know, importance in creating these videos. But what’s happened over time is, you know, it’s been democratized. And people are making, you know, all sorts of new formats of video, there’s all sorts of new expectations of, I just, you know, it’s okay if you’re just talking to your phone walking around with your headphones on. You don’t need to get makeup and have, you know, a director of photography that does the lighting just right for everything that you do. And I think that’s created a lot of friction for larger organizations, people, frankly, who have had, you know, been in a position for a long enough time that they haven’t had to pay attention to the latest trends. And there’s resource models that are threatened by these changing expectations of video. Video teams are very different in how they look. And that can be hard to affect inside an organization. So when I think about tips for people, I guess I would, I would say, really, make sure you’re going into it with a clear goal. You can even say it at the top. “I’m making this video so that you understand what’s happening with this issue.” And then at the end, say, “I just, you know, really made this video to help you understand what’s, what’s happening with this issue.” Solve for the thought you want that viewer to have as soon as they finish the video. And I think that will really help prioritize the content. Because of course, the other advice is, keep it simple, stupid. Take out all the other things that aren’t part of that goal and just gonna make another video. But I think it’s important that the, every piece of content, or every kind of piece of content in a video is serving that goal, and isn’t something that feels here, there and everywhere.
Elin Barton 32:41
Yeah, that’s actually excellent advice. And, like, so often we work with clients who want to put all the information into their video. They’re investing in a video, and they want to tell you everything about the history of their company, and their product, and their, you know, everything. It isn’t effective. You know, most people are not interested enough to watch a 10 minute history of your company and learn all the nuances of your product; it’s so much more effective to just have focused, short, direct messaging most of the time.
Let me build on that, Elin, I think it’s more effective to have humor. You know, there’s all sorts of different ways to think about video content. And I think we consider really popular videos, and they set expectations for the videos that we create with with clients. But the problem is like an SNL actor being ridiculous and hilarious is going to go gangbusters. Your sort of dry video about your product, or some really cool thing that is kind of a niche issue, it has a ceiling on it, you know. And so it’s important to set those expectations. But it’s pretty clear, when you look at the most popular videos that are out there, the things that get shared, they’re things that make people laugh or feel good or bring joy. And yeah, there’s a lot of bad news out there, that gets shared too. But I think if you can bring some joy to your own content, humor to your own content, that’s the kind of content that gets shared. To the extent that’s part of your goal, consider just how serious you’re being if your goal is to break into new audiences.
Elin Barton 34:21
Hmm, that’s great advice. Spread the smiles.
Yeah. Like would you want to, would you want to hang out with you? You know, I think that in a world where we’re doing a lot more person-to-person communication. Instead of the brand communicating with the customer, you have a person talking to a person, and one is the Director of Sales and the other is, you know, Director of Procurement, and they’re, they’re trying to hash things out, I think that dynamic is more important. So if you’re trying to represent yourself as a person, be interesting and be accessible and be a fun person to be around.
Elin Barton 34:57
Right? That’s great advice. Love it. Love it. Love it. Love it. I have a question for you. It’s not really a fun question, but I think it’s important. But I am a fun person, don’t worry. My question for you is, a lot of times you’re involved with helping organizations figure out their digital strategy, and you know, what to do with the content, where to place it, et cetera. How do you, what, what helps inform your decision on whether it should be an organic growth, you know, you’re gonna put out a video or something out there, and just let it grow organically. People will share it, people will find it in their feeds, like it, comment. Or you’re going to put some money behind it and make it more of a paid campaign, paid placement. How do you decide what content goes in which of those buckets?
You know, when you’re looking at how to best market your content, and you’re considering an organic, bottom up approach, versus a paid, sort of augmented and enhanced approach that isn’t so much top down, but is a little bit of giving some extra help to, to that. I think the first thing is to look at what areyour current assets? If you’ve got a 2 million person email list, let’s talk about that. You know, if you’ve got a high visibility event coming up, let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about the things you’re already doing that you may be able to use for extra value without a lot of cost, and just make those connections. But after that, I’ll be honest, I, I think you’ve really got to set some expectations that you’re going to pay for some paid promotion of your content. And here’s how I, why I think that way. I went and worked at the White House and, at the State Department for the Obama administration. And it was an incredible experience. But it also took me out of the private sector. I wasn’t doing a lot of paid media campaigns, it wasn’t really part of what we did there. And so I had this eight year break from seeing a credible amount of innovation around digital advertising in the 2008 campaign, to coming out in 2016 and saying, “What’s been going on?” And one of the clearest changes was the price of entry. If you want content to perform well on Meta platforms, it helps to be investing to promote it. And that’s just the rules. These advertising companies have gotten better and better at finding ways to get more money out of that value proposition. I mean, good for them. They’re a business. But that’s just a huge change. That was not where things were in 2007 and 2008, where organic felt a lot more feasible. But on the other hand, I think organic is a little bit more opaque now to the point about things being shared in networks. So to the extent you’re using paid media, it can be used to like insert, or try to drive into a moment. But what’s critical is that you’re always thinking about how you can convert that impression you’re getting through paid into some kind of persistent relationship, even if you only get 5% of those impressions. Because if you can get someone to sign up for your email list, and you have a consistent email program, you’re now taking a paid relationship of how to reach someone, and you’re putting them into your email list and you’re getting a free engagement in that sense. You know, and make no mistake, talking to people through your Facebook page, talking to people through your Twitter account, that’s masked by the platform’s algorithm too. It’s not like when you press a Facebook page update, it goes directly to 100% of your followers. It just falls into the river of content they’re seeing, and maybe you’ll be a priority. But when you email people, you know it’s gonna land in their email box. When you text people, that’s going to work. Now, you don’t want to bother them, and it works both ways. I think people are a little less concerned about bothering people on Facebook. I mean, clearly, it seems that way. And people are okay just expressing a lot of stuff because the algorithm will sort it out for all the end users. But when you’re going to text someone, you pause and say, like, “Is this going to really bother them? Or is this a cool text?” That, that question should be applied to everything you do. But I think these intimate channels around text and other things are starting to help people understand why they need to be so personal and tailored in their communications.
Elin Barton 39:48
So with all of that said, do you have any favorite ways to measure success of a video, of content? Because sometimes it’s not always the views? Sometimes it’s not always the likes. Sometimes it’s about hitting the right audience and the right people. There’s a lot of different ways to look at whether a campaign or a piece of content has been successful. So what are your, a couple of insights around that?
Knowing if a piece of content has been successful requires defining success before you make it. Otherwise, you’re basically putting something out and saying, “Look how much stuff happened with it.” You know, and people get excited about that. You know, at the White House or other kind of high profile social accounts, we can get clicks, but we need to be talking to people about the issues. And so finding that balance is really important. It was a challenge to define success there, versus a campaign where there were clear communications goals, clear fundraising goals. So does this piece of content convert people into donors? And clear organizing goals. When people interact with this content, are they more motivated? Are they more active? And there are ways to measure that and, and so that was really great to have heuristics around, you know, understanding impact. Moving into the government, and certainly, White House Communications, that was really more difficult. And now coming back out into the private sector, this is something that my colleague, Natalie and I talk a lot about, the importance of demonstrating a, a CSR program or some effort, to demonstrate its success is required to support its sustainability. So defining why a piece of content is useful, can be existential to a company’s decision to keep an initiative in tough economic times. So it’s really important to define success for these pieces before you make them. I’ll give you one example, though, of a cool metric that we tested once. We had a group on Twitter who was following an account. And we started making content in the hopes that it would spark a conversation among all of our followers. The goal was to connect them with each other. And we had a data scientist who looked at the network of people who were connected to our organization’s Twitter account. And, you know, a lot of times it’s like, “Well, can we grow that number? Can we go from 10,000 followers to 15,000 followers” or whatever. But what we, what we were interested in, and what we were able to assess was the number of connections among them before the intervention and after. So the increase in the density and the interconnectedness of our stakeholders so that they can sustain their own interest in the issue. And so that was a really cool way to think about organic organizing and, and really bringing people together and frankly, getting out of the way and letting that be a continuing source of energy. So I think that there’s ways to think about goals that are bigger than content, and then look at how that content is helping achieve that, and work that way. But it’s not always easy. It’s not always easy. And at the end of the day, if you can’t define success, do you want to be silent? Or do you want to still give it a shot? I think you’ve got to be willing to try a few things, knowing that you’ll feel if it was useful, and you’ll learn from that. And ultimately, you’ll get to that tight definition of success, but you’re only gonna get there if you keep putting stuff out and learning from it.
Elin Barton 43:48
Wow, that’s, you know, I love hearing that about the interconnectedness because I was thinking about, like, all the themes of what we’ve talked about today and community, being a conduit for that awesome, connectedness and then getting out of the way, is a little bit I think, what you were saying at the beginning with the community that was formed, you know, when all of those people wanted to be part of the leadership initiative, and you know, get the meeting with Barack Obama and on all of that, but being able to form a community around that is really interesting, because then what ideas are coming out of that? What new opportunities are coming out of that for people? So it’s just kind of an interesting perspective to think that the content we’re putting out, the work that you’re doing, you’re helping these corporations do can move the needle on real change in very interesting ways. So it’s, it’s given me a lot to think about, Macon. I really appreciate this conversation and I just want to ask you if there’s anything else I didn’t ask you or anything else you want to add here?
I remember speaking with someone, and this was back in 2006, or something, and we were talking about the disruption coming from technology. And this person pointed out that the initial reaction, when you see a lot of this technology is, “Oh, it’s gonna make everything so much cheaper. We aren’t gonna have to pay for postage stamps; we can email. You know, I don’t have to go in-person somewhere; I can Google it. It really makes things easier and simpler and cheaper.” But the reality is, it actually introduces many more opportunities. And it can be overwhelming. Rather than simplifying your life, the content creation tools you have at your fingertip, the different places you have to publish that, the different ways you can get information now, it’s, it’s overwhelming. And what people thought, I think and still hope, that all of this innovation will, will actually make it easier for us, I think people really don’t think that’s happening right now. And I think that’s something that really has to inform our work moving forward in anything that we’re doing is, how is this providing value to the end user, rather than being part of my extraction play? I think people are tired of being the product. They’re tired of being rallied with petitions and, you know, really, a lot of strong rhetoric. I think ultimately, what people are looking for is a tool that helps them, “brought to you by X.” They want to have a positive experience with that brand and that actually means getting value from it. So whether you’re creating videos, whether you’re creating blog posts for your website, or writing a speech for your CEO, you got to think about how you’re delivering information that the recipient’s going to think, “Wow, that, I hadn’t thought about it that way” or “This helps me.” Rather than say, “Look how awesome we are, I’m going to list a laundry list of amazing achievements.” You really have to figure out why this person is going to be interested in it. And that makes sense. I think after the last few years, audiences are much more skeptical and discerning. And if you can understand what they need, it’s an incredible opportunity for communications.
Elin Barton 47:42
Yeah, authenticity and value. That’s what I’m hearing. Thank you, Macon. Amazing, amazing talking to you. Thanks for being a guest on Amplify. It was a fantastic conversation and you’ve left me with plenty to think about as we go into our weekend here, so.
Absolutely. It’s been a pleasure, Elin, and look forward to continuing this conversation with you and I’m really thankful for the opportunities we’ve had to work together. So keep it up.
Elin Barton 48:12