Innovation: Beyond Buzzwords

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Thinkstock

Out here in Silicon Valley, “innovation” is center square on buzzword bingo. Everybody talks about it. Everybody wants to be associated with it. Everybody claims to do it. But not all innovation is created equal. As we strive to become innovators in our industries, I’d like to offer a few practical tips for how to think about innovation in a way that breaks through the noise and delivers impact.

Necessity is the mother of invention
Step 1: Find a purpose.

Innovation is most useful when it’s in response to a clearly understood need. The more grounded we are in a precise, differentiated purpose, the more effective our ideas will be. Just last week, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner shared with a group of LinkedIn B2B Connect attendees that having a clear differentiated purpose is in fact the single most important determining factor in the success of any new LinkedIn feature or service.

For a professional services organization like Blanc & Otus, there are three primary needs to consider: helping our own people, helping our clients, and helping our profitability. And while all three are connected, helping our people is the most important. After all, we are our own product.

Whether we’re looking to improve our efficiency and automate tasks we’re already doing, or looking to improve our effectiveness with new services we’re not doing yet, or looking to improve our impact with data services that show the value of what we’re doing…helping unleash the full potential of our amazing tribe of consultants is, I believe, the best possible purpose behind any of our innovations.

Engage in a little creative destruction
Step 2: Blow some stuff up.

Not literally, of course, but conceptually. When imagining and engineering new ways to work, it’s extremely helpful to blow up old assumptions and outdated models to clear a path for fresh thinking. When Facebook first launched, it was a stated assumption of all Internet-driven businesses that it was bad to have “white space” on your web site. MySpace had set the standard, and it looked a teenager’s bedroom wall that had been over-run with fan posters. But Facebook challenged that assumption and believed that a social network was less about pushing media and more about pulling people together. And when it launched, it had the most minimalistic webpage anybody had ever seen. It defied convention. And it worked.

So, once you’re grounded in purpose, ask yourself what old assumptions you’re carrying around with you. Dump them. Create some conceptual white space in which to work. And have some fun while you’re doing it!

Innovation isn’t just about technology
Step 3: Be human.

Innovation is about way more than the latest shiny new gadget or app. Technology is but one of many forms of innovation. People, process and technology all have to work in tandem for a new idea to work. And of the three, people are usually the slowest moving component of any change. After all, a new technology doesn’t resist change when you upgrade it.

That’s why cultural innovation and changing the human operating system are as important, if not more important, than the technology operating systems we work with. Process innovation, and shifting the protocols by which we work together, is also a great way to reduce complexity and increase speed and scale. Even environmental innovation, and changing the space in which we work, can have a profound impact on our overall creativity and productivity. So, ask yourselves, how can we innovate the non-technical aspects of innovation and make a real impact?

Ingenuity is as valuable as innovation
Step 4: Use what you’ve got.

Innovation is the creation of something brand new, like a wheel. Ingenuity is the creative recombination of existing components to produce something useful, like when somebody took two wheels, ran a stick through the center of them, and put a box on top to make a cart. Ingenuity is particularly helpful in professional services firms where people are already resourceful and tenacious.

Looking again at Facebook as an example, ingenuity is what the company was all about. Mark Zuckerburg didn’t invent anything. He used existing technologies in a new and disruptive way. Same with LinkedIn. Same with Uber and Lyft. So, the question is, how can those of us in the professional services industry become models of ingenuity?

Co-Create Something Amazing
Step 5: Crowd-source your solution

Once you’ve found your purpose, blown up old assumptions, thought through the human implications of your innovation, and used your existing resources to full effect, now you’re ready to create something brand new. And in this final step, nothing is more important than tapping into the wisdom of the amazing tribe of people around you. And it’s important to reach beyond your immediate circle of employees and colleagues. Involve your customers and clients, partners, influencers and most especially your critics in your creative process. Collaborative co-creation yields so much more innovation because it brings together such a rich combination of complementary perspectives. And collaborative co-creation allows for more people to have a personal stake in the success of the innovation initiative you’re pursuing.

At B&O, we’re fortunate to have a tribe of digital natives who are in touch with the latest digital tools and techniques, and who are on the front lines of delivering value to our clients. Our Facebook, Instragram and LinkedIn programs were all started by our youngest employees. We recently aired one of our marketing summits on Periscope at the recommendation of our staff. By being open to experimentation and involving a broader group of people in the creative process, we’ve been able to embrace change in a way that brings us closer together as a team. 

What are your own pointers for embracing innovation? We’d love to co-create some professional service innovation with you, so join the conversation!

The New Norm: The Convergence of Strategy, Execution and Measurement

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Thinkstock

We all know that tech communications is evolving rapidly. But amidst the constantly changing technology, workflow and communication challenges we all face on a daily basis, the really interesting thing is that a new norm is slowly forming. Strategy, execution and measurement are beginning to converge. Old myths are being challenged. And a new playbook is forming around creative destruction, co-creation and authentic omni-channel storytelling.

First, this convergence of strategy, execution and measurement has enormous implications for what the new norm looks like in technology marketing. Strategy and execution are merging as the stakes are raised for strategies to pay off quickly.

And they are not the only things. Measurement and strategy are converging, as well. We used to conduct marketing and communications measurement after the fact and ask ourselves, how did we do? What might we do differently next time? Realistically, we’d do this once a month, in some cases only once a quarter, just because we were so busy executing we had little time to measure. But now the data that’s available to us on the impact of our communications is everywhere, it’s instantaneous, and it’s imperative that we learn from it.

Meanwhile, execution and measurement are merging. Traditionally, measurement would rarely actually impact how we were executing, because we waited for the final results to show up before we bothered to look at the data. As we learn to filter out the signal from the noise and become more adept at reading data signals intelligently, we can stop doing marketing and communications in the rear-view mirror and start looking at our instrumentation as we’re driving forward, not after we’ve finished the trip. Then we can adjust both our strategy and our tactics in real time to change the outcomes we’re measuring.

And all this means that as a marketing and communications function, we have to converge, as well, and collaborate more closely and fearlessly than ever before. Drop the silos. Don’t let org charts and reporting structures get in the way. Strategists and planners, creative designers and developers, project managers, relationship managers, data analysts—the entire team needs to gather around the table and recognize that it’s all connected now, and sharing information and insights faster internally is more important than ever. All too often, it’s our own internal political and organizational friction that limits our success.

And when we do gather as a team and start thinking collectively, it becomes that much easier to see through some of the more unhelpful myths that are getting on our way:

  • Communication innovation isn’t always about inventing new words.
    Sometimes, technology companies get caught up in category creation and creating new must-haves and catch phrases that nobody has ever used before. This is actually a time-consuming and costly approach. With all the white noise that already plagues most technology categories, the wiser approach is to engage in a little creative destruction, rhetorically speaking. Challenge existing myths and hype, be the voice of reason in a crowded discussion, and create some space for new ways of thinking.
  • Thought leadership isn’t a dictatorship.
    The next myth is that thought leadership is all about educating an audience and telling them something. In fact, thought leadership is about curating a discussion and asking your audience to see a current problem or challenge from a new perspective. Once you’ve cleared your rhetorical space of the b.s. and hype that’s clouding people’s understanding, you can co-create a point of view with your audience through the use of viral questions and interactive content strategies across multiple channels.
  • It’s not all about gorgeous content and keywords.
    Nobody will deny that brilliantly designed content and engaging form factors such as videos and apps work wonders to capture people’s attention and imagination. And clearly the right SEO strategy will boost visibility. But unless those eye-popping experiences and keywords lead to a measurable shift in sales, stock price, talent recruitment or some other KPI that the CEO cares about, it’s hard to justify even the most conservative of invoices on creative content. What’s really needed is for content creators to converge their thinking with the business strategists and data analysts around the table and come up with the omni-channel narratives and experiences that also lead to cash.

This the new norm that we see, and it’s just part of what we’ll be discussing in our upcoming series on The New Norm. There are many other PR myths to explore, and new ways for technology communicators to work together. We’ll be taking a look at them more closely in our upcoming series, and we invite you to share your ideas with us, as well.

PR Pros: Shut Your Phone Off This Valentine’s Day. I Dare You!

Just turn it off. (Thinkstock)
Just turn it off. (Thinkstock)

We have written a lot about the changing nature of communications. But when it comes to personal communications, many things haven’t and shouldn’t change.

That’s why I’m shutting my phone off for 24 hours this Valentines Day. And I dare my fellow PR professionals to do the same.

If you’re like me, you’ll find it harder than it sounds. PR is a dynamic and fast-moving industry that often requires us to be hyper-connected, but at times that can be stressful and make us a little obsessed with our phone, tablet or other personal device of choice. To make matters worse, people everywhere are turning to technology of all kinds to give Cupid’s arrow a little boost with Valentine’s Day coming up. That means we risk spending more time than ever with our other secret lover—our mobile device—right before we re-engage in real life.

For those who already have a valentine, the stakes are high. A recent study showed that 53% of all U.S. women will dump their man if they don’t get a Valentine’s Day gift, which might explain the last-minute online rush for flowers, chocolates and that perfect corner table at the romantic restaurant.

For those still looking for love, there’s historically a spike in online dating site traffic, as folks spend extra time swiping through Tinder, Zoosk, OkCupid or Match.com. And we won’t even get into what happens on the biochemical side of the innovation equation around Valentines Day. Whether it’s alcohol, aphrodisiacs, aromas, or little blue pills, people try to hack the human code when the stakes are high, as MSNBC reported a few years ago.

But the one thing all these tech tools have in common is this—they’re used by people seeking to improve a distinctly offline experience. We find our partner, we get the flowers, we buy the chocolates, we get the perfect table … and then hopefully we switch the smartphone off and spend time actually looking into the eyes of the person for whom we’ve gone through all this trouble. Hopefully this is all in service of authentic human connection.

Sadly, that’s not always the case. The problem is that the same tools we use to find love are the same tools that can get in the way all too easily. Last fall, The Huffington Post reported on studies that showed how mobile devices, apps, and social media can ruin relationships. Just search “Technology and Intimacy” and see what comes up—article after article warning of the perils of tech addiction, occasionally interspersed with a pitch for how a new technology can help relationships.

That’s why this Valentines Day I’m shutting all my mobile devices off for 24 hours. I want to see what it’s like to go cold turkey and re-engage with the people around me. I’d love to rediscover the electricity from simply maintaining eye contact. And I’d love to test my ability to process the exabytes of data rushing at me in the form of my hand being held, hearing a joke, observing body language or smelling perfume.

If you’re looking for something to fill the hours, try this: 36 questions that are engineered to build authentic human intimacy between two people who’ve just met. You could even print it up if you want to hold true to your vow of digital abstinence.

At B&O, we believe that technology is most amazing when it lives in service of people and their quality of life. We also believe in the importance of work-life balance, even in a profession as hectic as tech PR. And we’re going to encourage all of our people to switch off and reboot over the Valentines Day weekend. Because in the always-on lifestyle of PR professionals, a little downtime and authentic human connection helps us stay true to our mission and ourselves.

The Stories that Matter: 2015 Technology Trends that Most Impact Our Species

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Bigstock

It’s January, and that means by now most pundits have shared their predictions around the biggest technology trends that will emerge this year. A few months ago, Gartner shared its list of the most transformative technologies of 2015, along with the ones that should command the most budget among B2B buyers. Prognostications abound around consumer digital trends, and many others have shared what they think 2015 holds for digital marketing.

If we look at some of the biggest tensions, opportunities and dynamics going on where all these technology trends intersect—and if we look at where many of the largest marketing war chests are already being spent—it isn’t all that difficult to see where some of the most compelling narratives are going to emerge around technology in 2015. Here are a few of the overarching technology storylines that will unfold this year—and that will give technology companies of all sizes an opportunity to ride along with these rhetorical trade winds.

The Changing Face of Privacy: Whose Data Is It, Anyway?

The merging of digital and physical worlds, along with the intersection of analytics, mobility, pervasive computing, ubiquitous applications and the proliferation of everything-as-a-service, means our information is everywhere. That means there are no more secrets. Somebody is always watching everything we do, and after events like Target, Sony and last week’s hack of the US Central Command’s Twitter feed, everybody now knows that there’s no such thing as complete security anymore. It’s not a question of if, but when, we’re going to get hacked. And while security analytics companies profit from the shifting game of security—moving from preventing attacks to recovering from them quickly—the new question that will emerge is, what about privacy? Security is a technology. Privacy is a policy. More accurately, privacy is an agreement—who gets my information? Do I have a right to know who’s watching? How much should I care? There is a potent, latent tension between the benefits of all-automated world and the yet undiscovered human impact of a world without secrets—and that’s a storyline that will play out as hackers continue to do what they do, and as social networks and digital marketers continue to do what they do—trade on our information.

Guidance: Focus on the human decisions, policy considerations and attitudinal shifts as much as the security systems and technologies that play out in this story. Engage in viral questions that challenge people to re-examine their attitudes about privacy, and spur discussion that reveals what value remains in personal data and where the responsibilities lie to protect what little privacy yet remains.

Humans vs. Machines: The Race to Learn

Last year, Stephen Hawking, arguably the smartest man on the planet, said AI “could spell the end of the human race.” Machine learning, AI and all of its various manifestations, including the Internet of Things, wearables, and self-driving cars, are outpacing the ability to learn. Machine connectivity, social networks and communication technologies are, in some cases, beginning to degrade rather than enhance authentic human connection. And it’s ironic that we now begin to talk about the glories of “connectivity” when in fact clinically diagnosable addictions to devices, applications and virtual experiences are threatening to stunt the personal and social development of an entire generation. But what’s most at stake is the ability to learn and adapt to constantly shifting environments. This is the new Darwinian race afoot: how quickly can humans learn and thrive in shifting environments on the one hand, and how much faster can machines do the same on the other. It’s progressed far beyond the cost savings and profit-boosting of industrial automation. It’s about who’s on top—people or things?

Guidance: Focus on promoting technologies that are in service of rather than in place of human learning, human collaboration and human development. Position them as the ones to watch in 2015, and raise the stakes beyond financial ROI or consumer experience. This is the context for narratives around human-first technologies such as digitally enhanced education platforms, data visualization, unified communication 2.0 and collaboration platforms, and many others.

The End of Consumerism

Looking at some of the technologies that have dominated our attention at the past few CES shows, it’s easy to shift in our attitudes about technology. It’s no longer about merely consuming things like content via amazing screens or music via amazing audio equipment. It’s about our ability to produce things and create our own experiences. 3D Printing, self-publishing online, citizen journalism, virtual world-building, application development by the masses, and even digital enhancements to everyday tools all give us the ability to build things, make the most of existing resources, and share them with each other. Even the rise of what many last year called the “sharing economy” is a function of this shift away from thinking of ourselves as consumers toward thinking of ourselves as producers.

Guidance: As technology storytellers, focus more on what your audience can create and do with your product or service. Focus on what they need to invent and build. And if necessity is the mother of invention, begin your story with their necessities, and offer them a new way of looking at their challenge—one in which they become the hero of their own story. And position yourselves as the ally who equips the hero to meet their own need. Most importantly, challenge the myth of scarcity in your storytelling. We have enough fear and greed in the world. The time has come for marketers everywhere to shift from using the stick to using the carrot to motivate behavioral change. It’s time for our desire to create to trump our fear of not having enough to consume.

Marketing + Breaking Through the White Noise

If 2014 was the year marketers everywhere realized that the race was on to become content marketing experts, 2015 is the year we figure how the heck to execute against a vision we’re just beginning to understand. Most brands seem to have figured out that everybody’s a publisher. But if that’s the case, then who does that leave to be the readers? People are now more inundated than ever with content, thought leadership, infographics, and yes, even viral stories. And with most storylines coalescing around a pyramid of analytics, mobility, social technologies, security and IoT, there’s more white noise than ever in the world of tech PR. So the question in 2014 was, what’s my story and what model can I use to create an awesome one that goes viral. But the question has now expanded in 2015 to how to get that awesome storyline to get noticed and rise about the din of similar-sounding stories. (Even story models themselves have proliferated to the point that every agency seems to have their secret sauce. Truth be told, all of us—B&O included—owes all the credit to Joseph Campbell for making the Hero’s Journey accessible to all of us.)

Guidance: Whatever storytelling model you wind up choosing (and naturally, we highly recommend our own Viral Storytelling model as a starting point), make sure you reverse-engineer your story creation process to break through the noise. Start with an analysis of the story arcs, influencers and media cycles that already exist. Sometimes it makes sense to ride a wave. Sometimes it makes sense to invest in creating a new wave. And sometimes the best strategy is simply to question the myths, misperceptions and overabundance of hype generated by your competitors.

These are just a few of the big storylines of 2015. There are several more, and we will continue to explore them together in our XTC column as the year unfolds.

XTC 12/10: The Biggest Tech Stories You Won’t Have to Pitch in 2015 (Part 1)

Our Crystal Ball of Buzzwords predicts equal amounts of innovation and disruption next year. (Thinkstock)
Our Crystal Ball of Buzzwords predicts equal amounts of innovation and disruption next year. (Thinkstock)

‘Tis the season for 2015 trends. Each December we’re treated to a veritable cornucopia of content around hot technologies, spending forecasts, innovative marketing bets, and disruptive business models.

But for those of us in tech PR, one of the most precious commodities in 2015 is time, followed closely by budget. So this year, B&O is proud to share our view on the biggest tech stories of 2015 that will get written whether or not you spend any time or budget on them. For those of us from the old school of PR, this is called “drafting”. For those of us from the new school, I believe the term is “trend-jacking”. And for those of us into Kanye West, you could call this being an “SEO gold-digger”.

Let’s start with a summary of what we already know from the plethora of predictions and prognostication from pontificating pundits and pollsters:

B2B Tech

The B2B tech market is predicted to grow in low single digits in from 2014 to 2015, with the most spending coming from industries facing extreme disruption—those who no longer have a choice and face a mandate to either disrupt or be disrupted.

According to Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2015, the biggest areas of disruption fall into three categories: the merging of real and virtual worlds (which includes mobile computing, the Internet of things and 3D printing); intelligence everywhere (which includes data analytics, context-rich systems and smart machines); and the “new IT” (which includes cloud computing, software-defined IT architectures, web-scale IT and security). And interestingly, all of these are technologies that have been around in some form or other for quite some time.

Consumer Tech

Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of overlap between the consumer tech predictions and B2B tech predictions this year.

Take, for instance, the Consumer Electronics Association’s 5 Technology Trends to Watch, 2015 Edition. It showcases data analytics, the Internet of things, digital health, immersive entertainment, and the acceleration of business model disruption. Meanwhile, actual device innovation is reported to be reaching a plateau—it’s about services more than gadgets now. Again, many consumer technologies aren’t necessarily new. They’re simply achieving global scale thanks to better pricing, packaging or evolving human behaviors.

The Pattern That’s Emerging

When you look at these trends more closely, a common theme emerges: 2015 is the year we as individuals, businesses and marketers figure out how to use the technologies that already surround us more intelligently.

Think about it. As a species, we’ve seen a dizzying array of technological advancement over the past few years. Mobile tech means what we can do is no longer limited by where we are. Social tech means that we always have the power of the crowd (which is more powerful than the cloud) at our disposal. Analytics means we never have to guess at anything, ever. So being isolated, being alone and being ignorant—some of our most defining human challenges—have basically been erased within the past decade.

That’s a big deal.

Because much of this innovation has outpaced our ability as humans to absorb it all. So the big tech winners of 2015 will be the ones that help people catch up with these innovations and put them to good use. The other big tech winners of 2015 will be those who help prevent us from doing more harm than good with technologies we don’t quite yet understand or know how to control.

This is the central tension that will define the biggest technology stories of 2015—the ones you’ll never have to pitch because they are the technology story for next year.

What exactly do those story lines look like? What are the PR challenges we’ll have to overcome in 2015? And how do we get our signal through the deafening noise of tech innovation PR? Stay tuned for Part 2 of our series … when we come back from the holidays!

XTC 8/28: Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part V: “The Viral Question”

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Thinkstock

Today our XTC series on Viral Storytelling explores the best way to close out a corporate narrative with Chapter 5: The Viral Question.

Typically, corporate stories conclude with a chapter that falls into the “and they lived happily ever after” category. Problems are solved. Business models are transformed. The disrupted becomes the disruptor. And careers are made. Happy buzzwords abound as we dictate a happy ending to our (hopefully) riveted audience.

But that’s just the trouble with the traditional benefit statement—they’re dictated. We go to great lengths to target, segment and refine our messaging in the hopes that it lands the right way. We conduct focus groups, user experience studies, analyst audits and omnibus studies—all in the hopes that we’re closing our story with the right pitch. But ultimately, we’re still guessing. And ultimately, we’re still dictating.

But what becomes possible when we engage in a more interactive approach? What impact would it have on storytelling if we were to co-create the final chapter in partnership with our target audience? And what would it do for our marketing and communications efforts if we crowd-sourced the closing chapter of our story?

Enter the Viral Question—a provocative, open-ended question designed to generate positive word of mouth and organic audience engagement around the topics that matter most to our own marketing agenda. And as it turns out, they’re the best way to end a story, because they’re the best way to make sure the story is carried forward by the people who matter most.

In a Fall 2012 study of 813 B2B tech purchase decision-makers across the US, UK and Canada, Blanc & Otus found that the number one source of new business leads in B2B tech was (no surprise) word of mouth from both peers and industry analysts. But when we asked what it would take to persuade those same decision-makers to contribute to the positive buzz and comment on content from a B2B tech company, the number one answer was clear—post a brilliant question that made them look smart when they answered it. And the number two answer was, engage me in a discussion of a problem or challenge I’m currently facing. What’s more, the study found that such discussions could do more than impact a standalone purchase decision—they could even impact the business priorities and budget line items of a company, as well.

The implication is clear—when it comes to your final chapter and the benefit statement, don’t just tell, ask. An open-ended question that allows your customers to showcase their own perspectives and expertise is the single best way to get a rich online dialogue going. And that in turn drives leads and impacts sales cycles.

Of course, not all questions are created equal, and not all industry discussions are in the same phase of development. Next week we will close out our six-part series on viral storytelling with a look at the do’s and don’ts of viral questions, and which questions will generate what kinds of discussions.

Spoiler alert: “yes-no” questions and “wouldn’t it be awesome if you bought our product” questions do not count. To preview our final post, here are the hallmarks of a great viral question:

  • A question your sales force wishes customers were asking more frequently
  • A question that industry analysts tell you is the smarter one to address
  • A question that leads your customers to discover a weakness in your competitors’ approach
  • A question that has more than one right answer
  • A question that, when answered by your customers, will genuinely teach you something valuable

What else would you like to see in our final Viral Storytelling post? Let us hear from you at josh.reynolds@blancandotus.com.

XTC (Examining the Change) is a weekly series in which B&O CEO Josh Reynolds examines the intersection of technology, disruption and storytelling.

XTC 8/19: Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part IV: “Enter the Hero”

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Thinkstock

In Chapters 1 through 3 of our ongoing Viral Storytelling series, we examined how new changes and challenges in business and technology demand a shift in thinking—a new way of looking at the world’s problems and how we solve them. This new perspective is what sets thought leaders apart, creating the critical backdrop against which the hero can emerge. And that’s when we introduce our mission, our vision, and our value proposition in “Chapter 4: Enter the Hero”.

Without Chapters 1 through 3, Chapter 4 doesn’t work. Without a setting, a challenge or a quest, the hero isn’t relevant. And without understanding the world of our audience and what they’re wrestling with, things like our own value proposition and differentiation end up feeling more like a car chase that’s been tacked onto a movie rather than a core component of a compelling narrative.

But one of the most important decisions to make when it comes to Chapter 4 is this: Who is the real hero of the story? Is that us? Or do we play some other role? In some cases it makes more sense for us as storytellers to position our customers as the hero in the story. Sometimes the technology itself is the hero, especially in the case of a ubiquitous protocol, open standard or platform play. And at other times, it’s not any one company but an entire ecosystem of partners who are the hero. In those cases, a technology company plays the role of the ally behind the scenes supporting the customers, technologies and partners that move the industry forward.

The other aspect of Chapter 4 to get right is to make sure the hero—whether that’s us or somebody else—is a living example of the new perspective we called out in Chapter 3. So if the shift in thinking has to do with addressing both near- and long-term pain points, then this must become part of the hero’s persona. This means we have to do more than a cut-and-paste of our own mission statement. We have to contextualize why we matter and what role we play. Otherwise, we could be the wrong hero showing up in the wrong story. It would be like having Wolverine show up in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes mystery: great skills, nice value-add, but a little out of place.

The last consideration in Chapter 4 is to think through the benefit statements you want to include. Product benefits don’t generally belong in a high-level narrative. Chapter 4 should look at the benefits of your company being involved in the story, not just the benefits of people using your offering. Think of it this way: product messaging answers the question of why people should buy a product. Chapter 4 and a corporate message answer the question of why they should buy that product from you. And it should answer the even broader question of what your role is in the industry—and in your industry’s quest, overall.

There is, of course, another option to dictating benefit statements. You could always avoid the pain of guessing and simply crowdsource the benefit statement in the form of a viral question at the end of your narrative. How cool would that be? And how much more could you accomplish as a storyteller if you took that approach?

That’s the topic for the next installment in our viral storytelling series … The Viral Question.

XTC (Examining the Change) is an ongoing series where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds examines the intersection of technology, storytelling and leadership. 

XTC 8/8 – Viral Storytelling—Mythic Models for Audience Engagement Part III: “The Power of Perspective”

What is true one day, is not the next... (Thinkstock)
What is true one day, is not the next… (Thinkstock)

First off, apologies for missing last week’s installment of XTC. Thank heavens we’ve got an amazing staff here with great things to say

To put things into perspective, I was in a minor car crash last week and spent a few days recovering. I’m perfectly fine now, but I have to say … it is amazing what a crash will do for your perspective. Little problems that started to look like big problems suddenly look like little problems again. Things like hugging your significant other and/or your kids look like big priorities again. And people who text while they drive suddenly look like criminals instead of just mildly annoying. It can really change how you look at things.

And fittingly enough, that’s what Chapter 3 accomplishes in our Viral Storytelling model. It’s all about the power of perspective. Chapters 1 and 2 in our five-chapter model are all about change and challenge. But then in Chapter 3: A Shift in Thinking, we introduce a new way of looking at the problem. Perhaps we’re stuck in a false dilemma, like having to choose between saving money or getting a best-of-breed solution. Perhaps we’re looking at things from a panicked near-term perspective and need to shift our thinking to play longer-term. Or maybe there are amazing new technologies we don’t even know about that redefine what’s possible for us as individuals, businesses, and industries.

But this is what makes all stories interesting—a plot twist. Something that changes the direction of the story. To use a term from tech buzzword bingo, a “pivot.” This is also the essence of thought leadership—another overused buzzword, but one that in context has real meaning. And that meaning is to change the way people think about an existing and important challenge. Redefining a problem is also a critical component in the sales process, as it is the moment a company moves from being a “vendor” to being a partner, and a salesperson moves from being a “seller” to being a “trusted advisor,” to reference the truly useful David Maister model.

So in tech marketing and PR, one of the most critical components of the narrative is this “what if” statement mid-way through the narrative. Such as, “What if we stopped thinking of mobile application development as a single-channel exercise?” Or, “What if we stopped thinking of social media as a distribution channel and started looking at it as just one more facet of a single customer experience?” Or even, “What if we stopped turning to PR as storytelling and started looking at it as crowdsourced story co-creation.” (Spoiler alert … we’ll get to this last point in the final installment of this series.)

One of the most critical aspects of Chapter 3 is that it cannot be a sales pitch in disguise. “What if you bought my product to help you out?” is not a perspective-changing question. That’s pitching with an awkwardly thrown-in question mark, and it’s a clear sign you haven’t really suspended your agenda. No, what Chapter 3 is all about is opening up people’s mind to a new way forward.

And that’s what sets the stage for Chapter 4: Enter the Hero. Then, and only then, with context firmly in place and the scene set, will the audience lean into our value propositions, benefits and differentiators. And that’s what we’ll touch on next week.

XTC (Examining The Change) is a weekly column where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds explores the intersection of storytelling, leadership and technology. 

XTC 7/24 – Viral Storytelling: “In a World” of Changing Storytelling …

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

In our second installment on Viral Storytelling, we look at how the world of storytelling has changed over the past few years, and the challenges that poses for storytellers. We also take the opportunity to drink our own champagne and invoke the first two chapters of the five-chapter mythic model of storytelling: The World Has Changed, and Change Creates Challenge. (See what we’re doing here? Nice, right?)

All storytelling has always begun with a phrase like “Once upon a time”, or if you’re a movie trailer voiceover buff, the phrase “In a world …” The best stories begin with a memorable opening, something that makes them stand out, but all of them accomplish the same thing—setting the scene. And in the world of tech PR, the scene consists of a number of different elements—technology, human behavior, business dynamics, regulation, and environmental factors. Or as I like to put it, platforms, people, profit, policy and planet.

The trick is, not everybody sees the world the same way, and therefore not everybody sees change the same way. So when we’re writing the first chapter of our viral story, The World Has Changed, we have to pick a lens and be specific about it. Better yet, we can look at a perfect storm of change and examine how the winds of change are combining to create all sorts of challenges.

And that’s how storytelling has morphed over the past few years. With the rise of social media we now have several communication tools that let us surgically segment our audiences not just by “demographic” but also by passions and perspectives. And that allows us to write multiple beginnings to our story and take advantage of more than just one hook. In short, we can be relevant for more than one reason, depending on which lens of change we want to use.

A perfect example is the electric vehicle. When the EV discussion was just getting hot again a few years ago, it took off in a global discussion because it was at the nexus of multiple perspectives—environment, economics, politics, and the transformation of the transportation industry. No matter what you cared about, you could care about EVs and EV infrastructure. That’s the play many tech companies are looking for today.

But then once you become topical in Chapter One: The World Has Changed, you now have to become emotionally relevant in Chapter Two: Change Creates Challenge. And again, in the old model of storytelling, you had to guess why people would really get involved in your story. Focus groups were conducted at great expense to help us guess what would resonate most with people who looked, talked and spent like the people we had on the other side of the one-way focus group mirror. Ultimately, we were still guessing and generalizing.

But now, with the rise of multi-channel storytelling, we don’t have to guess. We can describe the challenge as it feels to different personas, different kinds of peoples and different perspectives. And perspective is extremely powerful as a storytelling tool. How does the change we’re describing feel to a young, digital native consumer? To an older, more traditional business owner? To a progressive politician? To a mom-preneur? We can interpret and personalize the challenges from any number of perspectives and again give our viral narrative more than one way to reach the hearts and minds of our audience.

But then, of course, there’s a twist in the plot … how do we reunite all these different strings of story and weave them back into one coherent narrative? How do we prevent our story from careening off course into a chasm of customization?

That, dear reader, is the topic for part III in our series—“A Shift in Thinking”.

XTC 7/14 – Viral Storytelling: Mythic Models for Audience Engagement

Messaging is a cornerstone of any tech PR campaign. But the trouble with messages is that we discard them once we’ve consumed them. Message in. Message out. File deleted.

Stories, however, stick in our memory. And good stories change perspective, and they change behavior. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech tells the story of a racially united America, and this moving vision still resonates today. Flip to just a few years ago—who remembers the key messages of either the Romney or Obama campaigns in 2012? Which ones stick with us more?

Every hero's journey begins somewhere. (Thinkstock)
Every hero’s journey begins somewhere. (Thinkstock)

Stories also invite participation and emotional involvement in the narrative, which is why so many of us in tech PR are now talking about storytelling. There is a proven art and a heritage of science around storytelling; most of us in the business have our own models around this. But the truth is, almost of all of us who engage in storytelling are indebted to the incredible work of comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey he mapped out in books like The Hero With a Thousand FacesThe Masks of God and The Power of Myth. Even George Lucas credits much of the success of his Star Wars franchise to the storytelling principles he learned directly from Campbell.

Campbell’s storytelling model identified 12 universal commonalities in the stories told in myths from around the world. All great stories that stood the test of time had these essential components in the narrative:

  1. The ordinary world
  2. The call to adventure
  3. Refusal of the call
  4. Meeting with the mentor
  5. Crossing the threshold
  6. Tests, allies and enemies
  7. Approach
  8. The ordeal
  9. The reward
  10. The road back
  11. The resurrection
  12. Return with the elixir

At Blanc & Otus, we’ve condensed this 12-chapter model into our own five-chapter model for what we call “viral storytelling,” and we’ve been using it for more than a decade with almost all of our clients:

  1. The world has changed
  2. Change creates challenge
  3. A shift in thinking
  4. Enter the Hero
  5. The viral question

Over the course of our next several XTC installments, we’re going to take a deeper look at this five-chapter model, how it works, and examples of what becomes possible when we shift from mere messaging to viral storytelling.

But first, given that everybody seems to have their own model these days, we felt it important to acknowledge the source and rich debt of gratitude that all storytellers everywhere owe to Campbell and his amazing work.

Up next: How the world of storytelling has changed…

XTC (Examining The Change) is a weekly column where B&O CEO Josh Reynolds explores the intersection of storytelling, leadership and technology.