Strategy is about optimizing the odds

One of the best things I've never learned in University was the difference between creativity and strategy.

Mind you, I DID study marketing. But somehow I never came across a single definition for an objective, how it's different from a goal or what the heck is a key performance indicator (uh... money? Making my boss happy? Did I pass?).

I learned about benchmarks and creative ideas and media formats and how digital was the future. Today I know that saying something "is the future" is by no means a critical view whatsoever. It's also not a strategy, nor a vision, not even a fucking action plan.

But it's a nice punchline if you want to make an impact.

The future, after all, is scary. And scary makes people insecure. Insecure people buy things they don't understand. Hence, scary and the future are consultants' best friends. (see what I did there?)

Practice led to some learning. As did a lot of reading, the right colleagues to chat, the right bosses to hit me in the head and the right clients to show the perspective from the other side of the table.

All these things and a fair share of thinking taught me a lot of complex definitions. They also taught about how all of them are at some point useless or overproduced. The best way to clearly state something is to simply state it clearly.

Textbook definitions aside, today I think strategy is close to what Malcolm Gladwell once called "a structure for spontaneity". In short, it's the best way to optimize the odds (through the right data, real human insights, a clear road map, laser-focused action, the right trade-offs and a sensible way to measure all of this) so that creativity can flourish.

It's just like gambling in a system where we hacked some of its variables to bring home a million bucks. But with, you know, a higher sense of morality with some blog material attached to it.

Water leaks, not earthquakes

Semantics are among the most underrated sources for insight.

Systematic disregard for semantics is what leads us to buzzwords, confusing meetings, confusing objectives and therefore confusing strategies. The invention of language served a single purpose: to make sure we all felt understood and could understand others. Semantics, in that sense, is not the main conversation, but what helps us read between the lines.

Take for instance browsing and searching. At first, they seem similar activities. If we read between the lines, we might notice some subtle but important differences.

Browsing is typically more passive. Sure, we're actively browsing, but the point of browsing is to explore and maybe find something interesting. In short, "I'm just looking" but at some point "surprise me!"

Searching is more active. We search based on a previously defined objective. We're not "just searching", we're "searching for something" and the sooner we get it the better (or as Tim O'Reilly put, engagement and retention aren't always the point).

Subtle differences can deliver the most powerful shifts in interpretation. Rob Campbell, Head of Planning at Wieden+Kennedy in China, uses non-conventional planning methods to gather insights from people who are radically different from him and his team. The point isn't to get radically different insights from radically different people. The point is to hunt for their subtleties of interpretation that can make a massive difference.

Tweaking our interpretations can go a long way in producing groundbreaking work. But there are many ways to start cracking the ground. We often aim to create an earthquake and just get it over with, but we should never underestimate the power of a water leak.

"Fail often" is bullshit

"Fail often."

It's one of the most exemplary pieces of new age advice.

Like any exemplary piece of advice, it fails (no pun intended) to acknowledge that context varies. Case in point, when we hear about "failing often" we might forget that there are at least two different types of failure.

Failing to act, and failing despite action.

I assume the "fail often" gurus refer to failing despite action when they spread their holy words. After all, you don't get to the "move fast, break things" mindset without actually moving (and fast). In short, yes you might fail. But you fail because you tried something different enough to actually risk losing something else.

However, not trying counts as failure to. Here, you fail not because you acted, but rather because you didn't. For example, you might have frozen in the heat of the moment. Or failed to realize that the moment demanded you to act in the first place. Or maybe the system in which you realized the need for action wasn't set up for action (i.e. "this is not in the protocol" or "that's not my department").

All things considered, I get what the "fail often" gurus are trying to achieve. But we have enough half-assed advice on the internet to not acknowledge the context in which we tell other people what to do.

Simplicity is what happens after you live through chaos

Advice.

Life advice, to be exact. We see it everywhere, and everyone has something to share. Except, like Ted Gonder says, the best advice isn't advice. And a bunch of trees does not a glass of juicy orange juice make.

Painfully simple words, on the other hand, might just.

The best thing about Hugh MacLeod's work is that it's so deceivingly simple. It looks simple. Like "even I could do it" simple. Except it's not. And you couldn't. And neither could I.

Simplicity (of advice, writing, thinking, living) is not about avoiding chaos. It's what happens after you live through it.

Snacks and steaks

MG Siegler draws a nice analogy between True Detective (one of my favorite shows) and content strategy here.

Sometimes, we desire to do just that [ask for anyone to spend several hours doing any one thing], but there’s a huge cognitive barrier even starting one of these larger tasks. I also think that’s why we’re seeing the rise of “binge watching”. It may not be that we don’t want to spend a lot of time doing something — it’s that it’s too hard to dive into a huge time commitment. It’s much easier to dive into a small time commitment and keep going if you’re doing something you enjoying.

(...)

Rather than trying to cram your content into people’s busy lives, why not tailor your content to fill in the cracks in the day and go from there?

This is true for content time slots and understanding our role in people's daily routine. It's also true for format and the means to access content. Mobile usage will only accelerate this, as will the fragmentation of social networks into smaller focused apps.

A year and a half ago I had a conversation with an advertising agency CEO where he clearly stated that what he did (above the line work) was the main course of a dinner party. And he needed someone to work the "snacks" part (that would be the social media strategy). I don't think he ever meant it as a compliment.

Today, snacks play a much bigger role than we ever thought. Our competitors are more than competing brands and internet memes. We're up against consumers' busy lives, overall content surplus, goldfish-like attention spans and general indifference towards what we do. So most of the time we need to think in terms of easily digested bits and pieces, not hour-long dinner parties.

Big steaks are pretty cool, but how do you carry them to eat on the go?

People are the message

What do we talk about when we talk about media?

Apparently the wrong stuff, according to this fantastic talk by Dave Trott.

Mr. Trott has been one of my idols these last couple years. I've read one of his books, "Creative Mischief", and can't wait to read the other one, "Predatory Thinking". The powerful simplicity behind his writing and thinking makes me constantly question if I'm sacrificing substance for fashion when I write and think.

In the above video, that same simplicity of thought made me forever see media as a whole different animal. Going through university and talking about media theory, mass media and more lately social media, we focus our attention on the technological side of the discussion. Media, we're taught, are means with which we communicate with others (fire, paper, telephones).

This is backed by further research. Dictionary.com defines media as "the means of communication, as radio and television, newspapers, and magazines, that reach or influence people widely". Wikipedia refers to mass media as "diversified media technologies."

Where does the research mention people?

Turns out, according to Trott, that we haven't been looking at media. We've been looking at channels. Television is a channel. Twitter is a channel. We preach "join the conversation" but channels don't start conversations, people do. People are what we should be looking at. People are the media.

Very, very biased media. And biased things, by definition, can be studied and understood.

Jonah Berger delivers some good insights about that in his book, "Contagious: Why Things Catch On". I became particularly interested in the concept of social currency, which is not new but sums up the idea that the things we share project our desired selves in a certain context. According to Berger:

Sharing extraordinary, novel, or entertaining stories or ads makes people seem more extraordinary, novel, and entertaining.

Or in short, "choices signal identity." Understanding those choices is the direct result of understanding what makes us tick in that constant pursue of projected identity. Studying media, therefore, is all about studying people.

McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message. If people are media, therefore, people are the message as well. We share things because they project our desired selves, not because there's an app for that. Sharing is psychological, not technical.

I usually joke that my job is understanding why Snapchat works. It's a simple way to explain an otherwise complex idea about what I do for a living. But actually, it's not about Snapchat. It's about why people use Snapchat in the first place.

Mastering a channel is easy. It's the nuances of human nature that are hard.

Follow me on Twitter.

Great content is Wabi-sabi

Digiday has a short but insightful piece on photo guidelines for platforms like Instagram or Pinterest:

The argument for grainy photos over glossy on Instagram follows the adage that social media ads should feel “native” to their respective platforms. If brands are supposed to be witty and timely on Twitter and inspiring on Pinterest, then their Instagram snaps should be more amateurish than professional, the thinking goes.

It might seem odd to suggest that amateurish content beats professional one. But in fact, this reflects an old adage: in Rome, be Roman. This doesn't mean just copy everyone else. It means know where you are before you can make your mark.

This also relates to the Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi, according to which transience and imperfection are aesthetic traits of existence. Social platforms evolve quickly and attention spans are increasingly shorter. Permanence fails when facing the infinite scroll of a mobile device. So we adapt to our surroundings, in order to master them.

Great content is Wabi-sabi. Transient like a fleeting chameleon, imperfect like a human.

A freemium model for physical experiences

The thing about Facebook buying Oculus, a reflex of lateral thinking applied to their product strategy, is that suddenly the social graph can extend to new levels of social experiences.

I think this can go way beyond games. I'm definitely not talking about this:

im-facebooking

I'm thinking more of a freemium model for physical experiences. Like having a free 15-minute walk in the Wall of China without even being there. Feeling what it's like to watch the Santorini Islands seaside. Or listening to an opera piece in Vienna's main venue. All through virtual reality, which acts as a sneak peek of what expects you if you actually go there.

Like what you see, hear, feel? Book the trip! Maybe your friends want to join you? Share the free trial with them on Facebook and let them have a go (if they have Oculus Rift).

Facebook can evolve as a platform that reflects our real life experiences to a platform that actually boosts more of them.

The curation of revenue sources

Upworthy just published their plans to make money:

Upworthy Collaborations is about finding a shared mission with brands and organizations — working together to connect the best of what they stand for with what our community cares about. Brands get an opportunity to participate in the Upworthy community, we get to go deeper on important content areas, and together we push the mission forward.

(...)

On a practical level, it means you’ll see sponsored sections around topics we think are important and promoted posts that fit with the Upworthy mission. Most importantly, you’ll always know when a brand is involved — it’s very clearly marked — and you can rest assured that we’ll only work with folks we think are actually making a real effort at improving the world, not just those saying it.

The key issue here? Thoughtful criteria and saying "no" often. When we talk about the age of curation, we tend to think of brands, consumers and platforms as curators of content.

As far as the money goes, platforms should also curate the brands that sponsor the content. That's why Pinterest is setting pretty high stakes when it comes to advertising. Or why Instagram's CEO is reportedly vetting all the ads himself.

Purpose is about knowing how to curate your message as well as your revenue sources.

"Transmedia is a word for old people"

So this should blast a healthy dose of perspective when it comes to jargon (via Union Metrics):

My friend’s daughter explained that young people don’t need a word to describe transmedia because this is how they live every day. The narrative of their own lives unfolds across different social media platforms and they consciously create identities for themselves depending on where, what, how and with whom they share information.

Jargon is a tool that helps us wrap up complex realities and paradigms into simple, understandable concepts. That being said, the more we use it the more it behaves like a virus, mutating with each new contact, turning itself into something as different as the number of organisms it comes across with.

Like any virus, it loses its effect over time. The immune system adapts to it, or maybe because it became so natural the immune system simply stopped giving a damn.

In short, transmedia used to mean everything, and now it means nothing. From over usage in theory, but most importantly from ubiquity in practice.