Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Speaker's Plight: What We Think When You Tell Us Your Event Will Give Us "Exposure"

A real quote from multiple speaker calls in various states.

It seems like conference organizers who are looking for "polite" ways to get free labor are *lifting this* from each other's websites! Usually the quote ends with "...a purpose for which _____ was founded."

You know, maybe they are not stealing this after all. Maybe they all got this in the pdf notes from a presentation at an association meeting they all went to. I wonder if *that speaker* was paid?

Original image borrowed from here.
by Steven S. Vrooman

Let’s say you are a branch of an industry association or a community group. Perhaps you are a charity or an educational institution. Maybe you are a smallish business.

You have an event. You’d like a speaker or a workshop facilitator. Maybe you even need a short course for continuing education or certification credits for your members. 

You have had some trouble getting speakers in the past. Maybe you can get plenty of speakers, but rarely good ones? Maybe you have had success and are reading this blog post out of morbid curiosity. 

All of that sets the stage for what this post is really about:

What Speakers Are Thinking

Let’s do this in translation format. Each numbered bit below is what you are thinking/saying as the meeting or event organizer, and each section within is a window into your speaker pool's minds.

These are not always the things your speakers are thinking when you call them, but I talk to speakers all the time at events. I speak across the country and have interviewed them for my podcast. The complaints below are fairly ubiquitous in the speaking community. The images in this blog post are direct quotes from the kinds of speaker calls we see every day. People telling us our services are not worth what we think they are whilst simultaneously telling us that their event's experience is worth far more than we might think it is -- that is our norm. 

Maybe this will help you empathize with The Speaker's Plight.

1) We have a limited budget/no budget for speakers...

Original image.
So you want me to do this for free. 

I see. 

Why, exactly? 

I understand that your organization is a nonprofit, but, as you can imagine, I am not. You might even be volunteering your time for this organization and not be getting paid yourself. Of course, this is *your* organization and you value its mission and place in the world. I may very well have never heard of you before I got your call/email or found the call on your website, so asking me to immediately share your vision enough to provide free labor is kind of puzzling. 

I understand that money doesn’t grow on trees. 

But I know some things. I've been to conference and trade show floors. 

For example, I know that the logoed pens you are putting in the little plastic swag bags for the members are not the bottom tier of utensils like Bic pens. I know those cost more like 50 cents apiece, plus setup and shipping. 

Those lanyards we are going to get with the charger cable embedded? I know it's a thousand bucks to get 300 of those with your logo. I have three of those hanging on my hook where I keep my conference lanyards. I have never once charged a device with any of them. I also have a few of the badge holders with the cheap elastic cords. 300 of those will run you $800 less. Non-electronic woven lanyards? Sensible, but not extravagant? Those split the price difference. There are choices.

And, of course, the nicer lunch options and all the prizes and gag gifts for the membership. Maybe I even know the facility rental charge at the venue you picked, and I know there were cheaper options. I know, if I could see the state of the carpets at those cheaper facilities…

We are just talking on the phone for the first time, and I don’t know if your organization goes in for all that, but I have never been to a meeting of this kind that doesn’t have at least a little bit of this swag, so this is what I am thinking of while we speak. You are telling me that a custom pen order is more valuable than my work. That may very well be the case for you. 

People love the logoed notepads and fidget spinners but always complain about the speakers. 

Maybe if you weren’t filling your events with speakers who will say yes to free they would be able to budget the time to make something new for you? (Remember, this is what the speaker on the other side of the phone is thinking. You got them excited about an opportunity and now they are disappointed. It happens).

2) Your session is just going to be an hour...

I see. So that offer of $100 which you dropped just before you said that is supposed to make me think I'm getting paid $100 an hour and feel okay about the rate, right?

Well, of course, my hourly rate is, in fact, quite higher than that for consulting, thanks. 
Original image.

And you are not really asking for an hour. We won't talk about driving to Dallas or air travel here. Assuming you are local, there’s the 30 minutes of travel both ways, the hour early arrival for technical setup, not to mention all the time we’ve already spent on the phone, the building of the PowerPoint or the editing of it to fit your time constraints and your custom template and your desired focus and adaptations, the practice time to make sure I hit your time limits correctly, and maybe some additional industry research so that I am not blaring on with generic platitudes of the kind that make audiences say, “I wish we could bring in speakers who understand who we really are.”

But, that one time you had a speaker who obviously just threw up an ancient PowerPoint that hadn't been edited in years, so I guess you expect us all to have that same lack of care for our craft? Specifically, right now, talking to me live, you are suggesting that I have that lack of care?

Plus, since your meeting is on a Tuesday morning and I would speak at 10:30, I am going to have to pay for this one way or another with my full-time job, which I need to keep for all sorts of reasons, one of which is that so many speaking “opportunities” are unpaid.

Aaaannnndddd I know that you’re going to ask me to make a pdf of takeaways for folks *after* we agree on a fee, anyway.

3) It’s a great networking opportunity...

I’m sure all sorts of people in the room might want me to speak at their next event, which would be fine, but what are the chances they will pay any better than this gig? After all, they know I must come cheap if I am speaking here today.

Still, networking is a great opportunity to meet people. 
Original image.

Here's what that looks like at events like yours:

I have four or five conversations immediately after the speech. 

I am thinking, "I wonder which of these people is looking for a speaker for their event?"

They are thinking, "I wonder if he will answer very, very specific questions about my business/organization that normally I'd have to pay a consultant to provide, but which now I can grab for free while I charge my phone using my swag-tastic lanyard."

The really cynical operators know how to dangle the "Can I have your card to give to ____ who is planning our next meeting and might be looking for a speaker?" in order to increase my willingness to undertake further unpaid consulting. 

Sometimes this great networking opportunity stretches for hours, maybe the whole afternoon.

Maybe this all happens over the table you provided me so that I could sell my book. This allows people to pick up my book and look at it while asking for live consulting. When I tell them what they came for, they generally put it down while saying "Thanks!" and walking away.

Some people do buy my book, though!

A good three or four sales at my conference price. That works out to, what, forty bucks? Cool!

At that rate, I almost hit minimum wage this time around. 

The Takeaway Here

I get it. 

There's a lot I don't understand about your organization/business/nonprofit/association. If you are a big deal, I know you have tracks where members submit breakouts because they have to (like professors) or want to (they are professionals who have to attend for continuing education credit/certification so a free conference badge is a real draw). If you are a small deal, you would have a bit more for speakers if event attendance wasn't down, etc. 

And I know your resources are limited. Trust us. We know *exactly* what that feels like.

But here's what we also know: You can make a difference here, conference organizer/education director. You have a budget. It has lines on it. Some of those lines and their sizes you decided upon. Some were decided for you by a predecessor or your supervisor or the board. You can advocate to alter those lines. When they first came out with pop sockets for phones and fidget spinners you might have had to pitch those to get permission to buy some. Maybe a few years ago you had to pitch leadership on the idea of springing for a full color logo instead of just two colors on your conference folders? Maybe everyone hated the food last year and you knew you had to push for a bigger catering budget this time around. 

If you can do those things, you can push to treat the people who are literally center stage at your event a tiny bit better.

I say this because I have worked with some outstanding conference organizers and education directors who were able to have conversations with me about compensation that were respectful, fair and completely human. 

And sometimes, when I felt respected and empathized with their situation, I agreed to speak for free.

Original image.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Get Real, Part 1: A Networking How-to for College Students

Tracy Fossum and I have been friends for a long time. You can see us below back in 5th grade competing on a local cable access game show.

In one of the few examples I have of a Facebook debate turning into something good, I was complaining about the vagueness of a trending (Okay, LinkedIn trending, at least. Is that a thing?)blog post on networking. It promised specifics but didn't give any. After taking me to task as a be-suspendered curmudgeon for sharing something to social media I was only going to complain about, she wrote a few comments on how she saw networking. They were great! I asked her to write it up for me to put on this blog. I got this in my email.

I've asked her to do a Part 2 for recent college graduates, so stay tuned!

by Tracy Fossum

We all know what networking is.

It’s an ill-fitting business suit paired with shoes that have turned your foot into one big blister.  It’s standing by yourself in the middle of a room, nervously stirring your diet tonic (sans vodka or gin) with those ridiculously skinny bar straws.  It’s you surrounded by loud Baby Boomer/Gen X salespeople who have done so much glad-handing that their fingers are swollen. It’s you trying so, so hard to collect business cards, knowing full well that you will never, ever contact any of these people – ever.

It’s you, alone, in the car, head on the steering wheel, choking back tears, wondering how you found yourself in this position, and looking into the black void that feels like your future.


Networking is NOT that.

Networking is you being you and looking for authentic ways to show up in the world to create connections that lead to opportunities.

Let’s agree on the following axioms:

1. You are brilliant.
2. You have at least one thing to offer the world that no one else has.
3. You have at least one connection to one other human being on the planet – no matter how tangential it might be.

While we’re at it, let’s agree on this:

1. People will not pound down your door to bask in your brilliance.
2. People won’t know what you can offer unless you tell them.
3. That one human being you know also knows people.

Hey, we’re on a roll – let’s take this idea for a spin:

***You’re networking (being real) every damn day.  Just up your game. ***

1. Get out of your dorm room and attend an event on campus that interests you: department guest speaker book signing, bonfire, theater production, underwater basket weaving demonstration.  Whatever. If you go to something YOU like, assume other attendees are there because THEY like it too.  You have an instant connection and natural reason to talk to someone at the event and afterwards. (Think casual conversation at the dining hall about what you liked and didn’t like about your shared experience.)

2. Join a club or sport.  I know a girl who is joining the badminton team even though she doesn’t know how to play badminton.  It looks interesting and fun and she wants to get to know different people outside her circle.  It doesn’t have to be varsity football, maybe just IM Ultimate.

3. TALK TO ALUMNI! GO TO ALUMNI EVENTS! I can’t stress this enough.  They’re just like you – just older.  These are the real people in the real world who have spent years in their careers.  They want to help students and recent grads from their alma mater find internships, jobs, connections, etc.  It gives their degree more street cred if they can demonstrate to their peers that their school turns out high-quality graduates.  I know that sounds dumb. But it’s not.  Trust me.  I’ve seen it.  Anyway, our career center is turning away alumni volunteers because not enough students are asking for help.  Don’t be stupid and ignore people who are begging to help you.  Asking for help is being real.   As a corollary, if your school has a robust reunion program and is looking for student/recent grad employees to help, APPLY!  The alumni will see you at your best: helpful, attentive, energetic, fun, and hard-working.  These are the qualities that someone wants from members of their professional team.  And you don’t have to do anything but be the real you.

4. Social media.  I’m sorry, but old people with jobs to offer actually do use LinkedIn.  A lot. You have to be on it -so just get over it.  Use a profile picture that looks at least semi-professional.  No one wants to see you at a kegger.  Even a well-done selfie would do the trick. (But don’t purse your lips or tilt your head like Kim Kardashian.  That’s just lame.) As far as the rest of the profile, I’m assuming you did something to get into college.  Distill those activities into something tangible.  No one will care if you just say you were president of the Drama Club.  Who cares? However, they WILL care if you helped plan an event, ran cabinet meetings, and worked as a liaison between the club and the overarching student body association to secure funds for materials for productions.  See what I mean?  Show that you’re relevant.  You’re still being real because you really do have those skill and talents.

5. More social media.  For God’s sake, if you’re entering the job market, clean up your Facebook page.  People you’re connecting with check you out after they’ve talked to you.  No nekked pictures. No partisan reposts from Russian bots.  Clean up the language. Presenting the best version of you isn’t selling out – it’s growing up, which is something you really, really have to do.

6. More e-advice.  If your email address is, change it right now. Picture that at the top of a resume or giving it out to a potential contact.  Then picture yourself never being taken seriously. Then picture yourself unemployed forever.  There’s nothing wrong with  That’s your real name. Use it.

7. Volunteer and be active in the community.  Your college is located in a town.  Go be a part of it.  There are students at this campus (which is on Second Street) who have never been to the local coffee shop on Third Street.  What a wasted opportunity.  That coffee shop is where EVERYONE in town goes.  Every flier for every activity in town is posted on the walls. Why wouldn’t you go there?  And how hard is it to drink latte and read the Times? If you’re there frequently enough, you’ll get to know the proprietor on a first-name basis.  And remember, she knows EVERYBODY.  Volunteer at a local Habitat for Humanity build site.  Be a mentor.  Do some community theater.  Lead tours at the local Historical Society museum. This is all you showing up in the world.

And it’s all networking.  Better yet, it’s being real.  We’re social animals and when we authentically and meaningfully forge new connections, we feel good.  Also remember that this isn’t a one-sided transaction.  You’re giving as much as you’re getting.  For instance, you might find yourself chatting with someone who has always wanted to talk to your roommate’s dad about his landscaping business.  Hallelujah!  You just networked!

I know that sometimes being the real you is a little scary.  You might not even know quite who the real you is.  It’s OK.  We’re all just sort of flailing around on this planet.  But it’s fun being present in it.  So take a chance, stretch out your hand and I think you’ll find another hand waiting for you…

Photo by:
Tami Enfield, Brand Yourself Consulting

About Tracy Fossum:

Tracy has had a varied career, spanning 20 years and two continents, with a majority of it spent in higher ed fundraising and financial services. She has recently plunged into books, and spends her days nose-deep in texts, helping students find their purpose in life, keeping faculty happy, and listening to alumni reminisce.  When she's not giving unsolicited, brilliant advice, she is being real as a wife, mother, and all-around upstanding citizen in her idyllic Midwestern hometown.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

4 Keys to Facilitating Group Discussion

by Steven S. Vrooman

My colleague, Dr. Chris Bollinger, asked me to come to his Facilitation and Negotiation class the other day to talk about how I facilitate group discussion and debate, especially in the context of my role as Director of General Education at TLU. The old joke is that faculty meetings can be so tense because so little is at stake. Of course, discussions about what goes into the General Education curriculum can indeed be tense, and no one would really suggest that the philosophical discussions about what belongs in a Liberal Arts curriculum, the practical discussions about what happens to major programs when we add or subtract courses, and the pedagogical discussions about what students actually take away from any given combination of courses are trivial things! 

It was a bit challenging to say "Yes" to Dr. Bollinger, as, although I agreed that I had gotten a lot better at group facilitation since I first started as a TLU professor, I could not really have said what it was that I did differently with any kind of reasonable specificity. I asked him to interview me instead of give a lecture, with the hopes that he would figure out what I was really saying if I got lost and then he could gloss it for me. I figured I might leave the session understanding what it was I did, and hopefully the students wouldn't leave more confused than when they started.

I think I did learn some things about what I do when it goes well. And, of course, it doesn't always go well, but I have also found that these approaches lend themselves to managing those days and laying a foundation for further conversations. That is important. Faculty never "finish" and rest on one model for General Education, for example, even if everyone is in agreement for now. And every organization has an equivalent neverending issue.

So, here's what we figured out  about my process:

1. Pick up those mics.

Either out of interest in sabotaging a discussion process from the start or as a result of the conversation not going their way, people will find all sorts of ways to not only disengage from a discussion, but also to raze the framework for the others while they are at it. They usually hit the group with the kind of rhetorical flourish I imagine them practicing in the shower (because, well, I have done that myself!). I think of these as mic drop moments.

Photo by Robert Bejil,

As a facilitator, your job is to pick up the mic. Make it clear that no one will be able to stop the process. Depending on what they do and say, it might be as simple as a decompressing, "Thank you for that. _____ clearly has very strong reactions to this idea. What are other people thinking about this right now?" Decouple the process, the idea, the reaction, and the person. Their strong reaction is NOT, in spite of their probable intent (and perhaps in spite of, you know, reality), a rejection of the meeting framework or yourself or others, but it is a principled stance on an issue, one you are glad the format allowed to be said.

Your basic leveled-off support and engagement shouldn't waver, even if they say something awful. "That was strongly worded, which speaks to the depth of feeling all around the room right now. Let me see if I can get to the core of that concern." You want to try to short-circuit the shouting match with their opponents if you can. If they say something offensive, others may be frustrated that you are kind of normalizing their discourse, but assuming you all work together, you're going to have to figure out how to build a future, and you might as well start. Plus, if your process is such that people know they can destroy it with a well-timed just-offensive-enough-to-throw-a-wrench-in-the-works-but-not-enough-to-get-officially-reprimanded comment, then you don't really have a process. 

This assumes they didn't just say something fire-able. It's a bit harder to get fired in tenured academia, but it can still happen. Offensive language, insults, invective, epithets, all of these can be handled if you choose. "Whoa! I think we can all agree that such language is a problem, and I'd like for everyone to monitor themselves a bit better, if we can. But that speaks to how hard this is to come together on . . . "

Again, I'm assuming problems within the normal range of what we can absorb in civil discourse, not setting up the room for people to be harassed or victimized. If it tips into that area, something like "I think we need to stop the meeting after that. I am not comfortable with what is happening here, and I think we need to come at this question another time. When we next meet, I'd ask for people to think further about the damages their communication choices can cause." Then you have to individually process that with everyone, including the offender. It's a lot of work, but it is how you set it up so the bullies don't win. We just keep talking. Maybe without you.

Let me make it clear that although I've had to use those approaches in other contexts, I never had to take these steps in my role as GenEd Director at TLU, but you've got to have that possibility in your head just in case. 

2. Just keep swimming.

Photo by looyaa,

This is a part of the larger philosophy of facilitation. It is *never* all about that day. This is not a high pressure 11th-hour negotiation. If you are doing *that*, well that is another blog post entirely. 

I joke sometimes that I exhaust people into submission. That's not really the case, but my marker is that when the majority of the group juuuussstttt begins to get tired of how many meetings we're having, people who have been quieter in the process up until now might just get up the motivation to speak. In some cases, in my experience, they have been waiting for exactly this time. If the majority is against you and if they have some structural power on their side, wouldn't you want to save your comment for when it has the most amount of leverage? Well, this is that time, it seems! Once the majority is ready to be done with the process, that feeling begins to pull them, potentially, to the same side of the table as you, the minority voice on the question. "Everything is soooo close! Maybe we can make a concession here . . ." 

I did two years' worth of faculty forums before our latest GenEd revision. And after the second-to-last meeting is when we got a huge counter-proposal. It happens every time when people are talking about things that matter to them! I have been the source of quite a few last-minute proposals myself in the past! Your task, as facilitator, is to expect that and to help the group process its options going forward. "We're just going to keep talking until we get this," is the vibe.

Time has added benefits, as it is easier to trust the process then, especially for people who only marginally care and might be easily swayed by bullying voices from either side at the end. I heard quite a few statements of support that ran along the lines of, "We've been working on this for so long now..." It is hard to argue that anyone got left out of the process or was railroaded or was overruled by some kind of secret group if it all so openly takes so long.

Another element of this is that you don't try to pull together a fragile consensus. If people aren't clearly coming together, you keep talking until they do. Time itself will begin to induce people into agreement, just to be finished with the neverending process.

Of course, all of this is harder when you run up against something urgent or a hard deadline. You do less facilitation and more management when you run out of time. And that's not good. So start it all earlier than you think you need to. Like, much, much, much, much earlier. 

3. The big pile of bad ideas

You've got to do two things to have a successful facilitation, and they are connected. They are both things we hate to do: brainstorming and failure.

It's really hard to blame people on the brainstorming thing. When you take group communication class or training, you learn the importance of this process, where you just toss out all ideas with no judgment. But this is fake and it feels fake (just look here at the corporate graphic/stock photo sadness that happens when you image search it). 

No, let's try that sentence again -- it feels fake in direct proportion to the amount of tension in the room. You are asking people to play in a space of trust. Annie Dillard talked about her writing as her desk floating in the air. When you ask a group of people embedded in real arguments that have structural implications that have been going on for a while to sit down in a facilitation session, they often can't or won't play such games.

So we teach them how to play. Someone else will suggest that their own idea might not be right or is "probably bad" or "most likely wrong" or some other polite turn-taking statement we use in potentially tense situations. If they don't, you try it once. Then take that moment at face value and run with it. "Great! I want to hear a lot more bad ideas. Let's just get them out there. If you have a good idea, that's okay, too. You might make the rest of us feel bad, but we'll manage. I want bad ideas. I've always found that something that seems terrible at the beginning of the process finds a way to get polished up by the group and work." Or something like that, depending on the group and how many times you've tried this before.

Now you are all floating on Annie Dillard's desk together, and people's skepticism about the process has been pulled into the process itself. It really works too get things moving.

The second part of this is that you are then giving people experience of failure and disappointment in a safer space. If all the ideas are coded as bad, well, then, we're going to have to bail on a lot of them. And probably yours, too. I will make sure I toss out a purposefully bad idea and then sacrifice it to model this.

At the end of the meeting, no matter the outcome, someone will go away disappointed. If this is a really a meeting that seems like a group forum but is really just a shadow negotiation between two opposite parties and everyone knows it and some people came to the meeting just to see the sparks fly (a fairly common structure in my experience), well, that will be big disappointment. If the structure is less clouded with conflict so there is a larger diversity of ideas expressed, well, lots more people will be disappointed with the inevitable if they liked their own ideas (I work with university faculty a lot, and, well, duh!).

Photo by Bad Alley (Cat),

A field of bad ideas helps people practice failing in a public space before the end of the session. We have to learn how to be voted down or ruled out in a group of our peers eventually. And who exactly is training us in that? If your organization is large enough, each meeting has a totally different structure of interests, and so we kinda have to learn it all over again each time for a while.

I know this section has been going on for a bit, but that's because this is the fulcrum of the whole thing. If a pile of bad ideas doesn't fit your vibe, okay. But you've got to come up with some other game that gets the brainstorming and failure practice you will need to get to the end.

And, finally, to answer the inevitable question, yes they will get tired of this sort of thing. But if you do it with good energy enough times, they will take it from you and play the game without you directing the traffic.

4. Now play with the ideas

In Gladding's classic text on facilitation in a counseling context, we learn that these are the things you do as a leader to get the process working: active listening, reflection, clarification and questioning, summarizing, linking and tone setting. Do all those things. But my personal version of this was based on one of the best professors I ever had, Dr. James Hanink, a philosophy professor I had twice as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University. I have never met another person as good as he is at pulling everyone's voices into discussion. It always felt like he meant it, you know? Really, really good teachers can pull all the voices out, but sometimes you can see behind the wizard's curtain and can tell that they are just talking now to try to figure out a way to pull everyone in, because that's their goal. But it's a job, then, not a conversation.

Photo: Frederick Magle Music,

Dr. Hanink would perch on a desk in the middle of the front row and conduct the class like a symphony. He didn't call what we were doing "bad ideas," the way I do in facilitation (but never in my classes, so I guess I learned some things from him), but he made sure we understood the particular conversational game of an upper division philosophy classroom. All ideas needed to be looked at further. We've been doing this for thousands of years, and since we are still debating, what is the likelihood that any of us have it all figured out?


That does sound like a forest of bad ideas! Thanks again, Dr. Hanink!

Instead of the kind of brute "reflection" you see from facilitators, where they pause and nod and say things straight out of the group comm textbooks like, "What I hear you saying is . . . ", he would give a partial paraphrase of your idea, with a kind of RCA dog head bend while he maintained eye contact until you nodded that he'd gotten it right or restated because he was just looking at you and you kinda wanted that to stop. When you nodded, he would turn and gesture over to another part of the class, the French horn section, say, and give that raise-in-volume conductor gesture and ask a person over there to chime in.

The reason this worked for him is that he remembered everything you'd ever said. I'm sure it wasn't *everything*, but was merely the biggest whoppers or what you'd been saying the past week or so, and so he could easily do things like, "Steve seems to be saying that in certain cases the factors are too complex to use utilitarian logic, which reminds me of what Michelle said last week when arguing for the categorical imperative. Michelle, what do you think about that connection?" Or he would elicit an argument.

His classes were so much fun.

I want that to happen in facilitation settings. I want people to leave having felt like a conversation they were dreading turned out to be great. I'll take that it was just less painful than they'd feared, but you gotta aim high.


Those four steps are probably enough, really. I'm sure it's easy to have too many steps and overthink it. Your job is to get people pretending, gaming, imagining, and maybe even failing, for an extended period of time. It asks a lot of people. But any process designed to create agreement in a situation of a disagreement or conflict will always ask a lot of people. From my perspective, if you're going to ask for so much, be sure it works.

One final note. If your process as a facilitator is fair, you should be able to write about your process in a public forum, like, saaayyyyy, a blog post, knowing that your colleagues may very well read it, and it won't be trouble for anyone going forward. No secret techniques or secret agendas. And if one of them reads it with suggestions for how you can improve, so much the better! 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Social Media as a Destination, Not a Road: Forgetting Hacks, Clicks, and Analytics to Create Engaging Content for Your Association

by Steven S. Vrooman

This is a piece I wrote which was published in the March/April 2018 issue of Association Leadership Magazine. It is the companion piece to my upcoming keynote at their Tech Talks conference.

Facebook has changed its feed algorithm 17 times since the beginning of 2017. Twitter rolled out a new algorithm over the summer of 2017 only to scrap it months later. Snapchat removed its Stories page in November.

Instagram makes its changes more silently. When it started “shadow banning” users for overusing the same hashtags repeatedly, users didn’t necessarily know this. If they suspected something based on their shrinking numbers of “likes” on their posts they might have investigated. If so, they might have found out what was going on and adjusted their practices. Or, they might just continue right on with the hashtag spew they’d been trained to do, perhaps just assuming that things were changing in what people wanted to see.

Why all these changes? At least part of the reason is money. These are high-flying tech stocks. They make money from ads. Facebook, especially, keeps changing in order to thwart our attempts to “hack” the algorithms in order to get more views or engagements with non-paid content.

And thus we get another round of blog posts and speakers and books peddling all the “hacks” you might use to beat the system, things around the number or length or repetition of posts, the hashtags, the times posted, pictures or not, keywords in posts that will make people click, etc. Social media marketers end up chasing these tactics, hoping that eventually their Analytics will help them figure out which of these hacks work and how to repeat that hack juuuuust enough to work but not annoy the users. Then it all changes again and we start the Sisyphean cycle anew.

How accurate is this picture of our practice in social media marketing? Are we really mostly making content to drive people to more content . . . which exists to drive people to more content . . . which exists to . . . ?

Let’s hop off that tactical train to talk about strategy. Think, if you will, about your association’s last social media post. Don’t think about the hashtags or the click rate or the metrics. Imagine a person who has just found your organization reading that post. What are their impressions? We keep building roads for people to induce them into seeing our stuff. But are we building a destination for them when they get there?

So much chatter about social media marketing has been done in order to convince marketers that they can be smarter than enormous corporate technology machines and just get stuff for free. If you can’t, in the end, sustainably beat the algorithms, then we are obviously wasting our time. But even if we can, when people like me or you, who do this stuff and listen to the same keynotes and read the same blog posts, when people like us see a post, we can see what is really says: Our organization’s social media content is nothing but advertising attempting to manipulate the system for free.

You might cringe upon reading that. You might reject the idea that your public looks at your attempts to hack the system to get results for free makes us, well, freeloaders.

Okay. So let’s take a step back. Once we get those eyeballs, what are we doing with them? What are their impressions of your last social media post? If you knew, for sure, that someone right now was looking at your last post and that was as far as they were going to go in their “research” on your organization, how would you feel about what it is they saw?

Let’s say that post is this one: “Your email marketing shouldn't take Sunday off.” And there’s a link to a very short blog post glossing some recent findings on click rates on emails sent on different days of the week.

Okay. How do I, the person holding my phone, feel about this association I’ve just met in this way? Here’s a few reasonably likely impressions:

·         They are really interested in email marketing.
·         But not enough to write a longer piece giving me any takeaways beyond the obvious. Like, what is the second-highest day, for example?
·         Maybe they think I am interested in email marketing and can use this information.
·         But why is this the only marketing post in their feed in the last month or so?
·         Even though they tell us “Sunday” and not clickbaity “You won’t believe what day is the WORST to skip in your email marketing . . .” this still feels a bit like they just want me to click it.
·         What does it mean if I “like” this post?
·         And it is bad if I do, since this post has so many less likes than their other posts?
·         Is there any way to comment on this besides saying “Yes” or arguing with them?
·         If I share this post, what will people think when they see my share?

Perhaps people will just move along so fast and those kinds of thoughts will remain implicit. Whatever happens, it seems like your organization has blown it with this social media user. Your first impression, even if it doesn’t drive me away, certainly doesn’t solicit my continued attention to your social media content. If this is the first time I found your Facebook page, would this kind of post make me “like” your page?

What would it take for me to stay for a bit, to interact, to return?

How about a recent Instagram post: “#TBT to the trade show floor! What we about [it] is that you'll see smiles and hugging each day! How many smiles and hugs can you see in this picture?” that is accompanied by a picture of the event? Am I going to look for smiles and hugs? If I see them am I going to like the image? Here are some additional things I might think, if I pause to look at the smiles:

·         This organization seems to like their event.
·         The people at this event seem to like their event.
·         In fact, some of those smiles and hugs are awkward. This is not staged.
·         Someone at this organization is spending the time to create original content.
·         This original content does not drive me immediately to something that will measure my click rate. It just exists for me here.
·         There’s a lot of people liking this post.

We need to stop building roads and actually build the destinations at the end. We have to stop designing only for clicks and not people. The first post we looked at is a road (except for the small number of people who happen to be passionate about email marketing and who found themselves on an association which has nothing to do with that’s page). The second is a destination. It expresses who the association is, and just a bit of its mission and values, while also offering something a bit entertaining (just a bit, but it stands out in a social media stream of roads asking for clicks) but also a touch goofy and awkward. Human.

There are humans on the other side of one of these posts. There are robots behind the other.

None of this is to say that candids from the show floor are the next gold mine in association social media. And none of this is to say we can’t have roads (sometimes we have to advertise our blogs or deadlines or whatnot). What it does say is that we should take stock of who our social media presence says we are to people meeting us for the first time. You wouldn’t be reading this if social media wasn’t a critical vector for your association in making new connections (otherwise we’d just rely on our membership email lists we now know we should ping on Sundays!). Pictures? Humor? Video? Behind-the-scenes? Inspiring thoughts? Data? Controversies? There are plenty more potential ingredients. But the final mix is a marketing and public relations decision that should be respected as an outcome, not merely as a vehicle for getting people to click to the “real” marketing.

Many of us have overdone the media part of social media. We need to remember the social. And in the world of associations, isn’t that notion even more fundamental to our goals and missions?

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The 15 Social Media Posts that Work, with Examples from Whataburger

by Steven S. Vrooman

In my IAEE ExpoExpo talk on social media strategy (bonus: you can see some of the data analysis from that presentation here!), I showed a list of 15 types of posts that my accumulated social media research since my TEDx talk on the subject have shown work best to drive audience engagement. In this blog post, I will show them all to you, with an example from the fantastic social media team behind Whataburger's social media.

A quick note, first: engagement is not the same as reach. If you only want reach, you will want to read things like the post I saw on LinkedIn yesterday that suggested finding your competitor's most liked and shared posts and just stealing them. Change the picture and the specific text, but basically just crib your social media content, hashtags and all. I'm sure that will get you reach. If all you want is numbers of eyeballs (so the dashboard you show your boss to keep your job looks good every month), well, I guess that stuff might work. 

But, I've been railing against plagiarism as a college professor for years. Eventually you get caught, you know (in case your personal ethics aren't robust enough to get you to abstain from this). And then you get burned. Someone will see that you are doing this. All it takes it one tweet filled with the comparative screenshots and you're done. 

And is this really your strategy???!!??? Is THIS the story of your organization or personal brand? Is this why you get up in the morning? 

Engagement IS more important than reach. You can see my last post or listen to my INBOUND17 talk if you need to hear my arguments on that. I'll assume if you're still reading you agree. Here's what works:

Wanna be a pal and click HERE to tweet this for me?

Again, the links up above are for the why. Here's the how. These are examples of what it looks like using my recent favorite, Whataburger:

See? That works.


I know, this is "professional" social media. We're not supposed to do this, are we?

This is Whataburger's central social media style. It works for them. They like to do it. But even if it is not your go-to style, it will work sometimes. Before you tell me humor isn't professional think back on the history of marketing and advertising for just a second . . . . okay, good.


Make it about you or your team. We want to see this more than you think. Doubt it? If you can tell me what color turtleneck Steve Jobs always wore, I'm right.


This is the Internet. Nerds live here. Be one of us.

Those are It and Harry Potter references, muggles.


This is a bit of a stretch with Whataburger tweets, sure. I'll give you better examples in a later post using my other favorite social media content lately, art museum Snaps.


If you don't have this content, it's a bit of a red flag for your organization. *Nothing* I post gets as much attention as this kind of thing on LinkedIn, which is supposed to be the boring, self-promotey, personally remote social media platform. So imagine how well it works for other venues.


Pictures, folks. We love pictures. This is usually the part of a keynote someone queries me about afterwards. "Like, funny cat pictures?" Well, no. It should be relevant. But funny pictures of your cat at your office? Maybe. How about pictures like those in the rest of these Whataburger posts? 


Your people. 

Doing people things. 

In your space. 

If you have a place on your website where you allow us to "Meet the Team!" with boring headshots, then you need to show us pictures of those people looking at the eclipse or bowling or working a soup kitchen or setting up the trade booth, etc. 

We want a picture of real things. Not memes. Not quotes. Not cats. Maybe dogs, though:


Look, this stuff works with college students. For a time. Then they get tired of it and move on. Their Boomer and GenX elders hate this stuff. Don't you? So don't do this too much. The last game/contest from Whataburger was 3 months ago. And it worked in its context:


Food hacks, like the one below, are easy. In other contexts, yes, this is harder. But when I've done research on college students and twentysomethings in general, this kind of thing works. They share these posts, too. What can you offer as hack-worthy wisdom in your world?


Videos are pictures that move, eh? See above. Whataburger actually needs more video, I'd say. Especially given their snarky tone, a bit of something that moves besides ironic GIFs while you scroll through their tweets would be a nice touch. Like this next example...


This is usually going to be pictures and videos, but there are other elements here. Successful social media presences like The Blogess give us that backstage pass all the time. It's our reason to tune into your livestream early. It's how you humanize yourself without resorting to funny cat memes. It makes everything look less slick, less like soulless marketing cranked out by bots. There's a reason we watched Mr. Rogers or Unwrapped or Dirty Jobs or Behind the Music or any celebrity gossip blogEvery time I post behind-the-scenes stuff it gets double the eyeballs of regular posts. Here, check out the feels:

Connect Locally

You should have a friendly and collaborative social media relationships with important, allied local businesses and organizations. Likely you have this in real, non social media life, so why not reflect that online? Do you sponsor the local Little League team? Are you rooting for the HS volleyball team to make State? Are you excited for the county fair?

Remember that we're supposed to share and play nicely. If you have concerns about retweeting, make your own content and tag them.


This will usually flow organically from connecting locally, but it also comes from interactions with clients and consumers. Whataburger is pretty great at this:

Social Proof

"Social proof" is the idea that our opinions are formed by interacting with others. Sometimes even when it doesn't really make sense. Just look at the fashion history of pants. In social media this generally means that when we see posts with zero or few likes and shares and comments, we assume the content is not as valuable as posts that are heavily marked as popular. We DO judge books by their covers and tweets by the small bits of metrics that we can see just below them. 

If you're Whataburger, you get a lot of social proof on your stuff without worrying too much about it. You're a beloved local fixture and your brand of humor in social media is well-known and generally well-received. 

But this is for the people or organizations or businesses with lots of content that passes by in the scroll with big 0s on the metrics. If you've connected locally, make an effort to acknowledge and like each other's content. Proactive work here will lift all boats. 

The best example of this is with sub-units of organizations, like universities. Most schools have different social media accounts for their divisions or groups, from admissions to the campus police to the mascot to student groups to sports teams to campus dining. Schools that are successful in getting student eyeballs on their content tend to have those units pay attention and like/share/comment on each other's stuff. It passes the initial social proof filter for scrolling students. Sure, if you click to see who has liked it, you might notice that every sports team on campus liked the new jersey sold by the bookstore. But . . . aren't you still going to like it anyway?


I'l bet Whataburger gets a lot more social media attention than most us us, and still I think they have a few things they could do better (more video, more local connections). So there's no shame in having some work to do. Hopefully this post helps to spur thoughts and generate some new possibilities for your social media practice. 

This is a win-win. It makes the social media landscape more interesting and it will improve engagements with your content. Good luck!