In the days following the Boston Marathon bombings, many companies and organizations posted something along the lines of, “Our thoughts are with …”
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful here, but does anyone really care what your “thoughts” are?
If someone you love was injured, I don’t mean to be insensitive. But if a company intends such expressions to be a gesture of compassion, solidarity or community, “sending thoughts” is one of the emptiest gestures it could make.
They take almost no effort, and imply no commitment to action. Substitute “prayers” for “thoughts” and it’s more meaningful, if in fact you’re actually praying – which I don’t see many “companies” actually do. These sentiments carry more weight when they come from people, not companies.
So what triggered this rant?
This morning, I came across Marathon Sports’ latest newsletter to its community. (The sidewalk outside the Boylston Street location of Marathon Sports was the site of the first bomb.) These people were deeply shaken by April 15, and full recovery is some time away.
Last Wednesday, the store resumed its weekly community runs for the first time. About 300 people from all over the Boston area were there, compared to the usual 40 or 50. It was clearly a meaningful, emotional moment.
What seemed to matter most to the people of Marathon Sports? Action. Those who showed up did a lot more than simply “send their thoughts.” They got off their rear end and did something. It’s wasn’t a very big thing, but it did matter.
Companies can DO things; that’s what they’re built for. They can donate money. They can provide services – especially services that align well with the crisis at hand. They could also give their employees paid time off to volunteer. That kind of stuff matters.
But spare us the phony gestures. A concert later this month at TD Garden by Aerosmith and others has “net proceeds” going to The One Fund. (That’s what the website and today’s newspaper ad say – you can look it up.)
Net proceeds – really? I’m not asking for the workers at the event to work for free; I’m demanding that their employers not seek reimbursement for it. That might actually mean something.
If you want to make a difference, do that.
If you want to build your brand – do it elsewhere. Don’t do it on the back of a real tragedy.
Much has been made of “Boston Strong,” and I do believe in it. We do not, as a whole, wallow in self pity. We are scrappy, and yes, sometimes we are arrogant and self-important. We are large enough to know that we occupy an important place in the world, yet small enough to feel connected to each other. That gives us strength.
Even when you’re many miles away, as I was last week.
On Sunday, the day before the Marathon, my family and I embarked on a week-long road trip up and down the East Coast, visiting potential colleges with my daughter.
My first notification of the disaster was a robo-call from the state’s public health agency shortly after 3:00 on Monday. (I’m on the call list because of my job at the Massachusetts Medical Society.) Within an hour, our family determined that all the people whom we knew would be at the scene were safe.
Even after that, it was hard to concentrate. When we walked through the lobbies of one college building after another, the TVs showed CNN, without the sound. Still, we watched. Luckily, most college tour guides say the same thing; otherwise we would have been in trouble!
Back home, Steve Adelman, the new director of our physician health services subsidiary, wrote several items for our blog. With very light editing, I published all of them from the road. Each time, he said precisely the right thing, at the right time.
The week dragged on. I followed everything from my iPad. On Tuesday, I went for a long run in Williamsburg, Va., as both a prayer and a salute to the brave and the fallen. On Wednesday, I spoke with a senior manager from the AMA about potential ways to acknowledge and thank those who responded.
Thursday night, I wrote a draft of our Friday e-newsletter, focusing on the heroism of medical and emergency personnel, and the availability of mental health services going forward. I went to sleep knowing about shots fired near MIT, not suspecting it had any significance.
On Friday, I knew. At 6:15 a.m., I was awakened by a robo-call from work, announcing that our offices in Waltham and Boston were closed for “security reasons.” I immediately called my boss, wanting to know what I could do. She spoke of car chases, gunfire and hand grenades thrown into the street.
Life became surreal, a feeling that was amplified by the distance. But technology helped.
We activated our crisis communications plan. I tweeted about our building closure, and repeated it on our website, blog, and Facebook. Steve Adelman wrote another blog post. I was glued to the TV in our friends’ kitchen outside Philly. I posted notices about cancelled state hearings, and relayed anything else relevant to medicine and health care.
I yearned to be home, where my friends were, where my community was suffering. But thanks to technology, I was nearly as effective 350 miles from my office as I could have been 12 miles away, at my home. It was one way I could help.
Riding in the car on I-95 that day, I posted updates and tweets. My colleagues and I planned what we would do with our newsletter, which we publish Friday afternoons. We decided to wait and see what would happen, especially sensitive to the raw emotions everywhere.
That night, from a friend’s living room in Westfield, N.J., my family watched the inspiring climax of the ordeal. Together with my colleagues back home, we rewrote and published the newsletter around 9:45 p.m., and fed the material to our social media channels. My family drove home Saturday to a changed community.
I have no personal stories about near misses. But like any area resident, I have many “could have beens.”
One week before, we had dinner just a block from the first explosion. We visit that area all the time, where there is always something fun to do.
Two days before the race, my daughter and her friend visited their track coach, who was working at the runners’ festival at the Hynes Convention Center. She and her friend visited the finish line, fantasizing that perhaps one day, they will experience the glory of Marathon Monday.
If we hadn’t been visiting colleges, my daughter and I would have almost certainly been on Boylston Street Monday afternoon, outside Marathon Sports, where the first bomb exploded. Like most runners, we like to hang out at running stores, window shopping and browsing. More important, my daughter’s coach works there, and like all good coaches, he is a mentor and inspiration to her. He wasn’t hurt, but he is shaken.
Normalcy? Maybe that’s not the right concept. I think Juliette Kayyem, writing in the Globe last week, had a better idea. She said the week was about building resiliency. She wrote, “True resiliency is a function of competence, not psychology, and the ability to learn from the past.”
Maybe that’s the essence of “Boston Strong.”
Exactly one week after ASAE’s annual meeting, the line that’s sticking with me came from the final keynote speaker, Peter Sheahan: “Nine times out of 10, it’s the unsexy stuff where innovation happens.”
That’s the game I’m playing right now.
A few months ago, I was given an additional title: Chief Digital Strategist. No one ever had the title before, so I have the privilege of defining what that means. Right now, I’m focusing on bringing order to chaos, helping everyone prioritize what they need, and securing the resources to get it done.
As the weeks progressed, I noticed something else that was really interesting. I got a sense that our real problem wasn’t time, money or myopia. I realized that we weren’t paying attention to the basics. These included:
- Clean data about our members
- Confusing workflows on our website
- Email address acquisition and maintenance
- Landing page optimization
I know – how geeky!
But these issues are putting a serious drag on our efforts to grow and improve. How? Well, if our member data isn’t clean, we can forget about meaningful personalization on our website, let alone effective market segmentation. And if the current workflows on our website confuse people, we’re losing money and customers. And if we don’t keep our lists up to date, those emails that we labor over are only half as effective as they could be (or worse).
Don’t get me wrong – we’re definitely working on our future. We’re currently choosing a new content management system for the website, with requirements that will provide an entirely new experience for our members. That’s exciting new stuff. But if we fail to address the basics, we’re digging ourselves into an deeper hole.
Is this work innovative? Probably not in the most common sense of the word. Many organizations figured out this stuff a long time ago. But we are now having conversations across business groups that we’ve never had before. We’re making promises and keeping them. We’re hoping to build confidence and trust in this new approach, one step at a time. If this works, we’ll all be very successful.
And that is very, very sexy.
This post originally appeared in the May 2010 edition of the College of Association Marketing newsletter.
More and more, producing breakthrough results in your marketing and communications campaigns depends on your ability to destroy the silos in your organization.
Yes, YOUR ability.
Every new communications channel requires us to confront the silos in our organization. For example, when we all were publishing our first websites 15 or so years ago, we knew we had to present a unified face to our members and the public. Mostly, our initial solutions were to build sites that looked like our org charts – department by department.
Eventually, though, we came to see the limitations of the org chart website – our members don’t know our org charts, and they don’t care. However, they DO care about getting something done on our sites – register for a conference, find some content, whatever. Eventually, we learned to build sites that reflect the way our members use websites.
But to get there, we had to break apart our department-centric mentality. We had to show how members had trouble finding content. We had to prove to business leaders that they get BETTER business results by organizing materials they way our MEMBERS conceive it, not the way the staff conceives it. It was a victory for silo busting, but the war continued.
Next, when we started employing enterprise-level email marketing and newsletters systems, and we had to have similar conversations. If we tolerated the silo approach, everyone could send email whenever they wanted, and we’d become our members’ worst spammers.
With a careful strategy that acknowledges our collective responsibility for treating the email channels properly, we get better business results through the proper use of email than by spamming; more is not better. But that required an intensive focus on business objectives, strategies and tactics. It was a tough battle, but silo busting won again.
Now, many of us are trying to develop an enterprise approach to social media – moving past the stage of experimentation to business integration. This again means that the association’s various business units must talk together, and align on goals, strategy and tactics. It means treating the channel properly. Without these conversations, our social channels devolve into a cacophony rather than a conversation.
Business as usual is easy. Breaking down silos is hard. It means reallocating resources and budgets – the currencies of organizational power. But if you want to produce breakthrough results in your association, breaking down silos could be the most important thing you do. It disrupts the core of our organization’s culture, and gets us working together smarter and better.
There’s no magic pill. There’s only one way revolutions happen – one conversation at a time. For example, talk to the membership marketing director and learn her specific business goals. Show her what’s working, and not working. Be the pathfinder – show her how she can do better, working in a new way. Address the worries and concerns – and resolve them. Then move on to the next person.
Do this meticulously early in a project, and get the important people on board, and you’re not swimming upstream anymore. You are creating a revolution – and the rest of the organization is on your side.