Technology & Disruption: 5 Rules of Engagement

Today, innovations in technologies like virtual reality and artificial intelligence are poised to disrupt a number industries – content marketing included. As unprecedented as it sounds, we’ve seen this many times before.

In 1985, Adobe launched Pagemaker (now known as InDesign), THE app that led to the disruption of advertising, marketing and publishing. Pundits forecasted the death of the designer and writer, as entrepreneurs and marketers began preparing their own ads, brochures and newsletters.

In fact, many of today’s creative directors, content strategists and senior designers all got their start in desktop publishing.

Here’s the thing: the smart agencies adapted.

They mastered the tools and produced designs, content, video and interactive properties that the untrained could never match. Instead of killing professions, this is one of many examples of new technologies fueling the marketing industry with the power to create what had never been imagined.

Now, most of our day-to-day tasks can be automated. Need a mobile site? Google can create it at the push of a button. Need a new display advertising campaign? Push a button in your AdWords account and eight new ads appear – right-sized, well-designed, and likely well-messaged.

What’s left for the humans to do? First, take your head out of the sand. Ignoring reality never helped anyone keep a job. Second, follow these rules when it comes to marketing automation:

While most of us might not think that marketing technology should rule our world, we can benefit from a few rules of engagement. Here are our top five:

  1. Stop resisting: Regularly explore what’s new and how it might contribute to your business and, more importantly, your clients’ marketing goals.
  2. Understand the technology: If a client mentions a popular marketing technology (Marketo, WordStream, HubSpot, Silverpop, etc.) you should know it and be able to speak to its relevance and effectiveness for that client. Otherwise, you’re not doing your job.
  3. Use the technology: Manage a campaign for yourself using new technology. If you specialize in direct marketing, use HubSpot and Marketo, if only to understand how they work. If you help your clients advertise, then you’d better offer a keen understanding of Google AdWords and the technologies that have sprung up around AdWords.
  4. Figure out how your role is changing: For example, AdWords and search have made a huge impact on media planning and advertising. But managing an AdWords campaign, getting the right clicks and keeping your quality score high (among many considerations) isn’t easy. Master this and doors will open.
  5. Understand what the technology is NOT doing: Technology is mostly fact-fed. It lacks the emotional intelligence and empathy humans have and consumers want in the content they consume. 

The human role will never disappear. Mastering new technology will ensure that agencies stay relevant with clients and comfortable with our new marketing partner: the machine.

Jump into Robotics Innovation

RobotLast week I attended MassTLC’s Robotics Summit. A morning event that gathered the robotics industry’s leading thinkers, makers and investors. Speakers and panelists discussed the current state of the industry, challenges faced and opportunities on the horizon. Let me tell you, if I took anything away from the event it’s that the robotics industry is smokin’ hott, super cool and changing the world.

The general public needs to stop worrying about drones killing us, robots taking our jobs and self-driving cars causing more damage than good.

Robots are here to help, not hurt, society. We already see how they’re increasing efficiencies across industries, aiding in national security, helping students learn and offering mobility to those with disabilities. From robots in the home and advances in AI, to automation and rehabilitation, the opportunities are endless.

So what’s the biggest challenge then? Moving away from a linear model of innovation.

Well, that’s one of the challenges according to the event’s keynote speaker, Kaigham Gabriel, president and CEO of Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA.

Gabriel questioned the audience about innovation:

  • “Why does it need to take 20 years?”
  • “Why do you need a roadmap?”

It doesn’t and you don’t. Gabriel explained that the biggest creative leaps come from the best jumpers.

Jumpers like Tye Brady, a distinguished member of the technical staff at Draper Laboratories and Steve Paschall, a senior systems engineer and spacecraft GNC engineer at the Lab. Brady and Paschall developed GENIE, an autonomous guidance, navigation and control avionics system that’s capable of autonomous precision planetary landings with real-time trajectory planning and hazard avoidance maneuvers. In layman’s terms: a real life rocketship that can actually set a target, land on it and avoid hazardous objects.

This is actually rocket science.

Brady and Paschall are rocket scientists who have a passion for their craft.They give new meaning to breakthrough innovations and Gabriel discussed some of the elements that made their project a success:

  • Bold goals
  • A fixed duration for the project — timelines inspire the most creative and focused work
  • Industry-leading project leaders, mostly performers — the people actually executing the work
  • An organizational infrastructure that supports speed and agility during projects

The interesting thing about innovation is that it’s not selective. You don’t have to work at a startup to spark innovation. You don’t have to be at a big corporation or venture-backed company to develop the latest innovation that will change an industry. You just need to change your perception of what’s possible.

If you’d like to know more about the event, check out MassTLC’s blog that includes key takeaways. Better yet, if you’re a eager to become more involved with the Massachusetts robotics community, be sure to keep tabs on MassRobotics — an amazing organization promoting robotics innovation throughout the Commonwealth.

HUBgrown: Q&A with Kyle Alspach, Streetwise Media


Well-known Boston tech reporter Kyle Alspach shares how he began covering the city’s tech scene, tips for startups pitching their stories and why having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumers can actually be a bad thing.


HB: How and why did you first become a tech reporter? What do you like about covering tech?

KA: I didn’t start out with any plan or aspiration to become a tech reporter. Originally I was hired by the Boston Business Journal to primarily cover cleantech. That exposed me to the world of startups, VC, IPOs, and the like, and so when BBJ had opening to cover tech startups, they asked me.

A big part of the appeal for me was (and is) the fact that there is basically an endless number of things to write about. One definition of newswriting might be “writing about things that are changing,” and tech is fundamentally about change, so there’s never a shortage of interesting stories.

HB: Boston is crawling with entrepreneurs. When they pitch you stories, what are you most often looking for? What mistakes do they most often make?

KA: In a broad sense, I’m looking for stories that will be read by a large number of our readers. That might sound obvious, but honestly I think a lot of companies don’t actually stop to think about that before pitching. They have their goals in pitching us, of course, but it’s only when we can find a shared interest that a story actually gets written—that is, when their news is something we believe will be read by and valued by a lot of people. A frequent mistake that entrepreneurs make is not recognizing this dynamic before they pitch.

HB: How can Boston’s entrepreneurs set themselves apart from other startups in the city?

KA: The easiest way for an entrepreneur to set themselves apart to us is to be connected to some person or institution we already know about. If they are brand new and don’t have those sort of connections, that doesn’t rule them out for coverage, but they just will have to be a bit more savvy in getting our attention. A quick email from a founder explaining clearly what makes their startup unique and important, and offering us a chance to be the first to write about the startup, can often do the trick.

HB: Streetwise is quickly expanding. In addition to Boston, you’re in DC, Chicago and have planned launches in mid-2015 in several other cities. What can Boston learn from some of these other startup hubs?

KA: First off, I think Boston can learn that its place in the Top 3 tech hubs in the U.S. is by no means secure. Chicago and DC are rising fast. I also look at cities and it strikes me how much it really benefits a smaller tech community to have big-name consumer tech companies, which are Groupon and GrubHub, in the case of Chicago. Boston is starting to get there with Wayfair, but we could really use some more like that, for so many reasons.

HB: BostInno recently ran its Tech Madness competition to uncover which Boston tech company will have the greatest impact five years from now. If this was a national Tech Madness bracket, how far do you think a Boston startup would make it in the competition?

KA: It would probably depend on what the constraints for the contest were. If it was strictly limited to “startups,” I think Boston could have a few contenders for making it pretty far—DraftKings, Drizly, RunKeeper all have national profiles. But if you included unicorn companies and public companies, Boston might be in tough shape, because we don’t have nearly as many high-profile national examples there as the Valley.

HB: Boston has a lack of consumer startups. Is that a good or bad thing? Does it matter?

KA: I think it would be terrific if we had more consumer startups. It would do a lot to boost our national standing if we produced more big-name consumer companies, as I mentioned. On the other hand, if we were to produce zero consumer startups from here on but were able to keep producing more HubSpots and Veracodes and SimpliVitys, then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. We would still be a tech mecca.

There’s also an argument to be made that, while they’re cool to have, consumer companies rarely solve our world’s hardest and most pressing problems. So in a sense, having a tech community that becomes overly obsessed with consumer can actually be a bad thing. It’s nice that Boston values companies who aren’t especially sexy but are solving hard problems.

For more information about Kyle Alspach, check out his latest work on BostInno.

What Boston Really Needs….

In The Devil Wears Prada there’s this wonderful scene in which Meryl Streep tries to decide on a belt. Anne Hathaway, as her assistant snickers at the prospect of deciding between two belts that look very similar. What she receives next is a smack-down.

“You think this has nothing to do with you,” Streep’s Miranda Priestly says. She then launches into an evenly-delivered soliloquy that points out how the “blue” sweater Hathaway casually chose that morning is actually “cerulean,” which had started at the height of fashion then trickled down through the fashion ecosystem representing “millions of dollars and countless jobs,” until it landed in a discount bin and, eventually, this assistant’s closet. “It sort of comical how you think you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that’s been selected for you…” she says.

Here in Boston engineers love to think that they make all the best stuff. That their technology is so great it doesn’t need marketing. Because marketing doesn’t make people take action. No, they say, it’s the work that makes all the difference. Make a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.

Someone call Meryl Streep.

Often we dismiss this attitude as “well, they’re just engineers” and we let it go. The issues trickle down even to those companies that do spend time and money on marketing. They resist messaging, insist they know how to tell a better story or refuse changes that could make a huge difference in their bottom line. It’s all an effort to put technology first.

Ideally, they need to invest in marketing and PR. It needs to be factored into the funding rounds as a necessary part of the budget, even in small rounds.

Then there is the “celebrity” factor. Boston tends to shy away from that, but as a number of entrepreneurs point out in the Sunday Boston Globe, that’s just what Boston needs. Says Ben Jabbawy, CEO of Privy:

Chances are if you’re not part of the tech community here, you’ve never heard of Wayfair or Gemvara. And that’s the problem. The Boston area needs to do a better job championing its little guys. We don’t have many giant anchor companies here, and oftentimes that’s understood to be a bad thing. Instead of collectively pining for Mark Zuckerberg to return to the Hub, we should focus on, promote, and celebrate the assets we do have: smaller companies and start-ups.

This shift in emphasis would help start-ups recruit and retain local graduates, and perhaps inspire graduating talent to take the risk of joining a start-up instead of taking lucrative corporate jobs.

So what does Boston need? We need to think more about marketing. We need to make our voices louder. In a way, we need our own “Mike Arrington” to lead the way.

Whenever I say this to people their response is “oh, we need a loud, arrogant, obnoxious guy that makes everyone fear his power?” No, I’m not saying that. But what we need is someone with the voice, skills and savvy to tell the world what Boston is all about. To hold up the great technology, ideas and companies that grow from the Boston ecosystem every day and tell the world why they need to pay attention. If this means that voice needs to be brash and obnoxious in order to cut through the clutter, then so be it.

Recently I spent some time hanging around with the guys at Evernote. This is a fascinating company made up of leadership that spent time running startups in Boston and then moved to the Valley. The company is growing like crazy and poised to make a leap from the technology world to the general populous. This is no small task.

Josh Kopelman recently spent some time in jury duty and used that as a way to get a focus group of non-tech folks:

Facebook is a great example of a company that made the leap, same with Apple (which doesn’t consider itself a tech company) and Google. But what makes Evernote interesting is how marketing is so much a part of its DNA. Yes, Andrew Sinkov does a great job of marketing the company. He’s an incredibly smart guy a lot of great ideas. But it’s also a company churning out apps like Evernote Food and releasing Skitch for free as a way to extend its base.

If you listen to CEO Phil Libin speak, he doesn’t tell you about the technology behind Evernote, he talks about bigger ideas of human memory and ways that technology can make our lives different. Sure, he spends time thinking about the technology itself, but the average person doesn’t care about the technology. They just want it to do what you asked. They want a product.

But to get it in their hands, you need marketing. And so do we.

Why I'm Negative on Google Plus

I hate to be the one who brings a skunk to Google’s party, but I’m not as bullish on Google Plus as the rest of the world. Yes, it’s interesting and, in some cases, shows a remarkable touch for creating a wonderful user interface. Like others, I’m impressed with how you can put people in (asynchronous) circles. But people are finding even those to be a bit of a chore.

Facebook’s biggest advantage right now is its utility. By utility I don’t mean how I interact with software, but that it allows me to see information about people and companies I care about without much effort. When Amy Winehouse died this past weekend my Facebook feed lit up. Over on Google+ I saw a smattering of reaction, but really people were still talking about Google+.

In Ken Auletta’s New Yorker piece about Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, he notes that Sandberg “would tell people that Facebook was a company driven by instinct and human relationships. The point, implicitly, was that Google was not.”

Related back to Google+, it’s beautiful and it has the social media elite excited by what it offers in terms of both control and design, but the big question is whether it gains the true utility.

Sure, it boasts plenty of users, but the big measure of any social network isn’t the number of people who signed up, it’s the number of times a day people share something. How many “shares” per person does it have? What types of information are likely to be shared? Apparently I’m not the only one noticing this. Apparently visitors are down over on Google+ as is the time on the site. Granted, this is still early and not indicative of much long-term. But it’s still an interesting development for the site.

I sent a few friends invites thinking that with more people close to me I’d see more sharing. One put up one picture and commented how much easier it was than on Facebook. But then when she took a few days off her updates only showed up on Facebook. So for me to find out about her life, that’s where I have to be. So long as that remains true, then my time on Google Plus remains limited as well.

My wife had the best comment of all. After looking at it for a few minutes she said “What do I do with it?” Frankly, after using Facebook and Twitter the answer should have been obvious. It wasn’t. Keep in mind that what attracted her to Facebook was her friends, not just that they were using it, but that they were sharing information she wanted to know. Conversations around her would include “Oh, I saw on Facebook….”

Can this change? Certainly. But it’s not going to be overnight, it will take years. Facebook is in place, unseating it isn’t going to be easy.

Right now my social media diet includes a constantly running Twitter feed and regular checkins on Facebook (for an intermingling of personal information and news). If Google Plus doesn’t build true utility, we’ll end up waving goodbye.

Checking In is Still a Niche, but you need to worry now

I should be one of Foursquare‘s biggest users. But alas, I am not. Why? Well, it’s just too complicated to check in.

A lot of Location Based Service (LBS) fanboys are going to say things like “But Chuck, it’s so simple!” But you’re wrapped up in the coolness of it. For most people, checking in has become a cumbersome and only occasional activity. That said, I think it’s still going to be big.

Yes, that’s right. Despite the fact that I don’t use LBS all that often, I believe it’s going to be huge. But it won’t look like what it does today.

First, let’s examine the problems. Checking in requires me to have a motivation. Early in Foursquare’s existence I heard a lot about the gaming aspect of it, and for some early users that drove adoption. Now companies like Foursquare, SCVNGR and Gowalla are turning to deals to get you to check in. Certainly better than earning a mayorship or points, but if the number of unclaimed coupons that still land on the doorsteps of people receiving the Sunday paper are any indication, deals only go so far. How many of you now ignore the Groupons and Living Social deals cluttering your inbox? Yeah, I’m raising my hand on that one too.

Foursquare has more than 6 million registered users, but I haven’t seen many numbers that address the percentage of those users who are active. I have seen numbers about the number of checkins, but I’m not sure what percentage of users generate what number of checkins. If anyone has that data please let me know.

So what’s my motivation to check in? On Tuesdays I like to check in at Taste to let people know that our OpenPR coffees are happening. Sometimes I check in to a restaurant if I love their food or to just give them a bit of promotion. Sometimes I check in so people in the area know where to find me, like if I’m at Sip in Post Office Square. But usually I go through life without checking in.

Mainly, my problem is that it takes between 4 and 6 actions to check in.

  1. Pull out phone
  2. Open application
  3. Find my location (sometimes made easier if it’s a place I frequent)
  4. Check in
  5. Write comment (optional)
  6. Take picture (optional)

One of the things that made the Flip camera so successful was the single button operation. Who wants to go through 4 to 6 actions just to check in? (I’m not so crazy, Dennis Crowley brought the same issue up during his AdAge interview and they’re experimenting with some different type of checkins as well.)

So what will change things? One word: payment.

Payment is the one action that everyone takes on a regular basis. There are exceptions, of course, like when you show your pass to get into a gym or yoga studio, but even that amounts to a sort of payment. The key is when payment moves from credit card or cash to the mobile phone. Square is probably the closest to making this a reality, considering its announcement today, but other (rather large) companies are, in fact, working on Near Field Communication-based solutions as well.

Regardless, one thing is for certain, we’ll soon pay with our cell phones and, if all goes well, check in at the same time.

But, a funny thing will happen on the way to Foursquare nirvana: noise. Lots and lots of noise.

Imagine how useful your Facebook feed will be when all you see is “Chuck just bought a 2-shot small cappuccino at Taste.” So the trick for companies will be to figure out when to encourage sharing and when to hold back. The same will be true for individuals. If I clog my friends’ feeds with junk, then they’re more likely to block me.

The interesting thing is, in order for any organization to understand how a tool works and what makes it effective, they need to begin working with it BEFORE it takes off. So if you have a business that relies, in some part, on location (like a retail store or a well-trafficked office) I would encourage you to play with Foursquare or one of the other services. See what incentives motivate your audience to check in. Measure the reach of those checkins, then see how you can drive traffic through them.

The goal is to avoid being background noise later.

Stop! Please Stop!

Can we please stop comparing Boston to San Francisco and New York? Please? I’m getting sick of this discussion. It doesn’t mean much.

I grew up just outside of New York City, I went to grad school there and remain a loyal fan of the New York Jets (no, that doesn’t make me all that popular in Newton). But I chose to live in Boston. Two of my three children were born here,

Let me repeat that: I chose to live in Boston. Boston didn’t choose me. Todd is also a transplant (though, I hear he gave up rooting for the Detroit Lions, can you blame him?) and he also chose to be here. There is something about this city that we love, something about the people, the culture and the environment that makes it important enough to start a company here.

Each city has its advantages and different culture. Yes, New York has a 24 hour culture and a vibrant financial market that keeps much of the rest of the city humming (the taxi drivers and Broadway producers all feel the boost when Wall Street gives out good bonuses). Silicon Valley has a vibrant startup culture with great weather and entrepreneurs who become celebrities. But Boston has a quiet confidence that I find endearing. We are who we are, we’re not something else.

The main reason I hate these comparisons is that we look to the companies we lost (Facebook, Microsoft, TaskRabbit, Pixable, etc.) and ask “why! why would you leave us? We could have loved you!” Frankly, it’s a bit embarrassing. Love the one you’re with. But the problem isn’t that those cities are cooler, it’s that the companies (and their founders) were better fits for those cultures. Rather than focusing on that, maybe we should be focusing on creating companies that fit OUR culture.

Many years ago Evernote CEO Phil Libin told me that Silicon Valley is better for consumer-facing companies while Boston is better for research-based companies that feed government and defense contracts as well as enterprise technology. Of course, we also have a vibrant healthcare and biotech community. Why fight that? Why lament when a consumer company leaves and we’re left with very interesting technology that could help create a cure for cancer or change how we get power?

Zigging when everyone else is zagging can be a very good thing. An article in the Wall Street Journal points out that enterprise technology in the Valley has fallen out of favor with VCs while investment in consumer technologies has increased. Sure, fine for them, we can benefit from that by focusing on our core.

As for being “cool,” we shouldn’t feel bad that we lost consumer-facing companies to other regions, we should be trying to point out how enterprise tech companies that innovate, build jobs and build revenue in Massachusetts are cool, even when they’re doing something that seems mundane to the average eye, like helping organizations switch to IPv6. I sat next to a guy on the bus yesterday working on that very problem. No, it’s not as easy to understand as a company that helps you get errands done, but it impacts a LOT more people.

Let’s embrace who we are and stop worrying about who we aren’t.

Stephen Baker on Life, Journalism, Numbers and His New Book

Thanks to event sponsor and, I’m happy to disclose, Fresh Ground client Netezza, members of the Boston Social Media Club were fortunate to be able to enjoy an intimate evening with author and former BusinessWeek Senior Editor Stephen Baker. Steve’s most recent book, The Numerati, looks “at how a global math elite is predicting and altering our behavior — at work, at the mall, and in bed.” He was invited to present a keynote at the company’s Enzee Universe 2010 User Conference, and was gracious enough to take time out of his schedule to meet with the group and share his thoughts on life, journalism, numbers and the new book, expected out next year. You can listen to his session (just under a half hour) below.

I’m also pleased to announce that we’ll have an exclusive interview with Steve for next week’s Fresh Ground Podcast. (We did not include this interview in our podcast feed this week — stay tuned for a great interview with a creative young PR pro in this week’s podcast episode.)

Listen Now:

Update 23 June 2010: Tim Allik captured some video of Steve talking specifically about his BusinessWeek experience. You can read Tim’s thoughts on the Tech PR Gems blog, and have a look at the video below:

Facebook's Death by 400 Million Cuts

I don’t share my information with Facebook and I bet you don’t either.

I share my information with my friends, I just happen to use Facebook to do it. It’s a distinction that I wonder if Facebook really understands. Today in a conference call, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to Facebook’s continued success by noting that people are still members, the mass quitting that so many discussed never truly materialized, though “Quit Day” still lies ahead. “We have seen no meaningful uptick in the number of people who deleted their accounts,” he said.

And I doubt it ever will. But what I’m hearing anecdotally is that with each privacy concern, people share LESS on Facebook. The problem for Facebook is that if people put up less information, then I have less of a reason to go there to see what people are doing, and so do you. Think about how you use Facebook. If you’re like me you log in, check out the newsfeed and see what’s in people’s lives. If that newsfeed doesn’t interest you, and continues to be uninteresting, then you’ll slowly move away. It’ll become a place to grab some basic information (birthdays, locations, jobs, etc.) but its true utility will be gone.

I believe that Facebook is measuring the wrong thing. I believe a better metric would be the number of posts per person over time. You would have to examine their activity and create a standard, then measure how each user stacks up against that.

A drop in this usage would be the biggest threat to Facebook; it would be death by a 400 million cuts to the information we put out. If we stop sharing, Facebook stops existing. Not tomorrow, but slowly, over time, until it’s that site you used to visit but doesn’t have much pull any longer.

Will the privacy controls unveiled today keep people from fleeing? I’m not sure. In conversations with friends, mostly non-techies, their trust in Facebook has been shaken. While a change could help, rebuilding trust will take much longer and include many, many more steps. We all now realize that we’re sharing with Facebook as much as with our friends, and that little change will change our behavior.We’ll see what impact that action has on Facebook itself

Facebook Blues: Will YOU Quit?

Trying to figure out what all the Facebook fuss is about? Considering signing off of Facebook for the last time yourself? Here’s a video roundup of the Facebook fiasco, courtesy of Greater Boston (and featuring our own Chuck Tanowitz):

Chuck I think makes a very good point: “Facebook is a business and it’s sitting on a treasure trove of valuable information … demographic data that the advertising industry has been asking for for generations.” As the Australian Broadcast Corporation’s Stilgherrian points out:

Facebook’s business model is best served by exposing your personal information as widely as possible. To advertisers, so they can target advertising more accurately and pay more for the privilege. To other users, to encourage them to share more as well. To search engines, to bring more traffic to Facebook. To anyone who wants to pay.

If you want a better understanding of how Facebook makes money, incidentally, Nicholas Carson has a good, short write-up.

PC World’s Brenon Slattery summed it up perfectly:

Facebook has had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad month, and it’s only getting worse.

Where to start? E-mails leaked, private IM conversations exposed, apps sneaking into profiles, creepy geolocation additions — the worries mount. It’s hard to distinguish what Facebook is actually doing right.

The privacy concerns at the root of Facebook’s bad month were nicely laid out by The Wall Street Journal’s Jessica Vascellaro today, and its corresponding (and evolving) privacy policy has been beautifully visualized by Matt McKeon.

This has supposedly led to what some are characterizing as a mass exodus from Facebook. While it’s true that the 6,000+ committed quitters of May 30th’s have been joined by some technology thought leaders like Engadget co-founder Peter Rojas, podcaster Leo Laporte, comedian and The Onion editor Baratunde Thurston and ZDNet columnist Jason Perlow, as ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick points out, “it’s hardly a torrent of quitters in the face of more than 400 million Facebook users.”

Until there are real live alternatives, users will simply take steps to regain a little more control over their privacy, and wait to see what Facebook (or the government) does.