Talking to people, not algorithms
6 min read

Talking to people, not algorithms

Some old and new lessons about people and building community.
Talking to people, not algorithms

There's little point being in this line of work if you don't have a sense of what makes people tick. Creating an article or video with a clear idea of its who, what, where, and why' is critical to changing hearts and minds.

But the oft-used term 'audience' is a vague way of describing your readership. While the term helps as a starting point, it regularly fails to dig deeper than broad demographics or interests.

So, today I want to spend a moment reflecting on people - not just 'audience'. It's you, it's me, it’s everyone.

By focusing on people, communities, and networks, we'll see that the basic nature of human beings never really changes and that we need to get closer to these everyday values everyone possesses.

The lost art of experimentation

Like anything in life, we need balance.

In the workplace, you need structure: a clear plan and vision. But on the flip-side you also need space to try new things, to stretch those proverbial wings a little.

This balance is often out of whack. More planning, more targets, less ‘risk’.

Months of strategic planning can leave teams paralyzed, robbing them of the opportunity to be creative and innovative. They are tied to a map and specific outputs that will limit all options beyond doing exactly what they did a year ago.

Teams need space to experiment. Online communications in particular is ideal for this as the embedded risks and costs can be extremely low. If the content is no good, no one will see it anyway. However, failure can offer vital intel (more on that later in this post).

And yet teams are often trapped because they are tied to the organization's masterplan, unable to try out anything new unless 100% sure it will work (which of course is impossible).

People perform at their best when they feel they have control of their destiny, and that their voice and their ideas are being heard and utilized. This is what makes experimentation so powerful: it’s empowering.

"We start to map our future when we dare to experiment in the present," - Margaret Heffernan.

Heffernan's excellent dissection of the perils of how we are shaping the future in ‘Uncharted: How to Map the Future' demonstrates clearly how experimentation should be built into organizations. Unfortunately, experimentation is often being stamped out as organizations become increasingly addicted to focusing on metrics and sweeping aside the intangibles.

The problem is: human nature is one of the most intangible things imaginable and difficult to neatly capture in numbers and data.

But experimentation not only leads to new ideas, it leads to both happier individuals and happier teams. It leads to growth all-around.

So what are the key ingredients to make experimentation work?

According to Heffernan, it’s passion, need, and resources. But most importantly, she stresses, it’s backbone: someone who cares enough to "ensure that shit gets done."

Being honest with people

So, we have seen how we could work better within teams. That's one part of the people puzzle. But what about those people out there? The networks and communities we are speaking with.

When my career in communications began, I was keen to learn from experts in the field and I started with the great old ad-men and copywriters. Although I was working in the non-profit sector, I could see that much of what they said about selling and persuading was relevant: it's all about selling ideas.

John E. Powers was one of the first professional copywriters and his key message could be summed up as: be honest and give reasons for your claim. No boasting, just show the reasons why the product is good (and if the product isn't good, fix it).

"The first thing ... is to have the attention of the reader. That means to be interesting. The next thing is to stick to the truth, and that means rectifying whatever's wrong in the merchant's business. If the truth isn't tellable, fix it so it is. That is about all there is to it." - John E. Powers

No hacks, no tricks, no magic SEO. Powers talked about the value the product offered the customer, rather than focusing on what it is. His ad copy became known as 'reason-why' copy.

That was 130 years ago.

A couple of years ago in a former job, I sat down with Lillian, a 21-year-old intern from China, and asked her to go through some social media channels and tell me what she thought. She was blunt: "It just looks like a lot of advertising, 'me, me, me'. I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do with this information."

Powers would have agreed: there was no 'reason-why'.

Scroll through any business or NGO Twitter accounts right now and it's likely most of them will fail to tell us what to do with the information they are imparting. They'll mainly be telling us how excellent they are.

For Lillian, who had no formal background in copywriting, communications, or advertising, this trap was obvious. She understood the audience on the platforms because she is one of them.

Her starting point was not 'you need to start a TikTok channel'. Lillian suggested taking a step back, looking at the foundations of our purpose in connecting to our audience, and getting clear on what they cared most about and speaking directly to that.

It is easy for teams to get so lost in strategies and plans and lose sight of the fundamentals. We lose sight of the simple fact that we are dealing with people.

"Communities aren't built on tactics." - Celia Butcher @celiapreihs

'Social media' is a very apt name, yet it's surprising how often we forget to socialize. Instead, most organizations push information into the trough hoping it will be eaten up indiscriminately.

The distortion of social media comes from the numbers: the clicks, the viral content. These numbers distort expectations and deviate from what is important: community.

I prefer the term ‘communities’, ‘networks’ and even ‘tribes’ over ‘audience’. These terms force you to think about the interconnections between people.

Gary Vaynerchuk is good at understanding the importance of people and community. In his trademark shouty presentation style he rants over and over that building a community is about being a human, and is about putting in the work to connect with individuals. It's not about picking an interest and throwing Facebook Ad money at it.

He has mastered his craft. Everything he is doing in this video is about honing his craft through experimentation, and by treating people like individuals, not numbers, and putting in the time.

But I don't have time

Building a strong community takes time. Gary Vaynerchuk spent hours a day focusing on just that. We know that is the key to building craft. But we are also normal people, we've got stuff to do. If a communications professional has a line of 25 deliverables in a week, how is it possible to build communities?

Try these steps:

1. Stop. This is a difficult first step, but the ability to ‘stop doing’ is critical. Even a half day to stop and think can bring tremendous insights.

2. Reduce. Focus on doing one thing really well rather than four things averagely. Limiting your options increases focus, reduces anxiety, and actually improves your creativity. For example, you may decide to focus only on Twitter using only three styles of posts. Limiting your palette means you focus more on the message than the medium.

3. Use first principles. Break down a big campaign into component parts and build it back up one piece at a time. Do not apply the same template over and over again.

4. Go. Don't overthink it, just try stuff. You learn by doing, not by not doing.

5. Learn. Read outside your area of expertise, listen to Podcasts from thought leaders in different fields, follow people on social media who offer valuable insights. Take notes.

And finally, 6. Be patient. It takes time to make good friends. You can't pay your way - spending on Ads is a short term fix. Focus on a small number of vocal supporters over thousands of silent ones.

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