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Want to sell your idea at scale? Then it's time to listen at scale
Social media has created some perfect crowd-think tools. But are people really listen to the conversations?
Michael Slaby is a global leader in digital and social media strategy, technology and data analytics, and explores how together they can elevate mission-driven organizations. For Michael, it is not only about developing the necessary technological platform, but understanding what it is that brings people together to take action online, as well as offline. Currently, he is Managing Partner of Timshel—a new company working to help solve social, civic, and humanitarian problems via better technology, engagement capabilities development, and creative capital. Previously he was a Fellow at Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In 2012, when the Obama administration began gearing up for re-election, one of the first calls went to Michael Slaby, who was chief technology officer in 2008—when the historical campaign leveraged the internet and social media to raise funds and organize volunteers in ways that had never been seen before.
Michael helped lead Obama for America as Chief Integration and Innovation Officer in 2012, overseeing the CTO, CIO, and CAO, in order to ensure effective implementation and integration of technology across the entire campaign.
Michael Slaby: Over the last decade or so I think the biggest shift we've seen is sort of the final breakdown of the traditional channel-based structure, the way we tend to think about communications as paid media, earned media, owned media, this sort of traditional silo-ed approach to communications that we still hear a lot from marketing textbooks in business school and that kind of thing.
I think what has happened is: the process of the 20 years preceding the last decade was about fragmentation, new types of channels, satellite TV and mobile networks, and just this incredible proliferation of types of content and channels within the silos that left people feeling like they had infinite choice but left communicators feeling like it was impossible to reach an audience.
What social media has done, particularly Facebook and Twitter, have created a glue to knit all these fragments back together into something that feels like one big graph, one big network of content moving between channels in unpredictable ways of engaging with people in ways that we can't necessarily predict, of creating more two directional conversational dialogues and communication between individuals and the people that we're trying to reach and inspire, which is new behavior for us.
It requires marketers and communicators and publishers to develop new skills like listening that we didn't used to have to do, we just picked the channel and we picked the right message and we said something to an audience that was mostly pretty passive, and I think this is the big shift in thinking and the real challenge for a lot of organizations is we are now part of a graph with the people that we're trying to inspire rather than them being a stable audience that we're trying to reach and us being in a stable position as inspirer or publisher, we now have to participate in this system.
People create content, we create content, they share content, we share content and that means that we have to think differently about how we communicate, how we tell stories, how much content we have to create. We can't reliably predict where that content is going to get consumed so it's really easy to get into a situation where if we're not really clear about our values and our identity and who we are and what we're trying to achieve where sort of our values and mission sit as an organization it can become really easy to sound schizophrenic to the communities that we're trying to engage.
And I think a lot of organizations are still really struggling with this transition. It still feels really unsettling to folks because it means whole scale changing of the way we think about content and communication and publishing, it even means different org charts rethinking how we shape the organizations and design and staff and how teams work together and how people collaborate are all different than they used to be in, and that's still a change process that I think a lot of us in a lot of organizations are still working their way through.
So when we think about politics and we think about what's changed in communications, one of the most important changes to the communication landscape is the shift in the necessity of being able to listen effectively at scale, the necessity of seeing the people that we're engaging as relationships we're trying to create, and the necessity of empathy and listening as part of starting relationships is fundamental to communication—now rather than either orthogonal or accidental or a nice to have, this is the fundamental nature of many of the communication mechanisms are bidirectional now and that means our habits have to change.
I think one of the great advantages of digital technologies is the capacity to listen at scale, the phrase to use even in the question is something that wasn't possible before digital tools. The ability to use data, to use smart sort of tools and listening tools, things like Radian6 and Crimson Hexagon, there are a lot of these platforms out of there for you see them mostly in sort of the enterprise marketing spaces, but work really well in politics and social good and these other places to get a sense for what people believe and think in social conversations, because so much of this conversation is happening in public. And so the question about listening is mostly a cultural one. The tools, these tools aren't perfect and some of them are pretty expensive so not necessarily the easiest things to implement, and building skills and hiring people and thinking about this as a skillset that needs to be part of your team as part of this process, but before any of that is a belief that listening is important.
A belief and creating a culture where questioning your own certainty and validating your own certainty and putting the community first in terms of how you want to be able to reach and inspire the people that you're trying to engage, whether that's selling a product or trying to win an election, this is just a function of how the landscape works, this is not particularly partisan, it's not particularly about politics, but it requires a cultural belief in the value of listening, which is not something that all leaders come by naturally.
And I think part of this is a discussion about the value of empathy and the value of really the necessity of understanding the values and beliefs and emotions behind what people value and believe as part of building real relationships with people.
And this is where, again, digital tools make starting relationships with more people easier but maintaining relationships is still work. So this is one of the great challenges of large scale community organizing, which is the things that we were able to do, particularly back in 2008 with the first Obama campaign when we were sort of treading a lot of new ground, just because timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance—it created the ability for us to have millions of volunteers, which we could never have recruited without these new platforms, we just couldn't have had that many meetings. We just ran out of hours in the day and time in the campaign and it allowed us to accelerate the recruiting process and the engagement process by creating more doors and more ways into the campaign for more people.
But making sure all of those millions of people felt valuable and heard and respected and part of the process and enabled to do good work that had value that was on-mission is an enormous commitment of work and there are thousands of field organizers in the Obama community who did the work of supporting those relationships. And I think this is one of the big shifts in thinking about from audience to community where speaking at someone and saying the right thing to you at the right time in the right channel is a very linear process. This is traditional micro-targeting and marketing: “I need to figure out what you're listening to or what you're watching so I can show you the right message and you're just going to consume it and it's going to change your mind.” This is a little bit the magic madman idea, like the perfect ad, the perfect sort of great idea—and there is value to that creativity and content is still super central to how we communicate and how we tell stories, but the process is not that linear anymore, and so thinking about how we engage people as a relationship we are building over time rather than just a transaction at a moment in time is I think the starting point to start bringing these other ideas into the conversation about empathy and what you think and believe and feel, and listening to you.
People will tell you what they think if you ask them. People ask, “How do you know what people think?”
And the answer is: in politics we knock on a lot of doors and we have a lot of conversations, hundreds of millions of them literally conversations where we are asking questions and talking to voters and asking what they think and who they support and we keep all that data. It is a massive listening exercise.
It's a massive exercise in is our view and vision for the future compelling and is it getting through? Are we making sense? Are we reaching people and connecting with people in a way that is relevant to them or are we missing something? And people will tell you if you ask them. It's not actually that complicated.
It's just—it's hard to do at scale. And this is something that has to be staffed for.
And the piece of this that I think if the first part is about culture, or the last part is about adjusting to, there is a misconception that you can just start publishing, and just create a page no one charges you anything you just start doing stuff. Creating content isn't free, responding to comments isn't free.
Being careful about the ladder of engagement you're creating with people and inspiring them and engaging with them and answering their questions isn't free. That requires teams, talent, and energy, and commitment to creativity that you've got to pay for.
And that's a place that staffing changes, and the way this changes the way we think about communications departments is pretty profound.
Social media upended traditional media by cutting out the middle man. No longer were "gatekeepers" needed to vet popular opinion: now, any Tom, Dick, or Harrietta can go online and write what they think. But traditional media—and some could argue, certain political parties that rhyme with Schmemocrat—seemed to have stopped listening to what their their potential readers are saying, creating a gap between the two. Michael Slaby worked with Obama on two election campaigns to figure out what groups of people are thinking. It's not easy work. But he posits that with the right kind of ears, some publications and brands (and, yes, even politicians) could one day make themselves 'of the people' once more.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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