Content Marketing and Why CS Majors Won’t Take Over the Marketing Industry

Recently, I was working on promoting an organization to students at my alma mater (whoa, weird to say!) called Boston Content. The organization, run by my friend Jay Acunzo, provides education, and inspires creativity for content creators, strategists & marketers.

I’m a firm believer in content advertising and content marketing – I think it’s the future of the web.

As more blogs switch from display advertising to more native advertising, good writing will become even more important – potentially, this could even mean journalists stealing a lot of the jobs marketing students will be going after.

However, when I promoted this organization on Facebook, I got a really interesting comment from a BU student majoring in Computer Science. Continue reading

Teaching Programming to an Ad Student

Company Complaints HomepageI recently read an article by Mindy McAdams, a professor of online journalism at the University of Florida that got me really thinking about learning programming as a communications student.

Mindy’s article, Teaching programming to journalists, explains how she can only get her students interest in coding if they believe they can do it. The problem is, she doesn’t know how.

I’m not a journalism student, and I’m not sure I have the answer to Mindy’s question. However, I understand where she’s coming from and hopefully, can shed some light on my own experiences learning about programming as a non-programmer.

Since freshman year, I’ve become enamored by the way the web is disrupting people’s consumption of media. It didn’t take me long to realize I would end up studying advertising, a field I felt had a better grasp on how the Internet was effecting it’s profession than say, film and television or public relations.

In addition to studying advertising, I chose to take a computer science course in the College of Arts and Sciences during my fall semester of sophomore year. I knew I needed to learn programming to become a better online advertising student. Even if I chose to not become a developer myself, I’d still have the ability to think like one and have a better grasp on product.

It was a disaster. I had chosen the intro class for CompSci majors — the one meant to weed out the pretenders. I had also chosen to overload that semester and taking an extra course in computer science wasn’t the best decision.

So, midway through, I dropped the course and received a ‘W’ on my transcript. I had good grades in the class and enjoyed learning about the intricacies of Java. However, my performance in my other classes was slipping as I spent more and more time trying to understand concepts for an elective course.

I decided while learning programming interested me, it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t do it.

Fast-forward to today. I’m finishing up something I said I couldn’t do two years ago and am 98% of the way done with my first web application.

What happened in between and what I decided to do differently helped me realize that not only could I do programming, but I enjoyed it too.

So how did I stay motivated despite a minor hiccup my sophomore year? Continue reading

Go Wide and Deep

As a marketing student, I’m scared. For the first time, there are other students who are better suited to take a job in marketing over myself: journalism and computer science majors. Before you start calling me insane, let me explain.

As online marketing starts to really spread out into two paths of content-driven marketing and product-driven marketing, people with those areas of experience will be better suited for the roles students like myself are going after. Who better than a journalism major well versed in writing feature stories or an undergrad with a deep knowledge of building web applications?

It’s true that most journalism students will still try their luck at writing for a publication and many computer science students wouldn’t even consider marketing as a career. However, there will be a few in each field of study who will venture towards marketing (at some point) and those are the ones I’m worried about.

These students may not be marketers at heart, but they have a deep knowledge for areas greatly needed to drive sales and ROI at most businesses today. And what they lack in marketing depth, they can make up for in marketing breadth. They understand, or learn to understand, a wide amount about marketing, but may not necessarily be the best at marketing there is (a jack-of-all-trades, so to speak).

Marketing Breadth

I see what Coke’s attempting to do by creating their own publication and how companies like Dropbox are using referral models like The Great Space Race to get students using there software or a freemium model to get people to upgrade to a paid service. Continue reading

Building Creative Ideas for the Real World

ViralityAs I mentioned in a previous post, I built a website with a few other BU students to help our peers find better on-campus housing. The experience was a great learning experience for us in how to build a product and how to acquire users.

More importantly, the project taught me that while conceptual work can be cool, it isn’t as satisfying as creating something real and tangible — something you can get results from and show to a potential employer.

I bring this point up, because I notice a lot of my friends – those who want to go into the ad industry – are building out portfolios of creative work they’ve done for brands – conceptual work that, to be honest, tends to stay in their binder and not go much further.

This problem is also encouraged through the academic model. Even in vocational-based programs like business or communication schools, classwork is very much theoretical and doesn’t leave the walls of the institution.

Business schools still for the most part, emphasize the business plan competition but don’t actually emphasize the more important part – the execution. At BU, students simulate building a fake product and company through a cross-functional curriculum. When the semester’s over, so is the fake company.

Communications programs in the advertising area provide students with an education built on theoretical work and producing campaigns that never end up being used by their theoretical clients.

Instead, what these programs should be doing is incorporating more real world assignments – things that can be measured with real results like page views, referral traffic, or if you’re in business school, pre-orders and/or sales.

(Although I love business, for the sake of keeping this post shorter, I’ll only be talking about what I think students in the advertising world should be doing. The truth, is it’s a bit harder to get the capital needed to make a business product a reality. However, media, for the most part, can be created for next to nothing. )

Web 2.0 has made it easy for those with amazing content to get recognized. Nowadays, those who create interesting Tumblr’s (like Texts from Hillary Clinton) or cool videos (like my friend Eric’s Mad Men/Facebook mashup) will be more in demand. If you’re content is great and you know how to get the right key people to see it initially, you can make magic happen.

Times have changed.

We don’t need to rely on creating stuff that only you and your professor see because we now have this much larger audience we can use to help us gauge our progress and talent.

From the educational perspective, imagine not being evaluated on a holistic scale by your teacher and instead being graded by something much grander and tangible. How cool would it be to be to receive a grade based on how many page views your work got? Or how many social referrals? Or the influencers who saw it and commended it? Or the press you were able to receive?

All of a sudden, that work matters a lot more. It’s made an impact past the class room.

From a career perspective, that work will mean more too. Now, instead of showing that theoretical Miracle Whip print ad you created, you can show a potential employer a meme series you made of Jersey Shore’s Pauly D hawking the mayo-product. And unlike the ad that you’re still unsure would be a real world hit, you have proof you’re talented through insane page view metrics, great referral traffic, and countless imitators on Reddit.

I’m not saying you still shouldn’t put you’re fake Miracle Whip print ad in your portfolio. By all means, go ahead. However, the superstar hires, the people every agency wants, will be those who have already achieved success in a measurable way.

Because at the end of the day, success isn’t about the theoretical. It’s about those who can create something and make results happen in the real world.


*Photo taken with permission from Eric Leist

BU Room Swap: Building a Website To Solve a Problem

Last semester, myself and a couple of other students (Matt Auerbach, Guy Aridor) set out to build BURoomSwap, a website we thought could help those on our college campus who were looking to switch to a new dorm if they didn’t like where they were living or weren’t getting along with their roommate.

The BU process for swapping involves going to housing, filling out a card with your information and then flipping through a binder of countless others looking for a new living arrangement. And if that seems like enough, you can also put up a card at each dorm you’re interested in switching into.

This archaic process is a pain in the ass – I know from first hand experience of having to go to the housing office and the dorms multiple times to re-check the binder for new postings.

Our solution was a simple website where you post where you currently live and where you want to live. From there we easily match you to someone who wants what you have and you can chose to propose swapping with them or not. Simple. Easy. Solves the problem.

BURoomSwap.com

We weren’t really sure if people would use the site or not, but with over 300 submissions (and a solid number of room accepts) in only a couple of weeks, we know we’ve probably done a better job then what’s currently available.

A few of things I learned while building it that I think are helpful to other students interested in entrepreneurship:

  • You don’t have to build the next big thing to learn about being entrepreneurial. We didn’t set out to build a business. We just set out to solve a problem. It is a small problem, but it’s still a problem and one we felt we could fix. Working on this small venture though still taught us a lot about building something from scratch, working with others who had complimentary skills, and trying to get someone to use something they don’t necessarily have to.
  • You don’t have to be technical to be a product manager, but you do have to understand product and what’s technically possible. Well, the truth is, there are certain times where you do have to be technical in order to be a product manager. But in many cases, as long as you understand product and get the ramifications of what is and isn’t technically possible, you can still act as a product manager. Even though I can’t code (I’m learning…), my ability to wireframe and come up with user flow as well as managing conflicts and building out a timeline were integral to the site being built. Continue reading

On Facebook, Embrace Your Fans for Ideas and Think Small(er) For Development

On Friday, I finished my first week interning in Facebook’s New York City Office.  I figured I’d share two lessons I picked up about social marketing this week and how I applied those learnings in building a simple Chrome Facebook Extension for McDonald’s.

  1. Use your fans as guides in building your social campaign: While you need to build your content to help shape how you want your audience to perceive your brand, there’s a lot of good to be had from also adapting to what your fans want.  One of the case studies we were shown was for Lacta, a Greek chocolate brand that noticed a lot of their fans were comparing their loved ones to the candy bar.  Lacta decided to embrace this trend by building an app that allowed users to create a chocolate bar with their friend’s name.  The messages were shared to the wall with the photo as well as appearing in their photo albums with the person’s name tagged.  This simple idea blew up in Greece as over 135,000 users sent nearly 300,000 virtual Lacta bars out to their friends.  Unlike many other brands, Lacta saw their fans as an inspirational tool in how to build their marketing efforts.  Because they listened to for ideas on how to cater to their followers, they were able to get huge returns on their campaign. 
  2. Think small (in both action and development cost): Many advertisers on Facebook think they should be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook to build complex apps (or as I like to call them, microsites that just happen to be on Facebook).  They expect that once there, users will go through all of the ridiculous steps that are expected of them.  In reality, Facebook is better suited for lightweight actions like the app Lacta chose to build or the creative content Starbucks shares with their fans.  It’s fun (not frustrating) and makes you want to like, comment, share and in the case of the Lacta app, do.  Instead of spending a lot of your money building complex apps and asking your fans to give back so much in return, build something simple — they’ll be a lot more likely to return the favor.  (One of the problems that happens is advertisers spend a lot more money developing apps instead of spending that money to market them on the site. If you don’t pay for media to reach those fans, chances are they won’t see it.)Starbucks Facebook Creative

The Facebook “I’m Lovin’ It” Button (download here)

Taking these two lessons into account, I ended up building a simple Google Chrome extension for McDonalds’ fans on Facebook (although build is too generous a verb — thanks to Ben Schaecter, whoever you are, for posting your source code on GitHub and giving me the opportunity to modify it!).

I was noticing a bit of a trend on a couple of the McDonald’s posts where users were commenting “I’m lovin’ it,”  the Mickey D’s-style way of saying “Like” on Facebook.

I thought, wouldn’t it be awesome if I could somehow replace the “Like” with an “I’m Lovin’ It” button?  Like with Lacta, it’s a simple idea.  More importantly, it isn’t a whole complex ordeal for the user to accomplish on the other end — and, if it was, I only wasted an hour and $5 building the extension.

From "Like" to "I'm Lovin' It"

Even though this idea is simple, there still are a number of flaws with this deliverable — mostly, that it isn’t that social.  Users download the extension, but Facebook won’t tell your friends via the News Feed that you downloaded the “I’m Lovin’ It” button for your browser.  That means, unless your friends think this is extremely cool and worthy of sharing, there’s a really good chance something like this wouldn’t be seen by others.

(I do think this concept could definitely be adapted into better creative that’s more inherently social and probably not a Chrome extension. However, I knew I could easily build this application as a non-developer and that was extremely important to me.  It’s a half-baked idea at best.)

Regardless, I’d be much more willing to try my chances with this low-cost, low-effort extension over a highly expensive microsite on Facebook.  Why?  Because although a complex app built on Facebook has the automatic functionality of posting to the News Feed and may be cool in concept, if no one wants to use it, nothing will ever get shared. And, because as Lacta, Starbucks and countless others have shown us, simple can be a lot more sticky (and viral) with users — that type of return is the exact reason we all market on Facebook in the first place.

5 Steps for Marketers to Become “Growth Hackers”

There was a really awesome post on Andrew Chen’s blog the other day on how Growth Hacker is the New VP of Marketing. Basically, the gist of it was that marketers today need to be a hybrid marketer and coder, particularly in the startup world.

While I do believe we will see a number of developers helping on the marketing side, I think that this role will be mostly taken on by the marketing types.  The problem is there simply aren’t enough developers. It doesn’t make sense for a company to make an all-technical growth team instead of putting those folks on product where they’re more essential. Also, marketers will be better marketers than engineers will — it’s just a difference in how both types think.   Lastly, I think engineers who are also growth hackers are more of the entrepreneurial type — they’re probably already building there own company.

So what do marketers need to do in order to become growth hackers? I think there are a few steps.

  1. Get analytical and know how to optimize: You need to be thinking in terms of ROI or the bottom line or how to move the needle.  If you aren’t able to figure out how many people who clicked on A button caused X number of people to buy Y, that’s a bit of a problem.  It’s really important to not only understand how to track this information, but also to be able to optimize it for better results.  So for example, figure out why only Z number of people clicked on A when you expected Y and understand how you can fix the problem.
  2. Understand API’s and their capabilities: The digital marketer (and engineer’s) best friend is the API.  It not only can take out a lot of the hassle in building your product, but can also help enhance it and and help it grow.  Nowaday’s, nearly every growing startup has an API.  My suggestion would be to look at those sites API sections, see what their capable of, and read case uses.  It’ll give you a better understanding of how you can leverage that API for your own company.  I had this crazy idea I wanted to implement in school for my marketing friends called APIron Chef.  Essentially it would be like the Food Network show: you have to create an application using a secret ingredient (i.e. the main API) as the main flavor.  You can certainly use other ingredients (i.e. different API’s), but your main ingredient still needs to be the main API. In my friends case, we’d create wireframe mockups for our app idea — I kind of think of it as a hackathon for non-technical folks. (I actually am going to be doing this next semester, so if you go to BU and are interested in participating, stay tuned).
  3. Learn how to build (without technical skills):  There are some really awesome websites out there that can actually help you do your marketing much easier.  If you don’t know how to build a landing page yet or easily set up a blog, that’s a problem.  You should know about tools like LaunchRock and understand how to use them. Once you do, you want know how you lived without them.
  4. Attend a Hackathon, or hang out with some engineers: If there’s one thing I’ve learned in regards to the way engineers work compared to marketers, it’s this – time is valuable.  It sounds so logical and yet in ad agencies they sit there endlessly trying to come up with new headlines to use for days until they finally come up with one great one.  An engineer thinks “How much value will I get out of the time and effort I put in?”  Unlike an advertiser, they’d spend 20 minutes brainstorming different headlines with one other person, pick the five best and then A/B test them in display ads online or on their website until they’ve found the most impactful message. Try attending a hackathon or working with some engineers — it’ll give you new insights on how you can work and be more productive in your job. How does this relate to growth hacking? The more time you don’t waste, the more time you can use to market effectively — it’s all about being efficient.
  5. Learn to Code: I know it’s scary, but it’s super important if you want to become a better growth hacker.  Seriously. Check out this post if you don’t believe me.

There’s a new digital line being created from social media savvy to hard core hacker.  You don’t necessarily need to be a technical wunderkind, but if you’re a marketer and you’re not willing to do at least bullet points 1-4, that may be a problem.  The new era of marketing is not coming, it’s here now.

(Side note: please don’t ever call yourself a Growth Hacker.  I really hope the term goes the way of Rockstars and Ninjas) 

Entrepreneurship Cheat Sheet from @Vacanti

I had the opportunity to attend the East Coast Startup Summit this weekend at Princeton University.  It was a great experience and I learned a ton from a number of the speakers including Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway, and Jon Steinberg of Buzzfeed.

One of the most educational conversations was one we had with Vin Vacanti, CEO and co-founder of Yipit, an aggregator and filter for all the (daily) deals available online.

Below is a cheat sheet I’ve created for would-be (student) entrepreneurs based on our conversation with Vin:

Learn to Code

Vin mentioned that if you’re interested in tech startups, you should teach yourself to code.  This was actually a point brought up by a number of the speakers and I definitely agree myself (and did before the conference).

Vin had actually not known how to code going in to building Yipit but taught himself so he wouldn’t have to outsource a core competency of his business from the outset. The best idea, according to Vin, is to spend about 3-6 months just teaching yourself to code and then used that knowledge to build prototypes.

Vin mentioned that the best languages to learn are Ruby (on Rails) and Python (Django).  I suggest using Rails for Zombies or Learn Python the Hard Way.  Other resources to learn to code include Codecademy.

Creating Business Should Be The Same as Creating Experiments

Vin mentioned that every business idea you have should be looked at like an experiment.  Your idea is a hypothesis and your job is to try and prove your hypothesis right/wrong.  If it fails, figure out why and test it again, this time with a tweaked experiment.

Try Failure

A Harvard grad and former Wall Street guy, Vin actually hadn’t failed up until he decided he wanted to become an entrepreneur.  He mentioned that everyone should try failing.  In other words, you have to get over the idea of following a path of going to school and getting a cushy job.  Instead, try a bunch of different things and don’t be afraid if it doesn’t work out.

Vin also mentioned that if you hit rock bottom, that’s when you truly become the most innovative and creative because then you really have nothing to lose.

The Ideal Co-Founder

Vin mentioned that there we’re three qualities to a great co-founder:

  1. Someone you trust: you should find someone who you can look to as a friend and will be loyal to the business.
  2. Someone you’ve worked with: you may still find someone loyal and trustworthy, but your working styles may not mesh.  Think back on all the group projects you had in school.  Which of those people did you work well with? You may end up finding your co-founder in that group of peers.
  3. Someone with complementary skills: Lastly, you need to make sure that your cofounder has complementary skills.  This doesn’t necessarily mean you should be the programmer and they should be the business guy.  Complementary skills can even include one person being the creative, big-picture type and the other person being the methodical, small-picture type.
4 Necessities to Building a Great Company
Vin also mentioned for things he learned had helped him build Yipit into the successful startup it is today:
  1. How to build a landing page: Building a landing page is a great way to easily gauge if people will be interested in your product.  If you get a lot of sign-ups and people show interest, you may be on to something.
  2. Build quickly, build fast: There’s no point in spending a lot of time building a product if it may fail.  Vin mentioned they built Yipit in three days.  They didn’t have the more technically advanced parts of their product built yet, but they knew it wouldn’t be worth the extra effort if people weren’t interested in their idea.  After three days though, they knew they were on to something — building quickly also allowed them to be ahead of others who had a similar idea.  From there, Vin and his co-founder iterated they’re product quickly to better fit the needs of their consumers.
  3. Build relationships: In the startup world, nothing is more important then the people you know.  Build relationships with those who can help you.  They may end up being your next cofounder, investor, or employee.
  4. Build your network: Going off of building relationships, it’s important to also build your network.  You can’t do it alone in the startup world — the more quality people you have around you that can help and advise you, the more likely you are to succeed.

After hearing from Vin, I realized more so that entrepreneurship and starting a business isn’t just about knowing how to creatively market your product, or knowing how to build some shiny technical object, or just really being good with financials — it’s about being good at the art and science of business and learning that failure is not only okay, but the only way to learn and grow as an entrepreneur.

JC Penney and the Interest Graph: Different Experiences for Every Month

hopping_april

This is cute, but is completely irrelevant to my interests.

When JC Penney revealed their new store strategy and marketing campaign, two things stuck out more than anything else: the fair and square pricing model and the switch to a promotional calendar based on the month of the year.

In February, there was lots to love like Valentine’s Day, the Superbowl and the Oscars. People were mad for March, with events like the NCAA basketball tournament, St. Patrick’s day, and the start of Spring. April is hopping with Easter,  getting ready for prom, Spring decor and recipes, and the start of baseball season.

For a brand like JCP, using a platform like Facebook or Twitter can be a great way to get your brand’s new promotions out there. But as a male Jewish college student, if I were to like JC Penney on Facebook or follow their messages on Twitter, I probably wouldn’t care about content related to Easter or prom.  I would, however, be interested in JC Penney’s Major League Baseball related-content.

For JCP, the monthly promotions are amazingly broad and brilliant, yet completely limiting at the same time.  A big department store needs to cater to multiple needs. However, this large amount of noise may deter me from seeing the messages I actually care about (in this case, baseball season).

What if JC Penney leveraged the interest graph to let me see only the stuff I care about during a given month?  In other words, JCP can use their current marketing materials like they are on Facebook, but segment out based on the different interests they’ve created for April.

So for example, on a platform like Springpad they can create different notebooks based on the various topics for each month.  April could include notebooks like:

These segmented notebooks could be a brilliant way for JCP to better deliver their monthly message.  Instead of getting info on Easter Fun, a teenage girl could only choose to follow a notebook on Prom.

As more months pass, this information could become even more valuable to JCP’s marketing team.  For example, if I’m a teenage girl and I’m interested in Valentine’s Day (February), spring flowers (March), Prom (April), this data will allow me to figure out exactly what type of content would be interesting to this target demographic in May (something flowery and lovey-dovey).

Without this information, I may have neglected to include a theme like this in my monthly messaging and only thought about Mother’s Day and graduation. Having this data would allow me to see there’s a need for a notebook with a similar interest style.

In order for the interest graph to work, it needs to still fall in line with your brand’s marketing campaign.  For JCP, this means taking their current messaging, but delivering it in a new way.

This Springpad experience is still about monthly events, feelings, and milestones.  April is still hopping, as the retailer wants us to think — the message is  just being delivered in a more targeted way to each of it’s intended audiences.  For JCP, that could mean more engaged consumers and better overall sales growth. Results like that could mean the retailer really experiences a hopping April.

Despite my criticism of Facebook not catering to Interests, I do this we’re seeing them start to aggregate that data to build new ways for people to get the information they care about (see Interests).  I wouldn’t be surprised if we see pages be able to target content to users based on interests in the future as well with this sort of information becoming a more prevalent part of the Facebook platform. 

A Summer of Airbnb: 12 Weeks, 12 NYC Neighborhoods

We had an assignment in class to try and come up with an individual creation that we could actually make.  My idea was to see if I could live in NYC for free, meet different people, and write about my experiences.

I’m bracing myself for an amazing summer in New York City, but there’s still one thing I’ve yet to nail down — a place to live.

Let’s face it: even if you have a full time job, an apartment in New York City can be pricey. For a college student, those rates can seem astronomically higher in your mind.

It got me thinking though. Maybe I should just forgo the whole sublet/NYU rental approach every other college student does to make their “dreams come true” in the city that never sleeps.   Maybe I should just push my luck and find a new place to sleep by every week.

I’ve been looking at Airbnb as an option, and while the rates fall somewhere in between getting a hotel and actually renting a place, it could be interesting to see if I can have Airbnb sponsor me in in return for a little exposure.  There’s also CouchSurfing which is free, but I’d prefer to work with Airbnb because there booking process is a bit easier to work with.

I think the benefits of living in other people’s homes for an entire three months could be extremely interesting.  New York City is known for it’s eclectic population and there’s a lot to be learned whether I spend a week on the Upper East Side with a well-to-do family or a few days with a musician in the Village.

Although my main goal was to essentially live in NYC for free, I think there’s a story that can be told from an experience like this. Why not create a web series on living like a local in all of New York’s different neighborhoods?  What if I put myself up to the challenge of learning about NYC from actual New Yorkers?

The rules would be simple:

  • You can’t stay in host’s apartment or home for more than one week.
  • You can’t stay in a particular neighborhood for more than one week.
  • Each borough can only be stayed in for 5 weeks maximum.
  • You must document your stay via video and traditional blogging.

Each week a new episode would be posted online for viewers to watch.  You’d learn about the best places to hang out, eat, drink, and play, all from a local’s perspective.

The best part is that you’d be getting different perspectives on New York City from at least 12 different people in 12 different neighborhoods. And, since they know they’re respective areas best, you’d learn about the best places in Astoria to eat from an Astorian or the best Beer Garden in Williamsburg from a local hipster.

Of course, the hard part would be getting Airbnb to fund this.  I’ve decided to set up a Kickstarter page (note, this is a preview link) to start and raise money.  Those funds would go towards paying for housing as well as some initial production equipment.  If Airbnb would like to help out, they’re more than welcome to as well.

I think a web series like this could be an interesting experiment.  There’s so much to see and do in New York City — you might as well try and do it with the people who know best.