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Business Stuff

Mack Web is now Genuinely

By | Business Stuff, Events, Mack's Musings, MISSION: Authentic | No Comments

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If I were to ask my dad who the greatest influences in his life have been, I’m confident he would put Oprah Winfrey at the top of his list. It’s not that he’s ever wanted to meet her, or that he would even admit this out loud, but when going through one of the darkest times in his life, she became his therapist. Every day at 3 pm he’d watch her show. Over the course of a year, 60 minutes at a time, he became a better man.

Oprah had kind of a rough go of it when she was a kid. In an interview she was once asked if she could go back, would she change anything about her life? With conviction, she told the journalist that she wouldn’t trade any of it. All of those experiences — the bad and the good — have made her who she is today. It was all part of her journey.

13 years ago when I started this company, I had no vision for what I was building. I had quit a junior high teaching job, completed graduate school, and endured many, many failed attempts at achieving employment. I needed a job, so I started building websites in a home office just down the hall from my bedroom.

Over the years, my vision for this company has materialized from a great deal of contrast. So many questions asked. So many words read. So many conversations had. So many projects released. So many ways of working adapted. So many sharp stones beneath my feet. And so much clarity gained. Read More

Nuggets of Knowledge: February 2016

By | Business Stuff, MISSION: Authentic, Nuggets of Knowledge | No Comments

nuggets-of-knowledge

Mack Web is now Genuinely. Learn more.

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Welcome to Stop 5 of MISSION: Authentic

This month, in honor of some pretty cool stuff we’re working on over here, we’re bringing you a different kind of NOKlist. Instead of dropping some knowledge, this month’s Nuggets are holding up a few shining examples of businesses that are doing this marketing thing right.

We spend a lot of time pondering the things that make a company stand out: What draws people in? What makes them want to stay? What inspires customer loyalty, elicits sincere praise, generates the kind of word-of-mouth awareness that no agency or campaign can hope to duplicate? (You may have run across this theme in, oh, just about anything else we’ve ever written.)

We did our research – talked to our peers, consulted our gut instincts, spent some time observing the world – and came to this conclusion: consumers today are drawn to companies that sincerely, honestly, openly care about something more.

We call them authentic companies because when a company sincerely, honestly, openly cares about something, it shows. It glows, it shines, it affects everything they do. Which means that what you see on the outside is who they are all the way to the core. 100% genuine, authentic, Grade-A them-ness.

That’s what this month’s NOKlist is sharing with you. We each spent some time thinking about a company, a brand that we loved. Then we thought about why we loved it. Would you be shocked to discover that the reasons we found all came down to the sincerity, the authenticity of their mission or purpose?

The missions encapsulated below come in different shapes and sizes, from the love of a specific coffee bar to the more general dedication to a certain customer experience; from the very personal belief in the delight of juice to the wide-reaching insistence on transparency.

The shape of the mission hardly matters. It’s the determination to hold true to it that makes each of these companies shine.

See for yourself. Read More

What’s In A Name? Naming Your Company For Who You Are

By | Business Stuff, MISSION: Authentic, Web Marketing | No Comments

Naming-your-company-for-who-you-are

Mack Web is now Genuinely. Learn more.

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Welcome to Stop 3 of MISSION: Authentic

A rose by any other name …

Despite the many adages against making judgments based on first impressions – books and covers, etc. – we can’t quite help ourselves. First impressions are lasting impressions and they shape how we think about the person, the business, the organization we’ve just met. At least until we’ve managed to form a deeper acquaintance.

It simplifies matters tremendously to make sure that you or your business make a first impression that genuinely reflects who you are. That means naming your company with care. Read More

How to Lead with Meaning in Your Marketing

By | Building Community, Business Stuff, Mack's Musings, Social Media, Web Marketing | No Comments

Mack Web is now Genuinely. Learn more.

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brian-solis

There are a whole lot of companies who have been changing the face of business, and our world, with a very simple approach: prioritizing meaning over money. Rather than just make a profit, they recognize they’re here to do something bigger. They want to use their businesses to be agents for change and to build durable, worthwhile companies that leave a mark on our world.

Often referred to as mission-driven, companies who value purpose over profit experience a number of advantages. Their employees are happier and more engaged; they stay longer and make bigger contributions. Mission-driven companies also have a better understanding of their value and how to use it to retain a strategic advantage over the competition. As a result, they attract much more passionate customers.

The biggest caveat to this concept is that it can’t be just for show. To reap these benefits and connect people to your brand, your company must genuinely communicate your meaning beyond money with an authenticity that comes directly from your core.

The trick is to lead with meaning while, at the same time, effectively marketing your product. The best way to do this is by completely intertwining them so that no one thinks of your product without considering your meaning, and no one ponders your meaning without connecting it to your product.

This can be accomplished in a few ways. Read More

Using Focus to Build Long-Term Momentum in Responsive Companies

By | Building Community, Business Stuff, Mack's Musings, Social Media, Web Marketing | 2 Comments

focus-mack-web

If you take all of the lessons we’ve learned over the last 11 years, add them up, and extract the most telling insight, the biggest realization is this: the clients who have been most successful are those who are willing to focus.

Focus is the ultimate challenge. We have a finite amount of time. How do you spend it on the right things that will grow your business?

Many of the companies we work with are Responsive or inherently become more Responsive as they work through our approach to marketing. Where traditional companies often allow their long-term planning and projections to drive the direction of the business (and their marketing), Responsive companies embrace the unpredictable and rapidly changing world we’re living in.

Responsive companies are a different kind of animal. They learn, respond, and advance. They utilize a more progressive method to build their businesses, one that is dedicated to constantly evolving and iterating — both their organizational structure and products or services. They also spend a lot of time investing and listening to their customers and their employees.

It’s definitely more work to be Responsive, but these companies are using their businesses to change our lives and leave their mark on our world.

Responsive companies run on operating systems that allow for agility. They move quickly and respond to unrelenting change with grace. They have different values and cultures and support flexible work environments that many companies envy.

Responsive companies hold themselves to a higher set of performance standards and expectations and actually achieve them. They work to communicate and collaborate. They honor transparency and community. Most importantly, they prioritize meaning ahead of money.

Responsive companies are remarkable and they build their organizations, and ultimately their brands, differently. And that requires a very different approach to marketing. Marketing that will provide focus so that goals are accomplished. Marketing that constantly evolves just as quickly as their company does, but without adding to the chaos.

If you want to be a Responsive company, you have to do it through and through, including your marketing. Every part of a Responsive company’s marketing should align with everything that makes the company Responsive. This requires a focus on two fundamental things:

[1] A Focus on Core
Especially as you grow, there must be a sustained focus on the core of the company and the stuff that makes you authentic.

[2] A Focus on an Adaptive Marketing Process
In order to accomplish company-wide brand and revenue goals, you need an adaptive process that lives and breathes within the company’s operating system.

Doing both of these things will keep you on target and add to the durability of your company. Even more, it will provide the focus and necessary momentum toward achieving the company’s long-term vision.

Here’s how it works.

A Focus On Core

As a Responsive company, your marketing is going to follow the same paradigm as your overall perspective: it focuses first and foremost on your core.

This, by far, is the most admirable characteristic of Responsive companies because at their core lives their higher purpose. Something truly authentic that propels the organization and transcends their desire to exist solely for the sake of profit.

Prioritizing meaning over money doesn’t mean your company has to lead an environmental cause, put shoes on people’s feet, or glasses on people’s faces. It can be as simple as encouraging young girls to develop an affinity for science or helping stay-at-home moms find more satisfaction in their lives by building a successful business.

Focusing on core and valuing meaning over money doesn’t mean you’re disregarding the importance of financial benchmarks. It means you’re investing in the long game. From the core meaning of the company you derive the marketing goals that are going to make you the company you want to be.

At the top are your Visionary goals, driving the 3-5 year bigger, hairier, audacious vision.  These goals are then broken down into approachable Business and Brand goals that share equal weight. In other words, the financial benchmarks you want your company to achieve are certainly important, but so are the Brand goals that will ensure you’re continually working toward realizing the company you really want to become.

Finally, Campaign goals are what initiate the necessary steps toward action and bringing everything to fruition (which I’ll explain more about in a just a bit).

Meaning Beyond Money | Mack Web

When a company has the courage to focus on their core and build an authentic brand from meaning, they have clarity about why they exist.  They’ve identified their heartbeat, the real thing that makes them go, and they choose to infuse that in everything they do. This is what drives their marketing and it’s also what makes their marketing go a little differently.

When a company operates from core meaning, marketing momentum starts at the source and naturally works its way out through integrated strategy. On the inside, the company is aligning all tactics and deliverables with their meaning, goals, and vision. On the outside, customers and community get to taste that authentic core first-hand, connecting them fully to the brand.

Just like building a Responsive company, marketing from your core is hard work as it is an ongoing challenge in self-awareness. Companies don’t have to be perfect, but they must be real, authentic, transparent, and above all, human.

When you can do that, people will genuinely respond to you. When you respond like a human who cares about something, you provide a better user experience. Your customers remember you. You stand out. They return. They tell their friends.

By focusing on core in your marketing,  people become your momentum. Before you know it, you have a community of loyal advocates and an inexplicable strategic advantage over the competition.

Over time, the organic velocity becomes unstoppable.

Improving, Not Just Promoting

In order for your marketing to align with everything that makes you Responsive, there must be a continual focus not only on defining your core purpose but on ensuring that everything you do — the marketing campaigns you execute; the user, customer, and employee experience you provide; the way you operate and communicate internally — aligns with the vision, mission, and goals that make up your brand’s foundation.

Ultimately, for marketing to bring momentum, there has to be a willingness to improve the business, not just promote it.

This requires continuous evaluation, improvement, and a willingness to be self-aware in the business. It’s doing what sometimes may be harder or take longer to experience ROI because that’s what’s best for your employees and for your customers. It’s putting an emphasis on important stuff like improving internal structure, team communication, fostering your internal culture, and investing in the personal growth of your employees as well as the external culture you have with your customers.

You must continually work on your company’s value and own what truly makes you different from your competition. The authentic vision that you’re driving toward needs to be revisited from time to time, not just put on auto-pilot. You’ve got to hold your entire company accountable for living your mission and values every single day. All of that stuff sounds great, but it takes a tremendous amount of dedication and work.

There’s an important marketing framework to developing your brand’s foundation, too, that improves the business and contributes to the success of your marketing. Persona must be developed and remain dynamic so that you’re attracting those customers who align with your approach, values, and over time will become loyal advocates. Communication loops must be built in and feedback applied so that customers and employees know you’re listening. Critical (yet simple) questions must be asked and answered so that resources can be developed for your audience and provided at every point in the lifecycle.

Investing in your core requires building meaningful relationships one by one. It’s seeing your goals through even when you don’t think you’re going to reach them.  It’s intentionally selecting priorities and spending time executing integrated strategies that strive for consistency and integrity across channels. These are all of your building blocks and they’re what place your responsive company on a solid foundation.

Momentum Comes From Building Blocks

No matter how long a company has been in business or what stage they’re in, momentum towards realized goals and fulfilled benchmarks comes from focusing on all of these core, foundational building blocks. Over time then, and through your marketing, you’re able to radiate your authenticity and the internal work you’ve been doing on your core, outward. This may seem fluffy, but in actuality, all of this work is what builds an ideal experience with your brand that you can actually measure.

Time spent on the brand’s foundation ensures that no matter how someone connects with your company — a referral from a friend, on social media or your website, clicking through on an ad, attending an event, speaking to customer service, or picking your product off the shelf in a big-box store — you present the same message, meeting and exceeding their expectations. You’re real, you’re human, you are the company you said you would be because of your investment on improving your business and in your core.

This level of commitment to core focus certainly requires a level of diligence and intention. It’s also something that can be managed with an adaptive process.

A Focus On an Adaptive Marketing Process

This authentic approach to marketing is a long, organic game. The inherent challenge with a Responsive company is that there are always so many opportunities along the way. So many shiny things that you want to embrace with enthusiasm as they provide another chance to iterate and try something new.

The problem is, this is also what perpetuates campaign-centric-shiny-thing marketing that makes it difficult to integrate across channels and teams, accomplish company-wide brand and revenue goals, and experience long-term progress. That’s why you need a process that helps you identify and focus on the right strategic priorities to stay the course,  but also gives you room to adapt.

It’s easy for Responsive companies to struggle with process because it can be difficult to implement and utilize one without feeling suffocated by it. Without allowing it to drive or sacrificing flexibility. Rather than stifle, process should provide guardrails for momentum.

Responsive companies may be drastically different from month-to-month. The challenge becomes making the commitment to slow down so that they can also speed up. As companies pass through different stages of growth, priorities become a moving target. This lack of focus impedes momentum. When it comes to marketing, Responsive companies need an iterative process — a cycle that ebbs and flows with the rhythm of the business — to help them identify and prioritize areas of focus and then provide the necessary structure to see them through.

Something like this:

 Responsive Process | Mack Web

Focusing and Adapting: 90 Days at a Time

When you’re aligning your marketing with your core and using an adaptive process to drive it, strategic priorities — and the tasks required to accomplish them — will ultimately fall into three categories: acquisition, conversion, and retention. Your focus may fall more heavily in one of these areas at any given time.

Let’s say your company is just starting out with this approach and you’re carefully placing the building blocks of your core (going back to identify your meaning beyond money, your values, your mission, vision, and goals).

Focusing on Core | Mack Web

Before you jump into your first 90-day cycle, you’ve identified your strategic priorities for accomplishing your Campaign goals (that stem from Business and Brand Goals), and for this time period, your strategic priorities lie in acquisition (and awareness) and retention.

Strategic Priorities | Mack Web

So, for this first 90 day cycle, 75% of your marketing resources and bandwidth will be spent executing deliverables that drive acquisition. You may be making the necessary adjustments to the copy on your website and on social media to better align with your authentic voice and communicate your meaning beyond money, focusing more heavily on the value you provide for your customers and community.

You may be creating additional copy on your website and blog to answer the questions your actual customers have (based on your persona research) as they’re experiencing your brand through the variety of phases and channels on which they interact with you.

The other 25% of your marketing efforts for this time period may be spent focusing on retention and the customers you already have. Listening and learning from them, understanding what they need, and then driving strategic priorities from there. Maybe, as part of a test phase, you’re curating content and talking with your community (both on and offline), using targeted social campaigns to test and gather information about what really speaks to them.

All of these efforts are essentially iterations that take place in 30-day increments. Your focus is on executing, testing, and collecting data that will help you better identify how to accomplish those goals you’ve set, and to make informed decisions about direction moving forward.

Iteration- Mack Web

As you go about your merry way, executing on these strategic priorities and associated deliverables, at 30-day intervals, your team will work through an exercise called Catapult where they will review data and also consider intuition to identify red flags, challenges, and opportunities. Most important, during Catapult, the pulse of the company is evaluated in order to determine whether deviations from tactics being executed need to occur. Then your focused efforts continue as planned, or are adjusted, and the cycle (and your momentum) continues.

At approximately the 60-day mark in the 90-day cycle, strategy is scrubbed at a deeper level:

  • What is generating the most momentum?
  • What has become a larger priority during this cycle because of what you’ve learned through testing and iteration?
  • Do you need to adjust the balance between Business and Brand focus during this cycle?
  • Based on what you’ve learned and what’s changed in the business, in the 90 days ahead of you, does acquisition, conversion, or retention take the largest precedence?
  • Ultimately, are you accomplishing the right things in the short-term to eventually (in many cycles) reach your long-term goals?

Responsive Process Scrub | Mack Web

The more cycles completed, the more momentum that builds and the more the process becomes ingrained in the natural routine and flow of the company. Every 90 days, strategic campaigns get better at integrating together and becoming more seamless, building continuity across teams and channels.

Then, as you accomplish the smaller Campaign goals each cycle, you’re slowly chipping away at achieving bigger Business and Brand Goals, and eventually, reaching the Visionary goals and mission you’re working toward for your company overall. Over time, all of the efforts build on each other, not only bringing momentum, but long-term value and durability to the company.

Responsive Process | Mack Web

The most important thing to remember about focus when using an adaptive process like this is that it doesn’t mean you just put your head down and drive. This is where self-awareness comes in. This is where you’re being accountable for aligning with your core and your meaning beyond money. It means getting to know your business better so that you can make better decisions. It means spending more time listening to your customers and your employees, all the while learning and adapting as you work your way up the mountain.

Mountain of Success

Playing the Long Game

Responsive companies are powerful, world-changing entities. They are bold, agile, and lead with authenticity and meaning. Their approach to marketing should most certainly follow suit.

But this kind of approach isn’t easy and it takes companies who have the diligence to be intentional. Companies who are committed to investing in their core and the foundation of their brand even when they’re not brand new. Companies who can be alive, self-aware, and present, and also see the value in taking the time to focus so that they can strategically play the long game.

By really focusing on conveying their central meaning to their very human audience, responsive companies light the spark of connection and interest and real, solid value that will ignite the engine of their growth. By following a reliable, adaptable, cyclic process, they can keep that motion going, meeting both Brand and Business goals.

Most important, they can effectively communicate why they exist, from their very soul, which will foster communities full of advocates, continue to shape a durable foundation, and sustain a strategic advantage in the marketplace. All it takes is a little focus for the momentum to build and the company to continue to thrive.

Getting to the Good Stuff – Mack Web’s Year in Review

By | Building Community, Business Stuff, Data and Analytics, Mack's Musings, The Quest for Quanlitative Measurement | No Comments

I remember reading some advice on Mark Suster’s blog at some point a year or so back about how important it is to record the stuff you’re doing in your company on your blog — good or bad — so that it becomes a historical record.

That way, some day you can look back and uncover key turning points and gateways of your journey, and also see how extremely far you’ve come.

Initially this post was going to be a curation of the best stuff on our blog this year. But as I looked back at the posts that would fill the list, I realized the story of what we really learned this year was living behind them. Mack Web has made some big leaps over the last 12 months. Here’s a look at the discoveries that surfaced for our company this year (with blog posts in tow).

The Start of Changing the Way Companies Build Their Brands

At the very beginning of 2014, Mack Web was enjoying the success of our Community Building Guide, a guide we had launched in October of 2013 documenting a community-building process we had developed and were testing both on Mack Web and with our clients.

The guide was 147 pages and although we were receiving extremely positive feedback, it was a lot to digest. So I kicked off the year with the Essentials of Community Building, a webinar and accompanying slide deck that aligned with the key takeaways in the guide (page numbers and all) so that we could offer a more truncated version.

Essentials of community building Mack Web

I didn’t see it at the time, but looking back after all that has transpired this year, our guide was not only full of tips and suggestions for building community (and effectively building relationships with social media), but it was also the start of a fully integrated marketing approach that, by the end of the year, would evolve into our core method for helping companies change the way they build their brands.

It’s hard for me to believe that in just one year, we would go from here:

then

to here:

now

So although Mack Web started the year out with a strong focus on community and how to get started building one, there was a much bigger mission that we would end up pursuing.

And it all began with measurement.


The Start of Changing the Way Marketing is Measured

In the first quarter of 2014, our entire team resolved to change the way marketing is measured. Here we were: a highly dedicated team who was taking so much pride in all of the little pieces we were putting into place to grow our clients’ companies. The problem was, we weren’t just helping these companies build communities. We were helping them build the solid foundation of their brand. We were helping them set goals for their entire organization. We we were digging deep into the core of their companies and revealing weaknesses that we would then help them address and conquer. We were helping them transform their businesses from the inside out and even forge the right relationships one by one.

We were doing great things. But we were doing a terrible job of communicating the return on their investment.

Our work was highly qualitative and our clients wanted to see the results in quantitative metrics. They wanted to see their ROI in numbers, in black and white. And we had a whole lot of work to do in order to make that happen.

Ayelet started the conversation with Social Media Engagement Metrics: Taming the Elusive Beast in an attempt to reveal some relevant and useful qualitative metrics to complement the quantitative ones we had already been working with. At the time, we thought this disconnect and gap in communication with our clients was social media related. That our clients didn’t fully understand the value of social media and how it supported the building of their brand and ultimately their community.

In an attempt to bridge the gap, I wrote the slide deck Why Follower Count is Bullshit to shed some light on social media metrics that communicated real value. Turns out the deck struck a chord (it hit the front-page of SlideShare and was picked up by Hubspot) and had a lot of people looking at social media metrics differently. The thing was, this was just one part of the equation. We had so much further to go.

why follower count is BS

By May, our clarity in terms of how to effectively measure and then better communicate the value of our efforts was starting to get stronger and when I spoke at WistiaFest I was able to talk about the importance of an integrated strategy and how Mack Web had been using that, plus some scrappy low-budget videos (with eggs and fairy wings), to build our brand and community.

wistiafest

At this point, we were still testing a ton of the metrics I was talking about (take a look at slides 67-80) but it was a solid start. This time I wasn’t just focusing on social media metrics. We had started identifying and conveying the difference between metrics that showed how effectively we were building the brand and metrics that showed how our efforts were affecting bottom line revenue.

Each time I speak at a conference it gives me a chance to really digest what we’re doing as a company and also to see where we need to go next. A few weeks after I returned from WistiaFest, the team started working on the hurdle of reporting. We hadn’t yet found all of the metrics we needed to communicate both qualitative and quantitative efforts, but at the time, some of our reports were 16 pages long. The narrative of our efforts was way too much for our clients to take in and although we were making progress on the metrics front, we were gaining no ground on how we were communicating them.

Over the summer months, slow progress would continue to be made with the way we were measuring marketing and how we were reporting, but the most important growth would be made with our team.


The Turning Point

In September, we hired Mike to be our Director of Client Strategy. This meant that we would have someone in our company who was solely focused on the growth of our existing clients so that I could focus more on driving the vision of the company (as well as speaking and blogging which are a huge passion).

It was a gift to have Mike join our team when he did. After months of struggling with balance, I was elated to have someone sharing the load, but I also knew that we were on the cusp of making some significant gains with our two big goals: changing the way companies build their brands and also the way marketing is measured.

Having Mike on our team would provide me with the space to find clarity, give the team a fresh perspective, and supply us with some long overdue feedback that would catapult us ahead.

At the time that Mike started, I was preparing for two important conferences: one for Conductor in New York City and one for Distilled in London. Simultaneously, he was getting his feet wet. He was observing. Asking questions. Collecting data. Lucky for us, all the work the team had done all year (and the years preceding), Mike’s external insight, and the effort I put into these talks, would bring the long-awaited clarity that would define who were as a company.

In October, Moz launched a post on their blog that I collaboratively wrote with Mathew Sweezey. 4 Ways to Build Trust and Humanize Your Brand talked about many of the things we were helping our clients do. We were asking them to be real companies. To care about their customers. To live up to their customers’ expectations. To focus on reaching big goals for their business (not just their marketing). To do the shit that doesn’t scale.

Then I gave the talk in New York — Playing the Long Game: Growing Your Business Through Community and Integrated Marketing — which provided a step-by-step walk through the integrated process (formerly our “community building” process) that we had been evolving (by leaps and bounds) at Mack Web ever since the beginning of the year.

C32014-MACK FOGELSON.001

Two weeks after New York, I took a plane across the big blue ocean to speak at SearchLove London. The talk I gave in London — The Measurement Behind Your Integrated Marketing Strategy — was a continuation of the conversation I started in the States.

In NYC, I talked through all of the detailed steps of our integrated process. In London, I dug deep into our approach and metrics side with how to actually communicate the value of integrated marketing — telling the story of progression over time. The story of those valuable and essential building blocks that we were working so hard to put into place — one stone at a time. The story of the long game. The story of all these integrated pieces and channels working together to drive success in order to show both qualitative and quantitative value for both the business and the brand.

Measurement-Behind-Integrated-Strategy-SearchLove.001


Definitely Something of Historical Record

When I got back from London and had a chance to breathe, I had a big realization.

It was the culmination of everything the team had been struggling through and learning. Everything that all of us had worked to communicate all year on our blog and to our clients. From the process we had unveiled in our community building guide last October, to the evolution it made for WistiaFest, and then finally coming together for my talks in New York and London.

What I finally realized was this: Mack Web isn’t just a community building company.

We’re a full-blown integrated marketing team who wants to build great brands and communities full of loyal advocates who truly love the companies they so selectively choose to support.

And it’s kind of funny that we did this almost backwards. That we came at our USPs, the core meaning of Mack Web almost by accident, at the end of a very natural (though somewhat painful) course of evolution.

Because, as you know if you’ve read any of the posts that led us here, the very first thing we do in this integrated marketing approach we’ve created is to sit down with our clients and ask them who they are and who they want to be. What do their products and services add to their customers’ lives? What do they care about, beyond making money? What sits right at the heart of their company?

From those answers, we’re able to help them articulate multi-level goals for their brand and their business. Everything else — the metrics and the social media and the content and the ROI and even the reports — springboards from there. We can’t tell you if you’re succeeding until we know exactly what you’re aiming for and who you really want to become.

These are questions Mack Web has struggled to answer for ourselves. Not because we didn’t take the time to ask. Not because we didn’t care. But because we started all of this during the evolution of an ever-changing industry that sits on the shifting sands of Google’s algorithm. Our company, among so many others in our industry, has been growing and redirecting so rapidly that we’ve been reaching half-blind. We’ve been running on all the knowledge we could get our hands on, as well as sheer intuition, to anticipate the changes.

So we answered the questions as best as we could at the time, with what we understood, and each time it was enough to carry us just a little bit farther, a little bit closer.

And then, in the midst of all the hard days, the disconnects, the gaps in ROI communication, the speaking engagements and slide deck creation, without anyone noticing it was happening, all the pieces slid into place. It had nothing to do with Google (and everything to do with sustainability). And we were looking at the whole picture of what Mack Web had always wanted to become all along, and it felt like home.

After nearly three years of effort, we were able to articulate — with clear examples and case studies — not only how our approach was different, but why it mattered. Why all the things we’d learned along the way were important and how they fit together.

Community building led us to authenticity. Authenticity led us to brand. Brand led us back over to goals and meaning. Goals and meaning led to progress and measurement. And everything together put a spotlight on all the channels, pointing back to community and relationships.

With all of those parts and pieces we finally had an approach that worked and that drove success. And, most importantly, it’s an approach that makes us proud to call this our work.

There’s More in Store

It’s been one hell of a year and I’m so incredibly proud of this team for what we’ve accomplished. We’ve been pushing really hard which means we don’t always post on our blog as much as I’d prefer. It’s really important to me that we’re not just putting something up to meet a designated frequency.

What’s important is that we’re sharing our journey and making your lives easier in the process. That everything on our blog is a window into the struggles and victories of this responsive company who is using integrated marketing and communities as a way to transform businesses.

This year has truly been a gateway. It took us 11 years to get here, but I finally feel like we’re getting to the good stuff. It’s not like it’s all rainbows and ice cream every day, but the mountain we’re climbing doesn’t seem so steep. We intentionally said no to new clients for nearly 9 months. And now we’re ready. We’ve selected some new clients and now it’s time to grow this team again.

We can’t wait for what’s coming in 2015. Thank you so much for your unconditional support of Mack Web. We hope you’ll stick around for the next part of this ride.

The Importance of Company Culture from the Inside Out

By | Building Community, Business Stuff, Web Marketing | 4 Comments

Mack Web is now Genuinely. Learn more.

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At the beginning of last summer I quit my job at Walther’s Golf & Fun to move to Fort Collins, CO. I’d been working there for almost ten years. I wasn’t even old enough to drive myself to my very first shift.

Walther’s was a big metal building on the north side of town with indoor and outdoor miniature golf courses, a Lazer Tag arena, a full cafe, and over 50 arcade games. What I liked most about that place wasn’t the unlimited free lazer tag or the or the discount on pizza and mozzarella sticks, but rather all of the fun times with my co-workers and the irreplaceable memories made.

Walthers

Mack has a saying (well, she has a lot of them, but one specifically that relates to this post): Culture is the heartbeat of a company. And I realize how true this is – the importance of genuine company culture – more and more everyday. The heartbeat keeps blood and oxygen circulating in the body. Culture drives everything a company does.

It’s both intensely personal and completely obvious. Your culture is unique to you and if it’s healthy, you thrive. And that vitality attracts people who align with the culture. It draws them in and keeps them coming back.

Any company that can earn a decade’s worth of loyalty has this kind of culture. Though we always called it Walther’s for short, Fun is in the name of the company, and there’s a reason why. It’s what keeps the company alive and drives everything they do. It’s their heartbeat.

At Walther’s, we had permission and encouragement from upper-management to have a lot of fun, all the time. If we were having fun, then that meant our customers could have fun. If we were bored, well, our customers probably wouldn’t enjoy their visit quite as much. Sometimes this looked like a quick demonstration at the prize counter of how a sticky hand or slap bracelet worked. Sometimes it meant letting the employees stay late after the building closed to play our favorite arcade games or a round of employee-only all-building lazer tag. Of course no job is perfect, but for the most part we all loved coming to work because we knew we were going to have a great time while we were there. And because of that, our customers had a great time too.

This culture-from-within concept worked really well at Walther’s. As employees, we were having such a fun time and believed so fully that Walther’s was a fun place to be that we ensured that our customers were having fun, too. When the core values of a company are sincerely embraced by everyone inside the company, it becomes much easier to reflect those values outward.

It’s a real world thing and it happens all the time

Two companies letting their heartbeats shine bright to their customers are WestJet and TD Bank. Both companies pull off pretty clever campaigns that seem to come from a place of genuine authenticity. A little research shows that their inspiration is rooted deep in their respective company cultures.

Let’s start with Canadian airline West Jet:

This Christmas Miracle makes two things very apparent:

First, their company culture goes beyond good service. WestJet might be a terrific, affordable, safe, and on-time airline, but they don’t think that’s enough. Richard Bartrem, VP of Communications for WestJet, in his explanation of why they put together this Christmas Miracle, says that their company culture is all about being fun, friendly, and caring. He says they’re always full of surprises, and that’s part of what makes them fun. They believe in magic. That’s what they wanted to share with their guests and YouTube visitors. This fun, friendly, and caring spirit is the heartbeat which drives everything they do.

Roald Dahl

WestJet showed their true dedication to their cause in the way they gave thought to each individual customer (or ‘guest’, as WestJet calls them). They could have chosen to give every guest Christmas cash or a free flight voucher, but instead they took the time to ask what it was that each individual guest really wanted. It was all about making people smile, all about that moment when the boy says, “NO WAY!” That’s their caring heartbeat shining through.

A culture this strong starts at home, with the very top-dogs of the company who fully believe in it. WestJet takes good care of their employees who all participate in profit sharing and are offered ownership in the company. It’s where they get their “owners care” slogan. (And if you needed another example of their culture, check out the material they’ve put together for shareholder meetings: such as this video showing what “owners carereally means.) And, being so well taken care of themselves, the WestJet employees take good care of their guests in their turn. The 150+ employees who helped put together the Christmas Miracle were all volunteers. This kind of campaign comes from within; it’s who they are and the proof is in the figgy pudding.

Speaking of surprising your customers with something extra special, have you seen TD Bank’s #TDThanksYou campaign?

Automatic Thanking Machines (ATMs), such a genius idea for a bank. And what an amazingly thoughtful and go-the-extra-mile type of thing to do.

No surprise, this is what TD Bank is all about: being considerate and caring, putting people at the forefront of everything they do. “Banking human” is what they like to call it. Their selfless gestures range from small to grand, from staying open late to thanking ATMs.

throw kindness around like confetti

Just like with WestJet, all of this started in-house. TD’s employees are at the very center and the culture they live day-in and day-out is what drove this campaign. How else do you think the thanking machine would have known that Michael was a huge Blue Jay’s fan or that Dorthy’s only daughter, who lives in Trinidad, just had surgery and could use a visit from her mom who’s never been able to make it out?

TD’s employees listen to their customers. They have really taken the time and made an effort to get to know their guests individually. It’s the human thing again, building relationships with other humans. It’s why people love to go there, to that specific bank, over all of the other banking options.

Remember: It starts on the inside, at the very core, then works its way outwards

You can have the most creative campaigns in the world, but if people realize it’s not who you really are, they won’t stick around. People crave authenticity, especially in this day and age when it’s so easy to hide behind the Internet like a mask. Your campaigns must be deeply rooted in every aspect of who you are.

All of this is kind of how my role at Mack Web came to be. Mack cares a great deal about our culture, and truly being who we say we are and who we want to be. Kid you not, it’s half of our performance review.

One of these things we very much care about is people: being humans among humans (human-centric, as we say), connecting and fostering relationships. It’s our whole approach to customer service and how we do marketing, and, well, pretty much everything we do.

My tenure at Mack Web started off by solely helping Mack as her assistant. Mack was losing her mind trying to juggle everything and the whole team was feeling it. Before they could even think of serving the clients they had, they needed to take care of the team first, and that started with Mack.

Maybe I wasn’t the most practical hire for a team that really needed a Director of Client Strategy (don’t worry, we later got that dude too). But they decided that looking after the people on our team was the utmost priority.

My job was to alleviate some of the day-to-day tasks of running a business, like managing her schedule and keeping the oh-so-treasured snack cabinet fully stocked. Taking weight off of her shoulders a few days each week would provide her some extra time in her schedule and the head space to stay focused on our company and clients.

Snack fairy

Once I was there to take the edge off Mack’s crazy, the team started to realize what a difference it made having me around (and not just because I introduced them to gummy bunnies, which are way better than gummy bears). Thus being Mack’s assistant and only taking care of her turned into full blown Team Support.

I still help keep the boss sane, but I also make sure the rest of the team is fully supported too, ricocheting back and forth from person to person and task to task depending on what the needs of that day or week or month may be. My job’s nickname is Rubber Cement, because I can bounce around easily, but I still help hold everything (read: everyone) together.

My role is important not only in the practical aspects but also in the way the Mack Web team reflects our brand: How could we claim to care about the real people on the other side of the screen if we didn’t take care of the real people on our side of the screen? Helping our clients build and foster relationships always starts by taking care of our own on the inside.

But PS: it’s also not always the happy stuff and it’s not always easy

As great as that sounds, there’s a hard truth we haven’t discussed yet which is this: creating and cultivating your company culture isn’t all about playing Santa and sending people to Trinidad and making sure the snack cabinet is correctly stocked.

Preserving company culture takes A LOT of hard work. It’s not easy. And it’s not always fun.

Sometimes this not-always-happy-side of culture involves letting people go because they’re not a culture fit. Because if they stick around and they don’t have the same heartbeat as you, it will destroy your company from the inside out.

Sometimes it means saying no to a potential client because you know that they don’t value the same stuff as you do. Sometimes it means waiting patiently for the best thing instead of what’s easiest, fastest, or cheapest.

One of the not-so-sunshiney sides of our culture at Mack Web is Conflict and Commit. Mack doesn’t let us back down from this difficult side of our culture. We have to be willing to have conflicts with each other. We bring it up with someone when something rubs us the wrong way or is making our job more difficult. Then we commit to finding a solution together. In the end our team is stronger and more unified, rather than a bundle of seething resentment and neuroses.

kitten hug

I’ve been on the flip side of this before, the lack of a steady heartbeat, and it’s not enjoyable. You can have the flexible work schedule, casual dress code, and coffee bar in your office building (which unfortunately is sometimes all that people count as “company culture”), but all of it amounts to nothing and it’s only a matter of time before it comes crashing down if the beat that drives your company isn’t strong and distinct enough to be felt by your people.

This is the ultimate way to check the authenticity of your brand: do your employees naturally adopt the characteristics you brag about on your website? Is your internal culture a healthy point of origin for the customer experience you want to provide?

Before coming to Mack Web, I’d seen both sides of it: excellent culture and terrible culture and I knew which one I wanted to find. It was important that I find a place with a company culture consistent with the core values they claimed. A place that would be around for a while and that I would want to stay in for as long as it was. Just like the employees of WestJet and TD Bank, I recognized the heart that beat in time with my own.

That’s why I tell Mack all the time how thankful I am to be a part of this place and especially how thankful I am that she fights really hard to keep it this way. She doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff and she works hard to preserve all of the good stuff. And that’s why I’m not going anywhere.

My Mack Web hoodie is just a bonus.

Officially a part of team awesome

Buckets Exercise: A Tool for Discussing Employee Burnout

By | Business Stuff, Miscellany | 2 Comments

Burnout Approacheth

SomeeCards

Once upon a time there was an employee who felt … burned out. She approached her boss, who valued the employee but didn’t quite know how to lighten her heavy workload.

To understand what was weighing her down, her kind boss requested a list of what was currently on her large, overflowing, no-way-she-can-finish-all-this-Thanksgiving-sized plate. But beware: by asking her employee to list all those things off the top of her pretty redhaired head, she risked receiving in return a list fueled by exhaustion instead of facts. If only they had a tool that would come to their aid.

As you may have guessed, the employee in this tale is me. Mack is the kind boss helping to address employee burnout. And what follows is how we came up with a tool we call the Buckets Exercise to begin an honest conversation together.

The Birth of a New Tool

Why is this exercise being brought to you by Mack Web?

Even though Mack Web specializes in digital marketing, we have experienced our fair share of ups and downs and learned how to handle those as a team. In addition, connecting with people on a human level is on our “we heart these things the mostest” list. So in Mack Web fashion, we like to share with you what we’re learning. Sometimes that means walking you through how to set the right goals for your digital marketing. Or in this case it means walking you through a tool we created to help take care of teammates who are struggling.

It’s rare for me to meet someone who hasn’t experienced employee burnout, and most of us would say that when it hits, it hits hard. Much like a fighter jet that’s running out of gas, eventually you’ll run on vapors, and when those run out, you’ll crash and burn. Not only is this devastating to the person who is on that downward trajectory, but it can be detrimental to your team. Our hope is that by sharing this exercise (even in its early stages), more teams will have a starting point from which to address potential burnout and prevent that proverbial “crash and burn.”

This exercise provides a framework from which to start. And sometimes finding a place to start is the hardest part.

Why “Buckets”?

Ideally, we should be able to place everything we do for our company under specific categories (or “buckets”) that align with the roles we were hired to fill.

Blue buckets

As it happens, Mack is a very visual person, so what she needed to see to help me talk through my Mack Web workload was a visual representation of all my tasks thrown into large “buckets.” Here are some examples to give you an idea of what this could look like:

BUCKETS

  • account coordination
  • project management
  • meetings
  • strategy development
  • content

TASKS

  • client communication
  • execution calendars
  • meeting agendas
  • new business reviews
  • writing this blog post

It’s a for-sure bet that Mack would have loved for me to bring in actual buckets filled with all my tasks written on individual slips of paper. However, it turns out that I don’t have a bucket fetish, so I couldn’t oblige. Instead I opted for something a little more practical: a Google spreadsheet.

Embracing the Digital Age

I know, I know – snoozarama. But hear me out. As it turns out, a shared Google doc fit the bill because it met my key criteria, meaning I could:

  • easily brainstorm with a single tool (without finding paper and plastic buckets)
  • effortlessly edit or make changes
  • collaborate with another person without physical barriers – anytime, anywhere
  • revisit the exercise should burnout approacheth again
  • share this exercise with others on our team for their own customized use

But Not Everyone Has a Boss Who Cares Enough

Before we get much further, I want to recognize the sad reality that not everyone has a boss who is willing to do what it takes to keep a valued employee happy.

As it pertains to your vocational happiness, this exercise yields the best results if you have a boss who really cares about you and is open to making some positive changes based on what your Buckets reveal. But if you don’t feel that this exercise is right for you to do together (due to personal baggage or professional limitations), that’s okay. You can still do this on your own so that you can benefit from any revelations. Only then can you start working toward bettering your situation.

The Buckets Exercise: Let’s Do This

LetsDoThis

Step 1: Set Up the Framework

The first thing you do is create the spreadsheet itself. The overall look and structure is totally up to you, but you’ll need these things at a minimum (don’t worry – I’ll explain items 2-5 in a bit):

  1. Name, Job Title, and Date (for review purposes)
  2. Position Goals
  3. Columns for each “Bucket” – don’t forget meetings and special projects!
  4. Columns for tasks to be reassigned and to whom
  5. Warning Signs

Screenshot 1.b

(Click image to see full size.)

A note about your Buckets columns: How you decide to split these up may depend on your company’s organizational structure. But don’t worry too much about getting the column headers right. As you progress with the exercise, you can add or revise columns as you see fit. This is the time to start, not perfect.

Step 2: Review Your Position Goals

What is your role? I don’t just mean your job title (what’s in a title really?); I mean what is it that you were initially hired to accomplish? If your memory needs to be jogged, review that posted job description from when you were interviewing and distill it down to its main purpose in your company. As with everything we do at Mack Web, we like to start with goals.

Start everything with goals.

Recently, we’ve started giving nicknames to each Mack Web position, so as the Accounts Coordinator, I’m “the Glue.” My main goals are to interface with our clients and also make sure our team is pulled together and not falling apart (and the irony that I’m the reason this exercise was created in the first place doesn’t escape me).

Screenshot 2.b

Understanding your Position Goals will give you some guidelines when you eventually review each task that ends up in this spreadsheet. You’ll be able to hold each of these responsibilities up and ask: Is this task helping me fulfill the goals of this position or is it outside of my “scope” and stealing time away?

What is it that you were hired to accomplish?

Step 3: Do a Brain Dump

Think through all that you do on a daily basis and dump it into this spreadsheet. Notice that I didn’t say think through what your job was advertised to be when you were hired. Things tend to change once you’re actually fulfilling a role and as other strengths of yours are recognized by your team. This isn’t fundamentally a bad thing, but being able to see these deviations can help both you and your boss identify crucial patterns (more on this in step 7).

This step is where you jot down everything: big, small, in or out of scope, exciting or mundane. You can either start with your main Buckets columns and place tasks underneath those, or you can just start putting stuff in and organize them into Buckets later. Are you managing a team? Write it down. Are you the one that, for some unknown reason, waters the plants each week? Write that down, too. Don’t worry about repeating yourself – this is the brainstorming part where no idea is a bad idea.

Screenshot 3.b

(Click image to see full size.)

Step 4: Cover All Your Bases

Think your brain dump is complete? Don’t be so sure. Since workflow is dynamic and roles can blend together, don’t just trust your memory or this week’s to-do list. To feel confident that your list is more or less exhaustive, be sure to seek out these other resources:

  • job description (before hiring)
  • performance reviews
  • timesheets (to see how you’ve been spending your time)
  • emails (to refresh your memory on recent efforts)
  • Basecamp, Workamajig, or other team project management applications you may be using
  • work calendar (for recurring meetings)
  • company culture

A note about company culture: Don’t forget to include those activities that are highly valued by your company which translate into recurring tasks for everyone on your team. Most likely you were hired because you are a culture fit, which means you highly value these activities as well, so you may forget that, despite how fun they are, they take time to do during the week.

For example, at Mack Web we highly value learning and sharing that knowledge with others, so we all make time to read the latest industry articles and contribute to the Mack Web blog. We love that this is part of our jobs, but it does take time, so on the spreadsheet it must go.

Step 5: Take a Breather

You have now determined your Buckets and poured your tasks into them. Good work – you deserve a gold star. Now take that gold star and go away for a day or so. Use this time to let the dust settle so that you can return to your Buckets with a fresh, clear mind. During your break from this exercise, be mindful of how you’re spending your time – it may reveal a few more tasks to add to your spreadsheet.

Step 6: Review Your Buckets With a Fresh Mind

Now that you’re back from your break and your mind is fresh, go back into your Buckets and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Do my Buckets accurately reflect my job?
  2. Do I need to rename a Bucket or add a few more?
  3. Which of the tasks listed are critical to achieving my Position Goals? (bold these)
  4. Are some of my tasks repeated? If so, do I need to delete the repeats or clarify them further?
  5. Are there tasks in my Buckets that don’t really belong to me? (highlight these)

A note about tasks that don’t belong to you: These are tasks that you feel don’t belong in your Buckets, either because of bandwidth or expertise. Perhaps you were helping out a co-worker one time by stepping out of your role, but then that task stuck. Or perhaps you’re currently in charge of purchasing office supplies, but that really belongs to your Office Manager. Whatever the case may be for why you feel a task doesn’t belong to you, be sure to note the task (and the reason).

Screenshot 4d

Is this task helping me fulfill the goals of my position or is it stealing time away?

Step 7: Identify Patterns

Now that you have everything you do listed right in front of you (don’t faint), it’s time to search for patterns. Remember: there’s a reason you decided to do this exercise – something is amiss with your role and you are feeling overwhelmed. Let’s see if this exercise has shed some light on what those patterns might be:

1. Review your bolded items (tasks critical to achieving your Position Goals). Do you get to spend enough time in your work day to focus on these priorities of your role? If not, what’s pulling you away from these things?

2. Review the highlighted items (those that don’t belong to you) and copy/paste them into the “Task to Reassign” column. Do these tasks have a common thread? If so, perhaps the common thread is that you’re fulfilling a role that needs to be staffed, or you’ve adopted tasks from someone else who is overloaded, or something else. If you aren’t able to identify a pattern, never fear. Your boss may be able to help you with that.

3. Another option that you may want to consider is to indicate those tasks that you absolutely love and those you despise (thanks to my officemate Ayelet for this tip). A potential benefit to this is you may be able to see a pattern that indicates you don’t have enough in your role that you enjoy doing (thus you may either be working out of your weaknesses instead of your strengths, or your interests have changed, etc.).

Step 8: Consider Possible Solutions

Before you send this over to your boss for review, go the extra mile and offer recommendations for reversing any patterns you may have identified. Don’t leave it up to her to fix this  – she’s not a mind reader or a magician. And if she’s willing to go through this exercise with you, she will also appreciate your initiative.

Prepare for your discussion time together by offering some solutions. For example, for those “not mine” items, provide suggestions in the “To Whom” column for who you feel would be better at owning those tasks.

Screenshot 5.b

Or perhaps you feel you aren’t able to focus on your priorities because you spend too much time participating in some of the company culture activities. If that’s a pattern you have identified, then provide your thoughts in this spreadsheet on how you may be able to continue participating in these activities but at a different level.

Whatever patterns come to light, be sure not to ignore them or brush them aside. Spend some time thinking about how those patterns may have developed, what your workload could look like if those patterns were broken, and then bring some ideas to the table for how to break them. This will provide a starting place for your conversation with your boss about how to address some of these issues.

Step 9: Recognize Your Warning Signs

Warning

The reason you’re doing this exercise in the first place is because you’re feeling the effects of employee burnout. But wouldn’t it be great if you could smell the smoke before you felt the flames? The best way to do that is to recognize your own warning signs.

Everyone experiences stress differently, and how we exhibit that stress can be just as unique. How do you feel when you’re under pressure? How do you self-medicate? Do you retreat or surround yourself with distractions? If you’re not sure, ask those closest to you – friends, family, spouse, partner, even a co-worker.

Know thyself. And once you do, place these warning signs into this section of the spreadsheet.

Screenshot 6.b

A note about warning signs: Sharing these warning signs with someone else is essential because you may be the last person to realize that you’re heading for burnout – you’re just too close to the situation. For example, if Mack starts to consistently receive emails from me at night, she can approach me and ask how I’m doing because I’ve identified this as one of my warning signs. I also recommend sharing these signs with another teammate because there’s no harm in having a secondary wake-up call.

You may be the last person to realize that you’re heading for burnout.

Step 10: It’s Boss Time

Once you’ve completed this exercise, schedule a time with your boss to go over your Buckets (you will need at least an hour). But be sure to share this spreadsheet with her a few days in advance so that she has time to digest.

Your boss should have a clear understanding of the role you were meant to play since she’s the one who probably hired you (or was involved in the process at some point). She will be able to look at your role from the top down (instead of in the weeds where you are), and her insights will be valuable at this stage.

Begin an honest conversation together.

Remember earlier when I said this exercise works best with a boss who cares? This is the spirit in which to approach this collaborative phase. This is the beginning of an honest conversation about your current role and the holes or problems you may have discovered, with the hope of finding solutions that will help you become a happier employee.

When I went through my Buckets with Mack, she was able to:

  1. Confirm that my Buckets were accurate.
  2. Review my Position Goals and make sure my priorities were aligned.
  3. Discuss any patterns I’d identified and affirm any tasks I’d labeled as “not mine.”
  4. Consider my recommendations for change and give me the power to make those changes.
  5. Become aware of my warning signs and be on the lookout.

Post-Buckets: Now What?

Now that you’ve completed the Buckets Exercise and discussed the crap out of it, now what do you do? You implement and test and see how things go. If one of your recommendations for change doesn’t yield the results you expect, re-evaluate and try something else. And keep the lines of communication open with your boss and your team.

Implement and test and see how things go.

Hang In There

This exercise isn’t a magic pill that will make everything all better. It’s simply a place to start a conversation. Positions evolve over time (as do people), so you may need to revisit this exercise if you sense burnout approaching again.

HangInThere

Since we developed the Buckets Exercise back in April, about half our team has gone through it, and it’s been an eye-opener. Each of us has customized it for our own unique roles and needs, and that’s the beauty of an exercise like this. It’s not a cookie cutter and it’s not rigid. But it does provide a framework from which to start. And sometimes finding a place to start is the hardest part.

What does your team use to address employee burnout? Or perhaps you have some recommendations for us to make this exercise even better? We’d love to hear your thoughts. And if you would like us to share this Google spreadsheet with you, we’d be happy to.

Solving Operational Challenges with Four Helpful Lists

By | Business Stuff, Mack's Musings, Miscellany, Web Marketing | 3 Comments

I remember leaving the hospital with my daughter Ryan just a few days after she was born. She was my first child and Jon and I had absolutely no idea what we were doing. But still I was released from the hospital with a tiny, helpless infant. No quick-start guide. No instructions. No nurse in tow.

mack holding ryan hospital

Fast forward 6 years. Ryan is growing and so is Mack Web. As with my lack of innate skills as a mom, I’m no natural born entrepreneur. I’m just a rookie with no formal business training who’s learned everything about building this company from the kindness of mentors, books, blog posts, and trial by fire.

Sometimes I’ve managed to stockpile the right info to help me handle a rising situation like a champ. But more often than not, just like with raising the kids, I have to stumble through it. Somehow, I manage to make it to the other side, failing faster every time, emerging with more hard-won character.

As I pocket this wisdom along my business-rearing journey, I am slowly gaining contrast and clarity. Agility. Experience even. I’m still pretty much writing the Mack Web manual as I go. But sometimes I am gifted with tools along the way.

Most recently, there’s a simple exercise that has been helping us solve some common operational challenges:

  • How do we do stuff better?
  • How do we resolve gaps in communication and collaboration with the team and our clients?
  • Who do we hire next?

For the last year, Mack Web has been working with a Strat Ops facilitator to help us set goals, initiatives, and move the company forward. She introduced us to an exercise called Four Helpful Lists and lately it’s been working like a charm.

We’ve applied the Four Helpful Lists exercise to every one of the challenges above (which I will provide in detail below). The great thing about it is that the outcome isn’t just a list of problems. It’s a conversation of solutions. So instead of spending thirty minutes talking about all the things in a situation that are broken, we’re focusing on how we’re going to fix it. It provides us with a place from which we can take action.

How it Works

Below I’ve provided some specific examples of how we’ve used this tool at Mack Web, but first, here’s how you would run Four Helpful Lists:

1. Assemble Your Team for 30 minutes
Depending on the challenge you’re looking to address, you’ll want to invite a few key people on your team who are directly involved or affected by the issue. We’ve had success with just 3 of us, or even 10  in the room at once. We try to keep these meetings really focused at 30 minutes.

2. Get a Whiteboard
On a whiteboard, or one of those big wall post-its, make 4 columns; one with each of these questions:

  • What’s right?
  • What’s wrong?
  • What’s missing?
  • What’s confused?

3. Pose a Question
This is the prompt that gets the conversation of solutions going and the way you frame the question is one of the most critical steps of this exercise. You’ll need to pose the question so that your team can get to the underlying issue. So for example, if we’re using this tool to determine who we’re going to hire next, I wouldn’t ask, “Who are we going to hire next?” Instead, I would ask, “How is the team functioning?” You’ve got to frame your question in such a way that the four lists (what’s right, wrong, missing, and confused) make sense as a reply.

4. Fill out the Stuff
Then, under each column, ask your team to contribute the answers related to the question you’ve posed; the situation or challenge you’re working to resolve.

It’s great if you can start with what’s right? as that will help you to avoid a gripe session. And then, as you move along to the rest of the columns, avoid putting everything into the what’s wrong? column. Really think through what belongs in the what’s missing? column (like things related to systems, processes, tools, resources, communication, trust) that could be the root cause of the issue. And many times, what’s confused? will be things related to communication and expectations (that haven’t been properly addressed).

5. Identify and Prioritize Places of Action
After you’ve exhausted your lists, now go back and look for patterns and places of action under each column.

I’ll go into more detail on this in the examples below, but you’ll notice that there are things in each column that will relate to each other or the same root cause. So circle those (and perhaps draw lines or arrows to connect them). Then prioritize those items. Will you need to address and resolve something on your list before you can address another? If so, number them accordingly.

6. Assign Tasks
Now that you know what needs to be addressed and in what order, determine the next steps and assign tasks (and due dates) to the members of your team. Designate a follow-up date for getting the stuff done, and have one person in the group be the facilitator (to keep everyone accountable for their deliverables).

We run this exercise quite often. And now that we know the power of it, we are starting to recognize when exactly we need it. Mostly it’s when we  find ourselves stuck . Either we’re frustrated with a problem that keeps resurfacing in different forms, or we’ve done the same thing the same way for several times and realize that we’re still not getting a different result.

For us, Four Helpful Lists resolves so many challenges that anytime we’re feeling angst about anything: a process, a common client deliverable, a team member, or even a client, we use this tool.

The great thing about the Four Helpful Lists in action is that, regardless of the problem you’re trying to solve, you never come away empty handed.

Here’s what I mean.

Four Helpful Lists for Doing Stuff Better

There’s a whole lot of stuff we’re handling every day at Mack Web. And because we’re working with a small (but mighty) team, we are continuously looking for ways to be more efficient and, certainly, more effective.

Lately (and by lately I mean for almost a year), we’ve been working on improving our reporting. Not only do we spend a great deal of time on them, but they’re too long and they don’t communicate our value to our clients as clearly as we’d like. After the reports had gone through their most recent evolution, we decided to determine how to make them even better using Four Helpful Lists.

So when the team got together, the question posed was:

How do we make our reports better?

4-helpful-lists-a

What’s right?
The team had a few positive things to say about how we had been currently communicating value in our reports. We were getting better at identifying the metrics that really mattered for each client,  the way we were presenting the information was easier to digest, and the collaboration among the team was helping us to take action on the data that we were collecting. Lots of good progress had been made in the recent months and certainly over the last year.

What was wrong?
The biggest problem is that we were pretty sure our clients weren’t reading them. To make matters worse, we were spending a significant amount of the team’s time each month preparing these reports (even though we were learning a great deal from them). We were also finding some hangups with data collection and the automation of that process. Especially for social media.

What was missing?
What we realized was that we needed to have a conversation with our clients about what was most useful to them in the reports we provided. We were making all kinds of assumptions about what we thought they cared about, but we had not taken the time to verify their expectations. We wanted to make sure we guide them with the most important data (vs. just showing them metrics like follower count), but what do they really want to see?

We also had not asked our respected colleagues what their challenges were with reporting and how they had resolved them. Do they provide a one-page report or is it 20?  Do they hold a meeting to discuss the data, or just send it via email with key takeaways? Maybe they would have some great ways of presenting important data to their clients that we could learn from. They also might have some automation tool suggestions that would help save some time collecting and aggregating all of the data.

We realized that we had a ton of information that was missing which meant we had a place to start filling in the holes.

What was confused?
We definitely knew that our reporting process could use some work. And as we had defined in the missing column, we really needed to get to the heart of what our clients were expecting. Ultimately, could we really say, without a doubt, that what we were providing in our reports was valuable to our clients? Having all of this confused meant we definitely had some work to do, which means we knew where to take action.

Prioritizing and Taking Action
So once we worked through each list, there was a lot that we needed to focus on. We identified the most important of the items that were wrong, missing, and confused. Some of those were related to other items so we matched those up.  If we prioritized the core of those issues, we would essentially be solving the others, so we assigned action items from those.

We knew that our first and most important priority was to talk to our clients, so we circled that and identified it as #1. There were a few items in other columns that were related, so we matched those up, circled them, and drew connecting arrows.

Simultaneously we knew we could ask our colleagues about their reporting processes and also what tools they were using to automate the data (so we prioritized that as #2). Ideally, we would have feedback both from our clients and our colleagues around the same time and then we’d have our next action steps.

4-helpful-lists-b

Over the next several weeks, the team will work individually on their assigned tasks and report to the person we designated to keep everyone accountable. When we meet as a team at Strat Ops in the late fall, the team will communicate how they’ve decided to move forward in our reporting based on what they found and the action they took after we ran Four Helpful Lists.

Four Helpful Lists for Communication and Collaboration

This tool has worked so well for the Mack Web team that we’ve even used it with our clients. We run a pretty collaborative environment around here and require a whole lot of integration with our clients’ teams. Sometimes there are breakdowns in the communication and collaboration between our teams so we need to figure out why we’re having trouble getting on the same page.

After we’ve worked through the execution of the first strategy with a client, we use Four Helpful Lists to get to the root of any roadblocks we may have stumbled across.

Running the Four Helpful Lists exercise works best when everyone is in the same room, but since our clients aren’t in Fort Collins, we improvise with a Google+ Hangout and a Google spreadsheet.

4-helpful-lists-c

Our team in Fort Collins still works through each list with our client, but because it’s difficult for them to read our whiteboard from the other side of the web cam, we send a Google spreadsheet before we start the exercise. As we run down each list, we take notes in the spreadsheet so that our client can see what’s being written on the whiteboard as it’s being written. Once the exercise is over, we send a photo of the whiteboard to the client.

Using this tool, even just with the Mack Web team, requires a sometimes-uncomfortable level of honesty about what isn’t working. Using it with a client requires a lot of bravery. If we’re not willing to conflict and commit to get to the root of the problem, we’ll never be able to start working together toward a solution.

It should be pretty simple to identify where to take action based on the results of the Four Helpful Lists exercise. Especially when using Four Helpful Lists with clients, we are very diligent about assigning action items. We are specific about what the action items are and which team is taking action so that a solution can actually come to fruition.

Four Helpful Lists for Hiring

One of the  most significant challenges that Four Helpful Lists has solved at Mack Web is hiring.  As our team has grown, it has been difficult to prioritize who we need to hire next. We’re not a funded company, so we hire as we have the revenue to support new team members. Many times we have the resources just to fund one position, so it’s really important that we choose wisely.

Earlier this year we had an unexpected change in the members of our team. So before hiring to replace for that exact role, we took a step back to determine what the company really needed. We got the whole team together to hash out Four Helpful Lists.

But instead of asking the team, “Hey, who do you think we should hire next?” we addressed the question: How is the team functioning?

Once we completed the exercise, we noticed that, despite the departure of a Strategist, it wasn’t a lack of strategy that was missing on our team. It was the time spent on grinder tasks that was slowing down existing key personnel.

What we needed to do was pull weight off of some of our existing team members so that they could have some headspace. Giving them this much needed room would allow them to operate in a more strategic frame of mind. This would help them get out of the weeds a bit, really benefit our clients, and help bridge the gap to our next hire.

After compiling all the items from the wrong, missing, and confused lists, we were able to define a new role: Team Support .  We could see that we needed more than just one person to take on all of the tasks in this new support position, but we determined that some of those efforts could be outsourced as we acquired the revenue for the additional person.

support-role

Over the last six months this decision to hire a Team Support person rather than another Strategist has really paid off. Within weeks of the hire, the team was quickly rebounding from hurdles that we had been stuck on for months. Using this role to take away some of the team’s stress has helped us to be more connected and collaborative than ever. It has pushed us forward with great momentum and we’re well on our way to our next hires (which we will determine by running Four Helpful Lists).

Give it a Try, Kids

If I’ve learned anything about being a mom and running Mack Web it’s that I almost  never have the answer. And sometimes, that can feel pretty paralyzing. Four Helpful Lists gives us a place to start and also puts the responsibility on the team (and not just me). It’s a really simple tool for figuring out what’s not serving us well and what we all need to do to make it different.

Give it a try with your team and let me know how it goes.

Whiteboards & X-Men: A Story & Tip on Organizing & Integrating A Team

By | Business Stuff, Miscellany | 4 Comments

Nuthin’. Whatsa motto wit’ you?

Here at Mack Web, we have a motto and it is this:

Everyone loves a bit with a llama.

Actually, upon consideration, we have quite a few mottos, including but not limited to: Gummy bears make everything better, Trust no one, Never say never ever, Knowing is half the battle, and Always carry a towel.

never say

But none of those mottoes are at issue here. The motto relevant to today’s discussion is this:

Test. Everything.

We apply this particular piece of wisdom all over the place. Anytime an expert (or “expert”) suggests something, lays down the law, offers advice? Test it. Theories are great, but you don’t really know how true they are until you’ve had a chance to try them out.

Sometimes they don’t work for you or they don’t work the way you expected. Because, cliches aside, you are a special, special snowflake and what is ideal for someone else, in someone else’s circumstances may not be so ideal for you.

So, when someone recommends social media tactics, like the best time to tweet or the headlines that convert, test ‘em out.

If you read an article with recommendations on how best to accommodate an update in Google’s algorithms, test it out.

Should you come across suggestions for productivity hacks or operational efficiency, test them before you throw in your whole-hearted support.

And above all else, if someone asks you to contribute for office birthday cupcakes, test those suckers out. Be the brave soul who makes sure those cupcakes aren’t poisoned.

That’s the bonus tip, here’s the real story

Cupcakes aside and going back a step, let me tell you a little story of an operational efficiency idea that we have tested, do test, and will continue to test the heck out of.

(We’re starting to really get into the groove with it, to the point that – though it’s not perfect yet – we feel comfortable recommending it to you to test out for yourselves).

The year is 2011 and the Mack Web business is beginning to change, the team is starting to grow and to specialize. Instead of working on different aspects of the same project, we’re starting to work on different projects altogether.

Which means, inevitably, that we’re beginning to have occurrences of ‘the right hand knows not what the left is doing.’

Which is bad news for those times when collaboration is necessary to complete something. No catastrophes yet, but the danger looms.

Mack, fearless leader Mack, wise and farseeing Mack, canny and clever behind her bright, beaming smile, saw the problem that it could soon become. (Or maybe she was feeling a little left out, a little lonely. Maybe all of the above). And so she sought a solution.

In the course of her research (these were the days we were first learning about being agile), she read about programming teams who hold a brief meeting everyday to communicate what each member is working on.

Called standups – because making everyone stand up for the meeting keeps it brief (in theory anyway) – these meetings were intended to break down departmental silos and keep projects moving.

So we decided to test it.

Inception of a Standup

It quickly became clear that our first attempt was…not a success. The daily meetings pulled a chunk out of every morning, not only the actual standing up part, but the scramble for each person to assemble a list of their tasks for that day.

And then those meetings became exactly that: each member of the team reeling off a list of tasks, half of which had neither relevance nor, really, interest for the rest of the team. Glazed eyes, clutched coffee cups, 15 minutes gone from the crucial start of the day.

boring meeting

As the team continued to grow, that 15 minutes became 20, 25. And as the only time guaranteed to gather the whole group, they inevitably got hijacked for announcements, for chitchat, for ‘oh, real quick, while I’ve got you all…’. 30 minutes, 35.

There were other weaknesses as well: we only talked about tasks day by day, which didn’t give us any scope on the whole week or the weeks to come. We weren’t looking at the whole breadth and scale of the projects and we lost sight of the intent behind each individual task: to help our clients build their brand, build their community, build their dreams. (Dramatic, us? No, of course not. Silly rabbit).

We know that the daily standup has proven crazy valuable to all kinds of programming teams and we don’t knock them for the technique. But it clearly wasn’t working for us.

Evolution of a Standup

The first step was putting the kibosh on the daily madness. Weekly, we decided, was better. It meant that, when pulling together their lists, people were looking at the (slightly) bigger picture and the team got an idea of what was on everyone’s plates, in case someone needed to tag someone else for help or input on a project.

This broadened our perspective a little, but still we were missing out. It became clear that weekly was good, but task-oriented was bad. So instead of talking about what everyone was working on, we started to look at what we were trying to get done: client deliverables and the channels through which we wanted to promote them.

That shift in focus was a big step in the right direction, but it meant, of course, that we couldn’t just come to the meeting with a post-it-note we scrabbled together from a review of our individual emails: we needed a visual record of all ongoing projects so nothing got overlooked or forgotten.

Thank goodness Jon – Mack’s handy, helpful, forbearing husband – had built us this pretty cool whiteboard that everyone wanted and no one really knew what to do with, huh?

the whiteboard

Suddenly we had a place to record not only project due dates and interim tasks, we had a big central location for recording things like when people were out of the office.

We also had a very large, very colorful, very concrete (or…plastic? what are whiteboards made out of anyway?) reminder that no, it was not okay for this meeting to devolve into idle chatter about kitties (no matter how adorable), weekend plans (no matter how awesome), or even llamas (no matter how transcendently spectacular).

But even then, there were things that weren’t quite right. One week didn’t give us enough scope, so we started looking at two weeks. That helped us prioritize and prepare not just for the significant needs of today but the projected needs of tomorrow.

We even added a small section for Week 3, where any major deliverables lurk, reminding us of their impending doomishness.

Since we have remote team members, we take a picture of the board and send it off to them via HipChat. (We love Hipchat). When Standup time comes, we dial them in on Google+. (We love Google+, too). And off we go.

Somewhere in this process of evolution, we picked up Rebecca, our fearless Account Coordinator, she who knows the mysteries of the Master Calendar and does not fear.

Adding Team Support Ann, who has eminently readable handwriting and a knack with erasable markers was another boon.

Standup - Evolved

Things became much easier after that.

Benefits of an Evolved Standup

And that’s where we stand (ha!) now. Once a week, we gather at the whiteboard and review the burdens of the day, week, and beyond. We align the team and keep everyone accountable.

By focusing on the clients, rather than the members of the team, we’re emphasizing the integrated nature of everything we do: each deliverable carries the initials of the team members working on it. Not only does this make sure that all necessary departments are looped in, it serves as a subtle reminder to each of us that we are a team.

No man is an island.

With the Whiteboard of All Knowledge drawing from the Previously-Fearsome-And-Yet-Now-Docile-In-The-Hands-Of-Its-Master Master Calendar, we know that no balls are being dropped or forgotten.

Looking ahead alleviates the stress and fear of the unknown. Mondays, though they will never ever be anyone’s favorite day, are no longer quite so dreadful as we know there will be no uncomfortable surprises of last minute deadlines overlooked in the Friday rush out the door.

(Happy surprises like, say, cupcakes, are always welcome. Even on Mondays).

Time management is easier when we know what’s ahead and, furthermore, when we know we know what’s ahead.

Plus…we get to cross stuff off a big, ol’ list on a wall-sized whiteboard. What’s not to love about that, amiright?

So, we’re pleased with our Standup, however different it may be from its original shape.  And yes, we like to think of it as evolved rather than mutated.

Like the X-Men.

X-Men

Some pro-tips on dealing with the X-Men. Er, with Standup. That’s what we meant

Really, we highly recommend the method we’ve got. We urge you to test it out for yourself.

Should you find that something similar works for you, here’s a few minutiae we’ve stumbled across that have made the whole thing even better:

  • We hold our Standup on Tuesday. Monday mornings are inevitably a catch-up-check-your-email-chat-about-your-weekend time. Having it on Tuesday helps the meeting stay focused. Plus, we have a No Monday Meetings policy in our office. So that works out.
  • We also don’t hold it too early. Grumpy meetings are not good meetings.
  • We sorta, accidentally ended up with a mandatory, weekly client check-in right after our scheduled Standup time. That means that we have no choice but to keep the meeting efficient and brief. It was actually a perfect storm of productivity.
  • We include both internal and external dates for everything. We are accountable to each other as well as the clients. This also leaves us plenty of time for reviewing and conferring and editing.
  • We mark external dates with a big arrow so everyone knows that’s the day it goes to the client. No fudging.
  • We color code each client on the board.
  • We try to align tasks (the pieces and the internal and external dates) along the same visual line on the board, so all you have to do is skim across to track the timeline for progress.
  • In the actual Standup, we discuss the weeks by client, rather than day. It keeps the conversation focused and streamlined.
  • Uh, we don’t, really, uh, stand anymore. Dunno why.

And that’s us: wise and evolved, but with better hair than Professor X

We’re not ones to rest on our laurels. No doubt our Standup will continue to change as we mold it to fit our needs.

We’re curious about you. How do you keep your team on track and integrated? What tools do you use? What techniques? Any suggestions?

Come on, be an X-Man. I think we’re still looking for a Nightcrawler.