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Look Up: The Virtues of the Unexpected

Digital media. It’s everywhere. Between our searches on Google, videos on YouTube, friends and connections on Facebook and LinkedIn, the people we follow on Twitter, the images and ideas we collect on Instagram, Reddit, Pinterest, Vine and others, we can connect 24/7 using our computers, tablets and smartphones.

The thing is, this breathtaking volume of messages and images has distracted us from the real thing, the powerful experience of connecting with people in person, in the moment.

Look up. If you’re reading this in a public space, I’d bet that many (if not most) of the people surrounding you are looking at a device right now, just like you. Even people seated at tables with others may be gazing at their iPhone instead of engaging with one another.

Please don’t mistake me for a curmudgeon. These new tools of expression are a blessing to mankind. They empower us to connect with friends and colleagues who before social media would have fallen away. Social media have also demonstrated an unparalleled ability to organize and inspire people to effect important social change.

For most of my career as a marketer and communicator, I have worked in the financial services industry. It’s a sophisticated industry that spends a lot on marketing, but because it is vigorously regulated most firms – mine included – were slow to fully embrace digital, especially social media, as a marketing and communications platform with legitimate business building implications.

To be honest, we were missing the boat. To this day, many financial firms are still missing the boat.

Early on, I knew I needed to be able to develop effective integrated digital strategies that included social media, so when social really started taking off, I dedicated as much time as I could to getting educated in the discipline.

I have learned a lot, especially that I can never be done learning. Digital is as diverse and changeable as any media I have ever encountered. This blog is part of my effort to better understand and one day master digital marketing. It is a burgeoning field, with experts abounding in search engine optimization, search engine marketing, content development, inbound marketing, copywriting, blogging, lead generation, lead nurturing, you get it…

By now, you know that you are going to be marketed to anywhere and everywhere you go. There are ads on the shopping cart at the grocery store, in public restrooms, in your email box, and even at the movies (that one still ticks me off). So most of us have gotten accustomed to seeing the ads that line up next to, or run before, what we really want to see when we are online.

The technology that powers Google, Facebook and others gives these platforms deep insights into your interests. By tracking what you search for, who and what you like and what you buy, they can deliver marketing messages that are specifically designed for people just like you. As a result, you’re more likely to take action (buy something or at least take a closer look) than a more random message would prompt.

The other side of this transaction is digital’s inherent measurability. When you click, digital marketers know. There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship between marketing and response that other media cannot match.

So what’s wrong with all this? Nothing really. At the same time that we’re connecting with friends, colleagues and customers and being entertained, we’re also getting marketing messages that are way better suited to our lifestyles. We’re being pitched stuff we actually care about, and the companies that are doing the pitching have a better idea for how their marketing investments are paying off. Better in fact than at any time in history. Everything’s jiggy, right?

Well, yes. Mostly.

A couple of years ago, I was driving through a remote part of rural Montana, and the only radio station I could find was an AM station broadcasting from a tiny town at least a hundred miles away. For an hour or so, I listened to songs from artists that (I swear) included Frank Sinatra, AC-DC, George Jones, The Supremes, and more current stuff from the likes of Maroon Five and Tim McGraw. I heard music I would never have heard, and most of it was good. Damn good.

That experience got me thinking about the virtues of the unexpected. When I confine myself to a certain type of music, or food, or art, or to communities defined by a common (often narrow) set of interests, I miss some great things. By allowing myself to be immersed in a digital world designed to deliver exactly what I like today, I risk missing some great, unexpected thing that I might be passionate about tomorrow.

One of the things I love about our neighborhood is the openness of our neighbors. Unlike other areas in the city, where people avoid eye contact and keep their ear buds and earphones tightly in place, we and our neighbors readily engage. On evening walks, my wife and I have had wonderful, surprising conversations with people I now count as friends, people I would ordinarily never meet. They bring experiences and outlooks utterly unlike my own and I’m richer for it.

So here’s what I am doing so I don’t get stuck in a digital or psychic rut. If any of these tactics resonate with you, I hope you’ll join along or find a method that does the trick for you.

  • I am reducing my time on social media. The quality of the discourse there doesn’t come close to direct communications between people. Whenever I can, I will spend time face to face, followed by phone, then email, then social.
  • I’m keeping my head up and my eyes and mind open – signaling to the world that I am interested in knowing the people around be better. When I can help them, I want to.
  • I’m going to work harder to experience new things. By connecting with and listening to the people, new and old, whose paths cross mine, I intend to go out of my way to expand my experience and appreciation.
  • As a marketing professional, I love digital media. As a fellow human being, I hope my audience is adventurous enough to know that some of the best things out there have never even crossed their minds.

    What role does social media play in your life? How has it made your life better? How have Internet search engines like Google affected your behavior as a consumer? Are the changes all for the better?