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From One to a Million: Managing Social Media at Scale

What if you had to re-examine your assumptions around social media? What if, instead of thinking about conversations in ones and twos, you had to think about them in thousands and tens of thousands? What if you had to manage dozens or hundreds of properties, and millions of fans? What would change?

Last weekend I presented a session at PodCamp Toronto entitled “From One to a Million: Managing Social Media at Scale.” The goal of the session was to prompt people to question some of the norms espoused by many ‘experts’, who have never had to manage social media programs at anything beyond a small scale. Norms such as the idea that you “need” to talk to every person who engages with you – something that is feasible at small scale, but infeasible when you get into the tens of thousands of replies weekly.

This is not to say that those norms are completely incorrect, but that there is a practical reality for brands operating at scale – structure changes, processes change and the norms have to change.

Key points from the presentation:

1. Structure: How do you structure to handle social media at scale?

Brands need to grapple with structural decisions at a global scale:

  • How much do you centralize vs decentralize control?
  • Do you house social within the corporate HQ or at the business unit level?
  • Do you aim for consistency and economies of scale or responsiveness at a local market level?
  • Do you impose social media on the enterprise or allow it to grow organically?

There’s no right or wrong answer; the decision depends on objectives, on your broader business structure, on the scale of your social media activities, on your business’ culture and on the resources you have to hand, among other things.

2. Community Management: How do you go from 1:1 to 1:1,000,000?

Community management at scale requires brands to reassess the norms they hear espoused daily. I offered seven pointers for scaling community management practices:

  1. Moderate to deal with trolls (with an affectionate prod in the slide at Scott Stratten) – if you operate a social media program at scale without moderation, you’ll spend your life dealing with trolls and spammers
  2. Embrace proactiveness – don’t wait for people to come to you; use analytics and insights to drive proactive content to answer questions ahead of time
  3. Recognize you can’t talk to everyone – at some point you need to prioritize or you will drown
  4. Respond publicly when possible (and when appropriate) – answering publicly lets other people (a) see you being responsive and (b) see your answers and possibly answer their own questions
  5. Help customers to help customers – successful companies in the social support space leverage customer forums to help customers answer each others’ questions, and step in when questions go unanswered at first
  6. Build an army of advocates – educate, empower and reward your biggest fans for engaging for you
  7. Know your customer – know who they are, what they want and how they want it to serve information most appropriately for them

(Check out my related post on tips for scaling customer service)

3. Content Strategy: How do you stay engaging while driving business results at scale?

Content strategy is a shiny object right now (in a stroke of amazing timing, Edelman appointed Steve Rubel to the new post of Chief Content Strategist yesterday – congrats Steve). I offered three broad categories of ways to resist the myriad pressures that face social media teams within corporations, and to stay on strategy:

  1. Know your objectives, and use them as a decision making framework.
  2. Know your channels, your audiences and the difference between them.
  3. Execute with rigor and optimize relentlessly.

4. Measurement: Turning a challenge to a competitive advantage

Measurement has historically been a pain point for many PR practitioners, but it’s a point of passion for me – I truly believe that effective measurement can be a differentiator for companies’ social media programs. When you begin to activate social at large scale, statistical analysis of content and program performance can yield invaluable insights.

I’ve in the past on ways companies can improve their social media measurement; this time around I offered another five tips:

  1. Focus on the right things – measure the right things for the right audience to meet their objectives.
  2. Connect your metrics with your objectives – don’t measure share of voice if you’re looking to improve the responsiveness of your customer support, for example.
  3. Know what the numbers mean – do your research and don’t let companies lead you down the garden path with made-up numbers and meaningless multipliers.
  4. Generate and drive insights throughout your program – look at your foundational always-on activities (your program is always-on, right?), at point-in-time campaigns and at the broader conversation ecosystem for insights.
  5. Use full-program measurement – set measurable objectives, use insights from past programs to fuel program development, course-correct throughout and measure results to drive insights for future work.

This was the first time I had presented this deck. I would have loved to have another 15 minutes longer to incorporate more practical pointers, but this provides a solid high-level overview of how to leverage these four elements of a program both at scale and more broadly. I’d love to know what you think, though – let me know in the comments below.

Burger King Twitter Hacking: Take A Chill Pill

Burger King Twitter account hacked

Burger King’s Twitter account was hacked today, with the hacker turning the company’s Twitter page into an offensive mock-up of a McDonalds Twitter channel. An hour and fifteen minutes later, the account was suspended, but not before the news spread across the social media fishbowl at lightning speed.

As often happens, a huge amount of basement punditry has already begun. I’ve already had to call BS when I saw someone asserting that it took Burger King “too long” to address the situation.

Here’s what we do know:

  • The Burger King account was hacked.
  • The hacking occurred on a public holiday in the US and most of Canada.
  • It took just over an hour to pull the account down.

Here’s what we do not know:

  • If the hacker changed the password to prevent Burger King accessing the page.
  • How robust Burger King’s security processes for their social media channels are.
  • When Burger King’s team spotted the hack.
  • Whether their community manager was anywhere near a computer when this happened - who knows if their community manager was out for a hike when this happened?
  • Whether Burger King had a crisis plan for this kind of situation.
  • How long it took for Burger King to take action on their end.
  • If Burger King needed to go through Twitter to to pull the account down, how long it took them to respond.
  • When this is all over, if this will have any impact on the brand whatsoever.

What I know from my experience in these kinds of situations with large brands:

  • Situations like this are chaotic at the best of times. As Ed Truitt pointed out in a nice analogy, battle plans rarely survive the first encounter with the enemy.
  • Holidays are prime time for hackers, as response times from companies tend to be longer. It can take time to reach people who aren’t officially working.
  • The person manning one social channel may not be the same as the person manning another, meaning you may need to reach several people in order to respond.
  • An hour is not a long timeframe in which to have a channel pulled down.

The only real gap I see at this point, as pointed out to me by Kami Huyse and Sara Patterson, is the lack of any public response so far. Social media crisis plans should include pre-approved boilerplate language for social media channels and other communications channels for situations like this. With that said, we’re talking a hacking of a relatively small account here – not a major crisis like a food safety recall or a company-caused fatality. Given the frequent separation of audiences between Facebook and Twitter, the company may have considered the option of posting elsewhere, and decided against it (again, we don’t know).

My point: Let’s hold off on the basement punditry. There’s a whole lot that we do not know, and very few things that we do know. Without someone with that knowledge filling in the blanks, all we can do is speculate.

(Image: Kami Huyse)

 

Social Media at Scale: Organizing Global Social Media Teams

One of the most fundamental questions in running a social media program at scale is, “how do I organize it”?

How do you scale and structure a global social media program?There’s some good material out there on this. Jeremiah Owyang, in particular, wrote about this some time back from a functional perspective; this provides a good starting point but didn’t consider the geographic and cultural challenges of a global organization. More recently, he released a more focused look at the tensions facing companies who are looking at scaling their social media.

Owyang also identified six tensions that match nicely with some of the pros and cons I’ve identified below:

  1. Corporate vs Business Unit
  2. Global vs Local
  3. Consistent messaging vs Varied content
  4. Specialized software vs Large suites
  5. Individual disruptors vs Established program managers
  6. Enterprise Deployment vs Organic social growth

I was recently asked about whether I had a preferred model for resourcing social media teams. Here, minus a few confidential specifics, is my answer:

Country-by-country

A country-by-country model offers significant flexibility and local customization. Freed from the restrictions of a coordinated program, local markets can respond nimbly to local market conditions.

However, a completely decentralized approach can lead to coordination challenges in terms of things like messaging, global marketing campaigns and announcements, but also from a coordination perspective (for example, how do you hand-off community management assignments between teams if they are on different platforms).

In my view, this is a fairly immature approach to operationalizing a global program, and tends to spring from an organic growth of social within an organization (analogous to Owyang’s ‘organic’ model of social).

One core team

This model eschews local market teams in favour of one centrally-led team.

Pros here include control over global marketing campaigns, coordinated messaging, and efficiency in operation. You don’t have people ‘going rogue’ on announcement, and executing marketing campaigns is easy.

However, it is very, very easy for a central team to become insular and to forget or misunderstand local market concerns. The danger of this shouldn’t be underestimated – if your global footprint extends beyond markets with a similar culture to yours, then that local market context is key. This is especially true in technical fields with a lot of local market regulation.

Centralized teams can also lead to tension with markets. Remember that point about teams not ‘going rogue’? If you don’t consider localized needs, they may do just that.

Core/local hybrid (hub & spoke)

This approach involves coordination of global activities by a strong core team, but local implementation by geographically-focused teams.

The ‘hub and spoke’ model allows localization of programs and content, but permits global activations when needed. It also allows the development of common frameworks such as toolsets, measurement frameworks, common content calendar approaches (while allowing local content to vary), aligned approaches to issues management etc., which can be driven through the common structure and process. These can improve programs, reduce risk, and drive efficiencies through a large social organization.

At the same time, it can be challenging to coordinate across a large number of markets from a single team – the overhead involved centrally is high, and involves a significant head count to do so, but to an extent that’s the reality of running a global-scale always-on program.

Core/region/local hybrid (multiple hub & spoke)

This is the most complex structure, with a global lead, regional leads and local market teams. It is also probably the most difficult model to pull off due to the multiple levels of coordination.

Pros of this include lower overhead at a central level (as some coordination is handled by regions), localization at a market level yet still retaining the ability to activate globally. It also offers the same benefits when it comes to globally aligning tools, processes etc. as the core/local hybrid model. Bringing regional leads together as a core global leadership team is essential to ensure that regional interests are heard by the global lead, and to avoid ‘broken telephone’ games.

On the flip side, this model requires the additional investment of regional staffing, and adds an additional level of oversight and review which could be a pro or a con depending on culture and the legal environment.

Clarity and executive sponsorship of this model is critical for it to be effective (i.e. there is a risk of local markets ignoring global direction if strong executive sponsorship is not present).

Which to choose?

The decision between these various models isn’t a black/white one. It’s going to come down to a combination of resources (including budget), culture, the nature of the business and the scale of the social media operation. This is also by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s a useful starting point.

If you’ve operated in a global social media team, what have you found in your experience?

Image: Shutterstock

Introducing the Social Media at Scale Series

As social media continues to establish itself as a bona fide communications function and as companies continue to increase the scale of their social media programs, they’re running into a new set of problems. These problems go beyond the 101 “which channel is right for us” decisions, and onto more advanced dilemmas.

  • Social media at scale brings new problemsHow do you translate a high-engagement approach to community management when you’re dealing with millions of fans?
  • How do you ensure that a large social media team stays coordinated?
  • How do you ensure your content stays interesting and engaging when you’re pulled in a dozen directions by a slew of internal stakeholders?

I know these challenges well – I’ve spent the last six months leading a team planning and executing a global social media program for a well-known global brand (and Edelman client). Before that, I spent two years leading North America-wide teams focused on audiences ranging from top-tier influencers through to consumer bases of millions.

Out of that comes a new series of posts, focused on how to manage social media at scale.

Together we’ll explore topics including:

  • Organizing global social media teams
  • The balance of global/local
  • Content strategy in a multi-stakeholder mix
  • Engagement at scale
  • Advocates vs influencers, and why that difference matters
  • Setting effective and appropriate objectives
  • Measuring social throughout the campaign lifecycle

What else would you like to see in this series?

Where has Dave been?

Wow, it’s been a long time since I posted here. In fact, I’ve only posted four times in the last seven months. I got to thinking it might be helpful to explain why.

Six months ago, I started to transition into a new role at Edelman.

For Edelman’s largest global clients, we have what we call the “Global Client Relationship Program” through which we appoint a senior leader – a “GCRM” – to head-up our global teams for those clients. As we say on the Edelman website, the GCRM, “is responsible for overseeing the global client relationship, setting the strategy and managing the core client team. GCRMs are dedicated to bringing the best of Edelman resources to our clients – wherever and whenever required.”

Supporting those people, we have Regional Client Relationship Managers (RCRMs). In July I began to transition into the RCRM role on one of our largest digital clients, with whom I had been working since 2010. In doing so, I moved from leading one key piece of our North American work for that client, to leading all of the work we do for them in North America.

Almost simultaneously, our team began planning for a major program for that client. I soon found myself leading that program globally within Edelman.

Suffice to say, my spare time became very limited. I’ve spent the last six months with a single-minded focus on working with our team, our clients and our other agency partners to do a kick-ass job for the client. That was a conscious choice and one I made willingly, but it brought with it sacrifices. One of those casualties was the time I spent writing here.

Don’t get me wrong – I wouldn’t change the last six months for the world. I’ve loved every second of it (those of you who know me well know that I’m happiest when I’m busy). I’ve been working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met and doing the most interesting work I’ve ever done. I’ve learned more things than I can count and they’ll stand me in good stead for a long time.

With that said, I’m now looking ahead to when I begin to emerge from this project (we’re not done yet, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel). With that emergence will come change. First and foremost, I’m looking forward to spending more time with my long-suffering wife, Caralin, who agreed to let me take on this role in the first place. Secondly, I’m going to work to get back in shape (hopefully, a non pear-shaped variety). Thirdly, I’m going to start writing more here again.

The good news is, I’ll have plenty of things to write about given the last six months.

A few things I expect I’ll have words on in the near future:

  • Organizing global social teams
  • The balance of global/local
  • Content strategy in a multi-stakeholder mix
  • Engagement at scale
  • Advocates vs influencers, and why that difference matters
  • Setting effective and appropriate objectives
  • Measuring social throughout the campaign lifecycle

I expect a common theme to emerge throughout – that of the practical realities of operationalizing social media at scale.

Now I just have to find time to write it all…

Remembering Michael O’Connor Clarke

Michael O’Connor Clarke passed away this morning, sadly losing his battle with the esophagael cancer that he was diagnosed with this summer.

I knew Michael both as a friend and as a colleague. From memory, I believe we first met online in 2007, through social media channels that were a shared passion between us. It wasn’t until mid-2008 that we met in person when work brought us together, but when we first met I remember it being as though we’d known each other for years. (I remember the meeting clearly – we had lunch at the Rebel House in Toronto, and I remember he convinced me to order the lunch special)

Over the next 18 months or so as we worked together, Michael became both a friend and a mentor. I spent countless hours sitting (on a massive exercise ball) in his office, as he did in mine, talking strategies and tactics, the latest online tools and trends, or how to resolve a difficult client situation. We pitched new business together; we presented at events together; we laughed, sighed, argued and relaxed together. That time shaped how I approached my work, not just then but now too.

I fondly remember the bizarre situations we found ourselves dealing with.

I remember the phone calls I made to him from a remote campsite on an island in the middle of Georgian Bay, when a client issue erupted over a weekend and we found ourselves defending our client from a backlash on the Daily Kos.

I remember Michael convincing us all that it was a good idea to put two otherwise normal actors in red lycra suits, name them “Tee” and “Vee” and walk around Toronto – in the middle of winter - with a shoulder-mounted projector to promote a client’s new online TV service.

I remember Michael, trying to figure out how to get coverage for a client’s new ultra-thin TV, drafting an email pitch that was as thin as the TV and having it re-printed verbatim in outlets.

All of these and more. Throughout it all, Michael was thoughtful, calm, strategic, quick-witted and hilarious.

More than this, though, I remember the side of Michael that matters more – the one that shone through outside work.

We talk a lot about community in this industry, and that word is often horribly abused. In Michael’s case, though, he really was part of a community – both online and off. Michael could name-check some of the first wave of social media pioneers as friends, and was himself an early social PR pioneer. Offline, he also made a big impact – as one of the founders of HoHoTO, he helped to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the Daily Bread Food Bank, for example. The impact of his passing on his community can be seen with a simple Twitter search for his name, as tributes pour in from around the world.

Above all, Michael was a devoted family man. He spoke constantly – incessantly – about his beloved wife Leona and his three children. The look on his face whenever he spoke about them, and the way he followed through on that with his actions, left no room for doubt about his priorities. It kills me to think of them losing such a devoted husband, father and companion.

Michael passed away aged 48 – far too young for the world to lose such an incredible, inspirational man.

While this is a sad day without doubt, a Facebook post from his Eamonn made me smile:

Enjoy life.
Hug your loved ones tight.
Be happy that he lived.
and raise a glass to him tonight

Michael, rest well my friend. One of these days we’ll share another beer. Until then, I – and many, many others – will dearly miss you.

Edit: Here are a few other posts from some of Michael’s friends:

Forrester says social doesn’t drive online sales, and why that’s fine

Research recently released by Forrester entitled “The Purchase Path of Online Buyers in 2012” indicates that email and search dominate the online space in driving online sales. Social media, says the report, drives less than 1% of online sales.

As reported by Marketing Pilgrim:

  1. Paid search matters most for new customers
  2. Email matters most for repeat customers
  3. Social tactics are not meaningful sales drivers

I can hear the howling from the rooftops now. This is complete anathema to those who argue that traditional marketing in its various forms is “dead”.

Last year I was sceptical about Forrester’s 2011 report given that the data was taken from the clients of a single marketing agency – and frankly most of my concerns remain around methodology and report scope. At the same time, there’s food for thought here. Here’s my take:

1. Social is media, not a medium

We need to stop thinking about social media as a silver bullet, stand-alone silo and approach communications as an integrated discipline where paid, owned and earned media all work together to drive results.

Edelman Media Cloverleaf

Earlier this year I suggested that transmedia storytelling is critical, and that we need to stop thinking of social media as a goal unto itself. A few months later, in my presentation on six essential shifts in social strategy at BlogWorld New York earlier this year, I argued that we (as digital communicators) have reached a point where “shiny objects dominate discussion” and that we need to start thinking about it as an enabler and partner to other communications functions.

Yes, there are specialized skills and knowledge that people require to operate effectively, but that doesn’t mean we should put social on a pedestal – we need to think about integration, not isolation.

Communications functions need to work together. Nearly three years ago, I obsessed over another Forrester report on the social media marketing ecosystem, which the pros and cons of paid, owned and earned media. A key “pro” of paid: reach. Relatively few companies have achieved any kind of reach in social media at this stage; those who have, have mostly done so by paying for it. The whole point of thinking of this as an ecosystem: the pros and cons of each element balance each other out.

2. Sales isn’t always the objective

Thinking of sales – and in this case, just online sales – is narrow-minded. Essential when it comes to effective research, but not in consuming it for broad communications trends. However, I’ve long argued that social media’s strong point isn’t in final point-of-sale, low funnel conversion.

What about long-lead sales (as I said in response to last year’s version of this same report, last-click analysis is very flawed - and much social traffic via apps often displays in web analytics as direct traffic, for that matter)? What about cost avoidance? What about driving people to sign up to receive information over time? What about customer retention, loyalty and advocacy? More broadly, what about organizational reputation (where PR plays strongly too)?

There’s a lot more to communications than just driving sales, and ignoring that as a communicator is blinkered.

3. Of course email matters

I hate email spam as much as everyone else. You know what I don’t hate, though? Email that I’ve signed-up for. As Marketing Pilgrim noted, Forrester’s report shows that 30% of repeat sales involve email in the process. I’m not at all surprised to hear that email is highly effective for repeat customers – they’ve said they want to hear from you.

 

4. Social can underpin and enhance other functions

Thinking of Facebook and Twitter as the extent of social is narrow-minded – on-domain blogs and rich media content, for example, can both live on-domain and drive traffic to those domains (not saying that content marketing falls entirely within social, but there’s a significant overlap nowadays), and in doing so can affect search. Meanwhile. studies have shown that positive reviews significantly increase the likelihood of people purchasing products online – fueling the comparison shopping engines in the chart above. Social can help to drive that – whether through advocacy programs or through tools like Bazaarvoice.

So is this study going to put the cat among the pigeons? Sure. Are the snake oil salesmen going to come out swinging? Oh yes.

However, those of us who work in the space and driving results at scale know that:

  • There’s merit to the picture Forrester paints here
  • This is one piece of the much bigger communications puzzle, and there’s more than meets the eye.

 

Blogger relations – you’re doing it wrong

I don’t usually write posts outing other PR folks, but a pitch I received this morning from another PR agency roused my blogging tendencies from their slumber.

Here’s how it read:

From: [...]@gmail.com
Sent: Wed, Aug 15, 2012 at 3:02 AM

PR Firm [...] Sends Small Businesses to the Top of Social Media for $790 Per Month

On Monday, August 13, [PR agency] announced three new SEO / Social Media / Press Release Packages starting at $790 per month, bringing an affordable solution to businesses needing a strong online presence via Facebook, Twitter, WordPress blog and press releases. The smallest package which includes a number of posts, tweets, articles and press releases each month, costs little more than sending one press release through a service.

To view this release on PRWeb, click the link below:

http://www.prweb.com/releases/[...]

______________________
If you would rather not receive future communications from [...], please go to [...].
[Address]

Let’s see…

  1. Pick your audience: If this person had done any research they’ve have known from posts like this or this that I’m not a fan of spray and pray tactics or services. If I’m going to write about something like this, it’s not going to be in a positive way, and I’ll firmly argue that $790 per month will not get you to the “top of social media”. It’s not going to get you to the top of anything, in fact.
  2. Don’t spray and pray: They sprayed and prayed. At least I was in the “to” line, but there was no effort whatsoever to address me personally – even a “Dear Blogger”, which still triggers the “delete” button for me, would be a step up from this. There’s  absolutely no customization, either, or even an effort to do anything beyond copy/paste the first paragraph (I assume – I didn’t click through) of the release.
  3. Offer a call to action: I have no idea what this company wants from me. Do they want me to write about their announcement? Do an interview with a spokesperson? Try it out? Offer a trial? It’s not clear, which means most people will do nothing.
  4. Avoid free email services: The email came from a Gmail account; one with the word “guru” in the account name, no less. You’re a PR agency and your pitches are coming from a Gmail account? And one with the word “guru” in the account name, no less?
  5. Don’t make me opt-out when I didn’t opt-in: How did I make it onto this list of yours? Why do I need to say “no, I don’t want to automatically receive your pitches”? If you were researching and tailoring the emails to me I’d be much more open to it, but signing me up for your automatic spam? No thanks.

This really is the worst kind of PR – the kind that actually makes me angry about people who claim to work in the same space as me. It’s lazy, it’s unprofessional and, if it’s anything like the way this company goes about conducting PR activities for its clients, it’s not a great testimonial for the firm.

Six essential shifts in social media strategy

We’ve reached a critical point in the evolution of social media as a business tool. Gone are the days when the GMOOT (Get Me One Of Those) approach will get you anywhere – simply having a Twitter account, or a Facebook Page, isn’t enough. We’re at the point of social media saturation, and something’s got to give.

So began the session description for my recent presentation at BlogWorld New York. The crux: that the days of social media as an experiment are over – it’s time for a more mature approach to social media within companies in order for social media to be viewed as a sustainable communications and business function.

Unfortunately, we’re also at a point where pursuit of the shiny object has reached an extreme, and that this pursuit is conducted within an increasingly transparent fishbowl while armchair critics circle, waiting for the next “fail” from companies.

In this environment, where transparency and scrutiny are paired up with a shift in focus from experimentation to results, and yet where the allure of “the next big thing” persists, companies need to structure and approach social media differently.

My presentation focused on six essential shifts that I see in how many businesses approach social media strategy. Of course, not all companies are in the same situation. Some with mature programs have evolved beyond this stage; some face just a few of these shifts; others face them all:

  1. Moving away from shiny objects and towards social business
    1. Asking “why” to understand demands
    2. Building a social media infrastructure to support the social brand
    3. Taking baby steps in implementation – from crawl, to walk, to run, to fly
  2. Setting better objectives for social media
    1. Setting SMART objectives
    2. Tying back to broader business goals
    3. Staying clear of the “how” and “what” when setting objectives
  3. Measuring effectively against those objectives
    1. Focusing on the right numbers for the audience
    2. Understanding what numbers really mean
    3. Avoiding made-up numbers
    4. Measuring to drive insights alongside determining results
  4. Breaking down silos and integrating across functions
    1. Approaching social media as an integrated function
    2. Breaking-down silos through day-to-day tactics
    3. Integrating through reporting structures, governance and social media organizational models
  5. Planning and executing content more strategically
    1. Considering content objectives
    2. Identifying appropriate content sources
    3. Fine-tuning execution via appropriate content volume, mix and format
  6. Engaging effectively to build relationships and communities of interest
    1. Embracing negative and neutral conversations
    2. Establishing processes to minimize risk

How about you – have you seen companies needing to make these improvements to their social media strategy?

For more on the topic, check out this excellent write-up of my presentation over at SmartBlog for Social Media.

Thanks once again to Rick, Dave, Deb, Shane and the rest of the BlogWorld team for the invitation to speak. This was my fifth BlogWorld presentation, and I always enjoy it. 

7 Steps to Planning Better Presentations

As we approach the end of the Spring conference season, and in the run-up to BlogWorld New York, I got to reflecting on how my approach to presentations has evolved over the last while.

Preparing a presentation for a conference is no mean feat (I’d estimate I spend at last 30 hours on each presentation I create for conferences; often more). With that level of time investment, especially if you’re creating multiple presentations each year, you need to make sure you invest your time well.

This year, I’ve started approaching presentations in a new way. I’ve thrown out the PowerPoint-driven way of planning my presentations, and turned towards a more story-driven way of building them out. My goal: creating presentations that speak more directly and relevant to the people I’m speaking to.

Here, in seven steps, is how I’m preparing my BlogWorld NYE presentation. You can use these seven steps yourself, to improve your own presentations.

1. Decide on your topic.

Simple enough, sometimes. Other times, it may take a little more thinking.

  1. Who is the audience? Who is attending the conference, and who from that group do you want to attend your session? For BlogWorld, I actually broke it down to a few sample job titles of people I want to ‘speak to’.
  2. What do they want? Once you’ve figured out who you’re aiming to speak to, think about them more and figure out what they may want to get out of the event. Whether you’ve already figured out your topic or not, that will help you focus the meat of your presentation on them. Write it down, and refer back to this every time you sit down to work on the presentation.

2. Create your framework

The next step is to create the high-level framework for the presentation (I’ve taken inspiration from Cliff Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points here).

Break down your session – what do you want to cover in the time you have? How long do you have to present? How long is the Q&A? Plot it out in a two-column table, with your main topic in a single cell on the left (as a reminder to ladder back to it) and multiple rows within this in the second column – you’ll build on this in later steps:

Presentation topic Sub-topic #1
Sub-topic #2
Sub-topic #3

 3. Flesh it out

At this point you already have a bare-bones outline of your persentation. The next step is to flesh it out. I do this with the addition of additional detail to the sub-topic column, and two new columns in the table.

Firstly, figure out how you want to prioritize your topics. You know how long you have and you know what you want to cover, so break it down. You can change it later, but it again helps down the road as you build your presentation.

Secondly, break each sub-topic down into components – this represents the narrative that your presentation will ultimately follow. As you do so, additional thoughts will come to you on soundbites, stats, reference points and even visuals. Note them in the final column here for future reference.

Presentation topic Sub-topic #1

0:00 – 0:15

Subtopic detail 1.1 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 1.2 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 1.3 Notes/Visuals
Sub-topic #2

0:15 – 0:30

Subtopic detail 2.1 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 2.2 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 2.3 Notes/Visuals
Sub-topic #3

0:30 – 0:45

Subtopic detail 3.1 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 3.2 Notes/Visuals
Subtopic detail 3.3 Notes/Visuals

See what we’re doing here? We’re building a kind of hierarchy. By the time you’re done, the sub-topics should read as the key points within your presentation subject, and the sub-topics tell a more detailed story of those key points. Each row ladders back to the high-level topic, and each column tells the story of the presentation at a different level of detail.

By this point you should be finding that you’re forcing yourself to take a hard look at your presentation flow, identifying pieces that need to move around, either vertically or horizontally, within your structure. You should also be getting excited as the presentation takes shape.

4. Write it out

At this point, you’re at the stage of writing-out your presentation. Yes, that’s right – write it out.

The level you take this to is up to you. You could just make more detailed notes on the breakdown of your detailed presentation elements, or you could write it out in full. The latter is more time-consuming, but can also give you a better idea of where you stand time-wise. While I rarely refer to speaking notes on-stage, I do prefer to write things out in full the first time so I can walk through it out-loud and see how it sounds.

If you choose to write it out in full, a good guide to length is shooting for roughly 110 words for each minute you’ve allocated to a topic. Your speaking rate may vary, so adjust according to your own style.

5. Start the deck

Step number five of seven, and you haven’t even opened PowerPoint or Keynote yet! Well, now you can. The difference is, rather than creating a presentation based on slides, you’re now creating it based on a narrative. Go through your notes, and drop them into the speaking notes section of slides. Don’t worry about the front end; just the notes.

You can create slides based on the topical break-down you’ve created – the more straight-forward approach – or you can do it based on natural transitions within the speaking notes you’ve created – your choice.

The key part here, again, is that you’re building your deck based on the topic and not based on shoe-horning specific visuals into slides, which often happens if you let slides drive the topic instead of vice versa.

6. Visuals!

Now that you’ve built your deck, the final step is the visuals. Happily for the audience, with the way you’ve planned this out, your visuals now support the material rather than the reverse, and you should be able to avoid “death by awful PowerPoint slides”. Refer to your topic notes, refer to the visuals you jotted down throughout your process, and pick visuals that reinforce what you know you’ll be saying rather than the reverse.

7. Refine and rehearse

You’re almost there. The last step is editing – my least-favourite but possibly most-valuable step. Don’t close things down and wait for the presentation; go over your deck and make sure it works. Sanity-check it with a colleague (or, if they’re really tolerant, your partner).

Finally, rehearse the hell out of your presentation. There’s nothing worse than a presenter who umms and aahs his or her way through their presentation, and you’re not going to have slides full of 12-point font behind you as a crutch if you forget, so make sure you know your presentation inside and out.

You should know your presentation well enough that you can accommodate interruptions without getting flustered (because, as anyone who presents a lot will tell you, it happens all the time. Sigh…).

Conclusion

There you have it. I’ve used this approach for a couple of presentations, and found I come at them with a much more thoughtful approach than I used to. It takes a bit more of a time investment, and it means you need to know your stuff, but I think it’s worth it.

What do you think? If you give a lot of presentations, how do you go about planning them?

If you’ll be at BlogWorld, I’m presenting “Six Important Shifts in Social Media Strategy” at 10:15 on June 5 – let me know if you think this technique worked for my session! (If you haven’t registered yet, use the code “SDaveF10″ to receive a 10% discount on your registration fee.)

(Photo credit: evablue)