Slide decks and spreadsheets

This morning I came across an article in about how Charmin is using a wiki to create a community cataloging the locations of public toilets in ten countries.  As the article points out, it’s not so much the magnitude of the initiative, but the direction it points for how a large CPG organization thinks about its customers and how best to engage them in a conversation about one of its brands.  It’s easy to see when they “get” this transformation and when they don’t.

There’s been a lot written about how brands should be thinking about social media, and our portfolio companies like Wetpaint, Smilebox, and Icebreaker are all deeply engaged in developing products or services enabling a richer interaction between consumers and brands.  I spend a lot of time digging deeply into the trends and subtleties driving and enabling this broader opportunity space, and understanding how important the “understanding of the audience” is to this space.

So a while ago I was asked to guest lecture at a “Top 25” university MBA program on the subject of venture capital and entrepreneurship.  It was at a time when I was travelling a lot, and was really, really busy (which is a cop-out, when are any of us not busy?).  I prepared my talk from a very “inside-out” perspective:  my observations, my points of view, my experiences.  What I didn’t do was spend time examining the course syllabus – admittedly, a brain-dead and inexcusable lapse in not just effectiveness and basic marketing but also common courtesy.

About half way through my talk I made an observation that my job was basically one of digesting information, and that it came in two formats:  slide decks (PowerPoint presentations) and spreadsheets.  I mentioned that between these two documents, you really get the essential information you need from the company, before you dig into the really useful information to help make a funding decision – your own research, your own contacts, your own scar tissue.  

A hand was raised.  The question?  What about business plans? 

I told these students that not only do I rarely come across these, when I do, it’s usually a sign that the entrepreneurs are first-time entrepreneurs, are “old school” in a not good way.  That extracting the salient information from within all that prose takes more time, and in my world, time is a  hard commodity to come by.  I thought this was a useful and helpful piece of “real world” insight.

Except that the class I was speaking to was a few weeks into learning how to write business plans. 

How was it that I was standing in front of 75 MBA students delivering a message that wasn’t “wrong” but clearly was not effective given the context.  Well, with the same arrogance and ignorance large brands who just “don’t get” social media have.

I had completely failed to understand my market and audience.  I hadn’t thought through my objectives for the talk from a perspective any other than my own. I wasn’t thinking “conversation” I was thinking “talking.”

I’m headed back to the same class to lecture again in two weeks.  I know how I will approach the development of my message: a clear set of objectives and a set of messages informed from my point of view and the context of the students and the syllabus.

But back to slide decks and spreadsheets.  As true as it may be that this business is all about digesting information, getting to the point quickly, and that business plans are no longer the mechanism to do this, communication is about by listening, not talking – whether you’re a brand engaging consumers or just someone talking to a group of students. 

I wish Charmin well; that’s not an obvious tactic they’ve chosen, and I hope it’s one based on listening, a lot.  I think it’s brilliant, and reveals an understanding of the audience, the medium, and thier brand.  I plan to be listening, a lot, when I’m in front of those students in two weeks.

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2 Responses to “Slide decks and spreadsheets”

  1. Jenny Hall Says:

    I made the same mistake once- whoops.

    I think some companies are too quick to jump on the “social media” bandwagon without knowing if the channel is appropriate. They’re told it’s “cheap” (which it’s not in terms of time) and that they can engage with their customers on a more personal level (which may be true, but could also be a huge fail.)

    I don’t mind when a brand or company I’m passionate about engages- as long as they have something relevant to add to the ‘conversation’.


  2. Peter Zaballos Says:

    That’s exactly right, Jenny, but I think it’s organizationally/culturally difficult for a large brand to understand what is relevant to you, when so much of the inertia of their ongoing business. Think of the (many) large brands who outsource their media strategy/programs to agencies precisely because they don’t have this organic understanding. Appropriate and relevant imply a fluency with the medium the broader market in general struggles with, and the larger brands perhaps struggle with even more so.


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