My fellow digital marketing champions and practitioners:

It’s time for us to do better.

I love that so many of us have been out in front of digital transformation for a while, some of us even before social media was a thing at all as we convinced our companies to build websites or let customers contact us via email.

But I don’t love that our passion and knowledge can bring out our worst tendencies to be judgmental, sanctimonious, and to act as though anyone who isn’t enlightened as we consider ourselves to be is just stupid, dense, or some combination of the two. It’s really unflattering to us as professionals to behave this way, and in a lot of moments, it’s just plain misguided and incorrect.

Here are three things that are particularly prevalent and I hope we’ll reconsider as we progress in our chosen industry and profession.

Caring What People Call Themselves

We have a terrible habit in the digital marketing space of obsessing – a bit too much – about what other people call themselves, and what titles they use.

The latest edition was a friend of mine – a friend whom I respect and like a great deal – lamenting about someone whose title is SVP of Thought Leadership. His objection was two-fold: 1) He didn’t believe anyone should get to claim that title for themselves, rather that it’s only something others can call you and 2) This person only had 1,400 followers and didn’t seem all that interesting to him.

I have a couple of problems with this.

For starters, who are we to decide what titles people have earned or deserve if we don’t know them at all? How do we know this person isn’t a thought leader in his community or profession? And even if he may not be according to our standards, who sat down and made us the ultimate arbiters of what constitutes thought leadership?

Secondly, titles aren’t for your peers. They’re not even really for you. In my world, my title is for the customers I serve. It helps them understand the role I play in our relationship with them, what my area of specialization is, and ideally how I can help them. So my peers can make fun of my title all day long, but if my customers ultimately find it informative and valuable (and yes, even impressive), that matters a lot more than the seal of approval from another marketer. People do look for thought leaders and industry experts to help them learn and understand things, and whether or not the fishbowl finds it distasteful, personally I hear enterprise customers talking about it and asking for it often enough that it matters.

Lastly, influence is not a quantity metric. It’s an impact metric. I can be incredibly influential by just having the right 25 people listening to me and taking action based on my behavior. Or I can have hundreds of thousands of people who may give me a passing glance but who would never take action based on what I tell them. What feels more like “thought leadership” to you?

Not to mention the fact that I think it’s just a bit juvenile of us to sit in judgment of our peers and their professional titles. Who cares if someone likes to consider themselves an expert, a ninja, a guru or a mastermind? Isn’t that ultimately the decision of the people who hire and pay them (or don’t)? And if our work is so precious and important, don’t we have more important things to focus on than these sorts of semantics?

Oversimplifying what it means for a business to be “social”.

If I had a dollar for every post, article, tweet or comment I’ve read that laments how “not social” a company is being online, or how an individual is just “broadcasting” when they share their own content, or why such-and-such a brand isn’t doing it right, I could retire to a beach somewhere.

Yes, a lot of us who have been marketers for a long time hoped and believed that we would lead the charge on digital transformation in business and that organizations would adapt more rapidly to the impact of technology and specifically the effects of social media.

But that didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons. Some feel “legitimate”, like the operational and cultural complexities of governance around broad digital adoption, or our inability to provide rigorous measurement and accountability frameworks to illustrate the impact of digital initiatives.

Some feel less so, like the cultural and attitudinal resistance of more traditional people and companies that are intimidated, overwhelmed, or otherwise skeptical of social media and its place in business.

But is shame and scolding what’s going to fix that? I don’t think so.

When you are on the leading edge of any industry, part of the mantle you agree to carry is that of evangelist, educator, sales person and teacher. All of those things require patience, and an understanding that any transformation has its share of leaders and early adopters, a good chunk of people in the middle who will move when they feel they have sufficient reason, and a host of people who will resist until the very last.

Perhaps if there’s a failure of organizations to adapt to social and digital transformation, the failure is on us as those who have chosen to lead the charge. Perhaps we haven’t done our jobs well enough yet to prove the case, provide the tools, create the processes, and justify the investments. Digital transformation is HARD. It’s complicated. It’s cultural as well as operational. And none of that changes just because someone tells them it should.

One thing’s for sure: we’re not going to convince other companies to join the digital revolution if the price for their early experiments and missteps is an uncomfortable trial in the court of public opinion led by digital marketers who don’t think they’ve done it well enough.

Thinking they are the almighty judge and jury of “doing it right”.

Above all, I’m not sure what created this idea that digital marketing professionals are the only ones with the answers, but it’s simply not true. I think a little humility would serve us well.

In my role at work, it’s my job to help customers with best practices and guidance. In essence, I’m a consultant and and adviser and a confidante. But that doesn’t mean that I know it all.

The other part of my job is listening and learning. Understanding the real business problems and challenges of the companies I work with (and my own!). Taking questions I don’t know the answers to — and there are still plenty after 20 years in marketing — and digging in to find them, or at least make an attempt.

The worst thing we can do, especially if we consider ourselves a transformational generation and our field particularly progressive, is to act as though we’ve got it all figured out. The role of pioneers and explorers, in fact, is not to find THE answer, but to open up possibilities, to discover answers we didn’t have before and above all, to ask more and better questions.

No one likes a know it all. That includes your customers.

Digital transformation and the possibilities of it to change the way we work and do business is at the start, not the end. We’re still learning, developing, doing, finding new answers and tougher problems and weaving levels of complexity and sophistication into this at a level we couldn’t have even envisioned just a few years ago. And we have quite a ways to go.

It behooves us all to remember that we’re all students of this era, some of us are just deeper into the course materials than others. And while we may have great learnings and expertise to share, we also have a lot to learn. If we’re lucky, we’ll always be doing so.

Don’t forget why we’re here.

I love the work I do. I think it’s the most exciting and rewarding time to be in our field.

But we owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to the businesses and people we work with to recognize that expertise is a spectrum, not an absolute, and no one appointed us to the jury who gets to decide when someone’s expertise is “enough” to meet muster.

So let’s all get our eyes back on our own paper, work hard to deliver value through the work we do, demonstrate our results and prove their worth, and continue pushing the boundaries so that we can grow and expand our own expertise by learning from others.

There’s plenty of work to do out there, and plenty of innovation yet to come. Let’s get to it.


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