Authentic. Passionate. Friend. Brains on Fire.

Sure, you go to a “seminar” and get all fired up to do whatever it is you’re supposed to do. But have you ever spent a day with true kindred spirits and walked away knowing that you’re supposed to be doing exactly what you’re doing? I just spent the day with a bunch of really smart people. No, I didn’t spend the day learning how to do a new thing, but I learned a ton. There were no tips, tricks or fixes. Simply a bunch of smart people sharing what has worked for them and what hasn’t. That’s the Brains on Fire FIRE Sessions. 

This year, we were treated to a wonderful surprise: We met on the stage of the Peace Center! If you’ve never been on a stage, this is the place to first experience. Olivier and I took a moment to appreciate the view of the seats and balconies, and marveled at how close people would feel if the seats were filled. Not an intimidating close, but intimate. The stage was significant for me, because the stage can signal fear for many. And we talked about fear a lot today. Fear of engaging in conversations. Fear of losing control. Fear of the unknown.

Geno Church challenged us to let go of traditional definitions of ROI. We all know that investing money, especially today, is scary. And, so, many look to the numbers for a guarantee that the money will be spent well. But, with all the “trust numbers” showing that real people trust companies less than they ever have, companies need to rethink marketing as rebuilding trust through conversations. Then, redefine ROI with more intrinsic measures of success. Dare to do it. Don’t be afraid.

Big lesson: Talk. And listen. You might learn something more valuable than tracking leads.

Jake McKee of Ant’s Eye View spoke of his days with LEGO, building online and offline communities that had a direct line of communication with LEGO. Looking at LEGO today, it’s hard for me to remember that LEGO operated like “Fort Business,” with no consumer communication coming in or going out. I know the LEGO that gladly accepts photos of my kids’ creations, even though not one has made LEGO Magazine yet. I also know the LEGO that has created some fabulous games and the model maker that we all love to play.

LEGO has come a long way by thinking of itself as a company with a higher calling: Providing a creative medium. They also took another look at their “numbers” a bit differently, and found that a market they had been marginalizing (ages 18+) actually spent a lot more on LEGO sets than they thought. That’s why you’re now seeing bigger, more complicated sets focused on things like Star Wars. People at LEGO had to work very hard to change their mindset not only about the adult vs. child markets, but also about the value of “weird” people who dress in character and spend big bucks on a child’s toy. Jake talked a lot about how long it took to change people’s minds, but he kept at it. And he had a VP behind him, willing to support him and back him up. Two necessary ingredients for making change happen among fearful people.

Big lesson: LEGO went from struggling financially to doing better than it dreamed during the same period of time it shed the fear of talking and listening to its customers. Coincidence?

The Fiskars Fiskateers are crafting rock stars. Really. The top five Fiskateers shared how people drive hours to meet them at product demonstrations. Yes, these women are passionate about their craft, and just happen to sometimes use Fiskars products. The amazing part is that these women (are there any male Fiskateers?) are not required to show any Fiskars products. They are not exclusive to Fiskars. And they can say anything they want, including whether a Fiskars product stinks. Scary? You bet! But it works. The Fiskateers already loved Fiskars products before they became brand ambassadors, so naturally they will show off Fiskars products when it makes sense. And because it happens naturally, people adore these women. They’re honest, and Fiskars is selling more products because of the Fiskateers.

Big lesson: Yes, people will jump up and down and scream and shout good stuff about you. Even if they look weird doing it.

Mr. Made To Stick, Dan Heath, talked about sticky ideas. Sure, you can read his book, but it’s different hearing his tales in the context of the FIRE Sessions. We’ve talked about fear and letting go, and getting in on the conversation. Dan helped us figure out what makes a good “how.” Emotion triggers conversation. Use that emotion. What’s behind it? Passion. “Passion is easily squandered.” Yup, that’s a quote from Dan. Figure out how to connect through that passion, and give people a clear way to respond.  So many “campaigns” fail, despite the assumption that it has a crafty “call to action.” There is no one way to choose a next step, but think in terms of showing people how to behave, you’re on the right track. Oh, and don’t forget the Curse of Knowledge when showing them how to behave. Grab the book. It’s better that way. Finally, don’t try to be everything to everyone, because you’ll alienate them all. Dan used a great saying he heard long ago: “If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly.” Suddenly I’m thinking of a certain purple cow. (Or, as Olivier might say, a purple splotch.)

Big lesson: Know who you are and stay true to it. Have a heart, share it, and use that to bring people along with you. Don’t forget to show them the way, and give them a great reason to follow you.

After a fabulous coffee break with West End Coffee brewed on the spot, Jake McKee, Dan Heath, Susanne Fanning from Fiskars and Jamie Plesser from Best Buy joined Geno Church and Carol Reese Rage Against the Haze on the couches to talk about building communities. 

Fans vs. friends: Fans will shout, “I love you!” all the way home. Friends will tell you when you have spinach in your teeth. Build your community with friends.

Hearing the bad stuff (Susanne Fanning): You gotta hear the bad stuff. Really. You think you’re in control. Control of your comfort and economic stability. Really, you’re not. You can regain some of that control by joining the conversation.

On finding community leaders: Rage Against the Haze hand-picks teenagers that are willing to stand up in the face of opposition and stick by a pledge to resist smoking, drinking and drugs. Carol is gentle, but pushes to test resolve when interviewing in person. Susanne said that 60-65% of requests to become a Fiskateer fall off when they get the email asking why they want to become a Fiskateer. It wasn’t intended to be a deliberate barrier to entry, but rather to get to know each and every Fiskateer. Jake was glad to hear that there weren’t any automated processes.

Does a community really need a leader? Absolutely. There is no way to manage communication between the community and the right people within the company. Remember “Fort Business”? Jake adds that the natural tendency for any human is to default to needs of the self and the company first. The community manager steps in to ensure that the community doesn’t get left out. Draw the line and preserve the relationship. Besides, just because you’re done with one implementation project for the community doesn’t mean you’re “done.” Always look to improvement.

These are tactics that speak to a bigger movement: changing the inner-workings of a company to think about customers as a community, not as a number. It’s a huge shift, but it can be done. Jake had some great tactics for involving people from all walks of a company, and the end goal is to engage people “inside” with people “outside.” Eventually the culture of community builds.

Last year, I attended the FIRE Sessions as a “corporate insider,” evaluating Brains on Fire. It didn’t work out with that particular employer at the time, but they invited me back this year. I’m not working for anyone that would engage Brains on Fire, but they’re not casting me out. Evidence that they live by what we learned today. We’ve developed a bit of community, BoF and me, and they brought me into the FIRE Session to keep making connections. I met some great people and got to greet people I met last year. Stick together. Friends. No matter who I talk to, if they ask about ROI and word-of-mouth, identity or social media tactics, I’m pointing them in the direction of Brains on Fire. I’m a fan. I’ll even go out on a limb and call these people my friends. That’s what the FIRE Session is all about.


Bank On Rain: Catching rain for clean water in Africa

Lake Erie shore at Mackinac

Lake Huron shore at Mackinac

In 2000, the U.S. used 408 billion gallons of water each day. That’s 1,430 gallons each day for each of us. I can’t wrap my head around that number, until I think about my daily shower. Then there’s the dishes. Laundry. And, of course, the toilet. Washing hands, especially during flu season. I’m picturing 1,430 gallons of milk stacked up in my kitchen, and now it’s sounding about right.

There’s an organization called Bank-On-Rain that has been looking at water use in developing areas, especially extremely dry areas of Africa. We were bouncing some ideas around on Caroline Di Diego’s blog, Inclined to Design and Mike Williamson quoted average daily water use at 15 gallons each day for a family of 6. It’s clear these families are focusing on using the water strictly for cooking and very minimal sanitation.

Let’s run with this 15-gallon-per-day average for a minute, rather than trying to change the daily habits of these families. There is a fascinating way to meet that need using recycled materials. Better, it doesn’t require an infrastructure. Bank-On-Rain created a simple way to catch rainwater and keep it clean and potable using recycled containers. In Rwanda, there are two major rainfalls each year, yielding about 32″ of rain. The idea of Bank On Rain is to catch that water when it comes and store it for the dry season. The alternative? Women spending all day walking to the nearest watering hole just to come back with a few buckets of water each.

Bank On Rain uses shipping containers to catch the rain that falls on the roof of a structure. So, a 200-square-foot roof can collect 3,840 gallons of water, if it’s funneled into containers. That’s about 256 days of water. From a 200-square-foot roof.

Mike Williamson has found a readily available type of shipping container, called a “fish tote.” Each fish tote can hold 250 gallons of water. Simply creating a downspout system out of simple PVC pipe can fill 15 of these fish totes. While it won’t provide all the water needed for an entire year, it covers two-thirds of the year. That’s better than spending your entire life chasing after water. And possibly not having enough.

The cost for one rainfall catchment system looks to be around $300 each, if purchased. Inclined to Design and Bank On Rain are working with shippers that may donate clean fish totes, since those make up $270 of that cost. At $30 per catchment system, Bank On Rain becomes a fabulous way to help families get the water they need.

So, what are we supposed to do with this information? Well, first, check out the official statement of goals on If you know anyone who can help connect Bank On Rain with others who can donate shipping containers, all the contact information is on the web site. Please take that step. They’re also looking for people who have existing contacts in Rwanda and other parts of Africa who can help with delivering and setting up these systems once they arrive.

You’ll find further discussion on how Bank On Rain fits with larger water and infrastructure solutions, as well as the social implications of clean water on the Inclined to Design blog and the Bank On Rain Twine central.

I’m not passionate about social media; I’m passionate about people

Reaching out to listen and learn

Reaching out to listen and learn

I’ve been a bit of a Twitter addict lately, chatting away every chance I can with my new friends here in Greenville, and with people across the country who chit-chat about cars, sustainable practices and whatever happens to sound interesting. There are so many great ideas out there, and so many smart people.

Some people have looked to me for help with social media tools and plans. While this seems to make sense, I manage to throw people off when I tell them that maybe Twitter isn’t the best place to make connections. Whaaa?? Right. In fact, I manage to resist new technologies until there’s a really compelling reason to jump in. I resisted blogging for a very long time, even for client solutions.

It was great to watch the discussions for and against GM’s FastLane blog, and whether to use ghost writers, managing editors, or simply have Bob Lutz post and comment without moderation. In the end, it was a combination guest writers, Bob’s own words, an editor and moderators for comments that made FastLane as successful as it was. Sure, it worked for GM. But it wasn’t an all-inclusive solution. Even after a year, many interviews and a funny t-shirt, some still didn’t believe Lutz really sat down at a computer and typed his own words into a document that was posted to the blog mostly unedited. GM still needed to use traditional channels to reinforce its message. And that’s still true today. The people who buy GM cars aren’t necessarily reading blogs or following Twitter accounts.

And that’s okay. The idea is to open and manage as many lines of communication as you can. Listen and respond. Heck, chatter, too, if that’s what you need to do to get the conversation going.

You of all people know best where your fans are. Find your critics and give them as many ways as you can to let them voice their opinions. Social media is simply one way to get people talking. It’s the conversation, not the tool, that helps people open up.

The Brand Builder manages to kick-start us all…



Last night I attended the Working With WordPress seminar. Doug Cone (@nullvariable) and Olivier Blanchard (@thebrandbuilder) are both excellent speakers, and both managed to get me moving and finally put this blog in place.

I’ve long wanted to start a blog that will hold ideas. Ideas are good, but they’re useless until put in a format usable for others. Basic management training will always coach a newbie to develop ideas before presenting them. Some can do that in their own minds. I cannot. I need a place to see them and share them. 

What kinds of ideas are brewing in my mind? Bank On Rain is one. How to help our public education system get better and embrace what’s working. Content and the very manner of sharing ideas in “human english” so that others grasp new points of view and connect the dots.

Speaking of connecting the dots, I love connecting people. I can’t do that until I start getting some of these ideas out of my head.