Nilofer Merchant: Creating Value in the #SocialEra

Nilofer Merchant

The big thing marketers need to get is this: until we care and we know one another - we're not listening to you.

Nilofer Merchant, author and entrepreneur

Talk about lightning in a bottle: Nilofer Merchant is a best-selling author, a successful entrepreneur, and a visionary – and she captures what she knows and shares it in a series of innovation columns for the Harvard Business Review. Most recently she has written a book that is a must-read for anyone in media, marketing or business: 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra. Nilofer's got real business cred too, having launched somewhere north of 100 products, netted $18 billion in global sales and is now is now on the board of one public and two private e-commerce companies.

Nilofer was also recently named to the Say 100 business channel by Dan Frommer. We caught up with her from her base in Silicon Valley to find out what marketer's need to understand (and don't) about the Social Era, what trends in marketing she's sees for 2013, and how to create value by connecting ideas and people across networks. Consider it a great way to start 2013 on the right foot.

It's a fun title: Why do you call yourself the (female) James Bond for innovation? Each of us is in some ways indescribable, so we might as well find a way to celebrate it and be willing to stand out, rather than try to fit in. That's what happened to me. You see, strategists are typically the brainy people who focus on business models, case studies, and best practices. Coaches and advisors typically do the soft stuff of Leadership, Culture and Processes. I happen to bridge the two worlds - with the realization that no idea is ever made real without having it be (a) right, and (b) shared. That cross-discipline thing is always hard for people to bucket so they would start describing me in various ways from "Secret Sauce" to "McGyver" and "James Bond." One day, someone pointed out that I was like James Bond, but female and the moniker "Jane Bond of innovation" was born. 

What are the top things most marketer's need to understand (and don't) about the Social Era? Whenever I say "Social is and can be more than media," people resist. It's as if the two words (social and media) are now permanently fused together. But they shouldn't be. The fact that they are joined at the hip in so many people's minds means that marketing agencies alone are thriving - while the rest of our organizations are not. Just because it’s on the Web and sharable, doesn’t make it social. So much of social media is not inherently social. Because social is, well, Social. Social is when you care or know the people. Otherwise it's just Media.

And the big thing marketers need to get is this: until we care and we know one another - we're not listening to you. Just like any relationship. The fact that it's online changes it a bit but the fundamentals are still the fundamentals. People need to be connected by having a shared purpose. And they need to care before they buy. And all of this needs to be relational rather than transactional. In the Industrial Era, we valued efficiency - how could we make something cheaper and faster. But in the SocialEra, trust is what matters. And no tool can create trust. But through conversation, community, and a relational approach, trust is developed. As soon as you get that, you get so much more.  

In a nutshell, how do you curate greatness and innovation in an organization? We know our economy has shifted away from mostly producing things. In the Social Era, we create value by how we connect ideas, people across networks. That changes even whether an organization is needed. A bunch of disparate seemingly disconnected people can now create value in a way that once only a centralized organization could. And all of this moves the focus to talent, culture and purpose. Greatness and innovation happens when you allow talent - anyone, quite possibly everyone -  to show up fully, in a culture that magnifies rather than diminishes what they can do with you, and then connected with others based on purpose (not on reporting structure). I'll point people to the Success Equation post I wrote a while back which elaborates on this. 

What were some of the most interesting trends in marketing you saw in 2012? I'll name 3 things that are fascinating me right now:
1. I see manufacturing coming back to the US. America has an almost crazy but misplaced faith in the power of startups to create U.S. jobs. Americans love the idea of the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world. Which is fine but it doesn't help the economy if it is decoupled from making things. As long as manufacturing is abroad, we miss the opportunity to cycle things quickly and to learn from production. As we can do social design (i.e. Behance), social funding (i.e. Kickstarter), flexible and distributed supply chains (i.e. Quirky, and social service (Get Satisfaction, everything changes. This shift will ripple through the industry and and shift the Industrial Era's focus on vertically integrated, large-scale manufacturing industry—much as the PC revolution threatened the mainframe computer industry.  These social moves are a tremendous fount of innovation opportunities. As with most disruptive changes, new ways to fund, conceive, design, and build products means we will see entirely new markets develop, with brand new ways to market them.
2. Related to #1, I see more people Making things. Chris Anderson [the former editor-in-chief of Wired] has been pointing to this for the last 2 or 3 years. But I see Kollabora allowing people to create their own designs, and Etsy selling them. Or 3D printing allowing any kind of production to happen.We're going to see a resurgence of creativity because people can - and this will mean entirely new ways to come to market.
3. Content marketing continues to grow in volume and magnitude. IBM did a piece of research that 37 percent of all brands are doing content marketing. And this scares me. We're already lost in the mass of blogs, content, tweets, etc. It seems like we're in the middle of a loud dinner party only getting louder as time goes on. I think this will cause companies to find a longer and deeper narrative thread as this fragmentation of platforms and ideas continues.

What else did you learn in 2012 that you would add to your This I Believe list? Believe in your own ideas long before other people do. If you truly have a new idea, no one can see it yet but you. I was pursuing this thread that has become the Social Era book (which has become a best seller, continues to sell in the top management book on the Kindle and was named by Fast Company as one of the best business books of 2012) yet almost everyone I talked with during the process told me no one was interested in this idea. Who needs another strategy book? Who even thinks strategy is important these days? I heard just about everything but the bottom line was "no way, no how" but this idea that any individual can create value is so central to the future. As the industrial era showed us the way to create value was the organization, we now need to wrap our heads around what it means when ANY person can do the same. It changes everything.

So this I believe: Let your curiosity and ideas tug you into the future because that is only way we'll get new ideas shared. 

Read more from Nilofer on her site, NiloferMerchant.com and follower her on Twitter at @nilofer.

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