Technology, journalism, social media and social responsibility
This profile is part of a series sponsored by the Social Media Club. This interview was conducted over several months culminating with the recent release of Solis’s latest book, What’s the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences.
Brian Solis is a globally recognized thought leader and a prolific publisher in the field of social media and change management. He has thousands of fans in the business, tech and online marketing industries, and very few detractors. Short in stature but larger than life in his style and delivery, he has an incredible gift for public speaking that perhaps borders on ostentatious. But those who know him well say he’s genuine, and the life of the party at dinners and social events. He’s easily approachable and makes himself available to anyone, whether he’s online or at a corporate event in Silicon Valley or at conference such as the recent Le Web in Paris.
Solis has carved a unique space in a social media world full of copycats. Through hard work and constant observation and writing, he’s stayed far ahead of the curve. His niche goes beyond the generic “thought leader” tag that many social media speakers would be perfectly satisfied to achieve. He’s more than just a digital analyst; he’s also a working sociologist and futurist, with a unique ability to uncover the mechanisms of social media and discover their workings with unrivaled precision and detail.
Solis often speaks in the ‘royal we’ form, and his leadership position in an industry full of social media strategists and consultants arguably allows him to do so. But that’s not why he does it.
At his core, Solis is a change agent, using his skills as a digital sociologists to lead executives and professionals to use social media to revitalize business strategies and create communities with their partners and customers. So when he uses the “we” form, it’s because he is a leader having a conversation with other leaders. At the same time, he regularly monitors his social channels and responds personally to questions from followers.
One result of this effort is that Solis, more than any other influencer in social media, owns the term “engage.”
He is currently a partner in the Altimeter Group, where he specializes in change management for enterprises. At Altimeter, he works alongside two other well-respected social media leaders, Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang. Prior to that, he founded FutureWorks, an award-winning New Media agency in Silicon Valley. Previously, he was a director at Benjamin Group. He began his career with the Dodge and Mansfield advertising agency in Los Angeles.
He has designed and led interactive and social programs for Fortune 500 companies, notable celebrities, and Web 2.0 startups. His blog, BrianSolis.com is among the top 1 percent of business and marketing online resources tracked by Technorati.
In addition to hundreds of speeches, presentations and blog posts, Brian is a prolific book author. His newest book, What’s the Future of Businesses: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences, was published ahead of its mid-March release date and is available now. Other published works include The End of Business as Usual, Engage!, Putting the Public Back into Public Relations (co-authored with Diedre Breakenridge), and Now is Gone, co-authored with Geoff Livingston. He’s also the creator of The Conversation Prism, an early and highly popular social media infographic describing the various types of social media and listing a number of key players.
Brian’s many friends include the cream of the crop of social media influencers. He spent New Year’s Eve at an exclusive dinner with the likes of digital star Sarah Austin and host Robert Scoble (interviewed here), both of whom have been personal friends with Brian for many years.
“He’s very well connected, fun to be around, and he’s always been like that. He has a very consistent persona, just a very fun person to have at the table,” said Scoble after the event. “He’s definitely a sociologist, he usually has pretty good insights, particularly about the social world and how businesses use it. He’s always looking forward into the future of social media and business.”
“I’ve known Brian for many years, and he is pretty much the same guy in any medium, whether it’s 3D or 2D,” said Austin, who often hangs out with Solis in San Francisco restaurants and lounges. “He generally likes nice places, and nice, fine things from nice cars to fine champagne.”
“A lot of people in the blogging world could learn from Brian, he really sees the big picture, and he knows how to be collaborative and support one another in this ecosystem,” said Austin. “Brian is completely collaborative, that’s why he is so successful. He definitely helped me get my start,” she added. “When I first got into it I was just pulling pranks on all the VCs, trying to be funny, and he was like, ‘You should actually try your hand at journalism.”
“He brought me to my first CES show and got me started on gadget journalism. That was like a pivotal moment, it changed my future by going into journalism. A lot of other bloggers who would see me as a competitive threat, but Brian is not like that, to me, Brian is like good people,” she concluded.
I asked Austin if she had ever seen him play guitar, a skill many of his closest friends weren’t aware of.
“Oh yes. We’re actually talking about starting a band, actually pulling it together to do a few performances,” she said. “He’s a rock star actually, if you asked me if there was any one in tech is a real rock star, I would say him first. He used to have a band, it would sell out entire venues, big venues.”
I couldn’t say whether she was joking or not, but the anecdote stands in stark contrast to Solis’ decidedly protective stance with respect to his personal life. He declined to tell me, for example, where he went to high school or college.
On the other hand, this stance is consistent with his overall approach to social media, especially from the perspective of personal brand.
Solis sees social media primarily as a platform to draw decision makers, partners, customers and consumers into a community where new ideas can evolve. In his mind, posting on Facebook about a rock band or politics or family trips would be not just a distraction, but a strategic mistake.
With this as background, I decided to see if it was possible to get behind the curtain and learn more about the resident sociologist of social media.
Brian, you have one of the most well-known and respected personas in social media, and yet there’s a lot that most people don’t know about you. I’d like to explore this a little, to learn more about you and how you arrived at this very influential point in your career. Does that work for you?
Sure, let’s go.
So let’s start at the beginning, with where you were born, perhaps and where you went to school?
I was born in the Los Angeles area, in the San Fernando Valley. But, you know, there are parts of my life that I feel are irrelevant to who I want people to know, I am very, very intentional about what I want people to know, and what they don’t know about me. In fact I think it is important that more people should think about that, about who they project themselves to be on social media and what they say, not just as strategists, but so people can see who we are as a function of social context, I think that is missing in a lot of social communications.
Okay, can you tell me a little about what your family life was like growing up?
Well, okay, I grew up in a very strong traditional family home, my mother was from Madrid, where a lot of value is placed on idea like of family and tradition, and if you want anything in life have to work for it.
We were very middle class, but when you grow up in Southern California, that balance is thrown off, so in effect we would be below the middle class line.
Do you have any connection to your mother’s family? And where is your Dad from, I’m assuming he’s from here?
I have visited Spain, to see her family, she comes from a large family. I have many first cousins, I go to Madrid to see them every couple of years, whenever business takes me there or nearby.
My Dad is from U.S., suffice to say that he met my mother in Madrid while he was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Okay, and can you tell me if you had a sense of what you wanted to do, or be, when you were a kid…or did you figure that out in college?
I did study journalism and economics while in college, and at the same time started to foray into tech marketing.
What’s probably most interesting in terms of a way to start this story is that, as a kid I was a programmer, I studied and wrote in BASIC, FORTRAN and stuff like that. I did chores like mowing lawns to make money to buy computer gear. That’s what sparked my love affair with technology from a young age. I have just always been into it.
That’s fascinating, and really cool. What other sorts of things did you do as a kid, did you have other hobbies or engage in sports?
I played guitar. That was another axis of my childhood, something that influenced me heavily. My mother being from Spain supported me in playing the guitar. At first it was acoustic, but I played electric as well. I naturally started off with flamenco and classical guitar, but I became really rambunctious pretty quick, I loved playing songs from the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and Jimi Hendrix.
You’ve talked about programming and guitar being influences. Did you have a vision for where you were going or what you wanted to do at that time?
Well, there were two other things that occurred that I felt were important for my future.
One was, I have always believed in the power of the press, but I didn’t think that the various forms of the media that we had … print and TV primarily … were really representative of the people for the people. I know that sounds a little deep as a young individual, but when you look at what was happening at the time in LA, there was the Christian Slater movie [Pump Up The Volume] where he had a pirate radio station and was sharing real news of what was taking place, airing dirty laundry, so people could do something about it. Some could see that as a revolutionary type of press, but really that was just a preface for social media.
So, when I was in college, I always felt that writing was a labor of love. And as a musician as well, I took to dabbling in songwriting, lyrics, and so on. Writing to me was an arduous process, but it was also a labor of love as I said, so it became an outlet that I could use to express what was important to me.
And that’s what drew you to pursuing a degree in journalism?
Yes that’s how I got into studying journalism, it was a way to hone the craft to better tell a story, fact, or opinion, to inform an audience.
When I was in college studying journalism, I did also start publishing a free magazine in the greater Los Angeles area that covered social issues, and the state of the world from the eyes of a teenager, twenty-something. It was about what was important in the nation, and locally, and also had some entertainment, some lighthearted content, movies reviews and so on.
It was one of many things I tried to pursue, in my earlier days. I did get a lot of recognition for it, there was a cover story in the LA Times, another in the LA Daily News and other outlets, so I actually did pretty well until I had to make a choice about what I really wanted to do.
It was a printed publication, the Internet wasn’t yet in everyone’s household. I was on UseNet at the time, and other bulletin boards, and I knew right away that this was the future, but I didn’t have the means or the passion to pursue a magazine in an industry that was not going anywhere.
It was also an interesting experience in that I got to learn the dynamics of the industry in terms of magazine publishing, readership development, advertising, and just what it took to convince people to advertise.
So I decided my best approach was to pursue my passion of tech and journalism by doing that part-time, pursuing a position at a marketing agency [Dodge and Mansfield] in 1991 as, essentially I was their database manager. My job was to make binders of information. Basically we had to build databases around them, get people to do data entry to populate those databases for advertising campaigns.
All the while I was publishing these magazines on a daily basis, listening to how marketers were approaching technology, reporters, advertising and marketing. And I started thinking about how they would approach customers. I felt it was done without a technology hat on, I felt it was in danger of becoming irrelevant, so one day I marched into the president’s office and asked if I could move away from database management into marketing, that was my passion.
So I went to work consulting for a laptop manufacturer, AMS in Southern California, and I got into marketing there. It was completely removed from journalism, but it was the spark that expanded my interest around not only marketing but mobility technology, because they were notebook manufacturers.
I kept telling myself, ‘I know this is going to become pervasive, this idea of connecting the right people with the right value proposition. At the time we were mainly focused on features and specifications that were solving problems, and for me it was all about embracing an opportunity, thinking of ways to combine the right features and price. I worked with AMS as they created features that explore peoples’ lifestyles around play, lifestyles of the mobile professional, getting people to buy into a movement.
With the dawn of the Internet becoming pervasive in households, the challenge became how consumer marketing – how storytelling really applied in world of online marketing.
It sounds like this is where you really started finding your groove?
Yes, it was, and I thought to myself, if I am going to have any real success in having a say about how this evolves, I was going to have to move to Silicon Valley. So I did that in 1996.
I started out with The Benjamin Group, they really had already unique approach where I wasn’t tackling any sort of marketing opportunity in the classical sense, but it was about, ‘what if there is another p in four p’s of marketing, with the fifth p being key people?
My hypothesis was that the Internet is going to be a big deal, and the way we are trying to sell tech today is not representative of the opportunity. It’s not a niche play but digital lifestyle. This was back when we were just beginning to see digital cameras and portable disk drives, and video was beginning to include digital imagery and audio. If you could see were this was going, you could tell that all of this was going to be in the hands of consumers.
We were looking at capabilities that now have become mainstream.
We’re talking about ways to connect lifestyles, connecting the needs of professionals with the Internet, how we told those stories at the right time to the right people. And how did this work out for your clients?
The companies we worked with were already very successful, very happy, and what I was proposing sort of broke the model of what a marketing agency traditionally does to sell and mark up its services, so it wasn’t optimal at the time.
The executives felt that it was going to take too much time, there were too many things that would have to be introduced in our organization, they would have to learn things that were essentially against what they already knew. So I was advised that ‘If you really believe this, you should go on your own and offer it as a solution rather than a product.’
So in 1999 I started FutureWorks, which was dedicated to – believe it or not – the idea of digital influence in marketing around reporters, early bloggers, website developers, people with a passion for communities and helping other people answer questions, directing them in our clients’ favor.
That was a brave step to take, especially since it was such a departure from what companies like Benjamin Group were doing. How did it go?
Well it was a hard proposition to sell initially, and even more difficult to package. The key was to define what we were really doing – what people were buying. We knew there was a need, and we were trying to reach people with our product, but the ultimate measure of success is how many products we sell. It wasn’t just about trying to design a marketing agency, we had to create an approach, a story that could really help people do something beneficial.
At the time, the traditional model at most companies was to work with PR reps for air support, trying to get coverage from editors. What we were offering was that, and also a ground-swell perspective, showing them how they could get organic support from the community.
With that defined, the established companies and also startups, were very interested in the value proposition, and we got a lot of good buzz from the work I had been doing, so much so that when I started that agency we grew to 40 people within first year.
The massive recession of 2000, which I thought was going to kill us, actually made us stronger, because there was a need for greater spending cuts, and people perceived that the value proposition that we offered was going to save them money.
Watching what you do, and the value propositions that you propose, I see you as a sociologist of the digital age; someone who understands the science behind social media and motivation. Would you agree with that?
I am a sociologist, a digital sociologist by default, not by training, but that default goes back to the ‘90s, where I had to study people like me, where they go for information, what they are influenced by, how they pay for it.
My first agency was all research based, we were studying behavior and devising strategy around behavior for the companies I was working with. But it wasn’t until the recession that I realized that’s what we were doing.
The recession forced us into this phase where we had to slow down, and I looked at it as an opportunity to think through what I wanted to do. I realized that I came through the dotcom bubble trapped in my own bubble of sorts. By helping other people realize their dreams, I had helped many, many other people get rich. I was helping the right people to succeed, but I wasn’t helping other people succeed through this radical change, the changing dynamics in sales behavior, loyalty, word of mouth.
I had learned all these things, but I wasn’t really stating them except in new business pitches. People like me, who had to show people this social transformation, were creating our own value.
The value comes from showing people how to define and measure the transformation, how to build strategies that would matter whether you were in marketing or sales or PR.
And when I realized that, I started blogging and writing contributed articles, I started to look at any and every way I could to reach people, and that’s how the next chapter began for me.
The next chapter, of course, being the move to Altimeter, and book publishing?
Yes, the move to Altimeter Group. Starting about 1999, we realized we were creating a lab of sorts to experiment with new media and marketing, to understand customer behavior, expectations, where they are engaging and why, reverse engineering those things that allowed us to uncover opportunities and be successful. We also had to look at the product issues in new technology and other things you can never solve. So over the years part of my role became to work with executives to figure out how best to adapt, based on this real-time feedback we were generating.
Now that wasn’t true across the board. A lot of companies were smaller, so change management wasn’t as well approached. But overall we learned a lot, and we began developing frameworks and tuning strategies.
As bigger companies became more experimental, of course, companies like Anhauser Busch with its multimedia strategy for the Super Bowl, we began to build a stronger reputation for this work. So I found myself working within enterprise organizations around change management and at the same time, the aspiring sociologist in me began studying these effects, getting back into the research game.
At the same time, Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang and I were all friends that go way back, we were all working independently in support of these enterprises.
So when I started getting into change management, and change management research, I found myself crossing paths with them more and more.
One of the first projects we took on together was the first app development on Facebook, and at that time I realized I had nothing more to prove on the experimental side, at the end of the day it was about finding and listening to the voice of the customer.
We realized that if we wanted to accomplish real change on the inside, the enterprise wasn’t going to be able to do that from a classic marketing angle. They needed something new. And so was that how I got started at Altimeter.
We all operate as our own development businesses, we each have areas of specific focus and interest. We develop frameworks, repeatable processes with research agendas around those interests. When you have a real good operating framework, sometimes you can do the whole project independently and sometimes you all have to work together.
So what would you say is the value proposition of Altimeter Group now?
I would say strategy, vision, and change management.
It’s a nice way of dividing and conquering the market. We only focus on disruptive technologies. It helps us all to stay informed and inspired, two very important things, I feel.
By informed I mean if I haven’t conducted the research, I will find it, and if I can’t find it I will conduct it.
At the same time, my analysis – I don’t want to say analysis because that implies interpretation of data – my interactions with executives and customers, inspires me.
And is this the source, or inspiration for your writing?
The way I see the world, that is what I write about, how I would like to see the world.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that people started listening, and recently the world started listening, which has been personally very gratifying.
The world will listen to research, but only if it validates, or introduces people to what they think they should be doing. We also have to demonstrate where a business can go, to communicate with empathy where they are and how they can get there.
That’s the part that is so hard to do, otherwise it comes across as meaningless platitudes. What we say has to show professionals a path that they can relate to, and follow. Once you can get past the ‘So what, tell me what you can do and you gotta know my constraints.’
There is a lot of talk recently around the concept of empathy. This sounds like what you are getting at.
Empathy is one of the greatest ingredients in social media. In every book I have ever written, from The End of Business as Usualon, empathy is the key. It’s like the TV show Undercover Boss, it’s about showing executives what it is like experiencing a day in the life of their customers and employees. When they get that, they feel different, and that inspires people to bring about change. That’s powerful.
I talk about empathy as a way to unlock the creative capability within everyone.
Executives need to understand empathy because it introduces them to the problem in a way that is actionable, to get it to the next level where they can really do something.
And this brings executives to the world of social media?
The thing that I often believe about social media, is that it is transformative, it brings us together. I talk about social media because I actually believe it is going to introduce the types of conversations within organizations that will bring about change.
We hear that customers are going to have a voice, but how are we going to do that today if we are not even effectively talking to one another right now?
For example, we use social media to improve relationships with customers. We all get that, but what does that look like? And how do I get there? That is what you have to do at the enterprise level.
The people who believe in social media are the ones who are going to become the change agents, to translate what they know into how executives see the world, to develop social media relationships, create transparency, do all the things the world needs to understand to create real change.
What does transparency look like? If you do it right, then you get strategy, social media, transparency, authenticity all at the same time.
At what point did you realize you wanted to write a book about all of this?
Well, the first book project that I was involved with was courtesy of my friend Jeff Livingston, I worked with him on the book Now is Gone. That sort of gave me the book bug, but I was still having a hard time managing the workload of speaking, doing research work, and writing. I found, though, that book writing was a fascinating process, and with all the travel, talking about the book, book signings, it certainly was intoxicating in its own right.
The next book was with Diedre Breckenridge, Putting the Public Back in Public Relations. That project just pushed me over the edge because it really took off, it’s still in circulation and widely used as a college textbook. From my perspective it was really interesting to see the power of what people can do when they are engaged by something like that. So that’s when I decided to either write a follow-up with Diedre or – at that time Wiley (Publishing Co.) proposed doing a book on my writings, essentially turning my blogs into a book, and that project became Engaged.
Did you find that book writing helps you reach an executive audience that may not be fully engaged in social media?
I often thought that books were going to be replaced by online publishing, but then I realized that no one medium is the catalyst for audience engagement, you have to embrace every medium, so blogs, print, web, video, all of these things must be considered.
Books – even in this new technology-filled world – are a great legitimizer. It was incredibly presumptuous of me to assume that blogging, on my blog or others, was going to, by itself, help me reach ultimately who my audience was going to be.
The one thing I’ve learned, is that everything I assumed about audience engagement proved differently eventually. Everything I thought about who I was writing for, that just wasn’t it.
I write for executives, certainly. My audience is executives, I work for executives, but a lot of my audience is also in the lower in the ranks, and students, and people starting their careers and looking for hope, direction, insight, that will help them work through the webs of legacy that hold people back from progress.
So I realized, why limit yourself? If you really have a message to share, take it as far and wide as possible.
Has the experience of discovering a wider audience changed how you work, or what you are writing?
I think that Engage, and Engage 2, even The End of Business as Usual, were all incredibly academic works, I don’t want to say overwritten but definitely deep. With my new book, WTF Business, I consciously decided to reach a larger audience, to make the messaging incredibly approachable, to see if something like a business book could also be inspiring.
So I’ve learned that there is an aspirational audience, and then there is the audience that is businesspeople and executives.
I won’t just say that I am going to write one way for here and for the future, I still write academically for different channels, because I still want to keep people engaged in the way they learned to become engaged with me.
One question that I think a lot of people have in their minds is, did you pan to be this prolific or did you fall into it?
I didn’t realize how prolific I was until I looked back in the rear-view mirror. It was really about the fast pace of technology and the democratization of media. With social media now everybody is an expert, so there was a sense of competition – whether perceived or real – that motivated the perception that I needed to keep in the forefront.
At the same time, new technology brings new questions, and in order to be a consistent hub of information, you have to keep publishing. The contribution that I have, is to make sense of all of this activity.
The competition for relevance comes with new technologies, and new voices. People will always find themselves enchanted by the next soothsayer.
I’ve noted your use of video as a promotion vehicle for your books. Do you anticipate using video as a major communications strategy in the future?
Video is part of my communications strategy. It’s becoming an important platform for me, both in terms of my own blog posts and my video series for Mashable. It’s a powerful communications medium for people who prefer it over text.
Video is as much an experiment with graphics as with the camera, there are many ways to blaze new trails. I’ve created a series of trailers that will be coming out over the course of the year , marketing capsules that call attention to WTF Business, to remind people of the importance of what is going on.
Brian, as always, it’s been a pleasure talking with you, thank you for your time over this series of interviews.
Thank you, man. I look forward to talking with you again.