Archive | May 2010

Vendors and hawkers

About two or three times a month, I meet someone who wishes to leverage my contacts to sell something. I know this is far fewer than many in the social media government circles and that it comes with the territory as a person reaches certain milestones in his or her career.

At first, people would come up to me during conferences. I was a target of opportunity. They would see that I was in attendance. They would see the uniform. They would hand me a card and that would be that. Later, when I began presenting at conferences, the vendors and hawkers would suddenly become more interested. I wasn’t just someone to flirt with, I was worthy of a date. They would hang around after a presentation and, amid those asking questions and wanting to learn more about social media (the reason why I attend conferences), they would also strike up conversations, then lead into their pitches. Many of them were pretty good at this. I wouldn’t catch on that I was being pitched to right away, until the point in the conversation emerged where I was asked to either commit to purchasing their product, or giving them the name and number of someone who could.

Some vendors were graceful with this transition from rapport building to selling, many were not. Some were outright rude or insistent, like an online dating stalker.

Still later, when I became a fixture at several conferences, I would get cold calls from vendors who had heard my name mentioned by others. Some would mask their pitch by inviting me to a seminar or offering to meet somewhere for drinks, some would just start reading from their scripts. While it was flattering in a way to be seen as a gateway to riches and sales, I was always up front about my position: that I was a mere staff sergeant—a man of humble rank and position, who had simply been at the right place at the right time. My charisma, for what it is, had been shaped by my training and my proclivity for stage theater. My disposition had been shaped by my spirituality. Most of the time, I was a pretty easy guy to get along with, always eager to teach others and engage in conversations that would teach me something as well.

But I’ve begun to wear thin on the vendors and hawkers who don’t even try to ease me into a conversation. And it’s too bad. As a journalist, I always look forward to new conversations and new people. It’s the one area that we don’t normally grow cynical toward. Now, however, when someone comes up to me, calls or emails, I have to eye that with a level of suspicion. Am I being played? What is it they want? It’s an attitude I’d hoped to avoid, but a lesson probably better learned now than later.

Some vendors are so bad that they call, flatly asking me to solicit government employees for them. Some ask me for my contacts just a few seconds into the conversation—as if I have the friends and colleagues I do because I flood their inboxes with spam. Some ask how I would run their marketing if I were them.

And while I might be willing to give such data to even them, were they to not just brazenly demand it; I’m also taken aback by how little they engage me, as a person. During these conversations, I wait for my turn to speak, and routinely get little more than a chance to say “yes” or “that’s good” while they run down their bullet points of reasons why I should make them money.

There are exceptions. I have met a few start-up ventures that I do believe in. Those who man these businesses are a lot more mature in their approaches, even if ultimately they need the same thing from me. They offer to make me a part of the team. They ask for my input. And while there is the ever-present sense of urgency, it’s not a hard sell. I don’t feel guilty for taking lunch that day and going to bed that night without shoving their product down my friends’ throats.

In the end, maybe it’s all in the pitch. And maybe that’s a lesson for all of us “selling” social media to our coworkers and counterparts. Running across the vendors and hawkers at these conferences reminds me that, even with a product I believe in, I cannot neglect the community and rapport that is needed to transfer enthusiasm from me to another. While it may take time to engage the influencers in my life, I can either put in the work to listen to their needs and work with them to overcome obstacles, or I can be like these vendors and just shotgun blast everyone I see like the stereotypical car salesman.


Writing a non-masterpiece

Many of you probably know, I’ve been writing a book. It started last November as part of the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which is an annual contest where people agree to produce 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s meant to be a fun exercise—people can take it seriously or just use it to create anything, really.

I took it seriously enough and was able to hit 50,000 words in the allotted time, but the book wasn’t done. I set out to keep writing. Time is as it is, however, and I neglected the novel for a couple of months. It sat and languished on my desktop while I moved on to other life projects. I was nearing the end of my time in the military, after all, and I needed to focus on completing the last few work-related projects before I continued. Ok that, and I started playing my video games again. Darn those pixels are so enticing!

So now that I am actually nearly complete with my time in the military, I am looking forward to spending the next month finishing up the manuscript. I have nigh but a college class and some random out-processing appointments to compete with my intentions. While the out-processing process may sap more of my strength than intended (more on the latest paperwork debacle later), I have made some boasts about how the book will be finished in 30 days. That, and no more video games. Not good for the soul.

The book is a first novel, so it’s no masterpiece. That’s what’s sort of liberating about the whole thing. Many people seem to get caught up in trying to make their first work some seismic event. It reminds me of what I went through in journalism school and, now that I’m an instructor at said school, what my students go through with their assignments. No matter how many times I try to tell them the exercises they undertake while at the training school won’t be seen by anyone except God, them and I, many of them still slave, stress and freak out to make it as perfect as possible. Many do a passable job, but, as novice journalists, the stories are at best, passable and at worst, trite.

I fully expect this first novel to be one of those options. Hopefully, realizing that a first novel will hardly cure cancer, I want it to be a badge I can sew on my life sash and move on—perhaps to another novel, or to another chapter in life altogether.

Writing a book is one of those things, you know? It’s in movies, it’s in the introspective conversations of men and women at retirement parties—writing a book is one of those things, like a college degree, that can prove to someone, maybe one’s self, that we have the discipline to stick with something long enough to create something cool. It’s like having kids—not the sex part, that’s easy, but the 0-18 year mark of a person’s life. Except it’s not THAT much of a commitment and, in the end, if I screw up a novel, it has eternal, but not as severe consequences as would a life ill-raised.

So here we go, wish me luck, or a broken pen—whatever writers wish on each other. I shall now push out again from shore after a few-months-long picnic of sorts, and continue down the river.


The social media quagmire

This week was the Open Government and Innovations conference in D.C. I’ve attended as many as I’ve been able since moving to the area in 2007. The thing is, it’s been the same conference every year.

And it’s not a problem with OGI, the organizers, or the speakers; I would say it’s a problem with the open government community.

It’s a problem I’ve heard, re-heard and said again in the echo chambers: that we hang out in echo chambers.

Same objections, same cautions, same fears, same possible solutions—the topics that come up during OGI are varied, but similar, in a year-to-year basis.

This isn’t a hit on the people attending either. It’s not a plea for more elitism in open government. It’s not a chance for me, Josh Salmons, to beat his chest and be considered someone who “gets it” a certain percentage faster than someone else.

I say it because I’m afraid the echo chambers and constant need to train newcomers are bogging down the revolution.

We need to define skills that lead to open government. We need to stratify experience levels. We need to develop 101, 201, 301 levels for efficient, productive government. Even this has been said before, but it’s important.

Because we love newcomers! A couple of years ago, I was one too. I attended my first series of seminars, voiced my concerns about adoption rates and access to sites and had my fears assuaged, just like the more experienced social media advocates did this year. Having new blood in the mix shows the health of the ongoing culture shift. That’s not the issue at all. I’m eternally thankful there are people who admit to being “clueless” at every conference. I appreciate their honesty and their willingness to learn.

My problem is we are doing both the new and the seasoned social media advocates a disservice by keeping things as they are. I believe we should be more formal in our evaluations of our skill sets. Asking “Who here is on Twitter? Who here blogs? Who here is on Facebook?” was cute three years ago, but why are we still at that level now?

Maybe it involves an accreditation system like 6 Sigma—green belts, black belts; that sort of thing. Maybe there is a comprehensive wiki-like exam that we can develop and, based on your score, you can fall in to certain strata of social media advocate.

Again, not to establish some sort of class system, but as a triage sort of approach. Since there are only so many minutes, slots and sessions during seminars, wouldn’t it be more productive if we can identify who needs what treatment? Who is just there for a yearly checkup? Who needs help, stat!?

I’ve been honored to receive a lot of invites to seminars over the last couple of years. I’ve met some really awesome people. But it’s getting to the point where I don’t want to show up for the whole conference. I start to dread the same questions from the same levels of experience. It might sound a bit selfish, sure, but I spend most of my time training. I don’t have a problem giving back. But I would also like to know I could get some targeted content as well.

A few people turned me on to a few existing places where others are trying to do just this. Awesome! Let’s keep things moving forward. I don’t think we need to have college degrees about this stuff just yet, but we need something.


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