I have told this story several times and each time I get an incredible reaction to it. It was, as Oprah would call it, “my defining moment” when I came to realize my life’s next calling. It literally caused a personal shift that transformed the way I approached the Web and helped carve the path that would lead me to where I am today.
I was not a believer of community. I was and am a marketer by trade so the belief that a community can develop enough momentum to, not only influence but, catapult behaviours that ultimately benefit brands was lost on me. No one could convince me that people could have the same or stronger connections online as they have face to face. And the fact these anonymous connections could lead to “real relationships” was clearly absurd. Or so I believed.
Rewind to 2006. At that time, ironically, I was managing the launch of Yahoo! Answers in Canada, one of the few social search products in this market. Its premise was to leverage community to provide valuable information based on experience –> something algorithmic search could not provide. Unlike other social search products, Yahoo! Answers does not rely on expert advice from pundits in their fields but the common person, whose life experiences provides the source of answers to many questions.
The turning point for me came when I was attending a Search Summit in the UK, working with other international product and marketing people who were also launching Answers in their respective regions.
I received an email from a friend who informed me that my former VP’s daughter had passed away from Leukemia, something she’d been battling for 6 years. She was only 10 years old.
I wanted to immediately reach out to her and give her some comfort for her loss and was reminded of a poem that my Mom had shown me sometime back. I emailed my Mom and asked her about it but, while she remembered the poem, she didn’t know where to find it. I asked the rest of my family if they knew about it. But the response was same.
So, I searched for the poem online not really knowing the author or any of the actual words — just the context. I did this for some time with no luck. So I gave Yahoo! Answers a try and I sent my question into the unknown abyss of the Answers Community, skeptical of what I would receive. Here’s what I posted:
It took awhile, as I expected it should since I was looking for a needle in a haystack. The response came 9 days later.
And it made me cry.
Here’s the response I received: ”
“I am not sure about the exact one you are looking for but I found another on the Internet:
I’ll lend you for a little time a child of mine, He said …
For you to love the while he lives … and mourn for when he’s dead.
It may be six or seven years, or twenty-two and three,
But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me?
He’ll bring his charms to gladden you. And shall his stay be brief,
You’ll have his lovely memories as solace for your grief.
I cannot promise he will stay, since all from Earth return.
But there are lessons, taught down there, I want this child to learn.
I’ve looked the wide world over in search for teachers true,
And from the throngs that crowd life’s lanes, I have selected you.
Now … will you give him all your love … nor think the labor in vain?
Nor … hate me when I come to call … to take him back again?
I fancied that I heard you say …
“Dear Lord, it will be done!
“For all the joy Your Child shall bring, the risk of grief we’ll run.
“We’ll shelter him with tenderness. We’ll love him while we may,
“And for the happiness we’ve known … forever grateful stay.
“But shall the angels call for him much sooner than we’ve planned,
“We’ll brave the bitter grief that comes … and try to understand.” *
I didn’t realize that someone out there had the answer. When I looked to established tools and systems for answers to my questions, they didn’t have any. I found my answer through community and for that I was so grateful. But it also made me realize that I, as a marketer, could not be credited for the marketing momentum that existed out there. The market is its own momentum, defined by the very communities that drive the conversations and the influence.
The tools out there are making it easier for users to create their own content, build and engage in community. Advertising is becoming less relevant to individuals. Businesses have to figure out how to maneuver themselves in this tightly-knit environment if they are to succeed.
After Yahoo! I worked at a start-up company. Such companies do not have the benefit of large marketing budgets. They buy into community and social media because they have no choice. They use social media tools to find their communities, their markets, and to develop their social voice. They are masters at engaging 1-to-1. The work is hard but consistency and commitment eventually yields results.
Fast forward to present day 2011: I am immersed in this challenge full-time, having worked in social media for the last 4 years. Yes, it’s still nascent, and while brands are hopping on the bandwagon, their voices are still very much in the periphery. They are starting to listen but brands have a long way to go. My swan song will come when corporate adoption has piqued to the level that makes my job obsolete.