The Secret to Success: Impact and Experience

VCU Mass Communications Commencement Speech

I gave the following commencement speech yesterday in Richmond to Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Mass Communications. The speech focuses on what makes for a successful career in communications, specifically by navigating today’s fast moving media environment. The keys to success are gaining experience and delivering impact.

Thank you to Bill Farrar, Yan Jin, Jon Newman and the rest of the faculty at VCU for having me. And thanks to those of you who took the poll and answered questions on the challenges facing today’s communications students entering the job market.

Commencement Speech for VCU Mass Communications School

Get Off the Highway

Exit to Downtown Tampa on I-275 northbound
Image by Silvar

“…the information superhighway… will link everyone at home or office to everything else—movies and television shows, shopping services, electronic mail and huge collections of data.” New York Times, 1993

Yes, communities and conversations are missing, but it was a pretty dead-on prediction. Two decades later the dream has become a reality, including Hulu, massive shopping sites like Amazon, wikis and yes, social networks connecting them all. Millions of people have developed an “information highway system” that is quite amazing.

At the heart of this system is the interstates, massive social networks with tens of millions, even hundreds of millions of people, providing billions of links — exits if you would — to destinations throughout the internet. But contrary to the memes of the day, these interstates like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are not the destination. You have to get off the highway to engage on a deeper level and build a community.

Perhaps the metaphor is unfair. Certainly there are great groups, fan pages and communities on Facebook (perhaps the I-95 of the social world), Twitter and LinkedIn. Yet in the end, their streams end up being link referral networks to outbound destinations.

Invariably, no one lives on the interstate, and rarely do they eat at the rest stop. They leave to do things. They exit to a read blog, play an application, see a video, participate in a community, read a web or news site, or even to go search. Either that, or they eat bad food (ah yes, those rest stops. Cracker Barrel, woo hoo!).

Consider that the top medical site in the healthcare sector is WebMD. Newspapers? New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, anyone? If you want PR or advertising data you go to the PRSA, AdAge, or a plethora of great blogs. Parenting sites like BlogHer, etc. have a leading share of their audience. Over and over again, no matter the interest or profession sooner or later one must exit the Interstate and get onto local roads to find what they want.

“Mass social media” approaches that are completely Facebook, Twitter and/or LinkedIn centric fail in that sense. While these networks are almost necessary from a participation standpoint, differentiation from them with a unique content offering for interested stakeholders remains the way to carve off a unique brand presence. It’s back to the Origin of Brands theory and owning a special part of an idea market that resonates with your community.

Communicators should keep in mind that they still want to be a destination. Without their own site and ability to converse with and engage stakeholders, they miss the opportunity to build community, strengthen search, and create calls to actions for ROI purposes.