Differentiation Requires Show, Not Tell
Image by Eric Lim

The Internet and in particular social media have empowered thousands, perhaps millions, to start their own businesses. One outcome of the social media movement is how easily people become “thought leaders” or topical influencers.

As a result, we have many paper tigers running about, almost indistinguishable from the ones with real teeth with one singular exception: Results.

Last week for PRSA-NCC and this morning during a keynote at Brand Camp NYC I discussed this exception, and its critical role in creating true market leadership.

When content and personal branding techniques online quack and act like ducks, many readers are quick to believe. Yet results are not necessarily associated to the voices, creating a problem. Because we have hit a saturation point, more businesses are becoming discerning in their choices of vendors, digging deeper than what’s published on a blog post or LinkedIn group.

As time continues and social becomes a place overburdened with branded marketing content and voices, differentiation requires more. Pundits are a dime a dozen these days, real businesspeople are not.

Marketers and PR pros who want to build businesses and reputations need to do great things that produce real outcomes. We literally must show people rather then tell them.

Differentiation from Pundits

Image by Miami Theatre Center

Last year, I discussed thought leadership and the importance of actually having something to say, either through subject matter expertise or futurism. Combined with social media and self promotion skills, that will get you some attention.

But from a business standpoint, it’s not enough. True leadership requires public successes.

Have you marketed anything well online? Do people see you promoting yourself and/or your company and not much else?

It’s not enough to critique everyone else’s work and discuss best practices. Credibility comes from having done the work, succeeding and failing, and sharing lessons learned.

Actual acts are not the only form of credibility. Many people tactically struggle, but strategically or theoretically understand aspects of their business.

So let’s say you are a mentor or teach marketing to others, and your efforts have helped them succeed… Perhaps a few are wild successes and they attribute some of it to your assistance. That makes your story credible.

Point being, either deliver the results or help others achieve results. Real actions make leaders, while words alone create pundits.

There is some value in punditry. It will attract opportunities to your business. You have to start somewhere.

To sustain reputation, fulfill your commitments. Otherwise, the primary source of leads will continue to be inbound ones. While I’m a big fan of online inbound marketing, great businesses develop word of mouth through their customers, and delivering fantastic work.

How to Show

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One issue I have with pundits is telling other people how to do things, rather than practicing the walk themselves. There seems to be a general unwillingness to eat their own dog food.

Again, talk about personal experiences rather than just using public examples. How many bloggers offer personal context as they explain techniques and tactics? It’s a shame, because experience validates their opinions, grounding it in real business talk, authenticity and wisdom. Experience allows us to connect with them as a human being who has been through the proverbial trial.

While many colleagues focus on online reputation and thought leadership through blog posts and books — something I have done as well — it’s been important for me to support clients in visible ways. These efforts focused on building client brands rather then my own reputation, and hopefully made them better for it. At the same time, public examples have been critical in providing proof points to my own

I’ve done so since the beginning from Network Solutions to the American Red Cross and now with Vocus. I’ve had some public failures, too, and embraced public post mortems to show what went wrong.

This is a delicate thing. Many clients want to hire pundits to leverage their online profiles, perceived influence and reach.

A professional puts the client first, and supports them, instead of building their personal brands at the client’s expense. In essence, the visible marketer must serve as a role player on the team, and be seen supporting the larger collective above their own aggrandizement.

Some clients prefer or insist on confidentiality. In those cases, find a nonprofit to work with as a corporate social responsibility project. Nonprofits serve all sectors, so it’s easy to find one that aligns with your business interest. They in turn are grateful for the help.

Actionable Suggestions


Here are some tips on building the tools/knowledge necessary to implement this particular approach:

Read. A Lot: Whether you are a subject matter expert or a futurist, understanding the business and its history is absolutely necessary. Many people think their view is unique until they see what their industry peers discuss online. The community conversation gives you a great benchmark for what you can (or cannot) add to the conversation. Use Feedly or another reader to maintain a pulse on your sector.

Say Something: Instead of adding another vanilla voice to the mix, say something substantial. Have a position. Say it well, back it with insights, and if you don’t have experience, then back it with experiments. “Me, too” will get you included in an online school of thought or professional clique, but it rarely separates you from the pack.

Avoid the Traps: This is where I tell you to build a presence in social media using social networks. There are so many blog posts and books on how to do this (including my own), that it’s relatively pointless to delve into the topic here. I’ll let my links do the talking.

What I would say to you is to be careful. Many people fall into the time/community trap espoused by social media experts to be present all the time. Social media is a great way to lose your perspective.

Find the two or three places/networks that really matter to your customers and goals, and rock them. Everything else is nice to have, but not necessary to maintain a professional position of stature online with your customers. That’s my experience having done both, and I enjoy my time with my daughter and family very much now.

Lead by Example: Be seen working publicly. Share your projects with people, let your community provide advice, participate and help if it makes sense. Point being, when you are seen doing the work, you graduate from talking head to an actual practitioner that innovates in real time.

Lead through Service: Steve Case is considered a thought leader in the Greater Washington area because he went out and built a business that eclipsed most start-ups, AOL. He continues to innovate and invest, and makes his projects through the Case Foundation freely accessible. He openly mentors people. His efforts are investments back into the community. Seth Godin is doing the same thing in the marketing community.

These two leaders show us a principle that may be the luxury of great success, but giving back to the community is great way to lead. Before blogs, social media sharing and content, networkers built (and continue to build) community thought leadership via service in professional associations and local charities.

When you serve your sector through whatever means that are accessible to you — digital or traditional — that effort is usually rewarded with respect. Giving is usually reciprocated through intangibles like leads, speaking opportunities, and more.

Don’t Let Up: It might seem obvious, but success brings challenges in its own right. Many people lose their edge, either through fear of success, or simply becoming satisfied. Others let it get to their head. We all say it won’t happen, but invariably success intoxicates, and people change, sometimes for the worse.

Don’t lose your edge. This is a marathon, not a race, and long-term staying power revolves around consistency over time rather than sudden bursts.

What suggestions would you add?


  • And this is one reason why I’m working on a new portfolio/book. Nobody believes you can do the work unless you have work to show.

    • You can get them to the door, but bringing them in really requires a lot of show and tell. That’s why starting a business is so damn hard, as compared to sustaining one.

  • In terms of being a “professional” you had me at “The Internet”.

    I, however, have a reasoning as to why paper tigers exist, and this reasoning is also suggestive as to why I think you and I risk being King Canute in choosing to the travel the road less traveled. King Canute http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cnut_the_Great was it turns out a wise and great King but he got branded with this one image of the story of Canute ordering the waves to retreat. The wave I at one time looked to order back are what I call the “Triffids”. It was a slow realization for me that differentiation looks different with the glass half empty.

    Before I explain what I mean by “Triffids”, I have to make it a clear that I have got absolutely nowhere with this very issue of what could be classified as “personal branding gone wild”. My mistake was in attacking it as “personal branding” was a lack of acceptance. My eventual takeaway took more than a decade to accept was that personal branding is a technique, which has proven to thoroughly work, albeit the beneficiary also being paper tigers, what I missed was the fixed nature of the branded.

    So who are the “branded”? My initial dislike of “personal branding” stemmed from the story of the origins of branding attributed to a branding animals, as a permanent mark of ownership. The initial revulsion I had was the thought of being owned like that. Take your pick on the story either the Norse one http://www.iuriel.com/brand-management/the-origin-of-branding/ or the Cowboy one http://matchstic.com/blog/2012/09/the-origins-of-branding/ etc etc. In short my revulsion isn’t about brand per se but branding people one “owns”. That form of branding is collecting people – so looking at the glass half empty, I viewed it as a personal affront.

    If I generalize that there are “two types of people”, then here it would be people who have heard of the story of King Canute and repeat what is they have heard, and the lesser folk who dig a little deeper, free themselves from any people-branded shackles and inquire into the truth of things. It is very true what they say in a few good men – a.k.a. people branding works because of how we go about handling truth in an overtly attention seeking world: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXoNE14U_zM

    So what kind of truth do most people cannot handle. Here is where the word “Triffids” comes into play. We’ve have all heard about “trolls” – these are people who have abandoned looking at life as nutrition, and simply see life as “shizen”. A troll is consumed by other people’s BS, but what I found to be “true” is that the world of consumption can’t exist without BS. So this is what I mean by a “triffid” – the all consuming vegetables. My mistake was in being critical of this, rather than accepting and even embracing this.

    Today, I sing the praises of these all consuming vegetables. I don’t even call it the mass market anymore – it is what it is, a group of people whose branding is governed by consumption – a way of life has simply been seered into them. It is the world which in the Matrix movie, most folk have chosen take the blue pill, [so it is even more ironic today that Viagra is the “consummate” blue pill today]. For me, the fundamental truth of marketing is that the Triffids (the mass of all-consuming vegetables) are actually the heartbeat of our economy. Without their mass consumption we don’t have economy. Without them, civilization goes down several notches in economic value, with them – contributes to that double edge sword called “climate change”.

    So I suggest that what you are addressing about is thoroughly valid, but unnecessarily valid – because there will always be a market for shrill, for the lowest common denominator, for the soundbite, for the easy-go-lucky and the fast food junkie. To accept that means being comfortable being the minority or even being alone. Either we learn to take the social branding rod up our derriere and socially limp along being so marked, or we individually heal and accept that as easily as we can all be marked by the people branding iron, we can “unbrand” ourselves.

    Canute may or may not have ordered the waves to retreat, but there is a folly here is IMHO, assuming our words will make people branding a much more smarter proposition. The branding iron here is our own choice and the wave here is a universal mythology – we are all the children of this mythology one that contributes to another double edged sword called “poverty”. If there are two things that are certain other then offline death and taxes, online it is the triffids we don’t focus on rather than the trolls we do. Either way IMHO both are a futile reality.


    • Wow, what a comment. I totally agree there will always be shrill, that there will always be mediocre consultants, that there always be me, too products, that they keep our economy growing.

      What I really am concerned with is beating them out, and so I study companies that succeed above and beyond the triffids, and build something that lasts, that stands out, that makes the world better or greater or just wins. I also think anyone can choose to do more. It’s accessible to them if they want to do better. We should always encourage people to do better.

      Hope that makes sense.

      • The triffid here is the buyer not the seller. In a personal context it represents the mass market (accepting it for what it is – warts and all) but if I look it from an organizational point of view – it is about walking away from business rather than “beating them out”.

        A professional buyer who knows what Geoff Livingstone brings to the table is also going to be a magnificent client to work with regardless of the outcome of the project. The triffid buyer may offer cashflow but there is the rub – what do you between putting food on the table and drawing a line in the sand where one walks away from business.

        In the personal context it is called turning the other cheek, in the professional context it is being selective about the clients one chooses to work with.

        Triffids do control large sums of consulting budgets, but the great thinker in an organization who may happen to be trapped within a layer of hierarchy – not only raises the bar of the assignment, but more often than not, is under fire from triffids – who fear that intelligence.

        I totally respect what you are saying – it makes total sense to me, but recognizing triffids as buyers makes even more, at least to me.


        • OK, so I had to Google triffids after this exchange, and I will read up some more on this. I agree, if you push in the enterprise, those satisfied with mediocrity start attacking. I’ve seen it time and time again. Thank you for making me think!

          • Great, I hope you then see the next step, which is instead of focusing on the mediocrity [which I see as a vegetative state], instead, rather, draw from the energy that is contained in any attack.

            It is this energy you can use, since it is highly unlikely you will change the attacker – the attacker will always attack. [Hence the perpetual nature of WAR – whether that be the micro battles within an organization or a home, or the macro battles between nations, tribes or adversarial competitors.] How can we be against WAR if we participate in its mechanisms at the most micro of levels?

            And if we become the attacker (to attack mediocrity itself), we instantaneously become a part of the problem. We then may miss what greater values and higher purpose that is being attacked – which are to align with the few that advance and support the long-term value of the many. The upshot is that there is a huge market for serving mediocrity [turn on entertainment media to see that] but there is a critical market within which excellence resides – and this the most challenging form of attack, that which attacks our virtue.

            It is therefore returning to that ancient wisdom of using the energy of your opponent – but not against the opponent – but for the benefit of those opposed – so we can enable this hidden or trapped excellence. Once we found that place, the only violence that matters is to be violently in agreement that higher purpose is concentrated for the benefit of releasing higher purpose – the very one trapped today by all-consuming nature of accepted and practiced mediocrity-as-advertised.


  • As a B2B services company, we often run into legal hurdles to showing our successful case studies. We’ve done cool work for huge companies, but we are lucky to get to put their logo on our site – much less do a case study. The immediate sponsors are happy to do it, but legal does not like the implied endorsement.

    Nowadays, my best “show-n-tell” is to show them our Pulse Analytics product. Even if they are not in the market for a social monitoring / text analysis solution, that one product shows our capabilities in software development, text analysis, data integration, reports/dashboards…and the implied understanding of both user experience engineering, software testing, and project management.

    It is the “ultimate” in eating our own dog food.

    Having said that, we still do not see our typical clients frequenting social channels to find their next services provider. Our biggest lead generation is word-of-mouth, referrals, and recurring clients. Great problem to have, but it doesn’t scale as fast as I would prefer.

    • I deifnitely think this is the right approach for a product or software company. As you say, that is the ultimate show, the test drive.

      As to the word of mouth, maybe you can reward people who actually give that referral after the fact.A surprise reinforcement of their loyalty? I don’t know. I’m sure you have thought about this quiter a bite.

  • Pingback:Who’s An Expert? | The Face of the Matter

    […] two blog posts I saw earlier this week on exactly this topic. Geoff Livingston posted the excellent Differentiation Requires Show, Not Tell. His point was that people who tell you how wonderful they are and give lots of advice based upon […]

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