Seven Signal Questions

Courtesy of Miami University
Courtesy of Miami University

In the fall of 1996, I was a freshman at Miami University, a heartbreakingly pretty campus nestled into the rolling hills of Southwest Ohio. I knew the moment I visited the campus for the first time – pulling up to an intersection bound on all sides by red brick and cream accented Georgian architecture that I was home. And to this day, Miami occupies a special place in my heart. At that time, all entering first year students were required to participate in a summer reading program based upon a theme. Miami, having a student population that was primarily white, primarily middle and upper middle class, was using the program to introduce diverse voices to  what was assumed (rightly, in my experience) to be a relatively sheltered undergraduate body. We were supposed to have read Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other writers prior to our arrival on campus and take part in a series of symposium and dorm floor meetings on the topics of diversity, tolerance and the expansion of our own cultural awareness that would take place before classes started and throughout the academic year.

It was all good stuff. It was important to get us – and here I mean people like me who fit the intended audience of the program – out of our comfort zone and begin talking about race, identity and preconceived notions related to ethnicity and socio-economic backgrounds. And for the most part, the university did a good job with the curriculum. I especially enjoyed the dorm-level meetings. Make no mistake, Miami was not what you might call a diverse place in those days. But I had the good fortune of have Tshaka as my resident advisor. Tshaka was enormous – easily six foot six and three hundred pounds. He was smart. He was wise and he had just the right amount of patience for a bunch of idiots like the guys in my dorm.

He once sat us down to talk about how race impacts our perception of people and how our own preconceptions can taint relationships before they are formed. One of the guys in my hall raised his hand to – very obnoxiously – tell Tshaka that he thought talking about race was a waste of time because he “didn’t see color.”

“How can you not?” I remember Tshaka saying. “I am a big black man and I’m proud of being a big black man. Saying you don’t see the color is like saying you don’t learn names. It takes away a part of someone’s identity and makes you look self-absorbed.”

Needless to say, we were all careful about sanctimony after that. Tshaka helped us to think differently by thinking at all. And I suppose by the end of the program, we were all a little smarter – at least as smart as a bunch of 18 year-olds could be – and imagined the world a little differently.

The reason I share this story is because the name of the program Miami ran that year was “Speak Loudly Against Hate.” It was everywhere – stickers and buttons given out at the book store, on fliers hung in the quads and posters in the academic buildings. And, one night, sometime in the second semester, we were having a dorm meeting when Tshaka asked why it was important that everyone speak out against hate. The answers were what you expected – thoughts about the silent majority, about standing up for beliefs rather than just having them, etc… As the easy answers died down, a friend of mine raised his hand and asked this:

“Why should we speak loudly?”

Tshaka, normally very stoic and cool looked a little perplexed. My friend continued, “if we all speak loudly, aren’t we just making the world louder? Shouldn’t we try to speak effectively instead?”

Dr. Phil McGraw, who has built not only a career but an industry around offering advice for real world problems, gave an interview on parenting advice to Carson Daly on the Today! Show. The question was asked how to discipline a child throwing a tantrum and the psychologist and television show host answered this way:

“If a child is having a tantrum, the best thing you can do is whisper because it is so different from what they normally hear. If you get down at their level and whisper, then they kind of have to shut up to hear you. They’re very, very curious… (Yelling) stops communication, that’s the problem. As soon as you start yelling, they just kind of go into shutdown (mode).”

The signal-to-noise ratio is a measurement used in science and engineering “that compares the level of a desired signal to the level of background noise. It is defined as the ratio of signal power to the noise power, often expressed in decibels. A ratio higher than 1:1 (greater than 0 dB) indicates more signal than noise. While SNR is commonly quoted for electrical signals, it can be applied to any form of signal (such as isotope levels in an ice core or biochemical signaling between cells).”

Every minute, 72 hours of footage is uploaded to YouTube, according to some estimates. Every 18 months, the amount of information available on the internet doubles and some people believe that timeframe is getting shorter. Google handles nearly 40,000 organic search queries per second and Outbrain, a content recommendation engine that provides related content (articles and videos) to online readers and watchers, handles about 20,000 clicks in that same tiny length of time- billions per year. The Huffington Post alone publishes nearly 2,000 pieces of content every day. And it’s just one of nearly a trillion web pages out there – which is even too much for Google to index.

Here’s how the most integral company online puts it on it’s own blog in 2008:

“Today, Google downloads the web continuously, collecting updated page information and re-processing the entire web-link graph several times per day. This graph of one trillion URLs is similar to a map made up of one trillion intersections. So multiple times every day, we do the computational equivalent of fully exploring every intersection of every road in the United States. Except it’d be a map about 50,000 times as big as the U.S., with 50,000 times as many roads and intersections.”

That’s a whole lot of noise. And the thing about noise is that it often propagates more noise. My college friend understood this intuitively. It’s one thing for one person to stand up and shout – maybe even two, three, four. But the more people shouting, the harder it is to hear and be heard. Just like the screaming child and the parent yelling for her to stop, the most effective thing to do might be to whisper.

The first question that comes up in every content strategy consultation or project I do is always the same: How much content do I need? If you’ve already begun a content marketing program, you have probably asked yourself the same question. And rightfully so, it’s a natural question to ask – it just happens to be the wrong question to get at the answer you really need.

The right question is actually seven questions and they are as follows:

What am I trying to achieve?

What value does my company or brand bring to the table to meet a consumer need through content?

How does content reinforce my brand positioning and promise?

How much content is reasonable? Can I actually expect an individual – because content is not a one-to-many proposition, but a one-to-one-many-times proposition – to need, want or reasonably consume a high volume of content?

How much content can I create or curate at a high quality, putting an emphasis on originality and consistency?

How am I going to use content to connect my digital footprint and how am I going to use individual channels in a coordinated fashion to amplify the impact?

What do I have to say?

These questions should help shift your thinking from volume (noise) to intention and value creation (signal). Let’s look quickly at each of them to get a little better idea of how they impact your approach.

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