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With the Audience in Mind

An interview with Sam Ford

If you have any interest in media thinking, entertainment, or marketing, it’s hard to side-step the work of Sam Ford. Sam is a journalist, writer, and strategist, co-author of the influential book Spreadable Media, and he regularly writes for magazines like FastCo or Harvard Business Review. Director of Audience Engagement with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University, he is to be complimented on being a relentless advocate for the audience, always keeping in mind its needs and wants.

A seasoned speaker who is always generous with sharing his knowledge and vision, Sam provides us with some insights into his unusual career path, influences, the fun and the pain of working in the industry, writing, and storytelling.

We’re very pleased to have him as the first great conversationist of our interview series.

Sam, It seems to me that you’re doing about 5 jobs in one, all related to something digital. Those jobs can sometimes be hard to define. How do you explain to your grandparents what you do?

I went to college to study being a journalist, and I had worked for the local newspaper. My parents, my family, my in-laws, everybody understood what I was in college to do. It was very clear. As college progressed, I was a journalism major, then I ended up adding on English and Communication Studies, and Mass Communication, Film Studies — my interest really broadened to the study of popular culture.

One year, I went back home for the summer and wrote for local newspapers. While I was home I had the task at MIT to film a video introducing who I was, telling my story to the new crop of grad students who were coming into the program. So, like a true journalist would (but a bit tongue-in-cheek), I videoed different people in my hometown and had them tell the story of who I was. My favorite was, and this is the reason I’m telling this story, I interviewed my high-school principal. And he was talking about how proud he was of me, saying “I’m so proud of what Sam has accomplished and everything he’s doing at MIT. We’re all proud of him.

“None of us have a clue what it is Sam does. But we’re really proud.”

But the joke was, after spending those years in academia and moving further away from a career track that could easily be explained, I left academia and took a job in the industry. And everybody said: “Finally. We’re gonna figure out what it is that Sam does.” Then, my title at Peppercomm changed from “Director of Customer Insights”, to “Director of Digital Strategy”. Now, my title (what I’m doing hasn’t changed that much, but we keep trying to find an accurate description) is “Director of Audience Engagement”. The decision for my family is that it’s now even more impossible to tell what it is I do.

For me, “what I do” is more about the sorts of questions that motivate me. They’re about storytelling (how stories are told and how audiences engage with and around those stories). My background in studying popular culture came from studying and understanding fans and the fans’ relationships to the text being produced by a media property. I take very much that same ethos when I’m thinking about active audiences in other contexts. It is really, in cultural ways, more important to understand the audience’s motivation and interest and what the audience does with media text, than it is to focus on the producers. So much of our traditional communication’s focus is on the producer and the consumer, as if all meaning and power lies with the person who fuses that meaning into the text, while the consumer only extracts it out of things. For me, that seems to be a creatively draining way of thinking about the production of media.

Those media producers who listen, think about and understand the audience they’re seeking to reach produce much richer, more responsible, more responsive texts.

I spend a third of my time at Peppercomm doing consulting with our clients, a third of my time doing “thought-leadership in the field”, and the rest doing academic work. For the part of my time I spend consulting, I see my charge as helping companies understand that they need to prioritize the wants and needs of the audience they’re seeking to reach. The job of a communications professional is to be more beholden to the audience than the company that’s paying her. In my mind, that is advocating the larger role that a marketing and communication professional should play, which is to listen to the audience, what it wants and needs, and bring that way of thinking back to the organization to help shape the way the organization serves its audience.

How did you know you wanted to do that? How did this path come about?

I’ve always been interested in telling stories. But, as I got into college, I became really interested in how different types of narratives, different types of approaching culture connect with one another. My thought, going to grad school, was I wanted a tenure track job that focused on studying pop culture and American culture. The program I got into was this Comparative Media Studies Master’s program at MIT, which was really focused on what I was interested in: the intersection of studying culture and engaging with those who are putting content and messages out there into our culture, who are creating the media texts that circulate.

While I was at MIT, which has a focus on “applied research” (the idea that research shouldn’t just live in the ivory tower, but should impact the world outside academic borders), we were wrestling with the question of “What’s ‘applied humanities’?” That caused me to engage with independent producers, media companies, marketers and corporate communicators. They, as practitioners in the field, would often come to events at MIT, and were trying to figure out not just how to be more effective in persuading people to buy stuff they might not need, but to serve the audience authentically, that built a relationship. So, I became really interested in that translation work of how the theoretical stuff could apply in the industry.

This is, in a way, the intersection of a scientific task and a creative task. Both can be difficult, for sometimes very different reasons. Were there any obstacles in your way? Did you ever have doubts about what you were doing?

Yes, certainly. The tenure track process of academia has a certain career solidarity to it, sort of a career guarantee. They tell you “You take this track, here’s what happens: you land x, and then in so-and-so many years you land y, and then z.” So you pretty much know your path. On the other hand, one of my grad school mentors and co-author of my book, Henry Jenkins, was giving a talk at MIT last week, saying that if academia only trains people for tenure-track positions, it’s becoming a modern-day Ponzi scheme. It’s training people for jobs that aren’t there.

Seeing law students sue their schools for having promised them jobs that they knew weren’t there, putting them in loan-debt, brought about an interesting question to me: “What are other paths for academic work?”

When I graduated, I decided to stay on as a research manager for a year at MIT, because I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go in next.

You’ve published widely in a variety of magazines of renommé. But do you get stuck sometimes? What do you do against writer’s block?

I get stuck often. There are a few things I do. One is: these days I largely agree to publishing arrangements that don’t require a certain level of frequency, for example FastCo and Harvard Business Review. With them, I’m not obligated to submit something at time x on a regular basis. Rather, I’m able to take the approach of finding something I’m interested in writing, and then figuring out which editor might be interested in that piece, based on the angle that I’m taking. Or people contact me and I can experiment.

The other thing I do when I have writer’s block is: I write something that is not very good, and then I work on it (laughs). For me, the most paralyzing aspect of communicating is not having any frame to work from. Starting with a set of questions, I also often interview myself. Then I work them into a framework that has some narrative cohesion.

What are the writing tools you use?

Most of it is email draft. That’s where I end up writing stuff, sometimes whole pieces, sometimes the notes that I send to myself so I don’t lose them. Apple Mail really is the tool I use most frequently in writing. Now, the book Spreadable Media was all written in Google Docs. It was the first time that I took on writing a book with two other people.

You chose Google Docs for the collaboration aspect?

Absolutely. Especially because everything was written by the three of us, simultaneously, over the top of one another, editing one another, arguing with one another in the document. It helped us moving things around, checking revision histories, etc. That, for me, was a really interesting writing process. It’s based on trust.

Talking about trust: who influenced you the most in your career? Who helped you along the way?

I’ll have to name a few. Certainly Henry Jenkins: his work opened up the field of Fan Studies, the idea of studying active audiences in ways that he has gone on to take to activists and people creating civic media. In my own work, I’m very interested in the sorts of communities that companies are trying to reach, in addition to still studying deeply the fandom of worlds like soap opera and professional wrestling (the areas of study I’m involved in most frequently).

My other grad school mentor is a gentleman named William Uricchio, a professor at MIT and Utrecht, in the Netherlands. William is a media historian and his focus is on how we can often understand a current moment of media innovation by studying past moments of media in transition. To really understand the questions concerned with, for example, the future of TV or the Internet, is to look at the early days of television or the radio and understand the similar sorts of conversations that were happening at that time, the many parallels that exist.

And just one more: most recently, Carol Sanford has been of significant inspiration for me. Her book Responsible Business asks the question “What is corporate responsibility in an era where too many companies talk about social responsibility without actually being responsible?” Her claim is that companies can become more responsible by taking the needs of their audience first; the needs of their co-creators, employees, etc. second; the needs of the earth third; the needs of their local communities fourth; and the needs of shareholders fifth. All five of these audiences matter to a company, but you need to serve them in that order. Too often, that order gets reversed, and it’s the shareholders whose priorities are taken into account first, and the customers come in fourth or fifth. That set of priorities is good for us to think about.

I know you’ve had an interest in storytelling from an early age. What would be some stories that made an impact on you?

The most significant story for me may be the story of Oakdale, Illinois, which is the town that the soap opera As the World Turns is set in. That was the soap opera my grandma watched from the first day it came on in 1956. My mother was born in 1957 and grew up watching it. I was born in 1983 and grew up watching it, listening to my mother and my grandmother talking about the show. So that was sort of infused in the way I approach and think about storytelling—both the stories of the show, and the stories my mother and grandmother were telling in their re-telling of the stories of the show, as they talked to one another and analyzed what was happening. That—not knowing it at the time—played the most significant role in how I think about storytelling.

Second would be professional wrestling, the first deep fandom — no, I take that back. That was probably G.I. Joe. I have no interest in the military, but what interested me was that every character G.I. Joe produced, gave you the short bio and sketched who that character was (about 150 characters in the universe of G.I. Joe). I liked to make these characters my own and tell stories with them.

Professional wrestling, though, was probably the richest area that I engaged in as a fan. I could research the back stories of the narrative and the characters.

It’s hard to say from a book standpoint who influenced me the most. But certainly writers like Mark Twain shaped what I revere in a good storyteller: the playfulness and authenticity, saying something deeper about culture through fiction.

What do you turn to after a day of work, for relaxation, for zoning out?

Good television. My wife and I love to watch complex TV series: House of Cards, The Americans, Walking Dead, True Detectives is what we’ve been watching recently. Friday Night Lights, which was one of the best TV series ever aired, The Bridge. So for us it is serialized drama that you can get involved in, immerse yourself in and really explore, discuss, debate, critique as a duo.

Whom would you like to work for or do a project with?

It would terrify me to work for Vince McMahon (the creator of World Wrestling Entertainment). The wrestling fan in me would love the ability to collaborate, shape direction of, and think about the storytelling potential in the model of WWE. I’ve called it in the past the greatest reality game there is—it is a fictional world whose story world is the real world. Its characters play their role 24/7, 365 days a year. The narrative progresses in the same real-time as our world. There’s no off-season, and the storyline progresses in the same time our lives progress. As we age, the wrestlers age, as our lives go from Monday to Monday, so do their stories build slowly throughout the week. There’s so much narrative potential that I feel WWE has only scratched the surface of.

What part of your work do you like best?

I enjoy the collaborative participation in discussions:

The ability to meet up with people who are as passionately focused on issues as I am, with the hope of inspiring a new way of thinking and approaching things, of changing something.

That sort of larger strategy discussion drives me. That can happen with a client I’m working with, but it also often happens in industry discussions. For instance, I serve on the ethics committee of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association with other people in our industry who are trying to figure out more ethical ways for the marketing and communications world. For me, those sorts of issues and engaging with people who are deeply committed to them is fascinating. Or, having a chance to collaborate with someone who approaches things very differently than I do, who has a different world view, but shares a respect and an empathy for the dialogue.

What part is the worst about your job?

Brainstorming great ideas, coming up with great approaches and then having political issues or internal strife causing things not to happen in ways that are not to the service of the end audience in any way, but have to do with the priorities of the people within an organization. That happens in academia a lot, but also in the industry. That’s extremely frustrating to me.

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?

When I was a journalist, I had to write 6,000 words a week, without an editor. My charge was: don’t get us sued. That was it.

Who knows the terrible things I wrote sometimes to stay on deadline while I was a college student...But I know one week in particular, when I emailed something in and inadvertently pasted my groceries shopping list at the end; it got published in the newspaper, because there was no editor.

What were the reactions like?

People who know me made a joke of it, but I didn’t get very many reactions, so maybe just a few people made it to the end of the article anyway.

Are you happy? If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what else would you do?

I’m happy with the way I’m able to strike a balance between the different things I do. I would love to think more deeply about and spending more time working with the media and entertainment space. Most of the companies I’m currently working with are professional services and B2B, and I’d love to engage even more deeply with the storytellers in the entertainment world. By and large, though, I’m quite happy, and I’m interested in the way that I’m challenged by trying to apply what I study to the worlds of people in architecture or the professional service space, worlds that are far afield from my own. I’d love to work with the writers of a soap opera directly at some point...anyone managing a truly immersive story world.

What advice would you give your little brother who wants to be just like you and do the same things that you do?

I’m an only child (laughs), but I have two daughters. So, my advice to anybody who’d want to follow in my footsteps would be: don’t follow anybody’s footsteps and carve out your own path. Think about how you want to approach things differently. Role models and people who have forged a path—that’s interesting and good to have—, but always unique to the person who forged it. I’ve created a role that encapsulates what drives my passion, but that’s very unique to me. I don’t think it would be good to see a whole bunch of more people take a role like that. I would rather see them incorporate a role that takes all their strengths and focal points and let that come together uniquely.

Thank you so much for your time, Sam.

I had a great time, thank you. Now I need to get a haircut.

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