As many of you know, I’m a Winona State University grad. And while I have certain loyalties to the U of M, and my Kansas Jayhawks, I bleed purple and I’ll always think of Winona State as my college home. So, whenever I get the chance, I try to highlight the great people here in the Twin Cities who also call themselves Warriors. Zach Spanton is one of those people. Zach’s a recent grad (2017) who I met a couple years ago during one of my many visits to the WSU campus. Most recently, Zach earned the prestigious MN PRSA Willard Thompson Scholarship–a first for a WSU student! That was more than enough for me to feature him here today. Let’s hear from this rock star grad.
First and foremost, you’re a recent Winona State grad (go Warriors!). So, I always ask everyone I meet who’s attended WSU–why Winona?
Winona was the sweet spot for me. Growing up in a town of 3,500 in South Dakota, I wanted new experiences in a place that was a bit bigger, but not too big, and far away, but not too far. Once I visited, I fell in love with the place. After getting settled, the people and professors I met confirmed that WSU was the fit for me.
During your time at Winona State, you had at least two internships, and it appears at least one part-time job. Can you talk a little about the value of those internships–and a part-time job–during your college career?
I found I was able to learn what I liked and didn’t like along with building valuable skills. During my internships, I was able to try my hand at many tasks including writing, research, design, photo/videography, and project management. Either there aren’t as many internships out there involving just getting coffee, or I lucked out. Even at a campus job unrelated to my field (I made a lot copies there) I had opportunities to practice certain skills, like designing posters and writing. Being able to transfer and grow those skill sets from each job built me a foundation that jumpstarted my career path.
Besides learning a lot at my internships, it kept me in the mindset that I was working toward something. It made me understand that everything wouldn’t magically fall into place once I graduated. I had to work for it and plan while I was finishing my studies so I wouldn’t be left high and dry on graduation day.
You’ve made the transition to full-time work pretty well. However, many students in the PR and marketing fields do not. Why do you think that is? And, to what do you credit your success in that transition?
It’s hard to say why that is. I have friends who weren’t as lucky as I was leaving school. Getting a good amount of experience before graduation likely gave me an edge though. I can also give credit to persistence, networking, and of course a bit of luck. I made an effort to follow up with people I met in the field and transferred skill sets from one experience to the next, ultimately leading to my internship at Metre, the ad agency I work at full-time now.
I should also stress the importance of confidence, or at least the fake-it-til-you-make-it version. Some people looking from the outside in might be surprised to hear I was pretty scared most of the time in my college journey. Being able to choke it down and keep pushing myself was key to helping me get to where I am.
So many people talk about finding that first job out of school and how hard that can be. But, fewer people talk about the life transition from college to full-time work and how that impacts your life. Talk about how you’ve made that transition and tips you might have for those who will make it in the years ahead.
It’s definitely a different environment! Transitioning from going between classes, clubs, and a part-time job to being in the office most of the day is a big change of pace. There are still a lot of deadlines, but with more serious consequences 😉 And there aren’t any clear guidelines of what you’re supposed to do. You kind of have to figure out a lot on your own.
So, I’ve tried to carry things into my career that helped me at school: I stay in touch with contacts and those I can learn from, I keep the mindset that I’m still learning and always will be, and I set deadlines and milestones for myself.
On top of work, there’s also life outside of work. To those who will be walking the same path I’m on, I would say to work hard and take the advice I listed above, but enjoy your free time, explore your new surroundings, and take time for interests and hobbies. Personal growth is as important as professional growth.
You recently made the decision to move from your job in LaCrosse, Wisc., to Minneapolis. That’a big shift! Why the move? And what are you looking forward to most about living in and working in Minneapolis?
Once I decided what field to go into, I knew I’d ultimately want to transition here after school. It’s a place not far from what I’m familiar with where a lot of talented and helpful people live who I can learn from. So, as I was nearing graduation, I talked to the owners of Metre, where I was interning, and expressed my interest in moving to Minneapolis. It just so happened they were wanting to build up the satellite office there. (Again, where a bit of that luck played out).
I’m most looking forward to getting into the local culture (I can’t say the beer and biking have disappointed), seeing what exciting new projects come up, and meeting more people. It’s only just begun!
You also recently earned the Dr. Willard Thompson Award as part of the annual MN PRSA Classics Banquet. Congratulations! Can you talk a little about what this honor means to you and how (if at all) it’s impacted your life in the last couple months?
Thank you 🙂
Receiving that honor was a huge boost to self-confidence right before graduating. It felt great to represent WSU when that honor is usually snatched up by UM students. It’s taught me to be confident in my abilities, and to always keep pushing myself.
At the Classics, I saw familiar faces and met many great people who were all willing to chat with me, share their experience, and offer advice. Since then, I’ve met with two of them again and have two more meetings in the works. One of the best parts was getting to have lunch with Heather Cmiel, MN PRSA President. She’s one of the kindest, most helpful, and personable professionals I’ve met. Overall, this honor really helped me build a support network that I plan to grow.
You were also very active with PRSSA at Winona State, serving on the board, leading tours and in general, volunteering a ton of time your sophomore-senior years. Why made you do that, initially? And, do you think all that time and effort was worth it? Why or why not?
Honestly, in high school I wasn’t involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, and I wanted to change that in college. Once I had chosen PR as a major my sophomore year, I figured it would be smart to join PRSSA and learn more about the field (because it still seemed like a total mystery). Once the opportunity to apply as an officer came up, I wrestled with the decision for about a week before finally sending the application off last minute.
The time and effort was absolutely worth it, because it forced me into a leadership position where I had to learn a lot. The responsibility of making sure the club was worthwhile for everyone helped drive us. Creating those opportunities to learn together as a group and to go off and meet professionals in the field was invaluable.
Note: Photo above courtesy of Minnesota PRSA.
I’ve “known” Sarah Matsumoto for a long time now. But, for many of those years, that relationship was mostly based on interactions on Twitter and Facebook and seeing Sarah at events around town from time to time. Recently, I started a new relationship with Sarah’s current employer, Patterson Dental, and I’ve had the chance to get to know her a bit better. Sarah’s one of those people who’s never going to dominate a room. She’s not a big personality. But, she’s so much more. She’s genuine. She’s a good listener. And, she’s motivated. I’ll take that combination all day long. Let’s hear more about Sarah–and her qualities–in this latest installment of the PR Rock Stars series.
You recently took on a new role at Patterson Companies. Can you tell us more about this role?
The role of content strategist is brand new for the company, which is both challenging and exciting. I have the opportunity to work with a talented group of copywriters and marketing strategists to put together content plans that support new product launches, product category campaigns, awareness campaigns, etc. Patterson is shifting their way of thinking from a primarily sales-driven company to one that understands the importance of becoming a thought leader with our customers.
One of my favorite projects I’m working on as a content strategist (and in my past role as an account executive) is the repositioning of our flagship publication “Patterson Today.” This year, we updated everything from the name (now “Best Practice”) to the types of stories we’re featuring. The stories we’re telling aren’t just about the office equipment anymore – they tell a holistic, lifestyle story about the practice and dentistry. Last fall I visited an office in Milwaukee which is owned by an amazing dentist. We featured information about the state-of-the-art technology in her office, but also told a story about how she invests in the community by getting mouth guards for the local school athletics department. I think our audience is craving this type of lifestyle content more than the traditional, sales-focused content they’re used to seeing from us.
Now that you’re in this more content-forward role, what trends do you see in the content world that will impact your work at Patterson?
Using content for marketing isn’t new, but it is something that Patterson hasn’t done consistently. So I wouldn’t say that any of these things are new trends, but they’re new (and exciting) to Patterson!
In one of the campaigns I’m working on, we’re using gated, downloadable content as a lead generation tool for the first time and seeing results that have exceeded our expectations, which proves that our audience is ready to get content about dental industry best practices instead of strictly promotional marketing (although that will always be part of our campaigns because people love a good deal). We’re definitely going to be using this tactic in a lot of upcoming campaigns and testing which types of content works best with our audience.
We’re also dabbling in some influencer work, which I think is going to be more important in the future of content marketing. Consumers don’t just want to hear from a company, no matter how much they trust the brand. They want to hear from their peers and get unfiltered content where they are already spending a lot of their time – online.
In your 7-8 years in the work world, you’ve been on the agency and corporate sides. We all know there are differences to each, but what do you see as the pros to each side?
I’ve really enjoyed working on both the agency and corporate sides of the business, and there are definitely pros and cons to working at both.
The main pro I see to working on the corporate side is that you really get the opportunity to dig deep into one industry and company and become an expert in that category. My first internship was at CenterPoint Energy, and I’ve joked that if you can get excited about natural gas, you can get excited about anything. And it’s true! I learned so much about that industry in my short time there that it made it a really interesting job. The same has been true at Patterson. If you need any advice on tools for dental care, we should chat.
The main pro to working at an agency is actually the other side of the coin to the corporate pro – you get to work on such a wide variety of categories it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get bored. During my time at agencies, I worked on many accounts: the United States Army, Amway, Nutcase helmets, Gazelle bicycles, Meijer grocery stores, J.R. Watkins, etc. I would have never been given the opportunity to work on that many different companies if I would have started my career working at a corporation.
You’ve been heavily invested in IABC for years, serving on the board for the last 3-4 years. This month, you assume the role of president (congratulations!). Why did you choose to pursue the IABC president role, and how do you think it will impact your career and work-life?
When I joined the board, becoming president someday was always on my mind. I was approached about taking on the role when I was planning my wedding and knew my personal life was about to get crazy. While I was considering taking on the role, I talked to a couple of past IABC presidents, Jen Joly and Jennifer Doll, as well as current PRSA president, Heather Cmiel, to get advice on whether I should take on the roll. And, let me tell you, those ladies are the wrong people to talk to if you want to be talked out of doing something with a professional organization! They were so encouraging and supportive, and I plan on using their expertise throughout the next year (and probably longer).
This year will give me the opportunity to learn from some amazing communicators from around the Twin Cities, both about strategic communications and balancing work, life and IABC. I’m very fortunate to have such high-caliber, dedicated people on the board. I’ve also been lucky enough to be on the board under some amazing presidents who have set great examples for what it’s like to be a leader and visionary. I can’t wait to get the opportunity to do the same this year.
Any big plans or vision you can share about your upcoming IABC presidency?
I don’t think that it’s a secret that membership numbers in professional organizations have taken a hit in the past couple of years. When I’ve attending international events with other IABC leaders, it seems to be a trend among all chapters from around the country. I will be working hard with the board to make sure that we’re planning events and creating content that gives value to our members. We also need to communicate that value to members and non-members in the Twin Cities area.
Some of the events we’ve started in the past three years, like our Best Peer Mixer Ever and Convergence Summit, get stronger every year, and I’m excited to see what the planning committees come up with this year.
Little plug for IABC: make sure you check out our upcoming events calendar to see the awesome activities we have planned for the rest of this year.
You’re also expecting your first child in September (double congratulations!). How are you thinking differently about career and family heading into this transformational part of your life?
I’m a planner. But rumor has it that planning goes out the window when there’s a little one involved. I think prioritization and flexibility are going to be important for me. Some days IABC is going to be my priority because I’ll be prepping for an upcoming board meeting or attending an after-hours event. Other days I’ll have to put work aside to be at home with my little guy. And sometimes I won’t know what needs to be the priority, and that has to be OK, too!
I’m extremely lucky to have such a strong support system in the Twin Cities. My husband knows how important it is for me to do a good job in my role as president of IABC and knows my career is important to me. He’s so supportive and willing to do whatever he can to help me be successful this year. I also have a great group of friends, some of whom I met through work [see ladies from Weber Shandwick in picture below], and I know that they’re going to be an invaluable support system for me during this busy time.
We’ve talked before about networking and its vital role in career trajectory. I’ve written about this before–in fact, I just wrote about how I believe agency folks are a bit better networked than corporate-side folks. You’re clearly one of the outliers, but what is it that drives you to always be networking? What benefits have you seen?
I’ve always loved networking! There are so many benefits to meeting with people who work in the same industry as you at a different company. You can vent about work to people who understand, get advice, hear about new tools, etc. The benefits are endless.
Many people assume that networking should only be used when job searching, but I think it’s the opposite. You make many more positive, genuine connections by meeting with people just to talk without a motive like getting a new job. I’ve made professional connections, as well as developed great friendships through my networking.
I do agree the agencies stress the importance of networking much more than corporations. I think that the fact I started at agencies has a lot to do with why I find networking so valuable. I also really love to talk to people – so that helps, too!
I know a ton of people (even my brother) who defected after living in Minnesota their entire life, then attending college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. You grew up in Stevens Points, Wisc., and defected to MINNESOTA! Tell me, how much heat do you take for that each time you go home? And, why did you choose Minnesota over any number of Wisconsin schools?
I didn’t even apply to the University of Wisconsin-Madison! The University of Minnesota is where I always wanted to go because of their dance program. I also have family who live in Minneapolis so I spent a lot of time visiting the Twin Cities when I was younger. Shortly into my first semester I decided to go the communications route because I loved the classes I was taking in the J-school and communications studies programs.
And I love the Gophers! Anytime they’re playing the Badgers in any sport, I’ll get a text from my dad reminding me that the Badgers are better. I can’t wait for the year the Gopher football team beats the Badgers (it hasn’t happened the whole 10 years I’ve been a Gopher fan…) – I think this is our year!
But I do want to clarify… the Packers are my #1 team! We’ve had Packers season tickets in my family for the past 50-some years and most of my family has Packer tattoos (not me, yet). So, while I love the Gophers and living in Minnesota, I still bleed green and gold.
Susan Beatty knows a lot of people. Like A LOT. And when you run into someone who knows Susan, the likely response you’ll get is something along the lines of: “Oh, you know Susan? She’s so great.” I’ve heard it more than once. Believe me.
I just wrote about this last week, but Susan is one of those rare corporate-side folks who gets the power of networking. In fact, that’s how I met Susan years ago (through PRSA work). We found out we had a lot in common (outside of her silly love for the Green and Gold). I’d love to tell you all about how great Susan is…so, I will! Enjoy this installment of PR Rock Stars featuring one of my very favorites:
1–First, can you talk a little about your current role at USB? What are your key areas of responsibility?
I always tell people that I have one of the best roles within the Corporate Communications team at U.S. Bank and that I get to do all the “fun stuff.” I have a broad scope of responsibilities, which makes it truly a great role. My portfolio of work includes: corporate social responsibility, which includes financial education and diversity and inclusion; managing external communications for our brand, including overseeing a consumer-focused spokesperson program and an annual satisfaction consumer index; external communications alignment with our social media team to maximize great story telling; serving as part of the Twin Cities market leadership team and building out communications for our significant sponsorships (including U.S. Bank Stadium).
I smile when my day includes meetings that involve things like Super Bowl planning, the XGames, our new Podcast (Power of Possible Podcast – check it out in the app store!) and partnerships with awesome nonprofits like Technovation[MN]. Pretty awesome.
2–In 2016, you helped spearhead the PR efforts around the new US Bank Stadium. What did you learn from that experience?
The opening of U.S. Bank Stadium was a really fun time for us at the bank. One of the significant programs we launched alongside the opening of the stadium was U.S. Bank Places to Play, a three-year $1 million grant funding program in partnership with the MN Vikings. The grants fund recreational spaces across the state of Minnesota. U.S. Bank Stadium is such a large place to play, but the small places matter too. We are having so much fun with this program. In a matter of weeks, we will announced our second round of grants.
One of the other really special things we did with the opening of U.S. Bank Stadium was a family day. We invited U.S. Bank employees and up to three additional guests to tour the facility, have photos taken on the field and experience the new stadium before many others from the general public could. We had such an overwhelming response to our family day.
Our naming rights on U.S. Bank Stadium were rooted in our interest to solidify our commitment to our headquarters market here in Minnesota. It is also an opportunity for U.S. Bank to enter the national branding conversation in a very significant way. Our chairman Richard Davis was instrumental in securing the bid for the 2018 Super Bowl and we are thrilled to be a part of it.
3–You also have quite the financial communications background, as you’ve spent time at Bremer Bank and Piper Jaffray, in addition to USB. What is it about financial comms that keeps you wanting more?
I actually wanted to work in sports and did for some time after finishing my journalism degree at the University of Minnesota. I still do want to work in sports potentially someday, but for now I’m grateful for the role I have at U.S. Bank which allows me to work on many partnerships with our sports teams.
I recall the first few weeks after starting my job at Piper Jaffray, thinking to myself “how do people work in these quiet offices all day with these brown cube walls?” After working in a collegiate sports office for the past three years, it was quite a change. After a few months, I realized I needed to brush up on my financial acronyms and knowledge, but in less than a years time, I actually enjoyed reading the Wall Street Journal. Every company has lent a different experience for sure. During my time at Piper, I learned how the investment bankers helped young companies go public on the stock exchange, growing their businesses – truly amazing work. I worked with some of the smartest, most brilliant analytical people during my seven years at Piper Jaffray.
At Bremer and now at U.S. Bank, I’m honored to work with talented bankers who are dedicated to making people’s financial dreams come true. The breadth and depth of the work we do at U.S. Bank as one of the largest financial institutions is pretty crazy when you think about it. My responsibility to help manage the reputation of the fifth largest bank in the country is not lost on me.
4–Interestingly, you started your career in sports PR with the Green Bay Packers (more on that in a minute), and the University of Minnesota. I like to tell kids if they’re going to go into sports PR, make sure you do it when you’re young because it’s a TON of hours and you essentially get paid minimum wage. Am I about right with those assertions? And, what did you like about working in sports PR for a few years?
Wow – working in sports PR were some of the best years of my career, hands down. When my time at the U of M in athletics came to an end, I was offered a few different opportunities in sports, one of which was to move to New York and work for the NFL league office, but I was drawn to stay in Minneapolis/St. Paul near home. I don’t regret not taking any of those opportunities. Shortly after I started my career however, I did have an opportunity to interview for my dream job with the Green Bay Packers, but ended up being the number 2 candidate. After that, I embraced my career in financial services and haven’t looked back.
I completely agree with you – work in sports while you’re young. When I worked in the industry, I put in 70+ hour weeks and worked most nights and nearly every weekend. It was completely rewarding for me at the time, but can’t imagine doing it with any kind of family or other responsibility. I did work in college athletics however, in a role where I covered multiple sports so there was no off-season. I think PR roles in professional sports are a little bit different where you have at least some times during the year where you are not “in-season.”
I often will tell others that if you have an opportunity to hire somebody who has worked in athletic communications to do it. The roles are demanding and your talents have to stretch over multiple disciplines. In a recent story in Sports Illustrated (yes I still read the magazine cover-to-cover at the gym in the morning), I read about the war for top tier digital talent at major division one football programs. Universities are relying on small and nimble communication teams to produce compelling content to lure in recruits and showcase the university. I believe it was Clemson University that has the top team of digital talent and other schools are already recruiting them.
5–With all these cool, high profile jobs, you’ve met a lot of sports celebrities over the years. Who has been the most interesting and why?
I have to say (and sorry to all you #NoPackNo fans out there) that it would be Brett Favre. I worked with the Green Bay Packers for a summer as a PR intern and had the opportunity to meet Brett. He was always known as a jokester and as “always having fun playing the game.” He truly did live and play that way both when the spotlight was on and when it was not. I recall once working in the PR offices that summer when the other intern and I said “gosh, what is that smell?” It was awful so we asked some of the full-time staff who seemed to be un-fazed by it. They simply said, “oh, that’s just Brett – he thinks it is funny to let off stink bombs in the office and then run away.” You seriously can’t make this stuff up.
He also used to yell across the lunch room during training camp at long-time PR Green Bay Packer legend Lee Remmel. In fact, he almost sang at him “oh, Leeland…” Lee just brushed it off. Come to think of it, Lee Remmel was a true gem in his own right. At the end of our summer in Green Bay, he hosted the entire PR team at dinner. I am honored to have worked with such an amazing historian and sports PR legend.
6–You volunteer a ton of your time to other organizations from Second Harvest Heartland to MIMA to the YMCA. With a young family at home, and a demanding day job, why do you continue to spend so much time giving back? How has it impacted your day job?
Giving back has been part of who I am as long as I can remember. It’s something I learned from my parents early on in life. They were always cooking food for others, donating their time and giving back. One of my mantras, is you’ll never regret time spent helping others. It’s so true. My first volunteer experience as a young adult as actually serving as a mentor with Bolder Options, led by great community organizer and friend Darrell Thompson (also a famous Gopher and Green Bay Packer!). That experience made me realize just how important it is to use your gifts and talents to lift up others. And then when I worked at Piper Jaffray, I started an initiative to serve lunch at Catholic Charities once a month and I’m honored to say there is still a team making it happen many years after I moved on. I had always been involved in professional organizations and volunteering.
Over the past 10 years, I have been actively involved serving on multiple advisory and professional organization boards. I have met SO MANY people serving in these roles. And through each opportunity I have learned a ton from others. I have been exposed to so many things through my board service and had the opportunity to volunteer in multiple different ways.
Volunteering has been a large part of all of the organizations I have worked at. Often a board meeting or volunteer opportunity happens during the day and you just have to make it work. If it is beneficial for you, it is beneficial for your organization. Often you can wear dual hats in your volunteer commitment – giving back as an individual, but also becoming a more connected and smarter professional which ultimately impacts your organization and your ability to bring your best to work each day. Balancing time is no doubt a juggle. I make it fit because it’s so important and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And now, I have the responsibility of introducing volunteering to my 2 young boys. We are often buying items for those in need, serving food through our church, ringing bells to raise money at holidays, coaching youth sports and many other activities. We often tell them how important it is to give what you have to those who don’t have as much – and that giving of your time is so important.
7–You have a lot of initials after your name (APR, MBC). How has earning each of those certifications and degrees shaped you into the communicator you are today? And, if you had to do it all over again, would you, and why?
I think always improving your skills and stretching yourself is important in your professional career. I started taking those masters classes at St. Thomas at night to help me learn business communications better. At first, I was most interested in getting the certificate, but then I decided I would just complete the program and earn the full master’s degree. If I had to do it all over again, I would have gone after the full MBA so I could learn even more about accounting and statistics for my eventual career in financial services.
Getting the APR for me was all about commitment and dedication to the discipline of PR. When you think about professionals who are true professionals in their industry, they often have credentials, licenses or certifications. For us in PR, there are only a couple of these certifications that we can achieve, and one of them is the APR. Studying for the APR reminds you of the core disciplines that make up a holistic PR campaign – research, objectives, goals, etc. I’m very glad I went through with it and encourage others to do the same.
8–Finally, you’re a die-hard Packer fan. So sad. How many more years of Aaron Rodgers’ prime is Mike Holmgren going to waste? And, are you ready for the Brett Hundley era to begin?
Hmm… so first of all Mike Holmgren? That was like so 15 years ago. Aaron Rodgers has many, many, many years left to play. We Packer fans have been truly blessed to go from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers. Both phenomenal quarters and complete game changers. I think most of us Packer fans know that when ARod goes down, so goes the Packers. And there is no more “Flynn to win” behind him. I’m excited about the 2017-18 season. We were so close last year. I think this is our year and I know Packer faithful cannot wait to invade Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium February 4, 2018.
You know how when you meet some people you can just tell they’re going to be a big deal some day. That’s how you feel when you meet Amanda Gebhard. And I’m quite sure that feeling will pay off in the years ahead (you watch!). She’s currently in a social role over at Boston Scientific, but I think the comms/marketing world has much more in store for this young woman. Let’s hear more from this PR Rock Star:
You’re a senior communications specialist-social media for Boston Scientific. Since social positions vary widely from company to company, what does your typical day look like?
I would say my job is roughly 60% content (strategy and execution), 25% analytics/reporting and 15% community management.
Here’s what a typical day might look like for me:
- Check email, news and social feeds
- Read daily alerts and monitor brand accounts twice daily for comments, mentions, etc. – take action as needed
- Content work
- Evaluate incoming content requests, edit copy, assist with legal/reg reviews
- Draft posts, work with brand team on visual assets, send posts through legal/reg review, schedule or publish
- Develop content strategies for larger campaigns/initiatives
- More meetings
- Pull data and create report for listening, campaigns, etc. (not daily but at least once or twice a month)
- If time, make progress on longer-term projects
In your six-year career you’ve worked for three health care companies. In those six years, what have you learned about working in social in a highly regulated industry?
While each sector of healthcare has different regulations, the processes – and challenges – are mostly the same across the board. Many healthcare companies take a very conservative stance when it comes to social content, which is understandable. But it can sometimes hinder innovation and creativity, and it definitely creates time and work. However, as you build trust with your legal and regulatory teams and learn what their biggest concerns are, you can start to form partnerships and forge a path forward. It definitely takes time, though.
I would also add that there is still SO much gray area in healthcare regulations when it comes to social media. The regulations can’t keep pace with the technology, so it leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
Working in social for a health care company is decidedly less “sexy” than working for companies like Target, General Mills or Best Buy. Why do you continue to choose health care over other industries?
It goes without saying that healthcare is rarely (if ever) on the cutting edge of social and digital media – especially with larger orgs. So if your goal is to do cool, exciting work that makes for good case studies, healthcare probably isn’t right for you. But if you enjoy interacting directly with patients and customers, and you want to work for a company that’s making a tangible difference in people’s lives, healthcare could be a good fit.
Aside from the meaningful work aspect, healthcare is also a thriving industry (especially here in the Twin Cities). And I’m personally very interested in the intersection between health and technology – I see lots of potential there.
What’s the biggest trends you’re seeing in social media when it comes to health care marketing right now?
Surprisingly, live video seems to be an emerging trend in healthcare. One organization doing a lot with this is the Mayo Clinic. They host regular Facebook Live Q&A sessions on various medical topics. I think this is a great way to connect with and educate patients in a more authentic, interactive way.
Influencer marketing is another trend that’s gaining traction in medical communities. According to CDW Healthcare, 87% of physicians ages 26-55 (and 65% ages 56-75) are active on social media. Some have built significant personal brands and are very influential within their networks.
Paid social is a pretty large topic of conversation as well. It’s increasingly important for all industries, but it’s particularly complex in healthcare due to evolving regulations and platform advertising rules.
You volunteer your time with Social Media Breakfast as a community manager, and have since 2014. What have been the primary benefits of donating your time to this organization?
Volunteering with SMBMSP has been one of the smartest career moves I’ve made. Aside from the obvious benefit of learning from other social media professionals, here are a couple of the benefits I’ve seen:
- Connections – SMBMSP has vastly expanded my network, and I regularly stay in touch with people I’ve met there.
- Resume building – Volunteering with an industry group looks great on your resume. Before I accepted my position with Boston Scientific, my involvement with SMBMSP came up in nearly every interview I had with every company.
What are the biggest skill gaps you see amongst today’s social media professionals?
One of the major gaps I’ve seen lately relates to human resources, of all things. Whether it’s employee relations issues that surface on social media or talent acquisition social strategies, there is a clear disconnect between the teams that typically work on social media (in marketing or communications) and HR. If HR is at all integrated into the social strategy, there needs to be a resource that understands both the discipline and the medium enough to guide both teams.
Also, as a counter point, I would actually argue that there are too many expectations placed on social media professionals. We’re expected to be writers, designers, photographers, videographers, project managers, community managers, customer service agents, marketers, crisis communicators, recruiters and analysts. Those jobs require vastly different skill sets, yet to some degree, companies expect it all from one person. They’re getting a heck of a deal.
You mentioned at the last SMB that you’d love to get your hands on some Snap Spectacles. How do you see brands adopting this new technology in coming months/year?
As cool as Spectacles are, I honestly don’t see most brands adopting them since they only show one individual’s point of view and they only work with one platform – a platform that many brands (aside from media) have been slow to join. But I do think they’re a great proof of concept that will lead to a more “brand-friendly” product – perhaps one that isn’t tied to a single platform or device (like Samsung’s Gear VR) or even a single perspective. I think the immersive, interactive experience of VR is here to stay, though it will evolve, but I predict the “wearable” VR trend won’t stick around.
For years, I’ve said there are two things I will not talk about online: politics and religion. I’ve walked myself back on the former recently, but I noticed that you don’t hold back in talking about your religious beliefs. Can you talk a little about why and the role your faith plays in your life?
First, I understand and respect why many people choose not to talk about religion online, because it’s very easy to misinterpret or take things out of context. But my faith is a large part of who I am, and I’ve made the personal decision to show up online the same way I do in person. I do think there’s a right and wrong way to talk about your faith, especially on social media, but I don’t believe in avoiding a topic altogether simply because some people may not agree with it. Also, I’ve found that it opens doors to more meaningful conversations and relationships, and that alone makes it worth it to me.
Like me, you’re a South Minneapolis resident. Best place to live in the city! I’m curious: What are your favorite restaurants and/or coffee shops on the south side?
South Minneapolis is absolutely the best place to live – I love it here. There are SO many good restaurants and coffee shops; it’s hard to pick my favorites. But here are a few spots I keep going back to:
- Wise Acre Eatery (locally sourced food and giant, thick-but bacon)
- The Lowry (chicken and waffles – enough said)
- Red Cow (I’ve tried most of the menu and have yet to be disappointed)
- Five Watt Coffee (fantastic coffee without the crowds of Spyhouse)
Truth be told, I don’t know Leah Johnson all that well. I met her through my work with MIMA and a common friend (and fellow rock star, Madeline Strachota). But, in the short amount of time I’ve gotten to know Leah a bit better, I can tell she has rock star tendencies. How can I tell? First, she’s a hand-raiser. She’s now part of the Student Relations committee with MIMA that just unveiled the first-ever MIMA scholarship! Two, she’s been with the Academy of Neurology for five years. She started as an administrative assistant in 2012. She’s now the associate director of digital strategy and innovation. That’s quite a jump in five years–and she’s been with the same organization for five years (that says a lot right there!). Again, definite rock star tendencies. Let’s hear more from Leah and what’s she’s up to in her work with AAN.
Tell us a little about your role as associate director-digital strategy and innovation with the American Academy of Neurology.
I lead the Digital Team at the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), which includes content strategy and development. The team is full of experts that act as an internal agency to our staff clients. We run two websites, develop over twenty .NET applications, manage over 40 social media channels and send more than 5.3 million individual emails a year. In addition to leading the day-to-day, I also manage the organization’s digital initiatives, which for this year include a website redesign for our member site, launching a completely new website, and a semantic search engine. I also co-chair the AAN staff committee, which focuses on staff engagement and a quality work environment for all employees.
Your title includes “innovation”–what are you currently doing at AAN to stay on the cutting edge?
I am supported by great leadership that believes in innovating and providing a best-in-class digital experience for our members. As I mentioned previously, one large initiative this year is redesigning our AAN.com website. We launched a new website approximately three years ago that had focused on improved governance and usability. Our goals this time around include a fully personalized, mobile-optimized, and cleaner/brighter experience. In addition to the big digital initiatives, we hold meetings throughout the year that emphasize the need for innovation within the organization. These are our team ‘lightbulb’ meetings. We meet once a month to review what is happening in the space, including any R&D and trial and error exploration. We are consistently reviewing and questioning our current processes to make sure we are agile enough to try new things.
For example, about a year ago we launched an Instagram account (@aanbrain.) We were not certain if there would be an audience for our content, but we decided to try it and follow the ‘fail fast’ motto. I am a huge proponent of trying an idea, but also knowing when it is not working and moving on quickly. To our (somewhat) surprise, the Instagram account has been one of our fastest growing and most engaging channels, including high ad conversions. Because we took a bit of a risk and had a clear goal (average over a 3% engagement rate), we were able to take more risks on that channel to see how they would pay off.
On the tech side, we are spending a good amount of R&D time developing apps using angular 2.
Staying on that innovation topic, what trends are you keeping a close eye on in the digital realm that may impact AAN down the road?
The AAN has a huge focus on distance learning and eLearning. With that as a priority, we are keeping an eye on any VR and AR trends and how that may impact the way students and physicians learn. As you can imagine, the impact of studying the brain in VR has the potential to be huge leap for eLearning. We are also keeping an eye on search trends. Search is incredibly important in the academic world, and we want to make sure we are always following any changes, big and small, to search engines. We are also working on efforts to make Neuroscience “cool” for those in grade school and looking into leveraging influencers in that realm, which is something we have never done before.
Speaking of trends and innovation–how do you keep up with all the changes in the industry while holding down a fairly hectic full-time position?
This is such a good question. I can tell you it has certainly gotten harder and harder as I find new things to take on at work, but I have a few strategies that I follow religiously to keep me updated. I read theSkimm every morning when I wake up. I am part of theSkimm’s ambassador program; I think their brand is an important one to watch. I am constantly watching brands that I love and questioning the strategies behind their content. I think you can learn a lot about innovation just by paying attention to your own reactions. I also reserve a few minutes a day to review the four or five SmartBrief emails that I subscribe to. These are great recaps of the previous day and mostly I focus on the quick summaries. I have also consistently kept an hour reserved on my calendar every Friday for the last five years to catch up on all big things from the week—a great place to start is always your “Talking Points” email.
At the AAN, we have an internal “coffees and case studies” meeting to discuss highlights from campaigns in which we have tried new and innovative techniques. Lastly, I attend as many MIMA events, where the “coffee and case studies” idea came from, and Social Media Breakfast events as possible. The content is so great and useful.
You started at AAN as an administrative assistant 5+ years ago working your way up to a director-level position now. For a millennial that’s virtually unheard of! Why is it you’ve stuck around that long when other opportunities most likely have popped up that you’ve passed on?
What I have learned during my time at the AAN is that you must find a place to work that is willing to invest in you. I have been provided training opportunities, growth opportunities, and challenges throughout my five years here. I have been asked to always use my voice in a smart and helpful way, even if I was the greenest person in the room. I have found wonderful mentors who have taught me that you must push yourself and pursue opportunities when they arise. Some of it has been luck in timing, but most of why I love the AAN is that they have given me chances to prove that I deserve to be in the roles that I have taken on. Growth is a huge aspect of why I have stayed here for five years, but I also show up to work every day excited to be here. Right out of college I landed myself in a job that I loathed going to every day. I vowed I would never let myself fall into that situation again. I work with some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet and that is the most important thing to me.
You recently started volunteering with MIMA and are the chair of the student relations committee. Why did you decide to volunteer your time with a professional organization? And why MIMA?
I have been a member of MIMA for the last five years. I knew that if I was going to learn beyond my immediate resources I had to surround myself with smart people who knew what they were doing. MIMA was a perfect fit for that. The content of the programs is always engaging. The people I have met are always driven and helpful and I have always felt welcome at the events. I will also admit I think I was specifically captured by the number of doughnuts provided at each of the events.
I have met a few people at MIMA events who threw around the idea of volunteering. As soon as I knew there was an opening on the student relations committee, I was in. I was so excited by the idea of helping students. There were major obstacles, and a lack of opportunities for me during my final years of college. It never seemed clear on how I was supposed to find a path to a digital position. If I could help a few students get to connect to and access the information that I was desperate for during those times, that was the type of volunteer opportunity I was looking for.
We have been working over the past two years to get students to be more engaged and aware and recently launched our new MIMA Student Scholarship. There is still so much opportunity for growth, but I am excited with the direction we are moving and have learned an exceptional amount from being involved in MIMA.
As part of that work, you/MIMA just unveiled a pretty cool new scholarship program for students. Can you tell us more about that program and how it impacts students looking to learn and grow their digital skill sets?
We continually hear from students that they are not getting what they need for real-world resume building in the classroom and that many are struggling to land internships because they have no real-world experience. We are hoping the scholarship program can help bridge that gap. The program is a case study competition that is very practical, but also includes some challenges that would show a hiring manager that the applicant can think critically about a digital marketing problem. Our goal is to not only award the scholarships but also to connect all applicants with local corporations, agencies, and non-profits that are looking for smart, ambitious interns. The application deadline is March 30, and the finalist will have an opportunity to present their case study to the thought leaders on the MIMA board.
Finally, you’re certified in Google Analytics–what’s one nugget or feature most people don’t know about GA that could really bolster their digital marketing efforts?
I will say, I fell in love with Google Analytics four years ago while attending ConFab. The presenter spoke about page scoring and goal tracking. I went back to my office the next day and started giving each page a score. Obviously, that did not turn out to be super useful, but I knew I had to get certified ASAP. It was definitely a “fail fast” moment.
What we have done lately is set up some Custom Dimensions for our logged in users. This has helped us identify which persons are logging in on specific pages and engaging with our content. We know when someone logs in it is a huge win and a way we can deliver that person the best content; we are therefore trying to increase that number and track what users are doing once they take that action.
We have been using email and social campaigns tracking via unique URLs for a while now, but I believe this is our most beneficial GA report. We test our content as much as possible, and this has helped us set and track clear KPIs for A/B testing. We are no longer looking only at an increase in CTR in an email where we tested a subject line, but drill down to more specific tracking on the web page and setting more specific content goals. I believe Google Analytics is only a good tool if you are clearly defining your goals and reporting back.