Five ways to stay ahead of the digital arms race

The other day I was talking to my favorite web developer Holly and encouraged her to begin moving her company toward mobile optimization and complementary apps. “I know we have to move forward,” she said, “But responding to this constant change is scary.”

Very true.  It’s also inhuman.

Homo sapiens were just not built for constant and rapid change.  We yearn for stability … literally homeostasis. For the first 99% of our human history, there were just three basic rules for life:

1) Make babies

2) Plant crops

3) Try not to die before accomplishing 1) and 2)

Downloading the latest productivity app was not on the agenda, although a game called “Angry Barbarians” probably would have been a big hit.

When President Thomas Jefferson had a chance to purchase the immense Louisiana Territory from France in 1803 for $15 million, most of the population thought it was folly. Didn’t this madman know that you could not possibly manage a country that is larger than a two-day horse ride from its center? (And that is why European countries are the size they are).

The point is, not only are we not built for change, even the IDEA of technological change was foreign to our ancestors.  The people of Jefferson’s day were carrying on the life humans had always known.  They could not even imagine a steam engine, a car, or something as mind-numbing as search engine optimization.

Of course, as digital marketers, we have squarely put ourselves in a position of mandatory and constant adaptation … or irrelevance. The owner of a Buffalo ad agency asked me last week, “What do we do?  Simply fire the people who aren’t keeping up?”

In a word, yes.

It used to be, that to work effectively in marketing you had to either be a) a great strategic thinker; b) somebody who could execute a strategy creatively, or c) a relative of the boss.

These days, there is another critical element for all marketers: the ability to assess technological change quickly and apply it to the workplace effectively. As a strategic marketer, you can’t even ask the right questions if you’re not immersed in the change all around you. As a creative talent, you are sub-optimizing your work if you don’t know all the possibilities. And as a relative of the boss … well, I suppose you’ll always have a job and so you’re probably not even reading this blog.

But here’s the real challenge.  If you think it’s hard to keep up now, you ain’t seen nothing yet. We are in a breath-taking digital arms race and it is accelerating.

As I said, we’re simply not built to handle this stress so we better surround ourselves with some coping mechanisms. Here are some that work for me:

  1. Use downtime wisely – Here’s to smartphones and unlimited data plans (clink).
  2. Don’t make professional development an after-thought. If you believe my hypothesis about the mandate to keep up with change — and I know you do — then this must be a central part of our daily routine. Are you scheduling time to learn?
  3. Cultivate a learning ecosystem – One of my best friends is a guy named Jeremy Floyd. Jeremy is both left-brained and right-brained, which means he can think circles around me. I have lunch with Jeremy at least once a month just so I can sit at his feet and learn. He is part of my learning ecosystem. Meet regularly with people who will push you in new directions.
  4. Choose your battles — Here is a truth that may be difficult to accept. You and I cannot keep with everything. We’re going to have to specialize our expertise and surround ourselves with a network who can fill in the gaps in other areas.
  5. Prioritize blog reading — Blogs can be a rich source of ideas and insights but they are usually the first thing to be cut when the going gets tough.  Streamline your blog reader and force yourself to read the essential blogs. I’m always glad I did, even when I’m busy. Blogs are typically written by exactly the kind of people you need to be networking with and learning from. Think about it this way. Being a frequent blog reader may be one of your most important competitive advantages!

Enough from me. What works for you? How are you treading water in the tsunamai of technological change? How is it affecting your effectiveness as a marketing professional? Are you being forced to specialize yet?

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  • My recent post on The Skool of Life seems relevant to your points. “11 Steps to Starting Over Today”:

    Depending on how you slice it though, staying ahead comes down to just one or two things. In my mind, those are intention and dedication. Some might say: perseverance, focus, or whatever else. And, I would imagine that we would be on the same page for the most part.

    Really, you just have to have the intention to do something and then the dedication to accomplish it. (Almost) Everything else is just tactics or steps in the process.

  •  Well said, Mark.  I struggle with how to keep not just up, but ahead of the game!  My husband is constantly asking me about my blog reading habits, commenting and publishing, included.  He just doesn’t get how this is translating to a positive bottom line for me.  At times, I start to think he has a point.  However, I feel strongly that by doing the ‘research’ and the immersion part, as you reference, I’m staying ahead of the game and earning another master’s in this new digital world of media, marketing and PR.  Thanks for the reinforcement and thanks also for the tips on using your time wisely.  

    By the way…your blog is one of a handful of blogs I’ll read in the am, if I didn’t get to read my ‘quota’ the night before.  I give myself until around 9am and then it’s off to work!  

  •  Wow, Mark – this isn’t really a post about marketing, it’s a post about creating an organizational culture that enables marketing, and it’s bursting at the seams with good ideas!

    You’ve said something very important here: “What do we do? Simply fire the people who aren’t keeping up? In a word, yes.”

    I think people might resist that, but the truth is that it isn’t fair to the entire organization to keep people involved who just can’t keep up – ultimately, you’d be threatening EVERYBODY’s jobs by doing that.

    This post really got me thinking, and I really appreciate it.

    By the way, I’ve been reading the Tao of Twitter, on Marcus Sheridan’s recommendation, and only just now connected the dots that you’re that same Mark Schaefer. I’m loving it – great work, Mark!

  •  I’m not sure it’s that simple. What if you had to accomplish a task that required you to personally read three large books a day, every day.  It would require that you dismiss all other personal and professional activities.

    So even if you had the intent to do it and the dedication to do it, it is probably an impossible task and you have to figure out another way to skin the cat. I think that is what most people in this space are facing, at least that’s the way it is for me. I am finding it impossible to keep up with everything about everything, even though I would like to and my career would certainly benefit from doing so. I also have to make a living. : )

    Thanks for the comment and the link!

  • I think you’re correct here Erica. I also feel your pain about adjusting to an always-on world. It’s not 9-5 any more.  I also follow a similar discipline about reading in the morning and then getting to work!  Thanks! 

  •  That is a very interesting take on it Danny. An organizational perspective. I like that.

    Certainly I would give people every opportunity to acquire training and keep up. But I do think it is either a life skill or it’s not in some cases. If people can’t adapt, they’re in the wrong business. Marketing is all about change and adaptation now.  Quite a shift.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying The Tao of Twitter. It has been a remarkable little book!  Has really been helping a lot of people! Thanks for your comment today Danny!

  • Learning never stops. The problem I have is that sometimes I can get so busy with learning that I forget to take care of other things. Lately I have begun writing out my tasks for the day, and that is helping a bit.

    I am going to also try using an egg timer to keep myself on task better, and see if that helps. I am reading three books right now, and when I am traveling on the bus or train, I use that as my reading time. 

    I also agree we can’t possibly be good at everything, so I do try to talk to people who are smarter than me and learn from them. It teaches me a new way of seeing things, and it keeps my ego in check, knowing I am not the “be all end all” of knowledge.

    Your blog is required reading for me. So is Seth Godin, Chris Brogan and Mitch Joel. If I read just those four, I am doing great, but I prefer to read about ten blogs per day relating to marketing, business and PR

  • Tony

    So, what do you do when the bulk of your company’s current income is derived from an industry that his historically last to the table. We understand the need for Social, the most successful businesses in their market (nationally) understand and focus on the necessity of social, but we just can’t seem to educate THEM. And they’re the ones keeping the lights on right now.

  • Great post, Mark.  If we don’t embrace change we risk becoming extinct! 

  •  Prioritize blog reading: Were you reading my mind?  I’ve been out of the loop with no internet access (visiting mom and dad) and struck down with gunk in my chest requiring antibiotics.  (I hope no one in this cafe gets my bug…) The google reader has 477 posts for me to check out. Keeping up with blogs is important but there’s a limit.  The google reader has 477 posts for me to check out. Keeping up with blogs is important but there’s a limit.  

  • Maybe this is  past post, or could be a new post, but how ’bout listing out your top five or top ten “must read” blogs?

  •  I just discovered your blog, which I’m happy about.  But I had to trade out another blog to make room.  That’s OK because they weren’t moving the rock anymore.  This trading has been going on for a few years now.  That’s driven home the fickle nature of the web and it’s support of exodus. 

    So I continue to turn over rocks in order to try and grasp the edge on traffic flow.  Recently  I’ve had this bulb go on that says the theory is not all that difficult.  Yes the tools and channels change and expand daily, but the nature is very old.  Familiarity, human touch, word of mouth (including FB etc.), all the buzz for succeeding online is the same as it has been for brick and mortar.  I go to the hardware store where the guys help me, not the one where the owner bitches about his lousy business.  Sound a little like Zappos? 

    Now I need to go to my next blog/whitepaper/newsletter because I’m sure I’ve fallen behind while I wrote this.  Anyway, there may be more than one bulb.

  • One of the tricks that keeps me ahead of the curve is testing testing testing. Learning something from a book, blog or DVD is one thing, doing it is another. I built 12 niche sites when I started a deep dive into niche marketing, SEO, copywriting, etc. That is a huge test bed where I can try out a variety of new techniques under a variety of situations. There is no silver bullet for anything, and the more tools you have – tools proven to work – the more opportunities for win you have.

  •  Wow, I’m honored to be a part of THAT list!  Thanks Nancy!

  • hi Mark-
    agree! change is the only constant, inevitable. And in these ever fast paced times can feel overwhelming without lists and goals.
    I would add #6. Meditate.
    the clarity and strength You gain will more than compensate for the time spent going still.

  •  It’s an interesting scenario.  It appears that if they are the cash cow for your company, they must be doing something right.  But it’s interesting that competitors are already moving into social. I do believe there is a first movers advantage in some cases. it’s hard to speculate with so little information but I think you have correctly summarized that nothing si going to happen until the top executives understand and sponsor the activity!  Good luck!

  •  I feel your pain Barrett!  A frequent scenario!

  •  I hate to be so prescriptive because sometimes I get great value from even little-known blogs.  I would say the two thinkers I admire the most are Jay Baer and Mitch Joel. I don’t always agree with them but they do push me in new directions.

  • “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”—General Eric. Shinseki, retired Chief of Staff, U. S. Army.

    Yup. Good stuff.

    Choosing battles and knowing what sources to follow seems key to me. My reader is my lifeline and my pipline. I pay attention to what people do, not what they say and learn by example.

  •  Well, I’m pleased I made the cut! I use the same Darwinian approach to my blog reader!

    I think your view on the fundamentals is spot-on. Look, it’s all about human nature. If you understand consumer behavior, you can most effectively apply these new tools.  That’s why i say being able to quickly assess the changes and apply them is an important skill set.

    Well said Gordon and thanks for joining the {grow} community!

  •  I am so jealous of you. You are more into the tech side than me but I don;t have the time and patience to explore and test like you do. But I certainly see the benefit. By immersing yourself in this stuff Robert you KNOW this stuff first-hand!  So here is my strategy.  1) Watch you immerse yourself.  2) Wait for your blog post on your experience and recommendation 3) Do whatever you say.

    OK, ball is in your court!  : )

  •  That is a very cool addition to the list. I could certainly see benefit from quiet reflection and thoughtful consideration. Thanks Kara!

  •  Thanks Mark no pressure there 🙂

  • Two book recommendations – The first is “The Diamond Cutter” by Michael Roach, a best seller about how the Buddhist teachings on Karma brought a diamond company from nothing to one that was sold to Warren Buffet a year ago for $250 million.

    The follow up to that book, which came out last year, is Karmic Management, same author.

    Both books talk about the importance of getting away from the world, at least once a month, with nothing but a pencil/pen, note pad and time to be quiet.

  • For me, staying ahead is partially accomplished by being on Twitter (following the right people!) and reading the right blogs, which I often find via Twitter.

    This is one of those blogs.

  •  AS a technology firm, offering only custom solutions, we MUST not just keep up, we MUST keep ahead of the game.  We are constantly learning and developing new things so that we can offer custom solutions to our clients to keep them ahead of the game.  It’s time consuming for sure, but we cant wait till the customer comes asking for it, if that happens they find the next current developer to handle their needs!

    Great topic, Mark!

  • Anonymous

    Well it’s good to see you are feeling better Mark. It’s better when your articles are loaded instead of you. Loaded with meds while you’re sick, that is. Once again your unique ability to observe and report has helped me learn and confirm along with lessons in history, humor, business and life.

  • Great post Mark.

    I would add two more to your list.

    #7 – Much like your #3, use social media to create a PLN, a personal/professional learning network. Tap into the informational stream on a daily basis and read from those outside your field or expertise. Learn from the crowd and other’s experience.

    #8 – Practice the art of unlearning! Learn to unlearn, learn and relearn. What’s right today might be wrong tomorrow.

  • Great post Mark.

    I would add two more to your list.

    #7 – Much like your #3, use social media to create a PLN, a personal/professional learning network. Tap into the informational stream on a daily basis and read from those outside your field or expertise. Learn from the crowd and other’s experience.

    #8 – Practice the art of unlearning! Learn to unlearn, learn and relearn. What’s right today might be wrong tomorrow.

  • Hey Mark – grabbing a cup of coffee before an operations review, and I am lovin’ your coping mechanism advice on #3 and #5. It takes a whole lot more brains than mine to help me keep up; thank goodness for my blog friends and IRL friends.

    Alas, the pesky “copyeditor and useless info person in me” had a quibble.

    “For the first 99% of our human history, there were just three basic rules for life:
    1) Make babies

    2) Plant crops

    3) Try not to die before accomplishing 1) and 2)”

    Well…the crop-planting thing didn’t come along until sorta late (maybe about 15,000 years or so ago) and we wandered around snacking or starving before then, and in some cases after: 

    Maybe rule 2 should be updated to read:
    2) Make art and stuff

    (Making beer didn’t come along until after we made agriculture.)

  • Anonymous

    I would add “step outside your comfort zone.”  Even as you’re feeding your brain with all of the great marketing and social media blogs, etc., don’t forget to throw in the outliers that are completely off-topic for work.  You never know when there will be a trend or important insight going on over at the weird travel blog, the kids’ lunch packing blog, or the odd TED video.  You can easily get stuck “inside the bubble” if you only focus on “relevant” reading.

  • Wow what a great quote Michael. Thanks!  

  • Awww shucks, thanks Jeff!   I also find  Twitter to be my “daily university!”  

  • Good mindset Jennifer. Love that.  I think that’s attitude we all need to have! 

  • Oh gosh that made me spit my coffee!  Very funny. Thanks for chiming in to day Billy!  

  • Deep stuff.  That unlearning thing is so damn hard.  It is so comfortable being in that box.  But these days, I’m not sure there is a box!! nice to see you in the comment section again Jeff! 

  • Oh that is brilliant. Shame on me. Shame shame shame. Because usually I’m on top of that stuff. One of my favorite books is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  You would probably like it if you haven’t read it yet.  I bow to you. I exit, tail between my legs : )   

  • Perfect addition to the list and I agree!  A great way to get inspired and energized!  

  • Anonymous

    Thanks so much for the shout out Mark!  And back to that conversation, the constant change is scary and at times exhausting but it sure does keep our jobs interesting!  Great post as always and I agree, in today’s constantly changing world it is key to surround yourself with various Subject Matter Experts and work as teams or virtual teams to leverage key strengths.

  • At the risk of annoying hockey non-fans or non-Wayne Gretzky fans, my thoughts on this are best summed up with the response Gretzky gave when asked what made him so good (and I’m probably paraphrasing here)…

    “I go to where the puck is going, not where it is or has been.” Wayne Gretzky

    We all need to be going where the puck is going in this wild and crazy “tsunami of technological change.”  Cheers! Kaarina

  • It is plain to see that you are a course in and of itself.
    I learn stuff here. It is not a time suck, and that is very necessary.
    I would add one thing: turn everything off and let your head take a shower.
    I use a relaxation technique that is the equal to TM, and it lets you wash the noise away.

  • Hey Mark, I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of months now but I really think this was one of your most visionary, thoughtful, and helpful pieces.

    What I like so much about what you said here is that you didn’t apologize for the way it is— because that’s just it– it’s the way it is. At this point, we can only evolve against our ‘natural man’ and embrace change as we embrace a piece of hot apple pie with ice cream.

    As far as your steps– what you really made me think about here was ‘balance’. You seem to really get that, and it’s what I want to develop much more fully. And although you’re incredibly successful in your own right, you’re smart enough to know you have much still to learn from others. This is a wonderful attribute for anyone that wants success in business or life.

    Cheers Mark for one incredible read sir.


  •  I absolutely LOVE the way you have with words. You make me crack a smile every single comment Billy.  I need to make it over to the Tango more often!!! Thanks!

  •  You know I love apple pie. Love it. That used to be my birthday treat as a kid. @kaarinadillabough:disqus — when we do the meatloaf, we need to throw i some apple pie too.

    Nevertheless, this is a very kind and generous comment from an undoubtedly kind and generous man. Thank you Marcus.

  • At the end of the day, and it has been another long day keeping up!  So appreciative and grateful to be reading your blog Mark.  Thank you for your generous assistance. 

  •  Meatloaf and apple pie it is, @markwilliamschaefer:disqus

  • What a great list and post! You are so right about how we humans are built.

    On the coping mechanisms, I have an additional method to suggest: monitor key influencers/experts in areas you are interested in. Often they are privy to the best intel and have developed the strongest networks so they stay at the vanguard of what is happening. For example, since social media is not my primary gig, I have a list of about 7 key influencers in that area I look to for what is new and important. If I see the majority start to talk about or get involved with something new, it prompts me to take a look.

    It’s not a perfect system, as sometimes leaders can be laggards, but for the most part it provides a great shortcut to staying on top of the ever-changing world of technology.

  •  Really fascinating. I like that Adam. Thanks for this great insight and contribution to the dialogue.

  • “Being a frequent blog reader may be one of your most important competitive advantages!”

    This statement literally jumped out from your post. It’ll be a further advantage to participate in blog discussions too! A social competitive advantage 😉

  •  I think that is true in so many ways, Jan.  Knowledge.  Relationships. Insight. Connecting the dots between ideas.  Brand awareness if you comment. 

    Blogs are overlooked as a secret weapon for competitive advantage.

  • So, if we add in the necessity to evaluate your ability to accomplish a task, would we agree for the most part?

    I ask, because if your task is not time constrained, you could likely read 1 book/day if that is more realistic for your time. It might just take 3 times as long. If it is time constrained though, you clearly have to measure the value of sacrificing other activities in order to get those 3 books/day read.

    While I want to say that it still comes down to “do you have the intention to finish X task in Y weeks?” and “do you have the dedication to accomplish X task if it requires sacrificing Z activity?” I know that the manner in which you (ie. each one of us) define and tackle the problem is at least in part determined by your situation, worldview, and experiences.

  •  No, I will not agree with you under any circumstances.  I’m being a bitch today and I like it.

    Seriously, I think my point in the article is that the ability to keep up is beyond will and intent for most of us … perhaps it is beyond our very DNA : )

    And yet we must keep up. What strategies and compromises must be made?  I understand your point and philosophically it is a fine line and you are probably right. Wait, what have I said????

  • Kelly

    Great blog! Here you’ve provided great nuggets of truth, steps to refining process in the ever changing digital age, and a bit of humor to blow off the “relative of the boss” stress I’ve been subject to for over a year now. 

  • Hi Mark,

    Timeouts are what works for me. Every day I schedule time to sit and think. My thoughts cover a lot of territory and always include a study on change. The changes that need to be made are usually different from the ones that are the current hot topic. Having that quiet time without any electronic devices interfering with my brain neurons helps me stay focused and grounded.

  • Similar to the “meditation” comment below. A good idea, thanks!

  • Hang in there Kelly!!

  • No worries, and please come back wagging! I think this Quora answer from Venkatesh Rao was percolating in the compost heap of my brain – – and helped trigger my digging deeper.

    It also helps that I’ve got a wide circle of unique acquaintances: I know folks who have done “hands on” anthropology on the hunting/gathering side of things.

    Ya know, I’ve meant to read Diamond’s book, and haven’t yet. Maybe I’ll
    use a recent anniversary gift – giftcard to a bookstore – and get it.
    (My recommend back to you? John McPhee’s Annals of the Former World – – awesome writing and chock-full of things you might like.)

  • Great post, Mark. I love the tips you gave here – especially [email protected]:twitter wrote about ‘the new normal’ yesterday, which includes carving out some time to read and comment on blogs, and yes, spend some time in your social networks. 

    There’s been so much talk lately about the need to focus on the “real’ work, we forget that investing in all of this is more than just a distraction. There really is value to be gained by doing all of this. 

    I know the days that I don’t get a chance to read and comment on blogs or connect with people in my networks, I feel very behind and disconnected. Certainly, you could also spend all day doing this and miss out on the other important work. The truth is, it’s about balance and being willing to carve out the time to keep up with this fast-paced world.

  •  I love that idea about the new normal and can’t wait to read that. I hope her next post is “explaining the new normal to your spouse”  !!

    What IS balance these days?  Is it OK to blog while watching TV?  Is it OK to tweet over dinner? Is this the way of the always-on world or an excuse to disconnect?

    It is important to stay immersed. I disconnected (mostly) for two weeks last year and felt like I had come out of a digital coma.

    Big topics.  Thanks Laura!

  •  BTW for our readers, here is a link to  that fine post
    The New Normal of Work Includes Social Media

  • It’s about always learning…and always balancing.

    One of the things I love about blogging & social media- it’s ever changing and never boring!

  • Staying ahead involves living and breathing the digital world. It’s almost impossible to step away from it without the chance of missing some insight or shift in the Market.

    I particularly like your final point. Staying up with the latest thinking is tough but careful selection of key blogs organised well in a reader can make life easier. Combine this with the use of mobile technology from point 1 and you have the inside track.

    If you can identify top level sources for your industry you are going to have th jump on most. From there it is about interpretation and inplementation.

  • I think balance is something we’ll never achieve, but it’s something to certainly strive for. And yes, I think the post for spouses would be excellent…I know I’m still explaining it to mine. [email protected]:twitter is pretty understanding (even though he never uses his Twitter account!)

    BTW – What did you think of Amber’s post? 

  •  Have you tried stepping away for a few weeks?  Whew. Crazy to catch up. The social web runs in dog years. If you miss a week it feels like seven.  

    I concur with your interpret and implement nuance. Thanks Sean!

  • Ha! You are right. There are plenty of circumstances in which intention and reality just do not line up

    Just now on Facebook, I commented on a friend’s status when he said that he was thinking of doing a half ironman in August. Summing up my comment, it was basically, “You COULD finish it, but it will be like hell. If your goal is just to finish, drop everything and work on your endurance [he’s a lifter]. If your goal is to be even remotely competitive…maybe sign up for next year’s half so that you don’t have to kill yourself just getting ready.”

    In a similar vein, one could read 1, 2, or 3 books a day just to keep up, but it’s a never ending battle, and we can’t always put of family time, relaxing, going for a hike, or whatever else just to keep up with the landslide of change.

    Ah, crap. I agree with you. What the deuce?! *shakes fist in the general direction of Knoxville*

  • Eric, turn from the Dark Side. Join us in our fight for truth, justice and a spam-free existence!

  • [email protected]

    It’s really true. I’m still a student who is graduating in two months, and really i feel the pressure to stay ahead in the new digital environment. My tips? Use twitter as a learning class day after day. By choosing the right people to follow they offer to you  a huge amount of papers, posts, webinasr, to stay informed and updated about new web invironment and to exchange opinions and impression about it.

  • This actually makes me feel much better about things. I’m really inspired that you’re ready to graduate and are already gearing up to learn. Thanks for sharing this Dave!

  • Ha!

  • i will have to check it out. The Diamond book is revolutionary thiinking. 

  • Anonymous

    I have a lot of interests and I find Twitter a great jumping off point for learning. I follow a lot of varied types from entertainment to tech bloggers. The best twits (outside of your fun twits) are the ones that make their tweets a headline and offer a link to read the details (Exactly what you did). I know some people who are just not keeping up and have a mountain of reasons (excuses) for ignoring the changing world we live in. It’s a shame too, because continual learning is fun and keeps you in touch with the real world. 

  • Chutima

    So true!! Great post but your solution for a single woman like me it sounds a bit hard to accomplish no. 1 though. hoho!!

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