Think + Do » an exploration of mission-driven marketing and design

Meet the Team: Julie Monson

Colorful overlapping speech bubbles

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the third in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

Julie Monson is a market researcher and strategic planner with more than 25 years of experience guiding the development of communication strategies, brand positioning, and message development for agencies, businesses, and non-profit organizations. From candid qualitative chats to rigorous quantitative inquiries, she tackle assignments that help teams understand what makes their users tick. Inevitably, these insights inspire intelligent strategies, grow businesses, and solve thorny problems.

* * * * * * * * * *

Photo of Julie MonsonI think most careers don’t neatly fit into the imaginations of young minds. What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I can still picture my 7th grade paper on this subject – decorated to the hilt with colorful fabric swatches given my aspiration was Interior Design. There was something about playing with art and color that fascinated me. I think my teen-aged self figured I could dabble in the creative even though I couldn’t actually draw or paint well at all.

What did you study in college?

I attended a liberal arts college the first two years, and loved my psych, sociology, philosophy, and religion classes the most. But I was pretty sure I wanted a well-rounded business degree rather than the heavy-handed economics program being served up – so I made a move to the Carlson School to wrap up the final two years of undergrad. It wasn’t until the final quarter of my senior year that I took a class in marketing research – and finally had a glimpse of the work I wanted to pursue.

And what was your first job after graduation?

My first job after graduation was really a cobbled-together series of internships on the research vendor side. Ultimately, those experiences set me up well for the entry-level consumer insights role I landed, and loved, at Land O’Lakes.

How did those experiences point you toward what you’re doing now?

Midstream, I didn’t realize I was heading toward a freelance consulting role. I went from vendor to corporate to ad agency, which isn’t a typical path. But regardless of the framework, I was always responsible for bringing target audience insights to bear on business decision-making. Experiencing the role from each of those unique vantage points, in turn, made it easier than I ever imagined to relate to the various clients I would serve as a consultant – because I had walked in many of their shoes.

Was there an “aha” moment when you thought “This is what I want to do!”

When I was an agency account planner, I had toddlers and a spouse who traveled as extensively as I did, and I figured there had to be a better way to do meaningful work and still keep all the balls in the air. The ‘aha’ was realizing it was actually possible. It made me feel like somehow I’d beat the system.

On top of that, consumer insights is a blast. I’m forever having interesting conversations with ordinary and extraordinary humans, about ordinary and extraordinary stuff. Honestly, it’s the stuff that life is made of.

What do like best about working independently?

It’s not just how and when I work, though admittedly that’s a pretty nice perk. Working independently gives me the freedom to dig deep for answers, take tangents where it makes sense, examine what I really believe and come to my own conclusions.

Don’t get me wrong – collaborating always brings energy and perspective to the work I do, and I relish the opportunity to learn from smart people whenever I can. But the thing I most value about working independently is taking a deep breath and rising to the challenge when there’s no one else to turn to. It’s exhilarating, it’s scary, and it’s affirming, all at once.

From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?

* * * * * * * * * *

My goal is to coax out simple human truths as naturally as I can – so job one is to gain participants’ trust. Some of that comes through experience and skill, but being empathetic, curious, and genuinely interested in what participants offer leads to meaningful insights for clients.

* * * * * * * * * *

How about from the perspective of a research participant?

Participants tell me all the time that they’re surprised how much fun they’ve had. At the heart of it, people want to matter, and it starts with being heard and understood. They spark to someone who really listens, and cares enough to find out what’s in their heads and hearts – and why.

What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?

It might be that if you’re doing it well, it looks like a walk in the park. It’s just conversation, right? Below the surface, a great facilitator is marching double-time to make discovery feel so natural for participants that they’re not aware there’s a jam-packed agenda, and a prescribed time in which to address the client’s needs.

How has the pandemic changed how you do your job?

The most obvious change is the way the pandemic accelerated research technologies that were already in place. Online interviews and focus groups have been around for years – but many facilitators, myself included, believe there’s no replacement for the in-person dynamic to really build rapport.

We all did enough Zoom happy hours in 2020 to know that socially, online is just not the same. But consumers are used to it now, and obviously it’s pretty convenient to conduct sessions across time zones and geographies.

Do you think those changes will remain when the pandemic is in our rearview mirror?

No question, remote research methodologies are here to stay, for cost and efficiency reasons – which matters a lot. But many clients say that what’s missing is the level of team collaboration and focus they felt when on-site or in context with participants. Some clients say that things feel less personal and less real from a distance.

The pendulum will swing back some, and we’ll surely be doing more in-person work in the future. The good news is that for organizations who never considered it previously, online research was effectively legitimized through the pandemic, and technologies were improved to meet demand. Online will remain a fantastic option, even as ethnographic, in-context, and facility-based work are buoyed by the recovery.

How May people contact you?

[email protected]  |  651-247-6888  |  LinkedIn

Meet the Team: Scott Streble

Photographer Scott Streble showing an elderly couple their portrait on a digital camera

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the second in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

Scott Streble is a Minneapolis-based location photographer who is best known for his documentary photographs of people. He portrays his subjects with beautiful realism, honesty, and utmost dignity. Regardless of budget, Scott believes that all nonprofit groups deserve good photography that accurately portrays their mission

Scott travels light, adapts to any location, and quickly gets his subjects to feel at ease. Those are among the reasons why he always delivers more great photos than I can ever use.

* * * * * * * * * *

What are your earliest memories of being interested in photography?

In sixth grade, the librarian of my middle school had an extra-curricular class in photography. Seeing the print “appear” in the developer in the darkroom was magical. I learned the darkroom side before the photography.

In high school, I became the yearbook photographer and took the school’s camera everywhere. I shot at least one roll of film per day, which I am sure far exceeded the yearbook’s budget, but the advisor saw my enthusiasm and let me go. I think he may even have paid for some of the film himself.

While in high school, I worked at a portrait studio in their darkroom making black-and-white prints. I also worked in the public library in the department that housed all the photo books, a constant source of inspiration. My co-workers at both jobs were very encouraging and supportive.

Do you remember your first camera? What was it that interested you about shooting photos?

It was a Canon TX, an all manual base-level camera. I carried it everywhere. I bought it used, and added a telephoto lens about a year later. Being a photographer put you in the front row of life, which was exciting.

Was the idea of being a photographer (as a career) something you imagined early on? Or did you consider it more of a hobby or a pipe dream?

I knew in high school I wanted to be a photographer, although I was concerned about the viability of it as a career choice. My parents encouraged me to do what I wanted, which was a big help. I kept at it and didn’t waiver.

How did you get started? What was your first paid photo shoot?

I studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. I was there two years, got an associate’s degree, ran out of money, and wanted to work.

I got a job as an assistant at a large commercial photography studio in Appleton, Wisconsin. It was a great first job as I was exposed to all sorts of photography (fashion, still life, corporate, food, architecture) as well as many different photographers and their individual styles.

My first paid photo shoot was for a local tattoo salon. It was a shot of a girl, covered in tattoos, of course. They put the image on their business card.

When did you begin working independently?

About two years later, I moved to Los Angeles as I wanted to live in a large city in a warm climate. I thought I wanted to be a fashion photographer (haha) and began assisting fashion shooters. I quickly learned that I didn’t want to do that. Being in LA, I also did a lot of work with photographers who were shooting album covers and movie posters. I learned a lot and it was really fun.

At the same time, I was shooting weddings, which I really loved. I shot them in a documentary style, using mostly black and white, which was a new thing back then. I got very busy, shooting about 60 weddings/year. Shooting weddings required a sense of calm and the ability to work quickly within a wide range of lighting situations. You also had to work with a wide range of personalities and family dynamics, which can be extreme on a wedding day. I use all of these skills with my current work.

The focus of your work today is shooting for nonprofits and good causes. Why is that important to you?

* * * * * * * * * *

When I realized that photography could be used to help people, I felt like I found my purpose. By showing both the need for help, and the benefit of the services that my clients provide, I can shine a light on the situation. People need to see. I feel fortunate to have a career and a skill set where I can do this work. It’s an honor to have clients who trust me to show the good work that they are doing.

* * * * * * * * * *

You are always working on one or more personal projects. How does that work shape what you do professionally? What are you working on now?

The personal projects are a nice departure from my assignment work. I still meet interesting people doing interesting things. I can stretch out my technique and try new stuff, then use these things with my assignment work.

I am working with family farms and taking portraits of drag queens. I’ve also covered the civil unrest and protests after George Floyd and Daunte Wright were killed by police.

During the earlier stages of the pandemic, I embarked on a series of portraits of families and individuals on their front porches, which culminated in a self-published book – Front Porch Portraits.

How may people contact you?

612-333-1400 | [email protected] | Instagram | Facebook

Meet the Team: John Visser

Since I assemble project teams depending on a client’s unique needs, I have the good fortune of working with a wide variety of talented people. This is the first in a series of interviews with collaborators I have enjoyed working with over the years.

John Visser is an experienced web developer known for being a reliable, approachable professional, and a tenacious problem solver. He has a keen interest in how people use web technologies, and has created digital solutions for small and mid-sized businesses, and nonprofit organizations.

John bridges the gap between thinking like a designer, a developer, and a client, which makes him a pleasure to work with. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

* * * * * * * * * *

Photo of John Visser, web developer at John Visser Website SolutionsYou graduated college with a degree in Developmental Psychology. How did you end up building websites?

I’ve had a life-long interest in computers, starting back to when I was 10 and attended programming classes at the local Radio Shack in Seattle. I took a break as a teenager when I discovered music and girls, but then while at college I started hearing about this “World Wide Web” and something stirred inside me. This was 1994, so it was very much in its infancy, but I saw the potential. While finishing college I taught myself HTML, Perl, Photoshop, and other tools of the trade, making several websites just as a hobby.

Do you remember any of your earliest websites?

My “15 minutes of fame” came when I created the very first website about British author C. S. Lewis, which gained quite a following, won several of those early web awards, and drew the attention of HarperCollins Publishers— who gave me my very first paid project as a web developer in 1995.

Does any of your psychology education apply to the work you’re doing today?

Any time you work with people, you’re dealing with human behavior. Whether you’re building trust with a new client, discussing the details of a project, or resolving client concerns, the ability to recognize a personality type is helpful when preparing an approach.

How long have you been working independently?

I’ve been self-employed since 2000. My employer wanted me to move to Utah, which simply wasn’t an option, so they let me go. After discussing it with my family, it was decided that we’d take our child out of daycare and I’d be a stay-at-home dad. I took on projects to work on at night, slowly learning the ropes of being a business owner and building a reputation.

Side note: the 4 years I spent as a stay-at-home dad were some of the best years of my life.

As you know, working “independently” means working collaboratively. What makes for a good website-building team?

Communication. I’ve worked with all sorts of folks of varying skill levels and personalities, and without clear communication of objectives, scope, and timeline, a project can go pear-shaped very quickly. A sense of humor helps quite a bit as well.

From a client’s perspective, what is the most valuable thing you bring to the table?

* * * * * * * * * *

I guess you can say that I have a knack for breaking down concepts into digestible pieces, and am able to explain technical things in a way that others can understand. I don’t like leaving clients in the dark — I’m all about educating them and presenting solutions in a way that empowers them so they’re feeling confident during the decision-making process.

* * * * * * * * * *

What is the least understood or least appreciated part of your job?

It’s sometimes difficult for folks to understand exactly what I do, since so much of the work is quietly hiding behind a website’s design. And honestly, that’s okay. The design presents the message, and people aren’t really supposed to consider the rest of it — a website should just work. The pages should load quickly, the links should all go where intended, it should look good on all devices, and you shouldn’t get an error when filling out the contact form or making a purchase. It’s only when that isn’t the case that you’re left contemplating whose fault it is.

Do you only work in WordPress? What is it you like about that platform?

WordPress is the only content management system I work with, but I also can build websites without a CMS. I like WordPress because it’s search-engine friendly, adaptable, customizable, and takes a sizable bite out of the nitty gritty when needing robust features like e-commerce. It also makes it really easy for a client to update the content on their website without needing to know any code.

How has the pandemic changed you – or what you do for a living?

As work slowed down a bit for me, it provided an opportunity for me to focus a little more on putting together a WordPress maintenance package for my clients. It’s been well-received, too, since it takes a lot of the daily/weekly/monthly headaches away from them as I take care of all the routine backups, software updates, and optimizations.

What is something you miss that surprises you?

I miss the in-person interactions with clients and collaborators. I used to do a lot of one-on-one networking at local coffee shops. The first year I moved to Minnesota I met with over 120 people in order to get my name out. Not too shabby for an introvert.

I know you love music, play the ukulele, and sing. Do you find any similarities between what you enjoy about music and developing websites?

No, I find them almost polar opposites. Web development doesn’t really allow for a creative outlet, and music is all about expression. Music is free-flowing, which I find relaxing, as opposed to having to mind the strict syntax of code, which can really wind you up tight sometimes if you don’t have some kind of “yin to the yang,” so to speak.

How may people contact you?

Website   |   Twitter   |   [email protected]   |   612 . 787 . 2065

Cooperation vs. Collaboration

close-up photo of men rowing in a boat raceEveryone has watched classic courtroom dramas unfold. The prosecution believes the defendant is guilty, but needs testimony from someone with direct knowledge of the crime. They need a witness to cooperate. They need a stool pigeon.

Questions and answers are practiced. The witness is called to testify. But maybe the witness received a better offer (or threat) from representatives of the defendant. Suddenly, to the prosecutor’s surprise, her questions are being deflected and statements contradicted. The courtroom murmurs. “Your honor, I request permission to treat the witness as hostile.” Our stooly isn’t cooperating any more.

Tentative buy-in
Most co-workers and managers are pleasant enough and could be considered cooperative. Cooperation is “nice” in the same way that a blind date might be described as nice. You may well have a pleasant evening together, but it’s not like you’re going to be sending out wedding invitations any time soon. To make rapid progress toward more substantial goals, it isn’t enough to bring a bouquet of flowers to your next meeting.

True collaboration – across functions and departments – is more difficult to achieve. It requires the ability to align goals and resources, and the flexibility to make adjustments on the fly. It involves setting priorities, deciding what to do now, and what can wait – and communicating all of that clearly. Even with the most cooperative people, this is where collaboration can break down.

Why does this matter in marketing and design?

Let’s examine definitions. Cooperation is the process of working together to the same end. Collaboration is the action of working with someone to produce or create something. The difference is subtle, but meaningful.

Shared goals
Goals come and go. Some are important today, but less important a year from now. If a goal is missed – or met – a new one will be set. In a cooperative workplace, the focus easily turns to tactics over strategy. Colleagues may be friendly and willing to share information, but become misaligned depending on short-term goals. Progress slows.

In this kind of environment, design and marketing are often considered “add-ons.” Little is expected and rarely, if ever, is it considered important in the executive suite.

Shared vision
An organization’s vision doesn’t change whether business is booming or headwinds are strong. It reflects the reason for being – the core promise made to its customers. In a collaborative workplace, the focus remains on strategy even as different tactics are implemented. Colleagues use their common vision as a filter to prioritize work, knowing that long-term results require everyone pulling in the same direction. Progress accelerates.

In this type of workplace, design and marketing are more fully integrated into operations. Their expertise and insights are considered vital, even at the earliest stages of an initiative.

Everyone has a role to play
The most important thing I have to do this week is …? Chances are if you ask six people working for the same organization to fill in the blank, you will get six different answers. Naturally, you say, they all have different responsibilities.

Big picture goals are rarely as clear as leaders believe them to be. More often, for people being asked to collaborate across departments, it’s as if someone dumped a pile of jigsaw pieces on the table and asked them to solve the puzzle – without a picture … or all of the pieces.

Take the time to be clear – and a memo won’t cut it. Get everyone in a room together to hash out the sequence of activities. Honestly assess both the time and people necessary for the outcome you want. In creating a mutually agreed-upon framework, you create the clarity to move forward with confidence – a model for collaboration.

Make adjustments
Cooperation means working together independently. Collaboration, on the other hand means working together dependently.

In science, when human behavior enters the equation, things go nonlinear. That’s why Physics is easy and Sociology is hard. – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Any ambitious project takes time. Over time, availability, workloads, and priorities can change. Project leaders must maintain the flexibility to adjust on the fly, aligning their goals and resources with others in real time.

The world is integrated. Disciplines aren’t – but need to be.

Collaboration by design
Why do designers need to collaborate? Though they may grumble about them from time to time, designers need clients. They need problems to solve. At its core, design is most valuable when it serves a larger purpose. A designer interested only in pursuing personal interests is a fine artist.

Maybe more importantly, why do non-designers need to collaborate – not just cooperate with – designers? The more context a designer has the more likely your project will be successful. We are skilled at synthesizing a variety of inputs into a cohesive whole. We are able to consider a problem from many different points of view. And we can visualize and present options so that others are able to see the possibilities.

Cooperation is pleasant. Collaboration is more difficult, but more effective.

 

Related content:

Framing the story

Strategy falls on deaf ears

Design for action

Save

Save

Save

Save

There’s Only One Best Practice

network of dotsSitting in a conference room, answering questions from my client about an impending website redesign, it dawned on me that what they really wanted to understand was best practices. What steps do we need to take to mitigate the risks of initiating this project? What must we do to increase the certainty of a successful outcome?

It’s my job to know these things, to guide them from point A to point B, and help them meet or exceed the project’s objectives. And it’s prudent for the client to adhere to best practices in many facets of the organization’s operations. It assures an acceptable standard of performance, a threshold of competency.

What best practices won’t do – what they often inhibit organizations from doing – is encourage people to set their sites higher. Scaling up the impact of nonprofit organizations requires a mindset that leaves best practices for those who wish to blend in, to be as good as – but not better than – what already exists.

Just do it
Nike’s longtime tagline leaves no wiggle room for the impassioned athlete. There are no excuses. For the vast majority who fall short, there is honor in putting forth one’s best effort in pursuit of the pinnacle.

Back at the office, we’re more often encouraged to hold our passions in check. Curiosity killed the cat. Look before you leap. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There’s no shortage of wisdom devoted to avoiding unnecessary risks.

Imagine what our world would be like if there weren’t dedicated individuals with a passion for helping others? Over the past ten years, the nonprofit sector has grown faster than both the business and government sectors, yet problems of poverty, education, the environment, and public health are as vexing as ever. We don’t lack passion. We lack alignment.

If you start with the premise that most everything we know is out of date, then the need to reach beyond conventional approaches – to discard “best practices” – becomes imperative.

Connect the dots
Imagine a symphony orchestra. Before the lights dim, before the conductor raises the baton, a discordant blend of strings, percussion, and woodwind instruments squeaks and groans from the stage. It is only when the musicians begin playing in unison that we can appreciate their talents.

For maximum impact, we need more people, departments, and organizations working better together. We need to be playing the same tune.

The most valuable skill set today is the ability to connect the dots. Collaborators will inherit the earth, or at least improve it. People (and organizations) that can assemble and marshal diverse resources – ideas, agendas, funding – have the best chance of enacting systemic change.

There are no marketing secrets or shortcuts. Creating remarkable products and services is the only best practice worth pursuing. And the best way to do that is through more frequent and effective collaborations.

Related content:
How Do Nonprofits Get Really Big?
Measuring Nothing (with Great Accuracy)