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Ask SoJo

08/01/2013

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Written by Zainab Habib

As we ramp our efforts to turn our audience into a community, I've been thinking a lot about the possibilities of where our users come in to our content, other than as the audience. We want to be able to give you some say - directly or indirectly - as to what content goes up. This could come in a number of ways:
  • general feedback - we'd love to hear from you about who you are, what you want to see more of (design and content), and what you don't really use on our site. Are there things we can do differently? Let us know that too.
  • questions - we often get emails from users who would like help with a specific task on their list. Though we unfortunately can't connect you to the very resources you're looking for (like funders - sorry!), I definitely would like to see if we can answer your questions somehow in a meaningful and effective manner.
  • topics you'd like to read more about - if there are topics you're interested about but haven't come across on our site, tell us - especially if you have a particular case or situation in mind.


As I've put it to AJ before in one of our morning chats, it would be fun to do a few "Ask SoJo!" posts, knowing that you have very real questions that sometimes need answers that aren't as obvious. And we want to make it as easier for you to access those answers -- since you have enough finding to do.

We'd generally like to take the feedback and questions and see if we can write an article or two for each of your questions or interests, because we'd like to share those lessons created and learned with everyone in the community. In your best interests, we would keep it confidential and anonymous unless you request otherwise.

Use the form or comment on this post below, or drop me a line at content@thesojo.net. I'm looking forward to hearing from all of you!

    Ask SoJo!

 
 
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Written by Zainab

Business cards are great to hand out and receive - but only if they are a) informative and b) acted upon.

I've gone to a few events where I've given out my card and where I have received cards. It's common for many people to give a card during or after their introduction, since it often helps people visually see a name and it's an easy way to hand out contact information. Mind you, these are general business cards, which we mostly use by adding our own email addresses in that space you see there. Most cards are naturally informative because of the way they're usually structured.

Therefore, it's the follow-up that is left. When I give out a business card, I am usually hoping the recipient will follow up with a visit to our website or blog, check us out on twitter or Facebook, or ideally write to me at connect@thesojo.net or content@thesojo.net (my email address). If I get a business card, I will do my best to follow up, hoping that they'll respond too.

However, I can understand it's sometimes a bit difficult to follow up. After all, what should one write? After many attempts at this process, my latest go at this has been about building more personal relationships. I've sent the people I met at the OCE Discovery conference an email personally saying it was great to meet them, a link to our website, and a note offering how SoJo or I could help. I avoid including a description about SoJo because it makes the email even longer and they can explore the site on their own since I've most likely told them about it in person.

What has this yielded so far? Approximately 4 out of 9 people responded back to my email, which I truly appreciate. Not everyone will respond back though and understandably, it may feel discouraging. However, that's the worst that can happen: you won't get a response. At best, that email could be the catalyst for a great business relationship or partnership - which is exactly what I'm going to aim to foster with those who wrote back.

 
 
For the beginning of this week, I was at the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery Conference, “Canada's leading innovation-to-commercialization conference, showcasing leading-edge technologies, best practices and research in Ontario”. I’ll be writing a series of posts on things to keep in mind when going to a conference or event as an exhibitor. This is the second post in the series.

Written by Zainab 

The Ontario Centres of Excellence Discovery Conference, like many conferences, is a great place to be if you are looking for exposure to a variety of stakeholders. When we got the chance to have a kiosk at Discovery for absolutely no cost through the Digital Media Zone, I jumped at the chance knowing that it could introduce us to many of the people that we had to meet in order to help move us along. OCE’s Discovery is exceptional in their information and guides to participants and exhibitors alike, and one of the first pages in the Young Entrepreneurs’ Guidebook included this piece on the audience expected to be there:
This is a very diverse group of people then to be speaking to, especially given that this isn’t a case of a clear majority with a few exceptions.  

You may have your pitch but how do you make sure it works for everybody? Some possibilities to go with.
  • Start by asking about them and why they're at the event. Something they say could really trigger an opening for you to talk about your initiative/organization or even about yourself if you happen to share something in common. I somehow met many Ryerson alumni and a variety of people working in education at this conference.
  • Adjust your pitch to each person. Make it meaningful for them, instead of giving the same talk to everyone. It's a different conversation with everyone.
  • Or find a quick line that has the potential to lure anyone in. I remembered this article on SoJo on using conversational hooks for easy elevator pitches and found my hook today at one point. It was a lot easier to say "SoJo is about helping people take their ideas into action." Once you see a look of interest, it's much easier to go from there.
  • I assure you, you will find your exhibitor voice. Each pitch gets easier, since you same the same things throughout the day and find what works most effectively and efficiently to say.
  • Let people experience what you do for themselves. In our case, it's a website and so I show people the homepage on an iPad (everything looks more impressive on it) and ask them to select where they are in their journey. They then click their way through and it's a more engaging and interactive discussion.

The key thing to keep in mind is to find what works for you and what you do. Adding your personality to it makes the participant's visit to your booth/kiosk that much more effective since it becomes a meeting between two people, not an infomercial at an audience of one.
 
 
For the beginning of this week, I was at the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery Conference, “Canada's leading innovation-to-commercialization conference, showcasing leading-edge technologies, best practices and research in Ontario”. I’ll be writing a series of posts on things to keep in mind when going to a conference or event as an exhibitor. This is the first post.

Written by Zainab

Like many big events, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) Discovery Conference had a camera crew milling through the day, taking pictures and speaking to people on camera about the conference. This material is often used for promotional purposes for both the organization and for future events like this one.

At one point during the afternoon, the SoJo kiosk was approached to speak to the camera crew about what our thoughts on the conference. I looked at Marc and asked him if he’d like to take it, and he suggested I go ahead.

Now I’ll admit, I’m a bit camera shy... so I was actually trying to avoid it by suggesting someone else do it. Yet I knew this was also the perfect way to push myself just a little outside my comfort zone so I swallowed my dread about it and agreed to do it.

This crew consisted of a cameraman and an interviewer. The interviewer would ask questions and as she directed, I would answer her questions while looking at her. At the end, I had to give a tagline to end the conversation; in this case, I had to say. “I        [insert action]        for Ontario.”

Though it can be nerve-wracking, here are some tips to help if you too are a camera-phobe:
  • Keep your answers short. They don't expect you to fill time; rather, they usually are looking for snippets from different people to put together.
  • Be honest if you need time to think about an answer. They'll understand that you may have not thought of those questions beforehand.
  • Look at where they are asking you to, and mentally block out other people except for that person. It helps to stay in the moment and see it as a conversation just between you and the interviewer/reporter.
  • Need that tagline on the fly? Use your company’s or simply state what you aim for with your work. I used something similar to the following for mine: “I help people put their ideas into action in Ontario”.
  • Do not worry about looking picture perfect. You have to remember that they wouldn’t have asked if they didn’t think you’d look and be great on camera.
  • Be patient with the process, and remember that they’ll be patient with you too. It took me about three or four takes to get my tagline right for the camera, but I did it!

And saying I did it was the best part of it all. :)
 
 
Written by Zainab

As you'll find in tomorrow's newsletter*, we're doing a survey to get user feedback. We decided we needed that feedback because we really need to hear from our existing users.

We often meet potential and new users at conferences, speaking engagements, and similar events; though we also meet them in our personal lives when we talk about what we do at SoJo. Sometimes we meet them through email when they contact us about the site and they want to reach out to us. Yet it’s our existing users who really keep us going – especially as we watch them grow from that first point of contact and interest.

Though there are many avenues of user research we could have used, a survey seemed like the best choice. We wanted to make it quick, easy, and relatively painless for you to tell us a little about yourself and about how you use SoJo. If you want to talk to us a bit more, we'd love to chat with you over the phone or in person if you'd like to just some of the faces behind SoJo.

See, it's easy to forget that we started off being our own users. As many of our contributors would attest, you have to scratch your own itch when you start. However, we can’t continue to assume our users’ needs are the same as ours, especially since these needs will inevitably change for both. That’s why we want to hear from you to ensure we're staying on top of our game. We won't otherwise know if we’re actually as effective as we think we are, particularly as we start moving from talking to our audiences to engaging our users as a community.

So talk to us! Click here for the survey and tell us about yourself, about what you do with SoJo, and how we can improve. If you'd like to have us follow up with a phone call or a meeting, even better. We're listening.

*If you haven’t gotten our newsletter before, there’s still time – scroll down to the bottom of our homepage and sign up right now!  
 
 
While strolling the streets of Florence, Italy, a pair of lime-green suede pumps in the window of a shoe store caught my attention. Even though I was on vacation completely unplugged from work, the first thought that came to my mind : those are SoJo shoes! They were one size too small, and the heels were a little taller than what I was accustomed to, I still purchased the shoes with very little hesitation (it helped that they were 80% off and practically free).

Having never worn shoes that are not brown or black, I was a little afraid of looking ridiculous, nor did I know when I was going to wear them, regardless I was compelled to make this impulse purchase, despite any potential fallouts. I reasoned myself into making the decision; the colour matched SoJo's green almost identically and who knows if I would ever see such beautiful shoes again. They had my name written all over them.

This weekend at SociaLIGHT I was excited to wear my SoJo Shoes, as this was an event all about celebrating SoJo and wearing SoJo with pride (literally too!). Not only were the shoes noticed, they were the subject of many conversations and tweets. Here is a sampling:
Going on stage in front of 1000 people with bright spotlights shining on you was nerve-wrecking, and as corny as it sounds the SoJo Shoes did give me an added boost of confidence and reassurance. At first, I didn't want to look like a tacky walking billboard, but wore the shoes anyways and I knew how important it is for a founder to assume and personify the brand of your organization, both through actions and appearance. These shoes showed me that it is possible to do so with class and elegance.
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Showing off the SoJo Shoes at our Booth
 
 
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Kanika talking about SoJo on the main stage
This past weekend, SoJo participated in the SociaLIGHT conference. This is the same conference that SoJo launched its public beta exactly one year ago. SociaLIGHT and SoJo are often seen as sister companies, as we both launched at the same time, have the same vision of the future and work in a very complimentary fashion to deliver on our respective organizational mandates.

The conference came in great anticipation. The team hustled for the past month to re-launch newer and improved SoJo in time for the event. 5 SoJo team members signed up to participate at the conference, to stand at our booth, demo the site and engage first-hand with our users.

I was excited for the opportunity to deliver a keynote on the main stage, to share SoJo's story; how we came to SociaLIGHT, what it took to launch at such a big event, and the successes achieved as a result of the public launch and learnings acquired over the past year. It is my hope that I inspired the 1000-person audience to have the courage to act on their ideas. SoJo's first major milestone was its public launch at SociaLIGHT, and since that launch, we've come a long way.

The following day, I delivered a more intimate, interactive and hands-on workshop to a smaller group of participants on the "how-to" of turning ideas into action. Although everyone was tired from such a high-energy event the previous day, even at 5pm on Sunday evening I was in a room filled with engaged and excited individuals eager to learn.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of the weekend was the love and energy shared by everyone present. A number of delegates who saw SoJo launch last year approached myself and members of the team with great pride, to see us again, but to also say: "I was there when it all started." I'm thrilled that our users and community share in the success and pride of SoJo, as this is a tool for them, built by them. Overall, SociaLIGHT was an incredible weekend and SoJo couldn't have been happier to share our journey with this wonderful organization!  

 
 
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Written by Zainab Habib. Editorial Coordinator at SoJo. Follow Zainab online @zainabhsays

Yesterday, I tweeted “About to do my first pitch ever for @The_SoJo at the @RyersonDMZ within the next hour.
Exciting and nervous. All at once.”

This captured exactly what I felt at that moment, knowing that
a) I did not have enough time to prepare;
b) I found out three hours before that the pitch was moved up a day earlier than planned; and
c) though I have many gifts, marketing is certainly not one of them.

Yesterday for the first time, I pitched on behalf of SoJo. I had a script and practiced, but it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. I felt as though the first half of my pitch was unnatural as I had to read some of the material so that I did not miss anything (I still missed a few points) and I delivered it standing at my desk where I felt unnatural, posed and formal. The demo, or walkthrough of http://theSoJo.net was much more relaxed as we were seated and I was using more of my own language. Although I was super uneasy immediately after I completed that first pitch, the response I received was fantastic. The guest of honour tweeted his thanks to SoJo and another emailed me stating that they were all very impressed with what we were doing as an organization.

We are often our worst critics. Somewhere in between the pitch and the demo, I realized I had to just do this as myself. That is often the simplest solution when trying to represent our initiatives or organizations. Trying to morph ourselves into an ideal of any kind, like the great salesman, just doesn’t work. People can sense the fake, and investors and key stakeholders are people too.

I’ll also add that people, not products or services, take action and create social impact; and when your product or service is really great, it will be able to speak for itself. Your role is to simply convey that your conviction and belief in your work in a way that keeps others engaged. This will take some time and practice, but I assure you that it will come effortlessly at some point, just as I found my pace once I did the demo in a way that came more naturally to me.

My lesson learned: you have to play upon your own people skills, whatever they may be. Your pitch then will simply be an extension of you and your project.

 
 
Collectively, I've spent more hours on MS Powerpoint this past week then I probably have over the past couple of months combined.

In school I absolutely hated slideshows, perhaps its because professors had the most un-engaging presentations or because whenever I saw someone use slides in a presentation, it felt overly corporate and impersonal. Unless absolutely mandatory, I often refrained from using this tool when making presentations. Even when defending my Master's Thesis (the research that inspired the creation of SoJo) I didn't use slides.

When delivering presentations on SoJo or hosting workshops on Ideas - into - Action, I've only recently started to use slides -- that too with stickmen and cartoons. In the countless meetings held over the past 2 years, I never used slides to explain SoJo either. I like to believe I'm a much more engaging presenter than a static slide, and as such preferred to lead more free-flow conversations. Now that SoJo is actively looking for money and soliciting the support of other people to help us in this quest -- I don't have the luxury of personal contact with everyone on their initial introduction to SoJo. As such have been creating overview/backgrounder documents to do the talking on my behalf.

Despite my reluctance to embrace Powerpoint in the past, I quickly started to love using this tool. I'm particularly appreciative of the flexibility and ease of moving around boxes and different types of content make my documents look more visually appealing.

Although I now have a newfound appreciation for slides as an effective form of communication, I still don't think a slide deck can ever replace a real conversation. Slides can serve as a great complementary support, as they allow the audience to visually capture key takeaway ponits, but should never be the focus. I already shared my first deck to a couple of people and hope to use a different one with the handful of meetings scheduled next week. Let's see if I'm able to use the deck effectively, or if I refer back to my comfort zone and lead a more free-form conversation...

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Excerpt from SoJo's latest overview slide deck
 
 
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Yesterday during the presidential debates I logged onto twitter to follow the live commentary and reactions from my friends (which was much more engaging than the real debate). To my pleasant surprise I found a freshly published article on Forbes.com: From a Master's Thesis to a Social Startup and a UNESCO Endorsement This article is SoJo's debut in Forbes, and it was a great feature profile that will help SoJo with its outreach efforts. Going to Forbes.com, I noticed this was the most popular article on the home page. I had a glowing smile on my face, especially after having a not-so-good day.


I'm often asked how SoJo has been so successful in getting mainstream media attention. For some of our earlier stories, SoJo proactively reached out to reporters, followed-up and was effective at pitching its story. In most other cases media came to us.

The writer from Forbes sent me a message through SoJo's generic contact form on Friday afternoon. This message found its way to my inbox Monday mid-day. That same day the writer and I had an interview. We exchanged a couple of follow-up emails and the story was published on Wednesday.

When asked how he came across SoJo in the first place, he said:
"An article from SoJo appeared in one of my social media aggregator newsfeed. Hundreds of articles continuously come through this feed. I was intrigued by SoJo's logo so I clicked on the link...."
Clearly he was impressed by what he saw on SoJo beyond the logo and investigated further.

This is a classic example of how being yourself is the best thing you can do. This is not a story we chased, but rather came to us quite serendipitously. The logo is an authentic representation of SoJo as an organization and http://theSoJo.net and this blog appealed to the writer, who also happens to have history of social activism, allowing him to feel instantly connected to our community.

If you're looking for mainstream media attention, my best advice to you is focus on "'speaking through your actions" and be yourself. When interviews present themselves, instead of trying to "sell" your work, let your passion do the talking. Experience has taught me there is no substitute for authenticity and action.
 
 
Today I was asked to tell an editor at Canada's largest daily newspaper about SoJo. A great opportunity for coverage, I attempted to depict SoJo in 10 pictures and 6 words (no internet, no computer). See below.
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SoJo has the ambitious goal of being the ubiquitous source of support for social innovators to take their ideas for social good into action, which includes revolutionizing the way in which online learning happens. In a world where we're told to use a slide-deck and bright shiny objects to sell our vision -- I opted for the basics: a whiteboard and a marker.

Over the past few months, I've consistently struggled to explain SoJo's vision, our solution and value-add, the status of our Beta and distinctions between those three elements. When talking about this challenge to a supporter, he in return asked me to draw out SoJo on a whiteboard. After a few attempts, I quickly realized there was no cohesion in how SoJo was explained and a great need to clarify and simplify our message. That same afternoon I hashed out what our whiteboard pitch looked like. It got tested with fellow SoJo team members, other entrepreneurs and staff in the Digital  Media Zone (gotta love a collaborative workspace), however today the whiteboard pitch got its debut. My lack of confidence in my drawing abilities (I will work to improve my stick figures) was offset by my excitement to share SoJo's vision in a more interactive and engaging manner.

In my opinion, this pitch is effective for two reason: simple and interactive. We're all overloaded with information, so it is my intention that saying less will allow the audience to retain more. Secondly, by being able to draw SoJo's story in real-time, it keeps the audience engaged, allows me to control how the message gets perceived and hopefully store a mental image of this whiteboard in their head.

We'll see how successful the pitch was and if a follow-up call comes for a story. If not, it was great practice.

 
 
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Over the weekend I had the opportunity to hear the CEO of one of Canada's largest companies speak about values, transparency, and self-awareness. Impressed by his outlook on business and responsible leadership, I was motivated to send him a note this morning, to explore interests in working with SoJo. This could be a very big deal - or nothing at all. I was excited and nervous all at once.

With no pre-existing relationship or shared contacts, I very carefully drafted a cold-email. A cold-email is an email where you reach out directly to someone of interest, without an introduction. Introductions are great, as they allow you to lend off the credibility of your mutual contact and can give your email priority among all the nameless messages; however when there is no mutual contact a cold-email is the way to go. Cold-emails can often feel like you're sending a message to the black hole - but if done right, can be incredibly successful.

Over the course of the last year and during my academic research that led to SoJo, I have sent hundreds of cold-emails. SoJo has been relatively successful with cold-emails. More than half of the content on http://theSoJo.net have come as a result of cold-emails. When going on our first cross-Atlantic networking trip, some of my most engaged and meaningful connections came as a result of cold-emails.

I am obviously a big advocate of cold-emails, and as such, SoJo has implemented a policy where we respond to all new incoming emails within a timely manner. However if you are not cold-messaging us, here are some insights that may help you overcome this fear:

Practice, Practice, Practice
Daunting initially, it gets easier with time. The more cold-emails you write, the better you get at articulating your message in a way that resonates with your audience. With no human contact, it can be very difficult to get the attention of your reader and compel them to take the initiative to respond to your message.

Be clear with your intentions
Everyone is busy. Be honest and state your intentions upfront. If you don't have a clear idea of why you're messaging this person, then perhaps wait until you confidently feel like you can lead a meaningful conversation that will offer value to the other party. You'd be surprised of the number of people willing to help, but it's your job to ensure they understand what you need.

Opportunity cost of waiting
You miss 100% of the opportunities you don't take. Ask yourself, what's the most you have to lose? The time you spent writing that email and disappointment that comes when you receive no response? The more you send, the better your probabilities of a positive response. Often we don't send a cold-email, because we're waiting for a warm introduction, or for the right time to sell our vision. Its ok if your product is not perfect or if you don't have all the answers. That's why you're reaching out to others to get involved.

Its OK to be nervous
While it gets easier with practice, if you're sending an email to someone whom you're excited to connect with, the nerves will still kick-in when you're about to click "SEND." That's ok. It serves as a reminder that you're still passionate about the work you do, and have the courage to put yourself out there. This is a good thing!

Write with no expectations
If I had to guess, I think my success rate on cold-emails is about 40%. Although I put an incredible amount of effort into drafting good cold-emails, with time, I've learned to let go of the expectations of a response. In my opinion, it is better to be pleasantly surprised, then sadly disappointed. People are busy. Some people don't acknowledge or read an email if it is not from someone they know. I personally don't think this is smart business, as we must be open to opportunities that present themselves in many forms -- but we must be mindful of the reality that exists.

Twitter is also cited as a highly effective way of building meaningful connections with strangers, and some of the suggestions above can be adapted for other forms of communication.

 
 
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Now that we've developed an initial version of our product (http://theSoJo.net), it is important to understand different applications of the product, potential users and channels through which SoJo can be made accessible to our target audience.

Within the next month, SoJo will be involved in three major events: National Business and Technology Conference, Youth Making a Difference, and the Canadian Undergraduate and Technology Conference as a Post-Conference Engagement Sponsor. We launched at the SociaLIGHT conference in the Fall and will provide similar type of support to these conferences.

Why do student-run conferences need SoJo?
They expended a great deal of effort convening bright young leaders from across the country, inspiring them with amazing speakers and developing their skills. It is imperative that the momentum continue once the conference is over. Currently, there is no organization that supports delegates after conferences, to help them develop their ideas. SoJo is an online resource that provides tools, knowledge and guidance to young people who have ideas and are looking for support to take their ideas into action. Through our sponsorship agreement, SoJo will be sharing usage data with the organizers of these conferences. This will allow them to better understand the needs of their delegates, which can be very valuable to inform future programming.

Although the value exchange is quite compelling for both parties, these conferences remain an experiment for us. We're putting our ear to the ground; interacting with the delegates, getting a sense of their needs and if SoJo can meet those needs. Big questions we're looking to answer: Is it worth our time and resources participating in conferences like these? Are conferences the best way to reach our target audience? Is there an opportunity to commercialize our participation in such events?

While we find answers to these questions, I personally am excited about having the opportunity to hear great speakers, meet interesting people and get inspired by the new ideas that emerge from these events.

If you are organizing a conference and would like to get SoJo involved, please read our Sponsorship Package for more details.