Not Your Typical Wednesday: Taking the Stage in Dublin in Front of 5,000 People

Erica Swallow Speaks at Web Summit
Representing the Sloan School of Management, I spoke on a panel alongside fellow MBAs during the 2014 Web Summit in Dublin.

On a typical Wednesday, I only have two standing appointments: a marketing class and a comparative literature class focused on leadership stories and ethics. The rest of the day is filled with group meetings, homework, a visiting speaker session every now and then, and of course, sleeping in, thanks to my afternoon classes.

This past Wednesday, though, was everything but typical. I had been invited to the Web Summit in Dublin, Ireland as an MBA Scholar to shed my experience and wisdom on a crowd of 5,000 soon-to-be university graduates.

My morning shower was the tip of the oddities iceberg that day. I had rented a room via Airbnb, a peer-to-peer apartment rental site, and my host, it turns out, was one of 250 Airbnb employees based in the Dublin office. I had grown accustomed to her being gone by the time I woke up, and that was true that morning when I pitter-pattered on the cold, hardwood floor to the bathroom. Seconds after I undressed and turned on the shower faucet, though, I heard the front door open and her voice on the other side of the door saying, “Erica? Hello?” Confused, I answered back, and she told me the plumber was in to fix the water heater — for the past two days I had taken cold showers, assuming it was normal.

That morning, I learned about my host’s mysterious water system. The plumber told me that the water heats up from 4–8 a.m., and in the case of a later shower, I could use the magical “boost” knob to heat a small batch of water. Since it was my big day to hit the stage, I decided to go all out and boost it up! It turns out a boost really is exactly what it sounds like — just a wee bit warmer. As the Irish might say, a little nudge up the hill; a bump, a push, nothing more. But I was ecstatic to have a lukewarm shower to start the day off in what felt like near luxury.

By this time back in Cambridge, I’d be running to my first event or meeting, struggling to get my coat on, all while texting someone that I was running late. My time in Ireland, though, was refreshingly on-schedule. I arrived at conference panels on time; I showed up to dinners early; and I always seemed to find a taxi quickly, as I was traveling off-peak. So, I did just that — called a cab using Hailo, an Uber and Lyft competitor that’s popular in Europe — and zipped off to the Web Summit.

A panel, a speech, a fireside chat. Lunch. Two more panels. I took it all in, typing out nuggets of inspiration that flowed from the stage. As my speech time got closer, I began observing how speakers entered the stage, where they placed their hands, when they paused, whether they crossed their legs or not. At one point, I caught myself planning out my “body language strategy” for later that evening. Crossed legs, I determined, looked more relaxed. Hands in lap seemed nervous. Arm over couch arm, calm and collected. And lastly, facial features. If my face was going to be blown up 10 times its size, I was going to take this big screen opportunity to play up my facial features and keep the audience entertained.

It wasn’t until I was standing backstage with a pop star-style microphone wrapping from ear to ear that I realized I hadn’t spent any time preparing for the panel content. Granted, it was about my MBA experience at MIT, so it wasn’t really a topic that demanded much preparation.

The stage manager signaled for the other panelists — also MBAs, from Harvard and HEC Montréal — and I to head up the backstage stairs towards the fancy sliding door that I had seen reveal speaker after speaker in the previous days.

The door slid open and lights flooded the opening; 10,000 eyes watched us move across the stage, and the first thing I thought to do was wave. And second? “Snap a picture, you fool!” I reminded myself. “There are 5,000 IRL people looking at you! How often does that happen?”

Souvenir shot taken, the panel began and the stage countdown clock started. We shared our backgrounds, why we decided to pursue an MBA, and how we were enjoying Ireland.

I took body language inventory as the others spoke: Legs crossed? Check. Arms relaxed? Check. Smile? Check. Looking at speaker? Check. Breathing? Check.

I was the last to speak on the panel, with 30 seconds left on the clock. Moderator and Web Summit founder Paddy Cosgrave had asked us to give our final bits of advice. “Don’t do your homework,” I said, getting a few chuckles from the audience. “Back in college, the most life-changing moments for me turned out to be studying abroad, learning a new language, going to art galleries and shows, traveling. Whatever you do, don’t spend too much time worrying about homework, because you’ll discover your true passions and make your best friends outside of class.”

With that, it was all over. Five thousand of Ireland’s future leaders had hopefully soaked in our words. It’s cheesy, but I hope I become one of those fabled inspirations for at least one person in the audience. A decade from now, one of them might be on a similar stage as the one I sat on, responding to a well-worded question on leading a passionate life, saying “I went to a panel when I was in college, and this MBA student from MIT said something that will always stick with me…”

After all, the only reason I find myself on stage after stage — though not typically as large as this one! — is because I was inspired by those who came before me.

This post was originally published on The Tech, MIT’s oldest and largest newspaper and the first newspaper published on the web.

How to Get Consumers Addicted to Your Content


Tara-Nicholle Nelson, vice president of digital and content at SutherlandGold Group, presenting at SXSW 2012

This post originally appeared on NASDAQ’s blog, where I contributed articles about content strategy during SXSW 2012.

Addiction is not a subject usually pegged to positive meaning – we usually speak about addition in reference to physical or psychological dependencies on a substance, person or object.

But addiction can have a positive meaning, too. Some of us get our fix with coffee; we all know someone addicted to Angry Birds, FarmVille or Words with Friends; and there are already some Pinterest nuts popping up all over the web.

There’s a synonym for these types of addictions, says Tara-Nicholle Nelson, vice president of digital and content at SutherlandGold Group, and that word is “love.”

For content addicts, this love is usually expressed by frequenting a small group of sites on a regular basis. Just think – are there any sites that you visit on a daily basis? What exactly is it about those sites that keeps you coming back?

Nelson says that brand publishers must understand what motivates consumers to consistently return to content sites, and then take those learnings to heart. Only then, will brands learn how to create addictive content.

Every brand goes through a process to becoming a brand that is loved by its consumers. That process entails reach, trial and stick. Once a brand has reached out to a consumer, that consumer must then try it out. If these two stages go as planned and the consumer keeps coming back for more, the brand has achieved “stick.”

There are three steps to generating “stickiness,” says Nelson, and some brands are already doing a great job at it.

1. Don’t Publish Information. Fuel Aspirations.

Brands must understand what their customers want to keep them happy. People want change more than ever, says Nelson. We want to be smarter, live cleaner, be more passionate, eat better foods, be more frugal. And we are more committed than ever to achieving our goals and dreams, she says.

To achieve our goals, we want knowledge. Brands can help us make our goal achievement smoother to achieve our aspirations, she says.

There is an opportunity, then, for brands to help consumers visualize, track and reach their goals. This can be as simple as creating content – how-tos, for example – to help consumers get what they want.

Or it can be as complicated as creating new products that help users track progress towards their goals. Products like Mint (personal finance tracking), Chartbeat (real-time blogging analytics) and The Eatery (healthful eating visualization) all do this.

2. Market Your Manifesto.

Brands should create manifestos that transcend the utility that the brand provides – they should take on topics that are bigger than their brands or the verticals that they work in, says Nelson.

Lululemon’s manifesto, for example, is all about a way of life that that has very little to do with yoga and exercise, its core areas of business. Instead, it’s all about life, love, relationships, health. Here’s an excerpt:

“Do one thing a day that scares you… Stress is related to 99% of all illness… Dance, sing, floss and travel… Sweat once a day to regenerate your skin… The pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness.”

Your manifesto may even become an integral part of your company’s revenue. Sound silly? Think again. Design company Holstee began offering up prints of its company manifesto (as pictured above) last year. The message went viral, and so far, the manifesto has been viewed online more than 50 million times and print sales accounted for 50% of the business’s revenue.

3. Double-down on Content Experiences.

Keep in mind that a consumer’s experience with your brand doesn’t end with a tweet or a visit to your website. Whenever possible, couple content with real experiences.

Lululemon, for example, hosts free yoga events in its store and even puts on an annual worldwide Salutation Nation yoga gathering, where yogis from all around the world gather at 9 a.m. their time to practice yoga together. Not only is Lululemon helping yogis improve their practices during the event, but it posts videos and pictures online afterwards for attendees to enjoy.

Likewise, a number of subscription-based mail services are cropping up, including poster child, Birchbox, a beauty-samples-by-mail company. Birchbox creates a content experience around the arrival of its latest beauty sampling in the mail. The Birchbox team creates video tutorials and how-to posts on how to best use the samples. And users even post their own reviews and how-tos across the Internet.

Birchbox also maintains a lifestyle-oriented blog and social media presence that follow topics that appeal to its audience. For example, the team put together a SXSW packing list chronicling the must-have items that they’d be bringing to the conference – great packing tips for fellow attendees.

Nelson’s tips are a great start towards creating a brand and content that people love. What are your tips for creating addicting content?

How Should We Teach Tweens about Business & Finance?

For such a capitalist country, the United States does a horrible job of preparing its youth for the reality of life, where success is highly based on financial achievement.

My financial education was pretty much void until I hit college, and even then, it was my own decisions that made it possible, as I proactively chose to attend undergraduate business school at NYU Stern. I was raised in the deep South, where jobs were hard to come by and many struggled to provide the basics for their families.

The education systems in many of the Southern states — my home state of Arkansas included — are well below the national average, making matters worse. But even the best of the best in America can’t compete on a global scale. In a 2009 study, the U.S. ranked 25th out of 34 peer countries in math and science.

If we can’t even get the basics right, how are we going to teach our children how to properly manage their finances, create sustainable businesses and stay out of debt?

One of my former NYU professors, Orly Sade, recently teamed up with award-winning writer and former BusinessWeek editor Ellen Neuborne, to co-author a book for tweens (ages 9-12) about finance and entrepreneurship.

Entitled, “How Ella Grew an Electric Guitar: A Girl’s First Adventure in Business,” the book is written from the voice of Ella, a sixth grader on a mission to buy a new guitar, in hopes of upgrading her band’s status and becoming a rock star.

Along the way, Ella learns about key business concepts, such as market research, competitive analysis, word-of-mouth marketing, guerilla marketing, costs, revenue, profits, loss, leadership, partnerships… and the list goes on. She also learns about the many types of financial products, including stocks, bonds and loans.

The authors manage to explain difficult financial and business concepts in a way that makes them easy to understand. Many of the lessons originate from wisdom imparted by Ella’s parents, who work in business and law. Ella adds her own creativity to the lessons, and with the help of her friends and family, she’s on her way to owning a brand new electric guitar.

Reading the story, I couldn’t help but wonder how my life might have turned out differently if I had been aware of these business and financial concepts earlier on.

Yes, I was taught to budget and save, but that took the form of me putting money in a bank account and spending it when I had saved enough for the product I was saving for. I wasn’t aware of the other financial products I could have employed, and I certainly didn’t understand what a stock was, even in high school.

Our nation has racked up $15 trillion in debt — obviously our leadership isn’t doing much better than we are as individuals.

And so, community, it is up to us to arm the next generation with a financial education. Sharing books like “How Ella Grew an Electric Guitar” with tweens is a good start.

What ideas do you have for increasing our children’s financial proficiency level? Share your ideas in the comments below.

Twitter for Businesses

Twitter just launched their Twitter 101 Guide for Business. To accompany the new subdomain http://business.twitter.com, the guide is a quick way to get your business up and running on the fastest-growing social network out there. So, give it a shot!

Twitter 101 for Business