Breaking stereotypes and talking techie: Interview with Nicole Gilbride

Nicole Gilbride hates BBQs. I am not referring to the food (which is very popular in her home state of Tennessee), but to the awkward social gatherings around a friend’s grill or fire pit where new acquaintances, in an effort to break the ice, ask “What do you do?” She has great pride in her job as Strategic Planning and Communication Specialist at the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Information and Technology; however, the problem lies in the reactions she gets when she replies: from sneering looks of people who think she is another lazy federal employee to questions about status of personal VA claims.

Fortunately, I did not meet Nicole at a BBQ but at a training summit for generation X and Y federal employees where she gave a talk and mentoring sessions to young people on how to thrive in the workplace. I was curious to know more about her role as a Washington insider and how she is able to bridge the communication and technology worlds.

Note: The interview has been edited for content and space.

Can you describe what you do?

I am the lead for the business planning operations in our Project Management division under our Product Development organization, which is VA’s software development organization. We handle VA IT software requests, like creating software solutions to help veterans schedule appointments online or schedule them on an iPad, or we develop systems to track prescription drug iterations to make sure people are not abusing substances. Those type of business solutions allow VA’s healthcare and benefit staff to provide world class engagement with Veterans, and they need IT solutions to effectively manage care for Veterans.

Admittedly, I am not a techie. I am in a very technical organization and in a lot of a ways I serve as a translator. I work to help translate to people who are on the ground building code and overseeing the IT projects, I help to translate the functions that they are developing and the services we are providing into words that normal people can understand. I make sure that I can explain what we do in a way that my grandma can understand… I do a multitude of other things: working strategic plans, prioritizing the assignment of our IT resources, but the communications part is probably 50 percent of my job, and it involves all kinds of comms… We do internal messaging within our organization and within VA and we do external messaging with the media, collaborating with Veteran Service Organizations, congressional engagements, video interviews, blog posts… There are very few briefings or memos that come out of Project Management that I have not seen or impacted. That’s sort of what I do.

You have a lot of responsibilities.

Yes (laughs). It’s a full day, it’s very impactful and it’s important. It’s challenging because I think communications is part of everyone’s job but we do have a lot of very technical subject matter experts that are not naturally communicators. One of the challenges in my job is “do I give them a fish or do I teach them how to fish?” “Do I do things for them or do I show them how they can do it better?” It’s a challenge.

Getting into the specifics of the technology part, as you mention you are a technology translator. From translating the user needs to the techies, how difficult is it not having a technical background? How do you learn to address that?

For me personally how did I learn to become savvy enough to be active in conversations about technology, honestly was just with time… I’m constantly researching what I need to research and when in doubt, I am constantly reminding my team “have you Googled this first?” because they’ll come to me with questions like “what is DevOps,” “what is the Internet of Things,” “what’s Scrum,” “what’s Agile?” When they do that I ask “did you consult Google?” There are so many resources available online that can at least help you… I either consult the Internet or I ask my peers, and part of that is overcoming your fear of asking people.

(…) The other part that you are talking about is what I would say is the requirements side, when the customer comes in and says “we want a shelter” but most of the time they don’t say “we want a shelter,” they say “we want a house and we want it to have tin roof, we want to have 38 windows, this is exactly what we want” and not realizing that maybe there is a better solution… I personally think its one of the most challenging areas for IT systems. Requirements are usually the thing that kills you. It manifests itself by either schedule delays or cost overruns… There has to be a line, you have to have things that go above and below the line. If you keep to your schedule or keep to your budget, it will help you decide where that line is.

In that part of the requirements, do you think the problem is the customer does not know what they want and they are having trouble communicating it? Or do you think is the problem is on whoever capturing those requirements?

I think it’s all of those things and it’s more things. If you ask two people what they want to get from point A to point B, what you would get as a response, even if they are the same business customer, is different… What the business customer wants is constantly evolving… It’s a challenge and I don’t think it’s a just communications challenge either.

In the other part of your job, the combination if internal and external communications, what are some of the challenges you have?

Our biggest problem internally with communications is really that people want a customized solution for them which is inherently impossible. The challenge is finding something that makes the most people happy and figuring out that each organization is so different… If you’ve got nurses and doctors running around with other clinicians, sending them an email twice a week with your message is not a good way to tell them that there is a new system coming out, that there is an employee survey coming out. Most doctors spend more (time) on their charts than they do on their email inbox…For every doctor out there they also have a lot of admin staff who do spend time on their computer. An all hands message in an email may work for those folks but it’s not going to reach the doctors and nurses. Finding ways to customize solutions for different audiences is a challenge.

On the IT realm (the challenge) is the level of technical detail in the messaging. We have a lot of very tech savvy people but for every one of them we have another person who is an admin staff, who does not have a technical background, a budget person, an HR person, whatever the case may be. Finding ways to balance, simplify our messaging for a general audience and keep it engaging enough that technical folks are not bored or dismissive of the messaging is a challenge.

Why did you decide to go into government work?

As a young person I went through the “I want to be a ballerina” phase. Then around 10 or so I entered the “I want to be President phase.” As a young child, I always had strong verbal skills. I could sit at the table with adults and negotiate with them. I could take on a debate. Eventually as I got to be an adult I started to get more into politics and that sort of led me to where I am today I’d say. In college I pursued an internship on the Hill which ended up being a communications internship with the former Speaker of the House. When I did that communications internship it opened a door for me.

(…) I wanted to help improve our country and so I recognized that communications is sort of the glue that holds everything together. I see a lot of great ideas don’t take root, don’t spread, don’t get shared, and communication could help spread and share great ideas. I think I kind of had an epiphany of “I really want to do communications for a job”… And I have a family that has a legacy of public (service), one of my grandmothers worked for the VA 50 years ago. My aunt works for the VA, I’ve got a lot of family members who have worked for various state, local government organizations; military service is throughout my family. I was always raised to believe that I could have a positive impact and that lead me to public service as a career.

For those people who insist on working in government because, as yourself, they feel they can make a difference, what skills in the communications field they should have or learn from?

Accolades for being committed to joining, I would tell you it took me probably close to seven years to finally get in. Navigating USAJobs is not for the faint of heart (laughs).

On the skill standpoint, I think the biggest communication skill is actually networking. Having someone who can actually write effectively is wonderful. Having someone who knows abut graphics and visuals and branding is great. Having somebody who has experience on camera or presenting to large audiences, all these things are great, they are important skill sets and by all means, put them on a resume, but the one thing that you can’t really put on a resume and will make or break a communications employee from my standpoint, is the ability to make connections with people and network. I’m not talking about networking in the sense we normally think of with LinkedIn networking or speed networking, but creating and cultivating really meaningful connections.

(…) For most people (in communications positions) it’s a multi-hat situation where you are doing various forms of communications and having those connections within your department, within your agency, with various staff offices, and with your peer group will make or break you.

I would also say an important thing for the future of communicators will be the ability to communicate by leveraging technology…Twenty years ago if you could write you could write. Today you need to be able to write to different sources. How do you turn a two page blog article into a Tweet? It’s a skill. You have to learn to transform something that is so content heavy into something so short and impactful. Being able to not only use current technology, but to be on the cutting edge and to show willingness to continue to learn and stay ahead of the curve. That is very critical I think.

Follow Nicole Gilbride on Twitter @NicoleGilbride

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

Marketing Puerto Rico: Interview with Alan Taveras

In recent weeks, news about Puerto Rico and its deepening economic crisis have occupied the attention of major U.S. publications: in sum, things are so bad everyone seems to be leaving the Island. I am one those Puerto Ricans who left (over a decade ago) but am also striving to find the silver lining. This is why when I heard the interview of Alan Taveras on the local podcast Empresarios I had to find out more about his initiative to promote Puerto Rican businesses.

Instead of planning their escape from the Puerto Rico, Alan and his brother Nestor Guarien Taveras not only stayed but also saw an opportunity to target the disapora while promoting local products through Brands of Puerto Rico. This virtual marketplace or as Alan calls it “the Amazon of Puerto Rican products” started a year ago.

The Taveras brothers, who have MBAs and attended the Founder Institute, were already building success with their Très Epic agency, a programming firm which provides services to advertising agencies in Puerto Rico. These agencies though, were big international brands.

Based on their own experience abroad (Guarien studied at Boston University while Alan went to Argentina’s University of Palermo), they saw there were consumers eager to get products from home and decided to launch the start up which has gained traction through the combination of traditional and digital marketing.

During a visit to their offices in Puerto Rico, I spoke with Alan about the importance of branding and advertising. We started the conversation talking about the origins of Brands of Puerto Rico.

Note: The interview has been edited for space.

… It was early March or the last days of February of 2014, it was the first time the bonds of Puerto Rico were downgraded to junk and the diaspora groups and every newspaper were talking about how (messed up) we were or how many people left Puerto Rico… (My brother and I) used to take one Friday each month to just throw ideas on the board like what type of startup we can do, because Très Epic was made for us to have capital to live and to invest in our ideas. That was the mission from the start… (One day) My brother was reading out loud an article… It said like monthly roughly 3,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving on those days to the states, mainly Florida as always. A lot of people were alarmed on this, it was like a crisis, my Facebook newsfeed was depressing to say the least.

(…) We started to look at that as an opportunity because since we were little, everyone would tell us Puerto Rico is a small market, entrepreneurs will never make it here and that’s why the big companies here are the distributors, because there is no space to create something new. So we started looking at that, (and also) we came across the fact that almost 5 million of people from Puerto Rico were living in the states. Suddenly it is an appealing market that nobody was thinking about. Everyone was focusing on how bad it was, but for us it was a good sign.

We started to research on local brands. There are a lot of people doing cool things in Puerto Rico, no one knows about them and they don’t have online presence. It was like connecting the dots… (We decided to) make a marketplace for local entrepreneurs to sell to that diaspora.

In terms of your marketing mindset, did you acquire that thanks to the Founder institute?

Founder Institute is really really tough on first, build the market. For example, with Brands of Puerto Rico we did not write a line of code until we had like a thousand followers on Facebook. So first, build that market and if it gets traction, build the product. That helped us create this fast and at really low cost.

How did you reach out to the people in the diaspora?

I don’t know if its something that is happening right now or if our idea had the prefect timing but suddenly the idea got a great response. (Local TV channel) WAPA featured us, we got an interview with CNN en español… It’s mostly organic, we have not an invested in marketing, I have to be honest on that… We have a saying here ‘try until you get it’ so every day we called the newspapers, every TV channel, ‘interview us, interview us’ until they said yes. Now what we do is invest a little bit and it is really targeted; we do digital marketing which is our forte, our knowledge. For example, I target campaigns to people in Orlando, I target campaigns to people in Brooklyn, New York and I can maximize the performance of my dollar to get to those people.

Also our biggest, biggest, biggest marketing weapon is word of mouth. If your cousin bought it in New York and he told all of his friends, it spreads.

In term of the overall idea, during the interview with the podcast you were wondering why it did not occurred to anyone before.

It’s a pretty simple concept. A lot of people tell me, ‘you are doing such innovative stuff’ but I don’t find that we are this breakthrough technology; its e-commerce. E-commerce has been here for decades. For me it’s a pretty simple idea to sell Puerto Rican brands to people from Puerto Rico outside of Puerto Rico.

Perhaps is the mentality that when it comes to producing something in the Island, people think just about the local market and they don’t really think in terms of outside markets.

Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the influence my brother and I had studying abroad that we see the world as a marketplace and not just Puerto Rico.

In term of finding the products locally and developing those relationships with local vendors, how do you do that?

In the first days it was almost impossible: imagine some kid coming to you telling that he is going to build a platform, it’s not even built, going to let you sell stuff for free and only charge you in transactions. We had a database of 300 brands and only 30 brands on our launch on July 11 (of 2014). Now because of the hype of the PR (public relations) people come to us, but in the first months we took a lot of nos: ‘Are you crazy?’, ‘You are going to sell on the Internet?.’

It’s been real fun because we have a lot of people that work on agriculture, that don’t have technology knowledge and we even sit down with them and open a Paypal account. I opened Paypal accounts for Antojitos de Mango, (the owner) is like 80 years old but for me he is the one of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever known. He has so much knowledge, always with a smile in his face… Not everyone has this opportunity to learn a lot from the people who have been doing this their whole lives.

In regards of what you are doing now, is there some sort of model that you look up to in other countries that’s doing this as well?

Right now it’s a cool moment for us as a company. Brands of Puerto Rico is one year old and thanks to everything that has happened and the trust that these brands have put in us, we are starting to grow, not only to grow on the amount of companies we have in Puerto Rico, but we as a company are starting to expand to other markets.

We are about to launch Brands of Argentina, and Brands of Nicaragua. From my connections in Argentina, we are in conversation with some venture capitalists who are interested in putting money on the company for us to start building franchises on every market…We are going to implement what we learned here in this whole year.

What are your particular goals for Brands of Puerto Rico?

For Brands of Puerto RIco and for Brands of -I am starting to think as the Brands of concept and not just Brands of Puerto Rico,- is to create the biggest quality oriented catalogs of brands and products of Latin America, and supply to that diaspora in the United States… Basically show the world that not everything is big brands in multinational companies, that good things are made by people who work in modest ways and they do deserve a chance. I think Brands of and our platform is a tool to give them the chance, that equal plane level field. For example, if you want a t-shirt you can buy Sotomayor which is local entrepreneur instead of going to Pac Sun in a mall.

How many brands do you have?

I have 80, I counted 2 weeks ago… but we have a pipeline. Let me tell you the process: you (as company) learn from us and we learn about you. We have a formal phone call or email and you come here to our offices with the product. We do the screening to see if it’s good quality, if it’s local brand, if that person is registered in the government, that is really important. We do a photo shoot free of cost for that brand and those photos, once they are properly edited, are uploaded to our e-commerce platform. We do a blog post, we do a social media post… Our business model is transaction based, we make 20% of each transaction.

If they are not registered, do you help them?

We help them with everything… We’ve done logos for people… A lot of people tell me ‘you are not supposed to that.’ If they don’t have a standard they are not going to sell, so it’s really important for me personally and for the company to make these entrepreneurs think and act upon their brand. A product is a product until you build a brand around it.

Is that something often people forget, to market their brand?

I’ve talked to so many entrepreneurs in the last year, I learned that different to how we think, people out there think the product is the star. For me, because I studied Advertising and then in Business I concentrated in Marketing, for me what is the star is the brand. You can sell this pen, anything, if you have a brand around it, if your communication is good, if your look is good. I think like that. But I learned most entrepreneurs here in Puerto Rico don’t give a (crap) about it… We are trying to teach people that the brand is really important and how you communicate, how you do advertising, is as important as a product.

Would you recommend people to study advertising?

I will recommend studying advertising not necessarily to work on advertising. It helps you communicate better. You can be an accountant, you can be a lawyer, you can be anything, but advertising helps you sell and communicate better and have a presence that is appealing to the market… If you are looking for a date, if you are trying to sell something, if you are trying to get out of trouble, if you communicate good, Is effective.

I think it’s important the way you communicate things.

Follow Brands of Puerto Rico on Twitter @brandsofpr or email Alan at info@brandsofpuertorico.com

Follow the author @yadicarocaro

She Likes Long Text Messages Because She Appreciates a Complete Thought: Interview with Alex Wall

The title of this blog captures the beginning of the career of Alex Wall in digital marketing. The Lead Marketing Strategist at Roar Media (and Muay Thai fighter) started delving into this field while in college at University of Central Florida using a variation of the text above (read on to learn more). In her career, she has continued searching for the latest trends and applying new approaches, including tactics learned from science.

During a recent presentation during Social Media Day Miami on ‘Social Neuromarketing,’ Alex used images, quotes and stats to tell the story of what social media does to our brains and how can marketers and content developers use it to their advantage. In our interview we talked about applying science to advertising, how Internet has been her tool to learn and connect, and her love for ads. She wants people to love ads too as a “meaningful experience or exchange, not a corporate apparatus.”

In terms describing what you do, how would you describe your roles?

I am a full stack digital marketer so I manage the digital department at an integrated PR marketing communications agency. More or less if it happens on the internet is something that I have some purview over. I cut my teeth on the bread and butter of SEO (search engine optimization), social media, web design, and copyrighting… I build out from there with a really heavy emphasis on persuasion marketing using psychology to increase conversion and analytics using math. I think I take a pretty scientific approach to it.

What is your background? Do you have a background in all those fields or is it a passion of yours?

It’s kind of funny. I don’t really have a background in marketing prior to actually doing it… My degrees are in English Literature and Philosophy. I was not ever really in Business or Marketing or Advertising, but I started building websites when I was 11 or 12 years old. My first website, I think I was 11, was a Pokémon website. I had some friends on the Internet who also loved Pokémon. The weakness of the gateway system at that time was that in order to be able to play against somebody, you had to be standing right next to them. I was like ‘that’s garbage because I don’t have a lot of friends in my immediate periphery because I am a weird little kid, but I have lots of friends that I can stand on the internet’ because I think I was like one of the first kids on my block to have computer.’ So I built websites where I could host my Pokémon data and then run simulation Pokémon matches against other nerdy children out there. I started coding when I was about 11.

How did you learn?

I just looked it up. There were a bunch of tutorials on the Internet and I just looked it up…There was no WordPress; I just coded in just straight HTML, XHTML because that was the thing back then and I was into that. I had fun with it. I played around a lot. Then I moved on to college and studied the Humanities and I studied classics and I studied communication. I was a debater. I was also a speaker… and I did copywriting to make extra money.

Then one day I was fucking around on the Internet on Facebook, which was a relatively new thing back then. It was before it was opened up to everybody and it was just for college students. So I was messing around on it and this was back when you could make Like pages, just like anything, like the cool side of the pillow…you could make these Like pages so I made one. Just being a condescending English major, I should have made some trademarking around it because you now can Google it to this day and find it everywhere, I wrote ‘I like long text messages because I appreciate a complete thought.’ I just thought that was hysterical and I liked it, 13 of my friends liked it and that was cool and I walked away from it. You know I won’t do like a slow build up here but within 3 or 4 months that page had 1.6 million people following it.

(…) This was the precursor to Facebook pages as something that was done for businesses or brands or locations.. So I had all these people following me and advertisers started reaching out to me… offering to post links to their online t-shirt shops… The ecommerce sites that were sarcastic in nature, these smart ass t-shirts shops… would say ‘we’ll give you X dollars to order, we’ll give you 15% commission and kick back.’ So I basically started doing affiliated marketing through that Facebook page, just goofing off and I ended up making a substantial amount of money figuring out affiliate marketing and running that page.

Is that page still available today?

No, I actually got out at a good time because Facebook completely changed the way they do their pages now. You are no longer able to create a page that represents an idea or sentence…That taught me something important abut social media and about Internet marketing and making money on the web which is don’t build your house on someone else’s land… If you build your model around someone else’s platform like Facebook and they change their platform and they disrupt your model, you’re screwed. Sorry.

That’s why email has always been such a dominant format cause you always own our email list. If people subscribe to your stuff or whatever, you always have your email list…. It was an accidental breakneck speed education I would say.

 Is your specialization neuromarketing?

I am a specialist in it but I am not practicing specialist. I sort of moved on to broader topics and here’s why: there is not that many people in Florida talking about neuromarketing. I think that a lot of people in marketing come from two angles: they come from a communication and a journalist angle, or they come at it from a sales angle, and neither of those is sufficient to really grapple with the complex problems that neuromarketing tries to solve.

(…) I’ve spent a few years as part of a passion project really getting into neuromarketing and learning as much about it as I could. I even consulted with a neuroscientist in California. But there is really nobody else talking about it.

I became fascinated by it and the reason that I originally became fascinated by it is because I thought it was bullshit. I was part right, because what people say about neuromarketing and what people think about neuro-marketing is mostly bullshit. Someone posted a video a few days ago about subliminal marketing and how advertisers found the ways to hide the word ‘sex’ in Coke cans and that make Coke cans sell more. No, it doesn’t! Nobody thinks that. They experimented with shit like that in the 1960s and 1970s… Unless you are selling condoms there is no business advantage in trying to show dirty stuff in your ads, so when I see stuff like subliminal messaging, trying to get you to buy stuff by showing stuff about sex, that’s garbage, that’s total pseudoscience and that’s garbage.

There are principles though that we learn from the study of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing really is not a practice, the practice is in learning from neuroscience and occasionally being able to conduct real tests, which are very costly… Some of the principles that I went over in my talk like contrasts, things like narrative instead of statistics, pain marketing, fear marketing, show people what their life is like without your product and then show them what is like with your product. I guarantee you, if somebody is not doing that and starts doing that, the sales are going to double. The sales are going to double and if they are not, call me Sally.

 It is interesting and it seems like a topic that should be addressed more. People want to know what the foundation for all of this is. They want science to be behind this. They want the evidence.

John Wanamaker said once ‘half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, the trouble is I don’t know which half.’ I only think that neuromarketing combined with analytics seeks to answers that question…With either one, with good data analysis or with neuromarketing I think you can figure out where you are wasting money because with neuromarketing you learn which messages are more effective before you send them out, whereas data, metrics, analytics… can help you understand on where you are making and losing money once your campaign is live. And that’s helpful with an ongoing digital campaign, with something you can start and stop and turn on and edit. But if you are doing a study because you are going to spend 30 million dollars to run a Super Bowl commercial or whatever it is, you kind of want that information up front. You can’t turn it on and adjust it on the fly. You need to film that shit way, way in advance. It’s those types of campaigns that benefit the most from neuromarketing tests…Pretty much everything else you just learn from what is already being learned.

From your particular experience, what do you see to be the trends to look out in the future?

I’ll tell you: chat app marketing, for messaging apps. You are going to see brands trying to get on WhatsApp, on Kik and other one to one messaging apps.

(…) Video has been blowing up year over year, its still headed in that direction. The best investment a small business owner can make right now or somebody who wants to be a digital marketing consultant or start an ecommerce or retail business, the best investment they can make right now is invest on a nice camera. Because visual content is the future for the Internet, absolutely.

How do you see yourself in the future? Are there are aspects of marketing that interest you more?

What I like to do is being involved at developing new types of ads, new types of marketing messages, new ways to communicate with people… When you go and you spend money to place ads on the Internet, that is where the money of digital advertising in. It’s not in SEO or organic social media management. It’s in content and good content and it’s in paid media. That’s where 95% of the money is. If anybody else tells you differently they are either lucky or lying.

I love marketing, I love digital marketing, I love the Internet, I’ve always have. I have a very philosophical take on the Internet and the opportunities it presents and part of it is sentimental… (Growing up) kids would come up and say, ‘can Alex come out and play’ and I would go tell my mom ‘can you say that I can’t go out and play’, ‘can you say that I am grounded so I can’t go out’? I did not have the spine to say ‘no fuck off.’ I do now.

I wanted to be liked but I also did not wanted to hang out with them. I wanted to do my own stuff. The Internet to me gave me a lot of opportunities to get in touch and to learn stuff. Almost everything that I’ve learned about marketing, media and social and everything, I learned online, I learned by doing. I’ve taken online classes, I’ve gone to seminars, I’ve gone to conferences, done a couple of workshops. But mostly I just read, and tried and failed and tried again, failed and read and that’s just it. That’s it. And I failed Algebra 2 twice in middle school and high school so if I can do it, absolutely anybody can do it.

I think I am just so stubborn that I won’t stop doing something until I get my way.

Follow Alex Wall on Twitter @AlexlWall

Follow the author @yadicarocaro