Secrets of Seattle’s Success: Engaging through Innovation

This post appeared in the Puget Sound Business Journal last week and appears courtesy of the author.

Last year I promised myself that I would find a way to meet and interview Jeff Bezos for my Four Peaks show. The Amazon CEO is famously sparing in his on-camera appearances. He would usually only surface on TV to promote the latest Amazon product. I was hoping for something more substantive.

Exactly how would a professor and regional TV host do this? Sure, I was an NBC News journalist over a decade ago when I benefited from the shimmer of a mass media brand and the halo of the celebrity anchors Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams.

Now I hoped that the strategic approach to my work at the University of Washington would provide a clue as to how I could get that elusive Bezos interview.

We’ve framed our graduate program around the deployment of compelling content to inspire relationships that lead to sustainable engagement. It’s also the premise for the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber’s annual IN-NW social engagement conference that I will host all day on February 12th, in collaboration with thought leaders from Google, 206inc., and REI. It’s a sensibility very much informed by the Puget Sound.

Clearly, our region punches above its weight. Super Bowl victory notwithstanding, the Seattle Times observed a few weeks ago that we’re a “Beta” city that has spawned a disproportionate number of global brands that have changed the world: from Bezos’ online retail giant to Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, Costco and so much more. No wonder that as Bloomberg Global Tech recently surveyed innovation across the United States, it put Washington State at the top of the list. It’s fundamentally a “Go West Young Man” freedom to make new rules, and break old ones, even as we foster a strong sense of community in our remote corner of the United States.

“This is a part of the country that is not yet finished. You can still write the future of this place,” Guiding Lights Network founder Eric Liu told me in a Four Peaks episode. “But you can also write the future of the country from this place.”

Why does this matter? Because globalization tied to technological advances have raised the stakes for every city, region, organization and even individual. We are in a constant state of disruption: it’s as much about not getting left behind as it is about getting ahead.

This has profound consequences for those of us in the “engagement” industries. With the advent of the “Internet of Things,” we’re integrating tiny sensors into our kitchens, gyms and cars as we upload our second-by-second behavior to share with others: “When 50 billion machines come online, we’ll need to make sense of all that data,” I heard GE CMO Beth Comstock say last November.

This will only expand the role of public relations and marketing, as communications practitioners will need to get involved at the outset of any product cycle — from the point of ideation with engineers, data scientists, and designers.

That heightened role for communicators, with a particular focus on strategically connecting others to content is how I ultimately scored that hour-long interview with Jeff Bezos.

He donated $10 million in 2012 to create a new Center for Innovation at Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). The Center’s designers approached me to produce video interviews with visionaries such as Bezos for the permanent exhibit. I tied this project to our show on UWTV and NWCN.

Not only did MOHAI get the content it needed for this important exhibit it also gained valuable broadcast TV exposure when the exhibit opened last fall. And it provided a community-building opportunity to other business leaders such as Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, Costco’s Jeff Brotman and DreamBox Learning’s Jessie Woolley-Wilson to reflect upon their Seattle-influenced secrets of success, thereby helping to inspire the next generation of innovators through relevant, timeless content.

That’s “content marketing” at its best and it’s all the rage as communications technology becomes more pervasive, but online advertising rates plummet. Audiences are changing their media consumption habits, even as they shun ads but are more open to “branded” articles and videos. The New York Times recently embraced this approach as a new source of revenue. This week, Ad Age’s 2014 “A-List” extraordinarily included a public relations firm (and an IN-NW presenter): Weber Shandwick, which has pioneered a content-focused engagement strategy through its MediaCo initiative.

Ultimately it’s about organizations creating their own media outlets as they increasingly create and deploy their own content that others will want to connect to, either because it’s useful or entertaining. And those connections — be it with a museum, a global brand, a business mogul can inspire powerful, sustainable engagement.


Hanson Hosein is the Director of the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, and the host of Four Peaks on UWTV. He will host the IN-NW: Social Media & Digital Marketing Conference presented by Google on February 12th, at the Showbox in SODO

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