“Technology-based business norms are as fleeting as tweets,” says Paolo Mottola (M.C., 2010 | MCDM).
He came to this realization during a Communication Leadership class about Twitter as the new frontier, at the time, of micro-format social media. His class group’s attempts to write a best practices book over the course of the quarter proved futile as they couldn’t keep up with the dynamic social media landscape. Mottola has since applied that learning in his career to become a risk-tolerant leader.
Currently, Mottola is the Director of Content and Media at REI, the largest outdoor consumer co-op, with a community of 18 million lifetime members. In various roles over the past seven years Mottola has crafted authentic content experiences to engage that community — and beyond.
For instance, the people in the stories featured on REI’s channels are real; the co-op does not use models or stock photography in its imagery. Mottola believes that authenticity is palpable to those who consume the content. In today’s overstimulated environment, high-quality content stands out; it not only boosts audience engagement, but also drives them to action.
The constantly shifting digital media landscape also requires Mottola’s team to play with new avenues of engagement while aligning with REI’s mission to awaken a lifelong love of the outdoors in its customers.
Recently, Mottola’s team, in partnership with Hearst, launched REI’s first-ever print magazine, Uncommon Path. It explores the experiences, events, ideas, and gear that shape the relationship between people and life outside. Unlike the ephemeral nature of interacting with digital content, the magazine aims to give readers an opportunity to slow down and connect with nature in a new way.
This effort only augments REI’s already robust storytelling efforts. In 2017, REI launched the #ForceOfNature campaign, reacting to gender inequity in the outdoors. Mottola participated in an internal working group to evaluate and improve gender equity at REI across business functions: brand and marketing, product assortment, and the people and culture dynamics for employees and members.
“The insights were powerful and surprising,” he shares. “For example, 63% of women said they could not think of an outdoor female role model.” #ForceofNature aimed to externalize this work and effect change.
“My team developed and executed content strategy, resulting in functional articles like ‘REI Extended Sizing Update: More Sizes, More Women, Right Now,’ and inspirational films like The Mirnavator. After launch, I was excited to see women posting images of themselves on social media holding our print flyer (which had dozens of crossed-out phrases like ‘You should smile more,’ ‘You should be more feminine,’ etc.), or wearing our orange #ForceofNature bandana,” reports Mottola.
Mottola has successfully steered an entire organization with his vision for engagement and connection with audiences through content. He recognizes that a plan for external audiences does not gain traction without buy-in from internal stakeholders first.
“An easy, perhaps ironic, pitfall of being a great external communications professional is forgetting to be a great internal communicator, too… My approach is first about ensuring that everyone in my organization understands the purpose of a new strategy. That requires its own internal storytelling, and I suppose that’s where target audience and data-based communication comes in.”
This thoughtful approach helps Mottola yield positive outcomes. He continues, “I don’t think you have to work hard to drive a new idea when the problem statement is clear and grounded in insights.”
REI is also well-known for its tremendously successful #OptOutside campaign. The co-op became a retail rebel during the 2015 holiday season by closing its doors on Black Friday. Instead, the company urged both employees and members to get out of shopping lines and out on trails. Mottola considers himself a “fifth-year major” in #OptOutside, as he worked on the strategy, creative, and marketing aspects of the campaign since it was launched.
“That campaign became a movement where people are now more intentionally spending time outside, and not just on Black Friday. That’s an important change when the average American spends 95% of time inside. I’m simply excited that REI continues to embrace bold actions to make our employees and members consider how to spend their time,” Mottola says with pride. To date, more than 700 organizations and 15 million people have chosen to #OptOutside instead of fighting it out in the aisles.
Mottola considers it a privilege to work at REI. As an outdoor enthusiast, he enjoys the challenges and opportunities offered by his role. “The great outdoors is universal. Creatively, we get to work with this massive palette of beautiful places and compelling stories,” he says with evident gratitude.
Mottola also creates content to align with REI’s overarching brand vision.
“We aim to generate emotional connections to the outdoors through traditional, arc-based storytelling, as well as useful tips, and educational information. We want to see people engage in the content in the interest of engaging in a more active outdoor life. The more people see themselves in the outdoors and spend time outside, the more we see them want to help protect those special places.”
The outstanding success of campaigns like #ForceOfNature and #OptOutside speaks to Mottola’s ability to take storytelling beyond the brand promise, to connect with people on a genuine level, and encourage their efforts to better their lives. His unique ability to drive action through content won Mottola the 2017 Content Marketer of the Year award.
Mottola is quick to acknowledge that this success wouldn’t have been possible without his team — a strong collective that he has built over time.
Mottola’s leadership style was shaped by experiences early in his career. At the time, he was rewarded for pushing the work hard and fast. However, as he soon discovered, that style of work is “less effective when leading people, working in teams, and driving a vision.” Mottola echoes the proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
“I am always trying to go far, push further than where we’ve been, and that requires a team mentality,” he says.
Mottola takes a sports-like, competitive approach to problem solving, acting as a player-coach for his team. He strategically considers the circumstances around challenges, thinks about how his team is set up, and determines what he needs to be successful. Once he has the right plan and team in place, he tackles every challenge head-on.
Given his commitment to building a high-functioning team, it’s no surprise that a good day’s work for Mottola is about “quality collaboration with the team I lead, my stakeholders and leaders. If I can help remove barriers and support how we’re working toward solving customer problems, then I’m feeling good.”
Metrics for success go beyond simple numbers for a leader like Mottola.
“I measure success based upon the engagement of my teams and results in our business. At REI, that’s about engagement with content to help enable our customers’ connection to the outdoors.”
In addition to his day job, Mottola shares his wisdom by teaching in a professional capacity. He’s taught for Content Strategy and Storytelling Certificate offered by UW Professional and Continuing Education, and undergraduate business classes at Edmonds Community College. Both as a student and teacher, academia has helped Mottola broaden his worldview and communications agility.
“Working with students outside of my ‘day job’ helps get me out of my business bubble. I get to work with students from different backgrounds and career stages, and they help me round out my perspectives,” he says.
As someone who completed the Communication Leadership program while working full time, Mottola is often asked whether graduate school is worth it. While the answer to that is dependent on everyone’s personal circumstances, he feels that “some people just love higher education: the excitement of the academic environment, the intellectual exercise of the work. Count me more in that corner!”
Mottola suggests that prospective students should first define their personal goals. “Some people need higher education out of occupational necessity or career advancement. Students should have a very clear grasp on their expectations and desired outcomes — and be comfortable that not all cohort peers will see it the same way,” he reflects.
While Mottola’s job is all about creating content for others to consume, he does not discount the role that listening plays in effective communication.
“Communications isn’t just about talking, but listening. Sometimes that’s listening to your partners, and sometimes that’s listening to your customers. Because I’m an extrovert, I have to remind myself of that!” he admits.