Sam Ford: An interview by Bob Morris

Ford, SamSam Ford is Director of Audience Engagement for Peppercomm. His 2013 New York University Press book, Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, was co-authored by Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. The book was named one of the best business books of 2013 by Booz & Co.’s Strategy+Business and was voted one of the “Top 10 Best Marketing Books You Read This Summer” in a reader poll at Advertising Age. In 2011, he co-edited the University Press of Mississippi book The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Sam is a columnist with Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Inc. He is a research affiliate with the MIT Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, an instructor with the Western Kentucky University Popular Culture Studies Program, and co-chair of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s Ethics Committee. Sam was named a 2014 Social Media MVP by PR News and was Bulldog Reporter’s 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year. In the past two years, he has written pieces for The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, PRWeek,, and other publications and presented at events like South by Southwest, Social Media Week NYC, Planning-ness, and the Front End of Innovation.

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Morris: Before discussing Spreadable Media, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Ford: It’s tough to narrow down who has had the most significant impact on my personal growth, since it really was a village. My wife’s constant feedback as a partner these past 14 years to help me figure out what it is I want to do in my life, my dad’s consistent work ethic and drive, my mother’s deep attention to detail have all been key. But one person who helped set me on the path I’m on early on is my grandmother, Beulah Hillard. One of our favorite pastimes was sitting on the front porch swing and sharing songs—trading around a mix of gospel, old country/bluegrass tunes, and anything else we could think of.

Her passion for “her story,” the soap opera As the World Turns, helped shape my interest in the intersection between immersive story worlds and the social relationships that build around them. She and my mother talked about the lives of the residents of Oakdale, Illinois, almost every day by phone, interspersed with conversations about friends and family in our little town of McHenry.

And my grandmother was also a society columnist in the local weekly newspaper, covering specifically what was happening in our little town of 400. She wrote about the babies that were born, the old man down the lane who had passed away, the church potluck next Sunday, the visitors from all the way in Michigan who had come to town last week. Her phone would ring regularly with people in the community who had something for her to share in the paper, or she was calling them because of something she’d heard that was going on. And she always had her police scanner on, to keep up with anything going on with the law enforcement, the fire department, the EMS, the school bus system, etc. When I was 12, she had some health complications and asked me to take over the column. There I was, writing alongside the blue-rinse set in The Ohio County Times-News as a pre-teen. But it invigorated my love of writing, of being part of the community, of telling human stories…and it had a really significant impact on the direction I’ve headed since.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Ford: Again, there have been many. It’s been an honor working with Henry Jenkins, who was the most generous grad school mentor I could hope for and who has been a true partner and friend on various projects along the way. Steve Cody and others at Peppercomm provided me the opportunity to translate my work to the world of professional communication and marketing, in a way that has been greatly instructive. And Grant McCracken, the cultural anthropologist, has been a key figure throughout the past decade for me—inspiring me and challenging me to think in new ways as only he can do. But, before all that, I have to give great credit to Dr. Karen Schneider and Dr. Ted Hovet at WKU. I entered college planning to be a professional journalist. I ended up with a journalism degree but knew fairly early into my college career that my interests were in studying culture. My first semester at WKU, I had Dr. Schneider for an introductory English class—and the questions she asked of us, the intense discussions she directed, and the way in which she used studying literature to get at the heart of important questions about life inspired me. Karen and Ted Hovet were both key figures in WKU’s English Department and in launching their Film Studies program. They became great mentors for both me as well as for my wife, and remain good friends. And they were key coaches in driving me to go to graduate school and in making sure I was more than prepared when I arrived there.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Ford: There’s been much more serendipity than there has been epiphany for me. For me, it has been having the great opportunity meet many interesting people along the way, learn from them, and make sure that I’m listening when new career turns might pop up. At one point, I knew I was going to attend graduate school, but I didn’t know where. I thought American Studies would provide me the best way to study culture, storytelling, and active audiences in the way I wanted to. An academic named Henry Louis Gates came to WKU. I had a question I was trying to ask him, and I never could get through. Finally, I was up to him in line after his public talk, and they told him that he needed to stop and go to dinner. He looked at me and said, “Why don’t you come with us to dinner?” And my dinner with him that night inspired me to definitely attend graduate school and to consider going to Boston (as Skip is a professor at Harvard) for grad school. Then, my wife and I took a visit up to Boston. I remember passing MIT’s campus several times, and my wife would try to bring my attention to it. “That’s a science and engineering school….” I told her.

A few months later, while doing my honors thesis at WKU on the world of professional wrestling, I came across an essay that Henry Jenkins was working on but that hadn’t been published yet. In fact, it was coming out as part of an edited collection called Steel Chair to the Head that was set to be released right as my thesis was due. I didn’t know who Henry was, but I reached out to him to see if I could get an advanced copy of my essay. In the process, he told me about the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT he was running with Dr. William Uricchio. I ended up getting to know Henry a bit and found that the focus of that program completely matched what I was interested in studying. In the end, I applied to that science school—and it was the only one of 6 or 7 programs I applied to that accepted me.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Ford: My formal education has been extremely important to me. I’m a first-generation college student and product of the public school system. My life was shaped by a series of important teachers I had along the way who passed along to me less specific knowledge and more the critical thinking skills and passion for learning that drove me to seek the next level. My time at WKU fundamentally reshaped what it was I wanted to do in my career. MIT did that once again and provided me with the skill set, the peer group, the connections, and the validity I needed to move forward—and move into areas I would have never expected and into a job title and job description I wouldn’t have even understood a short time before.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Ford: You should always be able to put yourself in the shoes of the person you’re consulting, working with, or seeking to reach. Don’t underestimate their intelligence, but don’t overestimate their knowledge. Find the meeting place between what they want and need to know and what you feel it is important to tell them. And don’t just reactively respond to what they are asking you to do; trust that you are providing them with strategic guidance, not just responding to their queries. That’s been the difference in being able to be a consultative partner to the companies and colleagues I’ve worked with, rather than a vendor, executing requests.
Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Ford: There are many great lessons learned from films. One that I wrote about for Fast Company a few years back was a thrilled named Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds. In it, a U.S. civilian contractor working in Iraq has been captured and wakes up buried under the ground. He’s being held for ransom. And he has a cell phone with him in this small space he’s buried alive in, in the ground. What is remarkable about the film is that the whole movie—which is quite suspenseful—takes place with the camera inside this tight box he’s buried in underground. We don’t see flashbacks. We are stuck in there with him. And we go through what is, in effect, a series of extreme “audience experience” failures as he tries to navigate communicating with a range of entities to be rescued. I found the film a great illustration to the extreme of being able to empathize with an audience member and see/feel the pain from their perspective.

Morris: From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Ford: Perhaps no “genre” of book is more insightful about the art of consciously building one’s character and of understanding and communicating with one’s audience than the “pro wrestling memoir” genre, of which I have read many books. Anyone looking to understand how to connect with audiences, how to tell stories that connect, and so forth might do well to read Mick Foley’s Foley Is Good…and the Real World is Faker than Wrestling, as well as Foley’s other books, as well as Ole Anderson and Scott Teal’s Inside Out, among others.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Ford: I love this quote. Truly inspiring change within an organization, a community, or a client you’re working with is getting an idea so ingrained within that people start taking ownership of it and living it themselves…and requiring the old academic (Ford 2014) when doing that won’t make cultural shifts truly happen within an organization. The more you demand to “own” a concept or initiative, the less you allow others to really make it their own—and to take it in their own directions. To allude to the conversation that is to come about the book, content can’t become spreadable if you don’t provide ways in which people can make it their own. I’d counter with a paraphrase of fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren, who once said that many of the most insightful ideas are ones that, when you read them, you realize you’ve known all along.

Morris: Next, from Voltaire: “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.”

Ford: I can’t remember who said it, but I heard recently on the radio that someone said our time is one in which those who know the most are more uncertain than ever about their opinion, and those who are willing to state things definitively are those who know dangerously little. And it reminds me of something I once heard wrestler Shawn Michaels say to fellow wrestler Chris Masters—to extend on the pro wrestling example used above: “You don’t even know enough to know what you don’t know.”

Morris: And then, from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Ford: One of our favorite initiatives at Peppercomm is to put our teams, our clients, and other leaders through stand-up comedy training—in part because it helps them not just learn to read their audience but also to understand their own unique charisma, and how their presentation of self is so deeply determined by understanding and being true to who they are.

Morris: From Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Ford: This is a problem we run into constantly, particularly in the business world—where (to draw on work that Dr. Amanda Lotz has done in the past) industry lore and accepted logic often takes on a life of its own and where companies forget that they ever created it in the first place. One of my favorite examples are market segmentations, which create constructed profiles which people ultimately forget were fabrications of their marketing department in the first place and which, like Frankenstein’s Creature, starts terrorizing its creator.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Ford: A really shrewd soap opera writer once said of a television executive, “She was a very hard worker. I sure wish she didn’t work so hard.” We have to be careful to be sure that all that creative energy is going toward something that will ultimately benefit the publics a company is looking to serve. I find Carol Sanford’s “pentad” useful here—that any business decision must serve the customer, the co-creator, the earth, the community, and the shareholder…in that order. If organizations made all their decisions along those lines, I’d have to imagine their decisions would look quite a bit different.

Morris: In Tom Davenport’s latest book, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision-making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Ford: One of my favorite business books is Grant McCracken’s Chief Culture Officer, which argues that corporations can only become “living, breathing entities” if they make connecting with the culture outside their walls a business priority. But one issue I take with the idea of “a Chief Culture Officer,” taken to an extreme, would be the risk of putting “paying attention to the culture outside your walls” onto one person in the organization, rather than driving everyone in the organization to be able to see things from outside their own corporate perspective. So I think this idea of distributing key decision-making skills—from pattern recognition of cultural trends, to listening to outside audiences, to being able to empathize with those publics you seek to reach—is key.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Ford: To the point of this quote, we have to be careful not to celebrate failure in general, but rather celebrate the experimentation and testing of ideas, which will inevitably lead to some success and some interesting mistakes.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Ford: Working with teams requires teaching, learning, trusting, and all sorts of collaborative efforts at co-creation. That can be awfully nerve-wracking. In many cases, it’s a sign that the person has surrounded themselves with people whose judgment or inclination they don’t trust. My advice is to find people of similar ethos but very different areas of focus, training, and ways of approaching problems. When you do, and when you trust those teams to come together to make decisions, you transform what the company can do beyond the work of one human being.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Ford: Frank Eliason, currently with Citi and formerly the head of Comcast’s work on social media customer response, once said to me that he had never convinced an executive of anything with just numbers (unless they had a dollar sign in front of them). But, often, a useful anecdote/story, backed up by information to bring it to scale, quickly changed an executive’s mind. We need metaphors, analogies, parables, hypotheticals, case studies, and illustrations to understand a concept in practice and to see how it might be implemented in our day-to-day lives, or why we should care.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Ford: Empathy is the single best way to overcome. Help those in the organization see the problem you’re trying to tackle from the shoes of others in the organization or—more powerful than that—from how it will benefit those audiences the company ultimately seeks to serve. Doing that often makes more real the sort of change an organization is trying to implement, and it deepens the stakes for making that change real.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism, of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Ford: A focus on what companies owe their customers, their co-creators, the earth, and their communities (to draw on Carol Sanford’s work) is particularly key. I think business curriculum, as a whole, focuses far too little on empathy, on ethics, on reputation, on communication, and on responsibility. Those are crucial considerations and tool sets that we should want corporate leaders to be armed with and not to make decisions that look unfathomable from outside the organization but may have been quite logical within the way that business executive was trained to think and see the world.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any Advice?

Ford: Executives are going to be increasingly expected to demonstrate their knowledge and passion more publicly to outside audiences—which is a role that most corporate leaders have never really known how to take on. The expectation in a digital age is that every company will become a publisher and that corporate leaders will show people, rather than tell people, what their company cares about and what it is focused on. Again, these are not necessarily skills that many corporate leaders have been trained in. So I would heavily advocate on the importance of elevating the role that communication professionals play within the company.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Spreadable Media. When and why did you decide to write it, and do so in collaboration with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green?

Ford: In 2005, we launched our MIT Convergence Culture Consortium. Henry Jenkins, who was the principal investigator of our research group, was working on a book at the time called Convergence Culture, and our group was focused on connecting with media industries and marketing companies to further explore the issues around that book—at a time when new means of distribution and of content production were arising via digital channels, not just for companies but for audiences as well. As we continued to explore that work, though, we saw a hierarchy that overly valued some forms of participation over others. In particular, most people still don’t see themselves as publishers, even though the tools are available to them.

But the circulation of media messages was increasingly becoming disconnected from the official distribution channels of companies themselves—meaning that the audience was taking more and more control of what is shared, and how things are shared. We began thinking about how that process of circulation was being described and understood—through a series of case studies, white papers, conferences, retreats, blog posts, etc. And, as we connected with people in the academy and in the industry who were researching issues related to this question, we began to realize there was great potential in publishing a book that brought together the work people throughout the network of our Consortium had been engaged in.

At the time we launched into this work, Henry Jenkins remained our faculty investigator, Joshua Green was our research manager, and I was the Consortium’s project manager—so we set out on translating all our work into the eventual book, the online essays, and everything else that came along with this project. I want to give special credit to Xiaochang Li and Ana Domb, who were graduate student researchers with the Consortium during this time period and were instrumental in the development of this work—including co-authoring the original white paper with Henry and Joshua that heavily informed the book’s introduction.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Ford: One of the challenges when writing a book about a moving target like digital culture was to continuously take into account the shifting landscape. But I’d say the most crucial revelation was trying to keep check on some of our own previous ideas and to challenge our assumptions. This focus on circulation was one corrective of sorts. Another was this idea of focusing on the value of discussion, debate, analysis, etc.—things that were not the “shiny new objects” of “user-generated content.” Perhaps the biggest revelation for us was connecting the dots between so much interesting work being done across the media industries, the marketing world, and academia—and discovering many people whose ideas aligned with what we were seeing but helped challenge, stretch, and flesh out our thinking.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Ford: When we started this project, we had in mind a book that was both a through-line argument and an anthology. In other words, we imagined that—as we were talking about key arguments that had influenced our work—we would actually feature a short essay in the book from that author. That would be great, except that we turned in a manuscript that was much too long for NYU Press. That’s what led to all the essays becoming part of an “enhanced edition” of the book, which consists of a range of free essays available online. I’ve been excited to see, since the book’s publication, that several of these online essays are getting assigned in college curricula, are being cited in academic research, etc., often separate from the book itself. Some of the reviewers have even said those essays—and the curation of those other people’s work—were the most valuable part of the book/project.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of spreadability?

Ford: Our focus in the book is on spreadablity as a sort of “potential energy.” Content has the potential to be spreadable, but it isn’t guaranteed to be so. Ultimately, while the creator of that content may make various technical and textual considerations to increase the likelihood something will spread and may engage in various distribution strategies that will connect it with the right potential audiences, it isn’t up to the content producer/distributor as to whether things will truly spread or not; that is determined by the audience. But, in the book, we outline the defining aspects of spreadability as:

o A focus on socially connected people/communities/publics
o Material dispersed over multiple distribution points
o The potential for diversified experiences
o The possibility for open-ended participation, as defined by the audience
o Myriad temporary and localized networks
o A reliance on the advocating/proselytizing of grassroots intermediaries
o Collaboration across roles within and outside the organization (i.e. a real focus on co-creation practices)

Morris: What valuable lessons can be learned from the Susan Boyle phenomenon?

Ford: We use Susan Boyle as an example in the introduction, but you could imagine any number of widely spread texts as a similar stand-in. The main takeaways are that texts often spread in ways that the content producers didn’t expect them to; that texts that allow the audience to communicate something about themselves will more likely be spread; and that the particular ways that a text is spread is shaped by the myriad interests of the individuals/communities spreading it. If your video, song, story, or artwork becomes fodder for discussions people are already having or a great excuse for someone to share something with their network, or a particular contact, it will stand a greater chance of being spread.

Morris: What are the core principles of what you characterize as a “new moral economy”?

Ford: We see a conflict between what we distinguish as a commercial economy driven by market logic and a gift economy driven by non-market logic. Many conflicts that arise among media producers, “Web 2.0” platforms, and audiences come in the conflicts between the logics of each. The idea of the moral economy is that there is an implicit contract people perceive to be in place. When any party involved perceives another of breaking that contract, there is a shattering of trust and a serious disconnect in the business logic of each.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of transparent marketing?

Ford: For me, I think transparent marketing must follow the very central principle that “public relations” should be focused on relating to the public. No matter which discipline of marketing you’re in, the job of a marketing and communication professional should be to listen to, understand, and advocate for the audiences they are tasked with reaching—to help better align the company with the wants and needs of the audience the company seeks to reach. Disclosure is a key part of that—making sure that audiences are given the “full picture” and are treated with respect.

Morris: Of all the challenges of measuring audience engagement, which seems to be most daunting? Why?

Ford: For me, the most daunting is the continued shift toward quantitative measurement for the sake of doing so, or because it’s easy, when many of the most valuable insights comes in the analysis of that data rather than the data itself; in the qualitative insights that get boiled out if transformed solely into data; and of the anecdotal knowledge that is often within the organization but is in no way captured by audience measurement practices. Companies have to be careful about what knowledge and insight is sacrificed for too intense a focus on scalability.

What are the most significant differences between hearing and listening? What is the significance of those differences?

Ford: As I mentioned earlier in terms of data, companies have put their most intense focus on processes of hearing: noting that an utterance has been made. They pay close attention to when their company has been mentioned; when they do, they count it up to see how it’s changed over time; they compare it against how often the competitor has been mentioned; and they may look at whether a sentiment analysis tool says it was positive, negative, or neutral. But listening requires a different skill set. Listening refers to the active process of trying to pay attention to and comprehend what you hear. It requires analysis. It requires qualitative insight. And it requires more than the physical collection/reception of noise. Most organizations have invested heavily in the hearing aids that help them collect data but not nearly enough in making sense of it all and actually listening to the audience they seek to reach. That’s where the most transformative potential of the communication/marketing function comes: in being able to deeply understand the audience and help advise the company to shift it’s focus more toward serving those the company seeks to reach.

Morris: Please explain the nature and extent of what you characterize as “the problem of unequal participation.” For whom is it a “problem”? Why?

Ford: Unequal participation is a problem for all of us. The potential of new communication tools for bringing communities together, for connecting companies/media creators with their customers, etc., is only possible if people have the full ability to participate in the use of these tools. And that doesn’t just require being given technical access to the Internet, or the technology to use these platforms. It requires having knowledge of how these platforms work and how to use these platforms…of the business models behind them and the cultural written and unwritten rules that govern the communities on them. This is the stuff that should become the civics and media literacies education of the 21st Century.

Morris: I agree with you that “most people do not engage with only niche material or only mass media material.” In your opinion, what is the greatest appeal of mass-media content? Of niche media content?

Ford: Mass-media content helps you maintain your loose community connections. Niche media content helps you find your best friend. There have always been certain consensus narratives—the weather report, the local sports team, the most popular TV shows, that article in yesterday’s paper—that functioned as a means to connect with people you don’t know well when you’re engaging in small talk. Then, there’s the only other person you’ve met in college who loves the movie Clue as much as you do, or who has heard of Government Cheese, or who watches Korean dramas. Both play important roles in how the media texts are imbedded in our lives; but those roles are often quite distinct.

Morris: Disagreeing with Tom Friedman, you claim that the world is not “flat.” Please explain.

Ford: Major inequalities remain. Major cultural differences do much to define how content spreads…and what spreads. To declare that globalization has flattened these differences out is a vast overstatement. And, to be fair to Friedman, he himself looks at who is left out of this “flat” global landscape. Our book documents the inequality, the conflicts, the differing governing logics, and the difficulty of translating across borders—geographic/cultural/economic—as content spreads. While we do see much potential in a world where all of us have greater control over, and participation in, the circulation of information and media texts, we don’t want to paint a simplistic picture of progress nor to celebrate spreadability blindly.

Morris: Before concluding the book, you and your co-authors express hope that it will be possible to “shape the terms of a spreadable media environment and to forge a media environment that is more inclusive, more dynamic, and more participatory than before.” What will be the source of greatest resistance to those efforts?

Ford: We make the distinction between cultures of prohibition and cultures of collaboration. Those that seek to centralize power, to “spin” and “leverage” and “control” audiences, and to obscure the information audiences, need to make an informed decision pose significant roadblocks to true spreadability. Likewise, a lack of knowledge about how new tools and platforms work and the economic principles that structure them, on the one hand, and about the responsibility that comes along with having greater autonomy in circulating information, on the other, pose major threats to the ability we have to create a more participatory culture.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Spreadable Media and is now determined to create greater value for stakeholders at all levels and in all areas of the given enterprise. Where to begin?

Ford: Always begin with listening and with empathy. Serving your audience requires you to know them well enough to understand what’s important from their view and not just yours.

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Sam cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Spreadable Media link

Peppercomm link

Twitter link

HBR link

Fast Company

Inc. link

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1 Comment

  1. Teodoro on April 8, 2019 at 9:13 pm

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