The case for building sparks & changing lives (review of Cumulative Impact by Mark Schaefer)

You’ve built a successful career, a thriving business and a good life for your family.

What’s left to build?

Sparks. Lots and lots of sparks for kids and grown-ups who are starting out, staring over and in need of a helping hand.

“A spark can be an open door, an open heart or guidance at the right moment in life,” says Mark Schaefer, social media marketing consultant and author of Cumulative Advantage.

Here’s what happened when kids at Banneker High School just south of Atlanta were showered with sparks.

It was a school where six out of 10 students didn’t graduate and 97 per cent lived in poverty. 

The school piloted a partnership with volunteers from Junior Achievement. Students tackled real-life business case challenges. Volunteers from the companies that sponsored the challenges mentored the kids. Teachers wove the challenges into their curriculum, linking what was taught at school with what was happening out in the world. Students then showed off their teamwork, leadership, creativity and problem-solving skills by pitching their solutions to their mentors.

By their senior year, students had completed 16 case challenges. They then took on capstone projects, including consulting assignments, field research and paid internships.

High school graduation and postsecondary participation rates soared. Absenteeism and disciplinary problems plummeted. And most important of all, 98 per cent of students said they were excited by their future prospects.

What caused the dramatic turnaround? “It wasn’t due to any windfall of money, buildings or new staff members,” says Schaefer. “This troubled school turned around because it had an enormous infusion of sparks created by everyday people that led to a redistribution of hope and esteem.” 

Building sparks ties into one of the five factors in Schaefer’s formula for setting success momentum in motion and gaining cumulative advantage. That advantage is how we improve our odds of getting heard, standing out and succeeding in a world where the big are getting bigger and the rich are getting richer at an accelerated clip. Just as there is cumulative advantage, there’s also cumulative disadvantage. Schaefer’s formula can close that gap.

His momentum-building formula starts with identifying an initial advantage, discovering a seam of timely opportunity, creating significant awareness through a “sonic boom” of promotion, reaching out and up and building sustained momentum through constancy of purpose and executing on a plan.

As others reach up and out, Schaefer says it’s important that we reach down and offer experiences, opportunities and connections as mentors. These are the sparks that can change lives.

Schaefer writes from personal experience. Years ago, he became a mentor to a seven-year-old boy. That child, one of seven siblings who was raised by a single grandmother, is now an elite athlete who’s off to university on a full scholarship.

“Don’t just lend a hand; be the hand and help those in this world who are being left behind,” say Schaefer. “Everything good and great starts with something small. What can you do to create sparks of momentum in your part of the world.

“We know that the momentum of cumulative advantage begins with a spark – that initial seed of potential. Maybe the world needs you and I to be in the business of providing sparks.”

This review first ran in the May 21st edition of The Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Book review: Return on influence by Mark Schaefer

This review first ran in the May 7 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Return on Influence: The Revolutionary Power of Klout, Social Scoring and Influence Marketing

By Mark Schaefer


I’m influential when it comes to magic.

So says Klout, a company that measures our online influence by pulling data from social networks like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and LinkedIn.

I’m not sure where the data is coming from.

I’ve never tweeted about magic. Never followed a magician, fired off a link to a magic video or joined a discussion group for aspiring magicians.

Truth is, I enjoy magicians about as much as mimes.

When watching talent shows, I cheer when the magician bores the judges, blows the trick and makes an early exit. And I feel bad for the wife or girlfriend who, out of desperation or denial, stands by her man in a bedazzled bikini.

While I’ve yet to tweet about magic, I’ve offered up more than 50 rules on how to pitch stories to reporters.

I’ve also shared some reasons to love Hamilton beyond bike lanes, food trucks and James St. North.

I’m not sure any of these tweets make me influential. But I know beyond a doubt that Klout is finding ways to sell this information to a growing roster of 3,000 corporate clients that include Nike, Disney and Virgin America.

Author and business consultant Mark Schaefer says status-ranking companies like Klout are at the forefront of a new marketing gold rush. “For the first time, the world’s biggest brands have a way to cost-effectively and rapidly identify, connect with, and nurture customers who are their megaconnectors in niche markets.”

Citizen influencers with high Klout scores get showered with swag and treated like VIPs. With more than 2,000 followers on Twitter, Valentina Monte is one of those citizen influencers that companies covet. Monte got a $10 gift card from Subway. She tweeted and took pictures when she got her card and ordered her sandwich. She checked in with Foursquare while she was Subway. Friends retweeted and tweeted Monte. Subway got a lot of mileage out of a $10 gift card.

But Klout cuts both ways. There’s the cautionary tale of a marketing exec who got called out on his low Klout score during an job interview. The job went to a candidate with a higher score.

“To many, this whole trend is starting to feel a lot like high school,” says Schaefer. “The people with high Klout scores are the cool kids. But in addition to the very emotional and visceral reactions of being rated in a public way, there are many legitimate concerns about the social scoring trend, privacy, the underlying methodology and its implications.”

Of course, there’s an underground economy of cheating and gaming the algorithm used by Klout to set scores.  On eBay, you can buy false Twitter accounts preloaded with thousands of followers. There’s autoposting, tweet blitzes, spam bots and fake Foursquare mayorships.

If you want to improve your Klout score without cheating, Schaefer recommends three steps. Build a relevant network by choosing wisely who to follow.  Have a strategy to provide compelling, value-added content. And engage influencers with high scores who will distribute your content to their networks.

“We are entering the age of the Citizen Influencer, in which every person has a chance to get behind the velvet rope and be treated like a rock star. You too can discover the power of your own return on influence. And in fact, many companies already have.”

@jayrobb works and lives in Hamilton and has a Klout score just shy of  40.