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ISP Blogweek 2014: Blogging and Business: The Adafruit Example


The International School of Prague is gearing up for Blogweek 2014. One of the ideas behind our annual blogging festival is allow students to explore ways that digital literacy is reshaping our world - and how we can leverage the power of social media in our own lives.

In that spirit, I thought I would write a short piece exploring - full disclosure - one of my favourite companies, and how they have woven social media into their DIY approach to business.  It is a story which illustrates how relevant digital literacy is for entrepeneurs.

Adafruit Industries is a company that specializes in designing and manufacturing electronics for a broad range of makers: simple to use for students or hobbyists, but high quality for rapid prototyping in professional design environments. I became acquainted with them through my interest in robotics and in promoting digital design technology in education.

Limor Fried and Adafruit Industries

Limor “Lady Ada” Fried, Adafruit’s founder, is a prominent spokesperson for the open-source and maker movements. She was the first female engineer to make the cover of Wired Magazine. 

I won’t bother to retell the full Adafruit story, but check out this piece on Lady Ada for her 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year profile, if you’d like some more information. It’s a good story.

Where Blogging & Social Media Fit In

Adafruit puts a big emphasis on social media to speak directly to their customers. It is basically the only marketing they do. They have new content every day on their blogs. They produce several weekly live video shows on Youtube. The have developed their customized “Adafruit Learning System” which includes project tutorials, product datasheets, code examples and anything people might need in order to use their products. They also regularly publish other sorts of content, from project ideas, tear-downs of commercial products, and other news relevant to makers.

Check out the new Adafruit.com and their Youtube channel to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

In keeping with their DIY philosophy, all of Adafruit’s social media content is either produced totally in-house, or through collaboration with the larger maker community - including their customers, who regularly share project ideas, help out in the forums, and contribute tutorials to the Learning System. Regardless, there is no external marketing team building their website or crafting “viral” advertising campaigns.

On a recent “Ask An Engineer”, one of their weekly live Youtube shows, they discussed their Youtube and website traffic and a little about their social media approach (this link will take you directly to the relevant clip).

Unlike almost all other sites, Adafruit doesn’t sell advertising space on their site, or accept paid editorial content. With the significant traffic it generates, it has the advertising potential be a stand-alone revenue-generating product. Adafruit has bucked the advertising trend in favor of clean design and functionality for their community.

So, if the editorial content itself doesn’t generate revenue, what is the angle, from a business perspective?  

On one level, the strategy is pretty straight-forward. Providing project ideas and high quality tutorials clearly encourages enables a larger community of people to buy the products. The more they learn, the more new projects they attempt, the more they buy.

It should come as no surprise that much of the content Adafruit produces discusses products they sell. Not exclusively, however - the surprise is how much time they spend discussing the industry at large and promoting other like-minded folks.

In addition to their products, they’ve positioned themselves as a go-to source of information. This includes information for the maker community, but also about the maker community.

We try to teach students about grooming their own positive digital footprint - this is an excellent example of a company leveraging blogging and social media to establish a position of corporate leadership.

Let’s be clear, I'm not talking about creating some kind of illusion. Both Lady Ada and Adafruit have earned their authoritative positions through real and substantial individual and corporate success. But, in the modern world, speaking with 2 million unique page visitors and hundreds of thousands of social media connections definitely helps to establish another type of authority and relevance.

But there's more to it than building traffic: Adafruit uses social media very effectively to help define and communicate their brand. Their corporate philosophy is definitely part of their overall sales pitch.

First and foremost, it is a story of a well-run operation - they are well-known for product quality and almost-instant order fulfillment. They leverage blogs, forums, and other social media to provide an amazing level of customer support. They manufacture their products in New York instead of overseas. They support the open-source movement, and are open with their own designs and code.

Transparency is central to their philosophy. This is particularly relevant to the community they serve; makers: people who are interested in how things operate behind the scenes, like how the components are made, and other aspects of running a hardware business. Much of this transparency is achieved communicating via social media.

Also, by being very hands-on with their various blogs and videos, the community is given the opportunity to “know” the Adafruit people in a much more informal and intimate way than is typical in a customer-business relationship. To me, they seem like the kind of people I would like to hang out with. 

Basically, they make it really easy to support them - no mean feat among the DIY set, who (if I may generalize for a moment) are probably more suspicious of corporate interests than your average person. But everything about Adafruit seems to be run as a reaction to how business is normally done. For some reason, despite millions of dollars in annual sales, supporting Adafruit still feels pretty “punk” to me.

But where did this narrative come from? Where did I get it?  Simple - they told me.

Primarily, they were able to tell me directly, using social media. It wasn’t one particular blog, or one video, but it was a story - a corporate identity - that was crafted across the whole digital sphere. It was “what” was said, and also “how” it was said. It was reinforced on social media by testimonials from customers and supporters.Then it was picked up by mainstream media. I don’t intend to make this all sound contrived. And it doesn’t mean their story isn’t true - their success speaks for itself.

But it speaks to the power of social media, and the importance of learning how to leverage these new forms of digital literacy. Adafruit has been able to tell their story directly to the world, uncompromising and unfiltered by the usual marketing machine, disrupting a number of traditional ways of working.

It is not much different from what we all should be doing, albeit on a much smaller scale: taking ownership of our digital footprint: leveraging social media to present the best, most authentic, most marketable parts of ourselves to world.


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