What happens when you put a former federal counter-intelligence agent highly trained in the art of influence in charge of your social media and branding?
That’s what 20 South Sound companies have been learning in the past year since hiring Aly Thompson, owner and founder of OlySocial. Thompson spent 10 years as a special agent with the U.S. Army, investigating crimes of espionage, terrorism, subversion, and sabotage for Department of Defense and its related organizations.
“It’s a rigorous training process,” says Thompson. “After the application process, you go to a special agent’s academy for six months and learn a lot about human behavior. We were taught how to tell a lie, how to ask questions, and how to elicit information from witting or unwitting sources.”
Thompson worked on strategic missions that involved ever-more complex situations.
“It was kind of like going to the graduate level,” she says. “We did advance investigations and surveillance countermeasures.”
Then, everything changed. At 27 years old, despite regular exercise and a generally healthy lifestyle, she began experiencing ongoing stomach pains. After an initial inaccurate diagnosis, a doctor referred Thompson to a gastroenterologist, who performed a biopsy. Without waiting for the results, he unofficially diagnosed her with colon cancer and sent her home with medication to shrink the tumors he was convinced she had.
“Something in me said, ‘I don’t think this is right,’ ” she says. “By chance, I went to another doctor who did an allergy test. He called me and said, ‘You’re allergic to gluten. Stop it cold turkey and you’re going to feel a whole lot better.’ I was a 27-year-old who loved pizza and beer, so that hadn’t been helping.”
Thompson went on a completely raw diet for a month and sure enough, her symptoms vanished. But now, she was faced with a new dilemma: What to do about her work?
“As part of my job, we deploy in ones and twos,” she says. “I couldn’t be in Afghanistan or Korea and eat street meals. If there was gluten in it, I would jeopardize the mission.”
The army gave her a choice between a desk job or taking medical retirement. She chose the latter.
That’s when she let her entrepreneurial instincts take the wheel. Or rather, re-take the wheel;
Years earlier, when she was stationed in Korea, Thompson had started Maly Tross, a stationery company with products sold on Etsy.
That venture started out as more of a hobby than a business, but quickly grew into something more.
“I was wearing black and blue suits every day, and I needed a way to be creative and enjoy aesthetics and style,” she recalls. “Someone told me I should take it more seriously.”
She followed that advice and within six months, Nordstrom had placed three orders with Maly Tross. And another thing happened: Thompson experienced the power of social media platforms.
“I quickly realized that social media is where you sell,” she says. “You can have the coolest product in the world, but if no one sees it, it’s never going to sell.”
So, upon her early departure from service, Thompson began to consider ways to use her skills for influencing operations within the sphere of social media. When an Olympia photographer asked for help with her branding, Thompson considered the issue from a unique perspective.
“She had amazing photos, we just needed to change how people saw them,” she explains. “How the eye interprets information is crazy. Her images needed to be displayed in a way that the eye could process all the information without being distracted.”
Before long, more people were contacting her for assistance, and New Year’s Day 2017, she launched OlySocial. Within the firm’s first seven months, she’s gained 20 clients, mostly through word of mouth, including 222 Market in Olympia and Chelsea Oyster Bar.
Getting people to think differently about a product all comes down to framing, she says.
“I may have an image of a plastic water bottle. One caption could talk about how we take water for granted and how some people only get this much water per day for a family of five,” she says. “That may lead to a donation request.
“But that same photo might have a caption that talks about how this water is from the cleanest stream in the U.S. with a perfect pH balance. Now maybe you’ll start thinking differently about the water you’re currently drinking. A third caption might talk about how many water bottles end up in landfills and why you should have a refillable water bottle. With specific captions, you’re telling people what to think about the same photo.”
Thompson works with local photographers to create the desired images for a message she wants to convey. One recent example is a shoot for Chelsea Farms Oyster Bar featuring a table filled with edible flowers, rosemary, and various cocktails in addition to the oysters themselves.
“As a consumer, you know your table is not going to look like that, but you’re going to covet that lifestyle,” she says. “Subconsciously, you think that, if you eat there, you’re achieving that.”
For now, OlySocial consists of Thompson and one assistant, but eventually she’d like to turn it into an agency.
“My five-year plan is that we’ll own a building in downtown Olympia and have a bunch of cool people working for us,” she says. “Social media is such a powerful platform, and everything is teachable.”
She attributes her success thus far to an in-depth understanding of how humans think.
“I don’t even have a marketing background. It’s crazy because this is a completely different outlook. It’s all based on human perception.”