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Sandy
Sandstorm has acquired Jacobs Agency

We are thrilled to share that creative powerhouse, Jacobs Agency, has joined Sandstorm!

Our two independently-owned, awarding-winning companies have come together as Sandstorm® with operations based in Chicago and satellite offices in Charlotte, Dallas, Denver and Seattle to create Chicago's leading technology-fueled, creative agency. The client list of the new Sandstorm includes organizations like Chicago Skyway, Crown Holdings, Heartland Financial, the National Association of REALTORS®, NOW Foods, Peoples Gas and Treehouse Foods.

“We partnered with Jacobs Agency a number of times over the years and along the way I got to know Tom,” said Sandy Marsico, founder of Sandstorm. “In that time, we learned we have very similar approaches to leading people, serving clients and running a business: do good work for good people.”

Sandy Marsico will remain as Sandstorm’s CEO and Tom Jacobs will become President of the combined agency. Andrea Wood continues as Managing Director. Creative will be led by Janna Fiester, Strategy by Susan Saltwell and Business Development by Amanda Heberg.

“After more than two decades as an independently owned agency, I couldn’t be happier to merge with another independently owned firm sharing my belief in strategically-inspired creative with a scrappy, nimble customer-centered approach,” said Tom Jacobs, founder of Jacobs Agency. “Our combined team and capability position Sandstorm to build stronger brand value for our clients in a time when the first brand exposure customers have is often a digital experience.”

This blog was posted by Sandy on November 5, 2019.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
3 Digital Trends Associations Should Start, Stop and Continue Doing

As part of our annual review process we use the start, stop, continue retrospective technique. We've found it's a great way to recognize successes and opportunities for growth for individuals, teams and organizations. Thinking about the digital transformations we've seen with associations lately, below are some retrospectives on what we see trending with membership organizations. 

START
Creating a culture of data. Using data to inform your decisions and weaving that into everything you do is critical to success. We are working with an association today where we're collecting and analyzing data to identify educational gaps and drive new products (and revenue). We're also utilizing data to drive content and functional requirements on new website builds to improve the member experience. By taking a fresh look at member data for a global membership organization, we were able to re-interpret the data and create new marketing campaign messaging to increase membership and product sales. The combination of qualitative and quantitative data helps associations turn subjective decisions into objective ones. Even when we're talking creative and UX – data science for us plays a huge role.

STOP
Stop building websites in proprietary technologies on a web dev shop's server as you are trapping yourself and it’s completely unnecessary now. Many leading associations are utilizing off-the-shelf content managements systems like Drupal, Kentico, etc. to integrate with their AMS and LMS systems, provide personalized member experiences, and track analytics and KPIs. Then you have options when it comes to supporting your chosen system. You can choose to have the original digital agency maintain and support your site, you can select a new partner for support, or bring it in house. We also recommend you own the hosting relationship with a 3rd party provider such as Rackspace, Azure, or AWS so you are never "stuck". We have taken over the maintenance and support for so many association websites that didn't get the service, attention to detail, nor strategic thinking to drive their association forward, and it was all possible because of the CMS they selected (and it's always a smoother transition when a 3rd party hosting provider is involved but not necessary). 

CONTINUE
Continue focusing on member engagement, member value and the overall member experience. This is what we love most about associations. It doesn't matter if you're a trade association or medical, large or niche, everyone shares a common mission to help your members become more than they can on their own. One of the most common challenges and motivations we've seen for launching into a new website overhaul was to improve their members' online experience and increase online member engagement. And we get it – we, too, are all about the user. When you look into the member journey, continue at all touchpoints to remember we're all just people trying to be the best version of ourselves. Keep the humanity alive in your organization that you have already mastered.

This blog was posted by Sandy on February 19, 2019.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

Sandy
Innovation as a Learned Behavior


Dr. Karen Bartuch, Sandstorm's Director of Data Science, presented 10 practical innovation tips at the Association Forum Holiday Showcase

For most organizations, innovation is table stakes for long-term growth and a competitive advantage. Yet, according to McKinsey, 94% of managers surveyed were dissatisfied with their organization's innovation performance. So why are some organizations better at it than others? Google employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their time, in addition to their regular projects, to work on what they think will most benefit Google. Both AdSense and Google News were created this way. But I know what you're thinking, we're not Google. 

Innovation is a deliberate choice, and in most organizations, it doesn't accidentally happen as your people need permission to explore and create. And everybody has the capacity to create according to the Componential Theory of Creativity, "..all humans with normal capacities are able to produce at least moderately creative work in some domain, some of the time—and that the social environment (the work environment) can influence both the level and the frequency of creative behavior."

Below are 10 practical tips to unlock your inner innovator and incorporate it into your daily life:

  1. Don't worry about critiques
  2. Forget the need to be 100% original
  3. Go from specific to abstract
  4. Be aware of shortcuts and biases
  5. Practice diversity
  6. Get hands on
  7. Spend a day in the life
  8. Carry a sketchbook
  9. Work during your “peak time”
  10. Inject humor into the workplace (check out Karen's TEDx Talk)

During this session, attendees got the opportunity to synthesize what research is telling us about the need and desire for innovation, and understand key strategies to infuse creativity and innovation in your organization. Contact us if you want to discuss any upcoming innovation initiatives you'd like help with.

This blog was posted by Sandy on January 28, 2019.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

Sandy
TEDxOakParkWomen

Recently, our vice president of UX and brand innovation, Janna Fiester blew us all away!

Janna is involved with TEDxOakParkWomen, an independent group of Oak Park-based women (and men) committed to bringing forward-thinking innovators together to discuss important topics and spread new ideas throughout the community. In December, Janna co-organized the group’s annual event, which sold out! The room at the Nineteenth Century Club in Oak Park was filled with more than 300 people excited to hear unique point of views from 10 unique speakers.

It was an evening that embodied a Sandstorm value: Be curious! (We recently renamed our value of "learning and sharing" to really highlight what drives us.)

Themed and titled Showing Up, the event covered an array of topics including talking to kids about embracing your own power from within, prioritizing human connection, and how to have a happier relationship.

When Janna took the stage to welcome everyone, you would think that putting it all together was a breeze. She was calm, confident and engaging. She was Janna! And it’s not that there was trouble behind the scenes, it’s that putting a TEDx event together is no small feat. Finding and booking the speakers, promoting and selling tickets, making sure the production went off without a hitch, all while making sure that the 300-plus attendees and the 100-plus watching via Facebook Live witnessed a true TED experience.

But this is the Janna we all know and love. She works hard behind the scenes to create experiences that enhance brands and build relationships, whether they be in her community or between our clients and their customers. And even when she breaks a sweat, she’s always having a good time doing it.

This was Sandstorm’s fourth time partnering with TEDxOakParkWomen, and it’s not only because of Janna’s involvement, though it was Janna who brought the opportunity to us. A TEDx event is just the kind of thing we like to do. We work with brands seeking to transform their customers' experiences and their own digital presence in an ever-changing digital world. Our team is encouraged to engage with forward-thinking and innovative organizations that are making real change in their industries and communities because that’s what we aim to do each day at Sandstorm.

Janna’s awesome success with Showing Up is proof that she understands that if anything is to be successful—an event, a client project, an innovative idea—you have to identify all aspects required for that success then make sure you have the right people involved at the right moment. And that being curious often leads to great things.

This blog was posted by Sandy on January 21, 2019.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
2018 Holiday Party

What an extraordinary adventure it’s been! Twenty years ago, You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks had just come out. Modem speed had to be considered when we were designing websites. And it was easy to get a .com URL.

Reflecting on the past two decades, It’s the Sandstormers (past and present) who have made this company what it is today. Together, we’ve taken risks, competed for the best Halloween costumes, traded playlists, compiled crazy travel stories, sent a lot of memes, devoured a lot of guacamole, and created long-standing Sandstorm traditions.

So in honor of 20 years, here are 20 fun memories we’ve created together:

1998

Sandstorm launches our first website in Flash.

2002

We relaunch our website in HTML and get our first web lead, Careerbuilder.com — thank you for working with us for over a decade!

2003

We partner with ReVive Center for Housing & Healing (formally Cathedral Shelter) and donate our time to create their annual report (which we continue to do today).

2005

Sandstorm moves into our first official office space of 1,000 sq. ft.

2005

We celebrate the holidays by sharing tapas at Cafe Ba-Ba-Rebba!, which has now become a Sandstorm tradition.

We ate so many bacon wrapped dates we lost count!

2006

First Guac Off (Janna Fiester wins with her fancy roasted peppers!)

2006

Sandstorm launches our UX practice and wins our first Fortune 500 client.

2008

Sandstorm expands to a new office right off the ‘L’ line. It was so loud Mike had to put up plexiglass over our windows to help mute the train.

Who remembers us saying, “Hold on a second the train is going by… Okay, you can talk again.”?

2008

We build our own usability lab and within days conduct a study for American Academy of Pediatrics.

2009

We expand office space again and add new huddle rooms.

2010

Our first Super Secret Event: All the Sandstormers go to see Harry Potter.

2011

We expand. Again! This time, Sandstorm moves back into our first building and into Sandy’s dream office space in suite 300.

2011

Our first time on the Inc. 500/5000.

2012

We win Fortune’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America Award for the first time.

2014

2014

Our office space expands, and we reclaim the original office we had in 2005.

2016

Sandstorm launches our data practice.

2016

We finally redesigned our logo (thank you for your unwavering patience Janna and Nathan!)

2017

We build a new chef’s kitchen, our Hogwarts library, and the Idea Lab as part of our continued expansion.

2018

Today, Sandstorm celebrates 20 years by paying it forward with the Night Ministry, bagging lunches, and donating hundreds of pajamas for homeless youth.


How does one even begin to say thank you to everyone that has made celebrating 20 years in business possible? We have an amazing team, some of the smartest people I have ever met, solving some really interesting problems with technologies that didn’t even exist when we started. Thank you hardly seems enough.

To our clients: Thank you for your collaboration and partnership to create better digital brand experiences together. Because of you, we’ve gotten the chance to grow individually and as a company. I could never thank you enough. And I’m honored that so many of these relationships grew into long-lasting friendships.

To everyone at Sandstorm: Thank you for making Sandstorm yours. From moving furniture and leading social events, to bringing the warrior spirit to your work every day, your drive and passion and fearlessness to create is inspiring, and so much fun to be a part of. It’s an honor to work with you. And a special thank you to Mike Marsico, Alma and Nick Meshes, and Janna and Tim Fiester for believing in our vision to build a different kind of agency from the beginning.

To my advisory and peer advisory boards: Thank you for providing me with the direction and confidence to lead, sharing your pride in our growth, and for your encouragement through the challenges.

To my family and friends: I couldn’t have started this journey, or continued this growth, without you believing in me.

I’m super excited for what comes next,

This blog was posted by Sandy on December 31, 2018.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
Sandstorm Shares Its Good Fortune

It’s an honor to be on Fortune’s list of the 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies for the fifth time. But it also gives us pause. Because while we’re extremely lucky to continue experiencing growth, large parts of Chicago—the city we call home—are struggling.

So instead of taking this moment to pat ourselves on the back, we’re rolling up our sleeves.

We’re partnering with our neighbors at The Night Ministry, who support Chicago’s homeless population. On November 9th, we’re hosting a lunch-and-learn event for our team members, where they’ll gain knowledge about this amazing charity, then create care packages using items we donate. And we’re encouraging you to #ShareYourGoodFortune with The Night Ministry and with us on social media. Together, we’ll make an even greater impact on those who need our help!

This blog was posted by Sandy on October 15, 2018.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
Just Launched: Kentico Website for Beloved Household Products, CLR® and Tarn-X®

Jelmar is most recognized for its broad range of cleaning products (CLR and Tarn-X) that have helped solve some of the toughest household cleaning problems... maybe you've seen their commercials to clean your showerhead?

The CLR Brands website was outdated and virtually unusable on a mobile device. There was also a great deal of confusion across the brands – parent company, Jelmar vs its flagship products (CLR and Tarn-X) and related products. The site did not provide a cohesive experience, nor was it intuitive for consumers visiting the site for more information or where to buy CLR or Tarn-X products. It also did not properly serve the needs of its distributors and retailers. Given the brand structure and Jelmar’s drastically different audiences, it was critical to have a modernized user experience that was cohesive while providing variations based on the two distinct user groups. Sandstorm was challenged with reinvigorating and personalizing the CLR brand experience integrating social, digital, marketing automation and the website; as well as utilizing technology to drive better business decisions – which is why the Kentico EMS content management system was ultimately selected.

Based on our in-depth user research, one of the primary goals for consumers was to identify where they could buy CLR products. Sandstorm completely overhauled the “Where to Buy” feature (formerly the Retailer Locator feature, which we renamed based on our usability study results). This tool incorporates a custom Product Search, including radius map in several key areas of the site to improve overall usability – check out the Where to Buy feature here. On the administrative side, Sandstorm developed a product management tool within Kentico, so Jelmar staff can easily manage updates to products in a single location, which propagates throughout the site. In addition, Sandstorm implemented Kentico’s Smart Search to drastically improve the findability of products, "How To" videos, FAQ spec sheets, blogs and news, etc.

Behind the scenes, Sandstorm utilized Kentico’s Staging and Synchronization features to manage development and testing in one environment, user acceptance and content editing in a second environment, and live production in a third, while ensuring that integration of code and content between the sites can always be easily managed and synchronized. From a content migration perspective, Sandstorm utilized Kentico’s import utility and custom scripts to map content into the new site, product details, images and related taxonomy. Sandstorm also leveraged Kentico’s features for tagging, categorization, Google sitemap generation, and other capabilities to improve SEO of the site.

The entire project included a complete redesign, in-depth user research, information architecture, usability testing, UX/UI development, Kentico install/configuration, Kentico web development, content migration, QA testing, analytics and launch. Additionally, upon launch, Sandstorm ran multiple email campaigns using Kentico’s Contact Management and Email Marketing features to deliver messages segmented for audiences interested in retail products separately from products for industrial/commercial uses.

End results? 380% increase in use with a 78% increase in site entrances directly to the new "Where to Buy" versus the previous "Retailer Locator". Overall 12% increase of pageviews, and an 11% reduction in bounce rate – within the first 30 days. Visit clrbrands.com.

This blog was posted by Sandy on January 23, 2018.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

Sandy
Sandstorm winner of Inner City 100 for fourth year.

With a five-year growth rate of 120% and 2016 revenue exceeding $5 million, Sandstorm® once again made the list of the Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America recognized by Fortune and the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC).

ICIC’s Inner City 100 list seeks to celebrate and enable urban entrepreneurship. Over the course of nearly 20 years, ICIC has awarded 928 companies whose success illuminates the innovation and business growth happening in our inner cities.

The list of 2017 Inner City 100 companies was revealed at the 19th Annual Awards and Conference in Boston. Sandstorm rocketed up the list more than 30 places from 2016, coming in hot at #66. The full list can be viewed on the Fortune website.

“We are extraordinarily proud of these pioneering entrepreneurs who lead the way in innovation, job creation and the economic revitalization of America’s inner cities,” said Steve Grossman, CEO of ICIC. “In addition to excellence in business, they have also demonstrated a deep commitment to and passion for their communities, which plays a huge role in the wellbeing of their local economies,” he said.

At Sandstorm, we couldn’t be more honored and excited to be among these amazing winners, and we can’t wait for 2018.

This blog was posted by Sandy on October 24, 2017.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
Sandy Marsico at Solutions Day

Recently I had the honor of speaking at .orgCommunity’s Solutions Day 2017. Usability testing is a big part of how Sandstorm eliminates subjectivity from the creative process, so I wanted to show attendees how usability testing can help drive significantly improved user experiences.

With as few as 5–6 users, usability testing can identify 80% of user issues on a website or mobile app. Our Sandstormers have learned many lessons while performing more than 3,000 usability studies. These are just a few of the findings that can help you.

1. Members want to see real images of their peers.

We performed usability testing for the American Planning Association as part of a redesign of their website. During testing, we learned that their members found the stock photography used on their existing site inauthentic and unengaging.

APA before test

This simple finding led us to use professional photos of real APA members that improved engagement on key pages, including the homepage, Events page, and About Us page.

APA after test

2. Don’t put too many events on the homepage.

The Association for Corporate Growth (ACG) holds 1,200 events for 58 chapters across the globe each year, and they were struggling to find a way to highlight events.

Before we tested, ACG was including 25 events on their homepage, which was harming the user experience.

ACG before test

We needed to make it easy for members to find the events that were of interest, in their location, etc. So we created a featured event section on the homepage that links to an events page allowing users to filter by keyword, chapter, date, and event type.

ACG after test

3. Navigation items that require user action need an active verb in the title.

We made a surprising discovery while testing wireframe designs for a large non-profit organization: users thought the navigation items were too unclear and passive.

By adding active verbs to these items—for example, changing “Theft & Fraud Awareness” to “Prevent Theft and Fraud”—we were able to make the navigation clearer to users and let them know what they would be able to accomplish when visiting the page.

4. People miss content when there’s no visual cue.

Weber was redesigning the website for their grills and accessories and wanted to test several UX changes on a development environment before going live.

One of the issues we uncovered was that users didn’t know that the navigation items in the main menu expanded.

To solve this, we added carets next to the menu titles to indicate action. After making this simple fix, users clearly understood that they would find additional pages in the menu.

Weber after test

5. Using a search icon without an input field confuses users.

While redesigning the website for NOW Foods, we found that users were confused by a small change: we removed the input field for the search bar.

NOW Foods before test

By merely adding the field back to the search area, users could search the site with ease.

NOW Foods after test

Usability testing is a quick, simple way to improve the user experience, whether you’re creating a new site or app or redesigning what you have now. Contact us to learn more about how to execute your own usability test today.

This blog was posted by Sandy on September 29, 2017.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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Sandy
Website personalization from simple to complex

Personalization is the best way to engage your users in a conversation, and it’s increasingly something that they expect from your website. Almost 75% of users prefer to do business with organizations that use personalization to make their experience more relevant; the same percentage of users get frustrated with websites when content has nothing to do with their interests.

I recently partnered with .orgCommunity to help associations better understand how to leverage website personalization. In the webinar Spectrum of Personalization, you’ll see 5 examples of personalization in action, from simple to complex, and take away some tips to help you get started today.

Get inspired! Watch our webinar below.

This blog was posted by Sandy on July 6, 2017.
Sandy Marsico, Founder & CEO

About the Author

Sandy Marsico

Sandy Marsico is the founder & CEO of Sandstorm®, a digital brand experience agency that turns consumer insights into engaging user experiences through our unique blend of data science, brand strategy, UX and enterprise-level technology.

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