James Wynne is Director of User Experience for Sandstorm and has been in digital product development since 1996. He has worked as a UX designer for a myriad of clients including large eCommerce brands, mobile device manufacturers and integrated marketing agencies.
As more brands tap into the power of stories to transform their identities and elevate their market presence, content marketing strategies become ever more essential.
Smart companies make their brand story the cornerstone of their content marketing strategy, ensuring the content they create across all media is aligned to the right platforms and consistent with the brand narrative.
“Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make,” Seth Godin reminds us, “but about the stories you tell.”
And for good reason—stories are a powerful tool in human communication. From the tales of the hunt shared by our primitive forbears as they crouched around the fire, to the well-worn narratives we tell children at bedtime, stories provide an integral means of connecting.
But what is it about stories that makes them so powerful?
Research indicates that the human brain responds to the descriptive power of stories in deeply affecting ways, influencing both the sensory and motor cortex. To read a story—or have one told to us—is to feel an experience and synchronize our minds with the subject of the story.
In a recent Princeton study, researchers call this synchronization neural coupling.
Through neural coupling, a speaker and a listener share a story that allows their brains to interact dynamically. During the process of storytelling, similar brain activity occurs in both people simultaneously, affecting the same areas of the brain.
If the story is effectively told, the listener’s brain activity mirrors the speaker’s activity. Successful neural coupling produces greater comprehension, understanding, anticipation and receptivity.
The net effect of these qualities is trust. A storyteller can literally generate trust in the audience.
But how do you achieve this?
Here are a few characteristics of a compelling story:
- It's true. Make truth the foundation of everything you create. Your marketing content should feature real people, real situations, genuine emotions and facts. It should explain, in terms people can relate to, how your brand adds value to the lives of your customers.
- It's human. Even if your company sells to other companies, focus on how your products or services touch the lives of actual people. Empathy for the target is essential. When writing about people, be specific enough to be believable and universal enough to be relevant.
- It's original. Your story should offer a fresh perspective: What's interesting about your brand? Why should people care?
- It serves the customer. If your brand story comes off feeling corporate-centric, you’ve lost the target and may never get them back. People want to read about themselves—so make sure that’s what your brand story is all about.
A great story, expertly told, builds a strong bond with your audience. Incorporating storytelling into your content marketing strategy helps you make a powerful connection and deliver your message in a profoundly personal way.
Sandstorm helps clients develop content marketing strategies and write brand stories that resonate with target audiences and build the key elements that produce trust. Let us help you write yours.
There is an insane amount of content being produced today, and it’s only going to accelerate. Content Marketing Institute reports 69% of marketers are creating more content now vs. just 1 year ago, and 48% of marketers say they publish content either daily or multiple times per week. In addition, highly-funded, rapidly growing online education startups (Khan Academy, edX, Coursera) are potentially putting your association’s educational content at risk and adding to the content storm.
To help cut through the noise, a content strategy—or a “content framework”—can be your association’s filter as you plan, develop and manage your content. How nice would it be to have the confidence to say “yes” or “no” to a content topic based on your content strategy, not to mention leadership support?
To start crafting your content strategy, follow these 5 steps:
Step 1 - Know the problem you are trying to solve
Have you defined the goals your association is trying to reach via content (increase member engagement, attract new members, increase event registrations, etc.)? Knowing from the beginning what your goals are, and getting alignment from your team, will create a more focused content strategy. It sounds basic, but I can’t tell you how many times goals are misaligned, not written down and not agreed to.
It’s also important to get to know your members’ goals. People are afraid they are not relevant anymore because they can’t keep up. Meet people where they are at—keep people relevant. If you did nothing today, but used relevancy as your filter, how much content would you have left? How useful is some of your existing content from just a few years ago?
Step 2 - Really get to know who you are trying to reach
Understanding whom you are writing for is key to content strategy, but you should not assume anything. Do your research to confirm who your members are and uncover new insights. You can conduct 1-1 user research interviews with your members and non-members to learn what type of content they want from you, identify content needs during a usability study, or even send out a survey if your association doesn’t already do that too often. For the best results, speak with members, instead of just your board and volunteers.
Step 3 - Establish your association’s voice & tone
All of your content needs to sound like it is coming from 1 voice, even though you probably have several people writing for you. You may even have volunteers, sponsors, and members writing too! Will you speak in the first person or third person? Conversational, formal, or business casual? Defining this as part of your content strategy will help create a unified voice and tone across channels, and give you guidance as you write, edit and govern your content.
Step 4 - Align your stakeholders and focus your communication
Build a content strategy statement, that can be used as a dual-filter, to omit what content you don’t need and to produce new content in line with your goals. Just like a garden, you need to weed out underperforming content to allow other content to thrive.
Step 5 - Develop a content plan
A content plan helps you define your channels, audience, purpose, topics and goals. Understanding where to deliver your content can be just as important as what content you create. Don’t feel like you need to use every channel, and reuse or edit content to fit the platform and audience (a presentation can be a webinar, video, slideshare or a blog). It’s also really great to have a plan so you know where to put that last video that was just created, or photos from your annual meeting. Many associations blast the same content to every channel, even though they know they shouldn’t, simply because there was no strategy or plan.
Without a content strategy, your association may be wasting a lot of time, money and resources. Relevant content comes from the intersection of what you think is important and what interests your members. I’m confident that your association can create stellar, focused and insightful content by taking a little time upfront to develop your content strategy.
Prefer some help?
Sandstorm® has been helping associations conduct member research, identify content requirements, and craft their narratives through content marketing for almost 20 years. And our in-house team of UX strategists and website engineers build beautiful, data-driven websites that make content easy to find, easy to consume, and easy to share. Reach out if you want to talk through how we can help!
As healthcare costs continue to rise, value-based care has emerged as a way to improve patient care and reduce costs. Value-based care departs from the traditional fee-for-service model where physicians and facilities are paid for the tests and procedures they supply, and instead institutes a patient-centered system that pays doctors and hospitals based on the quality of care they provide.
Prominent employers, private health plans, and the federal government have embraced the shift from fee-for-service to value-based payment models—including accountable care organizations, bundled payments, and patient centered medical homes—but widespread adoption has been slower than expected.
A study from Quest Diagnostics and Inovalon (PDF) implies that the adoption rate has been hindered by a lack of tools for professionals to succeed in a value-based care system. Nearly two-thirds of physicians and health plan executives said that they do not have the tools needed to succeed in a value-based care system.
It’s unlikely that this will remain an issue for long, as solutions that advance value-based care initiatives, such as health apps, are a primary focus among innovators in medtech, according to PwC’s Health Research Institute. Half of the top ten medical device companies are offering customized solutions independent of any product offerings, while 70 percent are shifting toward services-based offerings.
Many of the top healthcare technology advances to watch for 2016, as identified by the ECRI Institute, point the way toward value-based care. Mobile stroke units, wireless wearable sensors, and miniature leadless pacemakers will have significant effects on patient care and allow medical professionals to provide a holistic service inside and outside of a healthcare facility.
Sandstorm is currently working on several projects that incorporate analytics into medical and health applications and offer tools for healthcare professionals to succeed in a value-based care system. One of these innovative projects is an iPhone app for physicians and medical coders that allows them to:
- Track the number of patients moving through a facility
- Identify trends in diagnosis within facilities and across regions
- Assess physician performance
- Ensure the quality of care provided
This application can increase efficiency by enabling reassignment of patients and doctors to facilities based on need, and allowing hospital administrators to identify trends in patient care and illness to offer more effective treatment.
For medical professionals, the app will address one of the most common barriers to mobile technology in healthcare: a lack of internet connectivity in hospitals. The app will offer an offline mode, which will allow doctors to continue tracking their work as they make their rounds. Once their device reestablishes a Wi-Fi connection, the app will immediately upload data back to the server.
At Sandstorm, we’re looking forward to providing more innovative tools to providers and organizations throughout the healthcare industry that enable the implementation of a value-based care system.
Analytics are now a standard piece to any project. Our society has evolved into a data-rich environment, allowing for greater consumer insights and in turn smarter analytics strategies. However, some businesses are approaching analytics as an afterthought and as a "nice to have" option. They put a great deal of work into setting up sites, landing pages, campaigns, etc, but are then only looking at analytics as simple measurements of success/failure and not the dynamic journey it should be.
Often times when setting up reporting tools, people take a “set it and forget it” approach. They establish an idea of what data they need, set up a dashboard and some notifications and then it is managed as time allows by someone whose main responsibilities are elsewhere in IT or Marketing. Worse, they don’t even configure the reporting tools and just go with the default settings. They essentially put it on autopilot, and it fails to take into account feedback and doesn’t allow room for shifting strategy due to changing goals.
An effective analytics strategy is a dynamic journey built around the analytical data where the strategy is adjusted accordingly to drive goals and conversions. It is a very agile process of frequent measurement, discovery, strategy, and course adjustment.
Recently, we worked with a client in their higher education industry who ran frequent email, SEM, display, and offline campaigns. As part of the project to help them redefine marketing strategy, we reviewed their analytics for clickstream (Google Analytics), search engine (AdWords), and member data (their CRM system). They were very concerned with increasing new leads, as well as monitoring the established leads down the funnel to drive sales conversions. They had a small marketing team with a wide variety of responsibilities and were looking for ways to measure success without requiring too much time from their team.
We did two things for them: provided analytics training and automated as much of the process as possible. In the training we gave them tools to eliminate unneeded information from their data stream and to track goals accordingly. With automatization we set up message reporting around goals and added attribution and valuation to maximize the mix of offline and online channels. Both of these tactics streamline the process allowing the team to spend less time pulling reports and more time to strategize around the results.
We acknowledge that people will be at different comfort levels with their analytics and data stream, but analytics will only work as hard as you do. Like other parts of business, you need to build an analytics strategy that not only defines goals but continually informs them. Once you have the strategy it is easy to set up a process to track, monitor and adjust your analytics strategy.
If you need help turning your analytics strategy into a dynamic journey, contact Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org
I recently had the incredible opportunity to travel to Dubai. It’s a city of extremes: intense 120° F heat, malls with skiing and diving—with tiger sharks—and architectural feats beyond my wildest imagination. Out of all these wonders, what impressed me the most was the ever-evolving infrastructure of this bustling, technologically advanced city.
In Dubai, the roads change constantly to account for all of the new construction. In fact, they change so frequently that residents and taxi drivers say they often run into a dead end or end up trapped on a road that has changed overnight. GPS isn’t just used for convenience in Dubai, it’s used for survival.
A website’s information architecture is a lot like a city’s infrastructure: as you add new information, you need to create new navigation. If you’re constantly changing where you place information and how customers navigate your website, your users will be just as lost as drivers in Dubai.
A common method to improve the user experience (or UX) of a digital space is to mimic a real world pattern. For example, e-commerce mimics a grocery store: you typically have a shopping cart, you add to the shopping cart, and then you go through the checkout process.
The challenge comes when you start building and adding on to the original experience. While Dubai’s original city center is pretty easy to navigate, as the city grew at a rapid pace the new roads ignored the original conventions. Often—to accommodate new construction—roads had to be shifted and changed, causing friction and confusion among drivers. When designing your website, it’s imperative that you account for how it may evolve in the future and avoid foreseeable challenges as your company grows.
Sandstorm has a dedicated team of UX design specialists—including designers, architects and researchers—who help clients build websites that utilize information architecture best practices and provide cutting-edge user experiences.
Everyone loves a good storyteller, and as Ira Glass once said, "Great stories happen to those who can tell them." Due to their resources, brands are uniquely positioned to tell great stories across a variety of channels.
If you’re not writing your brand’s autobiography, there’s someone out there ready to tell the unauthorized story—whether that’s a competitor, publishers, reviewers, consumers or search engines. Whoever has the best story wins, but you don’t need a seven-figure budget to tell compelling tales across your marketing channels.
Know Your Audience—and Speak to Them
If you think you can make a connection with everyone, you’ll end up appealing to no one. We’re being inundated with thousands of pieces of content every day, and our attention span has diminished to eight seconds. Your message needs to grab attention quickly or it will get buried in the white noise of continuous content.
It pays to know your audience, because you can deliver targeted communications with precision. Sandstorm’s award-winning work with Holden is a perfect example of the impact a brand can have when they know their audience. Holden’s customers saw sales training as ineffective and inefficient. By making the disruptive statement “sales training is over,” Holden communicated how they could relieve this major pain point. The success of this messaging can be measured by the company achieving 106 percent of their annual lead generation goal in the first half of the year.
Step 2: Position Your Brand for Success
It’s exceptionally difficult to tell a compelling narrative about your brand if your brand isn’t compelling. That doesn’t mean you have to become something you’re not, but it does mean that you should be able to easily identify and communicate your value proposition in a way that engages your customer. If your current brand can’t do that, it might be time for a rebrand.
The world’s most valuable brands have well-defined personalities: Apple, Google, Microsoft, IBM, Disney, and GE all have a very clear identity that allows them a shorthand with their customers. And over the years those companies have allowed their brands to evolve and change with their audience.
Step 3: Develop a Content Strategy—and Document It
Content marketing has become ubiquitous in the industry. 93 percent of B2B marketers report that they used content marketing as part of their brand strategy in 2014. Almost every brand is utilizing blogs, videos, e-newsletters, whitepapers, infographics, listicles, or some form of content to meet the needs of their prospects.
Documentation is essential to getting support from executives and communicating tactics with content writers and creatives. Instead of existing as a nebulous set of ideas, a documented content strategy provides reference material for the organization that can be continually revised and improved, and helps track failed and successful initiatives.
Part of your brand strategy should involve determining what types of content and which channels are right for you. If your audience are predominantly consumers between the ages of 18 and 24, then video content on Snapchat. If your target audience are business people over the age of 35, then you may want to promote white papers and industry blogs on LinkedIn.
Step 4: Optimize For Search
In 1999, Google handled roughly three million searches per day. In 2012, Google stated that they handled over three billion searches per day, accounting for 65 percent of total searches in the United States. Bing and Yahoo make up the majority of the rest with 20.3 percent and 12.7 percent, respectively.
Brands understand that search engines are contributors to their story and reputation, and so are the consumers and writers whose reviews and articles appear at the top of SERPs.
SEO is constantly evolving, so if your content isn’t optimized to meet today’s best practices, you’ll miss out on a massive opportunity for your story to be heard. And search engines can help you identify and develop the right content as well: Google’s Keyword Planner is a great way to find the stories customers want to hear using search queries and long-tail keyword phrases.
Step 5: Work Within Your Means
Over the past several years, content marketing has evolved into brand publishing, with large corporations curating targeted lifestyles via a stream of content that rivals the New York Times in quantity. Red Bull, for example, has dedicated their website to music, fitness, sports and adventure, with only a small ad for their new Red Bull Summer Edition near the footer signifying their existence as a beverage company. And Red Bull’s not alone: Intel’s iQ, Adobe’s CMO.com, and American Express’s Open Forum are just a few examples of brands acting as publishers.
Most companies don’t have the capital to spend on brand publishing and experiential marketing, and that’s okay. You don’t need to keep up with the quantity of content these brands offer, but you do need to compete against their creativity. All it takes is one great video, one indispensable article, one engaging social media post to capture consumer mindshare.
Sandstorm® has been helping brands craft their narrative through content marketing for almost 20 years. From B2B to B2C, SEO to PPC, we can develop the right content marketing strategy that ensures you’re the one telling the story of your brand.
Disruption is all the rage. I can't even count the number of clients who have asked for a “disruptive” marketing campaign. Disruption can be a powerful tactic, but only when it makes sense.
Why do you want to be disruptive?
That's the first question I ask clients, but it's not the only one. These are just a few of the questions you need to answer to gauge your capability for a disruptive campaign:
What is going on in your industry? Your organization?
Do you have the talent, capital, and resources to completely revolutionize your business? And not just for the next quarter or two, but for the next 3-5 years.
Will your target market understand this move?
How many current customers will you lose when you go through this monumental change? How many will you gain?
I know, it’s harder than ever to attract audience attention: Microsoft estimates that our average attention span is eight seconds, down 33 percent since 2000. With unicorns like Uber, Airbnb and Bitcoin causing tectonic shifts of entire industries everyday, no wonder there’s a mad rush to disrupt.
When’s the right time to shake things up?
The challenge is transforming your brand and industry without the epic fail of New Coke or Crystal Pepsi.
SandstormⓇ has helped clients develop disruptive marketing campaigns, including Holden’s disruption of the sales training industry. Holden noticed that traditional training methods had lost their potency and clients needed faster ways to onboard their sales force. Holden borrowed from the eLearning space, crafting software and utilizing gamification to transform their one-time training class into a revolutionary habit-changing tool.
Notice from where their idea of disruption came: an observation of their customers’ repeated struggles with ineffective techniques. Additionally, they understood the equity they had built with their Power Base Selling Methodology and instead of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, they reinvented how they taught effective behaviors. And instead of just changing their marketing message, they also fundamentally changed how they went to market with their campaign.
Do you need disruption or just an evolution?
It’s not the trendy thing to say, but oftentimes an evolution is more appropriate and pragmatic than disruption. We’ve seen many clients focus their attention on overall business growth and product development to align with their clients’ needs only to neglect the marketing that attracts a wider audience to their innovations. They may lose perspective on their marketing for months or years at a time. When they begin to sense that something is going wrong, they call us to discuss a brand refresh. Sometimes a complete rebrand is required because their business and market has evolved beyond their existing brand equity.
When SandstormⓇ gets these marketing strategy requests, we dive into the brand’s existing equities and look at how they match the marketplace. We look outside of their category to garner inspiration and talk to their users, current customers, and potential customers. We find white space for them that is unique to what, how, and why they do what they do. This might be a radical evolution or a minor shift, but either way it creates momentum for their business and helps them grow effectively.
So, before you’re lured by the siren call of disruption, think about what disruption really means for your business. Has the landscape shifted so much that you need to change business model or do you just need to evaluate what you have and pivot?
To discuss the benefits of evolution vs. disruption, or get information on how SandstormⓇ can improve your marketing strategy, contact Laura at email@example.com
I’d been browsing through Stephen King books on a popular e-commerce website. When I clicked over to a news article, an ad for The Gunslinger followed. I barely gave it a second thought when the same ad appeared in my Facebook feed. Then the emails started. For days after, the same ad haunted me everywhere I turned: no social network, email service provider or website was safe. Leave me alone, I shouted at my monitor, the room spiraling out of control. Leave me alone!
I’m being dramatic, but when marketing personalization goes wrong, the user experience gets creepy. When done right, personalized ads and emails provide a near one-to-one conversation between brand and customer. But get it wrong and “personalization” feels intrusive, alienating and leaves customers wondering who’s watching them.
Relevance, not omnipresence
Consumers overwhelmingly desire—and expect—personalized ads.
- More than 70 percent of consumers prefer ads tailored to shopping habits and their interests, according to an Adlucent study.
- The same study found that three-quarters of consumers want more relevant ads that align with their needs and wants.
- Marketers see 20 percent increases in sales on average when utilizing personalized ad journeys.
- Conversions increase by 10 percent with personalized email messages, based on research conducted by Aberdeen.
The same studies show that consumers are willing to provide their private information, but expect relevant content in return. Unfortunately, digital marketers are doing a poor job of delivering on their side of the bargain. A Yahoo survey showed that only 37 percent of respondents found desktop ads relevant. Those numbers were even smaller for mobile and in-app advertising—30 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Consumers also want a voice in the conversation: over 65 percent want the option of privacy controls, and almost 60 percent want ads based on information they proactively provide.
So, how do you develop unique, actionable messaging without crossing the line? Use these tips to create engaging conversations and avoid the creep factor.
1. Respect your audience
You want to show consumers that you understand their desires—not that you’re following them at every turn. Be implicit instead of explicit: imagery or copy that confirms a customer’s DMA is great, while creative that confirms you have their address information is too much.
2. Know your channel
A personalized salutation is almost expected in email these days, but a digital ad is probably the wrong place to address your customers by name. Only 29 percent of consumers who completed a recent study said they would engage with ads containing personal information like their name. Go where your customers are engaging and give them the power to start a conversation.
3. Humanize your brand
Whether you’re B2B or B2C, there’s room for some personality in your brand communications. The goal of personalized marketing is to have a one-to-one conversation, and who wants to talk to someone without a personality? Whether you’re a Joker, a Dreamer, a Rebel or a Hero, let customers feel your personality.
4. Test and optimize
Even if you start with strong creative, its effectiveness will diminish as time goes on. A study conducted by ReTargeter found that clickthrough rates decrease by nearly 50 percent after five months. An A/B test can be a simple way to find the most effective creative and power optimization. Dynamic optimization can help achieve significant uplifts in conversions.
Sandstorm® is ready to help you develop a digital marketing personalization strategy that engages your customers, without creeping them out.
What started in 1982 as smiley-face punctuation :-) has transformed into a new, ubiquitous pictographic language. The “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji was even named Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries in 2015. There's no escaping emojis, and more businesses are catching onto this new language.
However, there are pitfalls with any new development. Emojis are seen as emotional punctuations, coloring whatever text adjoins them. Utilizing a personal form of communication within business conversations can be tricky, but not impossible. So we compiled this list of things to consider before you slap a smiley face in your marketing materials.
1. Who is viewing the communication? Emojis are a personal iconography that evokes emotions, making them a great tool for relationship and loyalty building. Using them for inter-office communications or within the B2B space can make sense, but less so with a potential new client.
2. What emojis are you using? Finding the right emoji is harder than it sounds. Emojis look different on different platforms and are open to interpretation: an emoji may look surprised to you yet scared to your user. Utilize this chart to see how emojis look across platforms and reduce the chances of miscommunication.
3. When do you decide to use an emoji? Conveying context and tone in written communications have always been a challenge. Emojis illuminate context in a fun way. Just like the original emoticon was used to connote humor, you can use emojis to clarify your intention or to activate your text.
4. Where should you use an emoji? Emojis are an online language, so including them in print materials is difficult, as USA Today learned. While emojis are being utilized more often as design elements, like on clothing or book covers, it is still best practice within the business world to limit emojis to online communications (like social media).
5. Why use an emoji at all? Emojis can help reach business goals. More and more companies are utilizing emojis in their email subject lines, which draws attention in a field of mostly text and can improve open rates, among other metrics.
Like most marketing tools, emojis can be beneficial when used in the right circumstances and with the right audience. Their main purpose is to create emotional reactions, which works when building relationships and loyalty. However, there is a risk of looking gimmicky if they're not used properly. Unlike texting with your friends, you need to think through the entire process before adding that smiley face.
The Paris runways are not a normal inspiration source for home decorating projects. But that is exactly what inspired Sandstorm® when Hydrology came to us for a new website. Hydrology, a high-end purveyor of kitchen and bath furnishings in Chicago, wanted an online user experience that mimicked their sleek & luxurious products. To capture that opulence, Sandstorm® tapped into the ambition and extravagance of the fashion world.
The home furnishing industry standard is nearly the opposite of runway glamour. It features flat and transactional product images that focus on product details while ignoring the bigger task of a completed room. This limited industry representation was an opportunity to set Hydrology apart. Pulling inspiration from fashion designers like Burberry, Sandstorm® crafted the new online experience to feel less like a product website and more like an editorial spread of your dream house.
Check out the new Hydrology site here