Tom, President, uses his keen strategic eye to help clients create groundbreaking creative campaigns. And he's been a thought leader appearing on Bloomberg, WGN, NBC, CMO.com, and Wall Street Journal.
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.
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 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 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.
How well do you know your customers? How much insight do you have into your user's experience with your product, web site or mobile application? We've conducted over 3400+ hours of user research interviews and usability studies, and there's always a learning moment.
Our user experience research includes web site surveys, web analytics reviews, and in-depth interviews with your customers and potential users to uncover common goals, needs and wants, and how your customers use your application or website. Our one-on-one conversations uncover a common set of tasks performed on your website — all enriching the user experience design.
Why conduct user experience research? User research provides us with tangible insight into how people interact with your brand (i.e. the user experience). Discover how your users absorb information, how they expect to use your product or web site, and what motivates them to use you over the competition. The information we collect will help you understand the behavior of your users and drive the development of the information architecture and wireframes.
How long will it take? Studies can be as short as 2-3 weeks, or as long as 3-4 months depending on the number of user groups, organizational goals, recruiting factors, and budget.
Your end result? A comprehensive report to walk you through the research process, including: interview outlines, noteworthy comments, user opinions, and content/functional requirements. We can take the research even further and break down our recommendations by user group, and give each user group a name, face and personality through the development of a "persona."
Want to learn how to quickly gain insight to enhance your user experience? Request a proposal today.
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:
- Don't worry about critiques
- Forget the need to be 100% original
- Go from specific to abstract
- Be aware of shortcuts and biases
- Practice diversity
- Get hands on
- Spend a day in the life
- Carry a sketchbook
- Work during your “peak time”
- 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.
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.
The Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) is the authoritative source for the treatment and prevention of musculoskeletal injury. So when they came to us with an underperforming website, we made sure they got the best treatment possible.
OTA’s website exhibited a lot of the traditional symptoms of an aging online presence: disorganized content, a lack of information architecture (IA), overall poor member experience, and outdated design and functionality. They were struggling to come up organically in search and it was critical that OTA engage a partner who could quickly get them where they should be in site rankings, and keep them there. OTA planned to rely upon their selected partner not only to redesign their site, but also to help them maintain their site moving forward in a manner that would promote SEO.
Based on OTA’s website goals, technical requirements, API integrations, SEO concerns and content authoring needs, we determined that Drupal 8 would be the recommended content management system (CMS) for the OTA team. With Drupal, we were easily able to implement single sign-on (SSO) through OTA’s association member platform—ACGI. And by utilizing Apache Solr Search, we were able to make the search more robust throughout the site – improving the overall user experience for members.
To improve the overall usability of the site, and increase organic search rankings, we conducted keyword research and analysis to identify heavily searched terms applicable to their industry, and built the sitemap, navigation and information architecture around the research findings. We designed with user experience (UX) best practices while creating consistent branding throughout the site—expanding the color palette, identifying fonts the OTA brand could differentiate with, and utilized custom imagery. Altogether, this made content easier to find for users and easier to update for the association.
Within the first month after launch, OTA’s new website experienced unprecedented results:
- 986% increase in traffic from Google
- 497% increase in organic search traffic
- 54% increase in new users
- 65% increase in pageviews
- 22% decrease in bounce rate
“Planning and implementing a website redesign can be a momentous undertaking, especially for a small staff association. Sandstorm could not have made the process easier for our team.
Their exceptional technical and creative talent, along with the high level of customer service provided throughout the project, made the process as seamless as a website redesign can be. And our new (and very much improved) website has been well received by the Orthopaedic Trauma Association (OTA) membership!”
– Kathleen Caswell, CAE, Executive Director
Visit the new site: https://ota.org/
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:
Sandstorm launches our first website in Flash.
We relaunch our website in HTML and get our first web lead, Careerbuilder.com — thank you for working with us for over a decade!
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).
Sandstorm moves into our first official office space of 1,000 sq. ft.
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!
First Guac Off (Janna Fiester wins with her fancy roasted peppers!)
Sandstorm launches our UX practice and wins our first Fortune 500 client.
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.”?
We build our own usability lab and within days conduct a study for American Academy of Pediatrics.
We expand office space again and add new huddle rooms.
Our first Super Secret Event: All the Sandstormers go to see Harry Potter.
We expand. Again! This time, Sandstorm moves back into our first building and into Sandy’s dream office space in suite 300.
Our first time on the Inc. 500/5000.
We win Fortune’s Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America Award for the first time.
Featured on CNBC with Marcus Lemonis.
Our office space expands, and we reclaim the original office we had in 2005.
Sandstorm launches our data practice.
We finally redesigned our logo (thank you for your unwavering patience Janna and Nathan!)
We build a new chef’s kitchen, our Hogwarts library, and the Idea Lab as part of our continued expansion.
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,
Inside the mind of our creative web design team
We work hard. We design hard. We push our own creativity and the creative expectations of our clients with our "yes, and" philosophy. We have this undeniable desire to make our clients feel "wow'd" when they see our design concepts. And we often work late getting each concept just right so it's aligned creatively, strategically, and research-based reducing the subjectivity of our work.
Our software interfaces, data visualizations, and web design transformations are driven by our usability expertise. The big difference in our creative execution is our practical thinking along with a desire for beautiful web design. We ask, "Can our users find the information that they need with this particular web design concept?" and "Does this work represent our best work?"
It’s hard to create remarkable brand experiences without an inspiring insight into the user. I’ve always considered user insights to be the single most important component of a creative brief, and it’s no surprise that it’s also the most challenging component to develop. The process of uncovering a meaningful insight starts with understanding the user. You need to know your audience well beyond the demographics. How does he think? What does she feel? Not just about your product or service, but about the category?
It’s critical to understand the difference between an observation (a demonstrable fact about your product/service and your user—the “what”) and an insight (recognizing what motivates them—the “why”). It takes time and effort to sort through the more obvious observations to reveal the insight.
But it’s time and effort well spent. Properly developed and crafted, an insight serves as the inspirational launch pad for creative development, providing the illuminating Aha! that makes the message resonant and meaningful. The best insights address the solution, not the product/service. As the old saying goes, people don’t want eighth-inch drill bits; they want eighth-inch holes.
What are other elements of a great user insight?
- It illuminates the user more than the product or service
- It applies to the category more than the brand
- It’s single-minded and can be simply stated
- It’s about the universal and eternal, rather than the trendy
Let’s look at a handful of acclaimed campaigns and the insights that spawned them.
Dove: “Real Beauty”
The insight: Women—who come in all shapes and sizes—had become increasingly exasperated with the narrow portrayal of female beauty in the media.
The research that revealed this insight led to the creation of a breakthrough marketing strategy: “To make women feel comfortable in the skin they are in, to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.” The campaign built on this strategy looked like nothing the industry had seen before. The launch of the campaign received substantial media coverage from mainstream news broadcasts and publications, as well as talk shows and women’s magazines. Parent company Unilever has estimated the media coverage to be worth more than 30 times the purchased media.
California Milk Processor Board: “Got Milk?”
The insight: People wait until they’re out of milk to realize that they should buy more.
During a consumer focus group on milk held 25 years ago, someone said, “The only time I even think about milk is when I run out of it." The insight revealed by that remark became the foundation for a campaign that entertainingly presented what might happen if you allowed yourself to run out of milk. The “Got Milk?” campaign achieved over 90 percent awareness in the U.S., and the tagline has been licensed to dairy boards across the nation.
Old Spice: “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like”
The insight: Wives and girlfriends are more likely to buy men’s body wash than men are.
Consumer research revealed that for years Old Spice had aimed messaging for its body wash and hair care products at the wrong audience. The first commercial, featuring actor Isaiah Mustafa, was an overnight sensation and became a cultural phenomenon. Sales surpassed expectations and today Old Spice is the number one selling brand of body wash for men in the U.S.
At Sandstorm, our thoughtful, scientific approach to user research reveals illuminating insights on which effective brand strategies are built. For example:
Ensono: “Operate for Today. Optimize for Tomorrow”
The insight: Chief information officers are looking for resources to help them not just keep the data center running, but deliver strategic innovations that drive revenue.
Extensive primary and secondary research revealed how the role of our user, the CIO, was evolving. CIOs were increasingly being expected to make strategic contributions in the boardroom, moving from a traditional “build-and-feed” model to a construct that could be described as “dream and direct.” We developed a brand campaign for our client Ensono (which provides IT infrastructure management outsourcing) that positioned Ensono as “the company that dreams,” helping CIOs address their current needs and deliver on tomorrow’s objectives.
We developed the new name and brand identity for Ensono, designed and developed its new website and created an expansive portfolio of marketing materials. In one year, the site saw a 703 percent increase in total page views, an 859 percent hike in unique visitors and a 955 percent increase in lead form submissions!
We’d be delighted to help you find the unexpected user insights that deliver an enhanced brand experience. Contact us today to get started.
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!
How great is it when you walk into your local coffee shop and the barista already knows your order? That personal attention makes you feel special, and it’s the type of experience that keeps you coming back every morning.
What if your website could deliver that same personalized experience for your customers? With the right data and tools, it can. Which is why content personalization has quickly become the norm, not the exception.
Why’s Personalization All the Rage?
Consumers want and expect that coffee-shop experience everywhere they go. According to a study from the International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 76% of consumers said they would like to receive personalized content. And research from Janrain, a leader in customer identity, found that 74% of online consumers get frustrated when a website’s content is irrelevant to their interests.
If you can deliver on these desires, you’ll be rewarded. Gartner estimates that by 2020, smart personalization engines used to recognize customer intent will enable digital businesses to increase their profits by up to 15%.
So How Does Personalizing Content Work?
As visitors navigate your site, their actions, demographic information and other personal data informs the content they interact with. For instance, if you’re a big box retailer and your 18-year-old female fashionista customer from Arizona visits the shoe section, it makes sense to show her Steve Madden sandals the next time she visits your site, instead of snow shoes and a parka.
One of the most effective ways to personalize content is through rule-based personalization. With this method, the first step is segmenting your audience. That means separating your users into smaller groups based on common attributes, which can be broad (age, income) or narrow (website visitors who’ve returned from a retargeting ad to purchase a specific product). Then you can set up if/then scenarios and rules that take each segment through their own journey.
At Sandstorm, we often deploy Kentico Content Management System (CMS) for our clients due to its native personalization functionality. In the scenario above, Kentico makes it easy to personalize the content displayed. Rules are created so that visitors meeting certain qualifications (e.g., geographic location, age, viewing history, etc.) are delivered specific content stored in the CMS. Given the vast amount of information available online and the decreasing amount of time people have, customers appreciate a tailored experience and are more likely to visit a site that delivers content specific to their interests and needs.
Making sure your customers are delighted and have a great experience is at the heart of what we do at Sandstorm. That’s why we continually conduct user research to better understand what consumers are seeking from a brand and its website. With over 3,000 hours of in-depth user interviews and usability tests under our belts, we take the subjectivity out of the process and use the research to inform our work, including content decisions related to personalization.