Sandstorm Blog

Sandy

We recently had an amazing opportunity to share our story of building a culture of gratitude, fun, and recognition with Marcus Lemonis from CNBC's "The Profit" (who is totally awesome by the way). Like any other small business, we had growing pains. By focusing on defining and building our culture, we absolutely flourished. The results are staggering. We doubled our staff, moved into new digs, grew revenue 250%, and are growing another 30% this year, too. 

Here are 5 things that transformed our culture:

1. "Leading by example" is only half the work. "You are what you tolerate" is the second half. So if you're a CEO or manager, step up and speak up. 

2. We held a company meeting called "The best place I ever worked." Everyone on our team shared what they loved most about past companies they worked for... and why. This was the beginning to our multi-year plan to learn from other successful organizations and implement. I would recommend Tony Hsieh's book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose.

3. We established ground rules. We call these "Sandstorm Expectations" and they show you how to be a Sandstormer. 

4. We defined our core values to work by, to hire by, and to live by. Not core values on a poster, but meaningful, concise, memorable ones (call our office and anyone who answers will be able to tell you what they are).

5. We celebrate successes every month in a company meeting called a "You Rock." CNBC did an amazing job capturing this in their video - thank you!


So, how did CNBC and Marcus Lemonis find us? Through Vistage, a CEO leadership group that I've been a member of for 8 years. They were looking for small businesses with a story to tell. I replied, and many weeks later, Sandstorm was selected as 1 of 12 companies featured. 

We are so grateful for the opportunity to share our story with other business owners and hopefully inspire them to embrace a culture of celebration at work.

We hope you enjoy the show: Check out the video

This blog was posted by Sandy on .
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.

Keep Your Content Timeless: No Buzzwords, Please

Buzzword – n. a word or phrase, often an item of jargon, that is fashionable at a particular time or in a particular context.

These words are trendy, fashionable, this season’s latest fad. They should not be loaded into each and every piece of work we create and used until the end of time. Words like these were meant to refresh and have become cliché. We hear and use them so often that they tend to invade other aspects of our work, diluting the value of what we produce.

As an avid reader and occasional writer, I know that I might put more emphasis on word choice than others, but some of these words just aren’t going to work anymore. Word choice heavily impacts the impression we give off to others (there’s my PR background sneaking up). If we speak to users in a whirl of buzzwords, they won’t know what to think about us.

The Usual Suspects

Using buzzwords dilutes our meaning and creates skepticism within our audience. They become throw-away words and almost ensure what we are trying to convey won’t be heard. For example, a content strategy filled with buzzwords is stale and forgettable, whereas language that is thoughtful and precise will better convey your message and engage your readers. Try your best to avoid these words and you might actually reach your users:

  • Innovation
  • Leverage
  • Dynamic
  • Thought leader
  • KPIs
  • Empower
  • Groundbreaking
  • Stakeholder
  • Low hanging fruit
  • Game-changer
  • Next-gen
  • Out-of-the-box
  • Turnkey
  • Breakthrough

Although I cannot share exact quantitative data on the overuse of these words, I am sure you are nodding your head in agreement when you read the list. These words have become ubiquitous background noise. I am even prone to using them once in awhile. The one I use often (unfortunately), is “out-of-the-box.” I have no idea how big the box is or what happens inside, but no matter what, every idea and concept should be beyond said box or ready to go when it is removed from the box.

It’s All in How You Say It

You don’t need to use these words to sell your ideas or products. Use the descriptive words and phrases that come natural to your vocabulary. You will seem far more credible with this approach. People are going to believe what you are saying and feel that they received something valuable from you and your team.

Whatever content you are creating needs to be comprised of words your user understands and would use themselves. If they cannot understand what you’re saying, how will they see the value of your work? Consider your audience and use words that are timeless to them. Make sure that whenever your content is picked up, it’s relevant and makes sense to your audience. Show that you and your organization don’t fall into the habit of following trends. Your word choice reflects your work. Make sure the content comes across as great, timeless and not “rad” or “tubular.”

Breaking the Habit

If you aren’t sure about letting the words go, trust me, your users are ready. We just had a client in our office last week, working on a content strategy. While toying with descriptive words for part of their plan, the word innovation came up. They quickly rejected that idea, saying they were so sick of hearing that word. It was so refreshing to me to hear that they wanted to dig deeper for a more specific descriptive word.

I’m not asking my fellow marketers to bust out a thesaurus for each and every content strategy they build. I’m suggesting that it’s time we go back to using our natural word choice and stop hiding behind the fog of buzzwords. Be real with your users and you will get the same in return. Trust that your natural word choice will do the heavy lifting and get the real point across.

This blog was posted by on March 12.
Megan Culligan

About the Author

Megan Culligan

Megan knows the importance of picking a winner. With a background in politics and PR, she knows that a successful marketing campaign requires coordination of many moving pieces and a team focused on achieving a great goal. You’ll see her analytical point of view on the blog, providing insight and tactics for success.

Emily Kodner
Top 4 Reasons You Hate Managing Content on Your Web Site

Some content managers love their jobs. Some content managers hate their jobs. If you are in the second category, maybe it’s because of these reasons.

1. You have no strategy.

You are just updating the same old copy that somebody originally wrote fifteen years ago. Maybe you’re babysitting a “helpful links” page. Stop filling orders rather than seeking and producing content with a defined purpose.

Take time to make a real content strategy. Involve key stakeholders for their great ideas (and more importantly, their buy-in). Identify your target audiences. Define your users’ goals and your organization’s goals for the site and figure out how you are going to use your site’s content to meet those goals. Select topics that will bring you the right traffic. Establish your site’s voice. The strategy is your filter. It tells you what to spend time on and what to say no to. It tells you what content to cut and what content to create.

2. You have no style guide.

You (and other people) are always finding style inconsistencies throughout your site. Where does your company stand on the Oxford comma? Are page titles in sentence case or title case? Depending on the reviewer or writer you seem to be constantly fixing or unfixing things.

Select a style guide. Preferably one aligned with your industry and intended for web writing. Create an organic style guide to keep track of all of your industry and company specific terms.

3. You have no content governance plan.

Every time you make a content change you have too many, too few, or just the wrong people review it.  This means it takes forever to make changes or you end up with sub-par (maybe even inaccurate) content on your site.

Create a governance plan that makes it clear and transparent who is responsible for each section of the site. After much experimentation, I have had much success with an adapted version of this model.

4. You are looking at the wrong analytics.

You spend hours and hours each week (or each month, or just when somebody asks) putting together reports, but you’re just making reports for the sake of making reports.

Are you reporting average time spent on site? How are you evaluating that? Is it a short time win or a sign that your site is impossible to navigate?

Isolate the site’s goals and define key performance indicators that align to each goal.

Create dashboards or custom reports where possible to reduce your time manually manipulating your Google Analytics data pulls in Excel. Review the reports with other people regularly AND isolate improvements you can make. Identify the things you should do more of because they’re working so well.

Take a step back and take some time to improve your process. The steps outlined above can improve your personal workflow and make sure you’re aligned with the rest of your team.

This blog was posted by Emily Kodner on February 28.
Emily Kodner

About the Author

Emily Kodner

Emily is our Senior Director of Client Delivery. She consults with clients, leads projects and works alongside our team of creatives and developers to provide solutions to complex business challenges.

Jason provides a great user experience at the front desk

What makes for a great front desk experience? As someone who has been the face at that desk and the first voice on the phone, it’s a combination of empathy and information. I’ve never had a full-time position where I just sit and wait for people to show up. The front desk person always has other priorities and goals.

People coming in the office don’t need to know that, it’s not really relevant to them. All they remember is if I helped them when they came in. In much the same way visitors to your website don’t know and don’t care what your other priorities are, they just care about what you can do for them.

Greet Them

The greeting when you walk through the door is quite important. Friendly and attentive is by far a must. You wouldn’t have your front desk person stand at the door and loudly yell at potential clients as they walk in “HEY! We’ve got a great deal for you, let me show you right now!!!” while blocking their entrance and view. Pop up ads, loud music, animations, and the like, go over about as well.

Anticipate Their Needs

I think we’d have trouble landing business if when a potential client walked in the door for her first meeting, I shoved a hot cup of coffee down her throat, yanked off her coat, and tossed her into the bathroom. I would certainly ask her if she’d like something to drink, if she’d like to hang up her coat, and if she needed the bathroom, but I let her decide what she needs.

Your users know what they want, and it may not align with what you want them to do. Error on the side of walking in their shoes, worry about your goals on the back end. Ultimately this will more effectively accomplish your goals.

Keep Them Updated

If the guest is here to see someone, I make sure that both that person is notified and that the guest is aware so that the guest is not waiting and wondering what’s going on. When an action is completed on your website, do you give a clear confirmation? If a visitor runs into a problem, does your 404 page or other error messages give that visitor any direction on what he can do next? In the real world, he can ask, or just glare expectantly. On the web, your visitors will just go to your competitors.

Learn and Repeat These Five Words

Businesses have a front desk for very much the same reasons they have a website. It’s another channel for interaction and if done well, can enhance and build relationships. If done poorly it can make sure they never come back. It all comes down to 5 words :

“How can I help you?”

This blog was posted by on February 13.
Jason Dabrowski

About the Author

Jason Dabrowski

Jason is one of Sandstorm’s designers and also helps keep the office running smoothly. As a veteran of the theatre—from acting to directing, lighting to set design—he knows the value of hard work and a positive attitude. Look for his unique voice on the blog.

Taking time to create great brand strategy

I enjoy comedy, and I’m a big Monty Python fan. It’s no surprise that when I found a lecture by John Cleese on creativity, I was excited. He’s incredibly funny, smart and hard-working. What surprised me was how his 1991 talk resonates with me today.

What’s the path to creativity?

No matter how hard one tries, you can’t put creativity into a box or a process. The road to results is non-linear. In the talk, Cleese lists, not attempted process, but the conditions under which creation can happen. They are:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Time
  4. Confidence
  5. Humor

All of these steps make sense. I really like that he mentioned ‘Time’ twice. An emphasis on time is crucial. Creating something innovative from scratch takes time to steep. Time is the secret ingredient that allows creative brains to make unique connections.

There are no shortcuts.

People are in awe of the beauty of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, without thinking of how Michelangelo dreamt it, designed, planned and painted it. This took time. A lot of it. This is true of any major creative undertaking; sculpting from clay, writing a novel, composing an opera.

Effective marketing takes time, too.

The importance of time goes even further: design and development of a web site, strategic marketing plans, content strategy, social media strategy, usability, user research. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was any reputable web site.

So, when preparing a request for proposals, and eventually statements of work, keep in mind that to create something great, you’ll need to allocate an appropriate amount of time so your creative partner can build something impactful. Find a partner you trust to assist you with the appropriate level of effort so you get the maximum ROI.

Great things can come to those who wait.

Dreaming, Planning, Preparation, Research, Thinking, Designing, Execution: they all take time. So the next time you visit a blog you enjoy or walk past a sculpture in the park, consider who created it, and more importantly how.

[I encourage you to watch Mr. Cleese’s lecture, too. There is a shorter and full version available.]

This blog was posted by on January 17, 2014.
Will Biby

About the Author

Will Biby

Will wears many hats at Sandstorm. From writing web content to executing social media strategies, he is quick to act and insistent on a job done right. Will enjoys writing, so expect to hear from him often on the blog.

Brand strategy - voice and tone

What sets authors apart? Subject matter? Historical context? It really boils down to their words. Read these three literary excerpts.

  1. The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper.
  2. When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest. The only thing that could spoil a day was people and if you could keep from making engagements, each day had no limits.
  3. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.

These are clearly from different authors. One is a British master (Charles Dickens), an American man’s man (Ernest Hemingway), and an Edinburgh single mother with a love of magic (J.K. Rowling). Without knowing who was who, you could tell simply from the test that every passage was at least from a different person (yet alone a different time period).

How does your business communication relate to this? Is your company’s voice recognizable?

Could you look at 4 different company whitepapers or pages of your website and feel like they are written by different people?

It’s often overlooked, but the voice and tone of a company is as important as color palette, iconography, and photographic style. Below are four reasons why you need to put more emphasis on your company’s voice and tone.

 1. Consistency

It adds to the consistency of your brand. What kinds of words you use, sentence length/complexity, use of descriptors are all things to consider. It’s just like visual brand consistency. Consistent voice and tone makes it easy for new team members to integrate and start communicating for the company. It creates a regular expected voice for your company that is almost as recognizable as your logo and tagline.

2. Identity and Culture

Who you are as a business and as a brand is important. You know how MailChimp, Chase, McDonald’s, UPS, and many well known brands sound. Hospitals speak differently than banks. Mountain Dew speaks differently than Diet Coke. Your brand has a personality and you should be reflecting that in your words on the web, in print and in all communications.

 3. Customer Relationship

Are you talking in their vernacular? Are you talking up to them? Down at them? Are you trying to educate them? Do you just want to sell to them? Your content and how you deliver it engages your customer is different ways.

  • Come to the zoo.
  • You really should go to the zoo.
  • Go to the zoo!
  • The zoo is great. It would be a shame if you missed out.
  • You’re fun (so is the zoo).

These all say the same thing, but all sound very different. Do you want to be more imperative? Do you want to have a sense of humor about your brand? Do you want to be seen as a trusted friend?

This post is full of questions that are meant to help you and your organization create a voice and tone that conveys your brand across every communication vehicle. Voice and tone are part of who you are as a company and who you are as a group of people working toward a goal.

The old aphorism remains true: “It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.”

How do YOU want to say it?

This blog was posted by on August 30, 2013.
Will Biby

About the Author

Will Biby

Will wears many hats at Sandstorm. From writing web content to executing social media strategies, he is quick to act and insistent on a job done right. Will enjoys writing, so expect to hear from him often on the blog.

Brand strategy - empathy

The importance of empathy in business cannot be denied. It will create efficiencies across the board. It provides a construct from which to accelerate the speed of solving business problems. Multi-functional collaborative teams are a given for today’s economy, and leveraging these teams to their full potential requires each individual to think about the other. How do they think? What is their situation? Why? These questions help to create an empathic solution.

This is more than active listening. This is tapping into imagination and fully embracing the challenge through another person’s point of view. Once this is accomplished, solutions can be more quickly implemented with less friction within an organization. This cuts down on rework and shortens timelines by leaping forward from the beginning.

For example, we currently have a global client who is outsourcing much of their tradeshow support to Sandstorm. This organization has been successful by embracing sophisticated processes for developing high-end mathematical software. They have a meticulous process for everything and trusting Sandstorm with this process will be critical to their continued business growth.

Sandstorm is filled with passionate, non-linear thinkers who are always looking for a better way. Sandstorm’s creative process and culture generally produces unorthodox solutions. This is why we are enlisted by our clients to assist them in building their businesses.

Bridging the above mentioned cultures and processes to create something larger and more effective for our client requires active empathy. I challenge our teams to actively empathize with this particular client in order to solve their problems more quickly. This quickly innovates in small and big ways to move their business forward.

Honing your empathy takes practice, particularly if you are driven. Reacting and pushing our agenda and/or ideas forward is the more reflexive mode for most successful business people. It will be scary at first, believe me, I am a control freak; but in the end, better results will abound with a more empathetic worldview.

This blog was posted by on August 22, 2013.
Laura Luckman Kelber

About the Author

Laura Luckman Kelber

Chief Strategy Officer, Laura Luckman Kelber leads Sandstorm's team of strategists with wisdom from her 20 years of marketing experience. Combining seemingly disparate ideas to solve a problem, Laura unearths unexpected insights to help clients’ fuel their success.

Thinking in action at Sandstorm

I think the reason we are all so busy planning is that we are scared to think. If we think, that takes a leap of faith in ourselves that we will actually think of something worthwhile. Thinking is murky and unstructured, there is a possibility that you may spend a long time thinking and still not have the answer to your problem at hand. Thinking does not necessarily guarantee anything, but it does give you valuable perspective.

Crowd with lightbulb sign demonstrating the thinking behind marketing strategy.

A plan on the other hand has structure—deadlines, action items, concrete goals and budget numbers. It is impersonal. A plan is about the metrics established by the organization and structured by the budget and timing parameters given to the team by someone else.

The problem is that I have personally seen so many well-organized and structured plans go awry because no one in the organization has paused to think. A goal is handed down with a budget and timeline; and then, with a heavy dose of organizational cognitive dissonance, a plan is created within a construct that may or may not make any sense. No one has asked why; just how, what and when have been addressed.

I know the caveat you will throw at me, "but Laura, we have no time to think." You are not going to like my response to this one: I think that’s a socially acceptable excuse to not think. I almost never leave a marketing presentation without someone quoting Steve Jobs in admiration. Do you think he was too busy to think?

Something else that is impacted by lack of thinking, your bottom line. I am always amazed by the good money thrown after bad, because Clients do not want to invest the time and money needed to create a thoughtful positioning or marketing strategy before diving right into a web site execution or social media promotion. Effective marketing tactics require thinking.

Do me a favor, start integrating a minute of thinking into your day. One minute. Ask "why?" at least once a day and let me know what happens.

This blog was posted by on May 14.
Laura Luckman Kelber

About the Author

Laura Luckman Kelber

Chief Strategy Officer, Laura Luckman Kelber leads Sandstorm's team of strategists with wisdom from her 20 years of marketing experience. Combining seemingly disparate ideas to solve a problem, Laura unearths unexpected insights to help clients’ fuel their success.

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Bernard, Duke and Freddy mascots

A great novel has a cohesive plot, strong characters, and a reliable narrator. A great business model is no different. Your mission statement is the plot. Your employees are the characters that make the plot a reality. Then there’s the narrator, a voice that guides the reader through the material, someone reliable that relates to a specific audience segment...a mascot.

At this point, a lot of B2B companies may be saying to themselves, “Decent analogy, but how does any of this apply to me?  Mascots are a B2C tool, right?”  While it’s true that the most top-of-mind mascots are usually selling high-fructose corn syrup to children, B2B mascots are on the rise, especially in technology companies.

Those in the tech field are in a constant struggle between the creative and the professional. It makes sense to want to appear as a leader in your industry. But the need to be seen as professional by prospective clients can sometimes overshadow the need to effectively guide customers through the decision-making process. A brand mascot can be that guide.

The email marketing software provider MailChimp, is a perfect example of a B2B tech company overcoming the mascot struggle. Their mascot is a chimp named Freddy that delivers all the humanizing and brand awareness one could ask for, and in no way does he hurt the credibility of the company. Finding the balance between a silly character and an effective business tool can be tricky. MailChimp’s graphic designer wrote a very interesting blog post about how their mascot has evolved over time to become the narrator the company needed.

So what makes a mascot effective? Any good mascot does two things. It humanizes a company by creating a personal relationship with its customers, while also increasing brand awareness. In order to accomplish these tasks, the mascot must be an engaging, memorable character with an emotional design and a functional use.

This is Duke. He is the mascot for the software platform Java. According to their website, Duke was designed to represent a "software agent" that performed tasks for the user. He provides an interactive experience that goes well beyond what one would expect from a B2B business. As Duke’s popularity grew so did Java’s. He can now be found at every conference that Java attends, and since becoming “open-sourced” in 2006, anyone can design their own Duke. The current incarnation includes a jetpack and blue wings.

That personal touch and connectivity with a customer is what makes mascots a unique UX tool. In the world of B2B tech companies there isn’t a lot of levity. Giving your customer a real face to interact with (especially if that face is furry) can go a long way to improving their experience.

LogMyCalls.com (now Convirza) is a call tracking platform. They specialize in analyzing and tracking phone calls for businesses. But take one look at their website and you’ll soon find that those calls aren’t being analyzed and tracked by people or even by computers, but by a beaver named Bernard.  He adds a personal touch to the user’s experience. Sometimes all that a customer needs is a helping hand, or paw, or flipper.

Mascots like Bernard, Duke and Freddy provide brand recall that goes well beyond a logo or tagline. Because they are an active narrator of a brand, mascots can be continuously weaved into the brand’s story. As more and more B2B tech companies start effectively using new faces to relate to their customers, it begs the question...Who do you want to tell your story?


At Sandstorm Design, we create powerful brand experiences.... Learn more about Sandstorm Design's marketing services.

This blog was posted by on December 18.
Matt Chiaromonte

About the Author

Matt Chiaromonte

Matt is a copywriter and social media guru in Sandstorm’s Internship Program. With a background in marketing, journalism, and improv comedy, Matt brings equal parts knowledge and entertainment to our little corner of the Internet. When he isn’t generating social media content, Matt can be found enjoying pizza, podcasts, and many other things that begin with the letter “p”.

Realtor University - Example of a Drupal web site

REALTOR® University and the National Association of REALTORS® partnered with Sandstorm's Drupal development team to build their first ever master's degree program. The web site was developed through a combination of marketing messaging, copywriting, tagline development, user interface design and implementation of the Drupal 7 CMS. Featured on the homepage are rotating graphics emphasizing the core advantages the university offers. We are so excited to announce this launch!

This blog was posted by on October 20.
Karen Boehl

About the Author

Karen Boehl

Karen does a little bit of everything – webmaster, social media manager and search engine optimizer. She can most often be found on Twitter, in the Usability Lab, or happily buried in the Drupal admin menu.

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