Sandstorm Blog

What is Positioning and Why Should I Care?

Lately there has been a significant uptick in clients approaching us to help them better differentiate themselves in a more crowded and complex marketplace. Many of these clients have been doing business as usual for years with several marketing tactics in place, but have noticed that they are not quite getting new customers like they had historically.

They are at a loss with how they can instigate growth without significantly increasing their marketing budgets.

A Way for Companies to Stand Out

The most effective tool that we use at Sandstorm to assist our clients stand out effectively is to define a positioning. Our process takes into account the cultural DNA of our clients’ organizations, disruptive aspects of their offerings and aligns what they offer with rational, emotional, and motivational drivers of their markets.

This information is distilled into one statement that represents what the organization means to their customers and future customers – a positioning statement.

What Does it Mean to Have Positioning?

Positioning in marketing does exactly what it’s name suggests. It positions a company strategically in an attainable aspirational direction. Although one sentence, it is a powerful discipline that forces the organization to focus on what it stands for and what that means for its customers and potential customers.

This focus is critical in the frenetic pace of a digital society. It gives clarity and purpose to every marketing decision that needs to be made and makes sure your target market easily and readily understands your brand and why they should care.

Arriving at a Positioning Statement

The best positioning statements are built from thorough primary and secondary user experience research. At Sandstorm we utilize UX practices to enhance the insights we get with our primary research. This means giving the respondent the opportunity to expound on what is important to them and less about what the protocol might assume is important. A more organic, conversational approach allows us to garner more insights with less respondents, saving time and money.

Our secondary research is also more fluid and organic. Instead of listing out the marketing tactics and individual messaging across a set of competitors, we look at overall trends inside and outside a specific industry. That way we can more clearly find white space opportunities for our clients. This actually takes a bit more time than traditional secondary research, but it pays off with greater differentiation for our clients and a stronger overall position.

The Value of a Positioning Statement

With cross-functional collaboration and a distributed workforce, it’s more and more difficult to align an organization on what they offer to customers. A positioning statement is a tool that can align an entire organization and create clear boundaries for decision-making. It also ensures that all marketing decisions on product changes or developments, pricing and distribution are aligned to portray a consistent and differentiated offering to the marketplace.

Ensuring Your Communication Provides Maximum ROI

Finally a good positioning in marketing, used correctly, guarantees all of your organization’s marketing communication is focused. Every time a potential customer encounters your brand online, in-person or in advertising they will receive the same message. This amplifies your difference and delivers a stronger ROI on your marketing communication.

If you think your company is ready for strategic repositioning, please email me directly. We would love to move you forward in the marketplace.

This blog was posted by on October 9.
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.

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.

Five steps to better SEO & SEM campaigns

Launching AdWords campaigns can be a frustrating, pocket-draining initiative if you’re not careful. However, it can also bring in traffic and conversions that quickly make the whole thing worthwhile. Here are five quick tips if you are just getting started and don’t know where to, well, start.

1. Plan ahead

Work with your internal team and your agency to define what your expectations are and create some realistic goals. A good way to do this is to assess what you are doing now. How much are you spending for leads and conversions using your existing marketing tactics? How much can you allocate to AdWords campaigns? What are your customers or clients really looking for when they turn to a search engine for help?

2. Optimize

Dedicate some time and resources to optimizing your web site’s landing pages to increase the Quality Score of your ads. Google is successful because it thinks about its users (and this focus keeps users coming back for more and more). In regards to AdWords, Google wants to make sure that it is sending its users to the places where they can actually find relevant content.

Google rewards you for sending people to right place. Having better content helps bring you a higher ranking and can lead to a lower cost-per-click. It’s worth the upfront costs and effort to create a great experience for users on your web site and landing pages before bidding on ads.

3. Play Chess, Not Battleship

While there is some guessing when it comes to the auction process, you can make educated bids. With high keyword limits, AdWords allows 20,000 per ad group, it seems like the options are endless. Why not have every variation of the terms related to your business and see what happens? If this is your approach, I’m not surprised if SEM is the bane of your marketing existence.

Instead, do research, be relevant. Imagine what your customer is thinking and searching for, then use terms and phrases they would naturally use or what they will be looking for in the future. You are paying for each visit, make the most of them. Tactically, if your product or service is commonly misspelled, use the broad match keyword approach and let Google’s mechanics take care the rest. You can cast a wide net to improve your ad’s impressions but focus a majority of your resources on high-quality keywords that will bring the right customers with real conversions.

4. Be Patient

While this process can seem laborious and not yield immediate results, stick with it. SEM is an ever-evolving marketing tool. You won’t run perfect campaigns every time (I’m not sure that such a thing even exists). After a month or so of running ads, take a look under the hood and see what’s working and what’s not. This will help you learn more about what Google AdWords and your users are looking for with your ads. Remember, one click could be the conversion that covers the cost of the entire campaign.

5. Have Flexibility

After reviewing what’s working, investigate why. Is it bid amounts, budget, keywords, ads? AdWords is full of analytics, use them. If it’s not working, do something different. This platform is one of the only marketing tools available that can quickly be changed with little or no cost.

AdWords allows you to amend your account as frequently as you want, or if you are a data-lover and want to be able to examine trends, make less frequent, measured changes. Study the board, do your research and be willing to adjust your game plan.

Ads in the Right Place at the Right Time

Unlike some other marketing efforts, AdWords allows customers to see your information when they expect to see it, at the time when they are actively searching for what you offer. It’s a worthwhile program to boost your business, but it requires attention and upkeep for success. Stay focused and watch the clicks turn to conversions.

This blog was posted by on January 24.
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.

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.

Trust in the age of big data

Big data isn’t new, but it has been on our minds for the last several months. So, we thought now was as good a time as any to talk about it.

Big data in the news

In September, the New York Times ran an article that piqued our interest. In short: Acxiom Corporation, one of the world’s largest marketing technology companies, had launched AboutTheData.com – a website that lets consumers see what information (or ‘Big Data’) the company is collecting and analyzing about them.

The pitch was simple: If you want to get the best advertising delivered to you, based on your actual interests, start here. Tell us who you are so we can show you the information used to fuel many of the marketing offers you receive from advertisers using Acxiom’s digital marketing data.

What information is out there?

More and more, companies are beginning to invest in Big Data solutions as a means of achieving a more effective reach, but investing in this kind of data is not without its challenges. For example, here’s what some Sandstormers had to say when they registered with AboutTheData for a look behind the data mining curtain:

“Characteristic data was spot-on except for the child I didn’t know I have. Household vehicle data: only insurance renewal, nothing about past vehicles I’ve owned (10!). Household economic data: accurate, but light.”

“The only thing accurate about my home was the year it was built. There was absolutely no data found on our cars. For household interests, they had gourmet cooking which is really quite funny since we order most from Pizza Hut… None of the data they had on me felt invasive, probably because the most personal pieces of data were simply not us.”

 “The results were disturbingly specific and correct in many cases. In other cases they were completely wrong. They knew everything about my condo purchase, which isn’t hard info to get. They know when my condo and car insurance policies are up for renewal. They knew my age (down to a two year window). Were close enough on my profession. They were pretty far off on my household income and purchasing habits.”

A constant work-in-progress

As our Sandstormers and media outlets have reported, Acxiom still has a few kinks to work out, and chief among them may be accuracy.

“One point I want to make is that this is the first release of the website,” says Nicholas Meshes, an engineering lead at Acxiom who oversees a team of developers who work on the AboutTheData.com project. “There will be subsequent releases that mean more information, improved usability, and more resources and control around how data is being used.”

It’s for more personalized relationships

He adds: “The fact is, corporations want to have more personalized relationships with consumers, and what we’re trying to do is create trust among consumers by letting them see and specify what information is being shared. People who use the website have places to go to give direct feedback, and can opt in or out of most elements we have on file about them. There are also features in the AboutTheData that direct you back to the Acxiom website to show you how we are using your data. Whatever you specify becomes our highest priority.” Whether you opt in or out, you are likely going to be marketed to regardless, “so it may as well be relevant to you.”

One of many tools

Okay. It’s a good idea driven by well-meaning intent, but the Acxiom project and the skepticism with which it has been met underscores one of the biggest challenges faced by marketing companies whose success continues to be influenced by big data: You can’t have trust without accuracy. Even if the data is accurate, it’s just one tool in your marketing toolbox.

Addressing the challenges

Big data is not the marketing panacea, but it can be a fantastic tool to create better experiences for your customers. Using big data effectively requires thoughtful decisions about how you want to engage your target market and providing them with the appropriate control mechanisms to build trust. This is a process and a large component of utilizing big data effectively to address marketing challenges.

This blog was posted by on December 12.
Meaghan Glennan

About the Author

Meaghan Glennan

Meaghan is a storyteller. From the Granite State to the City of Broad Shoulders, she's created impactful true-life tales about people, places, businesses and events. As she guides Sandstorm's story by directing our marketing communications, you'll see a lot of her unique perspective and style.

Creative inspiration from Rodney Mullen at PopTech

So I am writing this the morning after Nelson Mandela has left us. An example of “piercing the barrier of disbelief,” if there ever was one. Nelson Mandela is probably as far from the skateboarding community as one can get, but he shared many of the same commitments to creativity, perseverance and the power of acceptance. This is not a post on Nelson Mandela, but a reflection on a powerful and inspiring talk I saw at PopTech 2013.

Rodney Mullen is a professional skateboarder, company owner, inventor and also known as the “Godfather of Street Skating.” In his talk he said, “piercing the barrier of disbelief,” which continues to resonate with me. This is something that we, as creative individuals, have to do everyday to help our colleagues and clients solve their challenges in ways they never thought about.

Rodney emphasized the importance of culture to inspire. The importance of a supportive culture cannot be written off as a touchy-feely, nice-to-have when collaborative problem solving is critical for business success.

As creative professionals, we create something out of nothing everyday, in a way “jumping off a cliff.” It is important to acknowledge that surrounding yourself with people that uplift your beliefs, and “catch you,” is critical to sustaining creative momentum. Sustaining a culture that believes collectively to “pierce the barrier of disbelief,” is the not-so-secret ingredient to your business success.

This blog was posted by on December 6, 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.

Creative user interface design inspiration from PopTech

Laura recently attended the PopTech conference in Camden, Maine. We’ll hear more about her experience in the coming weeks, but here’s a sneak peek of all the inspiration that abounded that weekend, much of which Laura brought back with her.

Need a bit of magic for your workday?

Artichoke is a creative company that works with artists to invade our public spaces and put on extraordinary and ambitious events that live in the memory forever…

This was one of the most inspirational talks of my PopTech experience. Artichoke creates magic and inspires individuals, who don’t usually have creating magic in their job description, to embrace magic without hesitation. The people at Artichoke remove the debate about risk and reward with their government and community partners, and replace it with a camaraderie and shared belief in the power of something bigger.

As a creative professional, I found the construct shift not only inspiring but immensely valuable to assisting my clients on their journeys to rethink the possibilities of their businesses, and in embracing the sheer power of a creative idea.

Hope you are as inspired as I was, and that this gives you the much-needed energy boost to continue moving your creativity forward.

This blog was posted by on November 20.
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.

Can we stop saying "click here"?

You’re going to click here. Of course you’re going to click here. How could you not? The link says “Click here”!!

  • Click here to register
  • Click here for a list of services
  • Click here to learn more
  • Click here to go find that thing that should be right here where we’ve placed the words click here

The web is all about clicking. Users know what a link is and how to click on it (or press it if they are on a touch device). I think it’s safe to abandon this tired phrase and just get to the point. Why not just say:

  • Register
  • Our services
  • Learn more
  • [put that thing that should be right here]

I think this would make the world a better place or at least a place with better online user experiences.

This blog was posted by on November 6, 2013.
Michael Hartman

About the Author

Michael Hartman

As Sandstorm's Technology and Usability Director, Michael leads our developers and usability researchers in creating web sites and applications—both desktop and mobile—that embody our favorite blend: intuitive user experience and dynamic Drupal development.

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