Sandstorm Blog

No more stock photography, please!

Is that person famous? Did they go to my high school? Do I see them on the bus? Yes, you saw them on the bus… in the ads over your head.

These images are the worst. They serve a purpose for their businesses, but at what cost? I can think of 5 big reasons why I’m sick of stock photography (and really respect businesses that use custom images).

1. It looks cheap (because it is).

Stock photography looks nice but is not memorable. It comes at a fraction of the cost of a photo-shoot, and it shows. No photographers, creative direction, or editing, just the picture. Let’s compare it to a big box retailer. You can walk up, find what you want, and use it immediately.

2. It’s off brand, and I don’t trust it.

Stock imagery doesn’t look like your company. Your customers find it hard to identify with the images. Your clients and partners know your company and the people that they work with at your company. Whether or not they’ve ever been to your office, they’ve seen pictures on social media or LinkedIn. You don’t want them to ask, “Is this the right site?”

3. It’s generic and cliché.

You see these pictures everywhere. Certain faces can be found on billboards, bus stop ads, magazines, spam emails, and the list goes on. Do you want to make your company blend in or stand out? With stock imagery you run the risk of triggering subliminal thoughts of other companies. Your brand is unique and provides a unique service, don’t accidentally align yourself with another entity that has no connection at all.

4. It looks dated.

Times change. Pictures don’t. Take a trip searching for stock photography you’ll take a trip back through time: hairstyles, clothing and technology. (That 13” monitor really seals the deal.) You’ll see the 80s, 90s, and things that look dated by just a few years. Your business is constantly evolving. You don’t want to display a masthead that looks like you’re stuck in the past.

5. It doesn’t reflect your culture.

Diversity is important. There is no denying that, but it should be more important in your company than in the pictures you choose. If you’re showing the world that you have a more diverse workplace than you have, well, that’s dishonest.

Many companies and individuals make decisions based on diversity. You don’t want a new client to be surprised when your staff looks nothing like the staged image on your “About Us” page. Post a real image of your team. They (and I) will be impressed when you have a diverse and vibrant workforce. Until then…

Be yourself

Photos of your business, your people, doing your work, is an investment in your future. By using photos of your office, you’re showing who you are, your culture, how you work, what you do.

It’s like if someone has a Facebook profile picture of a quote or a famous person or a turtle. What are they hiding? Probably nothing. So, don’t hide. It costs more, but it’s worth it to use yourself and your staff as the face of your company. Act natural, don’t look at the camera, and take credit for your good work.

This blog was posted by on October 24.
Derek Vanderlaan

About the Author

Derek Vanderlaan

Derek Vander Laan is Sandstorm's Senior Design Architect. With 20 years of experience, he designs web sites, infographics, and interactive digital experiences. His creative skills are always at work either at his desk or plotting a prank for someone else's.

David Ogilvy was a UX Pioneer

I have been in the ad biz for about 20 years and never read Ogilvy on Advertising. I recently finished it, and it struck me how much of his approach is anchored in user experience design principles.

Ads should have a purpose.

David Ogilvy: UX from the Ad Age to the Digital Age

“A good advertisement is one which sells the product without drawing attention to itself.”

David Ogilvy was passionate about having communication that provided real information to someone. From his famous Rolls Royce print ads to his campaign for Puerto Rico, he was adamant about providing something new and informative to the reader. (Click on the images to read their informative copy.)

Research is critical.

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.”

How can someone fully empathize with a user without research? Ogilvy was interested in pragmatic, actionable research. He wanted to know enough to garner a perspective for advertising that would successfully resonate with the consumer.

This approach was anchored in healthy skepticism for traditional researchers, as well as curiosity about what people really wanted and were thinking. He went so far as to outline nine things he did not like about the research community of his time.

  1. Take too long to answer a few simple questions: “they are natural slowpokes”
  2. Cannot agree on methodology
  3. Are too interested in sociology and economics, not advertising [Note: this is specific to Ogilvy's field]
  4. Have little or no system for retrieving research which has already been conducted
  5. Are too faddish; some techniques are useful, but still go out of fashion
  6. Use graphs that are incomprehensible to laymen
  7. Refuse to undertake projects which they consider imperfect, even when the project would produce actionable results. Quoting Winston Churchill; “PERFECTIONISM is spelled PARALYSIS”
  8. Lack initiative i.e. only do what they are asked for
  9. Use pretentious jargon

These principles can be and should be successfully applied to the agile technology world of today. Testing and learning and continuous improvement are the approaches to creating engaging user experiences that produce business results.

Readability cannot be compromised.

“I do not regard advertising as entertainment or as an art form, but as a medium of information.”

A fanatic about details, everything was focused on the information. Ogilvy would not tolerate reversed out type. He felt that it was not legible and would lose the reader.

Back to 2013, legibility and organization of information can make or break conversion on a website. Unclear direction and cumbersome forms will cause high abandonment rates.

Uncompromising discipline to implement a thoughtful experience

“The best of all ways to beat P&G is, of course, to market a better product.”

An entire chapter is devoted to Procter & Gamble’s marketing discipline. His respect for their marketing acumen was anchored by their focus and commitment to creating a better product. The core of their marketing was the product itself. The times are long gone where great promotion can outsell a quality product. Quick access to information requires successful marketers to create great products to succeed.

I can’t help but think that if Ogilvy was around today he would have a chapter about Apple and their fanatical discipline. It starts with product design and resonates through the Apple experience, from iTunes to the Genius Bar. Everything consistently reinforces the brand.

Laura on Ogilvy on Advertising

What I am most amazed about is that we continue to create new business processes and vocabulary around “new” principles. These “new” concepts are attempts to reinvent the wheel. It would be most efficient to spend time being more disciplined about solving the challenges at hand. Answering tough questions accomplishes more than creating new names for existing tools.

Ogilvy’s approach to advertising and marketing with a user focus has stood the test of time. This approach can help you create something that can last, too.

There is no silver bullet, no social media magic, or algorithmic formula that will save your business, product or service. Time tested marketing discipline, when applied correctly will fuel, reinvigorate and grow your business but only when the appropriate level of time, money and thinking is applied.

[Editor's note: The images used in this post are owned by their respective company. Also, there is a great post by Fast Company that reviews Ogilvy's 11 principles for successful marketing campaigns through the lens of UX.]

This blog was posted by on October 17, 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.

Digital Marketing Mashups: Run DMC - Walk This Way

I am a Gen-Xer in a Gen-Y world. This has me constantly reflecting on the importance of mashups. I am not talking typical mashups like Reggaeton music or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. No, I’m really talking about mashing up old school business concepts (and etiquette and manners) with new school digital experiences.

This kind of mashup reminds me of a very famous music collaboration: Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C. (Yes, I can connect anything with the 80s). Their mashup of “Walk This Way” was a huge hit with a combination of classic (rock) and brand new (rap) . By crossing the boundaries into the unexpected, interest in Aerosmith was reinvigorated and Run-D.M.C. gained exposure and mainstream radio play (which practically no rappers had); a brilliant collaboration that leveraged something existing and created a new and unexpected product.

This was exactly like  Bill Bernbach’s genius of pairing copywriters and art directors for more effective advertising. Another classic I am also constantly recommending is Robert Fulghum’s book, All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, because it has fantastic fundamental knowledge for business that isn’t taught in business school anymore.

Where’s the mashup you ask? Well, it’s in creating engaging digital experiences that tap into our fundamental humanity, which really is consistent across cultures and generations. This humanity is just accelerated by the use of digital tools and platforms. These classic practices like courtesy and respect are more critical today than ever. Do not spam someone’s Facebook page with an obtrusive sales message; this is like showing up uninvited to someone’s wedding with three extra guests of your own.

With the speed of business today, we tend to increase complexity by adding digital tools, language and processes, none of which add to effectiveness. How many clients have a marketing automation system that is not used because it did not take the end user into account, but just had a lot of features and functionality? (See my previous post about empathy.) I need more than two hands to count them.

Instead of continuing to create more promotional material, overly complex segmentation schemes, and deploying a myriad of analytics tools; why not use a simple construct like the classic 4Ps to start to tease out where the opportunity is with your digital experience? (Please read John Maeda’s The Laws of Simplicity for additional inspiration.) Oh, the 4Ps, remember back to  Marketing 101: price, product, place and promotion. Promotion, by the way, gets used as a blunt instrument for every marketing problem, but that’s a different post.

So, mashups from my perspective are taking tried and true classic constructs and applying them to today’s challenges. These classics will provide you with a much more solid structure from which to analyze and solve your marketing challenge.

[editor's note: Since it's already in your head: Walk This Way]

This blog was posted by on September 19.
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.

Sandstorm and Discover Help Emerging Leaders

Sandstorm’s Strategy Director, Laura Luckman Kelber, and Creative Director, Janna Fiester, were delighted to speak at Discover Card’s YPOD lunch event. They presented alongside Roger Horchschild, Discover’s President and COO, and Mark Graf, EVP and CFO, to address the theme Dealing with Ambiguity: How to Manage Uncertainty in an Ever Changing Environment.

While an ambiguous request can often trigger fear, Laura and Janna shared some great techniques for overcoming your fears to accomplish the task at hand. The Sandstormers pulled from their marketing strategy expertise to share examples of managing ambiguity in the brand experience and user experience landscape. Applying their UX process, they taught the emerging leaders to take actionable steps to define goals and tasks, and to ultimately transform uncertainty into success!

Interested in learning more? Check out Sandstorm’s Ambiguity Road Map!

This blog was posted by on August 30, 2013.
Kellye Blosser

About the Author

Kellye Blosser

Kellye’s unique approach involves a delicate balance of left and right-brained thinking. She most recently hailed from the corporate video world. Here at Sandstorm, she’s excited to bring strategic, innovative thinking to every project.

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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.

Sandstorm Design Named Top Interactive Agency in B to B

Digital marketing and UX agency, Sandstorm Design is honored to be named one of the Top Interactive Agencies of 2013 by BtoB Magazine. Receiving this recognition for the third year in a row, Sandstorm is continuing to grow by nurturing talent and building creative solutions and intuitive user experiences for new and existing clients.

BtoB's Top Agencies List is a comprehensive compilation of the top 150 agencies in the United States. BtoB Magazine's Kate Maddox said, “Many of the top b-to-b agencies registered double-digit growth last year though new clients and organic growth.” Sandstorm is poised to continue the momentum built in 2012 by partnering with clients such as CIC Plus, MathWorks, and CareerBuilder for a successful 2013.

BtoB Magazine is a Crain's Communications Inc. publication and is a trusted source and platform for top marketing professionals to grow and learn in the b-to-b space.

This blog was posted by on May 7.
Amanda Elliott

About the Author

Amanda Elliott

Amanda Elliott is the Marketing Coordinator at Sandstorm Design. She absorbs the creative energy from our leadership team and facilitates the team so they can focus entirely on solving client challenges. She is passionate about anticipating needs, solving problems, and making projects fun.

Sandstorm Staff celebrating Top Inner City Company Award

Some of the staff at Sandstorm, literally showing upward growth!

2012 is proving to be yet another award-winning year for Sandstorm Design! In March we were named as a Top B2B Interactive Agency by Crain's BtoB Magazine. And this week, our Principal Sandy Marsico traveled to Boston to attend the awards ceremony for the Top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Companies in America. We are so honored and humbled to have landed at the #43 spot, with a 33% 5-year annual growth.

With our Chicago marketing firm's move to a larger space last year and hiring a number of new employees, we've been steadily and strategically growing. We couldn't be more excited about this achievement, and we thank Fortune, Harvard, ICIC and all of our amazing partners who've worked with us to create impactful work!

This blog was posted by on May 11, 2012.
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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Chicago marketing firm Sandstorm Design featured in 2011 Inc. 500|5000 Fastest Growing Companies

Hooray! We are in the top 350 for companies in marketing and interactive on the 2011 Inc. 500|5000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in the country! “It’s a really exciting time for Sandstorm,” said Sandy Marsico, our marketing firm's Principal, as I snapped a photo of her with the package Inc. Magazine sent us. “I am so proud of our team’s relentless dedication to our clients and the exceptional work they produce.” Inc. Magazine releases the 500|5000 list each year to celebrate the companies who are thriving in their industries. The Inc. 500|5000 site has the full list, along with features, graphics and multimedia.

Be sure to check out the Sandstorm Design Inc. 500|5000 profile. “We’re honored to be a part of such an inspiring and aspiring group of companies,” said Marsico. Everyone at Sandstorm is enthusiastically looking forward to continued growth. Learn more about Sandstorm Design and our unique blend of marketing strategy, web design and usability services.

This blog was posted by on August 23.
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.

Aaron Equipment's creative marketing

Some people like to put their brand identity on business cards and letterhead, others prefer choppers. That’s right—choppers. One of our partners, Aaron Equipment, got a custom branded bike from Orange County Choppers and appeared on their TLC show American Choppers. The bike now sits proudly at their Bensenville headquarters. Of course, after visiting their office and seeing the bike, we had to take pictures. And who wouldn’t? This is really a great example of creative marketing—getting your brand out there by connecting with your audience on their interests. Now that summer is in full swing in Chicago and the festivals have taken over the weekends, it’s a perfect time to get creative with your marketing. And “creative” could be anything from a custom chopper to a clever sidewalk chalk stencil. If you need a little help brainstorming some creative marketing ideas, let Sandstorm Design give you hand!

This blog was posted by on June 9.
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.

Your logo is not your brand. This is a common refrain from designers that combats the common misconception that all you need for a brand is a logo. Our Creative Director, Janna Fiester, shared an article with the rest of the team recently that talked about building an unforgettable brand outside of the logo. It makes a great point that we wholeheartedly agree with. Now this doesn’t mean the logo isn’t important (it is!), but there are definitely other factors to consider when it comes to your brand identity—copy being one of them.

A recognizable voice and tone is as important to the brand identity as the logo. Think about Allstate, for example. You always know an ad is theirs long before you see their logo. That’s the brand in the copy. On your web site, blog, brochure and other marketing materials, the copywriting should capture your differentiator in the marketplace. Your content should reflect any marketing objectives and initiatives currently in place. (Are you reaching out to new audiences or offering new services? Is your voice changing to speak more directly to these new objectives?) And, of course, the voice and tone should be consistent.

To insure we build a complete brand, our copywriters are vital members of the marketing and creative teams here at Sandstorm Design. They work directly with designers during the branding phases, giving each company’s unique identity a unified presence—in the visual elements, the marketing copywriting, and everything in between.

This blog was posted by on May 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.