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.

Nathan
Apple's Worldwide Developer Conference

Last week was Apple’s annual Worldwide Developer Conference. They are releasing a lot of new software and updates that I found particularly helpful. From some of the announced developments, it appears that Apple is continuing to make a great user experience through their products. Here are some highlights from the conference that are particularly beneficial to Apple users.

User Interface Design

Smartphones are a big deal, particularly for die-hard iPhone users. Apple realized that as much as people use a desktop operating system, the one that they spend the most time on is on their phone. The new desktop operating system, named Yosemite, will be streamlined to look more like the their mobile design and experience:

  • OS fonts will go from the current Lucida Grande to Helvetica Neue
  • Toolbars are refined to focused on clarity and utility and they’re adding translucent “materials”
  • All icons are being updated (They finally have a great looking Trash Can!)
  • The toolbar and dock have a “Dark Mode” option

Continuity

One of the big talking points was: “Use the right device for the moment.” As users are using more tablets and smartphones, specifically iPhones and iPads, their experience going from device to device will be smoother.

  • AirDrop - It now works between iOS and the Mac OS
  • Handoff - Your devices will be aware of what you're working on. You’ll be able to pick up where you left off on another device.
  • Instant Hotspot - If you're using a mac and you aren’t near a WiFi, but your phone is nearby, your computer will recognize it as a hotspot. We will see how seamless this is, there would be some setting up before you can use it automatically.
  • Phone calls - When you receive a phone call, your computer presents the caller information in addition to your phone. You can even accept the phone call from your computer, even if your phone is across the room. You can make phone calls from the computer as well.

Interactive Notification

Since users are interacting primarily with their iOS devices, Apple is making advancements to make this experience easier. Users can now:

  • Swipe down to interact with notifications:
    • Respond to text messages
    • Accept calendar invites
    • Like or comment on Facebook posts
  • Double click the home button to get a list of the people you communicate with the most

Quick Type

The announced upgrades will make typing on iPhones and iPads much easier (and hopefully reduce the number of mistaken autocorrects).

  • Keyboard suggestions based on what you type (hello mistaken suggestions)
  • Suggested options to reply to a message
  • Language based on how you communicate with certain people (for example, you may say the “party was really nice” to your mom or say it was “epic” to a good buddy)

Messages

This might be my favorite addition to the iOS since “Do Not Disturb” in the iOS 7 release. Group messaging is now better than ever. I’m sure everyone has been on a message chain from hell. At the time it might have been useful, but 3 months later a new conversation gets started on an old chain and it blows up your phone. You now have the option to:

  • Leave threads
  • Turn particular threads to “Do Not Disturb”
  • Add and remove people
  • Name the thread

You can also sort to see all of the images used in that thread and shared locations. This will be great when you're with a large group message and would like to keep track of that one friend that barely comments.

There is also a new feature to send voice and video messages straight from the Messages App.

Family Sharing

You can now share media with family members if all accounts share the same credit card. This setup keeps your kids from spending $2,500 on in-app add-ons. You can manage settings so that certain family members, such as your 6 year old on the iPad, have to ask you in order to purchase an app. You get the alert on your device to approve or deny their request.

Photos

I’m a designer and love taking pictures. The new Photos advancements are very cool. The new app has smart editing controls, such as levels for light and color.

For example, you can select a photo to edit and click the smart editing controller. You get a smart light editing feature. To achieve this, the app has an algorithm that simultaneously adjusts brightness, contrast, exposure, highlights and shadows at the same time. The same for color.

Also, photo storage is easier with iCloud pricing: the first 5GB are free, 20GB for $0.99 a month, and 200GB for $3.99 per month. They even have tiers up to 1TB (who wants 1TB of selfies?).

Think Different

It’s good seeing Apple continue to innovate, especially when the updates are free to users. The whole conference was centered on upgrades and innovations. They didn’t sell, they only shared what was coming to everyone at no cost. I can’t wait to see what they will unveil next.

This blog was posted by Nathan on June 13.
Nathan Haas

About the Author

Nathan Haas

Nathan is a User Interface Art Director at Sandstorm. He is a proud alum of The University of Tennessee. His main focus was print design, but he soon realized the potential of pixels. This combination of print and interactive gives him a unique view of design possibilities.

Sandy
Sandstorm is a SAVO Partner

We are excited to announce that Sandstorm has been selected as an Emerald Partner with the SAVO Group as their go-to marketing agency for SAVO clients who require brand positioning, content marketing, messaging and creative marketing execution to better leverage the SAVO platform and improve sales productivity and effectiveness.

SAVO is a leader in sales enablement. They create software as a service (SaaS) that bring together sales tools, automation, analytics, and content management to support companies’ sales processes.

Sandstorm is honored to be recognized for our marketing expertise to improve sales enablement and looks forward to helping SAVO clients meet their goals with targeted, relevant messages that support their brand and drive sales.

This blog was posted by Sandy on June 4.
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.

Janna
4 Types of User Research and When to Use Them: Usability Testing

A usability study is a great way to identify trouble spots with your website, application or prototype.

It involves watching your users complete a set of tasks on your site or application. This includes testing processes like purchasing, registration, forms and finding content. It’s also a great way to test the language and labels on your site to see if you are using menu labels that are intuitive for your users.

There’s no substitute for watching users actively use your site. You gain insights into why parts of your site aren’t performing and more importantly how to resolve them.

One day of testing with 6 to 8 users will uncover over 80% of the usability issues with your site. I call that a day well spent.

Why should I use this approach?

Usability testing is a good way to learn how to improve the user experience on any site. If you are asking any of these questions, conducting usability testing might be a great next move:

  • How can we get more users to complete the checkout process?
  • How can we get users to accurately complete each step of this form?
  • How does our site perform on mobile devices?
  • How can we help our users learn more about what we have to offer?

What does usability testing achieve?

Usability testing allows you to see the site experience from the user’s point of view. The benefits of this testing include identifying:

  • Confusing or unclear language and navigation labels
  • Confusing or broken processes, particularly useful for check-out and registration processes or any conversion points
  • Inconsistencies between multi-device versions of your site (mobile, tablet, desktop)
  • Issues with the “findability” of content

When should I start testing?

Early and often. At Sandstorm we start the testing process as soon as we have enough wireframes or a prototype to start getting feedback.

Usability testing early in the process can help identify issues before budget is spent developing something that’s not optimal.

It’s also the tool to use if parts of your site aren’t performing as expected. Even when your site is performing well, you’ll want to make sure your site is optimized for your users.

I’m in. How do I conduct usability testing?

It is an in-depth process. There aren’t many steps to conducting usability research, but care should be taken with each step. You can do rapid testing in 1 or 2 weeks time. Usability study projects at Sandstorm usually take 4 to 6 weeks to complete.

  1. Identify the goal of your study and the key tasks you want to test. Don’t try to test too much in one study. If you want to test a lot of areas, it’s better to do multiple studies.
  2. Identify your users and participant criteria; make sure you’re testing with people who would actually use your site.
  3. Write the testing protocol (the list of scenarios you want to test).
  4. Recruit users. We recommend offering a gratuity for participation. It’s a nice incentive.
  5. Conduct the study.
  6. Analyze the results.
  7. Make improvements to your site.

Here are some helpful hints for greater success:

  • Focus on your conversion points.
  • Allow room in the protocol for follow up questions and clarifications.
  • Don’t interfere; observe and let your users do their thing.
  • Test the mobile and desktop experiences.

Do I get results?

Yes, you do. Usability testing yields a research report with key findings. At Sandstorm, we always include actionable recommendations with our key findings. We also provide video and screen capture footage for stakeholders to review.

Most importantly, you’re getting rid of problems on your site and gaining a better experience for your users.


[Ed. - Check back for the last post of this series on user research with Heuristic Analyses. If you missed it, be sure to read his previous posts on In-Depth User Interviews and Card Sorting with Tree Testing.]

This blog was posted by Janna on July 7.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

Janna
Sandstorm honors Massimo Vignelli

At Sandstorm, we wear black to honor the passing of the original Information Architect, Massimo Vignelli.

Massimo Vignelli on Black: "There is no other color that is better than black. There are many others that are appropriate and happy, but those colors belong on flowers. Black is a color that is man-made. It is really a projection of the brain. It is a mind color. It is intangible. It is practical. It works 24 hours a day. In the morning or afternoon, you can dress in tweed, but in the evening, you look like a professor who escaped from college. Everything else has connotations that are different, but black is good for everything.

To me, black is black and red is color. That’s it."

This blog was posted by Janna on May 29.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

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.

We were a little busy last week with prepping for the holiday weekend, and we also had some special guests! Marcus Lemonis, from CNBC’s “The Profit” stopped by our office to interview Sandy. A crew from CNBC spent 2 days getting video of Sandstormers in our natural environment.

We’ll be featured in a web series about small successful businesses. This will showcase what makes Sandstorm unique and how we balance fun with accomplishing good work. We had a You Rock, a little too much buffalo wing popcorn, and a lot of fun. Such a great opportunity to share the Sandstorm story!

We’ll keep you posted on when it’s live.

This blog was posted by on April 25, 2014.
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.

Sandstorm Talks UX at Drupal MidCamp

Learn more about how to better the user experience on your Drupal website. Take some time this weekend and attend the Midwest Drupal Camp 2014 (or Drupal MidCamp). Michael Hartman, our Technology and Usability Director, is giving a presentation that highlights 4 of the best user research approaches. He will walk you through the practices that uncover what your users are looking for, their needs, and areas to improve.

The user experience research methods discussed include:

Michael’s talk is scheduled for Saturday, March 29 from 1:45 p.m. to 2:45 p.m. in the River room at the University Center (525 S. State Street, Chicago).

Learn more about his talk or sign up for Drupal MidCamp.

This blog was posted by on March 26, 2014.
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.

Janna
4 Types of User Research and When to Use Them - Part 2: Card Sorting and Tree Testing

Card sorting and tree testing are the yin and yang of determining and testing your navigation and menu structure. Card sorting is helpful when creating a menu structure while tree testing is an effective way to test a menu structure.

Card sorting exercises consist of writing samples of your content on cards and having your users sort those cards into groups. Two varieties of card sorting can be used, an open card sort where you also have your users label each group and a closed card sort where the groups are predetermined.

Tree testing works in the other direction where you present the user with a navigation structure and ask them to find particular piece of content.

Both are quick and easy ways to arrive at an effective menu structure and there are several great online tools for conducting both of these exercises.

Why should I use this approach?

If you’re looking to solve any of the following, card sorting and/or tree testing will help:

  • You’ve heard feedback that your content is hard to find.
  • You’re not sure what to label a section or type of content.
  • Your navigation structure is overly complicated. (Hint: it shouldn’t be complicated at all.)

The benefits and results of card sorting include:

  • Creating a new user centered menu structure
  • Testing and improving an existing navigation and menu structure
  • Identifying user-centric labels for your navigation

When should I start?

Card sorting and tree testing is a versatile user research method. It’s great to do at the beginning of the design process to ensure structure simplicity and utility. Although, If your current navigation is giving your users trouble, you can conduct this research at any time.

Steps for conducting a card sort

Below is a six step approach for card sorting:

1. Identify your content.
For new sites, you will need to identify your content strategy first. For an existing site, audit your content to catalog and understand what you have and how it is currently organized.

2. Create your cards.
25–30 “cards” is a good amount. Any more and it becomes too cumbersome for your testers to complete. Make sure you have an accurate representation of your site’s content with enough cards from any category to allow for grouping.

3. Recruit users.
Have as many users as possible participate, at least 20. It’s crucial to test with real users, too. Involving stakeholders will likely skew results.

4. Conduct the study.
We like using an online tool so we can invite as many users as possible to participate and they can do so in their own environment and on their own time. A good ones is Optimal Workshop’s Optimal Sort.

5. Analyze your results.
With a closed card sort it’s mostly a matter of identifying how many times a card was placed into a particular group and identifying the trends. Open card sorts are a little more difficult to analyze. There is less consistency within the number and names of groups your users create. The online tools mentioned above will save you a lot of time here.

If online tools are not an option, use your favorite spreadsheet program and list your cards vertically down the first column.Then put the user created categories in a row across the top. Now, you can mark in the matrix how many times each card was put into each category.

It’s likely many of your users created similar category labels that can be combined (e.g. About, About us, About [name of organization]). At this point you should start to see groupings and trends. Major groupings will be obvious, but around the edges, groupings are not as clear and will require your judgment. (Tree testing will help confirm you’ve chosen the correct labels and groupings.)

6. Build or update your navigation. Take your findings and build a navigation that is easier and more intuitive for you and your users.

Following up with tree testing

Now that you have a workable navigation, some simple tree testing will help confirm your findings:

1. Build a menu for testing. This can be an html prototype or simply a list of your primary (top level) navigation items on a piece of paper.

2. Ask your users “Where would you go to find X?” Use the content from the cards you created for your sorting exercise.

3. Adjust your navigation as needed.

Getting the information to fulfill your goals

Card sorting and tree testing is an effective exercise for gathering insights from your users for organizing your content. Involving your users in the process will help ensure you’re speaking their language, after all they are the people using the site.

[Ed. - Check back for the next post of this series on user research with Usability Studies. If you missed it, be sure to read the first post on In-Depth User Interviews.]

This blog was posted by Janna on May 5.
Janna Fiester

About the Author

Janna Fiester

Sandstorm's VP of UX & Brand Innovation, Janna, is a design-thinker. Showcased in several design publications and exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, she is talented in taking nuggets of good ideas and nurturing them into solutions that are always strategic, engaging and visually delightful.

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.

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