190. Become a branding Ninja

Paul Boag

On this week’s show: Ryan and Stanton interview Alex Hunter about managing your brand. Meanwhile Paul and Marcus look at how to speed up your website.

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Offline inspiration

It has been a while since we have featured a Smashing Magazine post on the show so thought it was about time.

Shocking though this will be, it is not a top 10 list. Instead it is an excellent post on finding inspiration offline.

The post argues that using online sources such as CSS galleries for inspiration is not enough. As designers we need to be taking a walk, visiting a museum or spending time sketching. We need to consider these an essential part of our job description.

The post examines eight areas of inspiration:

  • Nature
  • Museums
  • Sketching
  • Hobbies
  • Music
  • Photography
  • Traditional art
  • Our own imaginations

It then discusses what can be found in these areas of inspiration. In particular the post looks at:

  • Texture
  • Color
  • Shapes
  • Changing our perspective
  • Discovering themes

The problem is that we don’t feel like visiting a museum is work and even if we do our bosses certainly do not! However, this is eloquently addressed to:

The trick is to consider alternative inspiration an an essential part of the job. While it feels more like play than work at first, finding true inspiration should mean more than browsing through the same material over and over. And we should know that in a creative industry, having fun is okay; it doesn’t mean we’re being unproductive.

Girl looking at Museum exhbit

Image source

Some of the best design work I ever did came from offline sources. I just wish I prioritised this kind of research more.

All you need to know about CSS3

Mr Stanton discovered a great new site this week – CSS3.info. With CSS 2.1. becoming increasingly supported and integrated into our work, it is time to look ahead at what CSS 3 has in store.

CSS3 has got some really interesting new features that are already supported in some browsers. From advanced selectors such as attribute selection through to multiple column layouts, there is a host of goodies we can start to play with.

What is more, by using graded browser support we don’t need to worry too much about IE’s lack of support.

CSS3.info is a great starting point if you want to begin using some of these advanced CSS features. It provides examples of each new feature and tells you what browsers support it. It also provides a selector check so you can see what advanced selectors work in different browsers. Finally, it also provides up-to-date information on how the new specification is progressing.

I really would encourage you to take a look at CSS3. Its got some really exciting features that you can start using now.

Preparing and planning for a redesign

Although I am generally against the principle of redesigning sites from the ground up, there is no doubt that every site needs a refresh once in a while.

Knowing when and how to go about redesigning your website can be a tricky process. Fortunately Web Designers Depot has a post that might help. Entitled “Preparing and planning for a redesign” it provides some valuable advice for any website owners thinking of redesigning.

The Firefox website before and after its redesign

The post starts by looking at how you know it is time to redesign. Contributing factors include:

  • Out of date technologies and techniques
  • The age of a design
  • The lack of a CMS
  • Search engine ranking problems
  • Under performance
  • Your competition

It then goes on to look at what needs to be done in preparation for a redesign. This includes:

  • Identifying what works
  • Being clear on what doesn’t
  • Looking at what can be removed, combined or added
  • Knowing what motivates your users
  • Whether a complete redesign is even necessary

Finally, the article concludes by looking at some potential dangers in redesigning. These include dealing with repeat users and avoiding broken links.

Although I don’t agree with everything in this post, it is a useful article if you are considering a redesign. Check it out.

I want to conclude with a post that might make you rethink your sites navigation. It is by Gerry McGovern and is entitled “Confusing menus and links: the web’s biggest challenge.”

Gerry applies his task focused approach to information architecture. He argues that too many organisations are more concerned with organising their content into an IA, than meeting the needs of users.

He suggests that to make a truly effective information architecture we need to start thinking like our users, who are focused on the task at hand.

To demonstrate his point he refers to the BBC sports site as a good example:

If you visit the BBC homepage and choose “Sport” you are brought to a page about sport. Just sport. The critical first screen is all about sport. No links to news or weather or business. Just sport. If you click on Football you arrive at a page that’s just about Football. Just Football. Not cricket. Not rugby. Not golf. Just football. If you click on “Premier League” you get to a page dedicated to the Premier League.

This is not web design. It’s web management. It’s about eliminating all choices that are not connected with the customer’s current task, which in the above example might be: Find out the latest news about the Premier League.

BBC Football website

Too often as website owners we clutter our navigation with other content that users “might want” or which we want them to look at. Although there are times when we want to cross link or promote other content, we need to be careful not to distract users from achieving their primary aim. If they become overwhelmed by links and fail to complete their task easily, they will leave.

He ends with a radical suggestion:

Menus and links need to be designed in the context of the task the customer is trying to complete. That means stripping away higher-level options and creating links that point forward based on the task at hand.

Stripping away top level navigation is not always a good idea, but this post should make us sit up and think.

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Interview: Alex Hunter discusses developing an online brand

Ryan: OK, joining us today is Alex Hunter and we’ve just listened to you do a talk on… what was the talk title, I’ve forgotten?

Stanton: It was kind of “Managing Your Brand”.

Ryan: “Managing Your … Marketing Your Web App and Future Brands Online” – it was really good talk; really fascinating.

Alex: Thank you.

Ryan: So, would you like to tell us a little bit about yourself Alex?

Alex: Yeah. Sure. I’m an independent, kind of, brand ninja if you will. I’ve worked with some of the biggest brands in the world – on both sides of the pond. I live here in the UK but am originally from California.

Ryan: OK. And your talk was focused around making yourself your brand; putting your reputation on the line, in a way. It was really interesting – do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Alex: Absolutely, yeah. Brand is one of those things that falls by the wayside, especially when it’s a developer-centred organisation. Developers are creating amazing technologies, incredible platforms but while they’ve been doing that they’ve actually been completely changing the game; they’ve been fundamentally changing the way marketing and branding works. It’s amazing, because they’ve create apps and platforms (i.e. social networking) that allow consumers to connect with brands for the very first time. Before, it was just send a letter out, watch a billboard, very mono-directional. But now we have these tools to connect with brands, and the irony is that the people that created that conversation aren’t responding to the fact that they need to have their brands intact.

Ryan: Right, OK.

Stanton: You gave a couple of examples of companies that you respect and that do this kind of thing really well. Can you give us a run through those?

Alex: Sure. I think Digg has put a lot of time and effort into their brand over their, what is, five-year or six-year existence. They’ve done a lot of little things really, really well and it was nice to hear Kevin Rose allude to them yesterday. Things like their blog – I think they’ve got the best corporate blog in the world because it’s not just the Vice-President of PR doing the blogging. It’s not even just Kevin or Jay (the founder and CEO respectively). It’s the developers, the designers, the DB admins, the receptionists, the community managers i.e. the faces and the names of the people that created and curate the community that we as the “Digg Community” have invested so much time and energy into. We can connect with those people now because it’s a name and a face of a real person. And so what they do whenever they roll out a new piece of technology or a new development, they say “Hey, I’m the guy that did this. Here’s why and here’s how (in excrutiating detail). What do you think?”. And that’s kind of revolutionary.

Stanton: So you would encourage people – especially working in small teams – not to be scared of just talking about what they’re doing and just waiting for “Let’s just wrap it up in a press release” or something and just talk about it naturally and be precious and passionate.

Alex: The being “precious” about it, I think, is a very, very big risk. That transparency is really beautiful because it brings people into the journey – especially when you’re creating something brand new – when it’s just an idea. You’re creating a new product and you’re updating people on it. It’s why reality TV is such a painful hit, I mean. It’s because people are looking into this thing and, Lord knows, the dev cycle is dramatic and painful and “4 o’clock in the morning” caffeine-induced frenzies. But also, it’s like when things go wrong, hold your hands up – be transparent, human. Don’t hide behind a brand name or a product name. And people will engage with that.

Ryan: So, how should people be doing this really? How should people be developing their brand and associating themselves towards the brand and then putting it out there. What techniques should they be using?

Alex: It’s a great question. I think that there’s – especially with Twitter, interestingly – there’s this real blurring of the line between personal brand and corporate brand. A lot of the big names that we know in technology embody their brand; Kevin Rose is Digg, Gary Veynerchuk is Wine Library TV, Tony Hsieh is Zappos – they’re all completely interconnected; there’s no separating them. They’ve invested themselves emotionally in what they do and that shows in the brand. And I think they’re defined by what they want to be. Gary has always been very clear about what his values are, Digg is very clear about what their values are. Apple are very clear about what their values are, and I think, trite as it may sound, going through and identifying your values – and it was really refreshing because as I came off the stage some dude came up to me and say “Hey, thank you. We’ve been labouring over this for years and we finally sat down – or I stopped sitting down with myself and brought the whole team in – and we defined our values” and it’s just gone up exponentially through that. And so I think it’s just define the values, creating an identity out of that and then saying “What are we now and what are we going to be, well, indefinitely really”.

Ryan: So do you think that’s got to be one of the first stages when you release it – you’ve got to be thinking about where you’re going to take it and how you’re going to present it to the world.

Alex: Absolutely

Ryan: That’s vitally important.

Stanton: So you talked about brand consistency and not to be scared of it or precious of it again. You should be willing to put it out there and how other people in your company – just use it and get it out there.

Alex: It’s… consistency is a funny one. People always say “The more people you give the message to the more watered down it becomes and the less consistent the message is”. Big brands are really scared of losing the refinement of their message. Realistically, they’ve been doing it for the last 30 years because the person who answers the phone in the call centre is the first point of contact that a user has with your brand. They are representing your brand. The receptionist is representing your brand. So giving someone an account on Twitter to do the same is no different, it’s just a little bit more of a public stage. But, on the flip side, that’s a good thing because people can see you responding to positive comments and negative comments and reacting and helping people in a very public forum. That’s why things like Get Satisfaction and applications like that – and actually in South Africa there’s a really popular one called Hello Peter which businesses are all into trying to respond and react to. So I think it’s a good thing and people shouldn’t be scared of consistency.

Ryan: Some brands, and we’re talking here quite a bit about people being associated to the brand and being kind of interchangeable. You say Steve Jobs, you say Apple, you always think of the two. For brands like, you mentioned, Diet Coke – being that you were invested into that brand – there’s no person that you can think of associated to that but you see that brand and you’re committed to it. McDonalds, things like that. What differences are there between the two? How do you promote? It’s kind of a logo you’re promoting in a way, isn’t it.

Alex: It’s a really good question. Diet Coke – the Coke/Pepsi thing is a fascinating brand battle and one of the few where it’s really only a two-horse race, especially in the consumer arena. I mean you’ve got Boeing and Airbus but they don’t really have to advertise because, well, I don’t have $100 billion lying around. Coke and Pepsi, I think, play off the fact that they are rivals and you are either one or the other. I think the more you consume of it the more passionate you become about it. So, if you are a regular Diet Coke drinker – like my wife won’t go to restaurants that serve Pepsi, she’ll leave because she can’t stand the taste of it. I’m sure it’s psychological because as Dave Chapelle said in that video, “It’s all the same”. It’s sugared water in a tin can! But they’ve managed to kind of feed off each other to an extent that has developed this rivalry and therefore developed this passion within its user base.

Ryan: I suppose then there’s so many different avenues that you can take to compete and get your brand out there. Is there any more that particularly stand out; having a direct competitor is one way of developing your brand or having a figurehead or any other ways you can go about it?

Alex: Absolutely, absolutely – especially for small – or reasonably small – brands. I think there’s a couple of things that are really important. In kind of extending the reach of the brand and the application with content like blogs – like the Digg example is a great one – but also engagement, both in the physical world and in the digital world. There are a lot of web companies that are getting really good at hosting real world events where users meet up and are rewarded both on a macro-like Digg or a Yelp on a micro level like some companies here in Europe like Qype that I mentioned during my talk that are introducing users to each other and to the people that either administrator or are the, kind of, power users within the community. Kevin Rose mentioned that again yesterday as a really good way; launch parties, regular user meetups, get people talking, get people connected. That really breeds loyalty. It’s astounding what that can do in terms of the competitive.

Ryan: I think Digg is an excellent example because they have so many methods of getting their message out there, don’t they. They’ve got the blog and the meetups and everything else.

Stanton: It’s like that with the bigger companies that come out. They can release different products that might not be wildly different but there’s the kind of umbrella brand that’s so strong that you can pick up that product and you know it’s new and you know the quality of it.

Alex: It’s really interesting. The web has actually fundamentally changed the way brand is perceived because we have these, like, loyalty mechanisms built in. Let’s look at, like, re-branding an acquisition. If my local supermarket gets bought by another supermarket, I don’t care. As long as it’s still there and has food in it – whatever! When Yahoo! bought Flickr they kind of didn’t know what to do with the brand. Do you keep it Flickr or do you make it Yahoo! Photos? And they’ve been kind of to-ing and fro-ing. But you can’t because that loyalty that’s in the Flickr community, that has built it up to where it is, would be PISSED OFF. So now, the compromise that just did recently was “Flickr by Yahoo!”.

Ryan: And people don’t seem to like it!

Alex: Exactly! Can you imagine what would happen if they rebranded it to just Yahoo! Photos? I mean, of course you’d get over it eventually but it’d take a lot longer and you’d lose a lot of customers.

Stanton: That kind of touches on one of the key things I took away from your talk. You said “Look after your users best interests, not yours”.

Alex: Absolutely. It’s hard because you gotta pay the bills. But that reputation will put you head and shoulders above anybody else. The Amazing Tunes example that I used. There are other unsigned artists sites out there, but not that give 70% of the profits back to the user and not that have a DAB radio station that you can get featured on. That’s looking after users. That’s the definition of an ethical web company.

Stanton: So for anyone starting out or building a company or a start-up or something, are there any common mistakes or pitfalls that you see all the time, or that you’d encourage people to watch out for or avoid.

Alex: Absolutely. There’s the ever-present “If you build it, they will come” mentality. If a build a solid app, no matter how ugly it is, people will come. They will not because they’ll never hear about it. And there are competitive apps to almost everything, and if there isn’t one today, there will be one tomorrow, and they will have looked at what you’ve done and they will have started an outreach, they will have started a Twitter account, they will have started a blog, they will have networked it physically and they will have networked it digitally, they will have thought about the presence, the UI. And I think that siloing and kind of compartmentalising and just saying “I’m going to iterate my app” is not going to work. There are exceptions to that rule. TweetDeck – he developed it to solve a personal problem, it just happened to be really well solved, and so it’s kind of growing on its own. But that is the exception to the rule. I think that hiding under a bushel, expecting it to develop on its own, it’s just not going to happen.

Ryan: With regards to cost of developing your brand, it can be the chicken and the egg sometimes. You need to develop an app and get it out there to make some return to put some investment into marketing it. What initial steps can be used to build yourself up before you can plough some money into it and doing it properly.

Alex: It’s kind of interesting. I think, yeah – you’ve got to have a concept obviously and some basic stuff done but I think one of the things that I’ve always found that worked, and it was really interesting to hear someone talk about it yesterday – I’m not sure who it was – but this kind of closed beta invite only concept seems to work really well at generating buzz. And if you just get one or two people saying “What the heck is this?”. You get these precious invites – which really aren’t that precious – Spotify’s a great example; actually Spotify’s a great example on two levels: 1) it was invite only for the longest time and 2) our pals in America couldn’t have it and they wanted it so badly that they were spoofing IP addresses and whatever they had to do to actually be able to use it. That kind of sense of exclusivity is a free way of generating that kind of buzz, if you can just get enough people to talk about it and it’s just an occasional whisper in the air, a Moo Card dropped somewhere with an invite code on it – that will just start to get people excited about it. But you have to make sure the product doesn’t suck on the back of it, because that will also spread pretty quickly as well.

Stanton: A lot of the talks I’ve sat in on today are starting to tie in. Yesterday it was “If you’re going to release something, release it early”. Do one or two things but do them really well, don’t try and do everything at once because you won’t be able to. And then see how things get – see how your users react to it and then build. I guess that’s reacting with the branding people that engage with the brand and then you’re building it and they feel invested.

Alex: That focus is really important as well, and I think that’s why APIs are so important in the early stage because you can get people developing iPhone apps and other integrations without taking your eye off the ball and doing those one or two things really well and going “Oh crap we’ve got to go home and develop the iPhone app”. It’s really interesting the way that it’s evolved – product development.

Ryan: Do you have any predictions of how things are going to change in the future. At the minute we’ve got these big companies that are doing it really well, everyone’s kind of imitating and doing similiar things to try and push their brands as well, and inevitably, things will change again. Any predictions about where things might be going?

Alex: I think it will become even more democratic. I think that the users will become even more powerful because the time to reaction is so fast.

Ryan: Yeah

Alex: But I also think loyalty will get even stronger and if you’re going to develop a competing app to an incumbant you’re going to have to work 10 times harder to get people off of what they’re using. As people start to use even more social currency, more points systems, giving more “value” to a user, it’ll be harder and harder to bring them over. I also think it’s going to be harder for people to acquire web brands, especially the big companies – the Yahoo!s the AOLs of the world to acquire small web brands without alienating those kind of fervently loyal people that are already their user base.

Ryan: You did mention people coming up with all this sort of cutesy names and stuff, mispellings and things like that. The market just seems to be saturated with it. How should people be thinking about deciding on a good brand and what fundamental things should they be thinking about when they’re making those decisions

Alex: I think that’s a great question. It’s less about the name – like you said it’s really easy just to misspell something or drop a consonant; that’s really lazy – you’ve got to look at it much more as a value-driven. What are our values? What is our product like? What is our team made of? Where are we in the world? And then use that to feed in the name to something obviously catchy, obviously when you can get the domain for a reasonable price – those are practical things that you need to take into consideration. But it’s got to be catchy; it’s got to be engaging, it’s got to mean something. And I think people have started to catch onto the whole “if you can make it a verb”. Digg and Google have become verbs (by the fact that they’re just ubiquitous), but I think people are now starting to say (at least, I’ve heard people around London say) “I’m going to Qype that” and it means “I’m going to check what this place is like” in terms of reviewing a restaurant before I go into it or whip out their Qype Radar iPhone app and check it out before they walk into it. So I think that that’s a really interesting revolution.

Stanton: You’ve got to work hard to get to that place, don’t you?

Alex: You really do.

Stanton: Then it appears in the dictionary!

Alex: That’s when you know it’s all over. You’ve won!

Ryan: OK, well, thank you very much for your time. I really enjoyed your talk and I think listeners will find that really useful. Thank you so much.

Thanks goes to Sam Kirkpatrick for transcribing this interview

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Listeners feedback: Give yourself a speed boost!

Normally the listener section of the show focuses on me answering listener questions. However, this week on twitter and the forum it has been the other way around.

You may have noticed that boagworld has been running slow for sometime. Well, I finally decided it was time to fix the problem. However, my knowledge on the subject was fairly limited. That was why I turned to the Boagworld community and boy did they help!

I thought it was only fair that I share the top 5 things I learn from them.

Read 5 Ways To Give Your Site A Speed Boost In Less Than 30 Minutes.

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