Small Batch Branding – Realer Than You Think

My in-laws are in the process of sifting through a late relative’s estate. He wasn’t rich by any means, but he did have an eye for good craftsmanship, and left behind a modest collection of antiques. There’s nothing to get rich off, but the items are still too nice to simply cart off to Goodwill. Clearly, this is a classic job for eBay, and, eventually, the dreaded post office.

But this Thanksgiving, as I showed my in-laws around the eBay mobile app, I was shocked to hear my wife rattle off, verbatim, the commercial for, which runs at least once per episode on our favorite podcast. She knew everything, from the promo code to the sign-off. It was like a heartwarming, homespun version of The Exorcist.

Almost as shocking: the fact that I recognized she was repeating it word for word.

We are, clearly, big podcast listeners. And we tend to be very loyal to our favorite shows.

Podcasting is an especially intimate medium, with the familiarity of radio, and the peer-to-peer rapport of the internet. What it might lack in numbers, it more than makes up for in loyalty and engagement (though some of those numbers are nothing to dismiss). We’ve heard that commercial thirty or forty times, and could recognize it by heart—happily. When was the last time you could say that about an overlay ad?

I bring this up to illustrate a point, which organizations still seem reluctant to put into practice: The future belongs to the hard core. The market is too fractious and flat to market broadly anymore. But small, fiercely devoted audiences will make your nut and spread the word more effectively than the widest marketing blast, or the most mimicked “influencer.”

That means that the stories you tell have to be richer in detail, more pointed in their specificity, more sincere in their desire to truly connect. It means that building a relationship with your user isn’t a metaphor for sales acquisitions. It’s for realsies.

That means that the product has to be, too. It has to be worth saving, worth passing on to a good home. If you want a relationship with users, you first have to craft your half of the equation: not just a quality product, but the personality that outsiders will want to spend time with. You have to find sincere partners and vehicles for your message, who will share your goal of authentic, intimate connection to a devoted following—who value quality engagement over quantity engagement.

Call it brand if you must, but it can’t be synthesized. It can be only discovered and refined. Brand can’t be constructed, only realized. And that’s not just hard—it’s scary. It means exposing yourself for a judgment as honest and true as you are. For some people, smoke and mirrors are more appealing. But if you can connect authentically and intimately, your message will spread everywhere your users go.

And I’ll see you never at the post office.

Looking For Water, Digging Up Treasure

Imagine you’re a farmer in central China. The year is 1974. You and a couple guys you’ve known since childhood are out in the countryside, digging a new well. You’ve got shovels, picks, buckets, rope and pipe. It’s not exactly easy work, but not much of a challenge either—just another day on the job.

What you don’t realize is that you’re about to unearth the first of thousands of terracotta warriors marking the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. It’s one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of all time, and all you’ve got is a dirt bucket.


To their continuing credit, those farmers didn’t just keep going with their picks and shovels. They stopped what they were doing and found some archaeologists who could grasp the enormity of their discovery, and take steps to preserve the awesome discovery

That’s the situation where we find ourselves when the line between scope and discovery blurs. We have the potential to discover unthought-of opportunities—and to come up woefully ill-equipped.

Do you know whether you’re digging a well or unearthing the 8th Wonder of the World? Are you giving yourself enough time to make the distinction? Are you going to keep digging for water, or see what’s really beneath your feet?

Always ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve?

Always ask yourself: What problem are we trying to solve?



Then ask: Is it the same one we started with?



Squealing Feedback

There’s feedback, and then there’s feedback.

There’s the sophisticated definition of feedback that Norbert Weiner described in Cybernetics and Society: “The property of being able to adjust future conduct by past performance.” That is, a system’s ability to measure its work against that work’s outcome, and make systemic adjustments to maintain or improve quality of outcome. Instrumental feedback is a primitive example of this, as it registers systemic dysfunction, but relies on people to correct.

And then there’s the feedback I learned as a callow teen on the streets of Miami, gigging around sleazy clubs with my band The Bad Kids (it was an ironically bad name, I tell myself). We would sometimes have to set up in such cramped quarters that we couldn’t play a note without peals of screeching noise emanating from our amps and PA.

That’s feedback.

Some of the greatest punk and experimental bands intentionally utilize(d) feedback, because of the distress it evokes. A screech of instrumental feedback is, in essence, one simple robot (amplifier) telling an even simpler robot (electric guitar): “BACK OFF.” The audience grasps that on some level. Two entities in unresolved conflict. Exciting stuff.

Engagements have their own feedback process, but all too often it comes at the end, after the drop, when adjustment is a moot point. Happy post-hoc feedback is a warm welcoming drone, like the first Velvet Underground album. Unhappy post-hoc feedback is an anguished shriek of frustration and paranoia, like the second Velvet Underground album. Either way, it’s passive. You can sit there and nod, but there’s not much room for participation.

For feedback to be useful, it has to go hand-in-hand with adjustment. Substantive adjustment—not the promise to circle back, not the agreement to think more about it while staying the course for the time being. It requires human agency—the choice to do things differently—the creativity to envision alternative tactics—the courage to try something untried.  It demands honesty to assess the past and broad-mindedness to move forward. If we can’t rise to that standard of action, we operate at the level of paralyzed robots. Instead of sharpening our understanding and rising to a higher potential, we abandon ourselves to our ongoing mistakes, screaming bloody murder and hoping someone comes along and pulls the plug.

Who’s Asking? How to Avoid Jargon in User Communications

A significant difference exists between the specialized vocabularies that we need to discuss niche or specialty fields, and the bizarre dialects that grow up around certain professions. Jargon is shibboleth. You speak it less to communicate ideas, and more to affirm your membership among an elite.

When jargon litters your user communications, it’s almost always the consequence of copywriters wanting to establish their bona fides with you instead of speaking to your customers. Chalk it up as a risk built into the contractor/stakeholder relationship. These content creators are trying to tell you, the stakeholder, that they are informed, intelligent and have put in the time to understand your market. That makes you feel confident in their crash-course expertise, while validating them as wordsmiths and quick studies.

Their motives are honest, if a bit remiss—but what good is that for your users and customers?

There’s no silver bullet for finding that line between a legit lexicon and the shadowland of jargon. But there are some questions that you can ask yourself.

1.) Who are you talking to? Are you talking to your colleagues and competitors when you should really be talking to outsiders and laymen?

2.) Whose intelligence does this content flatter: your user’s, or yours?

3.) How much of this content has a unique contextual definition? If a word means something different to you and your colleagues than the public at large, it’s time to dust off the thesaurus.

4.) Have you provided your content creator(s) with substantive background material? Writers are experts at convincingly using vocabulary they half-understand. If your discovery provides them jargon without much context or meaning, don’t be surprised if that’s what you get back.

5.) Can you picture an actual person saying what’s written in the copy? What do they look like? If they look like a stock photo cliché, send it back to the writer for another pass.

Incorporating Random Chance into UX Design

Netflix recently presented a neat model for working random chance into UX design when they rolled out A/B testing for their new My List feature—an alternative to their long-running Queue feature. The new design comes packaged with a Random Suggestion carousel on top of more tightly focused behavioral-adaptative recommendations. It’s a smart way to get around the problem that automated curation can cause. We’ve all run into Pandora or Spotify dead-ends, where one lousy day of appreciating Gordon Lightfoot’s genius comes back to haunt your recommendations for months to come. It’s an unintended consequence of behavioral adaptive AI: a feedback loop of ever-narrowing personalization that shrinks your taste to a cartoon of itself.

Evolutionary change occurs via random mutations, and non-random selection that comes from interaction with the environment. In the world of content strategy and design, that environment is your iterative or editorial process, the testing field which determines those new forms to keep and those to discard. In the user’s interaction with your product, it takes the form of experimentation and selection with novel content.

Incorporating random chance into your design gives you and your users the opportunity to break out of old habits, to test new content, expose yourselves to new markets, and maybe, if you’re lucky, grow a little as individuals. It’s an escape hatch from the echo chamber, a way around those occasions when we don’t quite know what we want. It’s a free bit of insight into what’s been overlooked. Tap into that expansive, multifaceted quality of your users. Open your UX to the possibility of a little luck and you’ll discover unthought-of directions.

Ask the Dumb Questions

“Question Everything” is a hammer and a magnifying glass. Depending on its use, it can undermine certainty or clarify understanding. The difference usually lies in the complexity of the question. The bloggable twist: contrary to supposition, the “dumber” the question, the greater the clarity.

Ask the dumb question. Start with the dumbest and work your way up to smart. It’s the dumbest questions that offer the incontrovertible facts. It’s the smart ones that leave otherwise intelligent people debating semantics, or how many use cases can dance on the head of a pin.

It’s inevitable that people will initially advocate for a strategic path that treats dissent as adversarial—to be overruled. Conversely, an unconvinced party will treat pre-buy-in strategy as antithesis to be undermined. An adversarial approach to truth-finding might serve us judicially, but in product-development or content strategy, consensus is the interpersonal goal, while maximal simplicity/grace—not zero-sum victory—is the material goal. The dumber the question, the more incontrovertible the resolution, the less potential for antagonism.

Non-technical stakeholders have a right to explanations that start with no-brainer antecedents and expand from there. Developers shouldn’t be expected to divine nuts-and-bolts logic from high-flown abstractions. You all deserve a map of the decisions and assumptions that have moved your project from the crudest axioms to the most refined experiences.

Tags – You’re It

No matter how good your UX is, once your content or data reaches a certain critical mass, you will have to contend with the need to develop search functions. It’s funny what a stumbling block the mere issue can become, never mind undertaking the actual work. You’re leery of over-categorizing because you don’t want to circumscribe your potential. The fear is that well-defined buckets are an admission that your organization is limited in its capabilities, or that you will shut out some customers for the benefit of others.

Google has spoiled us by making search look so easy. But we’ve all had the experience of using a website’s native search function, only to get back hundreds if not thousands of useless returns. Unless you have Google money and talent to develop behavioral adaptation, that’s the level of quality you can expect. Someone—man or machine—has to analyze each piece of content beforehand, extract semantic metadata and appropriately identify it.

The option available to most businesses is the human one—tight categorization and taxonomy, tagging and intuitive UX. Non-behavioral full text search, the kind a non-multibillion dollar company can afford—puts onus on users to sift through responses for relevant items. Methodical tagging lifts that burden and (incr)eases engagement.

There’s a kind of suspicion that floats around the human element of this approach. You could theoretically build your tagging taxonomy on the back of Starbucks receipts. That analog simplicity makes it feel, at the visceral level, like a lazy contrivance, or a sign that your strategist might be a technical lightweight.

It may be an analog task, but in this case, leaving search functionality up to a one-size-fits all plugin is the path of least resistance that takes you nowhere. The limited capabilities of full text search (at least the kind you can afford) yield either useless results, or leave out relevant returns that don’t contain the exact terms being searched for. It takes focus, intense scrutiny, discernment and attention span—from your strategy team, your devs and you—to do with tagging and taxonomy what might be performed with rigorous behavioral search algorithms. But it’s the only way to get million-dollar results with thousand-dollar budgets. It can’t be passed off, or thrown into an afternoon of multitasking. Tags, you’re it.


CS Sniglets (a trifle)

Remember sniglets? Before the internet came around to answer all of our questions (to varying degrees of accuracy), there were objects in our everyday lives that we actually didn’t know the names of. Rich Hall made a bit out of it on the old Not Necessarily the News back in the 80s. “Sniglet” was the term he gave to “any word that should appear in the dictionary but doesn’t.”

As you’ve probably noticed, CS and digital design move so fast that there are usually a lot of new concepts without names we can all agree on. So we’re introducing an ongoing feature here: CS Sniglets. Hopefully not too many double as obscenities on Urban Dictionary.

“Impringles”: Superficial innovations adopted in lieu of organizational betterment.

Spyball”: The exact point on a page where a user is currently looking.

“Spushing”: When a banner ad, accordion or Ajax expands to knock you away from your point on the page, then knocks you back again when it collapses.

“Phantom Tweep Syndrome”: The mistaken belief that you were already following someone on social media.

“Premature Solicitation“: CTAs that precede engagement. e.g. Newsletter sign-up forms that appear before the page even loads.

“Zeepon”: A team member or stakeholder who doesn’t appear until after the first product drop.

“Content Strategery”: Projects where visual design precedes strategy.


Got a CS Sniglet? Don’t be a zeepon, bro—send it to us.

Where Words and Pictures Meet

Marshall McLuhan theorized that as new media replace old, the old media revert to being a culture’s vehicles for art, while new media carry “popular” communication (commercial speech, entertainment, journalism).

As we move further and further from the most recent changing of the guard, that of broadcast/print to digital, we’d do well to revisit the artists—the Ray Pettibons, Barbara Krugers, John Baldessaris—who rode the last transition to success, anticipating our new media landscape and assimilating its implications, using the media of the arrière-garde even before the new wave arrived.

This is the positive face of Rushkoff’s Present Shock. These are pings of narrative, collapsed at the intersection of image and text, but in a manner that contains the totality of multiple, complementary stories. Note, this isn’t the same thing as a caption, a header or a subhead. They are expertly crafted fragments inspiring a vivid whole in the minds of their audience.

Raymond Pettibon – “I Thought California Would Be Different”

Ray Pettibon - California

Taken separately, Pettibon’s image and text contain little meaning, or perhaps too much, too vaguely. But combined, they tell a thousand stories at once, all combining to deliver a single emotional punch. This is a story of retreat, of disillusion. It speaks of the cold dawn that arrived after the long, postwar California dream. The cultural crash of the 70s and 80s preoccupies Pettibon’s early work—though his later work tends more toward nostalgia than pessimism. What would happen if a nonprofit applied these tactics to convey the hopes and aspirations of their website, or latest campaign? What if instead of simple ink on paper, they used moving images? It might begin to look something like this:

Maranti Warajanga 1967

(from Marnti Warajanga: A Walk Together)


 Barbara Kruger – “The Future Belongs to Those Who Can See It”


Barbara Kruger’s enduring style utilizes a mashup of vintage kitsch and commercial typography at its most brutalist to encode feminist messages in the ghost tone of their interplay. (There’s also a point to be made about her ironic use of fascist aesthetics, but you’ll probably want to leave that out of your next stakeholders meeting.) What if the “hipster” artisan movement put this principle into action to answer the criticism of nostalgia and preciousness? The hints of such an approach are visible here: 

Empire Mayo

 (from Empire Mayonnaise Co.)


 John Baldessari – “Econ-O-Wash, 14th and Highland, National City, Calif.”

Baldessari - Econowash

Baldessari predates Kruger and Pettibon by a good fifteen years, and perhaps as a consequence, his text-and-image pieces are much more simple and declarative. In this case, the tactic we can adopt is minimalism. Econ-O-Wash speaks of the thing-in-itself, without drama or puffery. When the story we’re telling is simple, his work instructs us that the less said, the better. What if you let the product speak for itself, absent any puffery? What if copy were used to simplify rather than embellish? You might have a design like this:

Screen shot 2013-06-05 at 3.56.12 PM

(from Ghost Games)


We’re working at the intersection of image and text, in a present moment so colossally compressed it almost no longer exists. This is an opportunity to slip an expanse of meaning into a hair’s breadth of time and space. As we strive for impact across communications fields, these artists should be our role models. They provide one of the few methods for storytelling that still actually fits.

First Impressions: Real Tools for Adopting Brand Voice

We’ve all had the experience of listening to a speaker and somehow knowing exactly what word they’re about to say next. With our family and close friends, this comes naturally. We complete their sentences, or roll our eyes when we know their gripes to the letter. Most of us can do a spot-on (not always flattering) impression of at least one relative. We’ve spent so much time with them that their speech patterns, vocabulary and hobby horses become second nature.

When it falls on copywriters to speak for a brand, we have to adopt voice as close to perfectly as we do for our friends and family. And we rarely have a lifetime to practice our delivery. Here are some shortcuts.

Create vocabulary clusters: Most brands have some kind of language bible specifying which words and phrases they try to use and/or avoid. If not, feed key brand documentation into one of the countless word cloud generators out there. Select the most common brand-specific terms (you should be able to collect at least 20-30) and list them out separately. These are the core of the company voice.

Next, revisit the key brand documentation, and answer these questions: What is the brand voice’s grammatical person? What is the average per-sentence word count? How many clauses, on average, appear in any given sentence? Check all your writing against these metrics while you work to internalize the brand’s voice.

Finally, find somewhere private and read 2-3 of those key brand documents out loud, 2-3 times each. Find the vocal consistency of the written words—the cadence, the energy—the personality. Do this several times, repeating just a few documents, rather than performing only once with many documents. You will internalize the rhythm and character of the brand so that it soon becomes second nature.

Ultimately, the variety of language-as-communication makes adopting new voices something we can only approach integrally, through experience. That can make our process hard to explain. But by attaching external markers to the internal process, we can work in the way that comes naturally while still making it easy for team members and stakeholders to have confidence in our process.