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.

Experiences Redefined

A cascade of social feedback alters our construction of experience to a degree that it can no longer really be considered “ours.” With the advent of social media the stages of experience are blending together, and accelerating, for better or worse. We now have to contend not only with the experience as it occurs, but with the echoing replicants that recording engenders.

Daguerre brought us the first replicant experience, but in his day distribution was limited, feedback virtually non-existent, and iterative capabilities slow and costly. What in Daguerre’s time proved to be a mostly two-stage experience of observation and capture today stretches into 6 rapid, self-reflexive stages:

1) The event in real time – watching my 5-year-old play Galaga.

2) Interruption for the purpose of capture – the decision to grab my phone and take a picture/video.

3) The immediate re-experiencing of the event – watching what “just happened” on the device. (sometimes while the event is still in progress).

4) Dissemination of the event – uploading and sharing the picture/video.

—An abyss of ownership in which control is transferred to those experiencing its recorded replicant (i.e. those not present)—

5) Reaction to the now-public event – social feedback and reinterpretation.

6) The experience redefined – Comments and opinions generated by social feedback, insinuate themselves and reshape the original experience.

As a company, or an individual, you need to think about all of these stages. An original experience – a conference , a sale, an open house – is a fleeting moment which shrinks in contrast to the eternity represented by its social reception and reassignment. Most brand experiences quickly become content, and content has endless options for new layers. But absent a cosmic Ctrl-Z or the ability to control those endless layer, what can content become? What you create and choose to share is a handoff to strangers with bullhorns and billboards. You need to determine if you are sharing content that will help you connect, serve as distraction or find redefinition as something you didn’t expect – good or bad.



Hey Paypal, WTF?

Is it just me, or is this ad from Paypal encouraging men to be slimy cheaters?

The worst part? I didn’t find it while digging around on some male-focused site like Esquire or College Humor. It’s right on the home page!

Marketing hint 101: If your “creative concept” runs the risk of pissing off at least half of your audience, is it that good of a concept?


Britta, aka Peggy Olson

Content Marketing and Content Strategy are merging. Is that a good thing?

Just hear me out. One emerging practice (content strategy) + one tactic (content marketing) = I’m not really sure.

Content Marketing: “Content marketing is an umbrella term encompassing all marketing formats that involve the creation or sharing of content for the purpose of engaging current and potential consumer bases. Content marketing subscribes to the notion that delivering high quality, relevant and valuable information to prospects and customers drives profitable consumer action. Content marketing has benefits in terms of retaining reader attention and improving brand loyalty.” —from the Content Marketing Wikipedia page created 25 February 2008

Content Strategy: “Content strategy has been growing as a practice within the industry of web development since the late 1990s. It is recognized as a field in user experience design but has also drawn interest from practitioners in adjacent communities such as content management, business analysis and technical communication.” –from the Content Strategy Wikipedia page created 08 April 2009

Then a funny thing happened about a year ago—the terms got squished together to form “Content Marketing Strategy.” I’m not sure how this happened or even what it means but it’s out there and to some people it means something.

In my opinion, “Content Marketing Strategy” is vacuous—there is no such thing. There is content marketing and there is content strategy. Or, to rollback a round of buzzwords, there is integrated marketing and there is UX Design. Either way, one is a tactic and one is a practice. I’m not shining a light on one to keep another one in the dark, but rather here to say that we all agree content is important. That includes IAs, ixDs, coders, graphic designers, and copywriters. It’s what we do about knowing content is important that counts. How we solve client’s problems is what matters.

Volume and repetition matter
The solution I hear most often from content marketing is “make more content, gain more trust.” From content strategy, it’s “content should drive all other practices.” Increasingly, you will find many articles that use the terms interchangeably, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing; primarily for the client who now has to deal with ever-finer slices of practitioner specialties and more difficult integration/PM issues.

I recently met with a friend of a friend about a website he was launching. His business was a data-based content creation & strategy play with all the requisite buzzwords in place, along with poor design, clunky marketing speak and a mish-mash of “content marketing” and “content strategy” definitions. I was at loss. Here was a very smart guy with good intentions going out into the market with one puzzle piece. The whole event felt like dropping your car off at a mechanic who asks you for a ride because his car doesn’t run.

Perhaps you don’t build trust?
Building trust goes way beyond the creation of content. (And yes, I’m guilty of oversimplifying its importance.) I’m slowing starting to realize that you can’t set out to build trust. When you do, it implies that you are building it in order to leverage it later—and that feels a little dirty. Trust has so many facets to it and is so subjective that I find it hard to believe there is a one size fits all solution that works. So if Content Marketing Strategy can live on the web, then I’m petitioning for Trust Strategy.

Perhaps content ________ isn’t about building anything but rather is just a requirement like air in your tires, ink in your pen and quality in your product/service.

A great user experience respects both the content and the reader (see Readability). A great user experience cares that labels fit inside buttons and ensures that “thanks for coming” takes precedence across all fields of practice from the first click to the last.


Why Brands Don’t Change

Too many companies fail to seek change until after a brand or product is declared broken. Then change is ushered through at a breakneck pace fed by panic and profits. And even after broken pieces are identified, the focus is often on plugging the dike rather than seeking opportunities to improve the entire process.

In other words, maintenance often trumps improvement. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The problem

The distance and prerogatives between “change” and “improvement” often creates organizational pressure. The greater the pressure, the more likely employees are to play it safe and the more predictable a brand story becomes.

“But we make site changes every day.”

Don’t confuse maintenance with change. True change is made with the intention of moving the bar forward.

What’s the root of the problem?

  • There is often no process for suggesting change.
  • There is often no process for initiating change.
  • Change sparks questions that organizations aren’t ready to answer.
  • Managing change challenges systems that are already in place (whether they are efficient or not).
  • If the mechanism for change isn’t in place and isn’t embraced, people will only push creative they know will get approved. Which means there’s not a lot of opportunity for brand evolution.
  • If employees are shot down (or considered “rocking the boat”) for trying to create spearhead change, they’ll go back to pushing papers.
  • Change is usually brought on due to a lack of sales, a problem with an existing product, a product launch or new management. In other words, when you’re up against the gun.

The Opportunity

Effective change management is a brand’s greatest asset—if you don’t have the mechanisms in place to effect change, your brand story goes stale.

Ready your brand for change. Prepare your organization to be more nimble. Create systems for gathering input. Map processes for initiating cross-departmental change. Empower your management to move quickly and efficiently.


Change saves money. Change gets people excited (once they get past the fear). Change broadens your audience. Change evolves your story. Change rocks.

How to Redesign Your Corporate Magazine in 5 Steps

To us, building a magazine is like building a house. Here’s how to go from vision to finished product in 5 (not necessarily easy) steps.

Step 1. Survey the landscape

The very first step in any redesign is discovery: collecting everything you can get your hands on about the existing magazine, the audience and your competitors.

This includes:

  • Competitive review: What are other magazines in your space doing well? What about magazines who aren’t direct competitors but who serve a similar audience?
  • Research: Gather all info your company has (from focus groups, surveys, interviews, reader feedback, your most tenured employees, etc.) and begin to put together the “redesign story.”
  • Audience: Define the audience and what they want from your magazine. What do they love about the existing magazine? What are its biggest limitations from their pov? Hopefully you have some solid data to work with. If not, you should be signing up for SurveyMonkey pronto. Remember to question everything: is your key audience really who your marketing director says it is?  Is it statistically possible that 90% of your 20,000 readers are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies? Hmm…
  • Gameplan: Define objectives, get everyone to agree on these objectives, and build a strategy to meet those objectives. Since we’re talking about corporate magazines here, be sure you’re clued in to any other big campaigns, upcoming redesigns, etc. that may be happening currently with your launch date.

Look, we know you’re in a rush, but this is one of the most important steps to launching a successful redesign. Anybody can make a pretty magazine. Doing it with strategy and intention requires research.

Step 2. Sketch out your blueprint
Create content departments + magazine architecture

Based on what you learn from Step 1, you can now begin to build content departments (i.e. recurring sections and columns…think of your favorite sections in the magazines you read regularly) and plot out the overall flow of the magazine. The goal is to be meaningful—and determining what will be meaningful to readers will come partly from your discovery, and partly from trial and error.

Tip: Plan to survey your audience after the redesign launches, and again after 2 or 3 issues depending on your frequency. Readers are notoriously resistant to change, which is why you want to survey them twice before you even think about redesigning your redesign. Remember all the backlash that happens any time Facebook launches a redesign? Most of those protesters probably can’t even remember what their beloved older Facebook site looked like.

Another tip: If you are under the gun to produce an issue before the redesign is complete, you can begin the editorial phase of your next issue once step 2 is completed. With all your new content departments in place and the space allotted for each piece of content, your editor can begin assigning stories. Hooray!

Step 3. Break out the colored pencils
Design concepting

Ideally, your designer will present three unique design directions. For a magazine, each design direction will typically include:

  • A cover treatment
  • Table of contents
  • A department or two
  • And possibly a sample feature spread

From here, the team selects one design direction (typically with some tweaks) and you are able to move to the next phase.

Tip: If you’re the kind of organization (you know who you are) who gets hung up on the microscopic details, by all means give your designer images and sample text from an earlier issue to work with. Or use all lorem ipsum. Because the last thing you need is a marketing manager or CEO getting hung up on the incorrect treatment of a product name when you are only supposed to be looking at design concepts.

Step 4. Hammers and nails—construction begins
Design fine-tuning and building interior pages

Once the selected design direction is fine-tuned to everyone and their second cousin’s happiness, you can begin building interior pages (with “dummy,” or stand-in, copy). These pages will act as a template for the production designer once you are working with “live” (real) copy and images.

Several style guide details are worked out in this important phase, such as how footers are handled, what the rules are for headline and subhed treatments, whether photo captions are italicized or bolded, how you are handling calls to action, etc. These are all the hundreds of little details that will make your magazine polished and professional. Most readers won’t notice these details—unless they are sloppy and inconsistent.

Step 5. Certificate of Occupancy: You are now ready to move in
Deliver print template and style guide

This is when the art director tidies up their design files and hands them off to a production designer (the person who will actually be producing each issue of the magazine). If your art director is a freelancer, you’ll want to make sure he/she reviews the files with your production designer and editor, and is available for questions as issues pop up during production.

You, the client, will want to expect some deviation from the templates, since story structures and lengths may change once you’re working with live, edited text. Also, you may not get the dream photography the art director envisioned on a particular column, and your production designer will need to adjust the layout according to reality.

All caveats aside, you are now ready to begin laying out a real issue. Take your team out for a beer.

Traffic Content vs. Trust Content

Content Marketing and Content Strategy both suck at 2 things.

1. Describing the interrelationship between one another.

2. Highlighting the difference between content types.

There are only 2 types of (ongoing) content types that companies can create:


— Content that is generated to drive traffic.

— Content generated solely for SEO will lure users to a landing page but is not, and in most cases cannot be tailored to, engage.

* Costs for traffic building content can be as little as $5 an article.

TRUST/Trustbuilding Content

— Content that is created to build trust with visitors through the delivery of relevant and timely information.

— Content generated specifically to generate trust won’t always be as keyword rich as SEO articles.

* Costs for trustbuilding content can cost as much as $1 a word.

The implied value of these services/deliverables are very clear. Getting visitors to your site is not at all the same as keeping them there. Inversely paying for good trustbuilding content without a comprehensive search strategy that includes SEO is also shortsighted.


Want better editorial? Reel in your review process

It seems every publisher has an ironclad policy when it comes to letting sources review stories pre-publication: either they forbid it, or they require it. These policies were set in stone some time around the Mesozoic era and any troublemaker who tries to alter them clearly does not understand A) journalistic integrity or B) the business objectives of the publication in question. In fact, these policies are taken so seriously, anyone who violates them faces grounds for immediate termination.

A post on UMagazinology, a blog about university magazines published by the editors of Johns Hopkins Magazine, tackled the subject of pre-publication review in a recent post (the bolding is mine):

“Why not? What’s the harm?

The harm, I think, is to our standing as professionals, and that is not a minor thing. University magazines produce the highest-quality work, and thus best exemplify and promote the excellence of their parent institutions, when they are allowed to approach the work as professional journalists. And it is part of journalistic professional practice to not show stories to sources before publication. No matter how strongly you stipulate that you are showing a piece to a source only for verification of accuracy, you are implicitly inviting everyone who reads the story to approve it, advise on how it should be written, and grant permission to publish it, and all those things undermine our standing as professionals. That in turn undermines our ability to argue for the freedom to publish substantive, credible stories that will be read because they matter and because our readers trust how they were produced. We don’t advise chemists, physicists, surgeons, literary scholars, historians, biologists, or mathematicians on how best to do their work. If we genuinely believe that what we do merits professional respect and an essential measure of autonomy, why do we so willingly accede to non-journalists telling us how to do our jobs?”

Yeah! Like they said!

Print-to-Web integration and the Advent of New Devices has Shaken Up Production. This coupled with the adoption of more user-friendly CMS systems and device driven publishing taxes most organizations on the production, project management and change management fronts.

“Publishers have got to do things that are richer, more dynamic and interactive, not just transfer a static page from print to digital.”

Steve Grande, VP of Sales for Fry Communications

This is exceedingly difficult when many publications originating as traditional print based pubs are now transitioning (see struggling) to move to digital. Excessive stakeholder reviews and print based project management/review processes are dinosaurs in today’s digital world —a world where news is immediate, influence is measured by trust and originality expands with devices and technology.  Brands that want to be successful need to embrace speed and adopt the concept of being nimble, whether they inhabit 500sq ft or 50 floors. It’s not just about undermining an editor’s expertise or dragging out a project. It’s about the final outcome. It’s about your brand.


5 Ways to Make Your Custom Publication Way Better

We recently launched a redesign for a university magazine (finally!) and thought we’d pass along some of our favorite tips for making your own custom publication better.

1) Rethink your magazine architecture

BEFORE A front of book section that didn’t evolve with the magazine’s needs. Too many new sections had been added over the years, and the naming convention was starting to not make sense.

AFTER Help readers hold their place by redesigning the flow of the entire reading experience. For example, we converted several choppy sections into one umbrella FOB section that encapsulates the university’s mission. We gave the client a menu of various columns/formats that can be rotated in and out of this section from issue to issue.

This new format also creates a stronger branded magazine that a) is not re-invented each issue and b) begins to build recognition with readers.

2) Kill the “Wall of Words”

BEFORE Each page had one story and an average of 550 words. There were excessively long narratives about a single source. An earlier attempt to break up this text with subheads was ineffective because subheads were the same size/style as the body text.

AFTER Chunky, colorful, big and juicy. Get away from a traditional narrative style—there are a million ways to tell a story. Put two or three stories on a spread and let stories cross the gutter (which also means you’ll greatly increase the number of voices in each issue). Make numbers and subheds stand out from body text. Update your fonts.

Even better, ask yourself if your story could be more quickly communicated in a chart or graphic. For inspiration, start collecting “charticles” from New YorkEsquire and Good. Think those publications don’t apply to your trade pub? Check out what Inc. has been up to lately. Bring some much-needed inspiration to your weekly status meetings by sharing examples from Information Is Beautiful.

3) Don’t tell a life story in every story. Or any story for that matter.

BEFORE A 150-word piece about an award recipient, once in the hands of marketing and product stakeholders, morphed into a 600-word monstrosity.

AFTER Focus on a tiny sliver of the story. Do this by establishing very clear column descriptions and criteria (complete with word counts!) in your redesign. For example, one of the goals of this particular magazine is to get alumni to re-enroll. So we created a column called “How it Paid Off” which essentially demonstrates the “ROI” of spending thousands of dollars on an advanced degree. This could easily eat up 1,500 words. Instead, we created a list format:


Job title before degree
Job title after degree
How my degree helps me make a bigger impact
Biggest benefit of earning my degree at x university.

We captured this in 102 words. In and out.

4) Use better art (without necessarily spending more)

BEFORE Stale headshots, outdated stock illustration styles, far too many “grip and grin” photos

AFTER Instead of sending distant sources to their local mall photo studio (shudder!), we worked with the same art budget and hired photographers across the U.S. who could capture environmental portraits (hint: get your sources outside). We also pushed sources for submitted images and gave them ideas on what we wanted to see. When we got good images, we ran them big. We saved the standard headshots for thumbnails (or not at all).

5) Remember: What’s important to your administration is probably not what’s important to your readers

BEFORE Too much real estate given to university news, and placed where the university thought it belonged—right up front. Long articles covering university events that already happened.

AFTER With a 2x/year frequency, news is not a primary purpose of this magazine. So we moved news section to back of book and capped the word count for each “brief.” (Again, build this criteria into your redesign. The more “rules” you can establish up front, the better chance you have against word creep.) Each news piece ran with a call to action to get the full story online (interested to see the metrics on those redirects).

For event coverage, which used to eat up spreads at a time, we offered up one 1/3 column where we ran big, chunky sound bites. Outcome? We were able to “cover” four events in 139 words.

What would have made this project even better?

A print-to-web integration, which is something all clients should include as a mandatory line-item on their publication budget.

Check out some great examples from min online.

Ready to launch your own redesign or improve your print-to-web integration?  Give us a shout.


Content Strategy is My Micro-Scope

Do you see what I see

Too many articles and blogs (ours included) have set out to define Content Strategy, called it King, whitewashed it as “content marketing/SEO.” Some have hyped it with agendas and sales pitches, others with heartfelt enthusiasm for the buzzword d’jour.

The more I think about Content Strategy, the more I see it centered in and around project scope. As budgets tighten, content measurability logic matures and ROI has a smaller and smaller proof of concept window. Defining a robust scope for CS-related projects is paramount for all involved.

For the Client

At the simplest level, scope defines what the vendor is going to accomplish for price of the contract.

In my experience, there are four client attitudes about scope:

  • Those who see the value in digging to the root of the problem and do have the budget
  • Those who see the value in digging to the root of the problem but don’t have the budget
  • Those who don’t see the value in digging to the root of the problem
  • Those who don’t see the value in digging to the root of the problem because they don’t have a budget

And there are two strategies clients administer for scope definition:

  • The formal RFP process (Scope is brought to the table as part of RFP)
  • The relationship process (Client comes to table with loose scope and the practitioner digs deeper)

For the Vendor

Scope defines what the vendor is and isn’t responsible for.

I’ve spoken with some other agencies and this is what I hear about scope:

  • Clients with  the bigger budget get the better end-product
  • There is cheap, good and fast—pick two
  • I’ll work with you as much as I can, but at the end of the day we all need to make money
  • There are no problems, only opportunities, but opportunities cost money to investigate

On the vendor side, there are two methods of scope definition and estimation.

  • Plan for the worst and price accordingly
  • Price reasonably and define what is and isn’t included, and carefully outline rates for out of scope work

The problem with these methods of thinking about scope (for both parties) is that the balance between the “best solution” and the “appropriate price” are at odds. The RFP is often not broad enough to get to the heart of the problem. And the vendor can only solve what he/she has access to, both politically and financially. So what usually happens is the client will cut what doesn’t seem relevant, fit the budget, or have a clear ROI. And the vendor will reduce services/deliverables to maintain profitability.

Scope Management

Scope Management, a content strategists’ most powerful tool, is often as much about Change Management (a.k.a. getting everyone to agree that there is an elephant in the room) as much as it is about Content Strategy. Proper Scope Management empowers the vendor to perform the difficult, time-intensive work and empowers the client to tackle real change at the root level. A project may be RFP’ed for a new website on an existing infrastructure—while the answer may lie in a CMS assessment that is outside that scope. Scope is not about padding the bill, it is about finding the best solution and implementing it.

Content Strategy is the tool that unearths and assembles the puzzle pieces spread across legacy systems, marketing agendas, newsletters, content, code, DB’s and design.* CS will grow in proportion to the depth it digs, both across other practices and intra-project. The marriage of Scope Management and Content Strategy requires content strategists to push for the deeper digging and clients to be open to a little more work for a much greater return.

*Not all the puzzles pieces are listed. And there is no picture on the box.


Twitter me @eatmedia