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.

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.

Jamming together

In the early 90s I sang in rock band. We were very popular, had major label record interest and despite barely being able to play guitar I wrote most of the songs. How did I do this you ask? I had help, lots of help. Romas Banatis, knife maker extrordinaire was my muse. Romas would spend hours listening to me fumble through song parts. Sitting on milk crates next to one another, he would reconstruct my guitar parts with the patience of a saint and transform them from barely distinguishable notes into songs.

“You mean like this?”

“Faster or slower?”

“Play me that part again.”

The result was a few songs on the local radio, some great shows and a creative partnership that centered around communicating an idea through song.

You see, sometimes the person with clearest vision and the biggest inspiration lacks the creative and/or technical capability to create the thing. And that’s ok. The inability to do can be overcome with the ability to communicate. Clunky chords or crappy napkin sketches can get the job done just fine. What’s required is an inspirational communicator and a great listener capable of asking questions, plus an agreed upon language (design language, brainstorming language) that will help  move you both towards a known goal.

People like my friend Romas are creative extraction experts — they see (more often sense) the germ of an idea and dig and pull and polish until it shines. UX designers and strategists perform much the same task. They pull and push, dig and polish, pivot and trash – until they find something that resonates with business goals and users.

When incredibly solid ideas and clearly stated problems are on the table you either won the proverbial Business Problem Lottery or something is fishy in fluorescent light land. More often things are undefined, problems are symptomatic of deeper problems but there’s always the temptation of the quick fix, the predictable coda. Resist that – there is no there, there.

The solution need not be obtuse but does need to work in harmony with systems, staff and users. Client and agency need to sit on milk crates (sketch on whiteboards) and jam until the solution and the idea have a harmony, a rhythm and a progression. Sitting with stiff fingers until one or the other says – “That sounds nice, play that again.”

The agency may have the perfect solution day one, or the client may have half the problem solved before they hire outside help. But creating a song isn’t a race, a solution shouldn’t be either.

Better Time Management and the Power of Pine-Sol, Baby

If I were craftier, I’d embroider Conran’s Rule of Housework* on pillows and trade them to agencies around town for cases of Diet Sunkist (aka ‘Daddy’s medicine’). There’s nothing like a time limit to winnow away the detours and eliminate those moments of self-doubt that drag fresh mornings into late nights. There’s no time for the fussiness that makes designs labored and heavy, no time to get lost in theory. Simplicity is speed and limitations mean freedom from distraction. The pressure of deadlines may be inspirational or paralyzing, but boundaries will always put focus back on the fundamentals.

*“It expands to fill the time available plus half an hour.”

Evocative Digital Copy: ‘Half-short, twice strong’

It’s a writer’s cliché that showing (demonstrative prose) is better than telling (exposition). But there’s another standard above that, one that you rarely see mentioned in workshops or memoirs of the craft.

That is, before showing—evoke. Even if it isn’t as materially precise, evocative language reaches us in a profound and lasting way. It communicates with us on a pre-conscious level, which creates more powerful impressions than even the clearest descriptions.

Just as valuable to those of us who write digital: it takes up less space.

—While drafting this blog post, I found the following challenge most difficult: how to present contrasting examples of evocative and illustrative language without testing readers’ patience through amateurish creative prose?

—Then it hit me.

Some modest points of departure; dig:

#1 Verb prose.
For every verb+adverb combination, there’s a single verb that says it better. For every litany of “is”-s, there’s a single “does.” Action is evocative. Let’s make this an every-time practice.

Corollary: We should replace adjectives with nouns, to shorten character count and add agency to our language. Bob Dylan once pointed out that an Idiot Wind has more personality than an idiotic one. He could have added that it was also 1.42% more tweetable.

#2 Love thesauri.
There’s really no such thing as a synonym. Every word has its own unique shading. Along with TweetDeck and Spotify, you should always have open on your aux screen. By examining all your options, you’ll be able to eliminate most modifiers in favor of that single, perfect word.

#3 Trust readers.
People are much better at filling in the blanks than we typically give them credit for. But they’re every bit as impatient as we fear. A truly evocative call attracts interaction. By this we’ll discover a new, better direction.

Infinity Inside the Lines: Innovation vs. SEO in Copywriting and Editing

We place such a high premium on novelty and innovation that, when it comes to design and development work, every year delivers a fresh crop of design trends and innovative approaches to user experience. Reputation is in no small part dependent on your ability to follow these trends while attempting to set your own.

Meanwhile copywriting and editing occupy a strangely orthodox place among the elements of content strategy. Best SEO practices discourage experimentation while rewarding simplicity and repetition. Likewise, the “Don’t make me think” principle motivates newer and ever-more-intuitive design, while pulling copy in a direction that is, at best, clear and graceful—but much more often, torpid and bland.

This isn’t a call to arms, just something to think about. Will commercial language ever lead, or will it never be more than an echo of culture? Is this simply a consequence of living in a more visually literate society?

Are copywriters indeed limited to a smaller playing field, or is there infinity inside those lines?

Evolve And Transcend: EAT Agency

As Manhattan emerges from the flooded downtown streets and tunnels, EAT has been in the final stages of our own reemergence. It began with the decision to open a new SoHo office, to reaffirm our mission and philosophy, and to express that new clarity in our transmissions to the world. In the middle of the storm, when the forces of nature bent my thinking to the magical, I wondered if it all might be synchronicity.

If I can stretch the metaphor: The difference between a content-first-strategy agency and a one-stop web/copy/design studio is the difference between sand bags and higher ground. The first is a barricade, grains of pixels and ink that keeps the outside out and the inside in. The other is structural, environmental—safe even in exposure to the elements—strategic.

EAT has always worked on that structural-environmental principle. And we want the world to know it. We aren’t a Media company. We wouldn’t vend for a lifetime pass to all the halal carts in midtown. We want your problems first, and then let’s talk projects. Sometimes that means pure strategy; other times it’s sleeves-up code and serifs.

That’s why we changed our name. We are EAT Agency.

We provide media if it’s necessary (and it usually is), but what we really do is place companies on higher ground. We give them new eyes to see all 360 degrees of their operations. We provide technical know-how and theoretical support as organizations re-become who they are. We do for them what we have done for ourselves: Evolve And Transcend.

Content Crossroads

I thought my categorization of ‘The two types of content: traffic (SEO) and trust (brand building)’ covered all the bases. Alas, I was mistaken. We have a new type content, one that gives the perception of trust but is actually just a new breed of traffic content. It’s better written, better researched, better positioned SEO fluff – but still SEO fluff. It consists of a perfectly crafted headline and a perfectly crafted tweet to driving me to an article that barely delivers any new or worthy information. On one hand you could say – big win – SEO has matured and become relevant. On the other hand if this content is the trust content, then why does the user stay, or come back. Sadly this information/articles are coming from reputable publishers of magazines that start with an “In” a “Fo” and “En.” Instead of delivering quality reporting and information, they’ve downgraded to producing and distributing the content equivalent of Vitamin Water — marketed as valuable but lacking any value.

New content from old publishers with little value
I’ve come to expect these pseudo-articles from sheisty marketers offering first dibs on infographics. As well as fascinating Ehow articles that show you turn on the tv without a remote. But the trend of otherwise reputable content creators performing a lowest common denominator of this content mixture is frustrating and a bit saddening. Just because “everyone is now a publisher” does not mean that historically reputable publishers should dumb down. Too much traffic is like a parking lot and you can’t do much there but wait and collect dents.


Are You Marketing?

It’s a question I’ve found ourselves asking for the past 5+ years. My first answer is no. It’s not how I sell our services in a meeting. It’s not reflective of how we communicate ourselves on our site. (In short—it’s not a term I hold dear.)

But interestingly when clients introduce me to partners, employees and others – it’s how they describe what we do. Twice over the past week clients have introduced me like this:

“This is Ian, from Eat Media, his firm handles all of our content, strategy and marketing needs.”

In my mind we assist clients with product development, assist/create strategies that align with business goals and design/create both digital (web/mobile/presentation) and print (magazine, conference) assets. We think of ourselves as [content-first] creatives.  While perhaps that’s not a clear definition, it’s the one we’ve been comfortable and successful with to date. And, maybe, just maybe, we are a marketing firm.

This is what a day at Eat Media looks like (client work):

40% – Omnigraffle (with intermittent drawings on board and opinionated discussions)

30% – Copywriting (with intermittent edits and opinionated discussions and swearing)

20% – Researching

5% – Communicating with client

3% – Challenging assumptions

1% – Sipping coffee

.5% – Finding the right music to listen to

.5% – Fixing the printer


Is this Marketing? Not historically. But moving forward, this product-centric, content-first, technically adept version of “Marketing” is the only one that we believe clients need or will be able to afford. Doers. Strategy today – execution tomorrow. Keepers of the message as well as the experience of/in the message.

The days of a Traditional VP of Marketing or Director of Marketing hire (that often hires out to an agency to do the work) is dinosaur and soon to be ghost.  Agencies like ours are happy to fill that niche.

 UPDATE: 10/27/2011  Is Communications better than Marketing? Is it narrower or more focused?