Blog : Higher Ed

Does your reputation sell you or sink you?

A truck with "Google Us" written on the back
What if your reputation was all you had? Strip away everything else about your organization or yourself. Ignore your brochures, your slogans and trademarks. Ignore your resume, your degrees and certifications.

If someone set out to discover not just who you are, but what you believe, and why you’re so special…. what would they find?

Keep it simple, but not stupid

People hate complexity. When things get complicated its harder to make decisions, and easier to get frustrated. As an interface designer, your mantra should always be: simplify.

But don’t make it too simple

Have a look at the screenshot above. This is the new Facebook interface for creating events, which has been streamlined from previous versions. They’ve turned the date selection tool into a neat little jquery calendar pop-up, which is a huge improvement.

They’ve also changed the way that users select the time for their event. Simpler to look at than it used to be? Definitely.

Does it help me create and event that starts at 12:15pm? Definitely not.

How to be simple and smart at the same time

Obviously, Facebook has created a problem for me as a user. This is a particularly sticky problem, since events are often created to be used as part of advertising campaigns (using the Event Ad Unit), meaning they have potentially put a barrier between themselves and people willing to give them money… always a bad thing.

Some considerations to keep in mind, to ensure that your interface is simple, but not dumb:

  • Test in advance – As Facebook often does, roll out your new interface to a sample audience in order to get a sense for how it will work in the real world with real data. Segment out 10% of your traffic, show them the new toys. Watch and learn. Consider differences between new users and returning longtime users of social sites.
  • Get Feedback – When you launch a new feature, make a clear “feedback” element on the page – allowing people to let you know where they find spots that might need a bit of tweaking. You’ll often catch the little bugs this way.
  • Use previous data – Maybe this was taken into account, its hard to say. But if you have past records of how the element was used (databases of registrations etc), have a look to see what types of information people are putting in. I’ve created hundreds of events beginning on the quarter hour – and I’m willing to bet others have too.
  • Consider context – Think about events and what goes into creating them. People need to be invited, schedules need to be coordinated, venues need to be booked. The more branches there are in the problem, the more flexible the interface should be for fine tuning. Think you can convince a venue to adopt “Facebook time zones”? Think again.
  • Provide a work-around – Make the most obvious navigation as simple as possible, but if there is potential for wiggle room around it, give more options. A simple option to “customize time” within or next to the select menu would give us the best of both worlds.

Deadlines don’t mean death

We live surrounded by deadlines. Everything has to be done by a certain date and time; packaged up and shipped out the door.

What’s your next action? Cross it off the list and move onto the next thing?

Shipping is important

Seth Godin has hammered the point home in Linchpin. Great artists ship. No matter what your product is, if you don’t get it out the door – no one can use it. It might as well not exist.

Some people get hung up here. Procrastination visits early, indecision settles in midway through, and doubt creeps in towards the end. Deadlines can slide as new features are added and the hopeless quest for perfection turns a great idea into a rusty anchor around your neck.

Perfection is important

If you’re building rocket ships or nuclear power plants. If your job involves crash test dummies, by all means, take your time. We’ll all wait.

If you’re in marketing… lives are not at risk. Give yourself the license to play and be creative. Challenge yourself to always do better.

Deadline doesn’t equal death

Software companies get this. Version one is never the final release. In fact, we’ve become accustomed to a nomenclature that infers progressive improvement. Version 1.0 -> 1.1 -> 1.2 … The dot means “to be continued”.

Think about how many of your deadlines are dictated by antiquated technologies, processes or ideas. How can you think more like a software company… how can your ideas “be continued”.

Your website is in beta

This is the most obvious example. That shiny new website you just rolled out? Slap an imaginary construction-worker graphic (circa 1997) on your pages, because you should always be under construction. Pay attention to analytics, pay attention to user feedback, pay attention to new ideas and test them. Websites are made to iterate.

Avoid last pages and final scenes

In the world of traditional media, there was little opportunity to make changes. Your brochures went to print. Your spot ran during the Super Bowl. Shipped. Over.

Why should a brochure ever end? Are you letting a printing schedule hold you back from telling great stories? Can you really say it all in one 30 second spot?

Think of ways to complement “traditional” media – the kind with hard deadlines and difficult revisions – with your new “to be continued” mentality.

  • Revise digital brochure PDFs even after version 1.0 has gone to print. As long as specs and details are accurate, people are most likely not going to compare and complain about content differences.
  • Add regular email campaigns to continue the storylines you created in your product brochures.
  • Create a channel of videos to either replace or support major video marketing initiatives (think Old Spice)
  • Use applications (iPhone/iPad/Android/Kindle etc) to push the most relevant, new, important, interesting content directly to your consumer, avoiding the deadline death of printing processes altogether

When you infuse iterative culture into the process, deadlines stop signifying the death of a project – they simply become markers from which you can benchmark and measure your evolution.

A nice byproduct of the process is that deadlines might stop threatening to be the death of you as well; unrealistic expectations of perfection are lifted, replaced with the liberating feeling of creativity and endless possibility.

The Like Button Makes You Better

Since Facebook unveiled their new Like Button and associated social plugins several weeks ago at their F8 Conference, they’ve been the talk of the social media town.

In efforts to leverage the social tidal wave of Facebook recommendations, more than 100,000 sites have installed these plugins in the short time that they have been available.

Just another toolbar

Appending social voting and recommendation systems to web content is hardly a new concept. Digg buttons and sharing toolbars are so common on blog posts that they are for the most part ignored (when was the last time you used share-this?). Apart from the shiny Facebook association, what makes the Like button any different?

The most obvious differentiator is scale. While Digg might do 40 million unique visitors per month, and Twitter boasts 100 million (total – not active) users, Facebook welcomes 200 million of their nearly half-billion users to their site daily. While the other social plugins might cater to the social media crowd, the Like button applies to everyone.

The fact that the social graph has been opened up to shape experiences on sites outside of Facebook also changes the game. One visit to while logged into facebook will show you how the recommendations of your friends can (and will) shape your media consumption across the web as this feature gains more traction.

Why should we like you?

This is the critical factor; the most important question that should be in your mind. Before you jump on the bandwagon and install plugins all over your site, before you jump into debates about Facebook’s rollercoaster ride of a privacy policy… understand that the debate and hype surrounding the Like button is actually a blessing in disguise.

Ask yourself a simple question… and then share this question with others in your organization…

What do we do that is likeable?

The terminology is beautiful. It’s not masked in a silly tech-jargon, and it doesn’t feel like it’s relegated for a weird tribe of uber-social web folk. A simple question to repeat in your mind as you peruse your web presence and the information and face that you show to the world.

Why didn’t we do this sooner?

Why do you publish content to the web in the first place? You’re trying to impress someone, inspire someone, communicate something of value to an audience and convince them to take action. That’s what marketing is, right?

Until now, how often did you ask yourself “will our audience like this?”

Probably not very often. Marketing folks typically pass copy around the office and ensure that it says the right stuff… in the right way… to ensure that the right message is conveyed. In other words, it is written in a way that the marketer likes it.

And so we produce brochure-ware spec sheets and organization-speak writing. Videos are uninspired and convey the company line and photos are staged, stock or impossibly perfect.

Take inventory of your current communications and ask yourself (as a customer): “Do I like this?” or do I read it because I have to?

For all of the content that feels uninspiring, think about creative ways of conveying the same message in a way that might make it more likeable, more entertaining or more useful. This isn’t possible for all types of information – but I bet you can do better. You can always do better.

Its not about the button

It’s easy to fall for the glitter and shine of a new facebook feature and implement it for the sake of “being more social”. But simply plastering “like” buttons all over your website and thinking you’re about to cash in is the 2010 equivalent of banking on a “viral youtube video campaign” in 2007.

Does the Like button have the potential to change online marketing? Totally. But its not going to happen because of technology or even social networks. Technology makes it possible, and social sharing of content is a side effect.

The game changing feature is that this shiny little button might finally convince marketers to stop talking about their stuff and saying the same thing as everyone else, and instead shift their focus to creating content that people actually like to hear.

What’s your take on the Like button?

*Photo Credit: JoelTelling*

Do you move at the speed of Facebook?

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I picked up the phone and called someone about their service. I didn’t visit their website, I didn’t search on google to read about their industry; frankly, I didn’t care what their digital presence was like. I needed the service they offered (insurance, in this case), and I realized that as a local business, they probably wouldn’t have the resources to build out a complex online footprint.

Picking up the phone is only the first step

I was greeted by a voice, friendly enough to make me feel like I had called the right place. However, when I asked my first (and very basic) question, I was quite surprised that she was unable to answer it. Instead, she took down my phone number and indicated that someone would be giving me a call to discuss their services. Thirty-six hours later, I have heard nothing.

Why does this bother me so much?

Google didn’t just change search

Search engines have changed the availability of information. This changes consumer expectations. If I can type a query into a machine, and get back hundreds of thousands of potential answers within a fraction of a second, then this speed and depth of knowledge becomes a part of my shopping and researching experience. When the receptionist I spoke to didn’t have any information to share with me, friction was added to the transaction.

Responsiveness isn’t only critical on facebook

Social networks and instant messengers have added a layer of speed that was never before present in asynchronous communication. When I was told that someone would get in touch with me, I didn’t expect that it would take days. While it is commonly stressed to organizations who choose to engage on social networks that they must be responsive within a much shorter timeframe, I realized that this expectation has now transcended digital communications.

In a world where Rogers Rob responds to tweets within hours, We will get back to you within two business days doesn’t quite feel the same anymore.

How to fix the disconnect

It is impractical to expect everyone to have a depth or breadth of knowledge to compete with a search engine. It’s equally unrealistic for small businesses to have instant responsiveness on all possible channels. But here are a few ideas on how businesses can succeed on this new playing field.

  • Know your business: Do your best to make sure that your staff understands as much of your business as possible. Your receptionists, who may have once simply been there to route calls, are now the equivalent of your homepage. How can you make them friendly, helpful, knowledgeable and trustworthy?
  • Know your competitors’ business: Google doesn’t just know what you do… it knows what everyone does. Assume that your potential customers have done their research before talking to you. You can’t achieve the breadth of knowledge that the search engines have, but you can do your best to know more about your competitors’ offerings than your customers do.
  • Leverage channels of convenience: A sales call can take awhile, and people are busy. I get that. But we’ve got more communication channels now. If booking calls is going to take awhile, get some more information from your potential clients. Grab an email address and start the conversation that way… What about a text message to arrange a convenient time for us to talk? Be creative.. just let me know that you haven’t forgotten about me.
  • Set expectations: When you have to get back to someone, set clear expectations about when and how they will hear back. Any lack of clarity here leads to unease. I know that there are more than a handful of other insurance companies within a few keystrokes … the longer I wait, the more likely I am to get in touch with someone else. If it is going to take a couple days to respond to me, say so.
  • Exceed expectations: Whenever possible, do better than you’ve promised. Set the expectation and then aim to shatter it. This is where humans stand apart from machines… when Google serves up the perfect search result, we don’t feel emotional about it. When a friendly salesperson goes out of their way to help you, you feel it. If your business involves more person-to-person interaction than person-to-computer, leverage the fact that you’re human! Aim to make those emotional connections.

A lot of this information sounds like common sense…. probably available in decades-old guides on basic sales and customer service practices. But in a world where access to information and conversation are continually accelerating, revisiting how you’re handling your communication is more critical than ever before.

Who’s focusing on what’s now?

With all of the talk about SXSW lately, there has certainly been a lot of talk about what’s next. The location wars are heating up… will Foursquare reign triumphant? Will Gowalla gain market share? Where does Blippy fit in to the privacy economy? Who’s next in line for VC funding?

Watching the festivities of industry conferences, its definitely intriguing to see so many minds converging into one spot; so many thoughts about what’s next… But, listening to the conversations from afar, I’m left wondering who’s talking about what’s now?

Worshipping at the altar of next

In Apple’s famous 1984 commercial, we saw the audience staring into the abyss of monotony. Their eyes were glazed over, hypnotized, lacking all personality and individuality. They stared at the present, content to be oblivious to the future that was about to set them free.

Have we progressed so far that our great minds now sit, complacently transfixed upon what’s next?

Are we ignoring the present? Are we blind to the now that a majority of individuals are experiencing?

Is social media leaving now behind?

Don’t get me wrong, the future is great. The tools and capabilities that we have at our fingertips are truly mind blowing. Listening to Mitch Joel describe the capabilities of the iPhone during a recent speech left me with a new appreciation for the device that I carry in my pocket on a daily basis. Its fun to push the limits and easy to fall for the assumption that the rest of the market is as advanced as we are…

Venture onto the street and talk to someone about Foursquare or Twitter. Do they actually use it? Do they care that ComcastCares? Talk to a company outside of the big brands with big budgets. Beyond the case study keeners, how many of them understand the web in general, let alone the social media tools that are discarded by some as being “so last year”. Want more? Try talking to a local not-for-profit? Trust me, while the concept of what’s next might be fascinating, they’re struggling to make ends meet and have the resources for what’s now.

How to ensure 2010 won’t be like 1984

So many great minds in this space are flexing their abilities by working with organizations, assisting with marketing, creating campaigns, educating and advising. How can they best use their ideas and talents to maximize the impact they have on the world?

Leverage reality – When you’re working with an organization, consider the day-to-day reality in which they conduct business. Is a Foursquare-based loyalty rewards program really what they need most right now? What about pay-per-click search, or basic optimization of a landing page or email marketing? What about an affiliate marketing arrangement with other local retailers. Yeah, y’know… offline. Marketing doesn’t have to be flashy and new, it has to achieve goals. While operating within the confines of reality might not be the most exciting prospect, achieving feasible business results is always sexy and in style.

Leverage connectivity – The communities that we have built online are deeply connected in ways that were never before possible. Leverage these connections to solve real problems that people are having now. There’s more to life than #hashtags and fishbowls. Venture out into the world and flex the true power of social capital. Use the networks that you have built to gain knowledge, conduct research, and test ideas with peers; regardless of whether the idea involves bytes or bolts.

Leverage perpetuity – Don’t go for the quick strike, easy money client. Is this money out there? Certainly. Is it tempting? Definitely. Avoid the temptation to talk about tools and cite statistics for some quick cash. Help people with what’s relevant, timely and actionable for their unique situation. Don’t be a twitter salesman, Don’t try to hit every nail with a Facebook fan page. Aim for long-term relationships with organizations, in which you grow together by finding unique solutions to match their business goals. Small wins now build trust and possibilities for growing together and experimenting with more cutting-edge ideas.

Bonus. Leverage charity – Find a not-for-profit and offer your mind. Have a look at their online presence and then schedule a phone call and answer their most pressing marketing questions. Chances are, it won’t be Daily Booth or Chat Roulette. Not only will you be doing something good for the world, but your eyes will be opened to the low hanging fruit that exists across virtually all industries.

What are your thoughts? Do we spend too much time talking about what’s next? How are you contributing to educating and harnessing the power of what’s now?

Thoughts on packaging in a digital world

In my lifetime, I can think of several major paradigm shifts in the world of packaging. Once upon a time, everything came in a big box, wrapped in styrofoam or packing peanuts. Then there was a shift to minimal packaging; products were shrink-wrapped hard plastic that was seemingly impossible to open (so difficult that major league pitcher Adam Eaton was injured attempting to open a DVD with a knife).

Recently, there has been a shift towards including elegant packaging into the experience of owning a product. Perhaps best exemplified by Apple, the process of opening of products has become an elaborate ritual, establishing an instant bond between user and product that could never be achieved with packing peanuts or bubble wrap standing by.

What is your product? What is your packaging?

We are in the midst of a new change in the world of packaging; one that shifts the very definitions of the product/package relationship. Industries that have typically never considered themselves participants in the business of packaging and shipping products are now surrounded by opportunities to innovate in how their information is delivered.

Consider the podcast

The year was 2004, and I was going on vacation, far away from the comforts of home and the english language radio programming that had become a part of my day-to-day routine. Armed with an iPod and an iMac, I realized that I could record content from radio, rip it to mp3 and take it with me in a digital format. It was tedious work, akin to recording songs from FM radio to cassette tapes a decade earlier.

It totally worked… I had the content I wanted, an ocean away, at the tips of my fingers thanks to my iPod. But I was left with the feeling that there had to be a better way.

And there was. Mere months later, the concept of podcasting reached my radar. That arduous process of taking audio from analog to digital and shoehorning it into my mobile iPod lifestyle was replaced by a more elegant solution of iTunes and audio subscription.

If information is your product… how are you packaging it?

Cutting across all industries, information is a common denominator. We all distribute information, and many of us are relegated to old styles of packaging our information. We cram our information into standard shaped boxes, even if the dimensions aren’t right. Be it a brochure, a direct mail letter, or a corporate website, we plunk our information in boxes and protect the sharp corners using useless filler content; packing peanuts for a digital realm.

Creating an experience

How can you create an unboxing culture around your content? How can you involve the user in an immersive experience where the packaging isn’t merely something that gets in the way and thrown away? Can you re-think your strategy enough to make the wrapper and ribbon a part of the gift itself?

Gary Vaynerchuk re-created the packaging when he started filming and distributing Wine Library TV. The world was used to magazines and elitist culture surrounding a wine experience… Gary wrapped it up in personality and a spirit of inclusion.

SteveRunner re-created packaging of digital audio once again when he released his podcast as an iPhone application – The Virtual Running Partner, complete with exclusive weekly video content. He removed the requirement to tether to a computer or even understand what a podcast was, delivering the gift of convenience and a feeling of intimacy to runners around the world.

BT took an industry in a death spiral, and leap-frogged iTunes digital distribution by releasing the first single from his latest album as an iPhone application. Sonifi provided users with a virtual mixing board, complete with stems from 4 separate remixes, transforming the listener into an artist. In an industry where packaging had actually degraded with digital technology – the experience provided by CD artwork, liner notes and the storytelling of complete albums virtually unknown to a new generation of music fans – BT’s single allowed listeners to get their hands dirty and use his product in a way that had never been done before.

In 6 months, the stakes get higher

As more and more people become mobile, as handset specs rapidly approach their desktop and laptop counterparts, and bandwidth limitations become less of an excuse by the day, your consumers will begin to expect information to be packaged in novel ways that increase their experience with your brand. More hands-on mobile platforms (iPad et al), ebooks complete with multimedia, and the youtube generation intent on remixing culture will all combine to change the expectations of product experiences yet again.

What other innovations have you experienced in the packaging lately? How have brands used digital content to make things more useful, convenient and ultimately, more memorable?

Are you speaking my language?

Think about the last time you met a great sales person.  How about the last great public speaker you saw… or a memorable conversation that left you engaged for hours later.  Everyone can pinpoint a few of these individuals; people who can get their message across in a way that conveys meaning and imagery extending infinitely deeper than the individual words they chose to use.  


Case in point I had the pleasure of seeing some excellent speakers yesterday (Seth Godin, Mitch Joel and Dan Heath). Their messages stay with me, and yet I can’t remember a single individual word they said. I’m left inspired and thinking about big ideas; not because they flashed a sophisticated vocabulary, or read from a perfectly crafted script (or overly produced powerpoint slides) – but rather they conveyed trust, authenticity and incredible value based on their ability to communicate.

It’s not just speaking

Certainly, public speaking is a venue where establishing trust and hooking into an audience through authentic communication is necessary for a message to be properly delivered. The same is true of delivering any sort of presentation or inspiring a team of co-workers or employees in a meeting. Having a message that makes sense and resonates at a human level is infinitely more important than using insider jargon and fluffy business metaphors.

But this concept extends well beyond speaking, and weaves its way through any marketing material that uses language to convey meaning.

It’s always tempting to craft artful prose in a style that convincingly and unequivocally establishes the justification, not simply for the mere existence of the incredible product or undeniable service that your firm delivers, but, as well, for the sheer brilliance of your offering that renders it a life changing and truly universe altering experience.


Or you can write things that make sense.

Take your audience into account

You may have all afternoon to slave over your web or brochure copy, and weeks to tweak, modify, proofread and publish. You might have the budget to trademark your fancy acronyms and establish funny names for your service to differentiate it from your competitors.

Your audience has a few seconds to find you… while cradling a phone to their ear, listening to regrettable hold music, organizing how to get their kid to soccer practice, and figuring out what they’re going to eat for lunch.

As your potential audience punches their question into a search engine, ask yourself – will they be searching for aspirational, life-changing copy – or are they searching for what they need… your stuff, in common language. Do they want your product to be differentiated using your fancy, made up names… or are they comparison shopping between several vendors, looking for similar specs to make an informed purchasing decision?

If they find your information, will they be able to quickly understand it. Can your flowery prose be broken down into quickly digestible chunks of information? What is the average reading level of your customer base? Not sure? The American average level has been reported as being as low as 7th-8th grade.

Remember, what you think sounds amazing and undeniable, might simply be confusing and unintelligible to the world that lives outside of your marketing fishbowl. The video below says it all – are you communicating, or simply making stuff that sounds good?