Hiring a marketing agency is one of the most important decisions you’ll make as a CEO or marketing leader. I’m always grateful when current and former clients thank Karbo Com for the important role we play in the success of their companies. As in any relationship—whether it’s a business alliance or a personal relationship— success depends on the quality of contributions of both parties.
Some companies search for an agency as if they are seeking the holy grail of marketing success. They search for a partner that, once hired, will take the reins, and make success automatically appear. Take this laissez-faire approach at your own peril. As you embark on the journey to find the best partner, do some hard thinking about what your company’s willing and able to contribute to ensure a successful relationship.
You’ve spent months, probably years mapping out your corporate, technology, product, and business plans. Don’t put all of that to waste by rushing through the agency selection process. Determine your objectives, market analysis, resources and the specific help and performance you’ll need before you reach out to prospective partners. Be prepared to cull your agency options down to an adequate and manageable two to four options, allocate time to brief the agencies prior to asking for a proposal. Give prospects enough time to present a thoughtful, quality response and your team enough time to make a formal decision. If you’re still working with an agency, give them the appropriate amount of notice before terminating your contract. Be aware of how terminating your relationship will affect your business and theirs. Treating them with respect goes a long way towards ensuring a smooth transition between agencies.
Selecting an agency partner is one of the most important decisions you’ll make this year. Don’t short-shrift the process. Finding a PR, content and marketing partner will accelerate the success of your company, making you the hero of your corporate story in the process.
Happy Pride Month! We proudly donated to the Trevor Project and GLAAD to reinforce our commitment and allyship to the LGBTQIA+ community. It’s important to us to celebrate pride year round by creating a welcoming and inclusive environment and culture. Today, we’re highlighting and amplifying two of the LGBTQIA+ voices of our employees by sharing their stories and recognizing their unique contributions.
How long does it take to truly be considered a San Franciscan? Mark Elkins, Karbo Com’s Head of Human Resources and Operations, has been living here for 23 years and is proud to call the city his home. From his perspective, San Francisco has always been the beacon of what life should be: accepting and supportive. Mark’s story began with a TV show called “Tales of The City”. At the age of 16, Mark watched the show, connected well with what he saw, and was inspired to move to San Francisco one day. Around this time, Mark came out; first to friends at 16, next his extended family at 18, and then to his parents at 21. Growing up in Salem, Oregon, a fairly rural and conservative community, Mark knew he wanted to move somewhere where he felt more welcomed and accepted. While attending college in Oregon, Mark witnessed first hand hate and discrimination from organizations such as the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance. Witnessing these hateful groups prosper helped propel Mark to find his voice as an advocate with the community. Every year, Mark donates to LGBTQIA+ organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD, and Lyric. He also marches for equality, does volunteer work, and socializes within the community, which he truly enjoys.
Mark is grateful to have found an accepting, caring, and conscientious environment and Karbo Com. It is exactly the type of place he wanted to work for, in large part due to the fact that here, in his words “being gay is no big deal”. This sentiment is echoed from the CEO and Founder all the way across the spectrum to every member of the staff. Outside of Karbo Com though, Mark describes the biggest threat to the LGBTQIA+ community as the lack of true equality that is recognized on a federal level. “If you can be fired from your job, prevented from voting, or evicted from your home for being gay, there’s still so much more left to do”. Additionally, more recent reversals of Obama-era policies and a surging homophobic sentiment in parts of the country have made it clear that for many there is still a lot more work to be done, and the fight for equality is far from over.
For Mark, Pride Month isn’t just a time to celebrate, but should also be a time for political activism.”Things are not where they should be and have a long way to go. It’s time not only to be aware but to take action”.
Lately, you may have been hearing about preferred pronouns: whether it’s seeing them on social media, in email signatures, or it comes up in conversation. Karbo Com’s Creative Director, Courtney Stack, has led the charge when it comes to having open dialogues and discussions on this subject matter. Besides her work at Karbo Com, Courtney is also a multidisciplinary artist, working across painting, photography, sculpture, movement, and writing. Courtney’s pronouns are she/they. Courtney joined Karbo Com in 2019 to launch the agency’s in-house Content Studio, critically expanding service offerings to encompass visual branding, full service social media, photography and video, writing, and more. I asked her to share with me why pronouns are so important on the most personal level.
“I believe that gender is a spectrum. Gender norms conflate anatomy with gender identity, collapsing that spectrum into a limited, prescriptive binary (male, female). The gender binary doesn’t acknowledge human experiences and identities that fall between or outside of those accepted norms. When we limit our understanding of gender identity to the gender binary, we limit our understanding of each other, and of ourselves. When we share our pronouns, we are claiming an opportunity to be better known to one another. We are acknowledging that a person’s gender identity is not something that can be assumed based on the way they look. We are signaling that all gender identities are valid. We are creating space for a more inclusive, diverse, authentic, and loving future”. Courtney’s use of “we” clearly illustrates how important and timely these discussions are in terms of continuing to foster and build a truly accepting and kind environment around us.
Especially when we find it challenging to understand, being curious, asking questions, and learning is a good place to start. As Courtney says, “As a gender queer/fluid person, I appreciate being recognized as such. As human beings, we understand ourselves, in part, through external affirmation. When my internal identity is seen, affirmed, and accepted by others, I feel that I can be myself and lead a more authentic and fulfilling external life. Pronouns play a role in all of that”. There are many pronouns out there. Most of us are familiar with she/her and he/him pronouns. Gender identity terms also include gender neutral pronouns such as they/them, xe/xem, ze/zim, and sie/hir. There are many great resources like GLAAD and the Anti Defamation League if you’re not sure where to get started and want to learn more.
But, why is this important for companies? Company leaders should encourage employees to share their pronouns as well as respect colleague pronouns to signal acknowledgement and acceptance of all employees, regardless of gender identity. This creates a more inclusive, humane workplace. Best practices so as not to misgender someone are simpler than you might imagine. Courtney put it best, “Don’t assume that you know another person’s gender. Instead, simply ask them. Then use the pronouns that they have told you they identify with when referring to them. “ It’s no biggie. Just ask, “What are your preferred pronouns?” This question is easily posed when meeting someone for the first time, alongside other standard introductory questions like, “What’s your name?” But it’s also a question you can feel comfortable asking of someone you’ve known for a while: “Hey, I realized that we never discussed preferred pronouns. My preferred pronouns are X. What are yours?”
Finally, as we look to the future, there are several examples of actions businesses should take to “walk the talk” and ensure that they are truly prioritizing diversity and inclusion. Businesses can show meaningful, change-making allyship with queer communities by publicly divesting from the corporations and entities that oppress those communities. They can elevate LGBTQIA+ employees to positions of leadership and authority. Businesses can also commit ongoing funds and resources to queer organizations all year round, not just for Pride Month. When businesses are truly committed to supporting queer communities, there are a great number of opportunities for them to effect positive change.
Widely recognized as an Internet visionary, entrepreneur and investor Jay Adelson is known for his work founding and running companies including Equinix, SimpleGeo, Opsmatic, Revision3, the first internet television network, and Digg, a news aggregator and arguably the world’s first social media company. He has been named among Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Most recently, Jay co-founded Center Electric, an early-stage venture capital firm focused on Internet infrastructure. In our latest “In the Know,” Jay joins Karbo Com CEO, Julie Karbo, in conversation about successful startup positioning, and shares his advice for building the game-changing press relationships that were crucial to his success.
Julie Karbo: You have a lot of experience working with PR teams; you’ve leveraged Karbo Com at several of the companies you’ve led. How can executives get the best from their PR agency?
Jay Adelson: Startups should think beyond just media coverage when working with a PR agency. The expectation should be the agency should function in a marketing communications and strategy capacity as well. And then it’ll be way more effective, because it’s all very tightly integrated.
Press coverage is part of the story, but startups should work with PR on the company’s positioning, how that positioning impacts products, and how to get the company’s message out to customers. For every launch over the course of my entire career, a PR firm was helping me in that early stage and it was totally mission critical to my success. Without you I wouldn’t be as successful as I am today.
For more mature businesses, it’s a different story—there’s so much to do in the media relations arena. You’re trying to secure ongoing coverage and you want to constantly be pitching new ideas to keep your company top of mind, not just for your consumers, but for other audiences as well. And of course, it’s key to have PR at your side when your company goes into crisis mode. I don’t care how good you are, you always have to have crisis management.
Whether you’re a startup or a more established business, I’ve found that it’s important to meet with your PR agency very regularly. At Digg, Revision3, and Equinix, my CMO would appoint someone in house to serve as the internal liaison responsible for communicating with our PR firm on a daily basis.
Let’s talk a bit more about how early-stage startups should utilize PR as they begin to position themselves.
I’ve never seen in a startup pitch where the positioning was right on the first day.
And what was the problem? Too much of a tech focus?
About 80% of the time, yes. There’s often this obsession with the tech risk they’ve overcome, and founders can become so narrowly focused on that victory that they forget that the point is to sell their product to as many people as possible.
Admittedly, communications is hard. I don’t think a lot of very qualified founders are good at communications. I certainly wasn’t. I had no idea how comms worked. I had to be taught by you, or I learned the hard way by failing at it. But really, as a founder, the second you start raising money you should start thinking about communications, engaging with a PR firm like Karbo Com.
I’m not talking about big marketing spends or event planning before the product is ready, were talking about positioning and start. During my early startup days before our product was ready for the market we would sit down and come up with what our product was going to be and how we wanted to position it. And that would shape product decisions—it was crucial.
As an investor, when I talk to a new entrepreneur who is pitching me, I want to see that they’re thinking about that. They don’t have to have all the answers, but they have to demonstrate that they are willing to go through that analysis. It is not as simple as “the product is awesome.“
I completely agree. And that kind of early positioning work plays a big role in a founder’s ability to lead effectively and to get their team excited.
That’s right, positioning doesn’t work if the founder doesn’t believe it. It has to connect to why they started the business; it has to come from a core place of meaning for that founder. And then it becomes easy to communicate. Because it’s true. You’re just saying what you believe.
And all you need to do then is to go through some degree of training to ensure that you’re using the right diction. I remember going through those PR training exercises with you. I couldn’t believe how fast my speaking shifted as a founder. I’d open my mouth and out would come a perfectly phrased sentence that someone on your team wrote. It was incredible. It really becomes part of your everyday lexicon.
I remember that process, yes! And good branding helps companies build closer relationships with customers too, of course.
I believe the point of much of branding and positioning work is to create something that has meaning to your audience. In the end, you have to understand who your audience is and what you need to do to make your product or service easy to understand. When they understand where you’re coming from that’s a bridge, and that opens a conversation.
One company that has been really successful at this is GoPro. Their branding was focused on doing cool extreme things, jumping off cliffs, flying in the air—it wasn’t just a camera. Their story creates a connection to the audience and customers. And that connection is two directional. It’s not you coming up with that branding and pushing an audience. It’s a two-way conversation with the community you’re building—that’s what makes for a successful branding exercise.
What advice do you have for founders who are looking to build a community around their brand?
When I’m advising a founder, I often say communities are adopted, not created. That might mean you have an influential person join your team, or that you join forces with someone who’s already plugged in to bigger, relevant communities. I would advise founders to leverage people who are already influencers in their communities, rather than putting resources towards building a community from scratch.
We’ve touched on relationships with customers and employees—let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about a founder’s relationship with reporters. How has your relationship with reporters evolved over the years?
My earliest relationships with reporters predate the explosion of the blogosphere and social media. The journalists I got to know back in 1999, I still know today and in many ways those relationships have remained the same. These traditional journalists had a high bar. They held a lot of power and were hugely revered. You would plant the seed and it would be months before an article was written, if at all. That was the relationship I was used to.
With the advent of blogging and social media, I’ve observed a shift. Many relationships are much more real-time, a lot more casual. Newer reporters or bloggers would just pick up the phone and call me, collect some little bit of data, and they would write a story about the smallest amount of news.
And now I think we’re seeing the pendulum swing back. The public discussion around fake news and the lack of trust in the media seems to be driving a real desire for vetted journalists. And so we’ll see. I’m hopeful.
What advice do you have for founders who haven’t established those relationships with journalists yet?
Well there’s no question that it’s worth establishing these relationships as soon as you can. And one way to do that is by establishing yourself as someone worth talking to about a topic that actually isn’t your business. You helped me start that process.
I met a number of journalists at events that they were covering, like TechCrunch Disrupt or launch events. If you can arrange to sit on a panel or ask a question or just approach them and talk to them then you’re off to a good start. Have a quick conversation and offer them a tidbit, or give them a sound bite because you know they love having something to quote, and then get out of there. Don’t talk their ear off.
And after a while they’ll get to know you. It’s sometimes better to maintain a casual relationship that doesn’t have to do with your business, where you can continue to be a subject matter expert for them and let the pitch for your business come from your PR firm. It makes for a much more comfortable relationship. You can talk offline and build trust.
I remember that at one point there was a story coming out about my business from a prominent journalist and it wasn’t a completely flattering story. But because we had slowly built a relationship over time, I was able to call her and she held the story. And that made all the difference.
And yes, the PR firm is mission critical here. Let’s look at it bluntly: a PR firm may have connections with journalists that they’ve had for decades. You’re the new guys on the block with no credibility whatsoever. And there’s a huge gap you can cover if you have a PR firm who’s gonna make that call.
There were times that you connected me with a reporter at Bloomberg or the Wall Street Journal who would never have taken my call otherwise. That’s just reality, that’s how it is. Now, you don’t always need press, and you have to choose when that is important to you, but if it is important to you then PR support is absolutely critical to building those relationships.
Interested in building strategic relationships with the media and positioning your brand for success? Karbo Com can help.
Contact us today to learn more.
Everyone knows that they need public relations and digital marketing support, but how do you know when it’s the right time to bring in outside counsel?
Karbo Com was recently contacted by a tech startup interested in hiring a PR team. On our initial call together, we discussed their needs, priorities and goals. The company was developing an intriguing, well differentiated product in a rapidly expanding industry, and the prospect of working with them to develop a foundational strategy was something we were all very excited about.
But as we learned more, it became clear that while the startup had enormous potential, the timing for PR involvement was off. As the call was coming to a close and the founders were discussing next steps, our CEO Julie Karbo spoke up. “While we’d love to work with you, we’ve got to be honest: it’s too early for you to bring on a PR team,” she said. There was a stunned silence on the other end of the line. We went on to explain why in detail.
Later that evening, a follow-up email arrived in our inbox with the subject line, Thank You. “Every other PR firm was ready to take our business,” it said. “We appreciate your honest advice. When we do move forward with PR, we’ll be moving forward with Karbo Com.”
It can be difficult to know when it’s the right time to bring on outside PR counsel, especially as a startup. Everyone knows PR is part of the equation and that it’s a must-have. But to truly leverage PR and ensure that it’s as effective as it can be, PR needs to be plugged into your startup’s larger business strategy. And the timing must be right.
If your startup is thinking about bringing on a PR team, here are a few things to consider. You know it’s the right time to bring on outside PR counsel when:
You’re not ready to bring on outside PR when:
Follow the guidelines above, and you can be confident that you’re laying the groundwork for an effective and fruitful PR relationship.
Is your startup checking all the right boxes? Think you’re ready to move forward with PR? Contact us. We’ll be honest with you and tell you if you’re ready or what you need to do to get there.
Sarah Bures is a Community Engagement Manager at The New York Times where she runs Times Open, a company blog and platform for Times employees to share stories about their work. With posts like, “Launching a Product in One Sprint” and “How We Designed Our Front-End Engineer Hiring Process,” Times Open has evolved from a small developer blog into acclaimed community resource, offering up valuable behind-the-scenes insights into the newspaper’s process.
Karbo Com joined Sarah to discuss Times Open’s switch over to Medium, her advice for brands self-publishing on the platform, and her tips for designing a purposeful blog content strategy.
Tell us about the community engagement work you do at The New York Times.
I run Times Open, a company blog where we share stories about how things are made at the Times, and I also lead our internal speaker series, the Open Speaker Series.
Times Open was started about 10 years ago by New York Times developers to document the work they were doing with open source technology. For years it lived in a far off corner on The Times website, and then around the time I took over, we moved from Times site to Medium.
And we decided to expand the scope of the blog to encompass stories about product development and innovation, and behind-the-scenes stories about what it’s like to work at The Times.
Tell us more about the Times’ decision to move Times Open to Medium.
Our CTO Nick Rockwell made the decision to move Times Open to Medium primarily because that’s where our audience is. It’s typical of big tech companies, media too—everyone in the space seems to have a presence on Medium. A lot of tech and media companies have internal behind-the-scenes blogs there.
I think it’s a useful platform and it allows you to connect with a variety of big companies, individuals writing about tech, digital product development and media. My complaint is that the analytics are not as good as I would like them to be. The views and claps metrics are pretty limited. Medium recently updated so that if the piece does exceptionally well they’ll show what topics your readers are interested in—but still, it’s fairly limited.
Still, I think Medium is the right venue for Times Open.
What advice do you have for brands publishing on Medium?
Medium is an interesting platform because it removes the middle person. Just like on social media, brands can make their own statements about the work they’re doing. That can be very empowering. But brands should still be just as thoughtful and strategic on Medium as they are on other platforms. Even though Times Open is on Medium, every piece is up to New York Times standards. I work with the newsroom and our PR team to ensure that every story meets those standards. It’s still a part of the larger Times brand, even if it is off-platform.
It’s easy for a company to write something up and throw it up on Medium, but if you want to build an audience and develop a brand and a voice, having a plan and thinking about who the audience is—maybe even before that what the story is—is the best approach. It takes quite a bit of planning.
It’s not enough to say we launched a thing! There needs to be more of a story there. What makes it interesting? Does it already exist somewhere on the internet? If it does, and you’re not saying anything new then you don’t need to write that piece. There should be an overarching strategy and a plan for how you source pieces. And careful thought should go into the purpose of sharing something publicly. It’s not valuable to scream into the void—companies must find their audience and peers, figure out their messaging and go from there to tell their best stories.
Why is it important for brands to tell these kinds of stories?
Company blogs like Times Open give important insight into the company. If you’re showing how things are made, the people behind the scenes, it gives insight into where company priorities lie, the types of projects you’re doing, the way your company is thinking about solving problems.
A company blog also gives companies the opportunity to contribute to their industry by speaking directly to their peers. There is this culture of reading each other’s blogs, talking to one another, going to each other’s conferences and learning from each other. Having a digital space where we can talk about our work is valuable because it allows people to learn from us.
Times Open has also proven to be a really useful recruiting tool. It gives people insight to who we are and what we do. From the outside, The Times just seems like a big, established company—it can be hard to get a feel for what the culture is like. The blog gives a sense of what it’s like to work here; it shows the story behind the story.
The blog also supports company morale by giving people who work behind the scenes an opportunity to share their part of the story. New York Times readers might be aware of the journalists, reporters, and maybe the editors or social media teams who work there. But there are so many others who are involved; there are the people who build the structure in which those stories are delivered. We have developers, designers, project managers. The blog gives those people the chance to get there voices heard in a really powerful way.
What can other brands learn from Times Open? What does Times Open do especially well that other brands can emulate?
I think we do a good job of representing the variety of voices that we have here at The Times. A lot of pitches come through to me, but I also try to go seek out people to write for the blog. I try to make sure we have a diverse mix of voices.
I recognize that I’m not working with professional writers all the time, so making the writing process not scary, and setting up a structure for people who might not be comfortable talking about their work is an important part of the process. Companies who are interested in starting a blog or expanding their existing blog should consider putting a framework in place that helps employees talk about their work in a productive way.
Looking for more In The Know? Check out:
In The Know | Ainsley Wagoner, Adobe Senior Experience Designer
In The Know | Pei Ketron, Photographer and Influencer
Account Director Kimberly Lianthamani, is unstoppable, determined—and always has been. Even as a kid, Kim meant business. A budding peanut butter aficionado with a taste for the finer things, she took the liberty of writing letters to Jif and Skippy, urging the peanut butter companies to adapt Reese’s recipe (her favorite) and citing data from a classroom poll to support her counsel.
That same determination saw the CA native through college at UC Davis where she earned a degree in Communication, and brought her early PR success transforming GoDaddy’s image in advance of the company’s IPO and pioneering marcomm for the nascent phone app industry back in 2011. An invaluable member of the Karbo Com team since joining the agency in 2016, Kim now expertly directs some of Karbo Com’s biggest accounts including TIBCO and TDK.
On rare, lucky occasions the office is graced with a visit from Butters, Kim’s 8-year-old, 90-lb lap dog. “He’s been with me since before the start of my PR career,” says Kim. “While he doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for media relations, he’s an especially skilled snacker and high-fiver. He knows how to close doors, and has great intuition for the most inconvenient times to start making a lot of noise.”
If prompted, Kim will tell you that the high school superlative she should have gotten is “Least Likely to Change.” Considering the former PB pen pal’s current dessert of choice—Marla Bakery’s Peanut Butter & Jelly Cake—we can’t help but to agree.
Five fast facts
Weirdest job – College Sports Mascot
Favorite movie of all time – Bad teacher
Biggest adventure – Diving the Rainbow Reef in Fiji
Essential ingredients for a happy life –
A traveling cribbage board and waterproof deck of cards
What does it take to make great work happen? – The ability to disagree and commit at the same time
Stay tuned for a new Meet The Team feature each month!
Who has time for the seemingly trivial and vanity-fueled pursuit of personal branding when you’ve got a business to run? Executive positioning, or the strategic art of defining, promoting, and leveraging an executive’s personal brand, rarely tops the C suite to-do list. The ROI on executive positioning is indirect; dollars and cents logic might dictate that it’s a luxury businesses just can’t afford.
Yet now more than ever, executive positioning is crucial.
Consider today’s sociopolitical climate. The ubiquity of social media has set new precedents for personal visibility and self expression; today it’s normal to actively and publicly share your point of view. And now more than ever it feels important to speak up. Polarizing politics and social issues amplify our differences, moving us to define and defend our beliefs in the public arena. This feeling is reinforced by the fact that many of the most profound, socially impactful, culturally altering moments in recent history have started with someone coming forward to speak up.
This new era belongs to the visibly purpose-driven.
This applies to brands just as it applies to individuals. In today’s world of brand activism, companies are expected to define their beliefs, to be vocal and transparent about those beliefs, and to act in accordance with them. Purpose-driven companies like Patagonia, Google, and Nike are setting the standard. Consumers now expect brands to be purpose-driven, and are less trusting of those who are not. The enlightened consumer doesn’t want to be sold to, they want to share a set of principles and beliefs. In the aftermath of recent, serious breaches of public trust, customers are rightfully skeptical. In order to trust brands, consumers must agree with the brand’s principals.
And companies are recognizing that brand purpose is more than a stunt, it’s a driver of business growth. Increasingly, consumers are making purchase decisions based on a brand’s political position and stance on social issues. Purpose-led brands report higher customer and employee acquisition and retention rates.
Now, in order for a company to be genuinely and successfully purpose-driven, that purpose must first be embraced by the company itself—its employees, starting with the company’s leadership. Successful purpose-driven companies are led by leaders who embody company principals. These leaders act as the primary brand evangelists both within the company and externally, effectively communicating and representing the brand’s position. They are visible and apparently aligned with and invested in the company’s core values.
In today’s cultural climate, executives who are not strategically aligned with the companies they lead, who are not visible, active proponents of company causes, and who are not outspoken risk compromising brand trust and, to that end, are a liability. Only when a company’s purpose is aligned with the purpose of its employees and the purpose of the consumers buying the company’s products can you have an authentic brand movement. And that alignment is contingent on successful executive positioning.
Executive positioning isn’t about inflating an executive’s sense of self importance; it isn’t an exercise in vanity, nor is it an exercise done in vain. If ever executive positioning was a nice-to-have, in today’s world it has certainly become a need-to-have.
A few tips for doing it well:
Craft your story
Master your storytelling
Tell your story
Interested in learning more about what executive positioning can do for you and your brand? Get in touch. Karbo Com specializes in executive positioning services including:
Contact courtney [at] karbocom [dot] com to learn more.
The sales funnel is dead, and by now we all know it. Outdated models charting a linear path from brand awareness to purchase have been replaced by complex, integrated models better suited for today’s digital world.
The Customer Decision Journey accounts for every touchpoint of the full customer experience, giving due consideration to the customer’s ongoing use of the product and the product’s ability to continue to sell itself and drive future sales. This new paradigm becomes increasingly relevant as more companies make the shift to subscription-based business models. The people we used to call customers, we now call users, and in a world where customer experience and sales have become so crucially intertwined, company’s experience design know-how can mean the difference between success and failure.
To gain greater insight into this critical subject, we consulted Ainsley Wagoner senior experience designer at Adobe, where she works on the company’s flagship user experience design tool, AdobeXD. After all, who better to talk about experience design with than someone designing the experience of one of the leading experience design products? (Try saying that five times fast).
We caught up with Ainsley at Adobe’s new campus in San Francisco’s design district to learn more about the global software leader’s approach, and how ethics are shaping the future of experience design.
Experience design is a broad concept that many people are still trying to wrap their heads around. How do you define experience design?
An experience designer, in the context of tech design, is somebody who thinks about the start-to-finish experience of somebody using a certain technology. This includes how someone discovers a product—how they even know it exists—what their experience is like downloading it, using it for the first time, how they learn about the product’s various features and so on.
Adobe likes to use the term experience designer as a catchall for almost all the designers that work here because we’re all responsible for thinking about the customer experience no matter what we’re designing. You can’t design any feature without thinking about how people find it and how they’re going to use it. Experience design is essential to all that we do here.
These days, brands are taking experience design really seriously. A customer’s initial purchase is just the beginning—brands are finding real value in optimizing the whole user experience. It’s not just about shepherding a person to make one purchase, it’s about building longer term relationships.
What pitfalls or missteps do you see companies making in their user experience (UX) design?
I think one huge one is when companies push their agenda on customers at the expense of the customer experience. An example of this is a pop-up on a website that says, “Sign up for our email list and get 30% off,” and the buttons to dismiss the pop-up are “Sign me up!” or “No thanks, I don’t want to save money.” That’s really unnecessary. That’s a company pushing their agenda on you. And it makes the customer feel bad, which is never good for business.
How might companies negotiate a balance between meeting the bottom line and ensuring that they’re offering customers a positive experience?
It’s really hard. I think that’s one of the hardest parts about being an experience designer: it’s our job to fight those fights. It’s our job to represent the customer, to see them not just as customers, but as fellow human beings. The best companies understand that if you make people feel bad not only is that ethically indefensible, it’s actually bad for business in the long term. Good user experience design is good business.
What are some of the challenges Adobe faces when it comes to experience design?
I can talk comfortably about my own product, XD. We struggle with this a lot because people really do care about keeping the experience simple. One of the big selling points of XD when it started was that it was really simple and using it made you feel calm and peaceful. We weren’t pushing anything in your face.
But as we developed in order to keep up with the competition we had to add new features and we sometimes struggle with finding the best way to tell customers about those features. We communicate updates through release notes and blog posts, but at the end of the day sometimes you need to educate people about these features in the app itself, through in-app hints. Maybe a customer is copying and pasting something over and over and so we’ll jump in and say, Hey! We have a tool for that! It’s called repeat grid, it’s right here.” So that’s one way to do it. But everyone here is worried about that becoming overwhelming and turning people off. The competition is stiff and we know that if we’re overwhelming people with messaging they’ll just use another product.
How can brands fully leverage the power of experience design?
Hire an experience designer, or bring in an outside agency with communications and design expertise like Karbo Com that can come in and do a user experience audit and offer a fresh perspective. It’s really important for brands to ensure that they have someone who is representing the customer’s perspective. Having someone on your team who is capable of putting themselves in the user’s shoes is crucial—that’s something worth investing in.
What is the future of brand experience design?
What I see happening is people are paying much more attention to the ethical implications of what we do. Making designs that are unpleasant for people to use or that eat away at their will power or trick them into buying something wasn’t really talked about as bad when I first started. It was even considered strategic. But now that kind of thing is being called out as ethically questionable.
How seriously will our society weigh the impact design has on people’s feelings, attention span, and willpower? There’s a discussion of ethics in design that’s been emerging in the past couple of years and that’s incredibly exciting. It’s hard in our capitalist, output-focused society to take seriously the way something is making another human feel because you can’t quantify that and that doesn’t make or cost money immediately.
But I think businesses are realizing that the way someone feels matters hugely. People want to feel heard, people want to feel special. People want to feel seen. This is something that experience designers know well, but the importance of that is more widely recognized now and I’m interested to see what implications that has.
Interested in upping your brand’s experience design game? Karbo Com can help. We specialize in creative PR services including:
Contact courtney [at] karbocom [dot] com to learn more.
Looking for more In The Know? Check out:
In The Know | Jay Adelson, Internet Visionary and Entrepreneur
In The Know | Hayley Sakae, Social Media and Content Coordinator at AdRoll
Photographer and influencer Pei Ketron knows a thing or two about visual storytelling. As one of Instagram’s earliest adopters, Pei helped pioneer the meteoric rise of photo-driven social media, amassing an audience of nearly one million followers. Her images have been used by companies like Apple, Google, American Express, and Mercedes, and she’s been named a top Instagram photographer by countless publications. When she’s not busy shooting photography, she’s often speaking about it at premiere events like SXSW, Adobe MAX, and Today at Apple.
Karbo Com joined Pei in San Francisco’s Sunset District to get her advice for brands interested in leveraging the power of photography and digital storytelling.
Let’s hear a little bit about your background
I’ve been a full-time freelancer for seven years and a photographer 18 years. My style and interest is not in those super large scale shoots with the massive crew, huge productions. I like to just show up with my camera, get what the client needs, and call it a day.
In fact, I used to shoot a lot more with my iPhone. For the first six and a half years, my Instagram feed used to be iPhone-only, even though I had been shooting with a DSLR long before joining Instagram.
That’s how I began working with Apple. An inquiry came directly to me from someone at Apple who had been following me for a while. They were looking for photographers who were adept at using iPhones to capture photos for some shoots they were doing. Apple was looking for images to demonstrate the capabilities of their new phone camera.
We did a five day shoot in Tahoe and Yosemite with the Apple crew shooting on an iPhone that hadn’t even been announced yet. It wasn’t a huge production, but it really felt like the shoot was a big deal. There were lots of people around and, of course, the phone was totally on lockdown. They would hand it to me when it was time to photograph and take it back when I was done. It was the first time I captured photos on a device and then just handed over that device at the end of the shoot.
So that’s how I first started with them and now they’ve come to know me as a local photographer they can call on for certain things. And from there it’s evolved to me presenting at the community building creative sessions at Today at Apple.
Tell us more about Apple’s approach to community building. What do you think brands can learn from their approach?
What Apple’s trying to do, especially with the Today at Apple program, is to offer something of value to their community without it feeling like there’s a direct ask on the community to come buy a product. They have started thinking about the fact that retail marketing stores seem like they’re not long for this world given how powerful online commerce has become.
So I think they are trying to anticipate a time when people aren’t really going to want to go in to the stores and buy their products—but they have this whole infrastructure of stores around the world, so how is it that they can use these physical spaces to serve the people in another way? They’re now leveraging these spaces as community building tools. And this creates a way for Apple to encourage people to become advocates for their brand because Apple as a brand is doing these really cool things.
I think it’s a really innovative way of thinking about it. You know, companies do well when they can anticipate the needs that haven’t yet arisen and I think that this is one of those instances. Apple has positioned itself very smartly to anticipate the changes of the market in the future.
The community events you lead at Apple are photo-centric. Do you think imagery is an especially powerful community building tool for brands?
I don’t think imagery is a requirement in building community, but it’s certainly a very helpful piece of it. I think it can be a great instigator for people coming together. The age old saying “a picture’s worth a thousand words” really does hold true here. It can take a lot to verbalize an idea and you can convey so much more in an image much more quickly than you can with text. I think that because it’s such a powerful communicator that it’s much more engaging and emotional in a way that words sometimes aren’t. Because images are so emotional, so raw, they can help brands tell their stories really well in a way that gets immediately people engaged. I’ve seen how it can be a really powerful motivator for people.
What advice do you have for brands that are interested in better leveraging the power of photography?
Some brands don’t recognize how powerful good imagery can be for them. Images are often the very first touchpoint people have with your brand and if you don’t have them or have them and they’re low quality then that reflects poorly on your brand. I’m seeing an interesting trend now within companies: I’ve been getting approached by companies—some small companies, and big companies too—who want to hire me to teach iPhone photography classes to their employees so that they can handle photo coverage of all the events they do.
Sometimes this solution works and sometimes it doesn’t.
I do a lot of photo documentary of art exhibits. A few weeks ago, I photographed a new exhibit at Fort Mason. I was talking to the woman running that show and she was telling me how she wished she had someone to help her document not only the finished show, but the setup process too—the building out of the space, people bringing in the art. She was saying, “It really all just falls on me. There’s no budget for it, and I’m the one who needs the images so I’m the one who needs to try to capture it, but at the same time I have so much other work to do.”
And she’s not a photographer so how do you make that work? Companies need to know when to bring in help from professionals like myself or the Karbo Com team. These employees can’t realistically be expected to do everything.
What trends do you see emerging? How are companies being smart about using photography to their advantage?
More and more these days brands are recognizing the real power of actual storytelling. So more than just paying a photographer to do a nice commercial shoot, there’s a tendency now for companies to build and share a more robust story behind their brand. Who are the people behind the company? How did they get where they are?
There’s a leather goods company based out of Nashville called Nisolo and they work with artisans down in South America to make their goods. It’s important for them to tell the story of those artisans; these are the people who create the products. The message it sends is that by buying Nisolo’s goods you’re supporting these people who are now able to afford housing and education. It tugs at the heartstrings a little bit more, so it serves as a really effective marketing tool that in the end drives sales, even though Nisolo is not directly saying, “Hey, buy our stuff.” The end result is that people are more motivated to make a purchase because they’re more invested in the people behind the brand and they know their full stories. That kind of brand storytelling is happening more and more. And strong imagery is essential to sharing those stories effectively.
What is the role of social media in this kind of brand storytelling?
You know, I get hired for massive photo shoots by people who have never met me before and never asked me to prove to them that I can execute on whatever shoot they’re wanting to do. Because these clients have watched my feed over time, sometimes for many, many years, they already know exactly what I can deliver, they know exactly what I’ve done for other clients. It all kind of speaks for itself because I’ve essentially built and maintained that relationship with them for years. And that’s why social media is so powerful these days. It’s so important for brands these days to have that really great social media presence, for them to have really good images.
There’s a lot of aspirational following on social media. Even if these followers aren’t in the market for whatever it is that a brand is selling right now or can’t afford it, people nurture the aspiration that one day they will buy that product—and then they do! I’ve seen it over and over again. I’ve even done it! I’ve followed you for three years and never bought anything, but when I do buy that one thing I know I’m going to buy it from you.
It’s playing the long game, right?
You can find Pei on Instagram here.
Interested in upping your brand’s visual storytelling game? Karbo Com can help. We specialize in creative PR services including:
Contact courtney [at] karbocom [dot] com to learn more.
Looking for more In The Know? Check out:
In The Know | Ainsley Wagoner, Adobe Senior Experience Designer
In The Know | Sara Bures, Community Engagement Manager at The New York Times