Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Two Biggest Pitfalls of Startups

We seem to find that our start-up clients are made up of two sorts. One where the business’ genesis was from a passion for a concept and a clear idea of what the product will be. The other is made up of those that find a hole in the marketplace or a window of opportunity but no real sense of the business itself. Either approach has advantages and disadvantages for creating a web-based business.

Startup Type One: Driven by a passion
Companies founded on passion and clear concept have most of their strategy laid out as a factor of the thought they have already put into the product and how deeply they understand their audience. The problem being is that those that have the passion, but possibly not the business acumen have trouble finding ways to monetize their business.

We have found that many of these businesses will have a great concept with a clear decision process but end up retooling when the customer growth doesn’t come. Another issue that they face is that they are too close to the concept and see themselves as the customer, sometimes missing important opportunities.

Startup Type Two: Driven by dollars
On the other hand, those who have a get-rich idea usually have the income side figured out but not necessarily a viable product. A website alone -- no matter how great the idea is -- will not make a difference to your bottom line unless it is created based on a thought-through product strategy and a significant brand promise (with supporting elements) to which customers can react.

We find that these kinds of startups can spend months moving boxes around without the intuition for which are the best ways forward, since they have no real sense of what the desired user interaction by the target audience actually is.

Getting the best of both worlds
The answer is to meld both. If you are missing a subject matter expert, hire one and make them consult throughout the branding and product development exercises. If you are missing the business acumen, hire someone that can find opportunities to monetize and grow your market. No matter the amount of fiddling, you can’t get there without both.

Ensure you have a solid base to which you can refer when there are business decisions to be made. Companies who have skipped this step always come back to it (if there is any money left) because making decisions on the basis of “that sounds like a good idea” or “people will like that” (without testing) invariably cost a lot of money to develop. This is because multiple iterations are needed to get it right or the mark is missed entirely with one big, expensive push. When there is no core strategy or focus upon which decisions are made, money is burned.

It is imperative that a start-up develop appropriate strategies that involve understanding who the target audience is and what they are all about, as well as how the company is differentiated in the competitive space. This will fuel the Brand strategy and enable the company to present the right face to the customer from the start. The brand can then be fleshed out and a visual language can be created that speaks viscerally to the customer. From the brand identity, messaging can be created to communicate the product benefit, the company ethos, and to connect deeply with the customer. The best money-making idea in the world won’t be worth a dime if your site doesn’t speak to your user. She must know what it’s about, how to use it, and want to come back.

An example of these pitfalls (but made it through the other side) was a recent client of ours, HomeSavvi. When we began working with them, they saw an opportunity to create a market for advertisers who wanted access to people looking to remodel. They had a vague sense of the tools the user would need, but not the actual decision points for what a user would require in order to use their service. The original result before they came to us was a site called Alphabet Lane with a muddled navigation and a disconnected user experience.

We worked with them to help them find the core value of their brand and to create a feature-rich user experience that could grow with their user base. The painful part was that the process to get there because they had to rename, rebrand, rearchitect, and rebuild from scratch- throwing away a very large majority of their original product. To see examples of the process HomeSavvi undertook, you can view it here:

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Using Moodboards to define a brand system

When exploring a brand PPMG recommends the use of a Moodboard which will articulate the brand's visual language, how it's presented, and how it connects with the audience. It is a high-level, over-arching view, exploration and representation of the visceral impact of the brand concept. The Moodboard evokes the emotional, visceral, and user-benefit communication and brand perception elements and delivers it in a way that can be easily digested, extrapolated, and applied in real-world designs.

The Moodboard is a far more cost effective way to discover the brand's visual language than through the design process. Multiple iterations are easily implemented during Moodboard creation and finalization. True creative exploration can occur without costing thousands and thousands of dollars. The deliverable is then a baseline that is available for all subsequent design phases. It is the first step in engendering a communication system with meaning to which the user will become connected.

Moodboards follow the strategic goals of the company and provide a visual base for the identity, design, and the user experience going forward which includes:
* Hooking in the user emotionally
* Presenting the Brand value
* Presenting the message
* Creating the visual language of the company

The realized Moodboard direction can be applied to the entire suite of company communications.

Case in point:
For Alpha Graphics PPMG proposed a brand-forward approach to their website redesign. We put the emphasis on the high-touch customer relationship Alpha Graphics is known for. We extended the brand to be more customer-centric and we created a sub-brand element, Customer Alpha, that married their brand position with their name. We used the Greek alpha symbol to emphasize the direction. "Alpha" means first, so “customer alpha” means “customer first” which is Alphagraphics overarching brand position and promise. We chose this path to convey a powerful message that would distinguish AlphaGraphics as a premier printing service with unparalleled attention to its customers.

This treatment distinguishes AlphaGraphics from its competitors while reinforcing its relationship with its customers. It also speaks directly to AlphaGraphics' audience: Creative Directors, Art Directors, Marketing Directors, and major decision makers. The simplified, strong branding gets the point across that AlphaGraphics understands its audience and knows how to deliver top-quality service and printing products.

View Samples Here:
Moodboard pdf

Homepage Comp

Using an Online Experience to Simplify the Offline One

Pathable is a new startup that helps to organize and create networking opportunities for conferences and social events. The idea is that a conference or network event organizer uses Pathable for attendees to register.

The attendees can then find people with similar interests by information that appears on the person’s badge as well as browsing on the website and receiving updates on their phone while attending the event. Another feature they are now introducing is to allow organizers to post the event agenda allowing attendees to select which talks to join.

So they came to us with an interesting issue. How do you make an online experience ease the offline one? The answer is to mimic as much as possible how the offline experience works.

As research, I took pictures while attending a conference and what the current experience is. What I noticed was that it’s a very lonely experience. People naturally wanted to find people they already know to network with. They also have a crumpled piece of paper with checkmarks on it for the talks they intended to attend, normally leaving part-way through to see if they were missing something better. When you introduce yourself to someone, they immediately stare at your badge trying to assess and size you up on who you might be and what benefit you may provide.

Pathable can definitely ease these pain points, but the key being that the offline experience overlapped the online one. First, we tried to make the attendee user profile page match the style, colors and layout of the actual badge that one wears at the event. We made mini color-coded versions that were used when listing attendees on other pages to make the color system be uniform through the user experience.

The other key solution was to simplify the process of selecting which talks to attend. Conferences have them organized in different taxonomy structures- by location (room number), by subject matter (Design, Development, Marketing, etc.) or by chronological order (day and time).

It also needs to provide a significant amount of information regarding each talk aside from just the topic and room number- the bio of the speaker, who is attending, the tags associated with the specific talk as well as the subject matter category.

Our solution was to have the summary of information be available at the top level with the room number called out for easier reference when glancing at where to go next with everything else available via rollover. When you click anywhere on a listing, it will mark it for you as attended in a bold red so you can quickly see which ones you flagged. You can also filter your list to eliminate subjects that don’t apply to your interests, making the list more digestible.

The design system then had an additional hurdle- generic but identifiable branding. Sounds strange, I know. The idea was that Pathable wanted the user experience to be branded but can be white labeled for any event without conflicting with the events brand. The solution was to have the style be light on design cues (buttons, boxes, color treatments) but have a stylization that could be recognizable and ownable as Pathable’s.

Check out the comps here

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Branding Yourself

Reactee is a new site with a brilliant idea- Billboard yourself as your own brand. The idea is that you walk around wearing a shirt that advertises people to text you.

This is brilliant from several angles; Reactee allows the myspace-type narcism to extend into the real world, it enables people to make their own message about themselves and express their individuality, and lastly while it is letting one to brand oneself, it is also quite clever how Reactee is also branding themselves at the same time.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Building Synergistic Business Communication Models

John Wheeler (colleague of Einstein) is quoted by Cosmic Search Magazine (Vol. 1 No. 4) as saying “No elementary phenomenon is a phenomenon until it is an observed (or registered) phenomenon.”

This means that unless and until the moment of observation the universe exists only as a possibility. PPMG incorporates this thinking with scenario planning in our approach to creating synergistic business communication models. By this we mean brands that are extensible, adaptive, and meaningful. We look at the uncertainties of the future and try to discover the undiscovered in the present.

Exploring uncertainty is a means by which we can create a context for what is presently thought to be known. It is an excellent tool with which we explore a wide range of possibilities for what cannot be known. Scenario planning, which is a strategic process of exploring uncertainty, challenges assumptions, identifies contingencies, anticipates changing paradigms, ignites creativity, and most importantly, identifies actionable items that make business models and communication plans vigorous and elastic.

PPMG’s process is not exhaustive by any means, but it does reveal paradigm shifts and points toward communication implications in the uncertain future. Going forward it is critical that businesses stay fluid, are aware, and frame their aspirations. We are not saying that the business ethos should be in constant flux, but rather adaptive to new trends and technologies.

We begin with the question at hand, “how will the brand become synergistic with the new, emerging communications paradigm,” and we look at the uncertainties surrounding this query. This is not a deterministic process but rather an intuitive one that is built on consensus. This process reveals the possibilities of the future and fixes them in the present. Once possibilities have context and can be described, they can then be used to form scenarios which can be evaluated with intelligence.

Our ultimate goal is a synergistic business model that is achieved by visualizing the paradigm created by the discovered scenario data. We take our newfound perspective and use it to re-evaluate existing communications. We identify the business dimension and message base. Then we visualize all this as a synergic communication scenario. From there we are able to create holistic, flexible, and above all meaningful brands that truly communicate the business ethos.