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Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Should Care About Finding Their Unique Voice [INTERVIEW]

Move over Don Draper, the modern day agency marketer needs to be more of a Renaissance (wo)man.

Sure, they need to be creative enough to craft a compelling pitch.

But they also need to be data-driven. They need to be well versed in analytics and the latest MarTech trends. And when budgets get tight, agency marketers need to be able to convince their clients to not cut out conversion rate optimization.

Few people know this better than Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, a global digital marketing agency operating in 20 different countries. Mitch is a best-selling business author, international speaker and agency thought leader. But he’s also a full-stack marketer who has been doing display advertising for longer than Google itself.

Mitch Joel, president of global digital agency Mirum and author of Six Pixels of Separation and CTRL ALT Delete.Image source.

Since Mitch entered the digital marketing world, a helluvalot has changed — and not just in agencyland. As technology evolves, so too are consumers and the way they interact with our brands. At the Call to Action Conference in June, Mitch’s keynote, Algorhythm: How Technology Connects Consumers To Brands Like Never Before, will dive into how to future-proof your brand and embrace disruption to become a digital leader.

Ugh, why can’t it be June already?

To tide you over, here’s a fascinating interview with Mitch from the Call to Action Podcast. Unbounce Director of Content Dan Levy sat down with Mitch to discuss:

  • How the agency world has evolved over the past 15 years.
  • Mitch’s experience selling his independent agency to WPP, the largest advertising company in the world.
  • How everything from search results to PPC and even the talent you hire for your agency are all extensions of your brand.

Check out some highlights from the interview below. (This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to the full episode on iTunes.)

Dan Levy: You’re known as a bestselling business author, speaker and agency thought leader, but you got your start in the online marketing trenches doing ad sales and even PPC marketing for a site called Mamma.com. Can you take us back to that time? What did the online marketing landscape look like and what did you learn from that experience?

Mitch Joel: Actually, yes, I did do that. But my start in digital came much earlier when I was publishing music magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. I actually was tangentially at the same time very engaged in digital media: first web browser, BBSs, stuff like that. And I actually put those magazines on the “internet” — like air quote internet — because back then, there wasn’t even really an internet.

I remember one of the cover stories for my alternative, cool, fun publication was called, “The Net.” The innovation at that time was hyperlinks. I literally was posting things on the internet from the magazine that couldn’t have hyperlinks. You couldn’t link from one page to the other. That really kept me on the trajectory where eventually I helped launch the sales channel of what at the time was one of the largest meta search engines on the internet. And again, it’s hard to imagine a world before Google. But this was pre-Google. And so the meta search engine would basically grab search results from engines like Yahoo, AOL, Lycos, and create a meta — or a better — search result that we could actually aggregate faster.

My role back then was selling sponsorships on the homepage, it was selling banner advertising. And it was also very early days of selling — literally the first time of being able to take a search result and having a banner that’s related to the search show up in the search result. And to tell you how early and nascent it was, I had to physically go into the code of the search engine to code the banner in. I don’t recommend that in this day in age. Like I don’t think anyone at Google is going into the master code to embed a search result. But that’s how early the times were back then.

DL: Wow. What did you learn from that experience that you brought forth?

MJ: Well I learned to take chances. I can tell you that when they approached me about the opportunity, my first question was, “What’s online advertising?” I mean, we are talking about a time when that first banner ad on HotWired — which became Wired — had just run.

The first banner ad, ever. Image source: Wired.

I didn’t even know what it looked like, what it felt like, what it could be. I think my pedigree in selling traditional print ads and having a construct of what it means to run a media company is what pushed me there. So it was — to this day, it was a great move. And I’m so grateful, I still have a lot of friends in my life now who came from there. A lot of people who’ve become — who’ve ascended in this industry to run major, major web initiatives are people that I hired. People that I brought into the industry. So I have a lot of pride in that.

And I also learned that — again, when I think about it, I don’t know why I took the job. All logic would dictate that at the time, I should not have taken that job. But I took the job and it wound up being great for me because it brought together what I was doing professionally on one side. And on the other side, it brought together my passion for digital. I often say that I was very early into many things. And when we started Mirum, which back then was Twist Image in 2000 (I joined in 2002). At that point in my career I said, even though I might be a little early in this space, I’m going to ride it out.

DL: Performance marketing and brand marketing are often seen as being on different sides of the digital marketing spectrum. Do you think that’s true? Do you see those two disciplines as coming closer together in an age where Facebook has gone from a social media network to just another performance marketing channel?

MJ: I think you’re right. The evolution — and by the way, Google structured themselves — for a long while, and they may still — around brand and performance. And that’s common. Where I think the confusion comes from is that within real behavioral performance-based marketing, there are heavy and hefty lifting around brand and experience that we often dismiss because we think that performance is still about getting the right search word, getting them to the right page.

But actually if you step back from that, the meta message is that it has to be a very relevant and cohesive brand experience. And I was somebody who wasn’t just buying generic brand keywords back in the day, to just keep that going. I actually believe that — a saying I’ve used since the early 2000s is that the first page of search results is a brand experience.


You can’t separate PPC & brand marketing. The 1st page of search is part of your brand experience.
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So there’s that. That sort of dismisses the idea that performance is not about branding. And you’re right — fast forwarding to today, a lot of my clients and a lot of people I meet when I do speaking events will say that social media is primarily a paid channel, because of what Facebook has done to throttle the content and have you pay against reach. Which I think by the way is a great model and clearly the market would agree with that idea.

But you can’t have any results — whether you’re paying for it or it’s organic — unless it’s a really good experience.

Whether or not that’s through a search result, an email marketing initiative, a great landing page *hint hint wink wink* to you guys, or a good old piece of content. I really don’t care. I’m actually agnostic to that.

DL: Where do performance channels like PPC and landing page optimization and conversion rate optimization come into the picture with the kinds of big brands that you work with? Are those things part of your offer? Do you factor them into how you pitch and bill clients?

MJ: Well it depends on whether someone’s going full bore with us or not. Like any other agency, we work on specific campaigns, specific projects, longer initiatives and then full-on mandates. And even the full-on mandates have sort of splits and fits and starts.

The way we started our company, we only wanted to work with large national and multinational brands and we’ve stuck to that model for what’s coming up onto 17 years. Because of that, being of startup size back in the early 2000s, most brands already had large media companies at play. And those media companies even back then were feeling very threatened by digital and would make those offerings.

So we would come in and grab pieces and parts of it and really focus on the behavioral side. Let us handle the drive to optimization, landing page, unique spaces, unique experience while the media companies were really checking boxes around “online video,” “search,” affiliate marketing” and stuff like that. So from my pedigree, I stand very firmly and aligned with what performance can do in terms of optimizations and moving things forward. I feel like I’m banging against the wall when everyone says, “Well we do that.” I think people do do that, but they don’t really do it.

I still really believe that a lot of the work we see is what I call “rearview mirror.” You know, we did it, we’re running these keywords to a landing page, and let’s see how it did. Post. I believe, and I know that Mirum as an agency believes it, all of that optimization, all of that data, all of that opportunity is now in the passenger seat. When you do it well and you actually are optimizing and driving and creating unique experiences on landing pages and stuff like that, you’ve moved it from the rearview mirror to the passenger’s seat and you can fix it and go so that there always is a positive result, not a result that says, “Oh, that campaign just didn’t work.” I can’t believe we still use that language in business today!

DL: Right, as if a campaign or an experience is a success or a failure — only if it meets your hypothesis. And the learnings aren’t a factor or don’t have anything to do with it at all.

MJ: Right and it’s frustrating for me because I feel like we often lose business or can’t grab the business because there’s a sentiment that we already have someone doing that work. But when you dig into what that work is, you see that there actually isn’t a lot of that stuff that we’re really talking about. They say they do that, it’s on their decks, and it’s on their site. But — and I don’t know if it’s a failure of the brand or a failure of the agency. I’m not sure where it happens. But there is a vast majority of very powerful brands really not doing enough.

DL: Do you think the problem is that optimization is seen as a discipline or a branch of marketing instead of just a mindset?

MJ: Yeah. One of my close friends is Bryan Eisenberg, who I really believe is one of the forefathers of this optimization space. He’s written books about it, “Waiting For Your Cat to Bark?” and intent and scent and all that.

My relationship with Bryan is going on for close to 20 years at this point. And he would often say things like, “You know, here we are talking about all this stuff. And the first thing a brand will cut on a budget is the optimization. Hands down.

And it’s mind-numbing and it’s mind-blowing to both of us — and years later it still remains the same — because that’s actually where you make money. And I don’t know why brands, agencies don’t get it. I don’t get how they don’t get it.

DL: Can you talk about the role content played in getting Twist on the map? I imagine that your book and your blog and your podcast were all part of ultimately attracting the attention of WPP and making that acquisition happen.

MJ: It’s a yes and no story.

It’s a yes story in the sense that it’s very interesting when they’re doing financial and product assessments to see an agency that has been so consistent for a decade. Creating the blog, the podcast, Six Pixels of Separation, that lead to 50-60 paid speaking events a year. That lead to two best selling books — and I’m not trying to toot my own horn, but represented by a major New York literary agent, onto a major — largest book publisher in the world, onto the global deal. And other things that come from media appearances and stuff like that.

DL: Yeah, I think that from my perspective, Twist Image and Mitch Joel were kind of one and the same.

MJ: Totally. And we built it that way. We always saw from day one, back in 2003ish, when we started the blog, that Twist Image (at the time — now Mirum) would be managing three brands:

  1. that Mirum brand,
  2. Six Pixels of Separation (which we sort of considered the sort of “content engine” — so blog, podcast, articles, speaking, books)
  3. and then Mitch Joel, this media face. This warm, hopefully friendly and personable face to an agency, which again, now seems very obvious.

But if you go back 10+ years, nobody was really doing that. They didn’t really have that. So the fact that we were sharing content, having conversations with people who just didn’t have a voice before — you know, we were having hour-long conversations with business or marketing thought leaders. That you didn’t get an hour with. You’d be lucky if you had one famous enough to get 10 minutes on Charlie Rose. Suddenly, someone is spending an hour with them, having a conversation like they would over a coffee, and publishing it to the world.

There were these assets there that were built over time, and again, I do know that when it came to the opportunity for us to be acquired, one of the metrics was the fact that there is revenue generation that comes out of the content engine. That doesn’t just create media attention and a level of fame, whatever that might be. But that there actually was revenue behind this thing. And that was very surprising and shocking to them.

DL: Meaning what? It gets clients in the door?

MJ: I mean, yeah, think about it. You pitch for business development, you spend weeks, months pitching. And business development is a cost center. It costs every agency a lot of money to business develop. You don’t win every pitch. It’s a very small percentage. And you hope that the ones you win make up for all the money you spent. When you’re offsetting that cost with speaking gigs, book deals, article writing and stuff like that, it’s really interesting that you’re creating this voice and building a platform and it actually is driving business, it’s driving revenue — both in terms of client and raw revenue. We get dollars to speak and write books. It’s not vanity.

It was always about creating equity in the brand, that would have one of two roles. That one day, we would be acquired. Or if we’re never acquired, we’re running this business in a way where all of the top players would want to acquire it. And there would be extreme value in the brand.

I like building businesses that build equity as they grow. And this channel of speaking, writing, etc — it wasn’t a core component of what we were acquired for, but it was definitely on the list.

DL: It reminds me of the Rolling Stones model, where you’re the front man, but ultimately, you share those profits evenly. I know they’ve credited that for their longevity as a band. It sounds like the same thing for the longevity of Twist, and now Mirum.

MJ: Yeah, and I try to not have it be ego-driven. I look at it like — my job, as a media entity, is to be extremely personable. And to know that I’m managing Mirum, Six Pixels and Mitch Joel. And I conduct myself accordingly. If you look me up on Facebook, there isn’t a ton of personal stuff. There’s a ton of personable stuff.

DL: If you had to give agencies who are looking to set themselves apart from the crowd and spur growth for both their clients and their own business one piece of advice, what would it be?

MJ: I really think it is much like a great book. A great book works not because the topic is unique. I feel like more often than not you’re reading a topic that somebody else covered in one shape or form.

It’s the voice. I don’t see that much in terms of agencies having that unique voice. Do I think we achieved it? Partially. And I think it’s because it’s a journey — you’re constantly changing it, moving it along. But if I were to go across — and we did this exercise when we were trying to figure out the branding for Mirum, Twist Image — I would jokingly tell people, “You could take the website of all our biggest competitors, take off the logos, throw them in the air, and whatever website they fall on, you’d still be pretty much right.” The services, types of case studies, type of work we do. And still to this day, I think that story rings true.

The ones that stand out, though, are the ones that have a unique voice. It could be a unique individual — I’m thinking of people like Bob Greenberg at R/GA. It could just be a unique story to tell. So if you look at an agency like WK, the fact that they’ve been large and independent, the type of work that they’ve done it’s like the voice of the agency is the work that they do. That type of thing is the only component of your business that you can have that is the defendable against a competitor. It’s how you express yourself, tell your stories, the type of team members you bring in, the type of work that you do, the stories you tell in the marketplace, where you network, what you attend. That’s the big one.

The secondary one is get involved in your industry. What  drove this business at Mirum was the fact that we got involved in places like Shop.org, the National Retail Federation, Canadian Marketing Association, Interactive Advertising — I could go on and on. And we didn’t just join and become members. We got involved. In fact, we just had a conversation at lunch about an association that I’m super interested in. And the answer we all came to was: “Not unless we can get deeply involved.” So, what you find out is that by giving (because you love this industry and you want it to be better), you do wind up in some way receiving. We don’t get involved to get results. By getting involved and being active, it just happens.

DL: Well Mitch, it’s always a real treat to talk shop with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.

MJ: My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

This transcript has been edited for length. Listen to more interviews with digital marketing experts on iTunes.

Link: 

Mitch Joel on Why Agencies Should Care About Should Care About Finding Their Unique Voice [INTERVIEW]

Design an Insanely Memorable Conference: From Branding to Signage (And Every Detail in Between)

Attendees from last year’s Call to Action Conference

From busy trade show floors to professionally-lit celebrity panels, it seems every marketing brand wants a South by Southwest-style event all their own these days.

But, with so many conferences for your target market to choose from, it’s risky running a large-scale event as a mid-sized brand. It’s the ultimate faux pas to host a forgettable, generic conference, so how can you stand out from the rest and leave attendees smitten?

At Unbounce, we’ve learned that a good conference is a designed experience: your attendees need to feel the effort that went into the event with every single detail. With Call to Action Conference, we work for months to book unparalleled experts and ensure quality talks. But, as an interactive designer here at Unbounce, I’ve learned that the visual branding of your conference, from the typeface to the venue’s wayfinding is just as important. 

This year I’m responsible for CTAConf’s branding and can share that part of our event’s strategy is to stand out. We want you to remember exactly where you were when you heard remarkable speakers on our stage, built important relationships at our after parties and received valuable insights (not to mention cool swag).

In this post I’ll share a behind-the-scenes look at our 2017 branding, and 5 design tips to ensure every event your brand hosts is unforgettable.

CTAConf 2016

1. When branding your conference, prep a solid pitch

To meet our goals this year, our team decided we wanted to create a new image for our event based on last year’s feedback and key learnings. Ultimately, we want to:

  • Increase brand awareness: It’s essential people remember the conference’s name and associate it with us.
  • Deliver a stunning 360 experience: We want to offer an online and offline cohesive experience for our attendees from touchpoint A to Z. Everything should feel integrated.
  • Use resources wisely: We’ve got a large marketing team, and we need to optimize the use of our internal resources to balance time, effort and impact.

If you’ve run an event before and have decided on developing a new visual look (or you’re running your first in-person event), I find it’s useful to start by reviewing last year’s learnings and/or your upcoming conference goals. This review puts everyone on the same page for understanding the reasoning behind your future design choices.

Once you have your art direction concepts ready to present it’s all about how you sell the story of your vision to your key stakeholders internally. People can’t evaluate a design without knowing its intention, so as a designer—or a marketer working with a designer—ensure you use a kickoff meeting to guide your stakeholders with storytelling and a proper visual presentation.

Here’s an example of the presentation I gave to our internal stakeholders around my proposed brand concepts for this year. In this deck I painted a clear picture for everything from concept development to moodboards to an exploration of the Instagram ads:

Pitch deck
Stakeholders pitch deck.

By sharing the rationale behind each concept and putting together some quick explorations I was able to clearly explain my choices. This helped to generate internal buy in for our refreshed look.

This year’s Call to Action Conference is a designed experience you don’t want to miss (and you don’t have to!). You’ve found the blog readers 15% discount — use the code “Blogsentme” at the checkout from May 8 to 12 to join 1,300 of your marketing peers.

When running your branding kickoff, you’ll want to include all stakeholders who have input or final say in the conference’s look and feel. It’s best to get the majority of feedback at the beginning of your design process instead of during execution.

Also, use real content instead of lorem ipsum in the quick explorations of your design. Presenting banners, posters or landing pages with actual words forces you to explore the branding further and will help you present stronger ideas.

2. Details matter: Build a consistent experience

Perfect execution of the visual design for an event falls on the shoulders of the designer, so you’ll want to define the brand guidelines of your conference early and apply these guidelines across every asset. Using a grid system, and agreed upon typography, colors, photographic and graphic styles will help you maintain visual consistency and you’ll increase the learnability of your brand.

Here’s a look at how we planned our consistent visual treatments this year:

Visual treatments
Example of Illustrations and photograph treatment

As you can see, every single detail counts — from the napkins at the snack bar to the precise measurements of the screen on the stage. As we’ve found, if you don’t pay attention to details, your audience will. To catch inconsistencies that don’t make complete sense, we’ve found it helpful to invite people from other teams to review our design and confirm:

  • Is the message clear?
  • Is every asset pixel perfect, with no spelling errors? (When printing massive banners and expensive materials, you can’t afford mistakes.)
  • Is every photograph, illustration and logo in high resolution?
  • Does every asset feel part of the same universe?

When your running an event, start with a massive list of all possible design needs and go from there. Invite people from many different departments who think differently to review and refine.

You’ll often find there are (literally) hundreds of tasks you or your designer needs to work on, so instead of cutting things from the to-do list as you get closer to the event, sacrificing your vision, plan ahead with these design recommendations:

Develop a clear brand guideline document

This offers internal and external direction should other designers or teams need to jump into the project and ensures a cohesive look no matter who helps with design work.

Brand guidelines for CTAConf
Example of logo, typography and color palette guidelines

Create a Creative Cloud asset library

This provides an easy-to-follow, organized structure for files and folders. The libraries are available in every design app and you can even use them when you’re offline.

Asset Library

Use artboards and smart objects in your Photoshop files

Using social channel banners as an example here, having individual artboards for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn all in the same document speeds up your workflow. These artboards facilitate fast content replication, ensure cohesive design across platforms and speed up the export process. As a marketer or designer, you only have to modify your smart objects to quickly create completely new banners where needed.

Smart objects

3. Consider online and offline for every attendee touch point

Event organizers and designers must work together to craft an educational and emotional narrative before, during and after the event. This begins online with the conference’s website, landing pages, app and social channels but extends to offline curation: posters, venue wayfinding and swag items.

To plan exciting journeys through physical spaces at your conference venue, you need to jump into your attendees shoes — but also those of the speakers, media, sponsors and staff. This will help you think of every single touchpoint you need to design for, both online and offline. What are the main tasks attendees want to achieve? And how does each step enable someone to get to the next one?

Here are two examples of user journeys we’ve designed this year:

Online:

online journey

Offline:

offline journey

Besides a better understanding of your attendees needs, this 360 approach also indicates where every design element needs to be located and how individual elements can work together in a larger ecosystem.

For this year’s online experience pre-event, we’re promoting CTAConf in our regular owned channels including our website, monthly newsletter, social accounts and blog, but we’re also trying exciting new approaches you can experiment with for your events too. Here are a few we think are especially cool:

  • Lead gen, traffic shaping and rev gen Convertables – we’ve designed overlays to appear on various pages of our site to increase tickets sales and redirect traffic to our conference site.
Convertables
Want to try overlays on your own site? Overlays are modal lightboxes that launch within a webpage and focus attention on a single offer. Learn more here.
  • Personalized banners for all social media channels. These branded banners appear in Unbouncer Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn profiles to help promote the event and link to the conference’s homepage.
social banners
  • CTAConf viewfinders and personalized letters. Recently we sent VIP media invitations out with these custom retro viewfinders. Each wheel contains photos that tell a story from last year so potential attendees can get a sense of what’s just around the corner.
CTAConf Viewfinder

4. Make info prominent to strengthen conference awareness

It’s critical to remind attendees what event they’re attending — verbally and visually.

In our case, it’s tricky because our company’s name is not included in our conference’s name — so many people have called the event the “Unbounce conference.” We want to minimize that awareness gap, which is why this year’s visuals reinforce our conference name (yes, those big letters you might have seen on our emails, banners, landing pages or in our our social channels).

Email banner
Here’s an email banner example.

As a conference planner, look for ways to use all design real estate to communicate key info around the event. When is it? Where is it? Who’s organizing? As obvious as it might sound, always include your company and conference’s logos because this is the only way people will begin associating them together. You want these two things to be synonymous.

Finally, look for ways to ensure all the conference details are clear. Make the session titles, speakers, times and locations very prominent, accessible from multiple locations and keep them up-to-date.

5. Integrate design in your event strategy from the start

Designers are a key part of conference creation, so it’s best to involve us early, often, and continuously instead of turning to us as asset generators on a whim. Involve designers from day one to discuss the message and feeling you need to convey with your event. Additionally, ensure designers feel free to explore new ideas for accomplishing goals.

A key part of a successful collaboration is feedback and how it’s delivered so create a process that works for both parties and stick to it as this will strengthen your communication and boost the quality of your work.

As an example, in early designs of our conference, name badges were focused on communicating the attendee’s category (speaker, sponsor or attendee). This was a communicated requirement, but we realized it’s way more important to facilitate personalized conversation at an event, so for the next round of name badges we made everyone’s name prominent and legible. As simple as this example sounds, it illustrates the importance of focusing on the function of assets rather than just the visual.

Overall, avoid telling a designer exactly how to design, but instead, communicate the key goals of an asset.

Tip: Consider gathering feedback from your attendees, too. Gathering instant feedback is a great opportunity to continuously improve your conference design and branding. This year we’re going to run concise face-to-face surveys to dig deeper and understand which design aspects worked or what could be improved. We’ll ask questions like: What was memorable about this year’s design? Was anything unclear or confusing? What was your favorite piece of swag?

Don’t miss this incredible experience

Overall, designing a conference for 1,300 attendees is not an easy task, but when you see every detail connecting to create a delightful experience, it’s totally worth it. Hopefully my tips have inspired you to design your very own large-scale event and pay careful attention to opportunities you have as a host.

As I mentioned, this year’s CTAConf is truly a 360 experience, and you you’ll want to see it with your own eyes. You can join us and your marketing peers on June 25th – June 27th in beautiful Vancouver, Canada. It’s going to be full of exciting takeaways and well-planned surprises. Hope to see you there.

Link – 

Design an Insanely Memorable Conference: From Branding to Signage (And Every Detail in Between)