Sunday, December 23, 2007

Top 5 Interactive Agency Websites

I've narrowed down the five most visually impressive interactive agency websites in the web design space. And the winner is...Schematic. But don't you want to know the rest? If you are interested in my analysis parameters and rationale, read on. If you just want to skip to the good stuff, scroll down.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been visiting a lot of interactive agency corporate sites lately. I'm graduating next year from business school, and am considering working on the agency side, having already done the client side for several years.

So, I pulled AdAge's Top 50 interactive agency list* published earlier this year, and visited all the companies mentioned. All 50. It took a while.

Being the nerd that I am, I set up a spreadsheet, evaluating each website on service offerings and overall site impression. For one, I am interested in how each company talks about themselves (are they a digital agency, an interactive experience agency, an internet marketing agency, and what is the difference), and wanted to see trends in service offerings.

But every agency is so all over the board with their service mix (if they even talked about services), audience (healthcare, CPG, entertainment, retail, etc), and focus (being a partner vs a provider). AdAge also lumps a lot of services within interactive, including web design, web strategy, SEO, analytics, social media, technology, content management, etc. Most service titles and descriptions were a lesson in semantics, and I quickly realized it didn't make sense approaching my analysis in such a straightforward way.

I also wanted to see which agency I thought was the most visually impressive (sites that made me say "wow") looking from the perspective of a potential interactive design client. Please note I said design. This does not necessarily take into site navigation, architecture, copy, or content. I didn't read or look at every page on the site. I let the site take me on its own journey, and left when I felt the experience was complete.

So here we go...counting down to #1.

Top 5 Interactive Agency Websites

#5 DRAFTFCB (ranked #9 by AdAge)
At first, DRAFTFCB didn't make my list. I thought the home page was a little self indulgent (leading with their press, and graphics (though cool) relating to their office locations. It also seemed overly stark. It was when I clicked on "Who We Are" that I started to get excited. A video of someone writing in a journal describes the company. The music with the page is a little reminiscent of Beetlejuice, but eerily provacative.

#4 Arc Worldwide (ranked #25 by AdAge)
Arc Worldwide's site was unexpected, from the colors used to the geometric design pattern. A"ping" sounds when you click on different sections. Theirs is a very dynamic site -- a really nice use of scroll-over movement without being overkill. It's easy to read, sophisticated, and professional but not traditional.

#3 Rapp Collins Worldwide (ranked #5 by AdAge)
If you can be patient and let this site take its sweet time to load, the result is an incredibly innovative and impressive design. Rapp Collins' home page was initially super confusing, yet I knew I would love it if only I could figure it out. Which I eventually did (scroll up and down by putting your mouse at the top or bottom of the screen). This site is so gorgeous it should be illegal. I mean, they've designed cell phone flowers with hummingbirds flying in to drink out of them.

This site would have been my number one pick except for two deal breaking reasons. 1) Every page takes forever to load. That may be fine for design connoisseurs with terabytes of RAM and uber fast connection speeds, but my 512 RAM and 1.7GHz, DSL connection made it painful. 2) the "Creative Philosophy" page initially seemed very cool -- personalize the content for your audience. But it required me to fill out a form about myself to move forward, which, beyond the lifetime it took me to load the page, was too much of a time investment.

#2 Wirestone (ranked #43 by AdAge)
I was almost only going to look at the top 30 of AdAge's list, but I'm glad I looked at them all. #43 is #2 on this list because the site is not only visually beautiful (stellar quality and use of case study photography), but loads quickly, is easy to navigate, and above all, it's one of those sites where I feel that what I see is what I'd get from the company. Approachable but excellent. If I were a client or an employee of Wirestone, this site would make me proud to be associated with them.

#1 Schematic (ranked #28 by AdAge)
When I first came to this site, I (shamefully) admit I thought they were trying too hard to be different Aside from the requisite, gorgeous rotating image at the top, there are only large, bullet-point aqua color text links on the page.

But just click on a link, any link -- and don't blink. The page transitions are AMAZING! I don't know how else to express how impressed I was. If you haven't yet clicked on the link to Schematic, here's a visual. Imagine all the pages being printed out and then taped to a large wall in a grid-like pattern, and imagine looking through a video camera as you move from page to page -- up, down, sideways, and diagonally. The photography is also fantastic. So clean, so vivid.

I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed surfing Schematic's site. The visual gymnastics rival only Rapp Collins, but the site is so much more user friendly, it deserves to be #1.

Honorable Mentions
I can't help but mention some other sites that I enjoyed looking at. Resource's portfolio is a beautiful experience to browse through. AKQA leads off with a very well done (and in the case of Fiat, very fun) case study teaser. Brulant has a dynamic and interesting rotating graphic on their home page, and IconNicholson lets a visitor change the home page graphic to one of their own choosing.

It was not always only the visual that impressed me. I couldn't help but read and love Blast Radius' credo page. And Sapient had a very clean and professional site that nicely divided up their core competencies -- interactive and consulting.

Overall Impressions
I really enjoyed this research experience, and gained a lot of insight and perspective looking through these sites. One impression I had was that these agencies were forced to make a definitive positioning decision -- either appeal to a potential client's pragmatic business side, or wow them with design. Many chose to blend these goals and the result is a tame but professional experience. And most tried to weave in language recognizing design for business strategy results.

A second observation was that these agencies listed services like social media, mobile, and analytics alongside more traditional offerings like user experience design, branding/identity, and media planning/buying. I also I found that I really liked having case studies profiled or teased on the home page. And the final take away is that too many sites took too long to load, and often the wait wasn't worth it.

So what companies have I missed? Leave a comment with some of your favorites.

*AdAge determines rank by revenues, and notes % revenue change over previous year

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Is Elf Yourself a Success?

I admit that I don't completely understand the rationale of obscure viral marketing campaigns.

Case in point: You Got Elfed. Earlier this week I wrote an article about the disconnect of OfficeMax's campaign. The dancing elves -- while admittedly highly amusing -- have nothing to do with OfficeMax, office products, the office, etc. In fact, I guessed that while many people would enjoy creating the emails, they wouldn't associate this campaign with OfficeMax. So where is the value to OfficeMax?

There are two reasons I think OfficeMax went with this campaign. Either a) they are thinking very, very long term about brand awareness and positioning, or, b) they realize the potential power of social media campaigns and wanted to play in this arena. Hopefully, it is a combination of both.

A quick summary of the previous article: This is the second year for the Elf Yourself viral campaign, and they have added Scrooge Yourself to the 2007 holiday season. OfficeMax's svp of marketing, Bob Thacker, said "[the Elf Yourself campaign] gives OfficeMax a heart and a personality." Presumably, sometime down the road, people will start thinking OfficeMax (no, they are not Office Depot) when deciding where to buy a stapler.

After I posted this viral marketing article on this blog over a week ago, I started getting more traffic to my site than I have since its inception, mostly by way of search. As I looked at the site stats, I marveled over the keywords that were bringing people to this article. I decided to whip together a spreadsheet and do some very crude analysis of the effectiveness of this strategy.

In the 10 days or so since the article was published, 48% of keyword traffic was simply combinations of "elf yourself," "elfed," "dancing elves," etc. No mention of a company.

If you strip away those visitors, we are left with those people who specified a company name along with "elf," "elf yourself," etc. The results:

As I look at these numbers, and considering this is year two for Elf Yourself, I wonder how OfficeMax interprets <50% brand awareness from this viral campaign. What do you think?


I posted this article first on Gooruze this Wednesday and got some interesting feedback. Some thought that the mere fact that marketers are talking about Elf Yourself gives the campaign buzz and is therefore worthwhile compared to it's relatively low cost. It's not a point that I had considered, and am not sure if I find it to be a truly compelling argument for the campaign's value because it almost feels less like a "why do this" strategy, and more like a "why not do this" whim.

However, I like getting different perspectives from the bright and engaged people who participate in this online marketing community, and wanted to spread the word.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Page Titles: the Good, the Dull, and the Terrible

I recently read an article by Matt McGee about SEO and the importance of page titles. The topic is not really riveting, but as someone interested in learning more about search engine optimization, I thought the article was pretty informative and well written. I've never given much thought to page titles, but I started paying attention while researching interactive agencies for an upcoming blog article.

I have been sifting through dozens of interactive agency sites, searching for them first on Google so I could get a look at these page titles. Beyond evaluating the SEO qualities of them, I viewed them more from a brand standpoint, as the titles are the first clue into the company experience.

I was stunned how inconsistent some of these titles were with each other. I thought they would all be somewhat similar, and all outstanding. After all, while I expect interactive agencies to show superiority in design and user experience, I also expect sophisticated communication and word-smithing capabilities, and I didn't always see that.

The Good
To be fair, many of the page titles I saw were great, or at least pretty good. One I liked a lot was "Helps organizations define, build, measure, and expand their Internet strategy and presence." Informative, succinct, approachable, right? Here is another one I thought was pretty good -- "Specializing in the integration of technology, marketing and design." To the point, and easy to digest.

The Dull
Then there are the dull page titles. For instance, "Provides web development for large businesses," or, "A digital marketing company that specializes in collaborative web development solutions to enhance your business – and your visibility." These titles are fine, though a bit boring, and in the latter case, somewhat dirty (I wish they had left off everything after "solutions" -- it just sounds sales-y).

I'm also not a fan of page titles that have "award-winning" in them. Awards may be an account qualifier or winner later on, but I think that kind of phrasing is self-serving and better placed inside a site than espoused right off the bat.

The Terrible
Now onto the worst. You might think that the worst is a site without a title. Not so, though there are plenty of those. The worst is not even when the page title says "This site requires Macromedia Flash Player Version 7. Download Plugin."

No, the absolute worst page title I came across is "To view this site, you need the latest Flash plug-in. It's quick and easy to download, and well worth it!" Ugh. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't even want to open the page. And when I did, I had to scroll up and down AND left and right. It was a very unsatisfying experience

Despite a crappy or lackluster page title, it was the content of the site that mattered, and many of the sites were great. I would say that page titles are an SEO priority for rank. As a brand communication element, a page title may influence a casual user browsing for an interactive agency, but I wouldn't expect that it would be earth shattering if a title doesn't measure up to the rest of the site experience.

Unless, of course, the title says "To view this site, you need the latest Flash plug-in. It's quick and easy to download, and well worth it!" That is just neglectful, and a turn-off. If you were to put a personal ad in the paper, you wouldn't say, "Must get a makeover before even thinking of contacting me. But you'll want to. Because I'm worth the trouble." It's just a little thing, really. But this little change could mean the difference between a site visit, an agency interview, a project, an account, a relationship.

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Sunday, December 9, 2007

You Got Elfed, and Other Viral Marketing Disconnects

[I just registered on, and in order to link to my blog, I have to write in the first few lines of my post. As Tanya Ferrell noted, this is a pretty slick marketing tactic.]

In the spirit of the holidays, I got elfed by my husband. In case you have no idea what I'm referring to, getting elfed means receiving an interactive dancing elf email, and in my case, with our family's heads superimposed on the elves.

And all in the name of promoting OfficeMax, the #3 North American office products retailer behind Staples and OfficeDepot.

Well, I didn't get elfed last holiday season, which is when OfficeMax first launched this viral campaign. This year, it was relaunched along with Scrooge Yourself.

But what the heck do these campaigns have to do with selling office supplies?

Before we get to that, I am reminded of other interactive viral campaigns. Namely Monk E-Mail by CareerBuilder, launched along with the office monkey ads during the 2006 Superbowl. And the Subservient Chicken campaign by Burger King, launched back in April of 2004, starting first online, then followed up with a television campaign.

But what value do these types of participation-based viral campaigns return to the host companies?

Increased Brand/Product Awareness
I'm on the fence with this one. I thought the Monk E-Mail was for until I just looked it up. And I wasn't positive exactly which fast food restaurant the Subservient Chicken belonged to...Chick-Fil-A was my next guess. Maybe its just been too long. As for the dancing elves...what exactly have they got to do with OfficeMax?

In the case of the Subservient Chicken, Joseph Jaffe (a writer and blogger who's articles I very much enjoy) mentions that the wrong question to ask is "Did it sell chicken?" and presumably get more feet in the door. The right question to ask is, "Did you know BK sold chicken?" And now you do. That's a good point, and one I hadn't thought of.

However, let's try to apply that logic to OfficeMax's dancing elves. Did you know associates dance at OfficeMax? No, wait...Did you know it's the holidays and there are elf dolls you can buy at OfficeMax? No, that doesn't work either.

Obviously, I'm saying this tongue in cheek, but I don't understand why the meaning behind the campaigns is so obscure. In regards to the Subservient Chicken, had to verify the "myth" that it was a BK ad campaign? I mean, if users don't see the connection, where is the value?

Positioning Strategy
I think this is more in line with the marketing strategy. Office supplies are boring. Perhaps OfficeMax wanted to spice things up. Now they are the fun office supply store. Right? That's what Bob Thacker, OfficeMax's svp of marketing thinks. "It gives OfficeMax a heart and a personality."

And for Burger King? In 2004, Greg Brenneman was called in as CEO to get the #2 hamburger chain back on track. The quirky advertising was part of an overall marketing campaign to target BK "superfans" -- 18- to 34-year-old men. According to BK's financial statements, in the three years following the ad campaigns, Burger King's revenues steadily increased. Was this due to the marketing campaign? They also introduced the $1 value menu, and their operating margins improved. These factors may have influenced the improvement. Also, some of BK's franchisees have argued the campaign turned off women and family business suffered.

OfficeMax has also seen financial gains in their income statements in the form of improved operating margins (though decreased revenues). However, they are also experiencing a large restructuring effort, so it's difficult to gauge the ROI of the campaign.

Overall, I think this is a long term positioning strategy, to set the stage for future corporate initiatives. I think that to expect a sustainable increase in revenues simply as a result of these fun ads is a mistake, mainly because their connection to the company is forgettable.

Search For a Larger Audience
People are increasingly choosing to spend more of their time online. And they are communicating with each other in a way that radio and television cannot. Brands are finding that this interaction helps promote increased word of mouth recommendations -- you can blast 30 friends with an email (telling them about a great new site called!) in a couple of seconds, but it would take a prohibitively longer amount of time to phone them all.

Also, these types of interactive, participation-based campaigns can help illustrate how considerate these companies are of the consumer's evolving lifestyle, and at the same time they help to keep the brand relevant and modern.

Furthermore, when brands are able to leverage social media and experiment online, they have the opportunity to discover how to create more meaningful ways to communicate to customers, and have a greater flexibility to adjust messages on a dime.

And simply from a cost perspective, brands can be in more places online than they can off. A one-page ad in the WSJ could eat up some companies entire annual marketing budget.

So What's My Takeaway
Having said all this, I continue to question the relevance of creating a great viral marketing campaign that has no clear, or even semi-clear, connection to your brand's function.

I think the Monk E-Mail stands out as the best viral marketing campaign of the three mentioned. Like the others, it is certainly entertaining and recommendation worthy. But it is about the office, which is about working, which helps the audience associate working to jobs, to searching for jobs, to using CareerBuilder to search for jobs. Even its URL let's us know it's part of the CareerBuilder site.

The other examples lose something in the translation. The connection isn't clear, and the value created is weakened. Maybe these brands see the obscurity as part of a long, long-term strategy, and I just can't see that far. But I will continue to laugh, and maybe elf someone later.

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Beacon No More? Hardly

Just before Facebook announced its new advertising system, Beacon, I had written a post discussing how companies could leverage customers' social networks by letting them opt-in to place advertising on their social networking sites, using Facebook as an example.

After Facebook and Beacon have taken such a beating this week, have I changed my stance? No. I think there are definitely opportunities for Facebook to adjust their advertising model to both integrate advertising smoothly into their users web pages, as well as to increase Facebook's revenues in order to justify its $15 billion valuation.

Namely, if Facebook wants to make money off of their users personal data, then users should be able to share the wealth.

My previous example used an on-line banking example. Once someone purchased or consumed a banking product, they could have the option of including an ad (banner or text) on their Facebook page for X amount of days in exchange for an entry to win an IPod, or something to that effect.

This type of advertising is even more relevant than Beacon, because the consumer chooses the ad that fits into their lifestyle, and has a good chance of fitting into their networks probably similar lifestyle. Also, Facebook would receive a commission from the retailer for allowing their ad to be placed within the application.

Another example involves one of my favorite sites, (TDP). I am a TDP evangelist because I am so impressed by their customer service, the site's ease of use in comparison to competitive food journaling sites, and the overall experience I've had there. Suppose I'd like to include a banner ad TDP has into my Facebook page? I would gladly do so freely for a couple of days, Facebook gets a commission, and my network knows that I endorse this site. I suppose I could just post how much I like TDP to my wall, but this is simply another, more formal, option.

Would some people exploit this advertising model simply to make some money or win a prize like the first example? Probably. But I think there are other people who love certain brands and are willing to promote them for free.

I think Facebook's desire to have relevant information available to users is worthwhile. My suggestion is just an alternative the big-brother quality of the old Beacon model, to one of user participation and acceptance.


Updated: I've been reading more about Facebook's advertising options and I think what I have been suggesting in this article most closely resembles the Social Ads that Facebook already offers. These are contextual ads based on user preferences. However, if I understand correctly, and advertiser gets to place the ad based on a user's interaction with them (push marketing). It's not the user who specifically decides to place the ad (opt-in) on behalf of the advertiser.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Some of the Blogs I Read and Why I Read Them

I am a voracious blog reader. I love learning and devour social media and marketing blogs. But it's not always easy keeping up, so I tend to make sure I read my favorites first. Right now, the following blogs are high on my list.

Seth Godins Blog
I think every marketer has heard of Seth Godin, and if you haven't, then you should check out his blog. He's insightful, current, and his posts come in bite size, easily digestable nuggets. Technorati ranks his blog in their top 25, The Viral Garden ranks his as the number one marketing blog, and AdAge lists Godin as a top marketer, with Steve Jobs coming in second.

I stumbled upon Logic+Emotion a few months ago, and was drawn in because of David Armano's visual respresentations of social media. He is a designer and strategist, does a lot of speaking engagements, and writes with a sense of purity about social media concepts. Critical Mass, the company he works with, also has a blog that I enjoy.

Web Strategy by Jeremiah
Jerimiah Owyang is a Senior Analyst at Forrester specializing in social computing. He is very prolific, and can get long winded, but I find that what he writes is incredibly helpful in putting social media in perspective.

Common Sense: Internet Marketing Made Simple
Tanya Ferrell is an advertising student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. She doesn't write often, but when she does it is refreshing and current. I like the energy and enthusiasm in her writing and chosen topics. Plus, I love her site design, though the header sometimes doesn't seem to refresh properly in my browser.

Dosh Dosh - How to Make Money on the Web
In my opinion, most of the blogs I look at are intended to make money is some way. Either directly through advertising revenue, or indirectly through brand awareness, credibility, etc. Dosh Dosh is the former. If David Armano is a purist, Maki (Dosh Dosh's author) is the opposite. But he is very well written and researched, and I find his work to be very informative. Like Tanya, he, too, is a student, studying Political Science and Philosophy in Toronto, Canada.