Authenticity reigns supreme.
The world, and technology, continues to change at a rapid pace. Social media platforms are adapting to a generation of users whose habits differ from the original digital adopters who helped make platforms what they are today. Rising consumers are interested in engaging with brands online, but weary of the intense digital noise that comes with the kind of over-publishing that is fueled by an over-hyped trend for brands to establish thought leadership. The democratization of design and mass proliferation of media, often free-to-use, without attribution, and for any purpose, has led to a digital landscape that is starting to look not only templated, but poorly remixed from website to website, digital campaign to digital campaign.
The drive for authenticity that defined 2016 will not only continue in 2017, but it will become a benchmark by which the viability of a brand’s performance is determined. Over-publishing content, templated design, stock photography, and inauthentic marketing campaigns will begin to fall away as they are rapidly inexcusable, even for the smallest of brands.
To present themselves authentically, brands that have taken advantage of shortcuts in branding and marketing will return to relying on creatives to determine how best to visually communicate their identity. Technology will continue to allow certain branding and design functions to be mastered by many, and access will continue to grow toward ubiquity, however strategy will still require a trained mind.
This period presents an opportunity for brands, brand managers, designers, and communicators to push boundaries in logo, graphic, and user interface design; to influence how developers create new apps for creating websites and digital media; and to enrich how brands communicate with audiences on a local and global level.
The web has a content problem.
In its early days the web was an open expanse of text, connected by hyperlinks, and visually distinguished by typography and what we now think of as miserable attempts at page design. It was a slower place, where people could connect with ideas and persons through the distance of reading a web-page, sending an e-mail, or participating in a forum. Well placed, distinguishable hyperlinks would lead users through a labyrinth of slow information that came without the emotional entrapment of the possibility to share, or like it.
Today, the web is fast and channeled. Users spend vast amounts of time within social networks - not chasing hyperlinks from site to site - and viewing visual content, such as memes, videos, custom, and stock photography. New content is created by the minute, by billions of publishers across the globe. Personalization and algorithms often determine how much, if any, new information a user comes across in their daily digital habits. The ability to block ads, spam, persons, and brands has allowed users to create what Eli Pariser calls filter bubbles, in which a user wittingly or unwittingly isolates themselves from new information, ideas, and people.
Algorithms, with their task of ranking content on the web, and within social networks, have been making the web a competitive space where brands - and personas - are forced to publish, and publish, and publish in order to rank higher in search results, and reach more viewers, to meet their end goals.
However, publishing for the sake of tripping algorithms and flooding news feeds has diluted the web, driving authentic content further down in search results and news feeds. This is a disservice to audiences, and all those who are earnestly seeking accurate information. Brands cannot wait for the infrastructure of the web to change before they make a shift in their content strategies. They must abandon arbitrary metrics and unsustainable goals, and instead work to create a more authentic digital presence.
Authenticity, is, admittedly, hard to gauge on the web. It’s not a matter of honesty, as one might expect, but rather a matter of delivery. Extemporaneous content, unrefined in its production (refined in its accuracy), created in the moment often translates as authentic (and thereby more approachable and sharable). Audiences respond to seeing stories unfold as they happen, and are excited about the opportunity to participate in discussions in real time.
We know this well. For quite some time we subscribed to the same, toxic, more is more, less is failure, strategy that we just decried. At the height of that madness, our nimble team worked to push out 15-20 social media posts per day, and produce 12-15 blog posts (many long form) per month. All while working to serve our clients. It was unsustainable, and it turned our social media profiles into fire hoses of the same old content. Then we dialed it back. We started sharing photos from meetings, from brainstorming sessions, and videos of us working, or equipment running at our production facility. Some days we post just as much as we used to. Some days we do not. Some days we post even more. No matter what, our audience has responded to receiving authentic content and as a result, we are consistently seeing increases in our impressions, site visits, and engagement.
We are calling for brands to publish only when it creates value, or solves a problem for their audience. If you are tasking your talent with working overtime to keep a fire hose of content running, in the name of keeping your brand’s name in your audience’s news feed: dial it back.
The wave of content must break.
Four on-trend calls-to-action:
1. delete your ugly website.
There was a time when building an impressive, sprawling website was a sign of strength. At a minimum it demonstrated financial and technical prowess. These days it’s symptomatic of digital bloat. Expansive websites, rife with unnecessary graphics, and superfluous content, dilute brand experience and erode consumer confidence. This is not to say that users today are not as thirsty for information and eager to complete tasks online, as they once were. In fact, those two statements have never been more true.
Users increasingly rely on their smartphones to make decisions in all areas of their lives. In fact, Google and Ipsos estimate that 90% of smartphone users make use of their phone to achieve even long term goals. Because users are spending more and more time online, but in frequent short bursts, as opposed to long periods of concentrated use, users are interested in are experiences that are unencumbered by information overload and aggressive digital advertising. Pop-up subscription forms, and passive-aggressive “continue to read” buttons that have been used to collect metrics are now detrimental choke points in the user experience. Although each item serves an identifiable purpose, employing them all at once has practically weaponized URLs, transforming them from bridges to information into decoy pop-up grenades. No one should have to dismiss multiple pop ups and still signify that they’re human by choosing a “continue” button to access content. For those sites that still include never-ending forms, voluminous pages of information, unnecessary widgets (or widget-like-things), and user interfaces that may or may not cause a bout of epilepsy: your time is over.
The tech community has been responding to this for sometime, most notably through the development of ad blockers and browser extensions that simplify web pages to own show text content without the distraction of busy interfaces, ads, and potentially superfluous content. To improve the user experience, web designers and stylists, as well as interaction designers, are cutting out the extra and designing for easy readability and quick use of interactive pieces. Designers have learned that reducing content per page is actually elevating content per page. By giving the best version of the right content privilege of place, designers are helping brands achieve the right goals, and in great time, too.
2. the logo cannot stand alone.
Since the rise of modern branding and a design, the logo has been the iconic symbol that stood as the lone workhorse of any organization’s visual identity. It might have appeared in variants: horizontal, vertical, stacked, circular, etc., but it was the same logo in print, on a building, product packaging, and so on. Some brands rely solely on their logo to signify ownership of an item, be it a document, product, or facility, but a logo alone cannot do everything. Not today, not in our ever-expanding landscape of environments for brands to be present. Contemporary branding calls for complete brand identities, one that is lead by a strong logo, but can be represented by variants of that logo; by submarks. These are unique in design, yet consistent in aesthetic and message. They are meant to represent brands in places where their full logo cannot. This is in many places on the web, especially social media, and in other digital spaces, such as application icons, or product identifiers in digital stores.
Submarks are also useful to differentiate between product lines or divisions within an organization. This is especially useful when brands try to create hype, or establish a culture, around a product or division within their organization.
We so wholeheartedly stand by the idea that a logo is not enough that we have all but abandoned the idea that we will design a logo, on its own, for a client. We address this head on in consultations, by immediately encouraging interest in submarks, and a complete brand style guide. Every brand needs a document that spells out exact fonts, colors, paper qualities, and guidelines for using any or all of a brand’s elements either in print, or digitally.
Brands that embrace the need to both diversify and streamline the visual elements that represent them will find it easier to represent themselves in a diverse marketplace. Submarks will provide ready-made solutions for production packaging design, and the need to be represented in digital spaces. A complete brand identity suite is no longer a luxury, it’s a requirement.
3. stock photography is dead.
Real talk: How many times have you browsed the web, scrolled through your newsfeeds, or passed a billboard and saw an image that gave you an intense sense of deja vu? How many times is it because you have definitely, undoubtedly, seen that image at least once, if not many times before? You are not alone. With so many brands on the web, each seeking to sate an inexhaustible need for photography-driven communication, the proliferation of stock photography has been explosive. Emerging brands, and small-to-midsize businesses, often exclude the expense of commercial photography from their operational, or marketing budgets. This isn’t always for lack of resource, either. The rising trend of photographers providing high quality, artistic, photographs to stock archives provides a strong incentive to forego an expense, for the sake of an expedient, free, download. It’s not just that photographers are willing to gift their work to the world that is accelerating the proliferation of stock photography. The creative commons zero (CC0) license is legally facilitating the open availability of work that can be downloaded at no cost, for commercial or personal use, without any attribution required.
When brands draw heavily from the same creative fount, uniformity becomes the undesired side effect of expediency. This dilutes a brand’s message as much as it facilitates it. An image, no matter how splendid, when seen again and again, yields diminishing returns. Before long it loses the ability to capture the imagination or spark even an ounce of emotional momentum. As creatives, we are the builders who make the web all that it is. Developers may build the infrastructure, but we bring information to life. To haphazardly continue the excessive use of stock photography will make the web look like a cemetery where creativity is slowly, beleaguered-ly seeking a plot for its burial.
4. stop catfishing your clients.
Warning: Technology may make things seem larger than they appear.
One of the many benefits of the web is that in some ways it serves as a great equalizer. Brands large or small can create robust, profitable digital presences for themselves. It takes the same tools, human talent, and a bit of capital. However, this is also one of the web’s great deceptions: allowing organizations to appear larger, or grander than they are.
The temptation to build an inauthentic digital presence can be alluring. In our global economy, it’s easy to set up shop in a small town in North America and cater an entire brand and product line to customers in Asia. Similarly, it’s easy to create the illusion that your small business is 100 employees strong, when really they’re just a collective of freelancers who are excited to have someone else procuring business for them. Technology facilitates all of this. A well-designed website, a targeted ad campaign, bots and other automated features allow brands to craft the exact impression, aesthetically and in terms of capability, that they wish their audience to see.
Be authentic. Brands who take advantage of a market need in Asia from their site in North America should give credit to their locality and the talent that makes that endeavor possible. Brands who are completely driven by a small team should also honor the fact that a core group of people are pushing its boundaries, and have no shame that an auxiliary network of ninety freelancers enhances what that core team can do.
The reality that brands are accessible to people across the continent - or the globe - will not change. What will change is the pretense that thinking locally means thinking small. Brands can be locally focused and globally minded. This trend is a less of an industry shift as it’s a calibration.
The mic drop.
Trends, shaped by technology and human behavior, will always ebb and flow. However, few forces have the power to shape branding and design as the collective ethos of the field of designers, strategists, and developers who making that work manifest in the physical and digital world. 2017 will not be just another year for branding and design. New technologies are creating new spaces for brands to share their message and create new experiences. Simultaneously, a rising generation of cause-conscious consumers is asking more of brands in terms of ethics and character. As a society we continue to wrestle with our understanding of how the digital sphere impacts our lives, and - not for the first time - there is real dissent about the value of the web and social networks. At the center of these realities is a drive toward experiences that are both authentic and connected. Brands that understand this, and can determine the right combination of resources, tools, and strategies, will thrive. Others, not so much.