case study: re-imagining natural curiosities

natural curiosities identity package

For the past 7 months, I’ve been hard at work with Natural Curiosities, a collective of artists and artisans working under the creative direction of Christopher Wilcox in a beautiful studio in the Jensen Recreation Center, here in Echo Park. They have evolved from roots in archival giclée printing and silk screen to application and specimen art, gold & silver leafing, aging and paper treating, and hand watercoloring. They have a specific aesthetic celebrating a time when both scientists and artists were constantly observing and cataloging nature, and they’ve brought this around from archives of illustrations to three-dimensional recreations and objet d’art. With all these new developments afoot, it was time to do a little identity refresh, and refocus the web site on communicating all the exciting news in more of a real-time way.

brand exploration

Starting with research, we did a full company-wide brand exploration. You never know what you might find when you interview everyone in a company, but it was exciting to see how passionate everyone was about their work and the family environment in the art house. They all offered great ideas and perspectives that we incorporated into a report, and further refined into a brand brief to guide the project. Natural Curiosities had already developed a lovely logo and wordmark, so the job of standardizing its ratio, lockup, and uses was easy.

identifying the challenges

The main goals boiled down to 2 things: create a marketing strategy that would communicate the brand philosophy, and design a web site that would serve both the marketing strategy and the clients. as a wholesaler, the clients of natural curiosities are partners and external sales rather than consumers, though the site is used as a catalog to consumers as well, and has to serve both markets seamlessly. The previous site was very strong on products, but needed more of a bridge to the promotional engine and client relations. Research told us that people really love interfacing with the staff and studio, so another goal was to bring more of that experience to the surface of all communications. On the technical side, this site was built in Drupal and would stay in Drupal, but had to become far easier to update by employees.

natural curiosities home page

a dynamic, art-focused home page

One of the first challenges we faced was how to pull specific pieces out of the archive and showcase them. With a catalog as big as that which Natural Curiosities sells, even after a streamlining, we’re still faced with many collections and sub-collections, relying on the user to find them either by browsing or searching. In reworking the home page, we decided on a 5-image slide show, showing a full-screen close-up of any one piece of art that Natural Curiosities would like to feature, with each linking to the appropriate product or collection. Previews from the art house is their way of visually showcasing breaking news or exciting products, which is very easy to update on the fly.

natural curiosities art catalog

the art catalog

Our first task was to map out the art catalog, which was no small feat. Flow charts, graphics and full wall murals were involved! The general feeling was that the categories and collections were not intuitive enough, so we reworked the names, resorted the art, refreshed the overall collection [adding new pieces, retiring others] and stacked it into a grid of highly-colorful art folios to reiterate the sense of archive. This is a main landing page for regular site users, so it has become more inviting, and easier to use.

natural curiosities search & products

enhanced search and products pages

Another section ripe for opportunity was the search function, which wasn’t returning as many results as it could, and showed the results more like data records than art. We installed a module that would perform a wider search, give the user options to narrow the search by category, and suggest alternatives, with results coming in as large thumbnails for quick preview and selection. The product pages have been rearranged to be image first, support information second for visually-driven clients. When authorized users are logged in, pricing and buying options appear here as well.

setting the mood

setting the mood

With clients in mind, we decided to add a design & interior-focused section to put art in context into the spotlight. This is a more extensive slide show which offers Natural Curiosities another way to showcase products, overlay editorial and cross-link styles from inspiration shots to related collections or blog posts. It’s also the first of a few more client-partnership aspects we’re building into the site.

explore & about sections

a look inside

Giving outsiders a look inside the studio, we created a section called explore which is starting out as a video gallery of art processes used at Natural Curiosities. The about section has given more weight to the story behind the formation of the collective, how they operate now, and the influence of the place as inspiration. Also featured in the about section is a retail location search, for retail customers looking to buy, and all the FAQ, shipping, privacy policy and terms & conditions information buyers may be looking for. These sections have been given the flexibility to grow as the art house has new things to share.

notes from the art house: the blog

a new & improved blog!

As another, more dynamic opportunity for communication, we’ve introduced a new blog with a unique layout from the rest of the site, and an editorial calendar to fill it with sources of beautiful design inspiration, product showcases, video posts and news missives. The blog is going to be a pivotal point of the communication strategy, as another place to bring clients into the natural curiosities experience.

+ Read more case studies here.
+ See more of our work for Natural Curiosities.

is your social media marketing working for you?

social media communities have been around long enough to have a first generation in their wake, so it would seem we’ve all had enough time to learn their ins & outs. while many of us have mastered the art of staying in touch, i’m seeing a common thread among clients and colleagues alike: many of them are spending more time creating content and cross-linking these communities to each other than whipping them into the marketing strategy they came for in the first place.

sharing content online is all kinds of fun, and a great way to raise awareness, but using it for marketing should always be part of a bigger plan to connect back to the content you create on your own site. if you’re spending all your time creating awareness on social networks without consistently linking back to your home base, you’re working for them—for free. that’s not what you got into business for! but hey, it’s okay — you can turn the tables anytime and start making them work for you.

best practice vs. a common example

marketing in the social media arena should be an all-roads-lead-to-rome strategy by the most direct route possible. think of it like a multiple funnel system, where each funnel is a social community designed around a unique aspect of how people like to communicate. creating awareness about your business or projects is as simple as participating in the communities that suit you best, and periodically saying “hey guys, i’m doing something cool, come take a look” with a link to the most relevant landing page on your site. participation and link strategy should look like this:

best practices for social media marketing link strategy

however, that’s not always the case. what i often see when i analyze a social media campaign in need of help is that some link strategies are sending users to 2 or 3 different communities to get piecemeal information, with links to the main site infrequent at best. the mistake here isn’t just that you never get eyeballs on your site, it’s can also be a turn-off to your audiences too. each of them have made a conscious choice about the community they prefer, and would be a lot more likely to check out your site than trek around to communities they don’t like. here’s what i generally find when social media marketing is a bit scattered:

example of a scattered social media marketing link strategy

lots of effort going everywhere but home

sites like facebook have so many tools to keep you busy creating content [for them] that it’s easy to spend all your time building photo albums and posting informative updates while forgetting to promote your own site. in their desire to compete, social networks provide apps for automatically updating other communities, which is really just traffic-poaching disguised as a convenience tool, giving you crappy-looking updates in the process. [ever seen a truncated facebook post & link on twitter? do your twitter followers even care about facebook anymore?] or sometimes, it’s just easier to think “but all my videos are on youtube, why not just send traffic there?” youtube subscribers may be a secondary benefit of hosting videos there, but the videos should be embedded and showcased on a relevant site page of your own.

don’t send your audience on a wild goose chase for your content. first thing’s first. put the time in on your own site or blog to make sure anything anyone would want to know about you or your business is easy to find. create the content you want to share there, around one main idea at a time, and then report on it in each social media community with a direct link back to your blog post, or relevant pages on your site.

put yourself first

the first place to generate content is on your own site. if you need to make regular announcements or have new and changing content you want to talk about and you don’t have a place on your site where you can do this, it’s time to get one [hint: i can help]. consider adding a blog where you can update revolving content. make your full announcement here first, with complete information and photos or videos, when applicable. this is what you’ll be linking to everywhere else.

the philosophy here is that you’re training people to learn that your site is where it’s at for any information they’d ever want to know about you. sure, they’ll catch your posts on twitter, facebook & tumblr, but after 3-5 times of clicking through to your site, they’ll make the connection that they can always find what they need on your site. and hey—people who don’t use ANY social media will be able to find it there too, imagine that!

choose your communities and let them know

write custom posts for each community, tailored to how each one showcases information best. i understand the temptation to save time by writing one great post in one place and let that service distribute it for you, but these distributed posts rarely look good elsewhere. often, they take your snappy teaser copy and truncate it to nonsense, replacing half of your sentence and any photo with a generic link [so they can advertise their great service to another sucker]. if you truly believe you don’t have time to write one sentence for each community you’re in, get honest about which ones are a priority. a half-sentence tweet that only links to facebook says loud and clear: “i don’t care about twitter.” keep your community members in mind, and write directly to them. “hey guys, i have something cool to show you, here’s why you might like it,” post your link, select the best photo preview if applicable, and send it off.

need an example?

i’ll walk the talk here for you. first, i wrote this article and posted it here on my blog. i usually write these articles as the main entrée to my newsletter, so i wrote and sent my newsletter. then i went to facebook and posted it on my business page. the same goes for linkedin, though they are tricky to link to, and google+. i created a shortened url so i’d have most of my 140 characters to tease it on twitter. if this were a creative inspiration post, i’d pin it to my pinterest board of the same name. i created my content and reached out to each community individually with a unique message to let them know about it, linking right back here. and at the bottom of this post, i let you know that you can get more useful info just like this in my irregularly-delivered newsletter.

but what about building community on each social network?

hey, there’s nothing wrong with adding to your photo albums and posting quickie updates without always linking to your site — AFTER you finish your self-promotion, that is. give your facebook fans photos to share, post instagram shots to twitter & tumblr, encourage conversations, share support information and press that links to other sites. blend these things in as you see fit, just make them secondary to your main objective…YOU!

have questions?

these are the basics, but there can be a few levels of social media engagement integrated into an overall marketing plan. my penchant for organizing these strategies is also a service i offer. if you need help figuring out how to implement a system like this or want to fold some existing efforts into an overall campaign, reach out and we’ll figure it out!

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holiday cards are in the parlato design studio store!

it’s that time of year again, and the store is stocked with colorful, festive holiday cards, gift tags and thank you cards. choose your favorite style and write thoughtful notes to family, friends, clients & colleagues. all cards are blank inside so you can personalize a note, and all are printed sustainably on neenah environment 100% post-consumer waste paper with matching vellum-finish envelopes.

holiday cards for 2011

parlato design studio holiday cards for 2011
choose your favorite design, or go for a variety pack!

• cheers!: set of 12 cards, 4″ x 5.5″ with matching envelopes at 4.375″ x 5.75″
• snowflakes & bluebirds: set of 12 cards, 4″ x 5.5″ with matching envelopes at 4.375″ x 5.75″
• retro snowmen: set of 12 cards, 4″ x 5.5″ with matching envelopes at 4.375″ x 5.75″
• variety pack: set of 12 cards [4 of each style], 4″ x 5.5″ with matching envelopes at 4.375″ x 5.75″

set of 12 cards & envelopes: $8 includes shipping

gift tag special: 3 of each style [set of 12]: free with each set of holiday cards!

gift tags

parlato design studio gift tags for 2011
dress up your gifts with festive gift tags designed to match your holiday cards!

gift tag variety pack: 5 of each style [set of 20] = $5 per set / includes shipping

thank you cards

parlato design studio thank you cards for 2011
say a resounding thanks to the people who make your day, week, or year fantastic!

• variety pack: 3 of each style [set of 12], 5″ x 3.5″ with matching envelopes at 5.125″ x 3.625″

set of 12 cards & envelopes: $6 includes shipping

get design on a budget without a crowdsourcing contest

crowdsourcing & design contest vs. partnerships and volunteer opportunities

so, you find yourself in the position of needing design services, with the little problem of not having a budget for the designers you want to hire. and maybe you’re thinking “hey, let’s have one of those contests where people will design stuff for us as part of a competition, and we’ll award some kind of prize for the winner!” why not, we’re seeing all kinds of larger brands hold crowdsourced design contests, and it seems like a good deal for everyone, right? well, i can understand the eagerness to want to jump to this conclusion, but there are a few problems here, not least of which is that there’s actually no real benefit to your winning designer. big brands don’t hold design contests for the purpose of supplementing what their creative teams can provide, and this is where smaller businesses stand to make mistakes when they emulate big companies. we’re all in this together, and we all have valuable services that can add to each other’s businesses greatly if we trade them strategically. there are smarter ways to get the things we can’t yet afford by searching ourselves for equitable trades and creating volunteer opportunities, and i’m here to set you on the path that’s better for everyone.

so, what are crowdsourced design contests?

by definintion, crowdsourcing is the act of sourcing tasks traditionally performed by specific individuals to an undefined large group of people or community (crowd) through an open call. When applied to a design project, the contest seeks to replace paid work with spec work, which is essentially work that is only paid for conditionally after completion if accepted, leaving the designer to put out effort on good faith of payment. [clue: professional designers usually work on a payment system, where a deposit and payments are made at project milestones along the way, not after.] the general feeling of the design industry is that spec work, including crowdsourced contests, are frowned upon. when a company decides to replace paid work with a contest, we talk about it and tend to agree it’s not worth our participation. believe me, designers are asked to work for free all the time, and unless you’re saving kittens for the greater good, or you’re my mom, we’d prefer it if you factor the cost of business into your budgets.

so, what’s the problem with them?

here’s what they look like: a company announces a contest to design them a poster or a logo or an ad, and after reviewing all entries, the company will select a winner who will get a prize of somewhere around 500 bucks. [clue: this prize is usually far below market value for the design work solicited] on the surface of it, it seems harmless, maybe even fun to the amateur on a lark, but let’s take a closer look. statistically speaking, the likelihood of winning is extremely slim. contests like these usually have legal provisions allowing them to take exclusive rights to ALL work submitted. if you were thinking of showing it in a portfolio as the winner or even as a contributor, think again—the company can demand you make no public reference to the work you did. so let’s get this straight: hundreds of people do the same job, one person gets paid below market value, and all of them get stripped of the ability to promote what they did. is this how we want to treat people who do free work for us?

so, why do big brands have design contests?

i’m of the firm belief that big brands have crowdsourced design contests for entirely different reasons than smaller companies, and that they’re not at all used for actually sourcing design. big brands all have budgets for the design they need done, and they know the value of having it done professionally. if they don’t already have a big in-house team, they have an agency they trust implicitly and use regularly. i promise you there are no creative meetings that result in the design team running in a panic to marketing, saying “we’re fresh out of ideas! quick—call in the public to help!!”

so, if they don’t need design, what are the contests for?

here’s where i’ll tell you a branding secret. creating a strong brand is about creating a lot of positive thinking around your company or product. designers start this by designing your brand for you, and you continue it by delivering good service and growing the brand in line with your core commitments. the reason good branding works is because allows the customer to project their strongest personal narratives when they interact with it. when i think about buying the running shoes i’ve been coveting, i think of myself a healthy person who likes running more than i do while promising myself i will go running more than i will. when a big brand launches a design contest, they get hundreds of thousands of people to think about advertising for them. even if they only get 5000 submissions, they may have gotten 50,000 people or more to imagine creating something for them—thinking positively about their brand—which is infinitely more valuable than getting free design. [clue: when they cast you in the role of their designer, they’re getting you to make positive statements to yourself about them—sneaky!] moreover, they can test the reach of their advertising and brand loyalty by seeing how many people participate. it’s actually a way to take the market’s temperature, get people rallied around them, appeal to our sense of narcissism [maybe i could win!], and get participants to take action in the name of brand loyalty. that’s the power of positive thinking, only they’re using your brains to do it!

the thing is, while we may write these contests off as publicity stunts, most people see them as legitimate, and they do a lot to create the perception that design is a simple thing that can be done equally well by anyone for about 500 bucks. with obama’s recent art works campaign [design of a poster in exchange for 1 signed copy of the limited edition print], common reactions to designer criticisms said “but this is volunteer work—just like the folks going door-to-door!” i’m sorry to say, but just because entry is voluntary doesn’t make it volunteer work. volunteers should have a connection to the effects of the work they do—that’s the rewarding feeling they’re working for. contests like this ask thousands of people to do work that no one will ever see, rewarding only 3 finalists—and not by using their art in the campaign, but merely selling prints in their store. they’re missing a bigger opportunity to show more of the work and celebrate being inclusive rather that just getting people thinking and talking. i could go on, but instead i’ll leave it at this: the design community respectfully asks bigger businesses to find more creative ways to increase brand loyalty than contests that cheapen the value of the design profession.

so, where does that leave smaller businesses?

here’s the big disconnect i see. while i’ve almost never seen the winning work from a big brand’s design contest [clue: big brands don’t break brand continuity for contest winners], there are lots of smaller companies and non-profits running similar contests for major parts of their branding. sometimes their logo, sometimes a major promotion poster—money-making promotional items they should budget in as the cost of doing business, but for whatever reason, they don’t. it might seem like a great benefit to the contest-holders to have hundreds of samples to choose from for the price of a prize, but you’re asking hundreds of people to all go through the same effort, rewarding only one. considering most professional designers abstain from participating, ask yourself who is even doing this work? unlike a big brand contest designed to excite people about a familiar brand, the participants of a smaller, lesser-known contest don’t have much to connect to. and anyway, do you really have time to review hundreds of mediocre samples, retrofitting a final choice into an appropriate brand for you? when small businesses do it, it looks a lot more like what it is: someone asking for something for nothing. there’s a much better way to get what you want without wasting the time and effort of everyone involved.

scrap the contest idea and get real

as i said before, we’re all in this together. we could be building lasting partnerships instead of trying to get stuff from each other for free while slapping the word “contest” on it. treat this work like what it is: a job. prepare a full creative brief and advertise for it with honest compensation. if you don’t have the budget to pay for it and you’re looking for an outright volunteer, say so, or start asking yourself what you can offer in trade and quantify these things in an offering. not empty promises of future work, unqualified referrals or portfolio building, because we’ve all heard that before, and they sound just like the lies they are. consider things you might normally charge for that have little overhead for you, that would be as valuable to your designer as their design work is to you.

dig deep and mine the value you can offer

for starters, you will want to take ownership of the work, but always allow your designer a credit in print on the piece, a link online [preferably in a “thanks to our sponsors” or similar credit], the right to display the work in a portfolio, and to enter contests for the purpose of garnering awards. [clue: this is what paid designers ask for, so it should be a given for in-kind trade work.] taking it further, write them a testimonial they can use on their site and on social media networks. if your site has a page of trusted partners or online advertising, link them up. if you’re in the business of putting on events where there is some form of collateral, offer them sponsorship placement on signage, an ad in the program book, and let them leave print matter for attendees to take. if you’re in a particularly related industry an there are speaking opportunities [say you put on a conference and have a panel your designer would be a good fit for, or if you run a trade show and can offer them a booth] see how you can work them in. if you deal in products or services the designer might be interested in, be open to offering an equitable amount of products or services in trade. make sure the things you’re listing have real value, and if you can ballpark what their monetary equivalent is, you can come up with a suite of offerings, perhaps a combination of promotion, service and product that comes in right around where the project fee would be. if you find a designer who is interested in these things, and whom you feel is a good fit for your design project, you’re in business! draw up a trade agreement of exactly what each party will do for each other, with a timeline for milestones and deliveries. lo and behold, we have reinvented the barter system!

what if i don’t think i have anything of value to trade?

hang in there kitty! if you’re in business in any capacity, you will have something to offer and probably just have to think harder, but if you’re not finding a designer who wants to take you up on your trade, start smaller. many new businesses think they have to come roaring out the gate with all the fancy collateral that larger, more established businesses already have in order to compete. here’s another secret: you don’t, because you’re not competing those businesses yet. start with what’s free and work your way up. can’t afford a web site? get all your social networks set up, add business pages and start communicating with people there. can’t afford a logo and identity? set your company name in a nice, clean, appropriate typeface, and make yourself a simple business card [clue: ask me for referrals on affordable printers]. look into networking events for small businesses, and for your industry, and get out there and talk to everyone you meet about what you do. tell them you’re just getting started, and you’re really excited about it. you can get much farther on good service and a good attitude with a simple identity than flashy design that attempts to cover unfocused service and untimely delivery.

…and save your money as you grow, because if you’re doing it right, you’ll have the beginnings of a brand promise people are eager to associate with visually, and for that you’ll need the budget for an awesome designer.

Case Study: Mohawk Bend Brand & Identity Development

mohawk bend brand & identity

As the saying goes, I love it when a plan comes together. When I first talked to Tony Yanow about his newest venture, Mohawk Bend, it was nearly a year ago, midway through the Ramona Theater’s renovation process. While we’d be working from scratch design-wise, Tony had a very clear idea of who he was serving and what the attitude and voice of Mohawk Bend would be, which made the preliminary research and brand brief development really easy. He also had an interior design team working with the raw materials of the space and adding beautiful custom furniture in light wood and warm, orange tones. From the outset, we knew the setting of where the identity would live and how we could make it stand out appropriately within that environment.

mohawk bend logo

logo development

Mohawk Bend has a few different areas of focus, but it’s first and foremost a celebration of craft beer from all over California. The most exciting and innovative of these is the hops-forward west coast IPA, and in that vein, the hop flower became a main feature of the logo.

mohawk bend icon system

mohawk bend business cards

building an identity

Beyond beer, though, their plans included California-sourced spirits, a bottle-free selection of California wine, local / organic food that spans the vegan-omnivore spectrum, and a low-waste operation in the kitchen. Tony really wanted an icon system that could represent each of these aspects and work interchangeably with the main identity, play out on the web site, and associate with core staff’s areas of expertise. We developed a color palette and selection of icons that swap out with the hop flower in the logo for specialized uses, and become indicators for each area of the web site. For future signage and events, they’ll have the versatility of growing this icon system with new developments.

mohawk bend web site home page

keeping it simple & highly useful online

Creating the web site was a fun exercise in brainstorming all the things we hate about restaurant web sites and putting them at the top of the list of what not to do. No flash, No pdf menus, No hard-to-find location information. Tony was always very clear about the voice of Mohawk Bend, that it’s craft first in a simple and honest way. We were still excited to talk about all the great things Mohawk Bend does, however, so we built all of it into the about section, so the information is there without being an obstacle on the home page. Instead, a styled twitter widget announces daily specials and events, with clear postings of hours, location, directions and a list of menus: get the info you need and come on over!

mohawk bend web site interactive beer list

the interactive beer list

One particularly fun feature is the interactive beer list. During our preliminary talks on functionality of the site, Tony said “What I’d really like to have is a beer list you can sort by any category—brewery, style, alcohol volume…” And so we thought about it, and worked out a solution that integrates directly with WordPress, allowing all the searching & sorting a curious beerophile would want. Click any column header to sort by that column, or use the search field to isolate beers containing your search terms. We also translated everything to a nice mobile site, so anyone can find just what they’re looking for [even search the beer list] on the go.

mohawk bend menus

beyond design: a workflow that works

Behind the scenes was the real challenge: developing a workflow system that would allow daily menu updates in print and online to be done easily and quickly by employees. A system that still uses nice typefaces and formatting in print, but doesn’t require any coding online—and all simple enough to execute well without a design education. Once we settled on a menu format, we built in-house layout templates using paragraph styles that would transfer heading tags and basic bold and italic formatting to WordPress. The WordPress interface is extremely user-friendly, with a visual editor, so everyone has taken to it quickly. To keep the carbon footprint low, the menus are printed on Neenah Environment 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper.

mohawk bend extended identity

and they’re off…!

As I’ve watched this roll out in action and seen the Mohawk Bend staff make it their own, I’m proud of the system we created together. They’ve been able to switch around the menu formats easily using feedback from customers, and we’ve been able to build more of the identity into ads, stickers, signage and support collateral. Best of all, they are all super-nice people to work with, so we’re always happy to walk down, have a beer, find out how everything is going, and help them work out their next adventure. Bottoms-up to Mohawk Bend!

+ Read more case studies here.
+ See more of our work for Mohawk Bend here.

tell your clients what to expect

design project timeline
while job specifics vary, the process follows the same path.

we get so familiar with our own businesses and practices, that even though we may explain what it is we do, sometimes that’s really different from empathizing with the outsider’s unfamiliarity with our services. let’s not leave these things to their imagination. when we’re in the position of buying, often what we’re conscious of is the artifact, or the end result we’re shopping for, but our senses are busy researching the experience we’re buying as well. is this a good person to work with? will this business really take care of me? think about how you feel when you read testimonials that express excellent customer service—it’s a wave of relief, trust, and a subconscious vote of confidence.

recently i was preparing a brand brief for my father’s new hypnotherapy practice, and in researching other hypnotherapists in the immediate area, we only found one practitioner who took the time to walk through what a patient could expect when they sign on with her therapy practice. everyone else had a lot to say about what hypnotherapy does, took time to dispel myths about what it’s not, and made sure to list their credentials, but only one practitioner dedicated a page to what happens in her office after you walk through the door. it wasn’t information i was expecting to get, but when i did it allowed me to picture myself doing it, which was a powerful surprise. most of them let the reputation of hypnotherapy sell for them, she sold her personal touch on the experience.

finally, this past week, the AIGA held one day for design as an open forum for discussing the future of design. the discussion was varied, but there were a good deal of voices calling for the industry leaders to educate the public on the value of design, with an undercurrent about clients just not getting the true value of what we do. i gotta say, it doesn’t work that way. educating people on what any of us do in our businesses, and how it can be valued and leveraged is entirely up to us. the less tangible your service, the more important it is to show case studies, offer examples, and answer questions about how it works. our industry organizations are there to back us up and support us, not sell our services for us so we don’t have to. take charge of the conversation and have it wherever you can!

spend some time with your own marketing materials and ask yourself how much you’re speaking directly to potential clients to help demystify exactly what service you offer. try not to rely so heavily on the deliverables—unless you’re selling an entirely unique product or service, they generally know what artifactual item they’re shopping for. appeal to the instincts that are comparing experiences. if you have a web site, and look at analytics, let some of the more popular and unexpected searches be a guide as to what potential clients are yearning to learn from you. tell them about what you bring, and how you bring it.

some tips:

• don’t assume people know even the basics of how your industry works. write up a draft from start to finish of your ideal process, writing to the kind of project you’d like to be doing.

• use past experience as an example: take cues from every time you’ve had a disconnect with a client, or realized they assumed things would go differently. this is what people don’t know about how you work—tell them about it!

• ask clients for feedback on how you helped them understand the process. ask them if there are standout factors that help them decide between two similar services. what are their deal-makers & deal-breakers?

how to profile your target markets

parlato design studio news how to profile your target markets

part of the process of an identity development involves profiling the target markets of the client, so we can get a good idea of exactly who we’re talking to. it’s one thing to know what you want your business to say to everyone, but the reality is, you’re in a dialog with your very best clients and potential initiates to your tribe. don’t address them to whom it may concern, create a sketch of who they are and talk to them like you know them—because you do!

i can usually help with a little knowledge, research and brainstorming, but nobody knows their client base better than you. whether or not you’re in a phase of identity development, taking time aside to visualize your clients and empathize with their concerns will always help you better align your communications with their needs.

start by looking at your very best clients.
these are often people you don’t have to sell to anymore, those who understand the value of your services and are happy to keep coming back. it’s never just one type of person though, so take a look at the various types of people that comprise this group. what do they have in common, what led them to you? what are their differences? do they come from different earning brackets, different areas, different cultures? how many different groups do you have?

select three main groups by common attributes.
take what you learned by listing out client traits and behavior, and create three general client profiles. then for each, outline their individual characteristics that make them unique. where do they work, do they have kids, what would a typical day for this customer be like? what do they care about, what are their values, do they tend toward one political party? how does your business fit in? chances are, each group interfaces with your business differently, how do you usually help each group?

start using the profiles as clues for your next step.
once you have your main customer profiles and a clear statement of how you help each one, consider each one individually and try to think of other ways you might serve them. you’re talking about groups that have already bought into what you do, so they’d be your most likely audience for anything new you offer that’s relevant and useful to their daily grind. additionally, focusing on the types of people you profiled is the best way to create products and services that similar types might use, so you’re not only serving your targets, you might also discover new branches you hadn’t thought about before.

save these customer profiles, and make sure to refer to them in any brainstorming meetings on upcoming product and service developments or preparations for ad campaigns. if you break into a new sector, profile the new market and add them to the bunch. having these target profiles on hand will help keep everyone on track with who your messaging is going to, so you can make sure it’s always relevant, and revise as necessary.

3 ways to kick-start 2011

3 ways to kick-start 2011 parlato design studio

so here we are, a new year is just beginning and everyone is energized to start fresh. it’s a great feeling, but before it fades and settles behind a daily grind, harness and focus your energy so you can let it help you make progress on your most important goals and stay motivated throughout they year.

take stock of where you’re at
if you did any year-end planning or creative retreating, you probably already have a road map for the year ahead. if not, it’s a great time to take a day and look back at the biggest progress you made last year, the most effective efforts, the best projects, and find ways to build on them or continue rolling them out. how did your marketing plans play out for you? were you surprised by the results of any actions you took? better yet, did you learn what worked well and what isn’t worth the effort? do you have lingering projects that stayed on the back burner, that now need attention? does your brand, messaging or site content need a little refresh to match some new directions you’re taking? it’s time to strip down to a mix of what works best for you, toss the rest in a box [you can revisit it later if you want] and refine what you’re keeping so it keeps working for you in the new year.

assess the landscape ahead
knowing yourself, your internal strengths and where to put your energy is one thing, but what’s the terrain you’re going to travel? are you continuing to work with familiar industries and clients, or are you going to develop a new niche? are you in a plateau phase of familiar territory, or in a growth phase where you’ll be learning and trying all kinds of new things? take stock of the things you can depend on, and the areas you’re less familiar with. make sure to keep investing good energy in the familiar places, grow with it and don’t take it for granted. but, what are the biggest things you want to learn about the new places you’re going? can you read up on them, can you research some good starter events to get your feet wet, can you get some initial meetings with friendly informers who are happy to help you get to where you want to be?

pick a strategic blend and plan your moves
once you have a more clear sense of what you do best, how you do it, and the lay of the land ahead, take what you know and apply it—to the calendar! start with what you know: your best and most long-standing clients. plan a mix that works for you, attend the events where you know you’ll see them, think about your own brand touchpoints and which communicate the best with your home-base. you know these people really well at this point, maybe even research how you might better serve them, or find some aspect of their businesses that is largely overlooked. if you’ve attended mixers to see them in the past, consider hosting your own and inviting them for a regular check-in outside the office. in short, make your best relationships even better.

if you’re breaking ground in a new industry or niche, start a regular schedule of research, read the industry blogs, look for events to attend, make contacts and ask questions so you can learn from the personal experience of others. research the archetypes in the industry and get to know how they communicate, what’s important to them, go where they go. eventually, with regular research and exposure, you’ll have a great idea of who might be a good fit for you as a client or what might be a best first project to get your foot in the door.

and, of course, the best way to communicate with them when you’re not actually in the same room is to make information readily available about your own services and show that you’re aligned with this new industry. if you’ve been meaning to refresh your print collateral or web site content in this way, chart it out and put it on the calendar. if you can’t afford the dream overhaul, do the realistic refresh now. as seth godin often says, plan what you can, don’t let fear of failure hold you back from shipping, and put yourself out there!

how to plan your year-end retreat

parlato design studio year-end retreat

whether you’re a small business owner or part of an in-house team, taking time at the end of the year to step back and reflect is an important part of maintaining healthy progress. i plan one every year, and i always surprised by what comes out of it.

i planned my first retreat somewhat by accident: i had a good amount of downtime in my first year of business, and i’d been trying to find an excuse to visit this boutique hotel i found in desert hot springs, hope springs resort. to me, it was the perfect picture of relaxation, and once i got there i found out i was right!

that first year i was mostly looking forward and taking a break, but as i built my business up, the next year i actually had some news to report. in the year that followed, i’d taken the initiative to branch out in a few directions, so listing new adventures and possibilities was kind of mind-blowing. this year topped that one by far, so i’m really excited to write it all out and look at everything on paper.

if you’re part of a group, taking time together outside the office in a neutral space is a great way to connect with the people you work with on a different level. allow everyone to contribute, compliment each person’s great moments of the year, ask them what inspires them, what would they do if they could make the rules? your co-workers and employees know their jobs best, and sometimes their unique perspective can inform a direction you wouldn’t have thought of without input.

how to plan your retreat:

first, stop waiting for some “free time” to open up. pick the least likely busy time months in advance, before any other conflicting events will allow you to change your mind. block it out and commit to it! even if you can’t spare more than 1 day, get away from your office or workplace so you can think clearly.

second, research your ideal setting. treat it like a vacation for your mind, a place with inspiring surroundings that also offer quiet for reflection. look for your favorite natural setting, maybe mountains, beaches, countrysides, or cool winter deserts landscapes with quaint small town B&B’s within driving distance? these are the places you’re looking for. you can actually do this step first, and eliminate the time between making the commitment and booking the reservation, so you’re locked in before you have a chance to second-guess.

third, book it! make apologies for your absence by beaming “i’m sorry, I’ll be away for my annual year-end retreat!” feel good about your decision! in addition to your favorite travel accessories, add your favorite pens and a blank notebook, and when the big day rolls around, away you go!

if your business has a few employees or you’re part of a department, you can plan a group retreat as well. if you can’t get out of town, at least get out of the office! back when i worked at natpe, our department head, beth, planned a creative brainstorming day at the getty. we left the office, took the morning to look at art, change our mindset and get inspired, and then we picked a spot among the sculptures to get our brainstorming on.

how i structure my retreats:

i leave early so i can enjoy my wind-down day, which is what I do on day 1. unwind! on day 2, i get up and enjoy breakfast, followed by some light exercise to get the blood flowing, maybe a walk or a swim or some yoga.

to get started, i review last year’s notes and analyze how everything played out. then, i sit down with my notebook and bullet out every new thing i did in the past year that i hadn’t done before. i like to make note of compound progresses, things i built on from something i did previously. we often think we’re aware of everything we’ve done, but i am always surprised by how much more i remember in this process. i get all kinds of ideas for the future at this stage, and note them for brainstorming later.

i buffer my reflection on the past with a break of physical activity or even a night’s sleep before i work on the future, giving my brain time to digest everything. when i’m ready, i look at my list of accomplishments and think of ways to build on them. free-association, daydreaming and hair-brained scheming comes in handy here! this is where letting curiosity and wonderment can help you strive for that next level you would normally think impossible or out-of-reach. once i’m done, i like to break these into easy actions, goals to strive for, and big ideas i can contribute to in the long term.

all of this helps me get my priorities in order and approach the new year with confidence. when i get home, i can tackle those easy actions, and i’m energized to break out the baby steps toward my new goals. with all of that organized, the long range plans get their periodic attention too. how about you, anyone planning a year-end retreat for 2010?