Ed: In this article Alex Hunter discusses why web developers and entrepreneurs can not afford to forget about their brand. Alex will be hosting an in-depth online marketing workshop at Future of Web Apps Miami in February 2010 – buy your ticket online today!
Brand is one of those things that often falls by the wayside with developers. Developers are constantly creating amazing technologies and incredible platforms that are fundamentally changing the way marketing and branding works.
Applications and platforms, i.e. social networking, now exist that allow consumers, i.e. users, to connect with brands for the very first time. Consumers today have the power and the tools to research, get feedback and participate. Today as a result of the platforms and technologies that YOU’VE created, and that’s beautiful irony, users have a really loud voice.
Why is brand important for web applications and products? Well, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of web apps out there. You’re in direct competition with them, every single one of them. You have to stand out in the crowd and get people coming back to your site.
If you’re developing a competing application to an incumbent you’re going to have to work ten times harder to get people to change. As sites start to use even more social currency, points systems, giving more “value” to a user, it will be harder and harder to bring them over. Bottom line: you’re going to have to work your ass off.
With this in mind here are some quick DOs and DO NOTs for building and managing a successful web brand:
What to DO
DO: Define your values
What are you? Your values are going to be the foundation of what you are, and more importantly, what you will be – now, tomorrow and in ten years time. Set them early and set them well because they will define you for the rest of your existence. It’s really, really easy to half-ass this. Don’t, because it will come back to bite you if you do.
The convenient thing would be to dump all of your “values”, your product, and brand name into a blender, dump out the contents and proclaim “There, we’re done!” It’s not that easy and more importantly, what comes out won’t be an accurate representation of what you are.
So to do this right, take the best of what your team, vision, and product represents, in appropriate doses, and create a whole new identity. Remember, this is NOT something a single person (e.g. founder) can do on their own. Involve the team, involve friends, involve advisors. Stop trying to do it yourself, take a step back and get people involved.
P.S. Everyone wants to be “fun”, “ethical”, “challenging” and “revolutionary.” Skip those values from your brainstorming and consider them as given.
DO: Be emotional
How are you going to get the public to love you? How are you going to get people to have that emotional connection with what you do? And let’s be clear this IS about emotion, so please BE emotional.
This is your baby, your blood sweat and tears that you’ve poured into your project. Your users will be able to connect emotionally if they sense the emotion, a key ingredient of loyalty, that you’ve put into your creation.
DO: Be transparent
Transparency, especially at the beginning when you’re building something or when it’s just an idea, is really beautiful because it brings people into the journey. It’s why reality TV is so hard to look away from.
The development cycle IS dramatic, emotional and painful with “4 o’clock in the morning” caffeine-induced coding frenzies, the wins, the losses, the highs and the lows. Bring people along on that journey.
But remember, when things go wrong, hold your hands up and admit to it – be transparent, be human. Don’t hide behind a brand name or a product name. People will engage with that. You don’t hear people talking about Spotify’s massive data leak very often, do you. No because they came clean, notified users, fixed it and busted ass to continue making a great product.
DO: Extend your brand
Despite what you might think, your app is not the be all and end all. Don’t believe this “if you build it, they will come” mantra, that is “weapons-grade bullonium”. It’s just not true. You have to extend the reach of what you do with content and engagement, physical and digital engagement. Build up a voice and personality around your brand.
Consider Digg, who are masters of brand extension in the web world. Their blog is written by the people who are responsible for rolling out new features, managing the database, marketing the site, not just the founder or the VP of PR. Real names, real faces, real people that we as users can connect with.
Whenever they roll out a new piece of technology or a new development, the person responsible blogs about it, explains what they did and asks for feedback. That breeds loyalty. They take it further with Diggnation, Digg Meetups, and DiggDialog.
DO: Bridge the gap between online and offline
Bridging the gap between online and offline with real world events breeds loyalty. There are a lot of web companies that are getting really good at hosting real world events where users meet up and are rewarded on a macro level, for example Digg or Qype here in Europe.
Both introduce users to each other and to the people that curate the community they’re involved in at events that are tailored to the users’ interests. Launch parties and regular user meet-ups get people talking and get people connected. That really breeds loyalty. It’s astounding what that can do in terms of competitive advantage and brand awareness.
What NOT to DO
DON’T: Ignore your brand
As web developers, application creators and programmers, we don’t think about brand nearly as much as we should. We don’t care. We don’t think it’s important. We’re busy building our apps. We’re not focussed on brand, it’s not our core activity. But you cannot afford to ignore your brand at any point in its existence.
Brand loyalty is getting harder and harder to gain and, ironically, easier to lose. As marketers get savvier and people are convinced that the same product is better just because it has a certain brand, the harder you’re going to have to work to build a loyal user base.
DON’T: Half ass your brand development
You have to put the time and energy into this that it deserves. Do this and do it well. So many people think that brand is about product name. Cute name, great brand, done. WRONG. So wrong it hurts. And besides, we can’t even get that right.
So many web apps out there have thoughtless names. There’s no rationale or logic behind the names at all, they just think it is cute and memorable. It’s oh-so-fashionable to drop a vowel here and there or misspell something and be done with it. That doesn’t mean anything and it’s lazy. Don’t do that. Or if you do, have a reason for it. Give your brand development the time and energy it deserves.
DON’T: Put your interests ahead of your users
I know this is hard because, ultimately, you have to pay the bills. But a reputation of looking after your users, being ethical, will put you head and shoulders above anybody else.
I often cite the example of Amazing Tunes, a site for unsigned artists. Sure, there are other unsigned artists sites out there, but not that give 70% of the profits back to the user and not that have a DAB radio station that artists are featured on. THAT is looking after your users. That’s the definition of an ethical web company.
DON’T: Be Precious about consistency or message
People often say to me “The more people I give the message or brand to, the more watered down it becomes and the less consistent the message is”. Big brands are especially scared of losing the refinement of their message. But realistically, they’ve been doing it for the last 30 years because the person who answers the phone in the call centre is the first point of contact that a user has with their brand.
The call centre employees are representing your brand. The receptionist is representing your brand. So giving someone an account on Twitter to do the same is no different, it’s just a little bit more of a public stage. But, that’s a GOOD thing because people can see you responding to positive comments and negative comments and reacting and helping people and participating in the CONVERSATION in a very public forum.
Ultimately, you’re giving people the tools to go and evangelise your brand and product – don’t fight that.
Ed: Need further convincing? Check out the video of Alex’s presentation at Future of Web Apps London 2009