It was the year 2000. I had been with digital shop Agency.com for less than six months when I got the call. It was Jon, one of our business development people. “We got it,” he said. “We won the Grainger.com business!” Huh? I was less than enthusiastic. WW Grainger is a large b-to-b supplies distribution company. They sell everything from duct tape to flashlights that can open up a beer bottle. Seemed like unglamorous work for someone lured to a digital agency that boasted clients such as Coke. But what I failed to see back then has been what has best served me in my career in the digital agency space thus far. Grainger.com presented a unique opportunity to solve complex problems using user-centered design techniques.
For more than four years, my teams designed in iterations, prototyped, tested with users and even tweaked designs as we were building them. The work we did had nothing to do with “branding,” at least in the traditional sense. Rather, it had everything to do with providing the right kind of “brand utility” — features, functions and an overall experience that delighted customers by what it helped them accomplish, not how it communicated things or “sold” them. Grainger customers wanted time-saving tools that made their jobs easier. This made life better for them. And that’s one way you can measure delight.
So what does this have to do with the ad business? Well, for starters, unlike my experience on Grainger, many advertisers aren’t focused on building the digital applications that people want to use; they’re focused on somehow cramming marketing into them. Some kid comes up with the next YouTube, Facebook or mobile platform, and most advertisers want to figure out how to market on it. Instead of designing and developing useful applications that could give brands the opportunity to insert themselves meaningfully into our lives, we get cutesy but useless “Sprite Sips” on Facebook, ubiquitous banners in all shapes and sizes and microsites that you won’t likely return to. And I’m talking about digital advertising — never mind traditional.
As agencies and our clients strive to add value to the lives of the average consumer, user and active participant, it’s helpful to think about how we can do this in a framework I like to call the “Three U’s of Advertising in the Application Economy.” They are:
1) Usefulness. Any experience is useful when it’s meaningful and serves a purpose. Currently, much of marketing still breaks down into self-serving gimmicks and interruptions that offer little value. Much of what’s offered in digital is no exception. While the majority of criticism is of traditional advertising, the fact of the matter is that interruptive traditional digital advertising is not much better. These are the digital gimmicks that work to get your attention but are usually done so poorly that they offer no value whatsoever. Usefulness is the exact opposite.
2) Utility. Utility is interaction that delights us in some way. But hold the iPhone. The industry has hijacked the word delight and brainwashed us to think that only companies like Apple and Disney are capable of serving it up. Let me tell you a recent story about the “no-frills” Craigslist. My wife took pictures of a large play set we wanted to sell. She uploaded them at 10 a.m., by noon she had several people interested, and she sold the set in time for a late lunch. We had the set dismantled, picked up and were $100 richer that evening. That’s delight in the application economy.
3) Ubiquity. We are living in a fragmented world with what seems like infinite touch points available to us. Brands and businesses that can distribute value across these endless touch points in effective ways will tap into new markets and solidify existing ones. Because some of us are interacting through multiple social channels, we can now find people just like ourselves who we trust and see what they like and dislike. This influences our decisions, from the stuff we buy to the things we recommend to each other. The best marketing in the world tries to simulate this, but usually ends up coming off as contrived. Meaningful interactions through multiple networks and channels lead to authentic word-of-mouth references and, ultimately, affinity.
One of the reasons I took my role with digital shop Critical Mass was its strong foundation in transactional digital design. When you think about the application economy, I have a hunch it will be fueled by organizations and individuals who have figured out how to retool Web design into something more engaging, rewarding, useful and valuable. Call it “brand utility” or call it a good experience. Whatever you want to call it, it’s not a one-trick dog and pony show.
David Armano is vp, creative at Crtitcal Mass.