May 27th, 2016

I attended Track Maven’s Spark 2016 conference the other week and the big take away was this: your brand is in everything. If your brand isn’t on your mind in every digital experience your company participates in, woe betide you.

Sessions tackled the elusive question: what goes into a strong brand? What makes a brand successful? How do I measure that success?

Unlike what I’ve heard at recent technology conferences, I was thrilled to hear that user experience research is what makes a brand go round.

Boiling it down, here are the three lessons I learned at Spark16:

  1. Everything you make - messaging, technology, design - should always be in beta
  2. You’re not going to get anywhere without a deep and comprehensive understanding of your target audience
  3. User research isn’t just for making a better product - it’s critical to brand success

Everything is in beta

Lauren DiPaola, Senior Vice President, Digital, of Weber Shandwick, spoke on starting a social program, but the thing I took away most from her presentation was actually that everything is always in beta. Think of beta as a working draft - almost complete, but not quite finished. With all credit to Lauren, this slide can say it better than I can:

slide showing products in beta with feedback loop from users

Tell me it’s not true: changes in user behavior drive changes in both businesses through new business models and in products - new platforms, technologies, software. That also applies to your brand - is your brand evolving with your audience? If you aren’t researching your user’s behavior and preferences, if you’re not testing your product with an actual audience and making changes, you’re already out of the loop.

Knowledge of your audience is everything

Speaking of audiences - have you researched yours? And stop testing your product/message/software/upgrades on your employees and “friends of the business.” Jean Ellen Cowgirl, President of Atlantic Media Strategies made the very real point: those friends and family audiences are already predisposed to your product or message. You’re enjoying a positive and false feedback loop. Go out into the world of where your product plays and find your real audience. Here’s what you need to know about your audience:

  • Demographics
  • Geographics
  • Platform Usage
  • Consumption Habits (how they interact with digital content - not their preference on salsa)

If you have 30 minutes and want to learn what one of the foremost innovators in content is doing, I recommend you watch “Lean Content” with Keynote speaker Stephanie Hay, the Head of Content at Capital One. You can watch her presentation here.

Stephanie lead with an opening story about Sesame Street. What I didn’t know is that Sesame Street was one of the first pioneers in user research. I’ll let Stephanie speak in her own words, but share with you this one fact - the creators of Sesame Street found that when children watched James Earl Jones counted, if he took 4 seconds between numbers, children lost interest. If he took 2 seconds between numbers, children became disengaged. But, if he took 3 (ahh-ahh-ahh) seconds between numbers, children would shout out the next number.


That granularity of user research turned Sesame Street from a small, low-budget children’s program to a 46 season (that’s 4,384 episodes) cultural mainstay. Simply put in producer Joan Ganz Cooney’s words: “Without research, there would be no Sesame Street.” Before you go to Youtube and watch your favorite Sesame Street characters, think about that statement.


Shameless plug for the yep-yep aliens.


Lucky lightening doesn’t strike something that isn’t already in position. That great idea, product, app that your company has created may be the next best thing - but if you don’t have research behind it, what chance do you really have in an oversaturated market?

User Research is Critical to Your Brand

Branding and User Research aren’t separate circles on a Venn Diagram. They overlap almost entirely and they’re surrounded by a feedback loop.

When you underline everything you do with user research, the success rate of your brand with your target audience skyrockets. These days, consumers have lower and lower tolerances for poor user experience, which in turn can negatively color their perception of your brand.

But user research covers more than user experience - it should also include testing of language, logos, and images.  Stephanie Hay said Capital One constantly tests messaging, ideas, and small changes to their brand in increments as small as $20 on two different online advertising campaigns. Her theory? If you’re looking for data, throw a $20 at it and get your answer.

That’s a $20 well spent.