How does an aging brand stay hip?

SXSW logoSouth by Southwest (SXSW) just turned 26. For most people, 26 is still a relatively youthful age — a time when idealistic folks are establishing careers, setting up independent lives, and deciding whom they want to become as adults. But for the Austin-based festival dedicated to the latest trends in music, tech and film, 26 years of history can make you look like old news.

It’s become a cliché to talk about how SXSW isn’t what it used to be, that the funky little festival for indie musicians and starving artist filmmakers has lost its soul somewhere along the way to the 62-foot Doritos vending machine stage and homeless people transformed into WiFi hotspots. And while it’s easy to dismiss many of these complaints as hazy nostalgia for an imagined past, this perceived decline in quality over time can be a real problem for many brands.

Whether it’s cultural cachet or dedication to innovation, the human tendency to see the present as not quite measuring up to the past means that a brand must always fight to maintain its reputation. Without constant rejuvenation, a festival, company, or product will always fall somewhere short of its past iteration. So how exactly does a brand like SXSW fight to keep its cool?


The simplest way for a brand to keep moving forward is to keep growing, and SXSW has done exactly this. In 1987, about 700 people showed up to what was then strictly a music festival. This year there were more than 30,000 attendees for the SXSW Interactive portion of the festival, which is just the part that focuses on new technology. By growth alone, a brand can show that it has outdone its earlier self.


Times change, and brands need to change with them. SXSW has never hesitated to embrace new trends, transforming itself from a basic music festival (a model that has been around for about as long as music itself), to a meeting place for people who want to see the latest in technology and art. This has meant adding a film portion to the festival, along with what might be the biggest current draw, SXSW Interactive. While another brand with a particularly long history (if I might classify the Catholic Church as a brand, too) now considers how to adapt to trends among its followers, SXSW freely lets go of its past and embraces the next new thing.

Stay True

Even as they try to embrace new trends, brands must remember not to lose sight of their original mission. While this may be one of SXSW’s weaker points in the eyes of many of its detractors, the fact that the festival has not moved to a city more accommodating of its large numbers (OK, it’s hard to imagine SXSW in Houston), or cut down the amount of festival time dedicated to music, means that the brand has been able to bring on new followers while keeping dedicated fans in the fold. It remains to be seen whether SXSW will be able to balance its unique tradition with the right amount of growth and evolution, but the mixture so far has continued to outdo itself.

Ben Marrone can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Maronay.

Is Social Media the New Fortune-Teller? Predicting Oscar Winners Based on Social Media Sentiment

oscars-socialLook no further than social media to predict the winners of award shows – not to mention box office grosses, outcomes of sporting events, and more. For every uninformed social media user, there are many more experts weighing in on events and topics in social media, coming together to offer sound insights and predictions.

General Sentiment, for one, put out its Oscar Predictions report, using social media and Twitter sentiment to predict this year’s Oscar winners in the Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Actress categories. (General Sentiment is not a Sterling client.)

As it turned out, the General Sentiment report correctly predicted the Best Picture and Best Actor award winners. And, as Meat Loaf said, two out of three ain’t bad!

Our client, Attensity, also got into the prediction action, with its media and entertainment arm, Attensity Media, analyzing social media sentiment and correctly predicting Argo as the Best Picture award winner.

Armed with this 66% success rate, social media sentiment is a valid predictor of awards shows. Add to the mix the aforementioned box office grosses and sporting events, and social media can be used to predict almost anything.

Think what social media can offer in predicting the success of PR campaigns and product launches.

For example, with Attensity, Whirlpool gets early warning for safety and warranty issues and, in many cases, has been able to mitigate expensive recalls through an early view offered via social media analysis. They extrapolate an ~80% savings on their costs of recalls due to early detection with Attensity.

What else can social media be used to predict? Chime in below in the Comments field.

Jordan Hubert can be reached at Follow Jordan on Twitter @jahubert.

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Building a Website? Keep it Simple

Web-Design-300x225Creating, updating, or designing a website for yourself or a client can get to be a little hectic, especially when you begin to think about all the moving parts that are involved in the process.  The important rule to remember when it comes to web projects is to “keep it simple”.

In our office last Thursday, Sterling Communications had the pleasure of listening and learning from the talented web designer, Sarah Mattern of Mattern Communications.

Sharing is caring- so below, I’m sharing with you Sarah’s top 5 ways to simplify your next web project.

1.    Follow a Clear Process: Knowing the steps to take will help guide you through the website building/designing project. Sarah suggests using the following steps as a guideline for the process:

  • Discover- Discussing and understanding what it is that you or your client wants in a website
  • Explore– Do the research, get inspired, and stay focused
  • Design– Draft, review, and revise
  • Build- Code, test, and make refinements
  • Launch– Add the content and go live.

2.    Don’t Make Users Think:  Navigating through a website should flow for a visitor. Be sure to name buttons and links with clear titles. Place those appropriate links onto commonly viewed or corresponding pages.  Thinking about small things such as these should all help make steering through your website simple. Ask co-workers or friends, who aren’t familiar with your website, to visit the webpage and make suggestions for improvements.

3.    Get Inspired: Just like a true artist, you will need to feed your creativity with some inspiration. Browse around websites that you like and note the features or design that may catch your eye.  Sarah shared some her of favorite inspiring websites with us. She recommends:

You may also find inspiration for your website by simply looking at photography or artwork. Really, inspiration can derive from just about anywhere. So just take notes and review them when starting a new web project.

4.    Tell A Story:  Sometimes, the most memorable part of a website is how it might make the visitor feel. Story telling is an engaging way to connect with people, whether it’s spoken, written, or illustrated.  Review your website’s design, function, and content to make certain it tells your story the way you want it to be perceived.

5.    Understand the Building Blocks: This is referring to coding. Proper coding ensures your website functions properly, is formatted correctly, and looks the way you want it to.  Read up, review, and understand proper website coding. Knowing these building blocks will set your website up for success.

Follow these 5 tips and make your next web project as simple as 1,2,3,4,5.  You will save valuable time, money, and hopefully reduce a lot of the stress. If you ever fall off track, just remember to go back to the basics and keep it simple.

Natalie Wolfrom can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nwolfrom415

Photo credit: Study Zilla

Silicon Valley: Ideas “R” Us

"Silicon Valley" premieres on PBS on February 5th.

“Silicon Valley” premieres on PBS on February 5th.

At the Sundance Film Festival last week, one of the most buzzed-about screenings was that of the new Steve Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher. With a second Jobs movie in the planning stage, scripted by Aaron Sorkin from the Walter Isaacson bestseller, Silicon Valley is becoming an entertainment locus for stories as well as the new digital technologies changing how movies are made.

Sorkin kick-started it with The Social Network. Who would have thought a movie about the Internet could be so captivating? Geek culture is suddenly glam. Bravo tried a really bad (in my opinion) “reality” series called Start-Ups: Silicon Valley although most of the 20-something entrepreneurs worked and partied in San Francisco. Mike Judge is currently casting a comedy for HBO called Silicon Valley, which I imagine will have a sensibility similar to that of Office Space, his cubicle-dweller classic.

These shows have dipped a toe in fact but were primarily fiction. If you want insight to the true stories of the pioneers of Silicon Valley —and why they still matter— you have to go back in time much farther than Zuckerberg or even Jobs, to the late Eisenhower era of white button-down shirts, skinny ties, and square black-framed glasses.

On Tuesday, February 5th, PBS will debut a new documentary as part of the American Experience series called —you guessed it— Silicon Valley. It’s the story of the engineers working in the valley’s first semiconductor companies, the ones who put the silicon in Silicon Valley.

Silicon Valley is a hub of immigrants. I know very few second-generation residents, let alone third-generation ones. Most people who live here know only the barest historical facts about the place. They know of the Gold Rush and the Beats and the Summer of Love in San Francisco, but not the details of how a valley of fruit orchards transformed into office parks in just a quarter-century. They may have heard of the HP garage, but not the Shockley lab or Fairchild Semiconductor — the centerpieces of the documentary.  The reason this is important is that 55 years after the “Traitorous Eight” abandoned Shockley Semiconductor to set up Fairchild, Silicon Valley remains the center of innovation. New data from the Brookings Institution shows that the metropolitan area covering San Francisco south to San Jose, including both sides of the Bay, achieved over 16,000 patents per year on average from 2007 to 2011. The next runner up was the New York metro area with fewer than 7,000. Ideas “R” Us, indeed.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, you can watch Silicon Valley on KQED-TV (Channel 9) at 8:00 p.m., followed at 9:30 p.m. by the 2011 documentary Something Ventured: Risk, Reward and the Original Venture Capitalists, which sheds light on the development of a parallel industry without which the start-up culture could not flourish.

I frequently hear people lament they’ve missed a TV show and then query if it’s available on Netflix. Because Silicon Valley is broadcast on PBS, you’ll be able to catch it at least six times this month on multiple PBS stations (KQED repeats its programs on at least three different channels). Most American Experience documentaries are eventually streamed in their entirety via the PBS website, too, although currently only the 16-minute first chapter is available.

If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the high tech industry and some of its colorful pioneering personalities, I strongly recommend Robert X. Cringely’s classic Accidental Empires in both its 1992 book and 1996 PBS documentary forms. Cringlely will shortly begin a “reboot” of the book by serialization on his blog, as preparation of a new annotated edition and eBook. I read the book and watched the TV series 15 years ago, when I was planning my move to Silicon Valley, and it got me excited to visit Mountain View and Menlo Park. Yes, really!

Lisa Hawes can be reached at Follow Lisa on Twitter @lisakayhawes.

2013 Predictions

Hooper, Patel and Dyor at the WTIA Predictions event.

Last week, the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA), a Sterling client, hosted their annual “Predictions” event – bringing together some of the brightest minds in the Seattle tech industry to get their take on what trends and events defined the previous year — and what will be big in the coming year. This year’s panel was unique as it looked at the tech industry from a VC perspective, as all panelists came from various stages in the investment process.

From the traditional VC perspective was Steve Hooper, founding partner at Ignition. Matt Dyor, managing director of the Microsoft Accelerator, spoke from the incubator perspective; and Sujal Patel, former president at Isilon, shared his viewpoint as an angel investor. The panel was moderated by Enrique Godreau III, managing director at GSharp Ventures.

When asked what was one of the most important qualities of a company seeking funding, all agreed that the willingness to listen was important. According to Hooper, “If they can’t listen, they can’t take advice.”

When Godreau asked the panel their opinion as to what trends were on their way out, Dyor was quick to note that zero revenue models are waning. Companies and investors now are interested in monetizing from the start. Patel said that VCs have already funded too many cloud companies, and Godreau noted that that consumer Internet entertainment is overcrowded.

Panelists were next asked what scares them, and most agreed that losing our entrepreneurial spirit would be the demise of innovation. According to Hooper, certain government regulations could threaten an environment that fosters entrepreneurialism. Patel noted that China and India are poised to step in and fill America’s entrepreneurial shoes, should the U.S. lose its entrepreneurial drive. On a related but more local scale, Dyor cited the talent flight to Silicon Valley, should entrepreneurship wane in the Pacific Northwest. Godreau cited an entirely unrelated fear and a valid question: “who owns my ‘data exhaust?’”

When asked which industry is next to be transformed by technology, Dyor answered with “my inbox.” Patel referred back to “data exhaust,” noting that big opportunities await for those who find a way to analyze it and turn into action. Hooper hoped we would continue to evolve phones, citing technologies such as RFID and calling us a “click and done society.” Godreau believed the next revolution was lurking in the education industry, which stands to impede the next generation of entrepreneurs if standards don’t improve.

Next, Godreau asked the panelists what they were surprised hasn’t been fixed yet. Both Hooper and Patel referred to phones again, with Hooper lamenting why in this day and age, we still find dropped calls normal and acceptable. Patel commented on how ridiculous it was that email is still so limited on your smartphone. Godreau laughed at the fact that three way conference calls are still so difficult!

When asked whether there is a social media bubble, both Dyor and Godreau agreed that the next step is finding value. According to Godreau we’ve delivered entertainment, now how to we deliver value?

In closing, Hooper noted that there’s a lot of money to be raised, even in bad times. If it’s a great idea, great ideas get funded.

Patel added that there are so many misunderstood ideas, where no one believes in a product but the founder.

Misunderstood ideas? Sounds like clear messaging and a good communications strategy may be the answer, if you ask me!

Amanda Hoffman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @hoffmandy.

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Working smarter for the New Year

As 2013 approaches, many of us find ourselves resolving to do things that better our lives – exercise regularly; eat only locally grown and seasonal veggies; get outdoors more; find our inner Zen – and of course, the age-old improve professional development.

In line with this last resolution, the phrase, “work smarter, not harder” comes to mind. As New Relic’s blog post on this subject states, “Bragging that you’ve worked a 16-hour day doesn’t actually increase your bottom line. Success comes from being smart about how you work, which doesn’t necessarily mean you have to forego sleep and family to be successful.”

So I started thinking (and digging up some research) on some tips of how one can do this. This is especially relevant at this moment in time as I’m jamming on some major client work with some hard deadlines amidst the holiday season (whomever said that things are supposed to slow down during the holidays obviously doesn’t work here at Sterling). Here’s some stuff I’ve learned (some of it, admittedly, the hard way):

Organize yourself – there are tons of tools out there that help keep you on track and prevent your hair from catching on fire. My latest project-management addiction? Asana (big shout-out to our creative director, Kawika Holbrook, for introducing me to this one). It’s a task management application that’s intuitive, easy-to-learn, and best of all, for up to 30 people per workspace, it’s free (note: not a client of Sterling’s – we just happen to really like the application).

Communicate – Be open with your communication with your clients, colleagues, team leads, and yourself. Be clear with your clients about what exactly you’re going to deliver, and manage their expectations. It’s nice to offer them the moon, but not-so-nice when you can’t realistically deliver it. Make sure people know your bandwidth and workloads so that they don’t end up expecting more than you can give them. Playing superhero sometimes backfires when you aren’t able to fulfill what you said you’d do.

Ask for help, ask for help, ask for help – I can’t stress this enough. We want to do the best work for our clients, and in a deadline-driven industry, sometimes half the battle rests in doing stuff ON TIME. Pull in resources when and where you can. It doesn’t make sense for you to be working 60 hours a week, when you can delegate to those around you who have the time and the talent to do the work too.

Understand your limitations – Setting high and lofty goals = good. Setting unattainable goals = bad. Know the difference. And learn when to say no. You may want to be the “yes” (wo)man, but this can lead to over-scheduling and under-delivering.

Learn to prioritize – Figuring out what takes precedent helps you manage your schedule better. This all circles back to communication. As I juggle many projects for many clients, I’m juggling deadlines, expectations, and internal teams. This means I need to figure out what my top priorities are and what can wait so I can make sure I’m delivering the best work possible within the timeframe necessary.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for ways you can start incorporating smarter working into your professional lives. For an even more extensive list of tips, check out Colleen Debaise’s “Ask Entrepreneur” blog.

Jennifer Kincaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jennlkincaid.

Photo credits: Say Be And…; AAFP

Cyber Monday May Not Be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year (For Shopping)

Cyber Monday is Black Friday’s nerdy cousin – the one that was quietly dismissed for several years until all of a sudden, it became the genius creator of a multi-billion-dollar startup and is now laughing all the way to the bank.

The term “Cyber Monday” may seem a bit antiquated now, but in 2005 marketing companies coined the term to persuade people to shop online the Monday after Black Friday. And it worked – according to a study, 77 percent of online retailers said their sales “increased substantially.” 

And the trend continues. As broadband becomes faster, home access to Internet is pretty much the norm, and mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are widespread, shoppers are now avoiding the (often literal) crush of Black Friday insanity and shopping online.

But recent research has surfaced that Cyber Monday isn’t necessarily the best time to find those online deals. Consumer service, Decide*, released findings from research into historical prices of holiday items over the past two years and recommended that consumers “skip the Cyber Monday hype.” After tracking millions of price movements from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Sears and Walmart, Decide found that other times of the holidays – not Cyber Monday (or Black Friday) – were the best money-savers. They still recommended buying online for the lowest prices on popular items, but to look at purchasing the week before Black Friday or even the week before Christmas instead.

Technorati also posted about 10 items consumers are better off buying at a later date, such as computers and tablets, cameras, luggage, bikes, televisions, jewelry and winter wear/gear.

That’s not to say that everyone is taking Decide’s advice on skipping Cyber Monday, though. Despite the numbers showing that Cyber Monday isn’t necessarily the best day to buy for the holidays, mobile-and-consumer-electronics news site BGR reports that yesterday showed sales climbing to a record $2 billion, a 17 percent increase from last year. The trend toward mobile is reflected in this, as mobile was up 100 percent from last year, comprising 22 percent of all sales on Cyber Monday.

But even though* – the largest coupon search engine – saw 2,966,096 consumers between November 22 and November 26, Cyber Monday still represented just under 25 percent of the shoppers during those five days. And people are finding that they don’t have to wait until Cyber Monday to find the best deals online.

“While Cyber Monday savings are now an expected occurrence, this year we have seen that you don’t have to wait until you’re back at work to get the best online deals….[shoppers] are spreading out their purchases across the entire holiday weekend, something we expect to continue in the years to come.” founder and CEO Marc Braunstein said in a press release.

So when it comes to holiday shopping online, it looks like the very thing that has created Cyber Monday – access to the Internet – may also be the same thing that makes Cyber Monday not the most wonderful time of the year for shopping.

Jennifer Kincaid can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jennlkincaid.

Photo credits: Death and Taxes; Chicago Now

*Not a client of Sterling Communications

How Social Media Became THE Destination for Election 2012 Predictions and PR Lessons

The 2008 US Presidential Election may have been referred to as the “social media election” but that was then, and this year’s election campaign season was unlike any before it.

Four years ago, 1.8 million tweets were sent on Election Day. But now, in 2012, there are 1.8 million tweets sent every eight minutes.

This Election Day, Twitter narrowly avoided a much-expected crash, peaking at 327,452 tweets per minute as a re-elected President Obama was called by news organizations around the country – including even veteran journalist Katie Couric who was given the job of social media expert during ABC’s election night broadcast.

I have been closely following the election all year as our client Attensity analyzed social media conversations about everything from the Super Tuesday primary elections (for which Attensity correctly predicted Gov. Romney as the top vote-getter), to the Presidential debates, to the most recent Election Day (for which Attensity provided Yahoo! and Bloomberg TV with real-time social analytics). In the end, Attensity found that, while the spread was much larger in social media, the candidate with the most voter support in social media won.

For this election, age demographics particularly seemed to be one of the largest dividing lines. Perhaps younger voters weren’t tuning in to watch the election results on the evening news this year (Twitter and Facebook are much more convenient), but they were watching some TV—namely the comedic satire news programs such as The Daily Show and The Colbert Report.

Making guest appearances on these shows gets viewers’ attention by meeting them on their terms. But, it wasn’t just appearing on a nightly news program that stirred so much attention and engaged so many conversations—it was the use of social media during the interviews. With hashtags on Twitter, watchers and (potential) voters were able to engage with each other in an easy, portable way. In fact, 39 percent of US adults have engaged in political activity on Facebook or Twitter. Additionally, research has shown that social media users in the US are six times more likely to go to a political convention, three times more likely to influence other voters and two times more likely to actually vote.

That sort of potential offers a clear lesson to make sure your business or client is where the people are: online! Make a point to be engaged on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites.

As the election comes to a close, the politicians who did best in social media are the ones personally invested in a digital strategy that was integrated into all aspects of their campaigns. For instance, the time the largest number of people were engaging on Facebook was during prime time TV viewing hours, and the smartest campaigns ran their ads then on TV and also on Facebook. That way a constituent might have seen a commercial on TV and had that message reinforced with a Facebook ad that told them which of their friends support that candidate.

The benefits of harnessing this kind of knowledge in social media extend well beyond politics into any client’s industry.

At the moment, the number of active Facebook users of voting age is about 150 million, and they each have an average of 130 friends—so there is a gigantic potential for people’s opinion to be swayed. While the numbers may not be quite as astronomical for your business or client, the opportunity to build your brand and target potential customers is certainly there.

Jordan Hubert can be reached at Follow Jordan on Twitter @jahubert.

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‘Tis the Season for Logo & Site Redesigns!

Apparently, since Halloween is approaching, many large companies are replacing the “costumes” they’ve used for years with new ones.

Microsoft recently unveiled its new logo and accordingly updated its site – all in preparation for a long line of Windows products being released, from Internet Explorer 10, to Xbox Music, to Windows 8 (the last of which Computerworld dubbed the “most ambitious project that Microsoft has ever undertaken”).

Yet, for as ambitious as these new products are, it’s hard to believe how staid the new logo and identity system appear. Unlike 99% of companies, Microsoft has to reach billions of current customers and potential new ones, so the task isn’t easy. And not everyone agrees that the new four-panel color square passes the test.

Blogger Chris Matyszczyk puts it best: “You’re always supposed to notice when your lover has had her hair done… yet as Microsoft unveiled its new logo, one had the feeling that the company had been to the hairdresser, and then merely asked for a trim.” At a bare minimum, the team that designed the current logo for Microsoft’s Surface tablet should have fought harder to elevate that image to corporate status.

Wendy’s, too, underwent a recent tweak – in this case, for the first time since 1983! The makeover comes as the chain looks to redefine itself in the face of intensifying competition from the likes of Panera and Chipotle, which are seen as a step up from traditional fast food.

The new logo also signals the upcoming rollout of renovations to Wendy’s outdated restaurants with a look that features natural lighting, flat-screen TVs and a variety of seating options, including cushy chairs in nooks.

Also joining the recent revamp trend is eBay, as the company is pulling its old clunky site into the modern age with a major redesign and new features inspired by its buzzier tech rivals.

The overall look is cleaner and simpler and, like Wendy’s, conveys what a redesigned site and logo are supposed to do: there are clearly changes coming to the stores/products, and this new look reinforces that. Microsoft’s came up short in this respect, in that you’re not supposed to merely notice.

In Sterling’s integrated communications projects — including identity systems, websites, and user experience testing — there are a few do’s and don’ts worth considering when redesigning an online experience:

  • Change the Look, But Watch Your Step
    • When a site has an established audience, changing the design too drastically can cause confusion for returning visitors. Some may think they’ve arrived at the wrong site. If the logo is strong enough, it can probably carry the transition by itself. Otherwise, look to the old site for whichever visual elements became the brand of the site.
  • Avoid Losing Search Engine Rankings
    • Make sure you don’t lose any of your old site’s title tags or meta descriptions. More importantly, if you change the title structure or content layout, be sure to include redirects in your htaccess file. And always check your 301 redirects.
  • Back Up Everything
    • Nobody likes losing content. You end up feeling like the Germans at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So, back up your files and databases often. When working on a site, keep a local repository under version control. Have the latest version backed up offsite. Whether you use FTP, cPanel, or a WordPress plugin, or a command line, back up early and often and test the backups once in a while to make sure they still work.

Jordan Hubert can be reached at Follow Jordan on Twitter @jahubert.

Photo credit: leapgo