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Content Marketing: It’s Getting Personal!

“Can you send me a brochure?” said nobody in 2015.

Static, print-driven content marketing is in its death throes. It is stiff, passive, one-dimensional.  It is literally and figuratively flat.  Taking its place is a rich crop of highly innovative, highly personalised content marketing strategies and tactics. What’s driving this content marketing evolution?  The buyer, of course.

The customer journey has changed in massive ways.

It is more digital, more research-driven, and more social than ever. Buyers are still using content to inform their digitally driven purchasing decisions, but it’s not the content of yesterday. As Jeremy Bevan, Vice President of Marketing for Cisco’s EMEAR region, explains in a recent blog post on content marketing: “Marketing has always featured content.  But what we have all woken up to is the fact that content must be authentic, relevant to your audience, and human if it is to stand any chance of being conversational.”

Marketers are cutting through the content clutter.

To help buyers through the journey – and to spark conversations along the way –marketers are developing new forms of content marketing that are dynamic and personalised. They’re highly visual. They’re fun and humorous. What’s more, many of them are not even created solely by the marketing organisation.

What’s hot in content marketing?

Let’s take a look at the new kids on the content block…

1. User generated content (UGC)

UGC is content that’s created by consumers or end users and is publically available to others consumers and end users.  It can take many forms – from photos and videos to reviews and forum posts.  A recent study by Ipsos MediaCT found that millennials are spending 30 percent of their media time engaging with UGC.  The study also found that this type of content is 50 percent more trusted and 35 percent more memorable than other types of media.

Two great examples of UGC are Cisco’s “Office of Life” and “Wish You Were Here” campaigns. Office of Life (#officeoflife) features people’s takes on weird and wonderful places to work outside of the office.

office of life

Wish You Were Here (#WYWH2015) is driven by salespeople who are competing for a trip to the Seychelles. Both campaigns harness the immense power of users to create original content to fuel marketing campaigns.


UGC is a great option for adding an element of fun to your content marketing. Don’t underestimate the power of fun: if it gets your customer’s attention, they’re more likely to engage with your company.

2. Employee-shared content

In my blog on employee advocacy (Employee Advocacy: Marketing Engine of the Future?) I mentioned that employees’ social posts generate 8X more engagement than posts from their employer.  That’s because people are increasingly influenced by other people, not by corporations.  So put your employees front and centre and let them shine!

Cisco has done just that in its “I Chose Cisco” campaign (#ichosecisco) which features photos and videos from Cisco employees explaining why Cisco is a great place to work.

I chose Cisco

The campaign enables recruiting to reach its audience on a personal level. Cisco is a B2B company but in the end, we’re really a human to human (H2H) company made up of people who are talking to other people.

3. Hyper local content

In the old world, content was created at the corporate marketing level and pushed to the regions to translate and distribute. Today, locally created content is rising in importance.  Why? People living and working in a particular geography have the deepest insight into the wants and needs of others in the geography.

Case in point:  A series of videos produced by Cisco’s UK and Ireland marketing team (@ciscoUKI) that were inspired by the Rugby World Cup.  These videos were a huge hit because they capitalized on a local event that was highly relevant to people in the region.

Naked Man

Hyperlocal content works particularly well on social and mobile platforms.  But keep in mind that it can be tricky to create.  You’ll still need guidance from corporate marketing on messaging and creative frameworks. You’ll also need a local team that has the right combination of subject matter expertise, writing skills, and publishing experience.  But if you can get it right you’ll raise the content marketing roof in terms of engagement, relevance, and fun.

4. Content with personality

All the forms of content I mention above share a common thread:  they have personality.  However, savvy marketers are pushing the envelope even further by using content marketing techniques that speak personally to their buyers.  Check out this exchange between LauraEllen, Kit Kat, and Oreo.

Oreo and kit kat

What would you rather see?  An advertisement for Kit Kats and Oreos?  Or a fun, real-time conversation among these companies and one of their biggest fans?  Me too.

Knowing what makes your audience tick is critical to developing content that they respond to. This is true no matter what your business or industry – whether you’re B2B or B2C, selling products or services, supply chain software or spaghetti sauce.  Case in point:  A blog post from SnapApp, “6 Boring Companies Making Amazing Content,” showcases content marketing campaigns from less-than-sexy companies like McKinsey and General Electric.  If they can do it, so can you.

So it’s time to step up. Give consumers and employees a voice. Get out of the traditional marketing comfort zone. I know it feels risky, but the pay-off is huge. If you demonstrate that you “get” your buyers, and enable them to interact with you in real-time ways you are one step closer to having long-time loyal customers.

Are you using more personalised content marketing approaches to make a bigger impact with your audiences?  I’d love to hear your stories!

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Designing a New Home Page: How Hard Could This Be?

There’s a myth that home pages no longer matter. Here’s the thinking: Most companies and organizations find their digital traffic is now fragmented by their mobile apps, their social presence, and, of course, among hundreds of lower level “side door” pages that visitors find easily via search engines. Why bother with the home page when people are interacting digitally via all those other venues?

But in fact, home pages do still matter – they matter a lot! They matter because they’re still the front door and primary impression that Customers, potential new Customers, Partners, and others have of you digitally. And, as you might know from previous posts, 70-90% of interactions happen digitally before a potential new customer contacts your sales team or Partners. Not only that, but if the home page is getting even 10% of your visits (and in our case it’s a lot more), it’s a high-traffic destination that demands your ongoing attention.

With those things in mind, about six months ago we launched a newly redesigned home page. It was a pretty different design than its predecessor, and yet retained the elements we knew were working well. It’s a fitting time to look back at how we did it, savor the results, and see how the lessons apply to digital design projects in general.

A Quick Flyover

Just as a reminder, here were the elements of the home page this summer, slightly after launch. (These pictures will also give you some of the terminology we use to describe the elements of the page – bet you didn’t know home pages have their own secret language!)

Home1 Home2 Home3 Home4

Oh, and you might remember the previous home page, which worked OK but definitely had some constraints:


Really, How Hard Could This Be?

There’s often an assumption outside of digital teams that projects like a new home page can be essentially a “paint by numbers” exercise. Those of us in design and customer experience teams in every company have certainly all heard the advice of “well, just look at the coolest stuff from everybody else and copy it!”

While it’s important to stay abreast of trends and know best practices, for a couple of reasons the “just copy something cool” approach doesn’t work very well. First, it isn’t aligned to your business objectives: The thing that works for another site – especially outside of your industry or domain – may not work at all for you. Secondly, you may be copying junk DNA: I know of many instances where an industry leader is experimenting with a design that turns out to have (secretly) failed miserably; while that company is busy scrambling with a working alternative, everyone else on the Internet has copied their failed idea and is busy implementing it with gusto.

So, to do a digital project like this right, you need at least three things:

  1. You need clear business objectives
  2. You need to understand your customers and users
  3. You need your major contributors involved

If you have these things and do them within the context of Lean / Agile development, your project will move quickly.

Key Objectives / The Digital Brief

At Cisco, we wrap up the first two business and user items above – and a lot more – into something we call the Digital Brief. This “brief” is in PowerPoint form, and articulates key information about digital projects. Items include:

  • Business objectives and KPIs
  • Key personas and audiences
  • Key user objectives and top tasks
  • Key issues / challenges
  • Current metrics
  • Current state usability
  • Content audit, SEO (search) optimization, etc
  • Competitive trends
  • Global, social, mobile requirements
  • Personalization and targeting requirements
  • Project information such as stakeholders, team members, desired timelines, etc

In the case of the business objectives and KPIs, we outlined the information in a simple table  that became a touchstone for the project:

Business Objective High-level Strategy Metric*
1. Boost engagement Enable ongoing conversation about trends, products, technologies via social channels, news and personalized content Increased click-through rate

Lower bounce rate

(comparing pre vs. post-launch)

2. Accelerate top tasks


Support and streamline customer and partner top tasks

Higher Task Performance scores
3. Support increased revenue


Focus on product, demand generation Contribution to leads
4. Showcase Cisco as an innovator


Dazzle the world with the Cisco story. Embody the new brand identity (visual, content, competitive). Engagement, positive feedback
5. Deliver a great experience across devices and regions Focus on performance, mobile access, global experience Coverage on mobile devices

High page performance




Note that we have a * on the metrics targets, because at the very beginning they were directional rather than specific targets.

For current metrics, we looked closely at bounce rates, engagement rates, heatmaps of the most popular hot spots of the home page (navigation elements were 96+% in the old design, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing except it meant users weren’t engaging with the home page very much), and percentage of traffic from the home page over time. The engagement rates (to simplify, think of these as inverse of the bounce rate) were below 50% and that was a key number we wanted to boost.

To understand behavior on the home page, we incorporated key findings from earlier usability tests, customer interviews, analyst insights, and top site searches.

And yes, once we understood the objectives of our project, we did that “see what everyone else is doing” part of the project. Except that we called it a “best practices analysis” and was a pretty detailed examination of 60 different home pages and sites from a wide range of companies. We analyzed these not simply by what seemed “cool,” but more importantly through the lens of how their design elements might map to our similar business objectives.


Beyond the key business objectives, we also had specific additional sub-objectives which are too lengthy to review but included details around global readiness, SEO/Search, brand, and more. And, we did look at design and stylistic trends:


Kicking Off the Project

It’s advisable to have a team kick-off meeting, where you create a shared vision project and begin solidifying how to achieve that vision. In this workshop for the home page, we:

  • Reviewed the Digital Brief (both as homework and during the meeting)
  • Refined objectives (customer, partner, & Cisco)
  • Mapped objectives to strategy & metrics
  • Identified potential constraints
  • Began ideation by sketching (what the designs might look and behave like)
  • Set the foundation for a formal commitment to do the project


Workshop Scene

As you can see from this picture of one of our workshops, a lot of ideas get generated, and one of the advantages of doing Lean development is that even if not all the good ideas can get implemented immediately, you have a good pipeline of ideas to test for months after launch.

Sketching at the Workshop

One of the quickest and most effective approaches is to use sketching (yes, with markers and paper) to generate ideas and capture them into potential designs. If you’re not a designer, this may sound daunting, but it’s actually very easy to do; some of the best sketching ideas I’ve seen come from non-designers like engineers and back-line support teams.

In our Home Page workshop, we took the different objectives of the home page, and had small teams of 2-4 people sketch out their “ideal” home page design for meeting that one focused objective.  The idea wasn’t to arrive at final designs here, but to generate ideas that could later be mined and combined.


Designs Drive The Project

Even though we hadn’t settled on absolute final designs, we were able to take digitized versions of the sketches and use them as props to drive technical conversations about what we needed. Here’s an example showing  an early sketch we used to call out some technical requirements such as “mobile first responsive” design; the concept of flexible blades; of a top task blade; the concept of different experiences for Partners, Customers, and other audiences; the need for flexible layouts; etc.

Tech Requirements

This wasn’t the final design by any means, but it gave us principles to start with quickly.

As we solidified the first designs, we were able to leverage the notion of blades  to split development between agile teams. This gave us a lot of quick traction.

Wireframes, Prototyping and Iterative Usability Testing

There’s something of a disdain for wireframes these days, but we found it very useful to turn the sketch ideas into wireframes that we could use to guide conversations internally. These were also very helpful for our visual design team as starting off points.


Somewhat in parallel, we developed Bootstrap-based prototypes of two competing designs, which were used both in usability testing and also to help assist in conversations with the technical teams. (For complex reasons, the actual final code used on the live home page is different from what we used in the prototypes, but the prototypes were still immensely helpful.)

Rapid Prototyping 1 Rapid Prototyping 2

The usability tests helped us understand quickly which elements of the designs would work best. Not surprisingly, some elements from both designs shone brightly.

On the desktop designs, a task-oriented version (left) performed more strongly than an alternative “storytelling” design (right), but users did like the idea of featured products that they saw in the storytelling version (right).

Home A B Collapsed

As with the “desktop” home page design, two competing responsive mobile versions were tested, and here even more strongly the design that led with tasks (left) won over the one that led with a story.  Here’s one of the mobile task-oriented designs, focused on tasks:

Phone Tasks Version 1

In a later rev, we learned that on phones, the tasks were just as obvious as links and didn’t require the space-eating icons, so we went with simple links in the final tests and that design was quite successful.

Phone Tasks Version 2

By the way, though all this testing sounds time-consuming, we used a variety of remote self-service and facilitated testing mechanisms I’ve mentioned previously in order to get insights back in as little as a day or two.

Content is King

Just looking at the new designs, you can imagine they required a totally fresh approach to content, which is a story all on its own for another time. Suffice it to say we had a ton of previous insight into the kinds of content and headlines that work (and don’t work) with our core audiences, and we built this not only into the design plans, but also standards for content.  Content is a huge subject all its own, but some things we counter-intuitive things learned from ongoing tests of previous home pages were:

  • The top spot on the page isn’t necessarily the most effective for click-thrus.  This “hero” or “marquee” area is popular with marketing teams in most companies, and does give a strong brand impression and add panache to an experience. But, just because it’s big and pretty doesn’t mean people will interact with it the most; in some cases, “banner blindness” may incline users to look past it, in fact.
  • Video is great, but not always a silver bullet. There’s a tendency to want to create videos for everything, and we found in our earlier experiments that the efficacy of the video depends (no surprise) on the relevance of the video content, as well as tightness of production and other factors.
  • For our audiences, images of people using products perform a lot better than just people alone – and in particular, better than corporate stock photography.
  • Focused content (single idea; clear connection to a solution, product, event; clear benefit) is best at leading users to their next step.
  • Geo-targeting of content (example: German events or offers promoted on the English-language central home page, for users coming from Germany) can be highly effective (but also are a lot of work to manage).

A big change coincident with the launch of the new page was adoption of a “news room” model for content, with the idea that content could and should be “always on” with frequent refreshes. Complementary to this are live feeds from Cisco blogs, which contain previously hidden gems of content and update frequently. The design also showcases Cisco tweets and news in a bigger format than the previous narrow “ticker” style.

Stakeholder Involvement

One worry in a larger organization is that there can be literally hundreds of people trying to help you in design of something like a home page.  We were on a fast timeline with laser focus, and we knew that having 100 cooks wouldn’t create the meal we wanted. And yet, we also wanted to make sure everyone knew this new design was coming, and that we had gathered some of the best ideas from across the company. So, we did dozens of interviews and demos with both executives and internal experts to both gather input and show the progress of the designs.

For each meeting, we started our overview of the project with the key objectives, which was an excellent anchoring mechanism. The objectives had been blessed by our Vice-President of Digital, and also a Digital strategy committee at Cisco, so they had weight. Having objectives defined will steer the conversation to outcomes and away from the perpetual advice people are wont to give of “just do something really cool.”

Because we started the conversations focused on outcomes, the interviews generated a number of great new ideas, and often from unexpected sources.  And, it gave our many stakeholders confidence that we were following the right approach.

Additionally, the cliche of “it takes a village” really did apply to the home page, and there continue to be a number of contributing teams from content, design, and development.


Continuous Innovation: Agile, Lean and MVP

One final important thing I’ll mention is that it helped immeasurably that we were using Lean and Agile development, and had clear definitions of two things:

North Star — a definition of where we wanted to ultimate aspirational designs to be.

Minimum Viable Product (MVP) — the definition of what would be minimally acceptable to put live as a home page in order gather usage data, get feedback from users, and innovate on success.

The  MVP allowed us to launch something relatively quickly, and add new features or adjustments every few weeks. If you’re a frequent visitor to, you may have noticed a number of evolutionary changes in features and placement of items on the page; many of the “stretch” ideas we imagined in those early sketching workshops have now come to life.


The Results

So after all of this focus, what were the results? (Note some refined descriptions in italics based on learnings as the project progressed)

Business Objective High-level Strategy Result
1. Boost engagement Include popular interactive elements (tasks, products) and enable ongoing conversation about trends, products, technologies via social channels, news and personalized content Engagement up 12% at launch and climbing

300% increase in blog, community referrals

2. Accelerate top tasks


Support and streamline customer and partner top tasks via a top task bar per audience

Heavily used at 5%+ of clicks
3. Support increased revenue


Focus on product, demand generation Initially lower but now higher after tuning location of “offers”
4. Showcase Cisco as an innovator


Dazzle the world with the Cisco story. Embody the new brand identity (visual, content, competitive). Yes!
5. Deliver a great experience across devices and regions Focus on performance, mobile access, global experience Page is longer but perceived performance is comparable to previous.

Excellent mobile compatibility.

Marty Gruhn from web analysts SiteIQ summed up right after our launch: “’s clean new design has mastered the technique of using images to generate the right emotional connections and make Cisco’s core messages stand out. The Quick Tasks banner is a stroke of brilliance and savvy use of real estate that other sites shouldn’t miss.”

Beyond Home Pages

The steps we followed for the home page apply to any important digital project. If you define your objectives, understand your users needs and journeys, and do iterative design and development via Lean UX and Agile, you’ll likely have a winning project.

Thanks to all the contributors to this project, including strategists, content mavens, designers, developers, and publishers – it was a pleasure to work on it together!

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Cool scrolling web designs in PowerPoint

Yes, I just used “cool” and “PowerPoint” in the same sentence.  In this case I think that’s justified because of a very simple trick you can do to show off long scrolling designs (like most web and mobile pages are today) in corporate PowerPoint (or Keynote, etc) presentations.

A challenge we digital design teams face is that PowerPoint and presentation software, while ubiquitous in giving talks or business presentations, is not really great for showing off most designs — especially modern, scrolling “poster-style” designs, in depth: Either the design is scrunched into a tiny, unreadable format, just so it’ll fit, or you do something wonky like use motion paths to have the design flow up the slide like an out-of-control hovercraft.

There’s a pleasant alternative, however: Use cropping and “push” transitions in PowerPoint to simulate scrolling as you’re actually flipping between slides. There’s a video demo below, but you can quickly get the idea just by looking at these still slides I pulled from an actual PowerPoint deck about the Unified Access Solution page:

Slide2 Slide3 Slide4 Slide5Slide6 Slide7

Now, here’s a video of what it looks like in practice and how to build scrolling slides in PowerPoint:

You can grab this example PowerPoint file to try it yourself (click the “Download” button on the preview page to get the PowerPoint file). Enjoy!

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Some Solutions Pages

I thought I’d point out some new page designs on that should make it easier to find and understand information about solutions from Cisco. First, there’s the new main Solutions page, which is a one-stop starting point:


(Note that we’re trying out different versions of this page, so the version you see may differ slightly.)

You’ll also start to see some rich pages with extensive details on specific solutions, tying together products, services and more. A great example of this is the Cisco Unified Access solution page:


(We’ve blurred some of the content at the bottom, because it’s just available to Partners and select others. But it shows how a good design can support specific personalized and entitled views. We’ve been following this entitled approach regularly in product and solution areas, because it means we can offer extra information to specific audiences, without going the old fashioned route of building and maintaining separate microsites.)

Nice work by our design, publishing, and content teams!

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7 Simple Best Practices for Digital A/B Tests

You might know that many companies run “tests” in their web and mobile experiences, where they’ll pit one design, layout, or content set against another. It’s a way to see quickly which one works best.  For instance, you might have one page with a slick graphic at the top, vs another one with text and a form at the top, to see which one gets the best interaction and form completion. At Cisco, we’ve been doing this at a component level for a while, and have begun to do these kinds of test with whole pages on These tests help us understand which of two experiences is the easiest and most straightforward to use, and then we can apply that knowledge to our page designs in general.

But, it’s easy to over-complicate testing, which can lead sometimes to results that are hard to interpret or that generate too much data that can’t be readily analyzed.  So, I asked our team on the Digital Support Experience to give us their best practices for how to plan page vs page tests the right way. Here are some great tips from the teams:

  1. Identify your success metrics (“Overall Evaluation Criteria,” see below) at the beginning of your planning, so you can make clear the #1 thing your are optimizing for.
  2. Establish Baseline performance for the KPIs/success metrics before you start the test. (understand where you’re starting from — how were things performing before the test?)
  3. Before the experiment starts, state what will happen if the test a) succeeds, b) is inconclusive, c) fails.
  4. Don’t do two new competing designs for A and B. A better model is to use the current design as “A” and a new design as “B” so you have a good control group.
  5. Limit the number of variables that differ between the two versions.
  6. Let the experiment run long enough to get a volume of data on the key items that will yield statistical confidence in the result.
  7. Validate setup with an “A/A” test. The purpose of this is to check that your “system” for branching the users isn’t itself adding in a bias. (If you do a split of incoming users and you are directing them to pages that are exactly the same and you don’t get equal results, then your A/B branching system is adding bias itself.)

Overall Evaluation Criteria

“Overall Evaluation Criterion (OEC) forces you to ask the question: “what are you optimizing for?”

To do it right, only one OEC (think KPI) should be specified for your test. The reason for just one criterion is that multiple criteria can lead to muddy results. Version A improved KPI #1 but version B improved KPI #2 so which one was better? Therefore, it’s crucial to to specify one and only one KPI and optimize for that.

And, an Ultra-Tip

Perhaps the top tip of all is to improve your designs, content, and journeys based on the tests that you run. And, if you don’t understand why a particular experience is performing in a certain way, it’s probably time to supplement your A/B testing with some observational usability tests, so you can watch users interact with (and comment on) the experience they’re having. Test similar experiences on other sites, too, and you’ll a fuller picture.

What Do You Think?

Have you been running A/B and other kinds of tests on your digital experiences? What tips would you offer to your colleagues?

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