The allegorical house of inbound marketing we’re working on continues to progress. Now that we’ve confirmed our blueprint laid the foundation, built the structure, added a roof and installed windows, the basics are nicely covered.
Now it's time to seriously consider how it all looks. What kind of vibe do your owned and shared media channels exude? How does your logo, color scheme, and layout support your unique value proposition? How will people react on an emotional level to the branded realm that you've been working so hard to make them feel welcome in?
To continue with our construction analogy for inbound marketing, if your external impression is luxurious – you’re using imported marble, let's say – then you’ve achieved a certain type of positive curb appeal resonates with a certain type of buyer. A brick exterior may evoke less luxury but poignantly drive home a sense of timeless sturdiness that speaks to someone else.
The Importance of Branding Your Content
On the other hand, if the paint is peeling, the aluminum siding is dented or you’ve got some kind of neon orange or zebra striped thing going on, then your curb appeal is likely to plummet – or to attract prospects who are not so interesting to you. A ratty-looking, outdated or cheap external appearance generates the impression that the inside of the house is just as unappealing or tasteless, and that’s exactly the type of effect we’re trying to avoid. Raw concrete, stucco, hand-carved log beams, straw mats – each outward-facing material makes people feel differently about what they assume is inside.
Your exterior can be summed up in one word: branding. It’s not only the physical appearance; it’s the feel, the perception, the emotional reaction that your digital presence product generates.
How Branding Spreads the Love
Effective branding serves as a hook to enable your audience to feel invested in your solution without boring them with talk that’s just about you. People don’t love companies, and they don't love products. They love brands.
A brand is similar to a personality in that it’s the total of many different attributes – all of which, combined, ideally lead your prospects to feel a connection, a sense of belonging and identification with the world that is your business. This is why consistently professional, clear and attractive branding is critical to your marketing success.
Here we'll take a look at several tips for how to forge a successful online brand, thereby encouraging your audience to feel compelled to check out, explore and engage with your digital properties.
How to Establish Your Brand
Your brand is the whole that is comprised of several parts – your business name, logo, tagline, content and visual appearance. But behind the pieces that your audience sees, there must be a carefully conceived branding strategy that's based on your company’s goals, value proposition, and differentiators.
Spend some good time hammering out your company’s mission, values, and purpose. These initial, pre-branding conceptualization steps are critical because they form the basis of your brand’s identity and are the jumping-off point for all future brand development.
Next, consider the industry and environment in which you’re doing business, and what audiences expect to feel and see in these spaces. There’s always a chance that brazen convention bucking will help you to stand out in a crowd, but when you present yourself in shockingly unexpected ways, you also risk losing people to cognitive disconnect. Are you a financial institution? Then your name, colors, logo, voice, and packaging should probably be formal and conservative. Are you a wedding photographer? You then have much more flexibility and can go creative, bold, even spiritual – or serene, classic and dreamy. Determine who your ideal customer is and what’s important to him or her – create a fictional profile of your ideal customer and build your branding strategy around that person.
Your tagline needs to be short, simple, true and memorable. Something that sums up your identity makes you swivel your head and say, “Yeah! That’s us!” The right tagline takes time, deliberation, vision quests of brainstorming and often many, many rounds of edits.
Creating Your Visual Identity
With your brand vibe and tagline ready, it's time to move on to your visual representation. The old quip “Don’t judge a book by its cover” made its way into our culture because – let’s face it – we do judge a book by its cover, both literally and figuratively. We generate an initial impression of books, houses, potential life partners, packs of gum – everything, basically – by appearance first. It's just how the human brain is wired. If we react positively to the external appearance – if it looks valuable, useful, fun or otherwise attractive to us – then we're far more powerfully compelled to investigate further. If we reject the cover, we'll walk away and never find out what’s inside.
All of the visual collateral that you create must include a logo and branding colors, which should be consistent across all materials. These should include not only your logo and your website's homepage but also all of your other materials – social media presences, brochures, business cards, signage, ebooks, or other premium content like whitepapers, slide decks and infographics.
Any materials that are easily reposted by others (and, therefore, have the potential reach new audience members who aren’t yet familiar with your company) certainly deserve some branding touches.
Rolling Up Your Sleeves to Build Your Own
In years past, a business seeking to forge an effective visual identity had no choice but to hire a graphic designer or agency to produce all of these materials. The tools were expensive, difficult to master and often proprietary. Today, thankfully, there are plenty of decent, low-cost (or in some cases, free) tools and resources that enable brave non-designers to express and iterate his or her brand.
If you're going the DIY route, you might want to start by reading up on the trends and principles of branding design. There are some amazing free educational resources to help with this process, including 99u and Smashing Magazine.
Next, choose your brand's color scheme. You should have one main color that will encapsulate your identity, another for complementing the main color, plus a third tone that you'll use for high-contrast accenting, like for call-to-action buttons, for example. Awesome, free palette picker tools include Paletton and Color Hunter.
There are even some useful free web apps available for creating your own logo. While these aren't going to give you the as distinctive a visual identity as a professionally designed emblem, they can be surprisingly versatile and contemporary. To start, you can check out DesignMantic and Logo Garden.
To create more custom graphics easily and on the cheap, Canva is simply awesome. This freemium web app makes it possible to design presentations, blog graphics, social media icons, cards, photo collages, posters, invitations and business cards with a simple drag-and-drop, click-and-go, hassle-free system. With Canva's interface and libraries of fonts and stock imagery, even total newbies will find it hard to create ugly designs.
For those who are brave enough to dive in and at least attempt some proper from-scratch design, there are some amazing free tools available now that include all of the key functionalities of Photoshop and other professional-grade apps. Pixlr is one oft-cited favorite.
Crowdsourcing Your Brand
If you’re not inclined to work on your own company’s visual identity but would still like to go with a low cost, somebody-else-needs-to-handle-this-for-me option, we recommend checking out Fiverr, 99 Designs and CrowdSpring. A marketplace that specializes in $5 freelance gigs, Fiverr is the cheapest of the bunch. Many swear by this resource as a goldmine for sourcing graphics work – and pretty much any other virtual service you can imagine – for top value, but the principle that "you get what you pay for" does come into play.
A significant step up, 99 Designs and CrowdSpring are awesome, low-cost ($150 to $1,000) alternatives for those seeking professional design talent to produce everything from logos and flyers to landing pages and buttons. They both offer money back guarantees, no less.
With 99 Designs, all you do is complete a short questionnaire about your needs and style preferences (they'll even spoon feed you multiple choice options in case you can’t articulate your aesthetic vision), and then your “contest” is launched. Basically, the idea is that designers the world over will send submissions to your “design contest.” You review all the options, rate them, ask for tweaks, and select a winner within seven days. The victor receives the fee you paid, and you get the design and the copyright.
At CrowdSpring, it’s more of an auction. You determine your category (logo, website, print) and post the price you’re willing to pay (the range is generally $200 to $500). Then, designers who are interested in the project submit ideas, and you choose the right one for you, only paying for the design you select.
You Can Also Set it and Forget It
Of course, there’s also the option of turning to a full-service agency for help with branding – and many other aspects of your inbound optimization. Working with a team of experts who can take a holistic view of your marketing and ownership of each of its components is certainly a more expensive route, but plenty of businesses are adamant that the value in this approach exceeds the necessary investment.
After all, taking on these important aspects of your inbound setup while learning all of the principles at play and simultaneously making sure your business continues to operate as it ought to is easier said than done. If you try to make pizza from scratch for the first time and fail miserably, you’re likely to get over it quikly, but a house of inbound marketing may be worthy of looking at differently.
Décor Worthy of Your Home
Thanks to your good work to date, your home now has a complete structure that can weather the storms, so it’s high time you turn your focus on making it attractive to the people whom you want to take note.
You have only seconds for your content – both written and visual – to make an impression online. All of your collateral needs to shine and convey an instantly perceivable sense of value, thereby inviting your customers in to explore.
Invest the time and money now to forge a professional-grade image. It will pay dividends for many years to come.
A content and social media marketing specialist, Ben Jacobson joined the Lean Labs team in the summer of 2014. Ben has been active as a digital branding professional since the early days of social media, having overseen projects for brands including MTV, National Geographic, Zagat and Wix. His writing has appeared in Social Media Explorer, Search Engine Journal, Techwyse and the Mad Mimi Blog. Ben resides just south of the Carmel Mountain ridge in Israel with his dashing wife and two sprightly descendants.