With Luke Starbuck
Written by Franco Varriano.
On the last episode, we had a lovely marketing chat with Becs Rivett-Kemm on email design where advised email marketer to experiment as much as possible to improve results. We’re happy to have Luke Starbuck from Pixel Union on this week’s marketing Chat.
Luke is driving growth at Pixel Union, a design firm behind some of the world’s biggest brands online stores, including Tesla, The White House and my favorite sports team The Los Angeles Lakers. Unlike the previous chat where we focused on advice for online stores, this week’s topic is themes for ecommerce.
2. The Interview
Ned: First of all, thank you very much for joining our 💡Marketing Chat series. Before we dive into the topic, can you please introduce yourself and Pixel Union?
Luke: Sure thing, I absolutely love seeing companies grow, and have worked with ecommerce companies for over a decade. Here at Pixel Union, I lead Marketing and Growth. We’re a team of designers and developers who build exceptional digital experiences for companies and their customers. We work with ecommerce stores, platforms and other businesses.
Ned: Based on what you’ve learned so far, how are you improving themes to increase online stores’ success?
Luke: We’re always learning, which is one of the reasons why I love the field we work in. Ecommerce is still the wild-west of retail. Things change more rapidly, and thanks to working in the digital space, innovations and experiments can be done in days or weeks, not months or years. From the research we have done, we have adjusted layouts, changed where we place calls to action, and adjusted our themes to focus more on content, which consumers love to engage with.
Ned: You guys are one of the top theme designers in the ecommerce landscape. What are your keys to success?
Luke: In large part, it is because we have a team full of passionate, enthusiastic and talented people who love to challenge themselves and each other. We enjoy a very respectful culture that values critiquing, iterating and improving. Paying attention to user experience and user behavior are two cornerstones to the high quality of products we create, and we pair that with always furthering our knowledge of the ecommerce industry along with merchants’ challenges and goals, and success stories of how the best in the world are having success. We roll all of this back into our products, and this keeps them fresh, and leading the industry in terms of design and functionality.
Ned: There are many designers who hope to one day build a great agency like yours. What would be your top 3 advice to those future entrepreneurs?
Luke: Firstly, get started on projects that look like what you would like to work more on. The early days can be tough, but from personal experience I can say that whatever you’re working on right now probably is a lot like what you’ll be working on next. With that in mind, be selective with what you agree to work on.
Next, anyone running an agency needs a double-degree in customer service, and business – two things that plenty of us designers don’t have too much experience in. I find that both will go a long way when it comes to working with clients, and when working on your own business itself. Though I’d never expect someone to undertake formal education in either while building an agency, there are plenty of great resources to learn the fundamentals and it is well worth the time to learn.
Finally, clients are a wealth of information, and if you don’t learn something from a client, you’re missing out. Whether it’s something about how they run their business, the challenges they have or how they work with their customers, there’s always something to be discovered. Work to find those insights, and you’ll build a wealth of knowledge that you can use to help people.
Ned: Other than the look and feel, what are the main criterias online stores should consider before choosing a theme?
Luke: Fundamentally, it’s a question of whether a theme suits the kind of business that you run. Things like catalog size matter, as does the difference between selling your own brand or other brands. In the case of the latter, product details and names may be most important, and in the case of the former, content and brand story may be far more important than product specs. Consider these things before you think about look and feel, and your preferences for design. Before choosing, also take a survey of sites online that are offering similar products as these can tell you a lot. Look for the gap in the market, and ask the question of whether your brand could fill that gap. If so, think about how your theme can be different, in order to convey the different positioning your are wanting to project.
Ned: Pixel Union does a lot of work with some of the biggest CMS and ecommerce platforms such as: Shopify, BigCommerce, WordPress and Tumblr. What are you trying to accomplish?
Luke: With our roots deep in Tumblr’s growth story, we have focused firmly on user experience for many years now. Our goal is to empower website owners and ecommerce merchants and managers to be able to give their customers a fantastic experience, regardless of whether they have a large budget, or an in house team of designers and developers.
For these customers of ours, their is a real struggle for cashflow, and resources, and we understand that competing against the larger brands out there means appealing to customers, and satisfying their expectations. That’s hard if you’re a 5 person team, and AirBnB just updated their app and website to be even easier to use – they’re setting the bar for what people expect from you.
In creating themes for these platforms, we see a real opportunity to level-up the competitive playing field a little and give smaller merchants and emerging brands a really great chance at competing. Working so closely with these platforms also gives us a deep understanding of their roadmap, the new features that we can bring to our customers, and also how to leverage this understanding for the larger consulting projects we work on.
Ned: In a world where Pixel Union accomplishes its vision, how is the ecommerce landscape from a design standpoint?
Luke: Ultimately, we are specialists in customer experience in digital environments, the web being the largest of them. So in a world where our vision is reality, we see every customer around the world having an enjoyable, easy and engaging experience with the websites they visit, regardless of what device they are using. We see customers finding what they like, discovering new things, and forming more connected relationships with the brands the brands that serve them the best.
Ned: 2016 has been called the Year of VR and many ecommerce giants will soon leverage the technology to offer new experiences. How do you imagine theme design in a virtual reality environment?
Luke: VR is definitely a rising star, but is still very much in its infancy. At this stage, having experimented with various VR devices and virtual environments, I am comfortable saying that it has a long way to go before there are ecommerce implications. What I expect VR to edge into more rapidly is experiential content, and this is one specific area where ecommerce does need to pay attention. As more brands raise the bar for exceptional story-driven content that prefaces, surrounds and showcases their products, VR provides that next level experience in terms of 3D video (think about Red Bull sponsored livecast concerts), and location discovery (for example seeing outdoor products in the environments they are used in.
Ned: Is there a theme design hack that every online store can apply to improve their conversion rate?
Luke: Funny you ask – I am a huge proponent of mobile shopping experience, and this is an area where many themes can be fine-tuned. The go-to for increasing conversions on mobile, and on desktop to a lesser degree, is to implement some kind of sticky add-to-cart button. If the user can also see, and hit, that button at all times, they’re more likely to take that action. The split tests prove it and that’s why we’ve seen Amazon take up a sticky bar in their desktop experience recently, and why we see big brands prioritizing some of the precious mobile screen real estate for a large and persistent buy button.
Ned: To be a premium design firm, you must also be a branding master. What are your top 3 branding rules that online stores should always remember?
Luke: Firstly, the concept of needing to instantly assure your customer that they’re in the right place, in terms of having the right hallmarks and cues to show that you are a top-tier company in the category they’re shopping in. Paradoxically, once this is achieved, you need to do all you can to differentiate yourself from other brands in your category. It’s a fine balance to strike and is a little like putting down enough cash to sit at the poker table, but then playing differently enough so that you win. You need to understand the table-stakes elements that you can’t do without, and then differentiate on other things.
Secondly, brand goes beyond design, beyond product, and beyond words. Brand is a promise that you make as a company about how someone should expect you the behave. It is the personality of the company – so if you envisage one of your customers interacting with your brand, it should feel like a one-to-one experience for them, not a one-to-many. So the experience they have with customer support should match the personality of the website, as should the decisions you make about email marketing frequency, along with whether your social strategy is to be inclusive or untouchable. There’s a lot that comes into play with this, which is why it is so difficult to get right. Start with a strong vision, and strong values, and let them be expressed through everything you do.
Finally, your brand is not something you own, or control. Your brand is the overall impression your collective customer base holds in their mind. So if there’s something about their impression you don’t like, you can’t tell them that it is wrong, you need to counteract their impression to be able to sway them. Think in terms of actions, not words, and will find managing your brand to be smoother sailing.
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