Elephant skin

We completely redesigned and rebuilt our website every month of 2011, on the premise that change in the digital world is inevitable, undeniable, and relentless and so something that we needed to be more honest about.

Ultimately it was an exercise for us to put our money where our mouth was, and demonstrate very openly that what we do is in constant flux. Who are we to tell people what they should do with their new website, when as an industry at large, we often keep ours the same for months, if not years.

Turns out, it was great fun! And even more of a lesson than we ever imagined. To start 2012 then we’ve decided to take our lessons with us and continue learning in a slightly different and perhaps more sustainable fashion. Change and sustainability, now that’s a new project. To get the ball rolling on this first month of the 2012 project, we’re sharing eleven of our favourite lessons from the 2011 project.

OneSharing via schedule

Digital distribution allows us to send and receive information 24/7. This is great in many ways, but with great power comes great responsibility, and timing was one of our main lessons from last year. The scheduled delivery of online content has a powerfully complementary effect to the scatter gun technique of streams, feeds, walls and paths.

Purely by setting ourselves a strict deadline of ‘every month’ (defined as 12pm – or as damned practically near – on the first working day of each a month) we found a rhythm that was manageable and, from what we can tell, just the right amount of noise our audience wanted from us. Although we said more last year than ever before then, the scheduled and predictable delivery struck a new chord and relationship with our audience.

TwoIdentify audiences and platforms

Through the first part of the year the project felt like it struggled a little without any clear reason why. We loved each site, but something was off. Exactly half way through though it hit us, and July was the first step towards what felt like a consistent flow. The reason for the indecision and odd feeling turned out to be because we never really identified who these sites were for, or how and where we wanted them to be consumed.

One month we played with media queries, encouraged ‘Read Later’s’ and talking to peers with the risk of alienating clients, the next, vice versa: Happy potential clients and a few scoffs from the industry. In the end a consistent voice for our agreed audience gave us the confidence we were missing.

An ongoing failing however was finding time to react to the growing expectation of mobile and tablet displays. For the sake of the project and timelines we ran that risk. For 2012 and beyond however, platform considerations look set to be as important as audience ones.

ThreeExperiment, play and learn on your own time

This was and will continue to be a big thing for us. Before 2011, we could frequently be found advising clients and friends on what they should do and what the done thing was, without clearly putting our own experiments into the public domain. Blogging and personal portfolios exist well in this area as hearts on sleeves, but those formats have never really suited the team at With.

As in point One though, we’ve found a more strictly scheduled method has given us a format we feel happy with and a space to try, succeed, fail and generally calculate risk more openly, without others getting hurt in the process!

FourSubtle top navigation bars are practically ignored by users

Over the first few months we were frequently asked if the past months site were still available online. The ability to point out the small black bar at the top of the screen with the word ‘Index’ therefore was frequently greeted with appreciation. From our point of view though this was bad as it meant the whole point of the project was being missed by a considerable number of people.

At the half way point of the year we replaced it with a fatter bar and added immediate and direct month navigation along with a more direct call to action ‘What’s this?’ link (which later became a button). Requests for the archive stopped. A tiny detail perhaps to include in the top 11 from 2011, but a perfect example of critical lessons learned. Navigation people notice = Good.

FiveDon’t hide what people clearly want to see

Another thing that’s good for people to see on your website is the thing they most expect and want to see. What that is will vary depending on your sector, but really it shouldn’t be that hard to surmise. A real world cafe: People probably want to know your opening hours and where you actually are. An online shop: How to navigate to products that are for sale and then buy them. A digital agency: Examples of, or at the very least some clear indication of, the service you actually provide.

Our May site focused too heavily on our personality and distracted from what we actually do, so while it was widely ‘liked’ it was also reported to have confused some people. To instantly remedy this in June we focused wholly, heavily and minimally on examples of ‘what we actually do’. Interestingly, while this was clearly clearer, it was also the least visited month since the start of the project. The conflicting yet intriguing story here then is that finding a balance between individual personality and clear communication is key.

SixThe medium is the message

Throughout the year we deliberately mixed our mediums when talking about and promoting the project with hope to see patterns of some sort. We began then by announcing the idea with a newspaper, followed by a tweet, which was then re-tweeted and joined kindly by further twitterings of note toward the newspaper. There after we stuck with Twitter as our single monthly announcement medium. On 5 July we sent a HTML newsletter to our mailing list, before returning to Twitter mentions and notes.

While we continue to analyse the data on all this (the content for a more quantitative forthcoming project) early qualitative findings show quite different responses to each medium, and surprisingly far more effective direct response coming from the ‘older’ media. More on all this another time for sure, but for now we remain surprised and pleased that paper and targeted email communications remain so effective.

SevenDon’t be that agency

It’s a little point, but it nice to confirm. The months we felt, and that proved, to be most successful were the ones we enjoyed the most and that represented us best. The times we tried a little to hard to be like other people, or tried to be cool, kind of fell short. We’re happiest, and coolest, when not being cool.

EightBreaking the fourth wall is fun

Glossy finish is great. We’re not saying don’t polish your work or that people should stop putting on awesome and seamless looking shows. No. Smoke and mirrors makes things fun. Occasionally breaking through the veneer however and allowing peeks behind the scenes can often add even more value to the whole.

Months where we posted warts and all photos to Flickr or ‘how it was done’ B-roll videos to Vimeo proved popular, and again, much more fun and engaging on the whole. Furthermore, details like these tend to last longer, and if marked up correctly, they they can exist to cause links back that otherwise would never have occurred.

NinePeople want more

“Nice, I like it, what are you doing next month?”. We heard this more than any other response. No pause. No time for reflection. Just instant MOAR. And while this reaction is arguably self inflicted after announcing a ‘change is constant’ mantra, it felt a little more than that and so very interesting to witness so frequently.

The turnover in digital is fast, this relentless change thing is for real, but people have actually adapted. Taking part in the whirlwind ecosystem of blog fodder, tweet memes and social media trends therefore is like stepping into the arena. Another nod to the benefit of our first point – scheduling – finding ways to sustain your practice and become more than a one trick pony.

TenChange. Check ✔

To reiterate as above, ‘this relentless change thing is for real’. Sure it was obvious that things were changing before 2011, we’re not saying we invented change last year, but the pace of it and the challenges that all businesses face in keeping up are more scary and exciting that we had ever imagined.

ElevenAssociates are essential

Last, and by no means least, our biggest and most enjoyable lesson from 2011 was re-realising the importance of our associates. The more people we involved, the better things got. It seems silly that this should list as a lesson from last year when the concept – as our name suggests – was the core philosophy when we set up shop, but I think maybe its a little easy to forget and we allowed ourselves to get distracted.

Thank goodness then for 2011 and its ability to teach us things we already new. And for it’s ability to contradict so widely by teaching us that some things don’t change at all.

Thanks again to everyone who was involved or helped in away way with the project last year. Here’s hoping, and inviting, that we can get you involved in projects this year and beyond.