Marketing Big Shots – Interview – Ross Crooks


Ross Crooks, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer for Visage shares what they’re doing with their new content creation tool and his wider view of content marketing trends.  Good conversation, thanks Ross for spending a few minutes.  Full transcript of the conversation is below.

Chris:              I’m here with Ross Brooks.   Ross, what’s your title with Visage?

Ross:              I am the co-founder and our chief creative officer, so I oversee product and design.

Chris:              Okay. I thought it’d be interesting just to spend some time learning more about what you do at Visage. Full disclosure, we’re actually using the Visage tool and early stages, really liking it and getting a lot of value out of it. Thought it would be great to to get Ross on the phone and talk a little bit more about what they’re doing with Visage and some of his insights on the content marketing space. Maybe a good place to start, Ross, is just give us the elevator pitch on Visage.

Ross:              Visage is a design tool that enables marketers and communication people to create beautiful on-brand visual content quickly and easily. Essentially, what we’re looking to do is kind of capture a brand unique visual element, so their fonts and their color palettes and their unique style within the platform to make it really easy to stay consistent with all the contents they’re creating, and to be able to do that without having to pull design resources from other parts of the company.

Chris:              Sounds great. That’s a good tight elevator pitch. What’s the profile of the kinds of customers that are using the tool now, whether it’s industry or maybe what’s the typical team looks like that may be using the tool?

Ross:              We don’t see a whole lot of trends in terms of specific industries. People are kind of adopting content marketing all over the map and finding value in communicating their original editorial insights.

As far as the users, it’s mostly in the marketing department or the communications department, so the people that are generally commissioned in creating a lot of visual content, whether that be social media manager that’s responsible for publishing and wants to make sure that every post is eye-catching and as attractive as possible, or whether that’s writers or even designers using the tool to create content more quickly for their blog, email newsletters, that kind of stuff. Maybe even some reports and things like that that they publish, we see pretty frequently.

The general positions are social media manager, marketing manager, communications team, those types of people.

Chris:              Are you seeing any kinds of patterns within that? I know with the tool and for those that are listening that aren’t familiar with the tool, it’s a great tool and allows you to create charts and infographics and other things. What are you seeing in terms of patterns? Are people leaning more toward kind of chart-type infographics? Are people doing more image with quotes sorts of things? What kind of trends are you seeing in terms of how people are actually using the tool?

Ross:              For a little bit of context, the main content types that can be created within this tool right now are focused primarily on micro content at this stage, so that would be very short-form things. It could be included in the social post or embedded within a blog article or newsletter that would just kind of complement a visual appeal and context to whatever the text elements are, and the content types that we’re focused on it right now are really simple chart creators, so people can express original data insights, or found data insights from whatever research study that they’re looking at, and then kind of editorialize that.

Then there’s also a really simple kind of text graphic creator where you could overlay a nice typographic quote on top of a filtered image, or it could be just a customer testimonial, or some sort of … Any sort of text treatment on top of the photos. We’ll be expanding that over time to increase more layouts and more content types.

In terms of trends, it kind of seems like people are in one of two camps. They’re really either coming because … What we try to create is something that really is simple to create charts, so my background is with an agency called Column Five, which we started about 6-1/2 years ago, and we were one of the first companies that started creating infographics for marketing purposes. Having kind of pioneered that format and that use of infographics, we find that communicating original data is a really powerful tool for any marketing content, so that’s why our creation tool was one of our first content solutions.

What we’ve sought to do is, we kind of understand the profile of the marketer much different than that of the analyst or the researcher that’s dealing with data and data analysis all day long, in that a lot of marketers are not extremely data literate. They kind of read their analytics and that sort of thing, but in terms of slicing and finding the original insight and then knowing how to visualize that correctly, that still hasn’t fully evolved in a lot of marketers yet, so our goal is really to kind of improve the marketers data literacy and enable them and empower them to create that content pretty quickly and easily.

Education is a big part of that in being able to educate them on what are different data structures in the simplest way, and what chart type is best for those things, and what are the best practices around creating those things? We sought to kind of include that within the app and to make that process really simple and straightforward, because most database tools or chart creation tools can get quite complex very quickly, so we try to keep that really simple.

We’re seeing a lot of adoption in that because it’s kind of made it a thing that’s been out of reach for a lot of people really straightforward and simple and fast to create.

Chris:              Do you think that some marketers, and you touched on this kind of data literacy issue, do you think that marketers aren’t as data literate? Or do you think that they just don’t really have the design savvy to understand how to extract the most meaningful visual strategy on top of data?

Ross:              I think that’s true. There’s an intersection of those two challenges, which is there’s finding that insight and then there’s blogging it in a way that’s not only accurate but also compelling. I think that there is a difference between the analysis portion, which I think marketers are fairly savvy at, with being able to kind of identify trends and identify an interesting story, but the visualization of that has typically lay somewhere outside of their core responsibilities, but we are hearing from a lot of people that the education, like the tips and things that are within the app, are some of the most valuable things to them, because they’re not quite sure what chart type to use or what best practices are for each chart type. That is something that we’re hearing a fair amount.

Chris:              You guys have done a really nice job with that, actually. I know just from using the tool myself, that’s been super helpful. Another thing that isn’t in the tool yet, and maybe it’s not appropriate to ask, but I’m curious if you have any ideas or suggestions on kind of volume and frequency? That’s a question that we get often is, there’s this almost kind of compulsion now for marketers to be feeding the content beast and just constantly cranking out this huge volume of material, and that’s a huge challenge. I’m just curious that what you’re seeing in terms of a pattern for how people are approaching this kind of volume and frequency issue.

Ross:              It’s interesting, and it’s certainly a challenge that’s kind of facing everyone which is, it really is kind of the more the better stage, but I think I would also qualify that with the fact that creating content that’s not original or kind of syndicating or re-blogging content, it has a diminishing return. I do think that quest for higher volume, higher frequency, also has to be balanced by making sure that your content is meaningful and that it’s interesting and that it actually is going to have an impact; otherwise, people are going to tune out.

That’s kind of one of the things that we’re really preaching heavily, and what I think is so interesting about the opportunity for data individualization is that your internal data, your internal insights that come from that data, the portions of that that can be internalized really is marketing bold because you’re able to tell a story that no one else has, and that obviously establishes your leadership in the industry if you’re able to communicate that well versus using the same Nielsen or Gartner few studies that relates to your industry that everyone else in your industry is also putting out and putting their original spin on it, so being able to kind of identify those original insights is really valuable.

The challenge, as you stated, is it’s not easy to come up with those sort of interesting stories that are really high volume. That’s kind of what I think has to be the connection between kind of the analyst, the data analysis department that’s typically feeding business strategy, but that should also be feeding the marketing department with those original insights, and I think that’s how you can start solving the volume problem.

In terms of the use that we’re seeing in the app, for some of those original data stories, it seems like the frequency for kind of our core base of active users is somewhere between every 3 to 8 days, someone’s coming back in and creating something new with fresh data.

Chris:              That’s great. Maybe grossly over-simplifying, but roughly on average once a week kind of posting with that?

Ross:              Yeah, that’s kind of what we’re seeing, and I think that’s kind of what we’re pinning our value to. I think if someone can come in and we can make that process easy once a week, then I think we have a pretty valuable product. I hope that we’re able to increase that as we add more content types and [inaudible] the app, increase it, I think that they can use it for more things to create different types of content, I think it would be a more valuable tool and used more frequently.

Chris:              I know everyone’s always looking for the content silver bullet. What’s the one piece of content that’s going to be completely game-changing, or really take off? Are you seeing anything within your client base that’s really breaking through? Maybe there isn’t anything that’s really heads above everything else, but are you seeing anything, any particular application or style of content that’s being created through the tool that’s really taken off?

Ross:              I don’t think we’ve seen anything kind of since the initial infographic way in terms of just a format that’s really blowing up. I mean, I think that in customer marketing in general, obviously there’s some trends, maybe even Internet content in general, but people are latching onto things like this, and they’re a little more engaging with similar activities, but I think it’s really kind of distributed to the point where it’s really about finding the format to suit the story you’re trying to tell, and I think the thing that’s … Outside of what I’ve talked to you on just about every single data insight, I think being able to combine that quantitative insight with really focusing on brand authenticity and understanding how your content aligns with your brand’s mission and purpose; being able to tie those things together both kind of the qualitative of communicating authentic and consistent and purpose-driven message with the hard quantitative kind of numerical data side of things and finding original insight in that, that can be kind of like the perfect combination of where your content marketing should be.

Chris:              That is a struggle to get all of those ingredients kind of in the right proportion into your content strategy. That’s tricky. What are you seeing with just challenges of content creation in general? I know you touched on it earlier. Is it just resource and scale? Or is it people struggling to kind of know what their story is? What are you seeing in terms of the biggest challenges people are having when they come to you?

Ross:              Quite a few things. I would say that scale is certainly an issue, and people are trying to solve that more and more by outsourcing. But as you outsource, you also get further and further from that brand authenticity and purpose, so that’s a challenge if you’re working with multiple vendors across the globes to sell your content. That can get a little bit fragmented, which can start to detract from the impact of the message.

I think a lot of it is just access to the resources to create, so once again, that’s something that people are outsourcing more, but with the various social channels, and every new one that comes out, and the pressure to kind of optimize for each of those in a unique way to create content for each of those can be a little bit overwhelming.

Usually internal … That content probably also needs to be increasingly visual in order to capture attention and to capture the unique brand style, and designer resources typically are better dedicated to the product or to the larger marketing initiatives, can be bothered to be pulled into creating simple images for tweets or another social post, so that’s kind of the problem that we’re looking to solve [inaudible] put tools in the hands of the people that are managing those things to be able to just create quickly and easily without having to leverage the long timelines and extents that they’re associated with custom design.

Chris:              You’re really seeing your tool … It’s in the mix, it’s an asset. It’s certainly not a replacement for anything. It’s just a complement to the way people are handling that now.

Ross:              Yeah, definitely. The way that we think about it still having content creation studio there will always be plenty of high uses for designers to create really engaging interesting custom content. We’re just kind of trying to automate some of the low end of that to remove some of the production work from that, and typically that barrier has been a little bit, that technical barrier has been a little bit to create those kinds of things, because things like the Adobe Creative Suite are fairly difficult to master and to learn for the average person that doesn’t have a design background, and kind of simplify some of those tools.

Chris:              It’s actually surprisingly hard to make things that simple, isn’t it?

Ross:              Indeed, yeah.

Chris:              What do you think … And just to kind of close things out, Ross, a little bit, what, to the extent that you can share without disclosing more than you’re comfortable, what’s next for Visage? What can we look forward to in terms of new features or new functionality? What’s coming up?

Ross:              It’s good things. In the short term, we’re focused on creating a template better optimized for specific publishing platforms to make it really easy to create original content for the areas or channels that you’re publishing in. That’s a big one.

The other is, we’ll be kind of moving toward more customization for the brand specifically, so being able to create custom templates for specific brands so that the content that they’re creating really captures that with their unique visual style, so we’ll be doing a lot more of that, that’s kind of setting … Taking branding even further and setting them up and having their visual content be completely unique.

Chris:              Fantastic. What’s kind of the next big milestone? Is there a big release scheduled? Are there any other big product milestones coming up?

Ross:              Yeah, we’re pretty fluid, actually, with our release schedule, so we have things going out multiple times a week that are live and people are using them. The last couple of weeks we just made a big push, and I just sent a big update yesterday, that launched a template, and more team collaboration, being able to get different members of the team to share that brand account with your style in there, and a few of those things, but most of the stuff we’ve kind of broken up to be pretty fluid, so we’ll just be rolling out features steadily over the next few months.

Chris:              That’s exciting. Looking forward to using some of those ourselves. Thank you, Ross, for making some time this morning, and for anyone listening, this is just a great tool. We’ve certainly had a great experience with it, and it sounds like there’s some great stuff on the road map. Thanks, Ross, very much for jumping on with me this morning, and I appreciate your time.

Ross:              Yeah, thank you, Chris. I appreciate you having me.