Now that the storm clouds and flash floods of the Internet community’s watershed years have subsided, the newly emerging Seattle Web scene could be painted with a rainbow of colors instead of just the local emerald green. Hot local Web shops like ZAAZ, Pop!, RedCell and Smashing Ideas are doing a majority of their business outside the greenbelt, while newcomers like SBI.Razorfish, which hails from Salt Lake City, have made Seattle a strategic outpost on the rim, if not the hub, of the corporate wheel. Like the Internet itself, most agencies’ client portfolios are a linked montage of sites and success stories that connect around the nation and the globe.
In the case of SBI.Razorfish, the interactive agency has come to know Seattle both outside-in and inside-out, making itself comfortably at home here, and doing landmark work for Microsoft, Safeco and Washington Mutual, all hallmark northwest accounts.
Karen Hamilton, who oversees SBI.Razorfish’s western offices in L.A., SFO, and Portland, does so from Seattle, the second biggest office after the Bay area (with about 80 employees and 20 open job reqs right now in Bellevue-Factoria) in the SBI.Razorfish network. She’s been a Seattleite for 18 years beginning with IBM, SystemHouse, and then as an Executive Vice President at Lante, helping to take that business through an IPO. When SBI acquired Lante, Ms. Hamilton decided to stay on, also as EVP.
In January of 2003, SBI merged with Razorfish creating a full-service interactive agency capability that has proven itself as one of the most successful models in online marketing. It’s been a lesson in integrated marketing services and client-centric solution-finding, something Ms. Hamilton is happy to share, both in her volunteer role on the e-business advisory board at the UW, and right here and now with Seattle24x7 readers.
Seattle24x7: The merger between SBI and Razorfish dotted the “i” in your interactive arsenal, capping a broad set of capabilities. How would you describe them?
Hamilton: We live at the intersection of marketing and technology. And we focus on doing five things very well. First is driving customer-strategy through a business plan. For example, the purpose of the plan could be to grow a client’s online sales by 20% over the next year. We”ll help them craft the strategy on how they’re going to do that. How they’re going to grow and retain their customer base. Next, we do insight-driven, user-centric design, including defining the “personas” or personalities of the people who are going to be buying or consuming the information. We have the ability to design cross-technology platforms using Java or .Net. And we integrate what we do online with other business channels helping clients to understand how to relate their brick-and-mortar with their online interface. We’ll help them determine what are the key touchpoints that will uphold the user experience that customers are expecting from the relationship and the brand. And then we measure and optimize the performance. We have an analytics offering that analyzes what’s happening once we launch the site with the users that are going to the site. It’s not about how many times this page was hit but what exactly happened on this page? Who touched which pieces, got which information and bought based on this criteria or that behavior? The methodology was born out of a huge contract we had with Visa. It’s been tremendously successful.
Seattle24x7: You place a lot of emphasis on usability?
Hamilton: We have a true belief that you can build just about anything but if your user doesn’t know how to use it then it’s going to fail. The only way to assure that it will be adopted is to design it through usability. We do a lot research that will typically involve creating user profiles. We’ll develop personas, which resemble psychographic profiles, for every type of user who utilizes the system. We want to know ‘What does your buyer, your consumer typically look like?’ ‘Are they primarily female? Are they between the ages of 30 and 45? Are they teenagers?’ We go through every different type of user that would be coming to a site or to that particular channel to consume that information. We design it through their eyes. It’s what we call the “customer experience journey.”
Seattle24x7: Your work crosses over the line, from online to offline?
Hamilton: During the ‘90s boom, companies were designing websites in silo. The sites were not integrated with other business channels – whether it was their customer support center, retail store, kiosk, catalogue, etc. What happened over the last few years is that consumers are increasingly living in a multi-channel world. They have more information available to them about product and services, and are comparison shopping across multiple channels. When you plan a vacation, you may go to a travel agency to pick up a brochure, then do Internet research, then call the airline’s 800 number to see if you can get a better price. Customers are jumping channels – offline and online. We’re telling our clients that their website is not a standalone entity. It is a business channel that needs to be tightly integrated with their other business channels, so that they don’t lose the customer to channel surfing. And, in many industries, online is becoming the preferred channel of choice for consumers to interact with your company. Whereas before, the online presence was an after-thought, leading businesses today are beginning to use online as the centerpiece for all customer interaction touch-points. It’s what we call the “integrated online channel.”
So, for Microsoft we designed all of their packaging for X-Box systems. We also designed the new packaging for the latest [Office] product suite that they just shipped out. Our approach is user-centered. Customers mandate that their experience be the same regardless of which channel they choose for the company they’re doing business with. Whether that is Microsoft or Washington Mutual or Safeco, they expect that they’re going to have a quality experience across all those different channels and a common brand. Because we can play on both sides we actually are the ones that come and can bring those two things together for them.
Seattle24x7: How important is content management in your developmental work for the Web?
Hamilton: We view content management as a key building block. In the early days of the Web, users didn’t really have an expectation that content would change. That’s not what they expect anymore. Whether it’s Intranet or Internet, it needs to be fresh, and the information needs to get out quickly. The only way to manage that well is with a content management system on the back end. Sometimes that’s a packaged application, sometimes the project may not be large enough to need a full-scale system and so its a custom solution, it varies, but a content mechanism needs to be in place.
We’ve worked with Washington Mutual for over two years and put into place their enterprise content management system. They have so many different business lines and business units. We were able to come in and put in a content management system that could support all of the business units and facilitate the ease of publishing content in a more timely way. We feel our technology skills are a differentiator compared to some of the local boutique web design shops in the Seattle area. It’s one thing to design a great website, but quite another to ensure that it’s integrated with your back-end systems and processes, works within your technology infrastructure, and captures the data you need.
Seattle24x7: What other methods are you using to work with your clients?
Hamilton: For Safeco, we brought in a new XP, or extreme programming, methodology called Agile. It’s a kind of “Pair Programming.” Our programmers are sitting shoulder to shoulder with our clients, programmers and developers and staff. They’ll work hand in hand with the team as we go through and develop the system and so the knowledge transfer happens naturally.
We’re also deploying XML solutions. For Microsoft, we built a brand management portal which manages every single brand identification they have across their entire company. That has to be fast and it has to be done with XML so they’re able to access information quickly. It’s based on managing all of the assets that the company has to manage,
Seattle24x7: You oversee several offices up and down the West Coast. How would you compare the Seattle labor market, in terms of people and lifestyle, to your other venues?
Hamilton: I think that Seattle people are very grounded. In San Francisco, there was a lot of hype and excitement back in the Silicon Valley heyday and the let-down has been hard. A lot of people were being hired very young. In Seattle, the majority of people who come out of school work for traditional companies. There were a number of start-ups here, but I think the area is also very grounded in terms of traditional companies, the Safeco’s, the Boeing’s, the Washington Mutual’s, and Microsoft’s. Add to that the venerable Professional Services companies that have been here a long time. There were a tremendous amount of small boutiques in San Francisco during the boom years. I think those employees who received their base of training in the basic fundamentals and business principles with brick and mortar companies are better prepared to manage through today’s challenging market.
Seattle24x7: How do you see the market coming back?
Hamilton: I think that in the last nine months, there’s been a resurgence of need among companies to expand their online capabilities. The need is born from having the business side of these clients say look, we’ve fallen behind in having to service our customers, they’re asking for more. Or, we’ve fallen behind in our competitive approach that we’ve taken to the marketplace online. Or, we’ve fallen behind in technology and we haven’t been able to keep up. We’re seeing a lot more really significant pieces of work, large projects and clients are expecting us to come up with the expertise and knowledgeable staff to handle where they are and where they want to go. SBI.Razorfish is coming off of an incredible year. We are very optimistic about the year ahead. Over 60% of our company’s revenues are coming out of the West which is tremendous. Interactive budgets are loosening up. Sixty-five percent of households are online, and one-quarter of them have broadband access. Many companies have let their websites go stale over the last few years, and are feeling the competitive pressure again. Businesses are realizing that the online medium has matured and, done effectively, it can drive real business value to your company. We are turning the corner, and excited by what we see.
Seattle24x7: Thanks Karen, we’ll stay in touch. [24×7]
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.