How to Produce a Better Online Experience for Customers with Ryan Brown
Ceros is an experiential content creation platform that empowers marketers and designers to create engaging, interactive, and immersive content experiences.
Simon Dell: Welcome to the Paper Planes Marketing Podcast, Ryan Brown. How are you?
Ryan Brown: I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.
Simon Dell: And you’re currently in New York and you work for a company called Ceros, but first of all, is New York empty at the moment? Because my brother lives in Manhattan, so he lives down in Tribeca and he left the city about two months ago. Is it sort of deserted there?
Ryan Brown: No, I pulled the move just like your brother and I escaped two months ago as well. I’m just fronting as still being a New Yorker right now, but I’ve taken a huge down in Greenville, South Carolina. Long story short, I bought a house near where my family lives down here, turned it into an Airbnb, and I sold it back to my parents right before the pandemic. So, great investment strategy in my end. No one’s Airbnb-ing it, so I’m done here hanging out. It worked out pretty well for me.
Simon Dell: I was going to say I bet your parents aren’t happy with that, that you sold them that right before the pandemic.
Ryan Brown: Yeah, they’re not too pleased but they are pleased to have their son nearby so that’s a plus.
Simon Dell: There’s always a silver lining. So, explain to me. You’re the Head of Branding? I’ve completely forgotten what you’re the head of there.
Ryan Brown: No worries at all. I’m Head of Brand Strategy at Ceros.
Simon Dell: For the people listening, give us the overview of what Ceros does.
Ryan Brown: We’re an experiential content creation platform, the way I like to describe it so it’s easy for people to understand. When you’re looking to do really rich, immersive, interactive content, likely you would go hire an agency to custom-code or a developer that you work with in-house. We have a visual creation platform that allows designer to essentially build the entire thing without writing any code. So, you can build in the rich animations, interactivity, immersive elements.
So, really making that type of content scalable in a unique way. It’s not something that’s templated or driven by CMS platforms that have very rigid rules. This is like a very open canvas that allow marketers and designers to do that.
Simon Dell: Give us a little bit about the history of the company. Who is behind it? How did they think of it? What was the story behind all that?
Ryan Brown: The story is actually a merger of two different companies. Ceros was first a birth child… Our CEO came over, he ran a media agency and company in London, and as part of that agency that had worked on a special project way back when that was early stages, interactive magazine content, coming out of a publisher like they were in the media space. They came over to the US, merged with another company in the US called Crowd Fusion, which was a company that had a bit of a platform but was a big CMS company. They did TMZ.com and a couple other big media sites at the time.
And the two companies merged together in what is the modern day Ceros, but we still have some of the English roots, if you will. If you come to our office, it’s a highly experiential experience as well. We’ve got a full-blown English pub in there down to a lot of details. There’s this great film over the windows and the pub to give it that great cloudy, London feel. That’s the backstory behind the company.
Simon Dell: You jumped ahead there. I was going to ask you about the pub because I saw the pictures on the website. There must have been some messy Friday nights in that pub.
Ryan Brown: There can be. I mean, you get a lot of fresh out of school folks. I feel like I’ve aged out a little bit, so I duck out before things get too wild and crazy. But I will say, it’s been fantastic from a company morale standpoint. People hanging around at the office over beers, chatting about work with your coworkers and bonding, it’s been a really great thing for the culture.
Simon Dell: Obviously, you’ve had a fairly lengthy background, for all of those that find you on LinkedIn, in advertising and marketing. There was one role that I wanted to ask you about in your history, which was the internship at Walt Disney World. I’m desperate to know if you were inside a Mickey Mouse costume or something like that.
Ryan Brown: I was not. I was in a costume, but that’s anyone that works within the part that’s front-facing if you will. But no, sadly not in entertainment, in costume. I did their college program. This was back when I was 19 years old. I also have a background in theatre and I was super pumped to work at Disney. I worked in what they called “merchantainment”. The subtitle there was “retail as theatre”. There were events where I wore a costume and worked in the various themed retail shops. It’s now Disney Studios Walt Disney World, but it used to be MGM back at the time, and it’s all from the golden age of Hollywood. You’d find me working with various jumpers, or suspenders…
Simon Dell: Tell me what your favourite costume was. I’m dying to know what they dressed you up in.
Ryan Brown: If folks have ever been there or go there, when you walk inside the park, Sunset Boulevard is the theme of the street that you first enter on into. And as you turn to the right, they have an old 50’s-themed gas station called Oscar’s. And from that gas station, it was where they bend out different strollers and stuff.
The costume for Oscar’s was this pin-striped red white and blue jumper with some sort of cap of some sort. It was completely ridiculous but a lot of fun.
Simon Dell: I’m going to assume you really missed dressing up like that every day.
Ryan Brown: Oh yeah, totally. [laughs]
Simon Dell: That brings me around to what you do as head of brand strategy. Walt Disney, one of the iconic brands of the 20th and now the 21st century, when you work there… And obviously, that was early on in your career, what have you learned from working somewhere like that about branding and building a brand?
Ryan Brown: I’ve always loved Disney. I think the first thing that I learned is that making the magic behind the scenes is not as magical as it is front of the house. It’s like a robust logistics web of things of how they do it. I mean, this was back in 2003, ’04? And even then, we signed into a computer and it spit out a receipt. It deployed cast members all throughout the park and how they ran everything. But from a branding perspective, what attracted me there in the first place, and honestly what I still love today: Right before it closed and for my birthday, I got to go there again and experience – back at the same park that I worked at, they opened the whole new Star Wars land there. And holy cow, the theming and the new attraction that they’ve done just were incredible and mind-blowing.
That’s what inspired me to want to work there and intern there from the beginning. So from a brand perspective, what I loved so much is how intentional Disney is as a company and as a brand. Down to the trash cans, to the sidewalks… When you’re in the bathroom of the parks, they extend the universe to story. I think the best brands out there, even if you’re not going through Disney World, think in those same terms. It was really cool that immersed myself in that environment.
Now, as an intern, I didn’t get full exposure to all of it, but it was pretty interesting to just be part of the team that was bringing that experience to life to the park guests every day.
Simon Dell: I’ll never forget, and there’s a book I read a couple of years back by a couple of brothers, Dan and Chip Heath. And the book is called “The Power of Moment.” I don’t know whether you’ve read that, but it talks about Disney as one of those brands that has the capacity for you… If you go back and ask anyone about one of their most memorable brand experiences, they’ll often say to you, “That time I visited Disney.”
And the thing that Dan and Chip Heath write about is how the good thing that Disney does is it creates these spikes of amazing immersive brand experiences that often offset all the shit stuff that you don’t remember about when you were going to Disney World, like the long queues that might be there, or the fact that your hotdog wasn’t great. But the spikes, the brand spikes, those moments in the brand experience is so high that that’s what sticks in your mind.
Do you think that’s still a thing when you have gone back to Disney World recently and seen what’s happening there with the Star Wars stuff?
Ryan Brown: Yeah. I’m familiar with the book. I can’t believe I haven’t read it, but I’m pretty sure what they’re talking about or writing about there is the peak-end rule. The fact that our brains cheat, they’re always looking for a shortcut… And when we reflect upon an experience, we place an outside importance on these peak moments that you were describing, as well as the end of the experience. I often actually talk about that from conferences and events from stages, how marketers can use that in the way that Disney and others do to create those moments that stand out, that are more memorable.
But yeah, I think you’re spot-on. Half the time at Disney, if you’re waiting in the hot… If you’re in Orlando in the middle of summer, it is hot as balls there. You’re sweaty, in line, there’s a screaming kid… In any particular moment, you’re not like, “This isn’t great.” But they do such a great job creating these exceptional peaks that just stand out. They resonate with you.
One thing I do think though, and I’m curious of your take on it. You can still get some peak moments at the jinky amusement park down in your neighbourhood or whatever, but what I find to be… I don’t know if this is written about in this book, this is a theory that I have: I think Disney is able to get a multiplier on their peak-end rule because they are able to connect so holistically the experience with these little mini moments as well.
Whether it be Hidden Mickeys, little elements of the queue experience… There’s all these little things that tie back as you go around that just enhance it. I think there’s that multiplier effect for companies and brands from a marketing perspective. If you’re able to not only engine your peaks but think holistically, and you give those little touches that maybe are moments that other people would overlook or not think about, and if you catch someone, “Oh my god, they thought of that too?” Even those small moments, they stand out. I think they’re real exciting opportunities for marketers to look for those.
Simon Dell: The other interesting story I always recount to people is the reverse of this. If you provide a great experience that doesn’t have any peaks, it’s really easy for that entire great experience to be completely demolished by a single poor experience. And the example I often use is a survey I did years ago after having travelled from Brisbane to Sydney, which for those of you who don’t know, Australia is about a two-hour flight… And when you do that journey, it’s like an internal flight in North America. You’re on the plane, you’re off, you don’t really think about much.
But Virgin asked me in this survey all these questions about everything except the flight itself. None of the questions were around the point when I got on the plane from the point when I got off the plane. They didn’t care about that. And one of the questions they’d ask me was how I’d got from the airport to my hotel. In that instance, I got in a taxi and I’d been standing in the rain for an hour waiting for a taxi outside of Sydney Airport. Back then, when I did this, it was a very bad access to taxis.
It made me realise, what Virgin had realised, was you can have this fantastic experience with Virgin all through the flight, boarding, getting off, collecting your baggage, buying your ticket early on, all those kind of things. But if you spend an hour standing in the rain waiting for a taxi, and someone then asked you how was your journey, you’re going to tell them it was shit irrespective of everything else that happened.
To your point, it’s very easy to ruin a great experience if you don’t have those peaks. That’s one of my theories.
Simon Dell: I think you’re spot on, and Virgin is definitely a brand I admire. I think what Richard Branson has done in those other companies from a brand perspective is pretty incredible and phenomenal, but you’re right. I think the fact that Virgin had the perspective to do that survey, the lesson there for me, for marketers is twofold. If you are engineering the peaks, you got to be mindful of that. But two, sometimes there could be things outside of your control that you might miss if you don’t widen up your point of view.
I think that’s a really exciting opportunity for people as well. People often focus on the experience, the during. But there are so much opportunities pre and post. And to look at where are people coming from and where are they going, how they’re entering into it, how they’re leaving it, and if you have an opportunity to step in and make that an even better experience… I think by Virgin running that survey… And if you just look at the way in which they had crafted the entire experience from how you check in, to how you board the plane, during the plane experience… I think they do such a great job putting themselves into the shoes and the persona, experiencing it from what it’s actually like to go through it as their customer.
It’s so simple and so obvious, yet I feel like so many companies miss that. And it’s not even just in consumer brands, too. B2B companies need to take that same lesson and apply it as well.
Ryan Brown: Let’s turn back to Ceros. For those people who’ve looked at the website Ceros.com, there’s a lot on the website about experiential, immersive… And when you’re dealing with the brands that you’re dealing with, the marketers, and the marketing managers, and directors, and CMOs, and all those kind of things, they generally tend to understand experiential, and immersive, and all those kind of things.
Most of the people that I deal with in my business are probably at the other end of the spectrum, that SME market, 100 to 200 employees, those kind of things. I think we all understand now why it’s important, but why is it important online? Because that, I think, that’s the last place that often a lot of businesses think that they need to produce some sort of experience.
Ryan Brown: And I would say we work with many great companies, but when we first work with a company, I can say holistically, even large companies still struggle with that exact challenge what you’re speaking to. But back to something that you said earlier. I think this can help connect the dots to what you and I were talking about. I think this is applicable to any-size business.
We spend a lot of time talking about: How can you have these experiences that are going to create these peaks, or be memorable, or stand out with people? What I see when people think about their brand and their digital marketing is either: One, they might not think about experience too much. They’re just like, “I need to accomplish these marketing goals or objectives.” And two, there is a lot of talk these days around digital experience and what does that mean.
But one of my pet peeves is everyone’s trying to make something a better experience, but their definition of a better experience is… There’s a lot of more affordable tools and stuff out there nowadays, which is like, “Oh, you like cats? And I know you like cats, I’m going to show you more cat content.” That’s good and you should have a better experience, but that’s not going to be something that stands out. That doesn’t elevate to a level of an experience.
And so, in addition, in our effort to create better experiences, I think we need to strive to actually create experiences. That’s the one thing I think people need to focus on. We’re recording this now in the middle of the pandemic, which you’ve brought up beforehand. Suddenly, people’s digital experience for a while was almost their entire experience. That really played in this overlooked aspect of it, right? So when we’re all only accessing people virtually this way in company’s websites, all of a sudden, you’re like, “Wow, this is a sea of same. A lot of people are doing the same things.”
I think it’s important for small and medium sized businesses to want to craft the way in which their customers, their community, their prospects are going to engage with them and know that people are going to live and move seamlessly between physical and digital worlds today. It’s important to craft both those experiences for both of those worlds.
Simon Dell: In that case, let’s be specific. Again, I think it would help people who are listening: When you say create a great experience online, what does that really mean? And if it would help, do you have some examples of people that you’ve worked with in the past that you go, “This is where they were before and this is where they are now. This is how the experience has changed.”
Ryan Brown: I think there’s two ways that we can break it down. One is tactically: What does it look like? And what we refer to and talk about is experiential content. What I find the easiest way to explain to someone what I mean by that is by answering the question: What makes content experiential?
The bulk of businesses today, any size but certainly small and medium-sized businesses, feel very comfortable with what I would consider three different elements: the narrative of the content they’re creating, the visual aspect, whether that’s image, graphics, photos… And the third level which is integrating that with their marketing tools or other third-party things: embedding a form, a chatbot, or a widget. That is what constitutes most of digital marketing today.
There’s two other levels that I think can be brought to the creation process when thinking about content that make content more experiential. The next level is interactivity. There’s definitely a lot of people out there who will know about interactive content. But the element of interactivity allows you to do really cool things such as choose your own adventure.
Imagine this: Instead of just a list of 10 recipes for the holiday season, instead, you could have a fun choose your own adventure. Pick your kitchen god or goddess. How much time do you have? Do you need it spicy or not? And then suddenly, you can arrive at a curated recipe for you from the 10. And then you can go back and put through all the different things. Invite active participation. It’s much more memorable than experience.
And instead of most of the content before, which is linear, you start at the beginning with the text. You read through it and there’s some visuals. This allows you to create even more of a journey or use it to gamify things. The other level beyond that, which we talked about before, is this immersive level.
So, being able to build content that uses whether it be sound, animation, or motion. This is an example I always give. I’ll bring it back to the digital world but make it make sense of: What do we mean by immersive and why is that important? I was at a business event in Dubai, and I had this experience at a hotel which was the first for me at the time. I got put up thankfully, and this is a really nice hotel. I remember going up the elevator to my room, and I’ll never forget this experience. I opened the door to my room. I opened it and I stepped inside of it, and there was this grand fade of the lights in the room that just revealed this multi-level room which is gorgeous.
But as I stood in there and as soon as the lights faded, immediately after that, a giant curtain parted from the center, revealing this floor-to-ceiling panoramic window. It was like the most breathtaking view. The fade up of the lights, and the draw, and the motion the curtain gave me these goose bumps. Now, if I walked into the room, I would’ve been impressed, but that orchestration of that motion and that movement just took it to another level for me.
Bring that back to the digital space, same thing is true. If you’re trying to tell a story as a company, or a brand, or bringing to life your product, whatever it might be, you can use that same element of immersing people with creating an environment where things are moving, things are animating on, they’re fading in, they’re dissolving, you can set an environment on these phones and devices that can come to life more than the static PDF. You also have the ability to get people to directly click and engage with it.
Long-winded answer, but trying to help people understand: There’s so much more to the content that you can be creating. It’s giving them to start adding in those two elements: What can I do with interactivity and what can I do with immersive elements when I approach creating content?
Ryan Brown: We work with a Brisbane-based company last couple of years called Dreamfarm. They make kitchen utensils and they’re a global company now. They sell a lot in American retail stores. They sell a lot online. They sell a lot through Amazon, et cetera. They always do every year on their website, which is an e-commerce website, this little thing around Easter, a little gamification, called “Find Walter Wabbit”.
It’s a little cartoon rabbit that they bring out in Easter that literally hides in the website. I think there’s a plugin that hides the rabbit around the website. And of course, then they announced that to all their customers and said, “If you find the rabbit, there’s a special gift there for you.” A lot of customers spent hours on this website trying to find this bloody rabbit. And it’s a hugely-successful one. People look forward to it every year to see if they can find where the rabbit is going to be, what the rabbit looks like this year, and all those kind of things.
Obviously, the knock-on effect is it grows their sales. Fantastic brand that they have. Fantastic piece of innovation. They carry that kind of stuff through their social media and all of their communications. They have a real personality. I guess my question from what you’ve said and using them as an example: Back to the small business example, where would you suggest that people invest that time and effort? If they want to produce something immersive, where would they do that on their website?
Because they may not have the budget to do the whole website, so what would be an easy quick win for them?
Ryan Brown: I think first, the other half of it is the mindset. We talked about this before: putting yourself into the shoes of people. But there’s a lot of platforms out there today that allow you to start dabbling with this. There are cost-effective tools and platforms out there to create different interactive content, whether it be polls and quizzes. That’s some low-hanging fruit, but it’s a great start. And so, I think for small and medium-sized businesses, let’s say they are blogging.
And in addition to a text-driven blogging approach, there are tools out there that they could build into, things that will allow them to gamify it or add some polls and stuff to it, and make it go from just a passive experience to actively inviting the readers of their blog to participate. Also, there’s other content, tools and stuff out there that might make data visualisation a little bit more interesting and animation. Something that they do is if they do have access to a designer, subtle little animated gifts that you can create in Photoshop and whatnot, well-timed or placed in the content as well, can actually just give it a little more life and movement that can help make it more fun and engaging as well. That’s some low-hanging fruit.
Over time from there, being able to scale up and play deeper in those different layers.
Simon Dell: You also mentioned earlier on about how the B2B marketplace does a pretty poor job. It’s quite easy to sit there and go, “If I’m a commercial brand or a consumer brand, it’s easy to think of these ideas.” But if you’re a lawyer, or a solicitor, one of those service-based companies that isn’t that exciting, do you think it’s still applicable to them? If so, where would you look at investing for those kind of companies?
Ryan Brown: We have a ton of those clients that fit that profile, to be honest. A couple thoughts: There’s been this misconception that somehow, B2B marketing needs to be more sterile, and you’re marketing to another business but you’re still marketing to other humans. The humans that are at that business that are getting your marketing go home at night, watch Netflix, and go on experiences and go drinking on the weekend with their friends. There’s no difference for the people that work at a B2B or B2C.
Our clients that have found to have broke out from that norm… So, if you happen to find yourself in one of those industries that I would say, or you might feel if you worked there, “lagged behind”, where consumer brands are or other cooler industries, maybe tech industries, the clients that we’ve worked with who’ve broken out from that early have just seen really positive impact on increased engagement, the sales and marketing performance they’re trying to drive from it… Some simple things. People that rely heavily on whitepapers, and PDFs, and ebooks, transforming those into more of a digital experience using some of that interactivity or immersive elements has been game-busters in the impact that they can drive.
And it’s not just even top-of-the-funnel marketing. It might be engaging your current customers. It might be doing better ways to deliver whatever your business might be: a recap of the relationship, an onboarding document. They’ve just found that from engagement and retention, it just has profound impact in those same industries that you just mentioned.
Simon Dell: You obviously have been doing this for a while, but tell me some of the brands that you see out there doing this kind of thing really well.
Ryan Brown: At the digital space, I’ll be honest, I struggle a little bit because I’m still in the weeds on what our customers do. And I will say, a big part of my job is… When I go and speak at conferences, it’s a little bit of people being like, “Oh wow, what he says makes a lot of sense.” But I’ve realised that the past decade in digital marketing has become very institutionalised in the way that we think about it. One of the biggest changes in the past several years has been account-based marketing.
But getting people to take a step back from what is a prescriptive approach to the content that they create I find to be a little bit challenging, so I apologise that I struggle a bit to find examples outside of the customers that I directly work with. But I will give you one that we work with who has really impressed me as of late. They’re an ad tech company GumGum, and they’ve done some really interesting and exciting things.
Now, they’ve been working with us for the past three or so years now. And a couple different angles, they’ve just infiltrated this in the most beautiful way, experiential content throughout their entire business, but I guess two examples that I can share with you is their clients were big media companies and agencies and brands. And so, they’re big deals that they work on. And they used to spend a lot of money on creating really good ABM campaigns, the types that you buy big billboards, or you build a custom-made arcade machine and you ship it to people’s offices, really cool stuff.
But they found ways to start shifting and creating some of those really cool digital experiences in the digital space. And at first complementing it, so when they were building out these physical ABM things, they had a really cool digital component. And then they’ve been able to successfully launch some ones in digital that have been really cool as well. And the other thing I want to share about them which I just think is so cool is: They had a huge event strategy. In 2020, they were planning to purchase… The number was more than 200 events.
They so quickly pivoted from those events to creating these really interesting little online experiences in place of it. So within week 1 or 2 of everyone here in the States went into lockdown, they spun up this really fun experience which is: come gather around the campfire with the GumGum team. And it was so cute and well done in the way that it was this journey in the animations. And they hit upon this idea of: “Hey, we’re all in this new experience together. We’re all camping at home.”
And they created really cool personas for different type of people, from the night owl, to the at-home school educator to whatnot, and they paired it with really fun content, or ideas, or games, or things that you could do. And they did that so quickly and they pivoted so fast. That’s just one example I can share.
Simon Dell: Last few questions for you today: Taking a step further from that, forget about the online experience. You’re in brand strategy. What are some of the brands out there, big or small, that you buy, that you go to all the time that you think, “I love this brand. I wouldn’t buy anything else.”
Ryan Brown: It dawned on me a year or two ago, and this snuck up out of the blue. I’m not sure how familiar this might be in Australia. But one of the big major US airlines is Delta Airlines. They have just won my heart over in the past few years out of the blue. But if you look at what their strategy has been, it’s been all around focusing on the experience: from their customer loyalty, to the experience on the plane, to in their clubhouses, it’s interesting.
I think Virgin has a fantastic experience as well, and Delta has done it not as flashy, but just so focused on doing everything right and making it all work together and creating a consistent thing that just hits upon the needs that a human would want. That’s one. It’s funny, I was thinking about this the other day. And I don’t love using Apple because it’s so cliché and everyone does, but I just got a new MacBook Pro, the 13-inch one that came out. I have to tell you: When you unbox a MacBook or any Apple product, that unboxing experience is still one that is so rewarding and so exciting.
And they still do such a good job with their in-store experience. So as much as I feel like its lost a little bit of their luster, they still do an exceptional job at their entire ecosystem from digital and physical world. One other I’ll share with you is, one certainly people on this podcast probably have never heard of, but there was a gym I joined in New York City called Mark Fisher Fitness.
And it was at a time when I had taken a few years off from going to the gym for a little while. I needed to get myself back into it, but I needed a safe space. I had joined this really bougie gym at my apartment in Hell’s Kitchen when I lived there, and I was like, “Oh crap. I need to go to another gym to work out before I could go to this gym because those people are going to…”
Simon Dell: That sounds so New York. Carry on.
Ryan Brown: It’s really embarrassing to admit that, but anyways, a friend of mine was like, “Oh, have you heard of Mark Fisher Fitness?” And if you go to their website, they talk about, “Come join us! We have a ninja clubhouse of glory and dreams!” They’ve got unicorns, and rainbows, and it’s the most over-the-top thing. It was started by some former Broadway performers. And it’s the most inclusive, welcoming space. I did this summer boot camp and they have a little fire that we did there. They were serious about fitness but they were just normal humans.
And it just made an environment that was so much fun. And so, from their website to the instructors, everything that was there, it just was such a fun, inviting experience. Those are some of my examples.
Simon Dell: Every time I go to New York, that sounds exactly like something New Yorkers do: Go to one gym to prepare to go to another gym. I’m not going to forget that one for a long time. Thank you very much for your time on the show today. I really appreciate you making the time for us. Last question: If anybody wants to get a hold of you, what’s the best way of reaching out?
Ryan Brown: Absolutely. Honestly, if they can find me on LinkedIn, Ryan Brown, and I think it’s like RMBrown. Otherwise, on Twitter, @_RyanBrown_ is another way to get me as well.
Simon Dell: Okay, perfect. Mate, thank you very much for your time today and enjoy your coming weekend.
Ryan Brown: Peace, Simon. Thank you so much. This was great. I really enjoyed it.
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