Nostalgia and Other Design Trends for 2023

Originally featured in Cinctly Magazine

How do you keep your brand dynamic? Remaining relevant means evolving with your audience; subtly morphing in face and voice to keep up with the shifting digital world. It’s not about chasing every aesthetic trend, but understanding how changing consumer preferences can translate into logos, Instagram posts, and product labels.

If you want to avoid a head-spinning trip down the branding rabbit hole to find out what’s ahead, here’s a shortcut.

Nostalgia

While many decades of last century might have been coated in boring dingy browns, brand design means throwing on your rose-colored glasses and putting a vibrant twist on nostalgic elements. It’s not just swirly hypnotic fonts and psychedelic color palettes (although those are in, too), you can also expect a resurgence of the chunky fonts, bubblegum tones, and kitschy reflections of the ’90s and Y2K era.

There are plenty of brands choosing to go boldly over the top with their oldies-inspired looks. Last year, Barefoot Surf Ranch ditched its cowboy aesthetic as the team rebranded the 500-acre complex to Waco Surf, complete with a retro typeface.

While many brands that embrace nostalgia will appear in sharp contrast to the minimalism trends of recent times, it’s worth noting that the two styles don’t have to be at odds. This concept piece proves that vintage can strike a note with minimalism for a more timeless, sophisticated design.

Visual Chaos

Channeling an “anything goes” attitude, brands are inching away from simplicity and nearer to chaos as previously on-trend whitespace gets filled with visual disruptions vying for attention. This means “brutalism” is once again a buzzword. It’s a term that may call to mind an airport parking structure when used in architecture, but it relates to futuristic vibes, heavy fonts, and stark color palettes in the digital world.

Envato Senior Digital Designer Keiron Lewis confirms it, saying that anti-design is making a comeback. Anti-design was last seen in the ’90s when it was heavily associated with maximalism, bringing with it busy, bold blends; collage-style overlays; and low-res graphics. Missing pixels, mismatched colors, and the merging of contrasting font families will trickle into the mainstream by brands attempting to stand out from the “less is more” status quo.

Trendy chaos means absurdity, repetition, excess, and (yes) retro-esque elements.

Interactive Mascots

With a push towards human connection and authenticity, mascots give consumers a face and name with which to associate. Just take fast food namesame Wendy who’s been around since 1969. She never went away, but the company found a whole new way to leverage the familiar face when they created a Twitter account in 2009 ostensibly run by the mascot herself who takes to the platform to childishly share memes and roast the competition. Now, not only can consumers recognize the mascot, they can interact with it.

Mascots like Wendy come in all shapes and sizes, but a couple styles are growing more prevalent. Modern brands tend to reach for flat over 3D and illustrations reminiscent of the ‘50s and ‘60s are also making a comeback.

Walking and talking mascots can be leveraged to bring a brand’s personality to life in more mundane places outside of social media. Think 404 pages or on the underside of your packaging rather than on the front. These unexpected appearances can add a sense of whimsy to your branding and make your mascot feel that much more alive.

Illustrative Typography

With the move towards short, snappy brand names and the need to communicate a lot about them in the blink of an eye, pictographs will start to play a bigger role in design once again. In some cases, like the one below, a subtle typographic alternation is all that’s needed to imply something about the product or service.

For a more obvious effect, flat icons and images are also finding their way into logos to replace one or more letters in the company name.

Striking Colors

Strongly associating with very specific colors is known to increase brand recognition by as much as 80%. More than 9 in 10 people can identify Google just by its color palette, and almost as many can recognize McDonald’s by the same. So, using bold colors is nothing knew, but brands are beginning to shift away from entire palettes and going all-out with just one.

The resulting monochrome look makes for a stylish statement in its own right, whether it’s done with an out-of-the-box color or something subdued and classic, like this deep woodsy brown.

This technique of using a monochrome color palette can be particularly impactful in industries like health and beauty where purity is highly valued by consumers.

Embracing Culture

Gone are the days when international brands tried to localize their products to feel relatable to any given market. Today, embracing the cultural heritage behind a company’s founding can make a brand feel that much more authentic, and the foreign flair carries with it a sense of novelty (and sometimes luxury) that’s extremely appealing to modern consumers.

Even for young companies founded stateside, internationalism is proudly showcased, like by Xiao Chi Jie — a viral dumpling company founded by two Chinese Americans last year.

Textural Depth

Both digital and tactile design are seeing an uptick in the use of texture to create a sense of depth, life, and immersion.

In product packaging, texture can be created simply by knowing what to remove, with this example proving both visually appealing and functional, as it creates a window where you can see the fresh fish inside the box.

Aside from brand assets, like packaging and logos, texture can also be beautifully incorporated into other elements, like the images your brand shares on social media. For instance, thick golden honey running down Mankora’s bottles makes a bland product photo glisten while simply lifting the corner of Happy Dog’s sticker livens up the otherwise flat piece.

Making Your Name

While how your company looks, feels, and sounds is a big part of the equation, building a recognizable brand starts with having the right people behind it and meaningful goals ahead of it. Before you start sketching logos, you need to understand the story, motivations, and values that will allow you to genuinely connect with consumers. The most memorable modern brands boast authenticity and intention, and those things can’t be created in the design room.

Preparing for Google Analytics 4

Originally featured in Cinctly Magazine

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) is the biggest update to come to the platform in its 15-year history. As the internet phases out third-party cookies, GA4 is able to continue empowering website owners with valuable insights by swapping session-based data for event-based data and introducing new privacy controls. But, the switch isn’t going to happen automatically. Here’s what you need to do to prepare for GA4.

What’s Changing in GA4?

With evolving privacy regulations, Google plans to completely phase out third-party cookies by 2024 and Safari has been blocking them by default since 2020. 

The thing is, third-party cookies have been used for over 20 years and they’re mission-critical for tools like Universal Analytics (UA). By forming a trail of crumbs as users browse the web, these cookies allow businesses to target people with personalized ads and track them across sites. So, what will marketers do without them? 

Since about 80% of Google’s revenue comes from advertising fueled by third-party cookies, the company recognized the need to develop a suitable analytics alternative that can withstand changing privacy regulations and make better use of emerging technologies. After three years of development, the team rolled out GA4 in October 2020, which brings these key differences:

  • It collects both website and app data to paint a more complete picture of the customer journey
  • It uses event-based data instead of session-based data, which means every interaction will be sent to your reports as an event
  • It introduces new privacy controls like cookieless measurement, and behavioral and conversion modeling
  • It has integrated predictive capabilities that allow you to leverage machine learning without creating complicated models 
  • It directly integrates with a variety of third-party platforms to help you collect additional user data

GA4 is a big step up from UA and there’s no reason to be turning your nose up to all these improvements. But, you might struggle with switching to GA4 because it requires some legwork on your part. 

How To Prepare for GA4

It’s fair to say that switching to GA4 won’t necessarily be a seamless experience and it’s not going to happen automatically. You need to set up GA4 yourself — and it’s better to do it sooner than later. On July 1, 2023, data will no longer be collected through UA. You can wait until then to switch, but you won’t have any historical data to look at in GA4 unless you set it up now. 

If you already have Universal Analytics on your site, you can use Google’s Setup Wizard to start collecting GA4 data alongside UA until the latter is phased out. The wizard will help you create your new GA4 and give you the option of migrating your existing UA configurations for faster setup. 

If you’re not currently using UA, you’ll need to start from scratch. This means creating an Analytics account (if you don’t already have one), setting up a new GA4 property, and then configuring the data stream. You’ll then need to add the Google tag to your web pages, which you can do manually or by using Google Tag Manager

The final steps for most websites are to set up your conversions and add users. If you own an eCommerce site, you’ll need to migrate your measurements. If you’re an advertiser, you may need to import conversions. Other optional steps include linking to Google BigQuery

What’s Next? 

Setting up GA4 might not have been something you wanted on your to-do list, but your efforts will pay off. Once you have the tags in place, you’ll start seeing data in your analytics dashboard within 30 minutes and that means the hardest part is over. The next step is to familiarize yourself with the updated interface and learn how to make the most out of GA4’s powerful tools. 

How to Create a Content Distribution Strategy

Many businesses start a blog with the best intentions, pouring their time and energy into producing really great content, only to be discouraged when no one comes along to read it. The truth is, publishing content is only half the battle; you need a content distribution strategy to help you circulate it in front of your target audience.

When done right, a content distribution strategy will help you build awareness for your brand, grow a loyal following, and increase engagement across all of your channels. That’s right: Content distribution isn’t just for your blog content, it also applies to videos, podcasts, eBooks, and any other piece of content you publish online.

So, how do you go about creating a distribution plan for your brand that gets your content out in front of the right audience? Let’s dive into the discussion and I’ll give you a step-by-step walkthrough (complete with proven tips and helpful tools) to help you pull it off.

What is content distribution?

Content distribution is the process of sharing and circulating your content through various mediums. Most often, people associate content distribution with social media channels. For instance, you might share a short summary of your latest blog post on Facebook and include a link so that those interested can read it in its entirety. However, social media is just one small part of a content distribution plan.

Among other things, your content distribution strategy will involve:

Timing when and where you share your content based on your audience’s communication preferences and engagement habits.

Repurposing content across various mediums, like converting podcast highlights into a short YouTube video.

Creating highly sharable elements to accompany your content, like an infographic that sums up interesting points from your latest case study.

Developing a strategy that covers all of this might sound like a lot of work, but once you establish when, where, and how to share your content, you’ll begin to see just how much value distribution can bring to your content marketing strategy as a whole. So, let’s take a closer look.

Content Distribution vs Syndication

If you’re curious about the difference between content syndication and content distribution, here’s a quick breakdown:

Distribution means disseminating your content online, like by sharing a link on Facebook or sending a link in an email. Distribution usually means you’re only sharing a snippet or preview of the content in hopes someone will click your link to read or watch it in full.

Syndication means re-publishing your content. Press releases are often syndicated, meaning the same press release might be published by 200 different news sites. On a small scale, you can syndicate your own content by re-publishing on platforms like Medium.

In truth, content syndication is often part of a solid distribution strategy. In fact, you’re going to learn later on how I suggest using Medium (a content syndication platform) to help boost your distribution efforts. On another note, content syndication traditionally came at a cost, and that brings up another important topic: The three main types of content distribution channels.

What are the 3 types of content distribution channels?

You can easily multiply your content marketing efforts just by using a variety of channels to help get your content seen by your audience. Of course, not all distribution tactics are free to use. Here’s a look at the three types of distribution platforms available.

Owned

Owned distribution channels are those that your brand controls, meaning that you can easily publish, share, and edit your content however you see fit. Here are some examples:

• Your company’s website and blog

• Your company’s social media pages

• Your email newsletter

Without getting into semantics (e.g., the cost of hosting), you can generally publish on your owned channels at no charge and with no limits. For instance, you can post as often as you want on your Facebook page and you’re never going to have to pay a dime.

Given the low- to no-cost nature of owned channels and the sheer amount of control your brand has, owned channels tend to sit at the core of a distribution strategy. However, owned channels alone may not be enough to get your content out there to the masses, especially if your brand is just starting out and you have a limited following to work with.

Earned

Earned distribution channels are owned by another entity, but they give your brand the opportunity to reach a wider audience, so long as you can “earn” the opportunity. Here are some common examples:

• An industry publication

• A customer’s social media page

• A partner company’s blog

Earned distribution won’t cost you a cent because, just as the name implies, your brand has to earn it. However, you’ll need to be sure that your content adheres to the third-party’s guidelines and they may edit it for length, style, or format. In some cases, you’ll have no say in how your content is presented (as is the case when a customer talks about your brand).

The lack of control is certainly a downside when it comes to earned distribution. However, earning distribution from the right person can do wonders for brand authority and awareness. Plus, it’s free!

Paid

Paid distribution can rapidly eat away at your content budget, especially if you aren’t using the right targeting and segmenting tools. Still, paid distribution is a valuable part of your long-term strategy for building brand awareness and driving organic traffic to your new content. Some examples of paid distribution include:

• Social media ads

• Influencer marketing

• Sponsored articles

Paid distribution channels run the gamut from pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, which may not feel like content distribution at all, to native ads on news sites that blend in with the day’s unpaid stories. Sometimes the goal of paid distribution is to drive traffic, as with PPC advertising. Other times, the goal is to earn social shares and engagement, as with social ads.

Ultimately, your business goals and audience will determine if, when, and where you use paid distribution tactics. In order to make the most of your budget, you need to take a calculated approach to content promotion so that you can drive the results you want.

How do you develop an effective content distribution strategy?

Casually sharing content on social media or in your email newsletter does not add up to a distribution strategy (but it’s a start). In order to create a distribution strategy, you need to consider your audience, evaluate the channels available to you, and decide how you will optimize your presentation for each channel you decide to target.

Let’s break the process down step-by-step so you can develop a content strategy that will actually support your goals.

1. Review Buyer Personas

A buyer persona is modeled after your ideal customer and sums up critical data in the form of an easy-to-digest profile. Most businesses have 2-3 personas to represent the biggest segments of their target market. For instance, a home decor brand might target professional interior designers as one persona and DIYers as another persona.

As far as how you can use your buyer personas to develop a content distribution strategy, here are some tips:

Tailor your content: Remember that not all of your personas will love all of your content. Always have a persona in mind when you’re creating a piece of content.

Be in the right place: Once you know which persona your content is targeting, reference the persona to see which social media platforms and channels they prefer before sharing your content.

Watch for results: After choosing your channels, keep an eye on comments, engagement metrics, and other data sources to guide how you present content to each persona (i.e., video vs infographic).

Keep improving: Create a feedback loop to make sure that, as you learn about your persona’s content consumption habits over time, you are updating the persona accordingly.

Many hours of research go into creating reliable buyer personas, and I’ve created an extensive guide on the topic as part of my series on the content framework I use for my clients. I encourage you to read it if you don’t have buyer personas created yet or if it’s been awhile since you made them.

2. Consider Business Goals

You can’t pursue digital marketing for very long (at least, not very successfully) unless you start every project with a thorough review of your business, marketing, and content goals. Sure, most people can toss out positive outcomes like, “I’m aiming for lead generation,” or “I need more conversions,” but those aren’t very actionable.

Well-defined goals will make the difference between campaigns that sometimes work and campaigns that consistently produce repeatable results. Once you have solid goals in place, you can use them to inform your content distribution strategy by:

Helping you decide where to start: Guiding the content creation process, ensuring that the content pieces you’re distributing actually align with what your personas want and need to see. For example, you might start repurposing more content into video content if increasing reach and engagement on YouTube is a top priority.

Making you focus on results: Helping you set distribution KPIs that support your overall marketing and business goals. For example, your business goals might reveal that earning social shares is more important than driving traffic. In this case, you would focus more on native content and use questions, tags, and polls to drive engagement on social media platforms.

If you haven’t already established key performance indicators (KPIs) at the content, marketing, and business level, I’ve got you covered. As part of my new year’s resolution to divulge my entire content framework, I’ve written an extensive guide on the topic and it’s filled with tons of actionable advice. If you feel like you’re working backwards, I’ve compiled every guide and template over here.

3. Set Guidelines

Choosing where you’re going to distribute your content is a major undertaking, but once you have that weight off your shoulders, you’re going to feel a lot more confident next time you share your content. Now, you’re going to dip your toes into standard operating procedures (SOPs), or something vaguely similar, to make sure that content distribution never conflicts with your brand.

Setting guidelines for each channel you intend to use for content distribution means:

Stay consistent: Lay out how the tone of your brand voice should be altered based on a given channel, topic, and target persona. For instance, while your brand might be youthful and bubbly, how do you approach serious topics or negative customer feedback without coming across as self-absorbed or uncaring?

Get specific: Reiterate the persona(s) your content will reach on each channel and how each persona prefers to communicate. Do they want a quick snapshot of stats and figures or do they want to join a witty conversation?

Test and experiment: Determine how the types of content you create can be altered to best fit the guidelines and native format for each channel. For instance, content being adapted for LinkedIn looks very different from the content you’ll use in email marketing.

If you’re going to delegate or outsource content distribution, establishing these guidelines is crucial for consistency, but it’s something you should pursue even if you plan to handle content distribution on your own. By writing out guidelines, you can create a repeatable process, making it easier for you to improve your distribution tactics over time. Plus, repeatable processes open the doors to automation down the road.

4. Establish a Routine

Oftentimes, content distribution does not happen on a schedule. Even if you’re publishing content on a routine basis, distribution can happen at any time, like when a new trending hashtag calls to mind a blog post you published a few months ago. However, you should plan to establish a routine to make it easier to work around your editorial calendar.

Here are some tips to keep in mind when designing a distribution workflow:

Get organized: Maintain an inventory of your content assets so that you can quickly search for relevant content whenever a trending hashtag or other sharing opportunity comes along. Continuing to distribute older content is a highly profitable tactic for driving engagement, especially when your content budget is limited.

Stick to a plan: Create a plan for distributing each piece of content before you publish it as this will help you drive traffic to your new content right out of the gate. For example, early planning means you can publish landing pages for your white papers before you even finish writing them, which can give you an SEO boost, help you start earning backlinks, and start generating new leads for your email list.

Do what counts: Set aside time for engaging with your audience, especially on social media. As your company grows larger, you might reach the point where you need to hire a part-time or full-time social media manager in order to keep up with comments, messages, and mentions.

As you grow accustomed to the process, you’ll find that content distribution doesn’t have to take hours out of your day. Plus, the better you get at utilizing your buyer personas and business goals to drive your distribution decisions, the more results you’ll see with each piece you distribute. Of course, the very last step is keeping your eyes on the right metrics so that you can see the results of your efforts as they unfold.

5. Analyze Your Results

Reviewing your reports in-depth takes time, but it’s the only way you’ll be able to keep improving your distribution strategy. Fortunately, once you have KPIs in place, it shouldn’t be that much work to pop in and see the results that matter to you.

Here’s some advice to get you started:

Get comfy: Learn your way around the reporting tools that matter the most to your KPIs, whether that’s Google Analytics or Facebook Ads Manager. Once the interface no longer feels foreign, you’ll find that routinely using the tools at your disposal is a lot less daunting and a lot more valuable.

Set benchmarks: Establish baselines from week to week and month to month. These baselines will form the foundation for setting new performance targets so that your business can constantly strive to outperform itself.

Adapt with time: Don’t be afraid to change your KPIs over time. Your content distribution KPIs should align with your overall marketing and business goals, so you should evaluate them every so often to make sure they still support the direction you’re trying to take. For instance, once your audience grows to a certain point, you might shift your focus from social shares to backlinks.

If you find that the reporting side of content distribution makes you weary, I encourage you to spend time educating yourself on the tools and metrics you’re working with. Chances are, once you start seeing real results from your distribution efforts, checking in on your progress will become one of your favorite things.

The Best Content Distribution Tools

While no tool can save you from the heavy lifting of digging into your buyer personas or setting KPIs, there are plenty of platforms that will help make the day-to-day process of sharing your content across channels that much easier. Here’s a look at my favorite content distribution tools along with some tips for using them.

Buffer

Buffer is a social media toolkit that will help you plan, schedule, and manage content across the most popular social networks. If you plan to delve into social media content distribution, you’ll want to use a tool like Buffer so you don’t have to manually log in to every social network each time you want to share something.

Here are my favorite tips and features:

Snapshot results: Get a lightweight report of your social media analytics at a glance. While it won’t replace more in-depth analytics tools, it’s a handy summary.

Stay organized: Use labels and hotkeys to find the most important comments on your latest posts and quickly respond to them without leaving your Buffer dashboard.

Work together: Invite your team to collaborate so that those in charge of your content distribution strategy can draft, review, and approve posts.

Medium

Medium is a content publishing and syndication platform that can help you build a loyal following without having to conquer search engine rankings or complex algorithms. Every time you login, you’ll see a content feed consisting of the latest posts from the accounts, publications, and tags you follow, allowing you to effortlessly discover content from people and brands you’ve never heard of before, which is where the magic lies.

Here are some tips and ideas for using Medium:

Take your time: Focus on producing long-form, well-thought-out content that’s unique to the platform. Medium is designed for your thought leadership pieces that share personal stories, unique insights, and lots of valuable information.

Choose wisely: Syndicate your favorite long-form articles or excerpts from your white papers by re-publishing them on Medium. Content syndication will not effect your website’s SEO, as long as you follow these best practices.

Get social: Remember that Medium is a community and make the most of it. That means following other industry brands and personalities and interacting with their content. Start thought-provoking conversations about important topics and you’ll see people organically trickle back to your page and content.

PR Newswire

PR Newswire or the popular alternative known as EIN Presswire are perfect examples of paid content distribution tools and they’re more accurately classified as content syndication tools. The purpose of these platforms is to help brands quickly spread company announcements, product launches, and industry news in front of a large audience.

Here’s some advice:

Make it count: Use content syndication tools like PR Newswire when you have an important press release that you want to circulate to major news sites. The content should be relevant to a general audience since there are no targeting capabilities.

Brag about it: Build upon the authority that comes along with getting published on news sites like NBC and CNN by adding an “As Seen On” or “Featured On” logo bar to your website. Many companies do this when they first launch to instantly improve brand perception.

Analyze it: Measure the traffic and mentions that result from your PR syndication campaigns, but don’t expect these tools to drive a lot of traffic. While they offer exposure to your headline, interaction with press releases is generally quite low when you send them to the masses.

Other Tools

If I’ve piqued your interest about content distribution tools that you can add to your tech stack, here are a few more that I recommend:

Edgar: If the idea of manually digging through your old content sounds like a pain, Edgar will save the day by automatically re-sharing your evergreen content at a regular pace.

Social Locker: If you’re struggling with earned distribution, locking high-value content (i.e., white papers) behind a social share button can help you get some.

MAVRCK: If your strategy includes working with social media influencers to get sponsored content in front of new audiences, MACRCK can help you pull it off.

Distribution Ideas for Different Content Types

Learning how to effectively repurpose your content can help you stretch your time and budget that much farther. Here are some ideas for distributing different types of content across various channels so that you can start brainstorming how you can multiply one piece of high-quality content into many valuable assets.

Using Infographics

Infographics are highly sharable and they’re also incredibly versatile. You can easily take all of the following types of content and turn them into infographics for easy sharing:

Listicles: Turn a listicle into an infographic by showing an icon and short summary of each item on a list. Here’s a great example from Hubspot.

Case studies: Turn a case study regarding a specific partnership into an infographic to show off real-world results like this one from Chronus.

Guides and reports: Take a long-form guide and sum up the most important facts and figures to generate an infographic like Outbrain did here.

Using Videos

Videos are an extremely engaging type of content and you can create them in so many ways, whether you just record a talking head or use a software to create a kinetic typography video in a snap. Here are some ideas to repurpose your content into videos.

Podcasts: Take snippets from your latest podcast and turn them into short-form videos for TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram or upload a few minutes of highlights to YouTube.

Webinars: Cut highlights out of your last webinar and add captions and graphics to create multiple full-length videos covering different topics and questions.

Articles: Write an engaging summary of your articles and turn them into 15- to 60-second kinetic typography videos to share on social media.

Using Quotes

Quotes are great to tweet on their own or you can turn them into a beautiful branded graphic to accompany posts on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other platforms. However you use quotes, here are some places where you can find inspiration for creating them:

Case studies: Pull a unique insight from a case study to highlight the measurable results your product has produced for a customer or a common challenge that clients in your industry are facing.

Podcasts: Grab a hot take from your podcast and turn it into quote that opens the doors for jokes or debate. Sharing quotes that reveal the personality of your brand and team members is a great way to foster authenticity, too.

Comments: Tap into the power of user-generated content by visiting your comments section along with online forums and question sites (like Quora) to come up with quotes about your industry, brand, and product.

Follow My Content Framework

I hope this thorough overview of my favorite content distribution tools and tactics has helped spark some ideas on how you can implement your own distribution strategy for your brand. And, if it all sounds like too much for you to take on, sit back and take a deep breath.

I work with a lot of SMBs who already feel completely overwhelmed by the mere thought of writing a blog post, so I know that hearing all of these steps can be stress-inducing, to say the least. However, I want to offer you some reassurance: Getting started is the hardest part!

Creating a distribution strategy is one of the final foundational elements you need to take care of before you’re ready to move forward with a supercharged content marketing plan. If you want to take it from the top or figure out the next best step, I encourage you to check out my content framework where I lay out the exact actions I take when helping new brands establish themselves as authorities in their industry.

Interested in learning more? Read the next guide on finding engaging content ideas or take a step back and learn how to develop your buyer personas so you know where and how to best reach your target audience.

What Google’s Search Result Changes Could Mean for Companies Everywhere

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

The global market for SEO services is valued at over $46.6 million, yet the mere act of search engine optimization goes against Google’s guidelines. Of course, those guidelines have been ignored since the dawn of the internet, so why would anyone care now? 

Prior to Google becoming the go-to search engine around 2007, early internet adopters had over 1,600 search engines to play with — each with different ranking algorithms that they quickly learned to exploit. Nearly two decades later, SEO gurus continue to circumvent guidelines and find ways to use Google’s ever-changing algorithm to their advantage. But Google isn’t giving up.

In August, Google released the single biggest update to its search engine algorithm in years with the help of new AI and machine learning. The so-called “Helpful Content” update, followed by multiple “Spam Updates” designed to harm the rankings of content that doesn’t adhere to Google’s guidelines, has shaken things up for websites big and small. That has implications for anyone investing in SEO. 

Are You Going Against Google’s Guidelines? 

The mere act of creating content with its future search engine rankings as the primary focus contravenes Google’s guidelines. In fact, Google’s experts routinely remind people that writing for the human is the best way to see better rankings, but is that true? 

Search engine optimization hasn’t become profitable just by serving up empty promises. True SEO gurus have devoted years to intensely studying the algorithm and the hundreds of updates that are made every month. They closely track changes in rankings and split-test thousands of variables in order to pinpoint key ranking factors. Once that information is uncovered, it’s only a matter of time before it makes it into SEO checklists and is touted as a rule. 

Sometimes, SEO gurus manage to improve the overall quality of content on the web by pushing publishers to incorporate certain elements — like image alt text and multiple headings — in order for their content to remain competitive in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). Other times, they identify exploits that don’t actually improve quality or readability, and that’s when Google has to make yet another algorithm change to stay a step ahead.

Google’s latest guidelines have adapted to keep up with evolving definitions of “helpful content” and “spam content.” The former is vaguely described as content that offers a satisfying user experience. The latter is clearer, but perhaps controversial, with Google dubbing all of the following content as spam:

  • Content generated using extensive automation.
  • Content that merely summarizes other content on the web.
  • Content that is “fluffed up” to hit a specific word count.
  • Content that suggests an answer to a question that has no answer.

The question is, and always has been, whether or not Google’s search algorithm can confidently identify content that meets these definitions. For instance, how can Google say with any certainty whether an article was produced using one of the countless AI writing tools on the market today? As it turns out, while not perfect, the algorithm is stronger than ever. 

What’s in the Helpful Content Update? 

Google’s web crawlers are constantly reviewing and analyzing content, discovering more than 40 billion spammy pages every day. Last year alone, the company managed to reduce sites with scraped and auto-generated content by more than 80% compared to two years prior. This year’s Helpful Content update brought them another step closer to bringing spammy results down to zero. 

The goal of August’s algorithm update was to bring more original, helpful content to searchers. It was unique in many ways, but one of the most notable aspects is that Google explicitly told publishers that deleting potentially unhelpful content could help the rest of their content rank better. For SEO gurus who have believed in creating “topic clusters” and content chains for decades now, this suggestion emphasized that Google Search is headed in a new direction. 

In an attempt to give priority to content that’s written with a “people-first” mindset, Google laid out new guidelines. These include:

  • Ensuring that your site has a primary purpose or focus. 
  • Creating content that aligns with your primary audience’s needs and interests. 
  • Clearly demonstrating first-hand expertise and depth of knowledge when covering a topic. 
  • Enriching content with unique value not found elsewhere on the internet. 
  • Taking steps to make sure readers will feel satisfied and like they have learned enough after finishing your content.

If you find that your website isn’t in alignment with these priorities, taking strides to reform your existing content, and removing some of it altogether, could help you climb the SERPs. 

Is Google Trying to Drive Down the Value of SEO? 

The concept of search engine optimization will always present a conundrum. While Google advises publishers to never cater to the algorithm when creating content, the SEO priority will always persist as businesses feel pressured to stay on top of key ranking factors to remain competitive.

Google’s goal is not to get in the way of optimization, but to ensure that optimization does not get in the way of delivering quality content to readers. The Helpful Content update represents the single biggest improvement Google has ever made to align its algorithm with the needs of searchers. 

As a result of this year’s updates, even as individuals and SEO agencies continue to prioritize ranking factors over everything else, Google’s algorithm will help make sure those ranking factors intentionally push publishers to write more relevant and more valuable content that keeps the reader in mind.

Friendly Fire: Fighting Consumer Fraud With Machine Learning

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

So-called “friendly fraud” has surged since the pandemic began with more than 44% of Britons and 66% of Americans admitting to filing chargebacks over the last 12 months. The problem is that friendly fraud rarely leads to consequences for consumers; instead, it forces business owners to foot the bill. 

As of this year, an astounding 94% of merchants say that friendly fraud is an issue for their business, but fewer than three in 10 have found a successful strategy for dealing with it. Friendly fraud doesn’t come cheap, either, with recent estimates pinning the annual cost at $125 billion.

In response to the chargeback crisis, brands like Mastercard and Visa are investing in artificial intelligence solutions that aim to fill the information gap between card issuers and merchants to eliminate the problem for good.

What is Friendly Fraud? 

The mechanism for requesting a chargeback exists to protect consumers from unauthorized transactions, like fraudulent purchases made by someone who stole their card information or recurring charges for a subscription that they previously canceled. However, roughly 63% of chargebacks fall under the category of “friendly fraud” because the disputes involve transactions that the cardholder did authorize. 

A consumer might dispute a legitimate transaction on their credit card or bank statement for any number of reasons, such as if they think it’s fraudulent or feel they are entitled to a refund. For instance, a consumer might initiate a chargeback if they don’t remember making a purchase, missed a return window, or simply didn’t like an item.

However, a shocking number of people are now using chargebacks as a way to “punish” merchants whose values differ from their own. An astonishing 44% of U.S. consumers have admitted to doing just that, dubbing it “chargeback activism.” Friendly fraud is also surging for crypto and buy now, pay later (BNPL) transactions for far less noble reasons — simply because consumers don’t want to pay. 

“Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly see chargebacks as simply part and parcel of the retail process — a protection they’re entitled to avail themselves of if they feel in any way disappointed by their shopping experience,” says Roenen Ben-Ami, co-founder of tech startup Justt. Unfortunately, the impact on merchants is anything but trivial.

How Much Does Friendly Fraud Cost Businesses?

Merchants generally have 45 to 60 days to work with a card issuer to prove that a transaction was authorized, but this process adds to a business’s overhead costs. What’s more, merchants must pay a fee for every dispute, which can range from $20 to $100 or more per chargeback. Plus, even if the business is successful in canceling the chargeback, this fee is not refunded.

Once fees, labor, and lost merchandise are factored in, it’s estimated that merchants lose an average of $240 for every $100 in chargebacks.

Now, with friendly fraud increasing at such an astonishing rate, disputes are putting greater financial strain on businesses that have already had to overcome two trying years. 

Regardless of why a consumer files a chargeback, merchants are rarely given the option to make things right. Even though more than half of consumers say that generous return policies would make them change their chargeback habits, nearly 60% of consumers didn’t even reach out to the merchant before filing a claim.

To consumers, chargebacks are better than going to the merchant because the filing process is quick and painless: Their money is credited immediately and they don’t have to deal with returning faulty or unwanted items. This lure of convenience combined with new ulterior motives like chargeback activism have driven friendly fraud to new highs. Now, businesses are desperate for a means to fight back. 

Fighting Fraud With Machine Learning

Almost half of all instances of friendly fraud are the result of mere misunderstandings, like a consumer not recognizing the billing descriptor on their credit card statement. For this reason, fraud-prevention platforms are investing heavily in sophisticated products backed by machine learning. The biggest players include Mastercard’s Ethoca, Visa’s Verifi, and tech innovators like Justt

Using collaborative networks, fraud-prevention platforms pull data from card issuers, partners, and merchants to provide real-time insights into potential fraud. By identifying the merchants associated with transactions, pinpointing when and where purchases were made, and even breaking down fees that may have created confusion over a price discrepancy, businesses are armed with the information they need to handle transactions more effectively.

These platforms are also attempting to tackle the issue of chargeback activism and instances where consumers just don’t want to pay. As more data is added to these networks, merchants can be warned of serial chargeback filers to deny or cancel transactions before friendly fraudsters have the chance to cost them time and money.

Everyone Benefits, Except Fraudsters  

Honest consumers stand to benefit from these solutions, too. Information on confirmed fraud and recent customer disputes is shared to notify merchants if a purchase was likely unauthorized. This allows the business to issue an immediate refund before the cardholder ever gets involved. In turn, the consumer gets their money back sooner while the business can avoid complaints and fees altogether. 

While solutions are still evolving, these technological advancements are finally helping businesses gain the upper hand when it comes to fighting the friendly fraud crisis.

What Dropbox’s Generous Parental Leave Policy Proves

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

Decades of child development research demonstrate the importance of early attachment, yet the United States is just one of six countries where paid parental leave remains a rare privilege. This leaves it up to employers to do the right thing, but biases are holding families back. 

As of 2021, just 23% of civilian workers in the U.S. had access to paid parental leave. Employers against such policies often cite budgetary strain, but 41% of people admit they simply think working moms are less devoted to their jobs — and it’s misconceptions like these that are proving detrimental to families everywhere. 

In a rare exception to the rule, all Dropbox employees are entitled to 24 weeks of paid new child leave. That means birthing, non-birthing, and adoptive parents can all benefit from the industry-leading policy and, upon returning to the office, Dropbox also offers supports to help them transition back into the workplace. 

On the surface, the generosity of such a policy might be clouded by assumptions about its financial ramifications, but Dropbox and countless others are holding firm that paid parental leave is a key component to long-term success for employee and company alike. 

Are People Against Parental Leave?

In a 90-page Human Rights Watch report titled “Failing Its Families,” working mothers shared their experiences regarding job seeking, employment, and time off. The report states: “Many women said that merely revealing they were pregnant and requesting leave triggered tensions with employers, and sometimes demotions or pay cuts.” 

Paula R., an attorney, took only five weeks of unpaid maternity leave after birthing her daughter and, upon returning to work, discovered that someone else had been hired in her place, and her boss had given him Paula’s office. From that point, Paula was expected to work in the conference room. “I think once you’ve taken a leave as a working mother you’re always viewed as a flight risk. Like you’re not really putting your job first,” Paula said.

Another mother named Judith K. shared this: “[My boss] just felt like he’d done some great service to society allowing me a three-month unpaid leave … They gave pay increases to others, and felt giving three months off was enough for me. They didn’t send me to conferences. People think you’re not committed to work or a dependable employee.”

With story after story echoing these sentiments, it is no wonder why one in five women say they are nervous to tell their employers that they are pregnant. Another one in four say they are concerned about how colleagues will perceive them once they have children. Both fears stem from decades of unfair treatment of parents in the workplace. 

Up until 1993, working parents who took unpaid leave may have been terminated on the spot, or return to find that someone else had taken their position. Nearly 30 years ago, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) finally forced employers to let parents take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave — a monumental achievement at the time, but regulations have barely moved much in the decades since. 

What’s more, roughly 44% of U.S. workers don’t even qualify for the bare minimum benefits offered by the FMLA since it excludes part-time employees and smaller businesses. As a result, more companies are taking matters into their own hands. 

Why Dropbox Takes a Family-First Approach

Companies like Dropbox say that even though the numbers supported their decision to enact paid parental leave, the desire to put people first was their primary motivation. 

“At Dropbox, we believe people do their best work in a culture that supports the whole person, and we’ve worked hard to establish policies and benefits that aim to help all Dropboxers thrive,” says Melanie Collins, the company’s chief people officer.

In addition to 24 weeks of paid time off upon the birth or adoption of a new child, Dropbox also gives parents a transitional week upon returning to the workplace. During this week, returning parents only have to work 60% of the expected time, and they still receive a full paycheck.

Not long after Dropbox implemented its policy, the company was able to share its impact with a first-hand account from Devin Didericksen, a father who says the policy changed his family’s life.

“My wife was only 28 weeks along when she gave birth to my son, who was born at just 2.5 lbs and spent over two months in the NICU,” Devin recalled. His son was discharged just before Christmas fully recovered, along with his spouse. However, as Devin approached the end of his 24-week parental leave period, the idea of suddenly adopting a 40-hour work week again proved daunting.

To help him transition back, Devin’s manager worked with him to schedule two-day work weeks until he was ready to be back full-time. “I feel very grateful to work for a company that cares so much about their employees,” Devin said.

According to the American Psychological Association, policies like these are exactly what the workforce needs.

“Mothers fare better when they have paid time off after giving birth, including a 51% decrease in the risk of rehospitalization,” the APA writes.

The APA also enumerated countless mental health benefits associated with paid parental leave, adding: “Women who aren’t able to take as much time off — especially those who return to work in under two months — face more depressive symptoms and more marital and self-esteem problems … Even two to three years later, women who took shorter maternity leaves report more psychological distress.”

Back in the office, paid parental leave also has a measurable impact on the bottom line. One study of more than 1,500 employers found that over 70% reported an increase in employee productivity after enacting paid parental leave policies. What’s more, an astounding 80% reported an increase in employee morale. 

Moving Beyond Policy

Countless employees at Dropbox and beyond have been empowered by paid parental leave policies. Yet even with 82% cross-party support for a federal program, it is still in the hands of companies to deliver the rights that parents so desperately need. The question is, how do we put the stigma aside and actually start giving working parents the tools they need to have a healthy family and a successful career?

PayPal Answered the Call for Fair Pay, Now Others Are Following Suit

Originally featured in Strixus Magazine

If you could pull out a timeline of capitalism, one of its most dramatic shifts would be pinned in the year 1981 as Reginald Jones stepped down as CEO of General Electric, allowing Jack Welch to take his place. Welch went on to devote the next 20 years of his life to reshaping the company — and the economy — with his stark display of iniquity. 

In his book, David Gelles dubbed him “The Man Who Broke Capitalism” because Welch went down in history as the first CEO to use offshoring, outsourcing, and mass layoffs as a tool for growth. His management strategy could be summed up as “cheap labor at all costs” and — at the expense of every generation of working-class citizens since — his method became the de facto corporate model. 

Forty years later, while Welch’s imprint is a long way from disappearing, it is beginning to fade. Amid the cost-of-living crisis, a handful of executives remind us that the country’s wealth is becoming increasingly concentrated amongst one small slice of the population — and they’re actually doing something to disburse it.  

Why the Minimum Wage Isn’t Enough

Had the minimum wage kept up with increases in economic productivity, it would be set to $26. Instead, it hasn’t budged since 2009, when it was locked in at $7.25 an hour. That means a minimum-wage job at 40 hours per week adds up to a measly $15k per year, putting those workers scarcely above the poverty line.

Recognizing that the federal minimum wage simply isn’t enough to live on, more states have begun enforcing their own minimum wages. California has the highest at $15/hour (which adds up to $31k annually), but the difference in pay is nullified by extra expenses since the state’s cost of living averages $46,636 a year. 

Even for states like Connecticut and Massachusetts, which plan to match California’s minimum wage starting in 2023, the increases barely keep up with workers’ expenses. Still, these attempts are ever so slightly better than places that aren’t trying at all — like in the 32 other states where the minimum wage remains less than $10.50/hour. 

So if the minimum wage isn’t enough, what is? More private corporations are beginning to take it upon themselves to answer that question. Leaders like Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal, say they would have acted a lot sooner if they had only been more in touch with the everyday worker. 

Giving New Definition to the Living Wage

Traditionally, the term “living wage” has been used to describe a pay rate high enough to cover health care, child care, taxes, housing, and food. However, the calculation leaves no room for eating out, entertainment, or savings. 

What’s more, since the actual cost of living ranges widely from one region to the next, it’s nearly impossible to peg down a true living wage. These reasons are precisely why Schulman, who became CEO of PayPal in 2014, decided that he needed a metric much more practical and transparent. 

At a company that’s now worth roughly $93 billion, Schulman assumed everyone at PayPal was being fairly compensated but he soon became aware that some 10,000 employees could hardly make ends meet. So in an attempt to define a healthy wage, Schulman collaborated with a handful of nonprofit and academic groups to create the NDI or “net disposable income” metric. 

Through months of research and surveys, Schulman and his colleagues determined that an NDI of 20% was an acceptable standard to cover all essential expenses (including clothes, school supplies, and healthcare) while still leaving enough for a household to save for the future. Now Schulman is challenging other companies to do the same. 

Using Data to Inspire Action

When Schulman first used the new NDI metric to assess PayPal’s compensation data, it revealed that roughly half of PayPal’s employees had an NDI of just 4%. In response, the company immediately raised wages for employees with low NDIs and introduced a program to help workers learn the ins and outs of managing, saving, and investing their money. 

PayPal then went a step further, giving every employee an opportunity to own PayPal stock. Schulman also introduced a $5 million fund to help workers cover unexpected expenses like car repairs and medical bills. Then PayPal cut healthcare costs by 60% for its lowest-paid workers, allowing them to take home bigger paychecks. 

Some months later, PayPal sent out its survey again to find that the lowest NDI had quadrupled to 16% and most targeted employees had successfully topped the 20% mark of financial security. With that, Schulman approached Brian Niccol, CEO of Chipotle, and encouraged him to measure his employees’ financial health with the same marker.

Upon discovering that many of Chipotle’s workers were also living paycheck to paycheck, Niccol didn’t hesitate to act. Employee wages were increased by nearly 20% to an average of $15/hour, plus the company bolstered benefits, introducing education reimbursement and debt-free degrees. In the months to follow, Niccol’s report was enthusiastic. “We’ve seen just a dramatic change in people’s retention as well as their confidence in their future,” he said.

The Shift in Corporate Thinking

Given the initial success of Schulman’s program, PayPal partnered with JUST Capital last year and, in collaboration with the Financial Health Network and the Good Jobs Institute, they established The Worker Financial Wellness Initiative. 

Within months, major corporations like Chobani, Even, Prudential Financial, and Verizon joined the initiative. Earlier this year, Synchrony also jumped on board, which means the initiative now represents over 800,000 American workers. 

Outside of the initiative, other corporations also say they are taking strides towards improved compensation but public outcry says it is far from enough.

Years ago, Amazon bumped its starting wage to $15/hour for all positions and they have been lobbying Congress to match it ever since. However, recent accusations against the retail giant cite unsafe working conditions, union-busting tactics, and exhausting productivity targets.

Following union complaints, walk-outs are now happening at Amazon facilities around the world. Stateside, protesting employees are demanding paid breaks, better medical leave, and a $30/hour minimum wage. 

Amazon workers have even been joined by the “People Over Prime Coalition,” which consists of 70 TikTok Creators with a combined 51 million followers. 

Until changes are realized, the coalition has sworn to prevent Amazon from monetizing their personal brands and — they hope — all of TikTok, a platform that generated millions in revenue for Amazon last year. 

An Outdated Ideology

Public movements such as this one in combination with the growing roster of companies joining Schulman’s initiative evince one thing: There is little room left for ideologies like Welch’s in today’s America. 

Whether business leaders are inspired by their own ethics, or forced to change their ways amid worker shortages and retaliation, wages are now rising at their fastest rate in decades and it seems the public is prepared to fight for more.