Establishing Your Visual Strategy, with Amy Balliett

August 19, 2020
PRODUCED BY POLLY YAKOVICH

Amy Balliett is the CEO and founder of the creative content agency, Killer Visual Strategies (formerly Killer Infographics). She owned her first company, a candy store and ice cream parlor, at the age of 17 before heading off for college. She subsequently built a successful career in SEO and marketing, and headed up SEO at several companies before launching Killer in 2010. In the years since, she has grown Killer Visual Strategies to become the industry leader in visual communication, driving visual strategy and creative content campaigns for global brands including Microsoft, Boeing, Adobe, Nikon, Starbucks, the National Endowment for the Arts, the United Nations, and more. 

Considered an expert in her field, Balliett speaks at dozens of conferences each year including SXSW, Adobe MAX, SMX, and more. She is also a regular teacher at The School of Visual Concepts, a guest lecturer at several colleges and universities, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, and the author of the newly released book Killer Visual Strategies: Engage Any Audience, Improve Comprehension, and Get Amazing Results Using Visual Communication.

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How Amy's career began in film school, and how she discovered her love of SEO and marketing and created Killer Visual Strategies by accident
  • How Killer's business model changed over time as Amy developed an expertise in quality visual marketing content
  • How Amy shifted into thought leadership and public speaking, and why a regular cadence is critical for developing your own thought leadership
  • Why Amy and her team are careful to work only with brands whose values align to their own, and why focusing on and mastering a specific niche is vital
  • Who Amy wrote her book Killer Visual Strategies for and what she hopes readers will be able to take from it
  • How Amy defines a "visual strategist", and why the role is becoming increasingly important as print content becomes less important
  • What specific tactics for visual content are changing over time and how it needs to be customized to the target audience and the channel it is being deployed on, and why stock imagery isn't effective

Additional resources:  

Episode Transcription:

Intro: Welcome to A Brave New Podcast, the podcast all about how brave entrepreneurial companies are unlocking their business potential using inbound marketing. Here is your marketing expert and host, Polly Yakovich.

Polly Yakovich: Welcome back to A Brave New Podcast. I am super excited to have Amy Balliett as my guest today. She is somebody that I have honestly before I knew her been reading, following, heard speak, been loving, been really excited to watch her journey. She has an amazing story. She is the cofounder and CEO of Killer Visual Strategies. She just published a book of the same name, which I just finished yesterday. I'm going to let her give you more of her detailed bio, but I just wanted to say thank you so much for coming on today.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, thanks for having me so much. I appreciate it. Thanks for digging into my book and getting through it so fast. I appreciate that too.

Polly Yakovich: I feel like I have corona to thank for even being able to schedule with you because you're on the road 99.9% of her life, I think. Has it been weird to be home so much?

Amy Balliett: It has been actually. It's so interesting. We started out this year looking at our calendar and saying, "Holy cow, 80% of this year we're not going to be in Seattle. We're just going to be traveling around the country for me to speak at different conferences." My wife works remotely, so she travels with me everywhere. We were sad about that. We were really sad about just not being home that much. It was kind of a blessing in disguise. I'd say the first few months we were thrilled. We were really excited about being home and really taking advantage of all that Seattle has to offer from just a beautiful landscape perspective.

Amy Balliett: But after about three months I started to get antsy because I just realized I haven't been on a plane in forever. We did actually have to travel. We had to travel just at the start of this month. We traveled to Cleveland, my hometown. In that, we just honestly forgot to pack things. We were really late to the airport. All these weird things where all of a sudden we realized we're out of practice from traveling. We just used to have go bags at our disposal.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, exactly.

Amy Balliett: And now we have to actually pack again.

Polly Yakovich: You're like, "Where's all my travel shampoo? I don't know." Oh, my gosh, that's so funny. Has everything been canceled for you for the rest of the year mostly or moved remotely?

Amy Balliett: Moved remotely. Exactly. Fifteen out of the 20 conferences that I was booked for, 15 of them canceled entirely.

Polly Yakovich: Wow.

Amy Balliett: Five of them moved virtual.

Polly Yakovich: Okay, crazy. That's crazy. I want to talk about your story. I want to talk about Killer. I want to talk about your book. Will you give people just a little overview if they're crazy enough not to have heard or encountered you anywhere over the last decade? Give us a little arc of your story.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, definitely. It's along story all over the place like a typical millennials. I think millennials they change their careers every few years.

Polly Yakovich: Millennial plus entrepreneur has to like-

Amy Balliett: Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah.

Amy Balliett: Exactly. I like Xennial better than millennial because I'm at that Xennial age where you teeter between Gen X and millennial. I started my whole career off in film. I went to film school, got into a job that was really around motion picture trailer marketing. Did that for awhile. Then got into video editing and learned graphic design in my video editing job. Then I just pivoted entirely to SEO and online marketing, which was just a complete switch from where I was expecting my career to be, but I loved marketing.

Amy Balliett: After spending some time in the world of SEO and online marketing, Killer naturally came about, but it was also an accident. There's actually a whole story in my book that dives into it. It's called the Accidental Agency. It's how I open up the book.

Polly Yakovich: I loved reading it because it's similar, I think, for me and probably everyone who owns an agency too.

Amy Balliett: Right. That's the thing. I think that happens with agencies. I don't think a lot of people just set out to say, "Hey, I'm going to start an agency." Instead what happens-

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, those people wouldn't be crazy.

Amy Balliett: Right, exactly. I feel the exact same way. Instead what happens is we kind of accidentally fall into starting an agency because maybe some clients start really trusting us and want to give us even more work. We see the opportunity, so we start bringing on a team. It's just kind of this weird buildup that happens over the course of a year or two until all of a sudden you look around and realize, "Oh, my gosh, I'm running an agency." That's exactly what happened with Killer. I had started a completely different business model with my old business partner. We were really focused on monetizing websites. We launched about 20 different websites, the most successful being a site called zippycart.com. We had all these different websites that had affiliate partnerships, so we were making money off of those affiliate partnerships.

Amy Balliett: But I was designing infographics purely for the SEO value because it was 2010. You could slap the word infographic on any piece of visual content, and it would succeed because standards were really, really low at the time. The infographics I designed were absolutely awful. I actually learned a lot through all of the criticisms that I got about those infographics in my first few months, and then it naturally happened where people started coming to us asking us to design infographics for them because they saw the level of success that our infographics were having online. At that point, I hired real designers as opposed to doing it myself.

Amy Balliett: That's when we started to establish standards and really build a process and a set of requirements around quality visual content.

Polly Yakovich: I love that. There's so many things I want to ask you about, but one of the things I wanted to start with is I think really early on... Because I've seen you speak maybe it was 10 years ago. Really early on you really established yourself as somebody who was speaking and teaching in the space. I feel like everyone wants to be known as a thought leader now. You were very smart to do that I think very early in your career. How did that come about? What was your vision for that?

Amy Balliett: It's interesting. I didn't really have a huge vision for that. I didn't know what kind of success that would bring, but it actually for probably the first eight years of the company drove at least 60% of our business was just me being out doing public speaking. That was a huge reason we kept doing it. I have this weird passion for public speaking. I absolutely love it. I didn't realize it until high school. I was constantly trying out for all the different plays in high school, constantly getting cast in a chorus, not cast with any actual lines.

Amy Balliett: Finally, the director who was also my history teacher, he came up to me, and he said, "You know, Balliett, you're not really a great actor, but you have a really authoritative voice. So you should be doing public speaking. I coach speech and debate. I want you to join the speech and debate team." He had me join the speech and debate team, which also meant waking up at 6:00 a.m. every Saturday morning and giving my Saturdays to nerd-dom.

Polly Yakovich: That was where I would've quit for sure.

Amy Balliett: Right, exactly. I was a total nerd, so it actually just worked out with my entire weekend. It was Friday night marching band, Saturday morning speech and debate.

Polly Yakovich: That is so cute.

Amy Balliett: I lettered in speech and debate.

Polly Yakovich: That's awesome. I love that.

Amy Balliett: Right. I did original oratory, which was like TED Talks. That's basically what it was. Wrote my own speech. It had to be 10 minutes. I had to perform it three times a day on a Saturday and get critiques and compete in that way. I did really well. I went to nationals my senior year. Really loved it. And then never had that outlet again after high school. All of a sudden the opportunity came up for me to do some public speaking. It wasn't the first. Adobe MAX was maybe the third or fourth request for public speaking.

Polly Yakovich: That is a hilarious third request for a speaker.

Amy Balliett: Right, exactly.

Polly Yakovich: Nobody has that story.

Amy Balliett: Exactly. I lucked out. Part of it was because the company at the time was called Killer Infographics. Killer was known as the infographic company. Adobe needed an expert to come and talk about infographics. We were kind of the natural fit for that. At the time I had also started teaching at the School of Visual Concepts for the exact same reason. SVC needed an expert on infographics, and they realized, "Oh, we have one here in Seattle." They came and asked me to teach.

Amy Balliett: In a single year, I think it was around 2012 near the end and then the first part of 2013, all of these different venues reached out and asked if I would be willing to do some speaking. I just built up a speaking resume that way and started going after conferences, going after speaking gigs around 2014 when I saw the level of business it was bringing to the company.

Polly Yakovich: That's an amazing story. What would your advice be for people who are trying to develop some thought leadership now in a marketplace that's busier, more cluttered, more voices? How do you stand out. How do you become a thought leader in an authentic way with something valuable to share and not just somebody else who wants to talk about marketing?

Amy Balliett: If you would've asked me that question pre-COVID, I would've given you a different answer.

Polly Yakovich: Interesting.

Amy Balliett: In a post-COVID world with everything being so virtual, it's interesting, I had a really cool conversation just yesterday with a LinkedIn influencer named Shay Rowbottom. Shay focuses on personalized video on LinkedIn specifically, the selfie style video and really pushes this idea of anybody who wants to be a thought leader today should take advantage of the fact that there's not a lot of video on LinkedIn yet. Yet LinkedIn's algorithm-

Polly Yakovich: Still?

Amy Balliett: ... Yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Fascinating.

Amy Balliett: Right. LinkedIn's algorithm pushes up video content. If you want to be a thought leader, do some selfie style videos but at a regular cadence at least one a week. If you can do three a week, awesome. Videos, sharing, a hot tip sharing, information related to your industry or what you want to be a thought leader on, so that's one arena. Another arena is medium. Start writing for medium. Get a medium channel up. Start connecting with the other channels out there that you might be able to syndicate your content on. That's huge.

Amy Balliett: At Killer, we still post a minimum of two blog posts a week, and they're always around 1,000 words, so we're not focused on short content from a blog post perspective. We're always trying to really build it out. As you start writing content that gets out there online beyond your own video content, build up a bit of a set of writing samples and then reach out to Ink and see if you can become an Ink contributor or a Forbes contributor. These are all different ways that you can become thought leaders.

Amy Balliett: I have always actually wanted to write a book. The book was a plan starting in probably 2014. I was at Seattle Interactive Conference, and I met a friend of mine named Brett Greene. I met him there. He runs NewTech Northwest, which is a big meetup that happens in Seattle. I met with Brett, and he said to me, "The best business card you can ever have is your own book, and the best thing to put on your actual business card is author. If you truly want to be a thought leader having author next to your name, having a book that's published by a publisher as opposed to self-published, really helps you stand out."

Amy Balliett: That was when I said, "I'm going to write a book." And then I didn't do it because I just didn't have the time. When Wiley, my publisher, approached me around this time last year and asked me if I could write a book on visual communication, I said, "Well, great. Now the stars have aligned because this what I've always wanted to do, and if I sign with a publisher, then I'm going to be forced to do it because now I'm accountable to more than myself."

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, and you have a contract.

Amy Balliett: Exactly. Definitely getting a book out there that already in just the three weeks that it's been out has already elevated my presence at the conferences I am going to be speaking at. I've had those conferences come back to me and say, "We want to double your time."

Polly Yakovich: Amazing.

Amy Balliett: "We don't want you to do the shorter time that they're doing for everybody who's going virtual." I'm seeing success already as kind of that next level of thought leadership.

Polly Yakovich: That's amazing. One of the things I am curious what your perspective is about is when you're building a business, and let's say you have a small agency or a small business and you really want to establish yourself as a thought leader, how do you... All the things that you talked about are brilliant, and they take a lot of time and effort. What's your advice for somebody who really probably would benefit their company by doing this as a new business venture and elevating themself as a thought leader? How do you balance internal work? Do you just force yourself to delegate things so that you can really make an effort in that direction?

Amy Balliett: It's a mix. In my first few years, I couldn't delegate. I didn't have the staff to be able to delegate. We were a bootstrapped company where we grew entirely off of revenue. I'd say for the first probably five years I was working an average of 80 hours a week. That was just to really ensure that we hired when I couldn't take on more work. That was always our decision to hire somebody new when it became too much work for me that I was going above that 80 hours.

Amy Balliett: One thing that a lot of people don't realize when they start a company is they tend to think, "Well, I've got this great idea, and it's just going to organically grow." That is just simply not true. You can have a great idea, but you have to put all of your blood, sweat and tears into that great idea, and there's no such thing as overnight success. It's all about continuing to just work as hard as possible until you get to a point where you can have the team to delegate to. For us, we would always focus on having six months of somebody's salary in the bank before hiring somebody so that we'd never be in a position where we couldn't pay a paycheck or where somebody felt like they were at a startup where they had to get stressed about how they were allocating their own budgets.

Amy Balliett: For me, it was working my butt off. But there's this other side to it that I think a lot of agencies don't necessarily do that would really help an agency owner be a thought leader, and that is identifying your niche and really, really making that all about who you are. We start as Killer Infographics. So the niche? Infographics. But infographics were really a foundation to an entirely new type of media. Pardon me. Let me put it this way. Not a new type of media, but a methodology on how you approach that media. Infographics are really about visual communication.

Amy Balliett: Visual communication is about graphically representing information to efficient create meaning. The idea there is you're not using a lot of text, you're letting the visuals tell the story. The most successful infographics are the ones that have under 200 words of text, yet you see so many infographics out there that are a paragraph next to a picture, next to a paragraph, next to a picture.

Polly Yakovich: Yes.

Amy Balliett: We really starting stripping down the text in our infographics and realizing that that drove more success and really focused on creating custom bespoke solutions that would help us connect with audiences in more unique ways. By doing that, by communicating visually, we realized we could apply that methodology to E books, to annual reports, to motion graphics and on and on and on. As we started growing, we realized, we're not an infographic company, we're a visual communication company.

Amy Balliett: It was around 2014 that we decided as a team to stop pushing infographics as our niche and start pushing visual communication as our niche. But when you have a niche that's your focus, and you can speak to it with authority, and you can hone the craft around that niche, it actually becomes a lot easier to be a thought leader in it because you're only focusing on that. You're not a generalist firm. A lot of bootstrapped agencies, they want to say yes to everything that comes their way.

Polly Yakovich: Absolutely.

Amy Balliett: It's scary not to. When you have that niche, it's kind of like... There's a book called Finding your Why. It's about finding your core purpose. Our core purpose as a company is to speak visually. Once we identified that as our core purpose, it became very easy for us to identify what we would say yes to and what we would say no to and really stay in our lane of traffic at all times.

Polly Yakovich: It's something we talk a lot about in branding, but it's that old adage of you're actually freer with boundaries.

Amy Balliett: Exactly.

Polly Yakovich: Because if you know what you are and you aren't, then you can really play there rather than trying to be everything.

Amy Balliett: Exactly.

Polly Yakovich: It's really hard to do that though. It takes a lot of discipline.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, it really, really does.

Polly Yakovich: I'm sure there's a lot of work you turned down because it doesn't fit into your zone.

Amy Balliett: Exactly. We hire and fire by our values as well. That's yet another layer on top of it. We have had to turn down work that some agencies would just jump at to work with certain brands. We've had to say no because of the lack of corporate responsibility of those brands. They don't match our values, so as a result we've decided we just can't work with those brands.

Polly Yakovich: That's just important as a human to be able to know that at the end of the day you're doing work that you believe in.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, exactly. That's very true.

Polly Yakovich: And that's doing good and not harm in the world. That's a tough balance. You've talked about some of them, but when you look back at your entrepreneurial journey, what were some of those pivot points that felt so monumental? How did you show up for those?

Amy Balliett: So many. That's going to be my next book. It's going to be all the mistakes I ever made and what I learned from them because that's really what it comes down to. I think that anybody who runs their own business makes so many mistakes and beats themselves up for those mistakes because they think that they're alone in those mistakes when in reality we are all figuring it out as we go. There is not a guidebook to run a business. No matter what anybody says, no matter what business books you've read, the fact is is you're going to have to pull a little bit from every single one of those books to customize your own personal guide or roadmap.

Amy Balliett: But for me I'd say that we had a lot of moments in the first few years where I feel like I was punched in the gut and I fell down. Every single time that happened, I got up faster each time after the last because I would learn a little bit more. I'd get to a point where about three or four years in I started to realize embracing my mistakes as opportunities to grow and be better is a much better way of looking at things than beating myself up for my mistakes.

Amy Balliett: One big mistake we made that still is listed as one of the most costly mistakes, we went from a C-corp to an S-corp, which we never should've been a C-corp to begin with, which was mistake number one. We went from a C-corp to an S-corp. In that transition, we didn't talk to our CPA. We had our lawyer do all the work. Had we talked to our CPA, we would've known that we should have depleted our bank account minutes before the transition and then once we were in S-Corp put all the money back into the bank account.

Amy Balliett: Because we didn't do that, we owed C-Corp taxes on what was in the bank account, which meant we suddenly owed $50,000 in taxes on only $200,000. That was just such a hit. That was a big mistake. A lot of inflection points also just centered around my team; learning how to hire the right people, learning how to hold my team accountable, learning how to build a values based organization and culture. These didn't come naturally. It was five years into my company before I realized that I wasn't doing it well. I had to hire a coach who helped me but also helped coach the team because I also learned that sometimes when you have such a tight knit family of a small team like that, you're almost like the parent, and you need the cool uncle or aunt to come in and get everybody aligned. That's kind of what the coach really helped us do.

Amy Balliett: Hiring a coach was a big, big thing that was very pivotal for my own career growth. There was a huge pivotal point of having to exit my old business partner, and that was probably-

Polly Yakovich: Hard?

Amy Balliett: Yeah. That was probably the hardest thing that I've ever had to do. But you get to a point where the stakes are too high, and you can no longer make decisions based on what personally and emotionally feels right.

Polly Yakovich: Right.

Amy Balliett: And you have to make decisions based on what is best for the business because ultimately the livelihoods of all of your employees and their families, they're in your hands. That was really what it came down to was just simply making the best decision for the business. It was a great decision. In that year our revenue was looking at being a pretty darn low revenue year, and instead it became our best revenue year in the history of the company just from that.

Polly Yakovich: It's crazy how those horrible gut, soul-wrenching decisions do prove themselves quickly when you're able to make them and rapid the Band-Aids off. They almost always lead to really good outcomes-

Amy Balliett: So true.

Polly Yakovich: ... which are affirming, but it doesn't make it any easier. That's for sure.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, you're so right about that. I would say that is kind of the best experience though with running a business as well when you get through those really hard moments and you realize, "Oh, wow, I could do that." I've now done this-

Polly Yakovich: I'm [crosstalk 00:25:27].

Amy Balliett: Yeah. Exactly. It's really, really cool. I will say I don't think I would've come up against the same challenges as an employee of a large corporate company, which is where I was before as I have as an owner or CEO of a small agency. It's been really interesting.

Polly Yakovich: You talk a lot in the book... Well, a lot. You talk in the book about the way you built Killer with freelance designers and freelance work and what a shift that was to bring it in house but how important. I think it's really interesting because there are several places in the book that you talk about things that are easy go-to strategies that I think a lot of people reading the book will be like, "Oh, crap, I do that." Using stock and going out to freelance. How has that in-house team... What does that mean for you? Is that still a really key differentiator for you? How important is that for people?

Amy Balliett: That is still a very big key differentiator for us. It's interesting because we've now spent how many months all working remotely, and it's weird for our team because we're so used to seeing each other every single day. Right before the shutdown we had just moved into a brand new office that we were all super excited about and all of us miss already. It's weird not seeing everybody every day, but there's something to be said even if your team is remote about having the consistency of a fully salaried team.

Amy Balliett: The reason we don't utilize freelancers is because what we have found is our clients, Fortune 500, Global 2000, they need consistent reliability, and what they don't want is for us to say, "Sure, let me go find that answer for you." And then we spend hours hunting down a freelancer to get their feedback on something or to get them to edit a design.

Polly Yakovich: Right.

Amy Balliett: Providing consistency and reliability for our clients is extremely important. A lot of our clients have actually left our competitors and come to us specifically because we don't use freelancers. It's one of the things they talk about very often.

Polly Yakovich: Fascinating.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, it's amazing. We have this institutional knowledge that carries forward over the years. A client as AstraZeneca for instance, I love it. They'll call me and they say, "I want Elizabeth as my project manager and Megan as my designer." They know exactly what teams they want.

Polly Yakovich: Is that okay with you? Do you like that?

Amy Balliett: Oh, yeah.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah?

Amy Balliett: I love it.

Polly Yakovich: You're flexible enough to do that?

Amy Balliett: Yeah. I love that we have clients that not only know our team that well but view our team as such an extension of their team that they feel confident in saying, "This is who I want to work with. Can you build this team around this initiative and this other team around another initiative?" That's actually one of the most rewarding things about it. When you look at design agencies as a whole, the average tenure of a designer at a design agency is about six months.

Polly Yakovich: That blows my mind.

Amy Balliett: Right.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, that's crazy.

Amy Balliett: Our average tenure is six years. It's just such a different experience when you have people who are that embedded in the company, that embedded in the client's side as well. It just carries forward a lot more success.

Polly Yakovich: I would say you spend so much time when you don't have that institutional knowledge and that library of having done projects with that client before and having worked across clients. You can do it, but you really can't replace that. It's invaluable, I think.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, I agree entirely. That's why we do it.

Polly Yakovich: Let's step back just a little bit and talk about the book because there are several things about the book I wanted to talk about with you. Who's the book for? The book is also called Killer Visual Strategies. Who did you write it for? Who's your intended audience, and what do you hope they get from it?

Amy Balliett: That's a great question because I try to actually write it for a very broad audience.

Polly Yakovich: I felt it was very accessible. I am not a designer. I am not a visual strategist, but I thought it was very accessible and interesting and informative. I super enjoyed it.

Amy Balliett: Thank you.

Polly Yakovich: And that's coming from a more marketing planning perspective.

Amy Balliett: That's exactly what the intention was. I wanted to empower anybody who will hire a designer with all the knowledge that they need to be able to best manage that designer, set expectations as well as properly review the work, really understand what a good quality piece of visual communication is. The book is written for anybody who's going to be out there hiring designers, but it is also written for designers.

Amy Balliett: For designers, some of the things are fairly basic to them, but they don't necessarily realize that when you combine all of the ingredients that it actually creates a far better outcome.

Polly Yakovich: It's really about putting all those pieces together because I could identify even with some of our designers like, one, two, three, you got on lock, but four, five, six, you're not even considering.

Amy Balliett: Exactly, exactly. And that's the exact point. I really wanted it to be something that... Part two of the book is the part that designers are going to gobble up the most. Parts one and three of the book are the parts that everybody else is going to gobble up the most. I tried to write it in a way that on both sides you're still gaining value from the other pieces of the book. I want designers to feel empowered enough to be able to sell their value and speak to their value but also to execute properly and drive that value.

Amy Balliett: I want anybody who's charged with communicating to an end audience to have the capabilities to identify what content will be a success and to properly build the right team to create that content as well.

Polly Yakovich: I always find it interesting when... As I was reading the book, you get along in your career, and you've been doing this 15, 20 years by now. I'm reading the book. We really focus on content strategy at A Brave New. In the book you described yourself not as a designer, which was what I would've thought you would've described yourself as, but as a visual strategist, which sort of blew my mind. And then I was like, "Should I be embarrassed about this blew my mind?" It made so much sense, and I think is probably one of the key elements that you didn't know that you had that brought magic to Killer.

Polly Yakovich: Talk about what a visual strategist is and why it's so important for creating very valuable compelling and visual communication that actually is effective.

Amy Balliett: Definitely. In my opinion, a visual strategist is kind of this combination of somebody who is a marketer, understands marketing strategy, can really build marketing and comm strategies, but somebody who also has the capabilities to execute and deliver great quality media. A visual strategist is looking at the marketing and communications needs of a company and solving those needs and achieving the goals based on the visual mediums that they're producing.

Amy Balliett: For instance, if I have a client that comes to me saying, "Hey, I've got this great software that I want to get in front of all my target audiences, but I only have three salespeople and there's just not enough time to get them in front of every potential client, what do I do?" At that point, I'm going to look at identifying visual content solutions that can speak for themselves so that a salesperson doesn't have to be always that person talking to an end customer.

Amy Balliett: That means building an email program and creating all the necessary emails for that email campaign, creating a motion graphic or three or four that really help dive you into why the software product is great and why you should buy it and what problems it solves for as well as maybe a white paper and an E book and maybe some gated content as well. Maybe that white paper and E book can be gated. It's kind of like content marketing but identifying how that content marketing is going to be delivering information visually because today's audiences aren't reading.

Amy Balliett: Many content marketers rely on text. So it's how do we do this without text?

Polly Yakovich: I know. Ouch.

Amy Balliett: How do we... Right. Exactly. A visual strategist is somebody who is a content marketer visually. I think saying visual content marketer works just as well. It's just a more loaded phrase.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah. This could be controversial within our agency, but HubSpot recently released some research that said blog posts over 1,200 words are the most effective, et cetera, et cetera. But my suspicion is that's still a visual strategy, that people read the first paragraph, look for the highlights, see that it's substantive and long, do not read it, but the fact that it is substantive and long and it has to be substantive because you don't know what sentence they are going to read, but it still is just a snap capture like, "Oh, they know enough about this to write a really long blog post, so I infer that they are valuable."

Amy Balliett: Yes, I agree with you entirely because HubSpot has also said that people will read an average of 20% of the text put in front of them when there's 600 or more words. Those two statistics are so counter to each other that people are doing exactly what you're saying in my opinion as well.

Polly Yakovich: Yeah, crazy. One of the things I really loved about the book, and this is in one of the appendixes, that you break down project estimates for how much time it's going to take to create something. It's so nice to see in a table. It's sort of a like, "Oh, ," moment. But how do you feel like clients understand the value of the time that goes into creating what to them is a two by two inch picture?

Amy Balliett: Exactly. It's so true. That's why I actually include that table because we come across clients seeing something that looks beautiful. The more beautiful something looks, the more simple something looks, the longer it actually takes to design, but clients think, "Oh, that must've taken an hour."

Polly Yakovich: It's like three lines. Yeah.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, exactly. I'm always educating clients about that. Whenever I'm doing any type of sales, it's consultative sales. It's not hard sales by any means. Because I don't want to be doing a hard sale with a client. I want to consult them to the best solution. But that means I'm going to be very honest about the amount of time it takes to really get to a quality end product. The fact is is because of our globalized economy, there's just such varied pricing for this type of content. What happens is people will often say, "Oh, I can get an infographic for $100 if I go to this website," I don't know, hundreddollarinforgraphics.com. That probably exists.

Amy Balliett: They'll say that, and say, "Well, why would I pay $4,000 for an infographic if I can get one for $100?" The difference is huge. Yes, you can get one for $100. Is it going to succeed online? No, not at all. Is it going to harm your brand? Probably. Are you going to be spending a lot more money trying to salvage what was damaged from going the cheap route? Yes, you probably will.

Amy Balliett: But you don't always have to hit that $4,000 price point either. There are levers that can be pulled to reduce hours, to reduce cost. I think it's really important that clients really understand the amount of hours that truly goes into this level of work. A motion graphic is a really great example. Some motion graphics, every single second of animation is only about an hour of combined work between project management design and animation and content writing. But other animations can be frame by frame. They can have very intense character animations. Those can take three hours per second of animation.

Amy Balliett: Understanding those differences helps a client understand where they can bring down their expectations if they need to bring down budget. That's a huge reason I share that in the book. I also share it because so many designers are pushed to bring their prices down simply because they're competing against other countries. They're not competing against designers in their state or their city, they're competing on a global scale, and that means they're competing against a lot of downward pricing pressure.

Amy Balliett: I think it's important that we level set because you're not going to get great content if you keep pushing for the cheapest solutions.

Polly Yakovich: I love that. When you are looking at who you're hiring and who you're advising and how you're mentoring, what are sort of those key skills that you think a marketer needs to be successful today?

Amy Balliett: That is a really good question. One of the skills that often I don't think marketers realize is so important is to live in the data. Oftentimes, there's a lot of decisions that end up being made just based on trusting your gut. That's important. A good marketer definitely has a good set of instincts at their disposal, but everything should be backed up by data. You need to be able to look at your analytics and determine whether or not your hypotheses are truly accurate.

Amy Balliett: Another big thing is marketers often think one piece of content is all I need to achieve a goal. That is not true. This is yet another good HubSpot stat. The average marketer uses 12 to 14 distinct types of visual media to accomplish a single goal. As marketers are creating visual content, it's important that they identify how the content is going to fit on all the channels that exist and that they customize the content for those channels.

Amy Balliett: In doing that, you have to consider the target audience. So does the illustration style connect with that target audience? Does the tone of the content connect with that target audience? Does the actual type of content work well on the channel that it's being deployed on? These are big things you have to consider. Most importantly, stop using stock imagery. That is a huge problem where marketers continue to default to stock because it's easy, because it's available, it's there, but we are not a culture that reacts to stock like we used to. Stock imagery worked in 2010 and earlier.

Amy Balliett: Since 2010, it has slowly gotten less and less exciting for people because we're an Instagram society. We're all professional photographers now. People want candid, they want authentic, they want custom, original bespoke content. They want high quality design. If you're not delivering on that level, then take a step back, hold off, and build a strategy that lets you deliver on that level because 94% of first impressions are based entirely on design. If you can't deliver great design content as part of your marketing strategy, you're going to instead create really bad first impressions.

Polly Yakovich: I also loved in the book... You would say this is not true, but I know some people would be like, "But I have to use stock. I have no other options." And in the book, you provide some really good examples of, "If you must use stock, this is the way to craft it, change it, adjust it, adapt it so it does not look like stock." Do everything you can do to make that not look like, "Oh, that's a stock image."

Amy Balliett: Exactly, exactly.

Polly Yakovich: We're running out of time, which is a bummer because I could talk to you all day.

Amy Balliett: Right.

Polly Yakovich: I do want to say how do you get... The data is so important. Knowing your audience, so important. When you're creating an infographic, what is your process or what kinds of input do you need from the client to really understand this is the illustration style that's going to appeal to this audience because I know them?

Amy Balliett: Every client is different. Sometimes clients know exactly who their customers statements are. As a result, we get amazing customer personas that we can really work towards. Other times, they have absolutely no clue. We consider the goal that they're trying to achieve and from that we can carve out the type of customer and use some of our own data and information that we have on various customer personas to apply to the decisions that we're making.

Amy Balliett: It really does depend. Our process always starts with identifying the goal, identifying what the best media is to achieve that goal, then writing the narrative. That's the very first thing that we need to do. What is the narrative that we're sharing with that audience? Make sure that the tone of that narrative speaks to them, the word choices or words that they would use in their normal vernacular. We really get that honed. Then once we have that, that plus the customer's personas informs the visual style, and, of course, we consider the brand as well. We want to make sure that we're carrying the brand forward in the styles that we're choosing.

Polly Yakovich: That's great. I want to ask you just a couple of things before I let you go. One is, how do you stay up to date and informed? You just are a wealth of information. How do you actually do that with everything else that you're doing? What are your go-tos?

Amy Balliett: Every presentation I do, I build the deck. That is a huge way I stay informed because I'm constantly out there seeking all the most up to date data, all the most up to date studies that have been done in the world of visual communication, visual language, information design, et cetera. That is one way. I also try to attend as many networking events as I can, which are now all virtual, but that's definitely something I try to do to stay on top of trends. Other than that, I have just such an amazing team that we're all kind of keeping each other up to date and making sure that everybody is paying attention to what they're most passionate about and then sharing that with the rest of the team.

Polly Yakovich: That's great. My last question is something that I ask everybody. I stole it from a research friend of mine, but I love it so much. And that is, what do you consider your superpower?

Amy Balliett: Honestly, my superpower in my opinion is also what I consider my genius zone, which is this really cool exercise that helps you figure out what you like to do. It is teaching, spreading information. That's what I love to do. It's my favorite thing. I like to learn as much as possible because I love being the center of attention and sharing what I learn. I've had people say to me, "You remember way too many statistics." And that's all part of it. It's that I remember what I learn. It stays in my head very, very well and just comes out right when I need it to.

Polly Yakovich: That's amazing. That is a superpower. That is definitely a superpower. I'm always like, "I heard a thing, but I can't remember where, but I'm right." It's harder to win that way.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, I remember the sources and everything.

Polly Yakovich: Thank you so much for your time. I'm so excited for people to hear from you. Where can people find you, follow you, consume your work? Obviously you can buy her book everywhere that books are sold. Tell people how they can keep up with you.

Amy Balliett: Yeah, definitely. You can follow me at Amy Balliett on Twitter. You can also follow me on LinkedIn. In fact, over the next few months, I'm going to be really pushing my presence on LinkedIn a lot more.

Polly Yakovich: Great.

Amy Balliett: I am an Ink contributor, so you can read my articles on Ink. Otherwise follow me at the website Killervisualstrategies.com. The book is available on Amazon. If you just search Killer Visual Strategies on Amazon, you can get it there.

Polly Yakovich: Great. Thank you so much for being with me.

Amy Balliett: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this episode of A Brave New Podcast. Go to abravenew.com for more resources and advice. If you enjoyed this episode, show us some love by subscribing, rating and reviewing A Brave New Podcast wherever you listen to your podcasts.

 

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