Q&Agency: ISITE Design

Welcome to Q&Agency! Each week, I talk to agencies small and large and get to hear (in their words) what differentiates them and the experiences they create. To help bring some of that information to you, I'm showcasing an ongoing series of interviews with small to midsize interactive and design agencies. If you'd like to see your agency or an agency you work with here, let me know!

On April 15th, I talked with Jeff Cram, chief strategy officer and co-founder of ISITE Design. Edited excerpts from that conversation follow.

Forrester: Tell me a little bit about ISITE Design?

Jeff: ISITE Design is a digital agency founded in 1997 in Portland, Oregon. We’ve grown to 55 employees and opened up additional offices in Boston and Los Angeles. We’re fortunate to work with fantastic organizations like Zipcar, Jive Software, Genzyme, and MIT, to name a few. We operate at the exciting intersection of digital strategy, experience design, marketing technology, and measurement. We also just broke ground on a new 18,000-square-foot headquarters in Portland that will be the creative hub for the next chapter of our growth.

Forrester: What is your elevator pitch?

Jeff: We are a digital agency that helps companies rethink how business gets done online. Our mission is to teach organizations how to thrive in a digital age, and we take that seriously. We feel that digital has reached escape velocity from marketing and that organizations need a new type of partner that can help connect smart digital execution to business operations and growth.

Forrester: What are the three key things that differentiate you from your competitors?

Jeff: The first is that we lead with digital strategy. Of course, any agency worth its salt will start with strategy. But digital strategy as we define it is the process of aligning your digital channel with your business. It’s about developing a road map for execution, prioritizing initiatives, staffing teams for success, mapping the customer journey, and relentlessly focusing on the measures of success. We’re finding digital strategy to be an immature discipline inside organizations and agencies, yet a business-critical function for success online and off.

The second is that we believe your website is not a project. The agency-client relationship is very project-centric today. And when that project is done, the consultants scatter, and we all move onto the next thing. We think this model is fundamentally broken. We created our Day2 optimization program to provide organizations the tools, insights, and actions necessary to drive ongoing lift and improvement from their websites and online marketing. We’re helping to bring a culture of continuous improvement to our clients.

And the third is that we believe marketing technology is no longer an IT function. We don’t believe you can easily decouple great user experience from the underlying marketing technology. We’re helping organizations take a customer experience and marketing-centric approach to technology. This includes web content management, testing, targeting, personalization, and more. It’s a huge competitive advantage when you can get it all working together. And it’s a lot harder than it should be to get right. Design agencies often lack the technical chops, and IT firms are short on the strategic rigor.

Forrester: Why is your agency well suited to deliver a great customer experience for your clients (and their customers)?

Jeff:  There’s a lot that goes into great customer experiences in the digital world — from the user research, content, technology, and optimization. We have small teams that can work closely together and become embedded members of our clients’ internal teams. And like I mentioned above, we’re focused less on getting you to launch, and more on optimizing the experiences post-launch. It’s the focus on Day2 that gives organizations a real competitive advantage. There are a lot of underperforming websites and online experiences out there that can use some testing and optimization.

One of my favorite clients is Zipcar, which we’ve worked on and off with for the past few years including its last website overhaul. More recently, we’ve helped it rethink the acquisition experience. The foundational work we did together on the user personas was critical in applying to rethinking how new customers joined. It’s a very complicated business process behind the scenes that Zipcar is able to make elegant and seamless. We love seeing these great research-inspired user experiences come together.

Forrester: What’s it like to work at your agency?

Jeff: We live by eight core values that range from empowering employees to being entrepreneurial to relentlessly pursing growth and learning. We love inviting outsiders in to speak and challenge our teams. In recent months, Jared Spool and Jeremy Keith have been in to provide expert talks. We’re also sending our folks out into the field. Every employee gets a professional development stipend and shares that knowledge with brown-bag sessions and rich internal discussions. We’re blogging, leading local user groups, and speaking as much as we can. The building we just purchased will be an exciting new creative hub for our teams and an important part of our recruiting and retention. It’s a great time to be working in digital and we’re having a blast.