Three Online Marketing Lessons Courtesy of Alec Baldwin’s Website

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Postscript: I wrote this post well before the Baldwin-American Airlines-Twitter debacle. With his Twitter account deactivated, his tweets are no longer integrated into his website layout. As yet, nothing has replaced them. Time will tell whether Baldwin gets his act together and rejoins Twitter. Given his periodic fits of temper, perhaps it’s not such a good fit for him.

Remember how Tom Cruise cemented his death grip on a legion of fans with the famous “You complete me” scene in 1996’s Jerry Maguire?

I feel that way about how Alec Baldwin whisper-gasps, “Good God, Lemon!” on 30 Rock (jump to 0:40 to hear it):

Perhaps for no better reason, I started following Baldwin on Twitter. If you’re curious, he is a prolific tweeter.

In October 2011, Baldwin launched a new website, which he announced to his Twitter followers. It coincides with the launch of Here’s the Thing, his new radio show on WNYC:Alec Baldwin's Website

Beyond the obvious cross-marketing plan, his site offers three lessons for marketers, web designers and brand specialists:

  1. If you are literally the face of your brand, glory in it.
  2. Simple is always better.
  3. Speak for yourself.

If You Literally Are Your Brand, Stop Kidding Yourself And Glory In It

In the era of the personal brand, actors make for an interesting case study.

Acting is a profession in which personal branding — a catch-all term for reputation, career choices, skills, social presence, style, and physical appearance — has always been intimately connected to business and marketing decisions.

Consider movie star salaries. Vast attention is paid to who commands how much per film. The figures — particularly the $20 million mark — play a large part in dictating who qualifies as A list.

Star salaries reflect studios’ attempts to game the box office by anticipating ticket sales based on fan response to the presence of this or that actor. This business model takes personal branding to the furthest extreme where the star, the brand and the pay check are virtually indistinguishable.

Forbes does a whole issue on this topic every year:Forbes: The Celebrity 100 Special Issue Cover

Given this reality, I am consistently amazed by the number of actors who do not maintain a personal web presence (or pay someone to do it for them) to make reputable information, images and other media readily available.

Search for Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, Robert Pattinson or Cameron Diaz and Google will give you nothing but IMDb, Wikipedia and fan pages.

Perhaps the traditional publicist is viewed as a sufficient resource. Perhaps the large websites I mentioned do a sufficiently adequate job of aggregating information to fulfill a star’s web-based promotional needs.

Perhaps having a website is viewed with disdain in Hollywood circles — do actors expect fans to build sites for them for free?

I can only speculate.

Regardless, the Baldwin redesign not only makes a strong case for having an official presence — it visually demonstrates that when the relationship between the brand and the person is so close as to be indistinguishable, you might as well glory in it:Alec Baldwin's Website

Here’s what works:

  1. The wall-to-wall photo instantly draws the eye to Baldwin. On my desktop monitor, the sizing scales in such a way that I feel as though he is looking me in the eye. There is no doubt I am in the right place.
  2. The site references and builds upon existing success. This particular photo references Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy character on 30 Rock through his wardrobe and styling. Simultaneously, the art direction evokes Baldwin’s credit shot in 30 Rock’s opening sequence. There’s also something about the combination of the proportions, lighting and grainy TV feel that evokes the 1950s when television and radio were primary information sources. I’m not a photographer or art major, so I can’t be more technical about my response than that, but I suspect this feeling is deliberate.
  3. The other four photos include (clockwise from top left) the anchor photo for the new radio show, two older shots that reference earlier points in Baldwin’s long career, and a shot of 30 Rock’s principal cast members. All work well within the Spartan layout:Assorted home page photos on Alec Baldwin's website
  4. The photos don’t change while you look at the page, avoiding the visual noise of meaningless transitions. They do change when you reload the page; the mechanism appears to be random. This strategy keeps the site feeling fresh but not at the expense of the one-time visitor’s experience.
  5. The text area in the bottom right changes to shift visitor attention to deeper content areas or Baldwin’s Twitter account. There is a navigation option to stop and backtrack if some snippet or other catches your attention.

Why is this interesting to anyone outside the entertainment industry?

Searching for the term personal brand currently gives me 51 million Google results. Social media has made building and curating a personal web presence both easier and more necessary than it once was.

Like acting, soft skills such as reputation, influence and presence are starting to determine our paycheques in many other professions.  In my profession — communications and marketing — not having a web presence of any sort is sort of weird.

If you are a public figure (e.g., a politician, journalist, author, artist, etc.) or a key spokesperson for your brand (think Steve Jobs and Apple), foregrounding the personal within your brand across your communications may help distinguish you from competitors while building a stronger rapport with the people you influence.Steve Jobs & Apple via Technorati

Downplaying the relationship — or pretending it isn’t there — can appear disingenuous.

Within the last week, Baldwin’s example has prompted me to add a photo to my About page and update it across my social media presences.

Whatever The Analytic Eye may become down the road, it is intimately connected to me now. Thanks to LinkedIn, my image is publicly available through the most basic of Internet searches. Making some half-hearted attempt to protect my privacy by not including my photo on my blog feels foolish.

Simple is Better

Baldwin’s site deftly handles navigation through a simple, streamlined layout. Granted, it is easier to limit your navigation headings to five when you’re dealing with an individual and not a large organization, but the principle still applies.

There are five basic headings — Home, Ideas, Events, Causes, and About: Events page for Alec Baldwin's Website

Notice the About section is placed at the bottom. In the past, About pages were listed first in navigation menus. They also tend to be among the more static sections of a site.

Foregrounding Baldwin’s Ideas, Events or Causes reflects more dynamic content that may be more likely to generate repeat visitors.

Each section follows the same general template and includes:

  • Featured content slots.
  • Headings and short summaries arranged in a double or triple column for quick browsing.
  • Re-purposed Twitter content, including Baldwin’s thumbnail photo.

Here’s what works well:

  1. The clean layout is easy to scan.
  2. Recurring elements appear in the same place on every page (e.g., Facebook and Twitter buttons).
  3. Clicking through section headings provides substantially more information than what appears on the summary page. I particularly like that Baldwin has taken the time to explain why he supports the listed causes in the Causes section. It personalizes the site, provides insight into him as a public figure and makes his appeal for additional support more genuine:Why Alec Baldwin supports The New York Philharmonic
  4. The content is current. During my first visit, the Events section featured one item — a plug for the radio show launch — but the section now includes more listings. Better still, the original event is no longer listed. This is the most basic step for maintaining a site, but it’s shocking how often old events (and other digital garbage) are left lying around on websites. The odds of visitors wanting to know what you did last week let alone last year is slim to none, so unless archiving fulfils some kind of essential internal function, it’s to be avoided.
  5. The content has been curated. The Ideas section is the best example of this practice on the site, allowing Baldwin and his team to highlight recent guest columns (such as this piece on 9/11’s 10th anniversary for The Huffington Post) along with reviews and other tidbits selected by Baldwin. It feels a bit like a Twitter feed but adjusted for an audience that either doesn’t use Twitter or wants more content referrals and less random banter than Baldwin’s feed currently provides:Ideas page on Alec

The only thing these sections are missing is some colour, particularly when compared to the striking visuals on the main page. The white layout, while tasteful, gets a little bland after repeated viewings.

Adding photo or video thumbnails would add visual interest and supplement the text by making it easier to scan the entries.

Speak For Yourself

One feature I like best about this site is how it puts the bulk of the content in Baldwin’s own words. For a celebrity, this choice instantly creates rapport.

Take a look at his About page, which combines the traditional bio with a tidy summary of Baldwin’s current projects:Alec Baldwin biography in his own words

Whether he wrote the text or not — and I would assume that he did given his willingness to write for outlets like The Huffington Post — putting the words in his own mouth reinforces the authority of the site’s content.

It also makes the complementary things he says about his peers (Tina Fey and Lorne Michaels among them) sound more genuine in an industry known for obsequious praise.

His bio on an older version of this site contains more or less the same information, but the difference in tone is night and day — distant and impersonal:Alec Baldwin old biography text

What’s the underlying message?

Alec Baldwin wants to use this website to connect with people. He cares about its content.

Incorporating his Twitter posts reinforces this choice. If you are willing to engage with people and respond to them on Twitter, integrating that content on your website is a no-brainer.

I would argue the site doesn’t use Twitter extensively enough. Baldwin generates scads of material. I am curious why no more than one Tweet is shown since they appear to update in real-time.

(Postscript: In retrospect, this looks more like the web team hedging their bets on the tension between Baldwin’s ability to be entertaining versus the risk of his volatile outbursts.)

My other quibble is with the project list. All the entries should link to appropriate websites for people who want more information, as opposed to just the headings.

Why refer me to IMDb and make me do extra work if this page has already shown me that I’m only interesting in knowing more about Running with Scissors and not his other films?

Summing Up

I watched a CBC documentary on Facebook last week (Facebook Follies) that argued we are in an age of communications revolution the likes of which humanity has not seen since the invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1430s.

That sort of shocked me for a minute. Then I nodded.

When I started university in the mid-90s, the Internet was just becoming important to day-to-day life. In the last decade, websites have become critical to business plans.

In the last five years, social media has amplified that relationship to heights no one thought possible at the turn of the millennium, but I think we forget how new humanity is to websites and the technology that makes them possible — and how much trial and error is still involved in creating them.

I think Stewart Foss — founder of and chief strategist at Design Spike — said it best in his yearly presentation on “Canadian Style: The Good, the Bad & the Easily Improved of Canadian Higher-Ed Websites.”

The slides speak for themselves:

Stewart Foss Slide 33
Reasons we are all victims: Foss Slide 34
Web development cycle: Foss Slide 43

Foss was talking about the cyclical challenges involved in designing good websites within the higher education sector, but I imagine the uncertain process he so aptly described is familiar to anyone whose job involves web builds, redesigns or maintenance.

When I look at a site like Baldwin’s and find things to admire about it, part of me thinks, “well, of course it’s good. Baldwin and his people clearly do not have the budget and resourcing challenges that people like you face every day.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

While researching this post, I had a look at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which put Baldwin and his team’s achievement in better perspective.

Here’s what Baldwin’s site looked like for most of 2011:Alec courtesy of The Way Back Time Machine

The layout is busy. The navigation is in the middle of the page. There’s no social media presence, although there is an old-school news crawl along the bottom.

The anchor photo used so effectively on the new site is competing against the other two photos. The photos also changed every few seconds without any mechanism for the visitor to stop them:Transitioning photos on old version of Alec

As you saw in the old biography screenshot above, the dark backdrop made the words harder to read. And, as I mentioned, the bio was written in the third person.

And I don’t even want to talk about this:

Events page for old version of Alec

What’s the takeaway?

Good website design involves serious effort, no matter who you are, what kind of resources you have or what you’re trying to achieve.

And every site has periods where its design needs serious improvement.

Even if you’re Alec Baldwin.