This special report from the 2017 High Five Conference was prepared by Holly Larson. Follow her on Twitter @HollyKLarson and connect with her on LinkedIn.
Ashleigh Axios, formerly the Creative Director and a digital strategist in the White House as a part of President Obama’s administration, gave a keynote address, “Design & Digital Innovation for the Obama Administration” on Day 2 of the High Five Conference on Thursday, March 2, 2017, in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Axios now works as a Design Exponent at Automattic, the technology company beyond WordPress.com, which seeks to democratize publishing. She and a team of 500 work remotely to power the platform that is used by 27% of websites today. She is also a Board Member for AIGA.
Axios said she would give conference participants insights into who she is, how the team was structured at the Obama White House, a few managerial tips and 15 tips for amplifying their engagement.
Create a Personal and Professional Brand
Axios believes the best brands are based on personal and professional values. “They are more honest and consistent. They get better market saturation and attract others who have shared values. And they enable more fruitful conversations and debates,” said Axios. “It is incredibly difficult to have conversations with people who are deceitful,” she added, alluding to a political figure who is dominating today’s news.
Axios built her personal brand with her husband. When they got married, she and her husband talked about their values, what they believed, and what impact that wanted to make on the world. They agreed to take a new last name, Axios, which means weighted values. “Because we are designers, it ended up being a branding exercise,” Axios laughed.
Be the First and Challenge Tradition
Axios said she is an introvert; a woman; of black, white, and Native American ethnicity; and was raised by a single woman. Axios was named as one of the 29 most powerful black women in the Obama Administration by Essence Magazine. She was the first female and first creative director of color at the White House as well as the longest-serving designer there.
The Office of Digital Strategy was the first of its kind. “President Obama was very innovative in bringing a dedicated digital team into the White House. He used digital marketing very creatively during the campaign, so once he won it was very natural for him to bring it into the White House,” said Axios.
The Office of Digital Strategy was a small team of about 20 people, creating video, email, online events and engagements; designing content; and managing White House public-facing platforms. The design team, which only had three members at its peak size, did all the public-facing creative work for the White House.
Axios offered the following insights from her time at the White House
- “Everyone contributed ideas and it brought a lot of vibrancy to the content,” said Axios. She quoted Ed Catmull, President of Pixar Animation Studies, “When it comes to creative inspiration, job titles and hierarchy are meaningless.”
- Hire like you want innovation. “Diversity breeds innovation. When we hear diversity, we think it means race or maybe gender. But it is much bigger than that,” said Axios.
Harvard Business Review did a study on diversity and found that there were two types: inherent diversity, what we are born with, and acquired diversity, what you gain over your life and professional roles. Teams that have both kinds are much more innovative and able to adapt.
“Employees of firms with a 2-D diversity are 45% likelier to report a growth in market share over the previous year and 70% likelier to report that the firm captures a new market,” states Harvard Business Review.
As a creative director, Axios determined the best ways to visually represent the brand, managed the design team of three, made wonky policy relatable, and improved the White House public-facing platforms.
The Office of Digital Strategy’s mission was to connect people with purpose. Everyone in the office was looking for opportunities to create meaningful engagement, help communicate the priorities of the Obama administration via digital channels, and showcase who the president was, said Axios.
15 Tips from a White House Digital Strategist
Axios offered tips for improving online marketing success:
- Narrow in on your audience. Axios had a lot of meetings and would ask people who their audience was. The typical answer: “America.” So Axios would then say, “Who is your target audience?” And her internal clients would get inspired and say, “The world.” Conference participants laughed knowingly.
“When you hone in your audience, you make a bigger impact and get activists to jump on board,” said Axios. As an example, Axios showed how she had used a series of comics to connect with specific audiences during ACA enrollment and communicate the program and its benefits in a playful way. The personas included the social media oversharer, the jock, and the caregiver, to name just a few.
- Set goals that stretch you. “It is so important. Most people create quarterly goals which are often tasks. A goal has some question about whether you can actually reach it on the other end,” Axios said.
Axios used The State of the Union address to stretch the team. One year, the team interjected 117 slides into the video streaming on WhiteHouse.gov as President Obama gave his address. However, Axios realized this was a very passive approach to achieving the mission of connecting people with purpose.
The next year, they pulled the graphics into Tweets, so that people could share them, reply, or ask a question. But not everyone uses Twitter. So the following year, the team built a river of content with multiple tools for engagement across social media channels.
- See failure as good data. The technology industry is leading with this. “Don’t be so risk-averse that you don’t take any risk at all,” said Axios.
She showed one of the digital strategy team’s small failures, a video called Latte Gate. The team posted the video and didn’t realize it would be perceived as disrespectful that the president was holding a coffee cup and wasn’t able to salute the soldiers who saluted them.
Another failure occurred when the team shot a funny photo of Michelle Obama with a child’s drawing, created to poke fun at President Obama’s statement that he would take up art after finishing his term. It didn’t show up at the appropriate moment when President Obama gave a speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. The president improvised, and the next day, the team gave the missing slide with the photo to the press.
- View platforms as distinct. The digital strategy team used the revamped WhiteHouse.gov to talk about the administration’s priorities, not just the news of the day.
- Facebook is great for narrative stories and video products, but not for infographics or text-heavy stories. The White House used the iconic profile photo to shape narratives. For the SCOTUS same-sex marriage decision in 2015, the team showed the White House in rainbow hues.
- Urbanites think everyone is on Twitter. It isn’t as well-used in rural areas or other areas of the country. Animated GIFs do well on Twitter. The Love is Love GIF got 26,000 retweets in about an hour.
- Instagram is a great platform for highly visual content. It is very consistent in its presentation. The White House digital strategy team used Instagram for a series on climate change with photos from a variety of different photographers. Axios said that “Highly niche content that is visual and has a strong narrative does really well on Instagram.”
- Snapchat is great for fleeting content. “It can be really messy,” said Axios. One successful Snapchat started on Joe Biden’s foot and went up to reveal him reading and preparing for a speech.
- Roadmap through the moment. Outline what you want to do before, during, and after an event. You then can strategize on how you can leverage social influencers.
- Create space for emotion. The digital strategy team needed to balance President Obama’s strength and emotion. The team sought to find a balance for ethos, pathos, and logos.
For example, there was the Luther Anger Translator skit at the White House Correspondent’s dinner. It wouldn’t have been appropriate for President Obama to show that emotion, but the skit provided a creative vehicle for demonstration emotion and covering important issues, Axios said.
Similarly, the We the People section of the White House website provided citizens with a tool to bring issues to the White House’s attention. Before people had to manually collect petitions. Now Americans can share what is important to them and vent, too.
- Share real movements. The Office of Digital Strategy decided to send President Obama to Alaska to talk naturally about climate change and do it in a backdrop that made sense.
- Have a sense of humor. The team used Between Two Ferns and Funny or Die skits to show off President Obama’s humor while covering major issues like Healthcare.gov.
- Create two-way dialogue. Axios showed President Obama’s first Tweet and also discussed tweets where the White House responded to people directly.
- Try to partner. White House partnered with StoryCorps to highlight the My Brother’s Keeper program. President Obama was interviewed by a young man. The team hosted the event but was totally hands-off.
- Test your assumptions. It wasn’t easy for the team to do campaigns and surveys. However, they did do some simple A/B testing with CTA buttons to see what worked best.
- Tone down the brand to achieve the goals. Some of the early social media graphics from the digital strategy team have the White House seal on everything. That can alienate people who don’t trust the White House, even if they agree with the overall message. Simple graphics with high-impact messages are more sharable.
- Capitalize on engagement. The team learned to simplify asks and only ask for one thing to drive completion rates of the desired task.
- Make the point the frame. The digital team would get raw data. Historically, the information would have been presented as a line graph without real narrative. “Figure out the lesson you want everyone to learn and make that the title” said Axios. “Do the work for your users.”
- There is no shame in latching on. “It is easy to do everything yourself. Leverage what is out there, like trending hashtags,” said Axios. For example, when President Obama spoke on STEM education the team used the rich resources that were already online.
Learn more about Axios at her website (www.ashleighaxios.com) and connect with her on Twitter @ashleighaxios.
Follow the conversation on Twitter at #High5Conf.