Adam Kleinberg, CEO of award-winning interactive agency Traction, knows the importance of a good mash-up. By bringing together user experience (shaping and predicting user behaviour) and storytelling (connecting with customers on an emotional level), Adam has discovered the secret sauce for serving up a product that gets people talking about your brand. In his Advocamp presentation, Adam provides some compelling examples of both user experience wins, like Airbnb, and fails, like Sears’ Shop Your Way, to show how companies can inspire customers to tell the right stories about their brand.

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So, I’m not the VP of customer success at a technology company. I’m the CEO of an agency called Traction. The title of my talk today is Mash-Up of User Experience and Storytelling.

Why was I invited here to speak to you? My agency has been very successful. We’ve just been named the No. 1 Independent Agency in the United States by iMedia. We were named the No.1 Interactive Agency by B2B Magazine last year. Personally, I was named one of the three most influential digital creatives in the United States by Media Post last year. The reason that my agency has had this success, I think, is in large part because of this word “mash-up”. We are a mash-up.

We started our agency in 2001, and were founded by a programmer and three designers—bringing together creative and technology. We had been involved in advertising and we had been in web development and user experience design. Today, that may not be an unusual combination of skills. But 14 years ago, it really was.

I started off in my career at DDB, which is an ad agency. And DDB was founded by Doyle, Dane and Bernbach. Bill Bernbach is the godfather of modern advertising. And this is an ad that he wrote in the ‘60s (the Mad Men era). This ad really changed advertising, since it was the first time that storytelling really came into play to connect with customers and sell products.

This is a picture of a Volkswagen. It says “Lemon” on the bottom.


And if you read the body copy, it’s all about this car that you might think is perfect but we call it a lemon, because Inspector Kurt Kroner found a blemish on the glove compartment. So, it’s not up to our standards, right? So, telling stories connects with people on an emotional level. And that’s why advertising works.

I also started very early on in the late ‘90s. I was working in user experience design, and I was a designer. And as a designer, I learned that this was my toolkit. I talked about personas and use cases and site maps and wire frames. In fact, I was taught that good user experience is invisible. Has anyone heard that phrase, UX is invisible? But that’s not true, alright? What they mean by that is that it’s about anticipating what someone is looking for. But user experience is about more than that. It has the ability to not just anticipate behavior, but to shape it. And when you combine storytelling and user experience, that’s the potential you can create.

Today, your product and your experience are one and the same. Your user experience IS your product. How many people flew here today? The website that you make your reservations on is as much the brand as the plane. The app that you checked in with is as much the brand as the flight attendant. It’s all part of the experience that you, as a user, encounter when you engage with that brand.

And this is important, because today, storytelling is not just something that a copywriter in a Madison Avenue agency has the ability to do. It used to be a one-sided affair. Storytelling was whoever had the money to create and spend on TV spots and print ads and billboards was the one who had the power to tell a story. Today, we all do. If your experience is great, people will advocate for you. And the flipside of that is that if your experience sucks, people will advocate against you.

Holiday Inn

Take this for example. This is Holiday Inn. This is their website today. Is this the story that you want to tell? Like, ‘I was part of Holiday Inn.’ This is a story I want to sweep under the rug and hide from.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 1.17.00 PM


Look at Airbnb. It’s beautiful, “Welcome home.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.22.10 AM-1637

They still have the transactional capability. We can search there. But it’s about a story—thinking about my weekend. As you scroll down the page, it’s telling individual stories of people who are hosts and guests and the travels that they had, the adventures that they had. I want to get on this website and figure out how I tell my story. And this is why Airbnb has become the biggest hotel company. It eclipsed every hotel company in the planet.


This is Shop Your Way from Sears. This is their new portal they consider this the future of their online shopping experience.Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.26.42 AM-1686

So, what is it? The top basically just has the logo and some navigation. It’s some Pinterest knock off with random stuff when I show up. I don’t get it. I click shop in the navigation and I get this weird little box with these brands. Is that shopping my way?

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 11.27.13 AM-1692Kim Kardashian is hanging out on their website I’m not quite sure why. I’m getting messages. What are those messages? I have no idea what these things are. I’m getting follower requests. These people, randomly, are on my page. I signed up for this loyalty program and these people want to follow me. I don’t know any of these people. It’s creepy. This is not telling stories. This is not anticipating your customers. This is feature bombing. That’s a common problem that we see in user experience.


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I’m very influential (if you didn’t notice) and I have a great Klout score. So, Chevrolet pinged me and said, ‘Hey, you can have a free Chevy Volt for the weekend.’ Very nice. ‘We’ll bring it to your house.’ Beautiful car, electric. I plug it in in my garage. My neighbor is, like, ‘Ooh, that’s cool!’ and I say, ‘I’m very influential.’

I ran a red light because their dashboard was so confusing.

pasted-image-1764I couldn’t find the air conditioner. And I don’t think that is the story that Chevy wanted me to tell you. Feature bombing. It’s a bunch of buttons. Let’s just throw everything out there.

BettermentInvesting Made Better

Let’s look at a different approach. This is a new investing site called BettermentInvesting Made Better. Take a look at this video of their user experience.

You get to the site. It’s spacious, get advice, invest, relax. These are the things I want to do. I want to relax. Scroll down, you see a picture. It’s got some benefit messages here. Tell us about yourself. See our adviser. I’ll do that. Scroll down. Boom! It’s walking me through the experience. This is where I want to invest. What are my options, Citibank?

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 9.41.11 PM-1917

I designed this Website in 1997. I took a screenshot of this last week! This is the kind of thing that the competition is doing. Who are you going to tell a story about?

Kelly-Moore Paints

This is a thing my agency did for Kelly-Moore Paints.


Kelly-Moore Paints wanted to launch a new color system. They had never before really talked to consumers, and they have always been kind of like the painter’s paint store. They wanted to build inroads with consumers. So, we gave them a tool that allowed them to design and share their own color palette. And they can access it from wherever they wanted, design, pick their own colors, save it, share it. This is a regional brand – 60,000 people use this app in Northern California alone. Of the 60,000 people, 38% shared the color palettes that they created on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest. They’re telling stories of what their own living room or their bedroom or their kitchen is going to look like. They are telling that story and they’re including Kelly-Moore in it. That’s the power of a great user experience.


I love Yahoo Weather.

Screen Shot 2015-12-02 at 2.05.36 PM

Anyone have Yahoo Weather on your phone? Such a beautiful app. I always scroll down and look at the wind pressure every time I go. I don’t care what the wind pressure is. But I look at it every time, because it’s so beautiful. It’s such a great experience. In January, I was bragging to my friends back home in New York that it was 72 degrees in Oakland. I took a screenshot from the app and posted it on Facebook. That is customer advocacy.


Full disclosure: Salesforce has been a client of Traction’s. Salesforce was founded on this principle that Marc Benioff, (who had been in enterprise software and had worked at Oracle) said: ‘Why is it that all this enterprise software has a user experience that sucks? Why isn’t my customer relationship management as easy as Amazon’s? Let’s make it that way and create an experience that’s easy to use and fun to use and simple to use.’ They have a $22B market cap today.

So, that’s my talk, keeping it short and sweet. User experience and storytelling are interwoven, and your customers are the ones who are telling stories today. And if you provide them with a great experience, they will tell great stories.

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