Episode 56: Brand Identity and Design with Maggie Donovan

Episode 56: Brand Identity and Design with Maggie Donovan

How to establish a strong visual brand for your business.


Maggie Donovan, marketing designer at ActiveCampaign, joins the podcast to discuss her approach to design and the process of establishing a strong visual brand for a business. In this episode, she clears up some common misconceptions about the visual brand development process, talks about some of the challenges related to design, and lays out exactly what it takes to develop a strong brand identity.
Maggie’s recommended reading for businesses in the brand identity and design process:


Chris Davis: Welcome to the ActiveCampaign Podcast. Today, I have with me [00:00:30] Maggie Donovan. She is on the design team here at ActiveCampaign, and we’re going to sit down and discuss design best practices for businesses. I’ve seen personally, and as an employee here, a lot of good businesses makes a lot of fundamental mistakes in their design that if they knew what to fix and how to fix it, it could have a drastic impact on their [00:01:00] brand awareness, and the credibility of their brand. So I figured I’d grab Maggie, have her come on, and talk about what is design, what’s the role of design, what are some of the challenges, what approach should you have, and how do you go about establishing a strong brand visually? This is all in this episode, this podcast. So let’s jump right into it and listen to what Maggie has to say. Maggie, welcome to the podcast. [00:01:30] Glad to have you on.
Maggie Donovan: Hello.
Chris Davis: How are you doing?
Maggie Donovan: Good. How are you?
Chris Davis: Maggie, I’m doing great, and I’m going to do a lot greater, because we get to talk about design, and I have to make a confession. Maggie, in an alternate universe I am an artist that has a passion for color, shape and a true appreciation for the artistic approach to life. In this universe, I’m a director of education. [00:02:00] But I think that design often gets a bad rep, because of the order in which it’s approached. It’s specific to business, right? A lot of people go to design first, as like, “That’s what I need. I need a logo. I need colors and then I’ll get customers.” So I’m glad to have you on to dispel those misconceptions by defining [00:02:30] what design is.
Maggie Donovan: Sure.
Chris Davis: So less start. Well, no, no. I don’t want to start there yet. Tell us a little bit about your background, Maggie.
Maggie Donovan: Okay. I actually went to school for television and film production, so I didn’t start out or study largely design. I decided about halfway into my college like major studies, that I wasn’t a huge fan of film, although I appreciate it, I wasn’t very good at it. [00:03:00] So I found myself being more excited about designing the posters and like the promotional stuff for the film festivals that we would have on campus. So I kind of took that and explored it a little bit more, and took design classes and kind of made my own little design major [crosstalk 00:03:18] to sneak my way into some design courses, and then all my internships after college were in design, and then I moved into the agency world, where I worked [00:03:30] as a Digital Designer doing UI, UX, creating social media ads, and did that for about 5-6 years, and then now, I am at ActiveCampaign, where it’s new for me because it’s a tech company. So I’m coming from agency life to tech so it’s been a little bit of a transition.
Chris Davis: Yeah, because in the agency realm, the client changes, right? And here you get to dig a little more deeper into the identity, [00:04:00] what the mission, vision and everything-
Maggie Donovan: Yes. Into the brand of one company.
Chris Davis: And how how has that impacted your approach to design? Has it made it easier?
Maggie Donovan: I think so, because at an agency, you’re flip-flopping through sometimes three or four clients a day, and having to keep their branding in mind every time you transition into a new client in that one day. So working for one [00:04:30] company and a tech company has been definitely enjoyable, because I’ve been able to play a huge role in how the brand and the visual identity is evolving, and being able to play a role in that process from start to finish instead of kind of jumping in, in the middle.
Chris Davis: Yes. So with that in mind, if you could, if it’s even possible, Maggie, what would you say is the single [00:05:00] role or function of design?
Maggie Donovan: I don’t believe there’s a single role in design, but I think there’s a couple of main focuses that a designer should put above anything else, and I think that main role should be or that main focus should be problem solving. I think that can extend across all design that’s out there, UI, UX, product design, just you know your traditional print design. And as a designer especially here to ActiveCampaign, I’m [00:05:30] constantly thinking about what I can do through my designs to help with solving a problem. So you know, helping customers achieve whatever is brought to them, you know, whatever brought them to our website, helping them achieve either the goal that they came to the website for to achieve, or solve a problem. And sometimes a website or often a website is the very first impression that a customer [00:06:00] has of a brand. And so it’s important that this impression is one that is full of ease and is easily digestible, but also fills people with excitement about what you offer. That’s where the pretty UI comes in, is making it exciting, and messaging plays a part in that.
Chris Davis: You know what? I’ve never heard of it. Or I should say, I haven’t thought of it. Maybe I have heard of it, but I haven’t thought of it in terms of problem [00:06:30] solving. And as you were just kind of like explaining it, I was thinking of this invisible assistant that’s there every step of the way, that’s, “Oh, no. Click here. No, read this, then go here.” And that’s what effective design does, right? It makes that process, that engagement process with any … And it’s not limited to websites. It could be a flyer, it could be a poster, anything. It [00:07:00] makes it easy for the person to do the one thing that you want them to do, and most of the time, that’s consume, consume something. So in that communication or that assistance or that problem solving vein, what are the challenges?
Maggie Donovan: I would say, the challenges can be when you’re trying to get your message across or ideas [00:07:30] across. Sometimes, you can want to say a little too much. So a challenge that I face sometimes is knowing what and where the information should go, and if it’s even necessary. Sometimes, it takes a lot of cutting out information to make sure that you’re not overwhelming your visitor, that you’re not leaving them confused if you put too little, you know, making sure that there’s the right amount of communication [00:08:00] on your web page or you know on your promotion via an ad or a print flyer or anything of that sort.
Chris Davis: Which I can imagine could be challenging when you have either copywriters or writers. [crosstalk 00:08:19] then have written the copy. And then it comes to you and you’re like, “I like it. But I shortened it a little bit to flow better.” [00:08:30] Have you struggled a lot with that relationship?
Maggie Donovan: Yeah, there’s been challenges. I don’t say so much that I struggle, because usually copywriters are very easy to work with.
Chris Davis: Gotcha.
Maggie Donovan: Because I mean I feel like most of the time they’re okay with shortening things, because they want the message to get across as effectively as you do. So I’ve never had too many problems with a copywriter being like, “No, it needs to be this long.” [00:09:00] Usually they’re pretty happy with shortening and being a part of the process. It’s been a pretty smooth collaboration.
Chris Davis: Yeah, I mean, it should be right? At the end of the day, you’re both aligned to one goal, and the copy is doing one thing, design is doing another, and we’re working together or should be working together to achieve that goal. Give us a breakdown, Maggie, of your process to design, and [00:09:30] let’s take it from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have their branding established. You know, they’re a business and, you know, maybe they’ve been doing something online. They’re like, “You know what? I need to … I think it’s time. I need to brand myself. I need to pay some attention to this.” What is the process that [inaudible 00:09:49] and the steps that you go through?
Maggie Donovan: I would say, the most important thing can … Well, it would have to be knowing your values [00:10:00] and knowing yourself, whether it’s a personal brand, knowing yourself as a person or a company, knowing what you stand for, and your mission statement and all those things you hear about, having your values, your mission statement, your focus, and then until you have that, until you truly believe in it, and have that down, only then can the visual branding aspect come from that, because it evolves from those values. So I would say that’s [00:10:30] the first step. A lot of people tend to miss that step and kind of jump right into what they think looks pretty, and what will look good on a website. So really knowing yourself as a company, I think, is the very first step.
Chris Davis: Yeah. And pause real quick Maggie, because you made me think [inaudible 00:10:47] you got me thinking Maggie on the podcast. All right. So it even goes to your vision, mission, your messaging. What does your brand stand [00:11:00] for? Even goes into the colors you select.
Maggie Donovan: Yes.
Chris Davis: So like you said, somebody may like, “Oh, I really like this blue. It’s so pretty.” And then after you hear you’re like, “No you have more of a like a strong brand, or I think purple like royalty [inaudible 00:11:17] color would be better, right?”
Maggie Donovan: Yes.
Chris Davis: I could see how that could pose quite the interesting experience. Because, I don’t think that there is that level of depth in thought process, [00:11:30] when it comes to design. It’s like, almost like picking clothes. “I like that cloth. I like that shirt. I like those pants. Put it together.” But it’s inherent you know what your style that you’re trying to, like, you know who you are hopefully. So, then the clothes that you pick are … So anyways, the first step, the vision, mission, values, what do you stand for. Then what?
Maggie Donovan: I would say, then from there, knowing what you want [00:12:00] to solve. Going back to that problem solving. For example, I like thinking about The Color Run. Are you familiar with that?
Chris Davis: No.
Maggie Donovan: That 5k, where they like throw colors on people as they run?
Chris Davis: Oh, no.
Maggie Donovan: So, it’s pretty well known. But it’s a 5k run, and a good example of that is a problem they’re trying to solve, is getting people to sign up for the [inaudible 00:12:22] and to run this 5k and get healthy and get out there. And what better way to do that than to energize people [00:12:30] from the very start?
So when they go on their website or look at the ads that they have out there, they’re very colorful. They have every color of the rainbow going on. They don’t just have like one or two colors.
Chris Davis: Interesting.
Maggie Donovan: And so, seeing all of the colors and the bold lettering, it’s in your face, it’s telling you, “Get out there, get to this 5k”, and they energize people through their actual brand name. So I’d say, they’re a very good example of a strong brand, you know, taking their values, [00:13:00] which was the first step, and going on to making it a reality.
Chris Davis: Yeah, and solving that initial problem.
Maggie Donovan: Yes.
Chris Davis: Now, of course, your problems will be multilayered. But it’s one common thing that you want people to do. And in that example it’s “Sign up for this”.
Maggie Donovan: Yes.
Chris Davis: So all right. The business says, “Hey, here’s my values, here’s my mission. And this is what I want people to do.” Then what?
Maggie Donovan: [00:13:30] Then you got to start talking to a designer and sit down, whether it’s a freelance designer, or working, you know, whoever you choose to work with a designer, that brings in the creative briefs, and every designer has a different approach. For me, my approach is pretty straightforward. I like to keep things pretty simple without a lot of fluff. I don’t like to backtrack a lot, so for example, my approach here is you know, get a creative brief. I’ll sit down and I’ll really start [00:14:00] researching what needs to be solved, what goals need to be achieved, and then going into like the wireframing process, and for, if you’re doing a brand identity project, that would be creating a mood board, or grabbing examples you know, asking the client for inspiration, and building off of that and giving them some concepts. So doing concept work would probably be the next step to what your brand would start shaping up to be like.
Chris Davis: [00:14:30] Yeah, and one of the things that I’ve noticed online when I look at a lot of websites, particularly business websites, that I’m really surprised about is the lack of consistency. Sometimes, they’ll have buttons that are different colors. Sometimes, even different color hyperlinks. Does that matter? Does the consistency in your design matter, or [00:15:00] is it just about facilitating that action that you want to take place?
Maggie Donovan: It definitely matters. I think, when you have different colors going on, people don’t know what to look for. And you know, it’s a well-known fact that people don’t read all the information that’s on the page. They mostly skim it. So people … It’s a psychological thing. People look for certain colors or certain typography hierarchy you know, they look for titles and they look for different titles, [00:15:30] different colors, different font sizes. That helps ease them through the experience. So yes, I do think consistency plays a huge role and how successful a brand will be.
Chris Davis: Yeah, it’s interesting, because these are … Without the informed approach, you don’t even think about these things.
Maggie Donovan: Yeah.
Chris Davis: Right? It’s [00:16:00] just like, “Get a website up. Put buttons in form so we can start capturing.” But once you get past that stage, right, once you get past that stage, and you really start taking your business serious, what can a business owner do to ensure that consistency? Now, I asked that question, I’m going to answer it slightly, and then let you take it. From what I’ve learned and you correct me if I’m wrong, if this is the best way, is a style guide where like every brand or every … [00:16:30] Working with a designer, you should have a style guide that says, “Hey, we use this color here, this color there.” Is that a standard practice that you’ve seen and have done?
Maggie Donovan: Oh yeah. Anywhere that I’ve ever worked, we’ve had a style guide. And I think if you don’t have a style guide, you’re almost set up to fail, because that consistency is going to go downhill pretty fast, especially if you add more to numbers, and more people into this branding process. Some things are going to get lost in [00:17:00] translation. So a style guide is almost like your Bible to remain consistent with your brand and to evolve it in a simple and smooth way.
Chris Davis: Yeah, because you’re right, at some point you have more people.
Maggie Donovan: Yeah. And more to add, you know brands evolve. And so that way you can take … You have laid out visual way to see where your brand has been [00:17:30] and help you figure out where it’s been.
Chris Davis: Yes. You’ve compelled me, I’m going to confess on the podcast today. Maggie, when I was first starting out … I’m so ashamed I’m even saying this. But for the listeners who this resonates with, it’s okay, there’s time to change. I would eyeball my colors.
Maggie Donovan: Okay.
Chris Davis: So I would go to the color picker and I’ll say, ” [00:18:00] That’s close to the orange that I think,” and I would just go. I had no value on having the exact color, because I didn’t know about hex codes. I didn’t even know that if you use the same code, it will be consistent across print and web and everything. So, at some point I have printed off business cards. I had a website, I had … and all of the oranges were different to the point where one time I couldn’t even recognize if it was [00:18:30] mine because I got so used to looking at the orange on my site. I looked at my business cards like, “Was this mine?” So I am one that did not understand the value of hex, but with your style guide, it really makes those things easy. Because, you don’t even have to eyeball anything. It’s just a matter of going to the style guide, identifying the color that you want to use, copying the hex code and paste. Anybody can do that. Right?
Maggie Donovan: Yes. Yep. Everything you need, [00:19:00] if you do a style guide correctly, and there’s so many places, so many resources. There’s even a resource online that will provide a template so you just plug it in. They have it section by section, and you just plug in your information, and there you have a style guide.
Chris Davis: Interesting.
Maggie Donovan: So you don’t need to know how to do it from the very start. There’s resources online that will help you. And yeah, it’s kind of like a fool-proof way of making your brand [00:19:30] consistent. I just wouldn’t recommend not having a style guide.
Chris Davis: Maggie, I’ll get a couple of those resources, so we can add them to the podcast, because I can only imagine, if I would have had just something simple like a simple baseline to say, “This is your orange. This is your green, this is your blue.” How much easier … Now, when it comes to … And listen, design is specific to the brand. [00:20:00] A brand at any point reserves the right to break a rule to solve the problem. As a rule of thumb, should people limit their color palette?
Maggie Donovan: I believe so. Otherwise, it can get too busy, too all over the place. I think if you get too much going on, you start to lose focus what you began with. My general rule is, at [00:20:30] any project, I try to use no more than three fonts, and no more than three colors.
Chris Davis: Wow.
Maggie Donovan: Because then it just starts going all over the place and looking busy. So in order to make it again, digestible and just straightforward, my rule of three is one that has been working out pretty well for me.
Chris Davis: Yes. And I think we’re seeing that. Of course, you all see it [00:21:00] on the website and in the application. I would say the most colorful we get is in the automation builder and in the CRM, where you can select all of those colors. But I will say and I didn’t know if it was like specific to males or females, right, like how they interpret colors, but a lot of colors do. It confuses me. Even if it’s a simple blog. It’s just like, I’m trying to read an article. [00:21:30] Not a lot of pictures. If the color isn’t like pictures with humans, that’s fine. But if you’re using all of these greens, blues, reds, yellows, like I really don’t, I get overwhelmed really quickly. I’m just like, “Let me go. Let me go.” All right. So in that, if you were to focus, if you were to use the rule of threes, [crosstalk 00:21:57] rule of threes to establish [00:22:00] a clean, minimalist presentation as far as color, and you’re not saying you stick with. Those are your primary colors. You’ll bring in other colors as needed.
Maggie Donovan: Sure. As needed.
Chris Davis: I would say what are some elements that go into establishing a strong visual brand?
Maggie Donovan: I would say, getting your palette down you know, knowing what fonts [00:22:30] are going to work with your company, or your business, whatever you’re trying to promote. So for example, if you’re an accountant, and you have a business that is all about accounting, you’re probably not going to use a font that’s considered too fun, because you want to be taken seriously as an accountant, and have a little bit more sophistication. So you’re probably going to choose a font that is a little bit more sophisticated, and not so much in your face, because [00:23:00] you don’t want to overwhelm people with accounting. So it’s all about matching the fonts and the colors with your purpose, and what your mission is and what you’re trying to sell.
Chris Davis: Maggie, you know what? There are so many parallels with the design and marketing because if your messaging isn’t consistent across your marketing process, people are going to fall out, and the same can be said, the same is [00:23:30] said for design. I’ve got one other quick … This is a bonus question, Maggie.
Maggie Donovan: Sure.
Chris Davis: Everybody brace yourself for this one. Logos.
Maggie Donovan: Yeah.
Chris Davis: Okay? I have seen, again, I’m going to raise my hand and indict myself. When I first started learning about business, the first thing I thought I needed was a logo, like that was this like, “Aah.” And I obsessed over it. The logo’s got to be just super tight. What [00:24:00] are your thoughts on the role of a logo?
Maggie Donovan: I feel like the logo doesn’t … Like you said, people usually start with the logo. I don’t think it needs to be first. I don’t think it’s a crime if you start with that first. But I think, it evolves better, and it’s a much easier process to get a logo that you actually enjoy and represents you well. If you get everything else done first. [00:24:30] You know, the nitty gritty of figuring out what your values are, and the problem you want to solve, and then the colors, the typography, because it all has to match at the end of the day and it has to be-
Chris Davis: Absolutely.
Maggie Donovan: You know, fluid. So I would say, logo is definitely important but it’s something, it’s almost like the bow on top of a present.
Chris Davis: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Yeah, because this is going to take in all of the upfront the work [crosstalk 00:24:57] the colors, the [00:25:00] font, the vision, everything.
Maggie Donovan: Yes. Right. And so you know, a logo sets the tone, but that’s for the customers to see. But for you, you know, building your brand, I think that the logo shouldn’t come first in that. You know, you should let everything else set this tone, and have the logo be sort of like a last piece to the puzzle. [00:25:30] I keep using these analogies but yeah.
Chris Davis: Yeah, and I would say, when I look at logos, what I always think about, because I’m … You know, you have complex logos that are like characters and all of this. I always think about printability. Starbucks probably has one of the more [crosstalk 00:25:52] logos and they’ve done a really good job. I look at the way that they print their logo, and it’s a lot of simple lines [00:26:00] and shapes. It’s not like all of these complex angles and everything like that. And I always think of a logo. How will it look on my shirt? If I were to print it off, how does that logo look. Now of course, I’m kind of stating my design style is more simplistic. Do you have an opinion or a preference, either way, of really advanced [00:26:30] logos versus simple, iconic, base logos?
Maggie Donovan: I think logos should definitely be more simplistic. If you really look at the more iconic logos, they really are simple in style. And as they continue to evolve, they stay simple, because that’s what works. If you have … I’ve seen logos and I’ve worked with logos where they have colors and these are the only colors that work. A good logo, you can use it on a black background, you can use it on [00:27:00] a blue or red. So if it can’t be used across all sorts of different mediums, and used at all sorts of different sizes, I would consider that not a good logo. You want your logo to be able to be seen at any size, any medium, you know, on a billboard or on a pin. And so you really have to keep that in mind that it’s scalable, it’s readable at all sizes, and that you know, it gets the point across without having to paint too [00:27:30] big of a picture.
Chris Davis: Yeah. You know what? I didn’t think about having the logo should look good against any color. Right?
Maggie Donovan: Right.
Chris Davis: Oh, Maggie, that was so good. Okay.
Maggie Donovan: Because I’ve had clients you know, give me their logo and there’s you know, every color possible in the logo. And then it does just, when you turn it to all white, because you need to use it with another color, it just blends together, or it doesn’t look like the logo it once was.
Chris Davis: Because it was using the [00:28:00] color to separate. And when you take the color away, now it’s just a blended symbol.
Maggie Donovan: And then you limit yourself from what you can do with your logo, and where you can put it.
Chris Davis: Wow.
Maggie Donovan: Simplicity is key I think when it comes to a logo.
Chris Davis: Isn’t it with everything? But you know, it’s like the long-winded uncle or family member that you dread seeing because it’s going to take them two hours to say, you know, to tell you what they want to say [crosstalk 00:28:27] your story and then you’ve got the cousin who’s nice [00:28:30] and concise. This is all just a season, but they like to speak in short sentences. And to me in my life, it’s those short sentences that have stuck with me. The long uncle was just like, “Oh my god, let me go. I have to go in this room now.”
Maggie Donovan: Yes.
Chris Davis: But it’s just like that and everything else. The more experienced, the closer you get to mastery of a topic, of your vision, your values or whatnot, you should be able [00:29:00] to communicate that with less words.
Maggie Donovan: Less is more.
Chris Davis: Right. And in doing so it will be more impactful.
Maggie Donovan: Yes. Absolutely.
Chris Davis: Right. It’s like, “Just do it.”
Maggie Donovan: Yeah.
Chris Davis: Any and everybody can remember that. The first time you hear it, you don’t have to be like, “What was that word again?” It’s just simple. And of course. Maggie, you didn’t start like that, but it evolved and as you get better, things should get simpler. They should get shorter. You should be able to go and have a headline [00:29:30] that’s maybe two to three words. And it be very impactful. Those are things, honestly, Maggie, that I never paid attention to. And now when I go to a website, I’m just like, “Oh that was good.” It’s just so short and so powerful. So are we safe to say that that is a level of mastery in design and communication when you could say more with less?
Maggie Donovan: Yes. I would absolutely agree. Just take it from you know, [00:30:00] the icons that we all recognize when we’re on the street or any sort of tagline. Most of the time, nine times out of 10, they are very simple and to the point.
Chris Davis: You’re so right. Maggie, I want to thank you for letting me pose as a designer.
Maggie Donovan: No problem.
Chris Davis: We often have conversations just in passing and I like to pick your brain about design and I hope the intent was to capture a lot of that conversation for our users because [00:30:30] let’s just be honest, we see your stuff. You guys [crosstalk 00:30:34] you raise tickets, send us to pages, and a lot of times it’s, you just don’t know what to do.
They truly have a desire to do better and they want their brand to look as good as possible. So I think that this will be very instrumental for them. Maggie, make sure you … So let’s promise some links to the style guide and what would you recommend, [00:31:00] I know you’re a designer, but real quick in closing, to help somebody really capture what are their values and the vision? Is there a particular exercise that you’ve done in the past, that you’ve seen work really well? What would you say to that stage?
Maggie Donovan: An exercise I like is just basically word [inaudible 00:31:19] you know you’re writing down everything that you believe your brand encompasses. You just write it down, and then [00:31:30] eliminate some words you know, shuffle the words around. And I think sooner or later, you’ll end up with two, three, four different values, just narrowing it down starting with a lot, and it’s a weeding out process, I would say.
Chris Davis: Yeah, that’s good. All right Maggie, I won’t hold, because I can’t hold you [inaudible 00:31:49]. We can keep talking, but no. All right. Thank you for coming on to the podcast, and putting your expertise on display. You all are familiar with Maggie’s work. You see [00:32:00] it every single day, when you log in and interact with the website. So thank you so much, Maggie.
Maggie Donovan: Thank you.
Chris Davis: All right. I’ll see you in office.
Maggie Donovan: All right.
Chris Davis: Thank you for listening to this episode of the ActiveCampaign Podcast. I hope it was very instructional and tactical. When it comes to design, it is extremely important, I do not by any means want to minimize design or the impact of it. I just want you all to understand [00:32:30] the process in which you should approach it. Design needs to be informed in order for it to be effective, and you inform design by your values, your goals, your messaging, what it is that your business stands for, and understanding the problems that you’re trying to solve, because design is going to serve as an aid to everything, to help move those strangers, those visitors, those leads, [00:33:00] those prospects, those customers to taking the action that you desire. Design is your assistant. Okay? And it wants to work for you. You just need to tell it how to work for you.
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