A few weeks ago we had a coffee with Alex Osborn from RIVER, a Digital Innovation agency in Auckland. We spoke about the industry, trends, challenges, customer's expectations, and of course their relationship with SiteHost.
Hi Alex, thanks for having a chat with us today. Could you tell us a bit about RIVER and what you guys do?
Sure thing. RIVER was founded by our Directors Isaac and Rai almost a decade ago as a traditional web agency. Isaac had a business and web development background while Rai had a design background. Around five years ago the team started going through a growth phase as they started responding to the rapidly changing needs of customers, which is when I joined as the Technical Lead. Meeting the needs of our clients is what brought about our own transformation into RIVER, a digital innovation agency that helps our customers adapt to a rapidly changing market and transform themselves.
If you look back to when you started, what is something you have learned that you wish you knew at the beginning?
Focus on your strengths – don’t try to do everything, and remember the client isn’t always right. (Laughing) Seriously though, one of the things I’ve learned is being able to say “No” to a customer and pushing back where it counts. We’ve learned that business owners and directors sometimes have a strong opinion on what needs to be done to get the results they’re aiming for. It’s something we understand as it’s important to them, but the reality is they come to us for our expertise and they’re not always right, especially if you look at some things from a technical or data point of view.
And at the beginning of your career you didn’t always feel comfortable doing that?
Exactly. When you are young and have only just started your career, you don’t always have the confidence to say “No”, or the experience to back it up.
You mentioned that some of your customers can have pretty strong opinions on what needs to be done. Could you tell us a bit more about the customers RIVER works with?
We have a bit of a niche approach actually. We come in contact with a diverse range of companies, and we tend to be the right fit for larger organisations that have an appetite for a dynamic approach to their projects. Some companies want everything detailed and itemized in the very first quote, but when you’re looking to transform your brand, business or technology, that’s simply not possible. Some companies like a structured, maybe more traditional approach, where we have a more flexible approach to digital innovation, and that’s totally fine.
So could we say your customers are more on the progressive side?
Yes, I think you could say that. All of our customers are companies that at least want or need to change, and are actually open to change. And yes, they are all willing to think a bit more outside of the box.
RIVER calls itself a Digital Innovation Agency. How is that different from other digital or web agencies?
What really sets us apart is that we help businesses to differentiate themselves by looking at their business model as a whole. Together with the customer we will look at their foundation as a business, at the core of their problems, their objectives, and their customers. Most importantly, we’ll look at what makes them special as a company and how their products or services are different from other companies in the market. Sometimes clients can forget that their business is there to serve their customers, that is really what we can help our clients with.
Could you tell us something about the changes, or challenges, you have seen happening in the digital industry over the last few years?
One of the main challenges we see in our industry is that everything changes at an incredible pace, particularly from a technical perspective. But customer expectations change just as fast, so it’s our job to make sure our customers are aware of this. It’s important we work with customers to identify how and when investing in new, better or more advanced technologies will help them to keep up with those demands and stay ahead of things, and this also forces us to keep at the top of our game as well.
To give you an example, when a customer comes to us for a website redesign, we actually need to look a few years, rather than a few months ahead. A website has a life cycle of, let’s say three to four years, so you need to be aware of the technologies that customers might be using in four years, not in six months. And if a customer is not prepared to invest in those technologies now, they might have to do it all over again in 12 or 18 months.
"Everything changes at an incredible pace, particularly from a technical perspective."
We just spoke about challenges, but are there also trends we need to keep an eye on?
Absolutely. These days customer expectations are so high, there’s an expectation for so many things to be integrated, seamless, and also look the part. It’s no longer enough to have an outdated brand, website or platform, and expect to thrive in the market long-term. This can be tough for a business, as it means they need to put a real focus on their internal alignment, and ensuring their key messages are effectively communicated to their customers across a range of mediums.
From a technical perspective, even if you look at the way we are hosting and serving websites at the moment, things are changing. There is a bit of a trend to push out more static sites these days that are separated from customer platforms or online services, something that used to be quite old fashioned, but the advantage is you can deploy and build much faster.
Something else we are interested in at the moment is server-side rendering, which effectively means running your client’s app on a server so it spits out where you need to be without loading the web client’s browser, which is a completely different way of thinking about it.
What’s your opinion on Customer Experience and how do you see this reflected in the work that you do?
Customer Experience is extremely important and we see some of our customers really starting to focus on the individual client and their expectations. Where 5 to 7 years ago it was all about Google Analytics and more of a high-level approach, now we see companies becoming much more specific and really following individual journeys. That means they follow customers real time on their website, for example in the buying process. When a customer encounters a problem, they act and help instantly. Through chat, email or phone, depending on the situation. We liken this to storytelling, knowing your customer and how to keep them engaged.
Would you call this high value B2B marketing?
Yes. This approach may be a challenge if you have thousands of visitors per hour, but with let’s say a few hundred key B2B customers, this works really well and makes it possible to give your customers great experiences that feels tailored to them.
Customer Experience touches on another topic which is personalisation. Do you think the average New Zealander, is ready for, and comfortable with, high level personalisation?
I think they are in general, but it all depends on the job you do as a brand or company, and your customer profiles. When you do it right, New Zealand customers will absolutely love personalised experiences, as long as they’re thoughtful and not too obtrusive. It’s all about taking the time to know your customer and ensure you’re personalising something relevant to them. I mean, if you search for something weird or funny, like fluffy dice on Amazon, and the next six months all you see is ads for fluffy dice, that can be extremely annoying. People won’t be happy with it, no matter where they’re from.
Another example is that I don’t think anyone in New Zealand has a problem with opt-in store cards. You just swipe it and you get a discount. But if you think about it that’s basically the same thing, all your information is stored and used. So yes, it really comes down to doing it well.
Let’s talk a little bit about SiteHost… How has your experience been with SiteHost so far and what actually made you choose SiteHost?
Our experience with SiteHost has been outstanding. We have tried working with a number of different providers locally and offshore, and in the past we have had a number of support and scalability issues. That’s when we decided to look for a hosting company that focused on its customers, and eventually chose SiteHost as our new home. But as you know better than anyone, shifting hosting providers can be a major project, and I really have to say that the way you helped us shift, not only with the migration itself, but also with creating a migration plan, was such a huge help!
That’s always great to hear. What kind of SiteHost products are you using?
We primarily use Cloud Containers and Dockerisation. Being able to run different versions of PHP for example, or different container setups, is a really great advantage for us. There are other providers who have similar options, but they are based overseas and won’t be able to give us the required performance you provide. Honestly, I don’t think that anyone is doing the Containers like you guys do, especially not in New Zealand.
We also use some AWS services for the majority of our projects, but still host the actual app here. And that's really a great fit for us. You guys also have great permission management, where with AWS it’s much more difficult if you want to deal with them on a day-to-day basis.
Lastly, I also have to say your support is great. We really trust you guys. We can just send an email, and you take care of it. With other providers, we couldn’t contact them by email because most of the time they just didn’t understand what we meant or wanted, and this ended up wasting a lot of time that took us away from focusing on our customers.
If you had to pick one thing, what would be the most important issue that SiteHost helped you solve?
You know what, it’s not so much a single issue that you helped solve, but it’s more that we know we can always rely on you. We can just focus on our job and our customers, on the things we are good at. We don’t have to worry about the hosting side of things. You basically take the infrastructure issue away for us, and as we are always really busy, it’s one important thing we don’t have to worry about anymore! (Laughing)
Thanks! Is there anything else you would like to tell us?
Not at all, we are really happy with SiteHost and enjoy working with you guys! If you would like to learn more about us, you can visit us at www.weareriver.nz