We came. We saw. We Spoke.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Landing Page Bracketology

by Eric Fischer

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In case you make a habit of avoiding really obvious news, the NCAA Basketball Tournament started this past week. Yes, once again, the Madness of March is upon us. I was struck by a tweet I saw early in the week, when the tournament’s “First Four” was beginning:

“While we’re all happy for the teams that are playing tonight, we all know the tournament doesn’t really begin ‘til Thursday.”

It’s true. The start to the tournament is really a second thought to most people. It’s nice enough, but they’re there for the meat of the tourney. The teams that will make deep runs and deliver the quality basketball they’re after. In a similar, closer-to-home way, I could put up a tweet of my own:

“While we’re all happy that websites have pretty homepages, we all know the websites don’t begin till we get to the content we’re after.”

A homepage is an afterthought to many people, and website designers are beginning to come around. Very few people visit your website to see the billboard that tells who and where you are. They’re after content, be it contact information, a product, or specific company info.

With the improvement of modern search engines, the advent of ubiquitous social media, and the growing capabilities of web apps to deliver a wide variety of media and web experiences, the homepage rarely contains anything that a visitor is hoping to find when they arrive at a website.

MoneyWatch’s Jeff Haden recounts some of the reasons people quickly leave a website, and what can be done about them:

Limit your scope. It's tempting to cram lots of information, resources, calls to action, and sign-up boxes onto each page. Too much clutter drives visitors away. Each page should have a clear, primary purpose. While you can include a few secondary purposes, make sure those are relatively discreet and do not distract from the main purpose.

Match the page purpose to the call to action. A product page should feature the product and make it easy to purchase that product. A newsletter page should highlight the benefits of the newsletter and make it easy to sign up to receive it. Visitors are satisfied when they can quickly meet their needs.

Raise your hand if you see a recurring trend here. “Each Page”. “A product page”. “A newsletter page”. Your website’s visitors aren’t there for your homepage. They are there for content, an app, a product or custom information. They aren’t watching to see the start of the tournament full of teams that aren’t delivering the basketball they want. They’re there for the meat.

“But we spent hours planning and designing that homepage! It’s art!”

Nobody is saying to scrap your website’s homepage. It’s still an important element for visitors who truly don’t know what you’re about, and to help search engines index your website more fully. Simply recognize that most of your visitors are there for specific content, not your company’s mission statement. Most of the NCAA tournament audience is keyed up for that Sweet 16 matchup with their favorite school, not that First Four matchup that finalizes the South Bracket. Recognize that you have content to deliver, and the faster you get it to the audience that wants it, the more satisfied they will be. Unbounce.com brings 101 tips for optimizing your landing page experience, helping you transition from a website for everyone to a web experience for each individual. We’ve identified our favorites below:

Send people to a relevant and targeted page
Your homepage is a mish-mash of goal oriented communication — and usually for good reason. With that in mind, resist the urge to send people there as itʼs better targeted at the curious explorer type rather than the person clicking through from a banner or AdWords link. Think one goal, one message, one action. And hence one page — generally a new one — a landing page.

Basic metrics
You should ensure you are recording the fundamental performance metrics for each [page]. These are campaign specific, but can include: conversion rate (broad term), bounce/abandonment rate, form completion rate. Store these results so that you have a basis for showing how your [landing pages are working], and [refine them further to best target your audience.]

In the end, it’s all about delivering what your visitors want, whether it’s a quality web experience or a fantastic basketball tournament. Make sure you deliver your visitors straight to the content they’re after.

Never forget, though, that the basketball tournament ends. Eventually, a champion has been crowned, and everyone has all of the content they’ve been after. For your website, there is no end. No championship. You’ve figured out how to deliver your visitors to the content they’re seeking. Now, how will you keep them coming back?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Kickstart Our Heart.

by W. Gene Powell

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Kickstarter Giveth

It’s hard to believe that nearly a year has passed since Seed Coworking became Toledo’s first $15K+ Kickstarter success story. Now, two new Kickstarter entrants who are near and dear to our hearts seek to repeat (and surpass) Seed’s celebrated and appreciated fundraiser.

Let’s check ’em out, shall we?

Actual Coffee

We had the pleasure of meeting Actual Coffee founder and brewmaster extraordinaire, Lance Roper, when he was quitting the hamster wheel of a day job in order to pursue his dream of “changing the way people think about coffee”. It didn’t take but a few sips to convince us that Actual Coffee is the way coffee was meant to be crafted, poured and enjoyed... actually. Lance provides an education with every cup—espousing the virtues of source, acidity, fruit, body, etc., along with a healthy heap of coffee history, farmer advocacy and outright passion. Every time he talks, we get thirsty.

Lance is seeking $15,000 to purchase this gorgeous thing. A roaster of that size will allow him to increase the number of cups he fills, and the number of smiles he produces, exponentially.

Framed

We’ve known Jose Mojica, the creative genius behind iFilmFlops, since he joined Seed before Seed was Seed. Jose has a gift for storytelling, filmmaking, directing and producing. His soon-to-be-released spellbinder is Framed, which tells the tale of “a man convinced the only way to uncover what happened to his family is to meet them in the afterlife.” What occurs in this serialized web series is anything but predictable. Heck, check out the trailer and his Kickstarter page.

Jose and iFilmFlops is seeking $20,000 on Kickstarter to finish producing the first 5-series season of Framed. We’re confident that fans of the genre (like us) will drive Framed over the finish line.

Let’s Do This

Both Actual Coffee and Framed have roots in Toledo, and both represent the new, vibrant and inventive entrepreneurial spirit that’s sweeping our region. We’re fans, and we’ve elected to support them through our own gifts and promotional efforts. We invite you to do the same. You’ll not only receive some great swag, you’ll be participating in a positive, regional groundswell of innovation and economic sustainability.

Here are those links again:

Actual Coffee
Framed

Remember, if you make a pledge to any Kickstarter campaign, be sure to Tweet your support, or post your pledge to Facebook. This is a numbers game. The more people who discover these gems in their own back yard, the brighter they’ll shine, the more successful their campaigns will be.

 

Kickstarter Taketh Away

Editor's Note: Spoke Community Manager, Eric Fischer, explains the tax ramifications our intrepid fund-raisers (noted above) will have to face once they've received their windfall.

So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve created the Kickstarter campaign that changes everything. Your concept was perfect. Your reward levels deliciously enticing. Your networking mission to get the word out took on a life of its own, and suddenly you’re sitting on a fat stack of cash ready to set the world on fire. You’re thrilled, and you should be. Your dream project can now get underway. Just don’t forget, you’re now a business owner. And your Uncle Sam wants to know all about your new venture. Yes, that’s right. In the US, UK and most other nations, proceeds from your Kickstarter campaign are considered income, and you will have to pay taxes on them.

Bernadette Tansey at CNBC.com addressed the mistake that many people make when they complete their first successful Kickstarter fundraising campaign:

“Raising money from other people quickly propels a young venture into the traditional world of corporate rules, bookkeeping requirements, tax bills and legal questions, said M.J. Bogatin, an attorney for start ups in the San Francisco Bay area. His clients often see themselves primarily as artists or filmmakers, but Bogatin tells them, “It’s a business. Look, you’ve started a new business enterprise. […]”

The important thing to remember here is that your Kickstarter campaign is not a donation drive, even though most people think of it that way. Those funding your project are in fact investors, and unless you have 501(c)(3) non-profit status, you’ll be expected to pay taxes on the funds that your investors choose to invest with you.

The legal world is still getting itself settled in relation to crowd funding initiatives, exactly how they should be taxed, and more. But for the most part, you can expect to pay taxes on your Kickstarter pledges the same way you would if you were performing, say, contract work. Everything you receive via Kickstarter is considered taxable income, but you may deduct from that any business expenses you have in getting up and running. Whether you need to buy a new computer, renew a software license or subcontract some of the work, those costs can be entirely deducted from the taxable income you received from Kickstarter.

To help, we’d like to share a few steps you can take to reduce and simplify your tax obligations for your Kickstarter campaign:

  1. Don’t Raise More Than You Need – This may seem counterintuitive. One would think raising more money would help a business grow. However, the more you raise, the greater your tax liability, especially as you outstrip your expense requirements and start sitting on more capital.
  2. Incorporate, and get a federal EIN. You can register as an LLC (limited liability corporation) in most states for just a couple hundred dollars, and this plus an EIN will allow you to keep your personal and Kickstarter-project taxes separate. LLC’s will also pay a more favorable tax rate on Kickstarter funds.
  3. Record every expense. Depending on what you’re doing with your Kickstarter funds, a portion or the entirety of your expenses may be deductible from your tax bill. However, you cannot deduct items if you don’t keep clear records.

Finally, consider working with an accountant who has experience with crowd funding, at least at first. Though they will charge you a fee, accounting expenses are generally entirely deductible from your tax obligation, and you can save yourself a big headache, plus have somebody to help if your campaign is as successful as you hope, and you’re suddenly ready to make your dreams come true.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Panda and Penguin: The Organic Search Meltdown

by Kyle Golembiewski

SPOKE and their Digital Marketing team are staying current with the updates Google employs to their search engine ranking algorithm. Many people don’t know this, but Google revises their ranking system hundreds to thousands of times per year. Some updates are less weighted than others, but recent major changes have proven detrimental to a wide variety of webmasters, spanning all industries of the Internet community. The culprits? Panda and Penguin.

The Panda Update came to the U.S. in February 2011 to reduce the number of spammy web pages ranking in Google. This update was a powerhouse, affecting 12% of all search results across the search engine. This update alone affected millions of sites and shook up the Internet industry overnight. Imagine building a business for over 10 years and having a single update wipe out 40-100% of your traffic. That’s the kind of effect this update had and many don’t know how to come back from it.

The Penguin Update came just 14 months later in April 2012, affecting 3.1% of English-based queries, leaving a tidal wave of more web pages removed from Google search results. With concurring tweaks upon release, tons of sites have been hit by these anti-spamming initiatives commissioned by Google. Traffic on affected sites has plummeted and webmasters around the world are echoing in angst: “I’m losing money! How do I get my sites to rank again?”

According to Google, Panda and Penguin were implemented to reduce spam on the Internet. This includes, but is not limited to, page content that is overly-optimized for search, excessive keyword stuffing in anchor text, and an abusive backlinking strategy. We’ll explain these a bit below.

Overly-Optimized Content

This refers to text that is blatantly written to attract users to a page for a certain keyword. The term “keyword stuffing” is the idea that a page is “stuffed” with keywords to make it appear in the search engines as authoritative on that subject. Panda and Penguin are combating this. Stay away from this method of content creation.

Keyword Stuffing in Anchor Text

Now that you know “keyword stuffing” is bad, it’s equally bad to stuff keywords into anchor text. Anchor text is the display text of a link on your page. If these links occur too often with your site attached, Google will view you as spam. Keep things real on your pages and don’t bother with this type of practice. I guarantee it will only hurt you in the long run.

Abusive Backlinking Strategies

A “backlink” is a link you receive from another website that sends the user to your site. This is akin to a referral in the real world. An individual passes off your information to someone that could use your services. Online, having a backlink from one site to another is a common practice. They’ve endorsed your information or services by putting them on their own site. While backlinks are generally good things, unnaturally building backlinks is where a site gets into trouble. The simple way to avoid this: don’t spam your site to other sites. Let others link to you or forge relationships with relative sites. Spamming is so 1998 and people will lose respect for you before they even click your links.

In a nutshell, doing things that seem unnatural and manipulative to Google’s existing algorithm will get your website derailed. But, good, commonsensical SEO practices still reign supreme and as a result, reputable SEO practitioners aren’t feeling the heat of Panda or Penguin. Playing by the rules will keep your site out of harm’s way. So you might be wondering — what are some things you can do to avoid being hit by these updates? We have a few pointers:

  1. Publish content that evokes emotion. Yes, I’m preaching the “content is king” mantra. Your website’s content, whether it be a post, a video, an image, or a combination of the three, should reflect something you, as an individual, would not only consume, but also share. After all, if our emotions are touched, we’re more motivated to do something. You know that Sarah McLaughlin commercial for ASPCA to End Animal Cruelty? As uncomfortable as that commercial makes a lot of us feel, it raked in 30 million dollars for the organization. That’s emotional motivation.
  2. Follow the rules. Google determines whether your site will rank and receive traffic from their search engine. This statement shouldn’t be taken lightly. Follow the Webmaster Guidelines defined by Google. They’ve given us the playbook for winning the game. We must respect, adapt, and succeed within their guidelines. Their principal concern is to return search results that are relevant to their users’ queries, not to reward those who know the most tricks to make the content appear to be relevant. This is another way of looking at the Panda and Penguin updates. They’re removing the bogus stuff from the web. I’m all for it and you should be too.
  3. Panda- and Penguin-proof your backlinks. If the Panda and Penguin updates affected your site, you might consider looking to your backlink profile for answers. Bad links can be traced to sites that partake in all of the negative activities we indicated above; sites with overly-optimized content, keyword stuffing in anchor text, and general red flags of spam. Consider using tools like Open Site Explorer to document and request Webmasters to remove bad links from their sites to yours. Doing so should boost your rankings in Google. Follow this SEOmoz post to help you in your troubleshooting and execution.

The Panda and Penguin updates by Google prove that they are, and always will be, a moving target. The only defense to these ongoing initiatives is to follow tried and true SEO standards and make adjustments where necessary. Note this simple take-away: Good content is and always has been most important. It’s the lifeblood of returning visitors and the starting line for new visitors. Consistently providing authoritative content will out-play any Google update, Panda and Penguin included.



Monday, July 09, 2012

Do Not Track: What is it good for, y’all?!

by Mark Pannell

Behind The Buzzword

The phrase “Do Not Track” has been making waves in the online advertising community lately. DNT will define how some cookies are accepted or not accepted by web browsers. To be clear, the Do Not Track setting won't actually block cookies, but rather, it will indicate the user’s tracking preference to the sites they visit. Champions of the cause are touting the privacy of internet users. Opponents are crying foul, complaining that the proposed specifications severely hamper their ability to properly segment online audiences for targeted advertising campaigns. According to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), “Advertising revenue is the single largest source of funding on the Web.” As with any change of this magnitude, doomsday prophecies have been flooding blogs and social networks the last few weeks. It’s our goal to define some of these concepts, then separate fact from fiction.

Who Doesn't Love Cookies?

Let’s start with the basics. Cookies: what are they and how are they used? At a very fundamental level, cookies are simply little snippets of data that are stored in your browser. Authentication cookies are essential to certain functions of web browsing. For instance, if you do any online banking, these cookies “remember” that you are logged in as you navigate from page to page on your banking institution’s website. Imagine how cumbersome it would be to transfer funds or even reconcile your account if you were forced to re-enter your user name and password every time a new page loaded. Cookies in and of themselves are not a bad thing. In fact, they provide some conveniences for users that would be readily-apparent if they were stripped from the internet entirely.

Where things start to get dicey is when third-party cookies enter the fray. While there are a multitude of uses for these, the ones that get the most press are those used for behavioral advertising. Have you ever noticed that some sites are eerily accurate with the ads that they display? For example, my wife has recently become addicted to Game of Thrones. Who hasn’t? Between searches for episode spoilers, previews, and comparisons to the novels, her browser has spent an awful lot of time in the Game of Thrones universe. Consequently, when she visits a site completely outside of the realm of Ice and Fire, she is frequently greeted with ads for the books, DVD’s, and related merchandise. Without delving too deeply into the technical nuances, this is an example of third-party cookies. Advertisers and their partners use them to track your behavioral data to display ads that are more relevant to your lifestyle and interests.

Microsoft to the Rescue! Wait… Microsoft?

The debate over the average user’s privacy is once again taking center stage. Web behemoths like Facebook and Google have frequently been accused of unsavory practices that allow them to get a better glimpse of our habits and interests. And the W3C is taking notice. Their latest working draft of the Do Not Track specification indicates that a browser should prompt users on first run to select whether or not to allow behavioral tracking cookies. Some users don’t mind seeing advertising that speaks directly to their interests. Others find it creepy and intrusive. Either way, the choice would be in the user’s hands.

Microsoft caused quite a ruckus when they announced that their upcoming version of Internet Explorer, IE 10, would have Do Not Track turned on by default. Obviously, this caused an uproar in the online advertising community. They would be the first desktop browser to make such a move. In all fairness, the mobile version of Safari found on all Apple iOS devices already has third party cookies “blocked” by default. But the move is also contrary to the specifications that are likely to be accepted by the working group developing the W3C standard. In other words, whether Microsoft is playing the role of privacy advocate or not, they’re taking the choice out of the hands of the user. Sure, you’d still be able to go into the settings and toggle Do Not Track off manually. But IE 10 users won’t have the option to choose on first run.

For good or for bad, Microsoft would be operating outside of the specifications accepted by the W3C. As such, third parties may have the opportunity to ignore IE 10’s DNT signal and collect behavioral data anyhow. In this scenario, the only winners are advertisers as Microsoft’s attempt at safeguarding privacy would have failed and the average user would be none the wiser. This is still very much a developing topic and one that is in no way resolved as of this writing. In fact, on June 19th, Congressmen Edward Markey and Joe Barton sent a letter (PDF) to the W3C urging them to accept Microsoft’s default Do Not Track initiative. These discussions have muddied the waters on exactly how the proposed changes affect us.

What About My Stats?

At SPOKE, we use a host of analytics tools to dissect how visitors are getting to our sites, what they’re doing while they're there, and what we can do to improve their experience. As an unintended consequence of the Do Not Track debate, a lot of inaccurate information is swirling around about how analytics suites would be affected. Most notably, Google Analytics. Nearly all of our clients and strategic partners use Google Analytics in some capacity or another. Of course, there is a lot of concern about how this will impact our ability to gather useful information on our visitors. In short, it won’t. Google analytics uses only first-party cookies. These cookies are not impacted by the Do Not Track revisions being drafted by the W3C. First-party cookies only send information to the servers for your domain. In other words, this data is not shared with any external service or domain. This is vastly different from how third-party cookies work, especially behavioral advertising cookies.

Even with Google’s assurance that our Google Analytics data is safe from any outcome of the Do Not Track debate, there is still some concern from within our community. This is much akin to being told that a gigantic roller coaster is safe, but still feeling a hint of fear as the cars click their way up the first hill. If you have your own doubts, look no further than Apple to calm your nerves, All iOS devices have third party cookies turned off by default. But these devices regularly appear in our Google Analytics dashboards. All cookies are not created equal. So while the Do Not Track battle wages on, do not fear for your stats. They’ll still be there.

Still concerned?

To put your minds at ease, here are a few frequently asked questions. And by “frequently asked,” I mean questions that I’m assuming many people will have.

Is Do Not Track a law? Are there any legal concerns we should be aware of?

No. At the moment, Do Not Track is just a draft of a policy that the World Wide Web Consortium is working through. Even if the W3C decides to have browsers turn Do Not Track on by default, there are still no legal implications. Presently, browsers can ignore DNT settings as it is not officially a policy. It’s an unsavory practice, but it’s not by any means illegal. That said, the U.S. government may decide to take things a step further in the future. The letter sent by Congressmen Markey and Barton to the W3C at least indicates some interest on the part of the government. But at this time, there are no legal concerns related to the policy.

Are there any adjustments we should make right now? What should we do to prepare for this?

In short, not much. Unless your business depends upon third party tracking cookies for behavioral advertising, you’ll be mostly unaffected by the changes that might (or might not) be coming. Even if your organization does utilize behavioral advertising, there’s not much you can do. If Do Not Track being turned on by default becomes the new standard, ad networks will simply have a smaller pool of data with which to work. On the individual level, some users will not be targetable by behavioral advertising as their behaviors have simply not been recorded.

OK, if my organization isn’t affected by these changes, who is? Why should I care?

The companies hardest hit by a default Do Not Track designation would be ad networks. Not having the ability to track user data means that the ads that they deliver can’t be nearly as targeted. While Google also depends upon ad-reliant services like Gmail and Google Docs, they have an advantage over the ad networks: universal opt-in. In short, if you are signed into your Google account during a browsing session, you are authorizing Google to track your behaviors. As the operator of Chrome, the world’s most popular browser, Google has multiple horses in this race. And they’re not alone. Companies like Apple, Yahoo!, and Amazon have also acquired their users’ permission to track online activities through a universal opt-in policy. When signing up and signing into these services, most people just check the little box without reading the terms of use. Obviously, these heavy hitters in the industry are not huge fans of a default Do Not Track setting becoming the standard. Either way, your organization could be impacted if you utilize an ad network to promote your goods or services. As these partners would no longer be able to deliver their ads as efficiently and effectively, your ad spend might get you less bang for your buck. In other words, by driving less qualified traffic to your site, conversion rates could drop significantly.

Ultimately, whether Do Not Track winds up the default setting on browsers or merely an option that users are given to choose on first run, there’s very little that we as marketers can do about it. While we’ve grown accustomed to using very personal data to guide our online ad campaigns, the change would put everyone on a level playing field. As this story is still very much in progress, it’s a little premature to panic about the possible implications of a default Do Not Track standard. Follow us on Twitter for the latest developments.


NOTE: The following was published on AdAge a couple days after we posted our piece. We thought we should share. It’s a great companion piece: “How Can Marketers Thrive in a Do-Not-Track World?”



Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Gift Economy.

by W. Gene Powell

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Something incredible is happening in Toledo. No, it’s not the new casino, or even the Hen’s 9-3 fall to Louisville on Monday *shakes fist*. No, this is something much more profound. And special. And eye-opening.

Toledo is giving.

Of greater profundity is that non-Toledoans are giving... to Toledo. Could it be that the city that was affectionately called “one of those junkyards of American capitalism” by P. J. O’Rourke has not only located its bootstraps, but that the rest of the country—heck, the world—has realized that Toledo is the canary in the American enterprise coalmine? As Toledo goes, so goes the rest of y’all.

What is emerging is nothing short of amazing. Case in point: Seed Coworking Community’s $12,000 Kickstarter.com campaign which allows anyone (not just future Seed members) to pledge any dollar amount to help founding partners Gene Powell, Jamie Wright and Don Miller purchase furnishings for the space. The 21-day campaign, which launched March 27th, is now 89% funded by 67 “backers” as of this writing. Clearly, there are a lot of people who want Seed to be successful (at least 67 of them), but dig into those numbers and you’ll discover some interesting things:

+ 65% of those who pledged have never pledged to a Kickstarter campaign before.

+ Nearly a third of those who pledged are outside NW Ohio. People as far away as Seattle, Philadelphia and Los Angeles have donated to the Seed community.

+ Unlike most Kickstarter campaigns, Seed’s hasn’t “troughed”. In fact, donations are accelerating. In just two days (yesterday and today), some incredibly generous folks boosted the fund by over $4,000.

This campaign is a perfect example of what’s come to be known as the Gift Economy. People are putting their hard-earned cash into projects they can feel good about, not simply to earn a reward or dividend or pay-out, but because they believe the money will be used smartly and have a greater impact on their community than, say, a municipal bond trade. That’s what makes the contributions to Seed all the more appreciated. And humbling.

Humbling? Yes, humbling.

The Seed Coworking Community Kickstarter.com campaign wasn’t created so that some hipster-slackers can enjoy commercial-grade wifi while complaining about the less-than-perfect temperature of their half-caf caramel soy macchiatos. No, the campaign was created so that hard-working people—like you—could make a direct investment in other hard-working people who want to grow their businesses, their lives, their families, and an up-and-coming downtown district. Every dollar donated gives the Seed co-founders one more bit of accountability and further determination to make this project a success. It’s humbling. It’s also quite gratifying.

But, why stop there? After you donate to Seed, why not continue to give to other projects that directly impact Toledo and its wonderful people? Did you know there are six other Toledo-based Kickstarter campaigns in motion right now? Check ’em out:

+ ADJ-ective New Music Spring Concert
+ The Strong Talk 'Puritan' EP
+ The 'Leles - "Let Us Rest! Let Us Move!"
+ Help Create THE R.A.V.E.
+ The Sanderlings - Awesome Opossum
+ Rappa Boi

If you make a pledge to Seed or any Kickstarter campaign (especially the ones above), be sure to Tweet your support, or post your pledge to Facebook. This is a numbers game. The more people who discover these gems in their own back yard, the brighter they’ll shine, the more successful their campaigns will be. This is the Golden Rule in practice. This is gifting at its finest. This is good for Toledo, or any city just like it.

Thanks for reading, and for giving Seed—and Toledo—your consideration.



Monday, January 09, 2012

One to grow on (in).

by W. Gene Powell

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At long last, Spoke is pleased to announce the creation of Toledo’s first coworking space—Seed. What is coworking? We’re glad you asked. Coworking is a style of work which involves a shared work environment. Most importantly, coworking creates a community that helps designers, developers, independent contractors and creative professionals flourish.

Over the coming weeks, partners Gene Powell, Jamie Wright and Don Miller will be unveiling the physical plans for Seed Cowork™, our membership model and other exciting details. Until then, allow us to share the following:

  • Seed Cowork will be located in historic St. Clair Village in Downtown Toledo.
  • Our doors will open in the Spring.
  • We’ll announce a Kickstarter campaign which will allow like-minded folks to support our project.

We’ve also provided answers to common questions to help you learn more about the project:

Q: What is coworking?
A: Coworking is about a community of like-minded creative professionals who want a different kind of place to work. A place free of cubicles and bureaucracy. A place where you can go and get inspired with fellow members. You can find more information at http://wiki.coworking.info.

Q: Is this just renting office space?
A: Seed is just a place where creative people work. It is not about the space. It is about the community. Yes, you have a membership, but the value comes from the members within the space. Renting office space is just about the space.

Q: How do I join?
A: Sign up for the newsletter here. We will be announcing those plans soon. If you want to get in early, you will also want to keep a look out for the Kickstarter campaign.

Q: Who is behind this?
A: The founding members are three independent business owners from NW Ohio: Gene Powell, Jamie Wright and Don Miller. All supporting members will have a vote and voice for where Seed goes in the future.

Q: When will this open?
A: We are opening in the Spring. An exact date will be announced once we get closer to finishing construction on the space. Join the newsletter to get a jump on that announcement.

Q: How much will a membership cost?
A: We are still working on exact figures, but we assure you that this will be very affordable. There will be multiple plans based on your needs and budget. Stay tuned for the announcement of the membership levels.

Q: Is this only for full-time members?
A: No. There will be different levels of membership to fit how you want to work.

Q: Is there parking available?
A: Yes. We realize that downtown parking can be a deterrent for some, but we have some parking available already and we’re working to make more spaces available.

Q: What is Kickstarter?
A: Kickstarter is a platform that helps you fund projects that inspire you through micro-payments. We are in the process of creating our campaign and we will share this soon.


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Now is the perfect time to get involved and help us with our launch. We invite you to visit the Seed website and sign up to receive updates, announcements and exclusive invites. But don’t stop there, please help us spread the word by sharing the website link (and the Seed Cowork Twitter profile) with anyone you think will be interested in Seed Cowork.

Stay in touch. And... thank you.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Are you (really) ready to start an internet-based business?

by Josh Neuroth

Editor’s Note: Spoke cadet and pixel farmer (literally) Josh Neuroth spins a cautionary yarn to help those who are considering Adventures in Babysitting (ahem, internet start-ups). It’s a stark reminder that with great power comes great responsibility, patience, foresight and intestinal fortitude.


In some ways, the rise of the information age has led to what some have called a 21st century Gold Rush. Unfortunately, the hype can be unwarranted. The internet can be a great business tool but basic business fundamentals still apply. Though many books, blogs, and tweets have been written on creating online businesses, we’ve put together five simple things to consider before launching an online business:

1) The internet values user experience. If an online business is to be sustainable (without continually spending a fortune on advertising), people are going to have to talk about it and spread the word to their friends. Online businesses need to create a user experience worth talking about for sustainability and growth. Mark Zuckerburg, the creator of Facebook, didn’t set out to “create the next Facebook”. Instead he focused on creating something great that he himself wanted to use.

2) The internet doesn’t magically reward great ideas. In one of his most famous quotes, Thomas Edison said, “Genius: one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” The big idea must be combined with execution to be successful. What the big idea needs does not so much depend on how young, old, or smart the founder is, but how much perseverance and self-education the founder puts in. There are no tools that make a better substitute than putting in the work.

3) Simple ideas with exceptional execution go a long way. eBay was not the first auction site but was the first to do online auctions right. Amazon was not the first online bookstore but was the first one to do it right. This comes back to putting in the hard work and creating an experience worth talking about.

4) A kick-ass half is better than a half-ass whole.* Business owners can get away with a less than stellar brick and mortar business because of physical location. With millions of websites online, users can pick a competitor with a single click. To effectively stand against the competition, it’s far easier and better to focus on being the best in the world at one thing. This increased focus makes you stand out to the rest of the world and makes it harder for competitors to compare against you.

5) Online success can be slow. One of my close friends started an online retail store in 2005 selling high-end consumer goods. It took almost six weeks before the first order rolled in. Today, the business is doing very well with thousands of world-wide customers. For the first few years, he built the business by himself, often working late nights, and relied on outside contractors and firms to help with the search engine marketing and web design. If this slow start is the case with most online businesses, then what about the “overnight” successes we hear about? These accelerated successes usually come in two ways without fail: 1) from people who already have experience building a previous online business 2) from those able to secure venture funding and receiving external experience from an investor.

If there is one thing that trumps all else, it’s starting a business that you’re passionate about, committed to, and willing to do whatever it takes to see it become the best. Evaluate opportunities based on this first. Would you still pursue this business in one year? Three years? Five? Most online entrepreneurs work for the goal of adding value and making the world better, not because they are trying to make money. If you’re trying to start a business solely to make money, it’s probably not enough motivation to create something amazing.


Further Readings:


Thursday, March 03, 2011

Signs of life.

by W. Gene Powell

image

If we blogged for a living, like some do, we’d have gone out of business long ago. Riding what we call “the hamster wheel” of blogging requires a time commitment that a small company as busy as ours simply can’t carve out. We’re willing to sacrifice a couple of months-worth of posts here and there in order to focus on real work, and January and February—as miserable as they've been—make it easier to stay in “head down” mode and allow a few more opportunities to post slip by. We don’t mind, but we wonder what others think when they visit our blog and see that the most recent entry is over two months old. After all, we’re just as guilty of raising an eyebrow at someone else’s freshness date as anyone.

All that said, we’d like to offer up some signs of life with this very overdue post. I mentioned we’ve been busy. We’ve also been spending time with some videos that have us rethinking our business and our client’s businesses:

We’re not sure what exactly these videos will inspire us to do, but now, with spring approaching, it seems like the perfect time to emerge from our hole, check our shadow* and make some plans.


*Yes. Yes, we’re fully aware Groundhog Day was a month ago. Like I said, we’ve been busy!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Let it Spoke.

by Jeremy Crapsey

Editor’s Note: Spoke wingman and resident minstrel Jeremy Crapsey mushes his huskies across the frozen white north in order to bring us an early yuletide gift. Nothing says “Nadolig Llawen” quite like a warm fire and some random math.


Just in time for the holidays, a winter wonderland has descended on Spoke. Instead of making you wait until Christmas, we thought we’d let you open up your present early and see just how we went about making this wintry snow globe animation.

Read instruction manual before use:

Use HTML and JavaScript (Flash is too bulky and obtrusive) for this project. Canvas and CSS3 are not good alternatives. Why? Because, we want to support as many browsers as possible with the least amount of work.

This animation will be viewable in all JavaScript-enabled browsers. Building in only HTML and JavaScript allows all smart phones, tablet devices, and any other product that works with Internet browsers to view this animation.

Assemble this project with small and simplistic code. Then, when the holidays are over, you can remove the code easily without damaging your site.

Assembling the project

Now the fun begins. Follow this basic outline for when you create your very own winter wonderland. Note that we used tween.js

  1. Set up the scene: This is where you build your container box in HTML, setup scripts, and CSS styles for the background.


    
        
            
        
        
            

  2. Build your snowflake: Construct your snowflake object which will be reused. We realize that no two snowflakes are alike, but to keep this simple, we used an ordinary circle. To give the illusion that they are not the same, simply change the size of the circle. Each image is 15 x 15 pixels rendered as a PNG.


    var snowFlake = function(target){
        /*
            Lets create a snowflake by using a div 
            element with a background image.
        */
        var div = document.createElement("div")
            ,random = Math.random()
            ,even = Math.floor(random*(2));
            
        //default styles
        div.style.position = "absolute";
        div.style.background = "no-repeat center";
        div.style.backgroundImage="url('snow_flake01.png')";
        div.style.width = "15px";
        div.style.height = "15px";
        div.style.top = "-15px";
        
        //default settings
        div.random = random;
        div.x = 0;
        //lets have the snowflake start above the scene
        div.y = -15;
        
        //Main function used to update the
        //snow flakes position
        div.update = function(){
            div.style.left = div.x+"px";
            div.style.top = div.y+"px";
        }
        
        //Used to update the image of the
        //snowflake
        div.setImage = function(image){
            div.style.backgroundImage = "url('"+image+"')";
        }
        
        //Used to reset the posistion of the snowflake
        div.reset = function(){
            //moves the snowflake above the scene
            div.y = -15;
        }
        
        //Inserts the Div into the targeted Element
        target.appendChild(div);
    
        return div
    }
    
    

  3. The Population, randomization, and animation script: provides the three secret ingredients to create the illusion of a gentle snowfall. Let’s assign animation rules for each individual snowflake and populate it into our target element. Keep in mind that you must render the snowflakes with an aesthetically pleasing and smooth animation.


    var renderSnow = function(opt,target){
        /*
            Our “render snow” function here will
            populate the target element with snowflakes
        */
        
        for(var i = 0;i<= opt.count;i++){
            
            var  flake = new snowFlake(target)
                ,xPos = flake.x = Math.random()*(400)
                ,random = flake.random
                ,fallSpeed = opt.fallSpeed+random*(1000)
                ,driftSpeed = opt.driftSpeed+random*(1000);
                
            //Set the current snowflake's image
            flake.setImage(opt.image);
            
            /*
                We use tween.js to propagate
                the snowflake position values.
            */
            
            floatDown = new TWEEN.Tween(flake)
                .to({y:196},fallSpeed)
                //This runs the flake update command 
                //on every refresh
                .onUpdate(flake.update);
                
            floatLeft = new TWEEN.Tween(flake)
                .to({x:xPos-30},driftSpeed);
                
            floatRight = new TWEEN.Tween(flake)
                .to({x:xPos+30},driftSpeed);
            
            floatDown
                .delay(i*opt.delay)
                .onComplete(flake.reset);
            
            //animation chians
            floatLeft.chain(floatRight);
            floatRight.chain(floatLeft);
            floatDown.chain(floatDown);
            
            floatDown.start();
            //Lets mix it up a bit and 
            //randomize the start animation.
            if(Math.floor(i%2)==0){
                floatLeft.start();
            }else{
                floatRight.start();
            }
        }
    }
    
    

  4. Animation loop script: To produce the illusion of animation, loop thirty times every second.


    //Lets target our containment elements
    var frontLayer = document.getElementById("front_layer");
    var backLayer = document.getElementById("back_layer");
    
    /*
        Here we run our “render snow” methods. This allows
        us to create two separate layers of snowfall in our 
        scene.  Here you can add more snowflake layers to
        give a more "blizzard" effect.  Adjust the speed and
        density of each layer by modifying the values 
        (the larger the number the slower the speed).
    */
    
    renderSnow({
        image:"snow_flake01.png"
        ,driftSpeed:7000
        ,fallSpeed:4000
        ,count:10
        ,delay:300
    },frontLayer);
    
    renderSnow({
        image:"snow_flake03.png"
        ,driftSpeed:7000
        ,fallSpeed:10000
        ,count:20
        ,delay:500
    },backLayer);
    
    /*
            This is where the magic happens. 
            Our frame rate is set at 30fps:
    */
    (function tick(){
        /*
            Every time TWEEN.update(); is run, the values 
            of the snow flakes we assigned tweens 
            (TWEEN.Tween()) to.  It will produce the next
            values in our tween animation, and update the
            CSS positions on our snowFlake objects.
        */
        TWEEN.update();
        setTimeout(tick,1000/30);
    }());
    

Once your project is successfully assembled and thoroughly tested, all that’s left to do is sit back and enjoy it.

We are.

Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.


Sunday, October 10, 2010

Brands Behaving Badly

by W. Gene Powell

image


Bad Dog, Part I

Gap commercials of the 80’s used to sign off with the baritone-sung jingle, “Fall into the Gap.” Well, Gap Inc. has certainly fallen into something with the not-so-silent release (belly flop) of its new logo. The mark, comprised of Helvetica type and a fading blue square, has become the logo everyone loves to hate. Which begs the question: Is this some sort of joke? Or is this some genius move to stir interest in the flagging brand of a company that can’t find anyone to buy its stock let alone locate a decent graphic designer?

Adding insult to injury is the company’s bait-and-switch to rally a Facebook crowd-sourcing project to… what? Save the company from itself? Keep the Gap name in the spotlight through the all-redeeming holiday shopping season? If the whole thing was a ruse to lift sales, Gap is going to need to sell a record number of flat front khakis. If, however, the brand was realigned without a trace of guile then the retailer giant’s days are truly numbered because there’s a gap at Gap between management and perplexed patrons.

If there’s a silver lining in any of this it’s that the Pepsi logo is no longer the poster child of identity crises. Still, both brands (among many) leave us wringing our hands over the dearth of good corporate brand designers, and the lack of common sense of the people who hire them.

Woof.

Bad Dog, Part II

A Microsoft-Adobe marriage? Holy Matrimony, Batman! What’s the world of monopolist software coming to? If the rumors are true that the Rednecks of Redmond are considering a no-bullets shotgun exchange of vows with the Blushing Bridezillas of San Jose then “Mazel Tov!,” we say.

*breaks glass*

This is a match made in M&A heaven. Both companies lost touch with reality and customers long ago, and neither has had a breakout release since 2003. We wish them all the best as they drive—and fade—into the sunset.

*flings unopened AOL registration CDs at limo*


Follow up: From the And-There-You-Have-It Department, comes this gem. Sort of makes you feel bad for that intern at Laird and Partners, doesn’t it?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Light Dawns On Marble Head

by W. Gene Powell

image

Quick hit: XTC intoned that the smell of burnt books “is not unlike human hair”— a macabre lyric that reminds us of the destructive force of philistinism on human expression, freedom and life itself.

Today marks the beginning of Banned Books Week. A time to celebrate the writers, teachers, librarians and readers who defend the First Amendment at the ISBN level, and shine the light of reason (read sanity) on those who would impose their benighted morality on the rest of us. One hopes there are enough adults in the world to help young people navigate the perils of forbidden knowledge.

So, this week, thank the defenders of truth who understand the imperative consequence of an open mind. Better yet... be one.

Speak. Read. Know.

 

Friday, August 06, 2010

Abominable Brands

by Ashley Lohman

Editor’s Note: Spoke partner-in-rhetoric Ashley Lohman waxes nostalgic while blurring the lines between a Looney Tunes classic and modern branding. When not rubbing animated elbows with Bugs and Daffy, Ashley helps transform B-to-B businesses (many in the supply chain space) via strategic and creative marketing services. This is Ashley’s first time guest-blogging for Spoke. She seems to have enjoyed herself despite our involvement.


Is yours really a cute little pink bunny rabbit? Or is it Bad old George?

 

It’s old school but still a relevant analogy. Your stakeholders are like Hugo the Abominable Snowman. They will take your brand at face value. If you’re naughty to pretend you’re something you’re not, they will find out.

And then they will punish you good.

A story…

It was her first day on the job and my friend realized she was working for a very naughty company.

The boss and his office manager carried forth their poetic waxing about hearts over the bar and loyalty, caring and fairness—and Fun, Fun, Fun!—those unassailable attributes the company was so proud of. What a delightfully cute little pink bunny rabbit my friend was hired to brand.

But then her colleagues started quacking (yes, quacking). They were snarky about the boss, each other and their customers. They revealed evidence of high turnover—roll-calling the names of those who had quit in protest or who had been fired unfairly. They whispered of blanketing the region with their resumes.

Hearts clearly under the bar and with one foot out of the door, these people exemplified a very different brand than the delusional boss and office manager described. My friend decided that she wasn’t buying what they weren’t selling. She left, taking her considerable connections and value with her.

It shouldn’t have been shocking to her that the duck was cloaked in a bunny suit. Except it was.

It was because she hadn’t seen it coming, and theirs wasn’t a particularly sophisticated outfit. She realized she was as much of a Hugo the Abominable Snowman as anyone else, seasoned marketer or not. She took the brand at face value as other stakeholders had done before her.

The moral of this story and countless others like it: If you’re not living the brand, you’re dying by the brand. Try to fool people, and you become the fool. Your reputation takes a beating (not just your business), and the disaffected, duped and disappointed will take great pleasure in exposing you for what you really are.

If your brand is a lie, then what else are you willing to lie about? That’s the question your employees, prospects, customers, investors, partners, vendors or anyone else who touches your brand will be asking themselves as they walk out of your door never to look back.

So how do you build a truthful brand? Easy—you build one that does what it says it’s going to do, and eschew being something you’re not. I’ll buy from you if you’re insanely talented at producing what I want no matter your shortcomings, as long as I know what I’m in for.

You don’t have to be nice or beautiful or smart, you just have to be unapologetically real. Ask your customers why they would recommend you to their family and friends. Build your brand off of those, and only those, qualities.

If you don’t see yourself the way others see you, it’s not a fault of perception but a matter of you not living the brand. Consciously or not, you’re saying one thing and doing another.

How do you start living your brand? What do you do with those attributes that your customers say they value so much that they’re willing to steer their loved ones in your direction?

Most importantly, it’s what you don’t do.

Don’t contradict them.

If you’re progressive, don’t have Fox News playing in the lobby. Don’t put fake flowers around the office if you’re sophisticated. The employee restroom should not be used as extra storage space if you’re respectful. If you’re unique, the experience shouldn’t have a familiar ring.

Don’t be pretty. Be beautiful.

Design (with a big ‘D’) will put your most favorable attributes on display. Design is not brand, though it supports the brand. Customers have given you the brand’s true identity. Design is a way to give back. If you look good, they look good.

There is no real brand where the design and the experience don’t match. Fully engaging the senses (what we in the biz call “sensory branding”), or at the very least incorporating visual cues, will let people know how they can expect to feel when they do business with you:

  • Design is what they see
  • The experience is what they get
  • The brand is what they feel.

A brand lives or dies in the spaces in between.

The Bad old George that tried to fool my friend wanted a brand that screamed “Fun, Fun Fun!,” although clearly the brand offered none, none, none. Design must promise something the brand can deliver.

Abominable brands are the warts-and-all types, the truthful ones, the ones that are what their customers say they are and the ones that do what they say they’re going to do. They may not be pretty, but they’re always beautiful—and they should look, act and feel it.

And what if you’re tasked with branding Bad old George?

Good luck putting lipstick on a pig.

Wait… make that a duck.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Fortune 100: When Bigger Isn’t Better

by W. Gene Powell

Quick hit: If there’s any correlation between the capitalization of a company and its online brand presence, it boils down to: “We can afford to look ugly.” At least that’s the conclusion we drew during a study of websites of the Fortune 100 we conducted while stimulating thought for a new project. The web is awash with sites that showcase design in order to inspire pro and amateur alike, but they never display the inspirational work of/for large multi-nationals, because, well... there isn’t any.

Sorta.

Kudos to those Fortune 100 companies who dare to be different (noted by an asterisk in the list below) and push the rest of us to think harder about what a website should be.

1. Wal-Mart
2. Exxon Mobile
3. Chevron
4. General Motors
5. ConocoPhillips
6. General Electric*
7. Ford*
8. Citigroup
9. Bank of America
10. AT&T
11. Berkshire Hathaway
12. JP Morgan Chase
13. AIG
14. Hewlett-Packard
15. IBM
16. Valero Energy
17. Verizon
18. McKesson
19. Cardinal Health
20. Goldman Sachs*
21. Morgan Stanley
22. Home Depot*
23. Procter & Gamble
24. CVS Caremark
25. United Health Group
26. Kroger
27. Boeing
28. AmerisourceBergen
29. Costco
30. Merrill Lynch
31. Target
32. State Farm*
33. WellPoint
34. Dell
35. Johnson & Johnson
36. Marathon Oil
37. Lehman Brothers &mdash Bankrupt, 2008
38. Wachovia
39. United Technologies
40. Walgreens
41. Wells Fargo
42. Dow Chemical
43. MetLife
44. Microsoft
45. Sears Holdings
46. UPS
47. Pfizer*
48. Lowe’s*
49. Time Warner
50. Caterpillar
51. Medco Health Solutions
52. ADM
53. Fannie Mae
54. Freddie Mac
55. Safeway
56. Sunoco
57. Lockheed Martin
58. Sprint*
59. PepsiCo
60. Intel
61. Altria Group
62. Supervalu
63. Kraft Foods*
64. Allstate
65. Motorola
66. Best Buy
67. Walt Disney*
68. FedEx
69. Ingram Micro
70. Sysco
71. Cisco Systems
72. Johnson Controls*
73. Honeywell International
74. Prudential Financial*
75. American Express
76. Northrop Grumman
77. Hess
78. GMAC
79. Comcast
80. Alcoa
81. DuPont
82. New York Life Insurance
83. Coca Cola
84. News Corporation
85. Aetna
86. TIAA-CREF
87. General Dynamics
88. Tyson Foods
89. HCA
90. Enterprise GP Holdings
91. Macy’s
92. Delphi
93. Travelers
94. Liberty Mutual
95. Hartford Financial Services
96. Abbott Labs
97. Washington Mutual
98. Humana
99. Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance
100. 3M

Notice anything missing? We made this list in late 2008. It takes time to rework a list of this length in HTML, and we only dust it off on rare occasions. Someday we’ll get around to doing that, but until then, please note that Apple (by far our favorite Fortune 100 site) is now #56 on the 2010 Fortune 100 list after only reappearing the prior year.

So, what do you think? Why are the websites of so many of these companies so embarrassingly bad? *ahem* General Dynamics.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Long Live Email Marketing!

by Lindsay Leugers

Editor’s Note: Spoke client and Grande Dame of marketing at OneCommand, Lindsay Leugers, steps lively through the good fight of email marketing. Ignored by many, despised by some, email has become the marketing channel we love to hate. It’s time to vanquish the foes of this venerable tool and put its virtues to work for good instead of evil.


Here’s a fact: email is a formidable marketing vehicle. It has not been squashed by spam legislation, it hasn’t been made obsolete by blog posts or tweets or text messages. Even the explosion of mobile and social channels hasn’t wreaked the havoc on email touted by some. Email is, however, fighting for its rightful place in today’s ever-changing online marketplace. This means that marketers who leverage email must do so more thoughtfully than ever before. Although the overall spend on email marketing pales in comparison to other media channels, the returns achieved consistently outperform these same media. To keep that trend going, it’s imperative we build strategies that prevent us from simply blasting out bland content because it’s fast and cheap.

Our approach should evolve over time and address the changing climate of the channel as well as the needs of our unique audiences. We engage in email marketing because it works. Period. Here are some tips to get even better results from your own campaigns:

Target.
Whether targeting current clients or prospects, there are many unique segments within these groups. Take common demographics for example. You should know which age groups purchase which products. You should know which regions you’ve penetrated with which products. You should know which gender responds best to which incentives. In these cases, knowledge is power. Using this intelligence, you should be able to target different segments of your subscribers with unique campaigns that call attention to what is most relevant to them — be it regionalized content, special coupons or overall design.

At OneCommand, for example, our entire email marketing strategy is rooted in recognizing the uniqueness of each of our clients. Since the majority of our customers are in the automotive retail market, we pay close attention to things like dealership franchise, location, the DMS and CRM they use, and even the sales and service volume of the store. These details help us deliver content that is specific and relevant — whether that involves sharing local or regional news and events content, or offering tips on how our solutions work with others the client already has in place.

Test.
Take the time to measure the variables that make your campaign more, or less, effective. Play with the subject line, the sending email address, the reply to address, links offered, the actual email content itself, more images and less copy vs. fewer images and more news articles, etc. Then, measure the differences to identify which is more effective. The best email marketing solutions will let you do this in real-time with A/B split testing features. Such a system will enable the delivery of essentially two different versions of your email based on the previously mentioned variables to a percentage of the total recipient list. Then, it will let you specify a time frame for the test, monitor the performance of each version, decide the more effective of the two and deliver the remainder of the emails accordingly.

In my opinion, Campaign Monitor* offers one of the best email solutions out there. I’m especially enamored with their testing features. In fact, I’ve developed a bit of an addiction. I perform A/B split testing at least once a week with different versions of the weekly news, tips and tricks we deliver to our current customers. Doing so has helped us to deliver more intelligently and has also opened up a bit of healthy competition amongst members of our marketing team. Doesn’t seem like placing bets on whether “A” will smoke “B” or vice versa would be all that fun, but I dare you to try it. Just this past week I closed my door and quietly did a victory dance to celebrate when a message delivered from me as the sender beat out the one coming from our CEO. What can I say? It’s the little things.

Measure.
The spectrum of open, click, bounce and unsubscribe rates is wide. Knowing where your campaigns stand on each of these fronts is critically important, but what long-term value does this information provide? Think about a monthly newsletter campaign. From your standard report, you may learn that 33% of your recipients opened the email, but how does this compare to the rate you measured last month or last year? You should be using these measurements to better understand your progress over time. Your email marketing tools should allow you to select campaigns to compare — helping to give you a better view of your rates and their improvement from, say, one month to the next. Armed with that information, you’ll then be ready to drill down into analyzing what made the difference such as time and day of send, subject, etc.

Measuring also helps you to predict trends. For example, this time last year, when the auto industry was facing its worst year in recent history, we lost a good deal of our customer base due to store closings, budget cuts and consolidation. Because I look at our subscriber list performance over time on a regular basis, I could see the writing on the wall. Our subscriber count was on its way to a big dip. To stem the loss, we introduced a weekly publication that offered best practice insights that were not necessarily linked to the use of OneCommand solutions. Instead, our new publication offered helpful bite-size treats in the form of general best practices and trends sprinkled with a little peer commentary. Though we did certainly see a decrease across our lists, the new subscribers we signed, and those we were able to retain with the new pub into, helped offset the losses.

Listen.
Give your subscribers a voice. Trust me, they have one and they will use it when prompted. Care about and respond to what they have to say, especially in terms of their subscription preferences. If you’ve not already established a way to pass control to the subscriber to manage their subscription—from the email address they provide you to the selection of campaigns or content types they wish to receive—you’re missing a critical piece of the email marketing puzzle. Recipients are far more likely to open, read and respond to a campaign that they’ve expressed interest in receiving. They appreciate being able to control what they receive instead of having only the age-old “subscribe or unsubscribe” options. Many email marketing engines will include the setup of a preference center for your subscribers that feeds directly back to your subscription lists — take advantage!

The idea of preference management is baked into OneCommand solutions, but it wasn’t something that we’d spent much time on in terms of our own marketing strategy. Until now. At OneCommand, we send a lot of email. We send weekly publications, monthly newsletters, system notifications, account management outreach, feature announcements, new staff introductions… the list goes on. We needed a solution that helped us manage the fact that not everyone wants everything. The preference center feature built into Campaign Monitor fits this bill perfectly.

Viva la...!
In summary, as marketers we have to take the time to really understand how this channel is most effective for our specific goals and objectives, and most importantly for our subscribers. I challenge that email marketing has become so second nature for most of us that we rarely give the measurements or the opportunities for improvement the attention they deserve. Change that today. Take stock of your efforts and your measure of success. Once you’ve done that and you feel good about your overall progress and go-forward strategy, think about mobile and social and how those exponentially growing channels can help your email make an even bigger splash.


*Disclosure: Spoke is a proud user of Campaign Monitor. Many of our clients use it with exuberant glee daily.


Follow up: We recently stumbled upon this piece on the Litmus blog. We found the numbers interesting and slightly alarming. Still, we know first-hand that you can improve your campaign success rate by following the suggestions in Lindsay’s post above and others. You might even consider using the Litmus toolset for testing your campaigns.

By the way, we’re not endorsing Litmus. Not because we don’t like it, but because we have’t tried it... yet.


Friday, April 30, 2010

Three Elements of Effective Social Engagement

by Mark Pannell

Editor’s note: Mark Pannell is a freelance social media consultant and occasional Spoke troublemaker. Kind of like the little brother we're glad we never had. In his nearly 35 years on this planet, Mark has spent time in the music industry, managed big box retail stores, and most recently, guided social media strategy at a creative marketing agency. In 1996, Mark was dubbed "Minister of Propaganda" by the drummer of the Detroit rock band Sponge. He's spent the last 14 years living up to that moniker.


Social Media Rock Stars. Digital Media Evangelists. Social Engagement Gurus. No matter what self-assigned fancy title is applied, this role can be simplified down to two words: conversation starter. If I’m doing my job right, this very blog post should spurn its own conversation in the form of comments below.

At the dawn of the internet, millions were made on the ability to create a website. A thorough knowledge of HTML was akin to being an early investor in Google. Today, the superheroes of the web are individuals with the ability to… get this… talk to people.

An entire field of work sprouted up around a little blue bird and a scrawny millionaire. And many practitioners of the craft have a single, unifying battle cry: “You’re doing it wrong.” What they’re really saying is, “You’re doing it wrong. I know how to do it right. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Send a P.O. now!”

The business cards in my pocket read “Social Media Strategist.” Yes, I’ve ridden on the wings of a little blue bird and developed a violently allergic reaction to whales. I’m a proponent of social engagement. I’m also a very big critic of the craft.

This advantageous case of multiple personality disorder makes me stand back and assess my own strategies and beliefs. “You’re doing it wrong” is an arrogant mantra for elitists. Let’s try, “There are aspects of your social engagement strategy which could use some improvement. Let’s take a look at three of them.” Yeah, it doesn’t have the same ring. I’ll work on that.

One: Social Engagement Doesn’t Have a URL
Social engagement is an attitude. It doesn’t reside on Facebook, Twitter, or any other platform. It can exist there, but not as a standalone entity. In its purest form, it’s simply part of an organization’s culture. The company that we social media types all love to reference is Zappos. By now, I’m sure most of you have heard the “I Heart Zappos” story. It’s become the stuff of legends.

The tale that we all adore and have taken creative liberties with over the years is the Zaz LaMarr story. In short, Zaz ordered a pair of shoes from Zappos. She requested a return and meant to send them back, but her mother passed away in the interim. At the risk of making my own creative enhancements to the story, I’ll let Zaz tell the rest:

“In May we had ordered several pairs of shoes from Zappos for my mom. She’d lost a lot of weight, and her old shoes were all too big. She had a whole new wardrobe of clothes in pretty colors that fit, so I wanted her to have some pretty shoes that fit, too, when I took her up to Oregon to stay where her sister is. Out of seven pairs, only two fit. Not bad considering she’d never been this thin, so I was winging it, and the return shipping is free. The rest were here waiting to be returned. Because of various circumstances – lost label, my mom being hospitalized and me being away, the shoes were never sent back. There’s a time limit on the return of 15 days. Remember this. When you do a return to them, they pay the shipping, but you have to get the shoes to UPS yourself. Remember this, also.

When I came home this last time, I had an email from Zappos asking about the shoes, since they hadn’t received them. I was just back and not ready to deal with that, so I replied that my mom had died but that I’d send the shoes as soon as I could. They emailed back that they had arranged with UPS to pick up the shoes, so I wouldn’t have to take the time to do it myself. I was so touched. That’s going against corporate policy.

Yesterday, when I came home from town, a florist delivery man was just leaving. It was a beautiful arrangement in a basket with white lilies and roses and carnations. Big and lush and fragrant. I opened the card, and it was from Zappos. I burst into tears. I’m a sucker for kindness, and if that isn’t one of the nicest things I’ve ever had happen to me, I don’t know what is.”

I can’t think of a better definition of social engagement than that story. There was a personal connection between a brand and a customer; a connection that transformed that customer into a brand advocate for life. Now, here’s the kicker: What social network was used to reach that customer? Zappos is so well-known for their outstanding service and dedication to customer satisfaction, and the story above is so frequently associated with social media, that we forget that no social networks were involved.

Here’s something you might not know about Zappos: All new employees are required to go through a four week customer loyalty program. Two of those weeks are spent in a call center, working directly with their customers. At the end of the four week training period, new employees are offered $2,000 to quit—to walk away from the job, no strings attached. They want to ensure that their employees are there for the love of the job, not just the money. The success that Zappos has achieved in the social space is a reflection of their culture.

If Twitter and Facebook went the way of the dinosaur tomorrow, that level of engagement would persist. How many companies can say that? An effective social presence is not dependent upon any one platform or combination of platforms. It’s an extension of an organization’s culture, online and off.

Two: Viewing “Community” Realistically
Quite possibly the most overused word since the dawn of social media marketing, “community” has become an ambiguous term used to describe various groups of people. As a point of reference, let’s look at the definition of the word:

A social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.

That sounds an awful lot like another word that gets thrown around often: demographic. Before this section gets written off as cynicism, let me point out that online social communities are a wonderful thing, even those built around a brand. Some organizations value their customers’ opinions, love to address issues head-on, and do a fantastic job of rewarding loyalty to the brand.

The danger of “community” comes from blurring the lines between a real community and your organization’s Facebook fan page. When was the last time a member of your company’s online community invited you to a neighborhood cookout? To their son’s bar mitzvah?

If Moneybags McGillicutty’s House of Widgets was given an absolute guarantee, beyond a reasonable doubt, that none of their Facebook fans (or “Likers” now, I guess) would ever buy one of their products again, how much longer would that community be actively managed?

Pretending that your presence in the social space isn’t a method to raise brand awareness and, ultimately, increase sales is not transparency; it’s delusional thinking. Going back to Zappos, they publicly share their revenue successes and repeat buyer statistics. Their social community understands that the company would very much like for them to buy shoes from Zappos.

Consumers are intelligent enough to know that their favorite brands on Facebook want them to purchase their products. Real transparency is rooted in honesty. I’m certainly not advocating the use of social networks solely as a broadcast advertising medium. Just accept and respect the fact that people know why you’re there.

Three: Grand Openings vs. Soft Openings
Recently, Lee Odden from the Online Marketing Blog reached out to 40 thought leaders in the industry to get their thoughts on Social Media Strategy Before Tactics. A wide range of opinions were offered and the piece spurred an offline discussion between me and Head Spoker, Gene Powell. Initially, I fought tooth and nail for the merits of strategy leading tactics. But my history in retail management bubbled to the surface and quickly swayed my opinion into Gene’s corner.

Retailers love grand openings. They make huge events out of them. There’s face painting for the kids, pseudo-celebrities signing autographs, outrageous deals, and frequent giveaways. They throw their doors open and welcome the community to come see what they have to offer. Many companies approach their arrival in the social space the same way. They invest thousands of dollars on Facebook fan page tabs, launch traditional advertising campaigns to promote their new presence, and print the URL’s on anything that doesn’t move. If we build it, they will come. Have you ever stopped by a new store a couple days before their grand opening? You might just find that they’re open. Experienced retailers understand the importance of a “soft opening.” They quietly open shop to a much smaller crowd. Sometimes it’s in the form of a “friends and family” event. Sometimes they invite other local businesses to visit first. And still others just open the doors and see what happens. The soft opening is a way to determine just how ready their staff is to accommodate business, what customers think of the atmosphere, and what last minute tweaks need to be made before the gala event to come. Any business new to the social space could learn from the soft opening method. Allowing strategy to lead tactics is fine if you’re 100% confident that the strategy will be effective. But is that ever a guarantee?

What’s wrong with setting up a minimalist Twitter profile or Facebook fan page to observe how your community will interact? More importantly, how will you respond? This “soft opening” approach might just reveal some surprises before thousands of dollars are spent on strategy. These types of discussions are often boiled down to, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Is a massive strategy developed to attract thousands of fans and followers? Or is the community built on a grassroots campaign and the strategy developed around what was learned during that process? It’s not the most exciting option, but more businesses (and the gurus they hire) could benefit from following the latter approach. There’s always time for a grand opening later.

Four: There is no four.
Not long ago, a friend of mine posted a picture of his grandfather’s automotive repair shop from the 1940’s. His business was successful and he was respected within his community. The children in the neighborhood also knew that if their bicycles were broken, he would fix them. And he did it for free. Why? It was the right thing to do.

That same logic speaks volumes about a company in the digital era. The difference is that word travels exponentially faster and farther today than it did in the 1940’s. Understanding that social engagement is platform-agnostic, that your communities are your customers, and that there’s nothing wrong with gradually entering this space can have a positive long-term impact on the perception of your brand. And maybe, from time to time, forget about ROI for a moment and do things just because they’re the right thing to do.

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