Thursday, January 15, 2009

How to hire a web designer

I've been asked this question a number of times so here's my quick summary of things I’ve learned when hiring web designers:

  • Figure out if they’re a real web designer or a graphic designer posing as one. Ask them how they make sure their designers are HTML-ready and SEO-friendly; if they stumble on that, you’ll know.
  • Determine how involved you’ll be in driving the project. If you need a designer who’ll work via “mind meld,” you’ll need to find someone who can work without detailed specs and creative briefs. There are lots of good designers out there who operate this way, most of them have been freelancing or working at start-ups as most agency types get a lot of hand-holding.
  • How technical will they need to be? If your site will be a static, information-based site and the designer just needs to hand over HTML-ready files, that’s pretty basic. But if you’re building a more complex site (eCommerce anyone?), they may need to be proficient in CSS and other technologies and communicate readily with your development team.

Finally, I found this blog posting recently called “How to talk to a web designer for dummies” which sums a lot up.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

"Walk Before You Wiki" article on Marketing Profs site

I wrote this article a few months ago and was thrilled to hear that Marketing Profs had agreed to publish it --- check it out!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Bring psychic powers to your site

It appears that psychics are expanding their reach beyond oceanfront boardwalks and late night direct response television to the online media industry. The latest buzz in the industry is due to a slew of new companies and technologies promising to leapfrog site personalization in favor of site “metamorphosis” -- detecting what you need and want before you even know it --- and transforming themselves based on these assumptions to deliver higher site conversion and engagement. Will this work and if so, why should you care?

Four seconds to save the sale
Apologies for the Madonna reference but as a site owner, you probably have even less than 4 seconds to ensure your visitors self-identify and are motivated to explore your site. Potential customers have reached your site, now it’s your turn to reward them by offering up useful information and cues - so they can accomplish their goals – with or without these new “psychic tools.” In return, you’ll see increased engagement (improvements to pageviews per visit, time on site, etc.) and/or revenue (improvements to add-to-cart rate, average order value, etc.)

If you’re not sure who your users are and why they’re going to your site, this previous post will help you identify your target customers or personas.

Ditch the “unsitely”one-size-fits-all elastic waistband
If your site is a one-size-fits-all experience, then it’s probably time to explore alternatives. While you may not be ready to deploy some of the next-generation tools I mentioned earlier, here’s a framework to help you adopt psychic powers at a crawl – walk – run pace that’s right for your business.

Crawl: Optimize key landing pages
Make sure your key landing pages support the preferences and information needs of your visitors and are optimized for search engines. For example, if you’re buying the keyword phrase “tandem bicycle,” make sure not to send traffic to a gallery page with listings for everything from mountain bikes to road bikes, etc. Send users directly to the content they searched for and repeat the keyword phrase in as prominent a position as possible.

This also applies to landing pages that support banner ads and email campaigns which serve as the gateway to your site. Ensure your landing pages deliver a consistent experience and “pay off” the ads; users should not experience a disconnect from your ad to your site.

Finally, if you’re not running any online ads and aren’t sure which pages to optimize, mine your analytics data to better understand which pages are serving as the front door to your site. Make sure these pages include appropriate images, relevant content, and an intuitive navigation that surfaces underlying information to support user goals so they’re motivated to drill down further.

Walk: Build a “one-to-many” platform
If you’re asking visitors to register on your site and are capturing information on their preferences, etc., why not use this information to shift from a one-size-fits-all to a “one-to-many” customized experience? At a former employer in the information services industry, we made this shift by asking registered users to select a profile (from a list of 20) so we could serve up relevant information to them rather than force them to wade through thousands of research documents each time they visited the site. Site content was served dynamically based on a user’s profile; this was powered by a combination of business rules and content management system.

Run: Mine data to deliver a personalized experience that’s relevant
We’ve all suffered from “personalized” site experiences that missed the mark because they were based on our perceived interests. The hallmark example is buying a baby gift on Amazon and getting barraged with recommendations for baby gear, books, etc. upon future visits. This model clearly doesn’t scale and the industry is responding with new applications that combine historical cookie information and audience segmentation with an analysis of users’ real-time behavior on the site to offer up recommendations, content, etc.

Immediate applications in the eCommerce space are obvious and early tests show promising results. If you’re ready to explore these options, here are products to consider:
* Rich Relevance
* Magnify360
* Aggregate Knowledge

Creating a rich and relevant experience for your users should always be the end game. Whether you walk or run there is your choice.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

SEO: So Easy to Overlook

Having just completed a search engine optimization (SEO) assessment for an educational services company’s site, I was surprised by the sheer volume of resources and information freely available online. For example, what I considered a well targeted search for “SEO linking strategies” generated 493,000 results on Google! So if information on this topic is so widely available, why is SEO so frequently overlooked?

In speaking with clients and contacts, they consistently offer up the following reasons for not implementing SEO best practices:
* SEO isn’t as important as other marketing efforts.
* SEO is not measurable – how will we know if our results pay off?
* SEO has a long lead time – any SEO efforts will delay other web-related projects.
* SEO is cost-prohibitive --- we can’t afford expensive consulting fees to support this effort.

Typically, SEO is initiated by the marketing organization in conjunction with (and with support from) IT. If you want to champion SEO-related efforts, arm yourself with the following information to build a solid business case.

1. It’s how consumers will find you online.
According to a 2008 study by Forrester Research (see chart), search engine results are the primary way adults and youth find web sites. If you’re not visible in search results, you’re not reaching your target audience with the vehicles (Google, Yahoo!, MSN) they use the most.

2. It’s measurable
There are several ways to measure the impact of your SEO efforts.
* Impact to traffic volume: Tap into your site analytics data to create a baseline for current monthly traffic generated by organic search results and compare before and after results. To take this a step further, evaluate the conversion rate for the incremental traffic and impact to leads and/or revenue.
* Impact to rankings: Type relevant keywords into Google, Yahoo!, MSN, etc. and identify where your site lands in search results before and after your SEO enhancements.

3. It’s relatively easy to implement
There are numerous SEO best practices a front-end developer can deploy relatively quickly once the content is assembled. Updating metadata (page titles, descriptions, and keywords) to reflect keywords, incorporating keywords in headers, image alt text and in page content, and creating simple sitemaps are all low effort/high return enhancements and can be worked in around other web deliverables.

4. It’s not expensive.
There are a number of free SEO resources and tips --- it’s just a matter of taking the time to wade through a huge amount of information. If you’re a small business, assign a web-savvy, take-charge person to familiarize themselves with SEO best practices and offer them a bonus based on results. If you have a significant online presence as an online retailer or subscription-based site, there are search consulting firms that will define a strategy and implement tactics for both paid search and SEO activities, often on a revenue share basis.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Watch out for the hippo in the room

Forget about the elephant in the room, it’s the h-i-p-p-o we need to watch out for. As in the “highest paid person’s opinion” which, good intentions notwithstanding, isn’t always the most informed. More often, it’s “the reason most web sites suck,” says Google’s analytics evangelist, Avinash Kaushik.

AdAge recently covered his speech to about 200 such hippos – marketing executives from consumer brands like Coca-Cola and Timberland – and his blunt narrative struck home. As someone who has managed the experience for several web sites, I’m all too familiar with the hippo scenario: An enthusiastic exec returns from lunch with new home page layouts scrawled on cocktail napkins. Or the Monday morning email from the CMO with landing pages s/he mocked up in Photoshop over the weekend. After a long inhale, you thank them for their efforts and assure them that we’d consider their ideas.

How often have you sat in meetings to present new designs or user interactions only to reach a conclusion based on the highest paid person’s opinion? If your site design is based on opinion only, it’s probably not serving your audience unless your executive has supernatural abilities to channel customer feedback. (And I’m guessing that’s not the case!)

Turn the conversation to the customer
Next time you’re handed a decree from senior management to change the site, redirect the conversation by putting the focus on the customer. Ask the hippo, “How will your suggestion improve the user experience?” Here are the questions you should be able to answer:
* Who are our users?
* Why are they coming to our web site?
* What are they trying to accomplish?
* Are they successful at reaching their goals? Why or why not?

If you don’t have answers to these questions, tap your users to fill in the gaps. There are many free, online survey tools you can employ such as SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang to better understand their goals, how they’re using your site, and what additional help or support they might need to complete their tasks. Kaushik urged companies to use online surveys to find “segments of discontent” within their user base. By supporting your harshest critics – users with the highest expectations - you’ll be able to meet the needs of a significant portion of your user base.

Armed with rich user input, your site will meet customer needs; and with a little diplomacy, you may even quiet the hippo. Just don’t linger by the watercooler.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Paying the Price: Why usability testing is not a luxury

A recent issue of Jared Spool’s UIE Tips struck a nerve when he shared that a client’s management team had perceived usability testing as a “nice-to-have luxury.” I’ve heard similar statements from companies large and small that pass on usability testing, believing it’s “not critical,” “will delay our launch,” or that “the site experience is less important than accurately conveying the brand.”

No company with a web site tied to business results can afford to disregard usability testing, and here’s why:

* Your site experience represents your company and brand. Think of the last time you had a frustrating experience on a site – did you ever want to do business with that company again?

* Your investment pays off – in multiples. It costs less to invest in usability testing up front than to overhaul a site in 6 months due to minimal user engagement, poor sales, and/or weak lead generation. Plus, it’s costly to pay for leads that will drive traffic to your site so you need to keep – and engage – customers who are already visiting.

* You’re not a mind reader. Not every web project will produce disastrous results without testing, but, in my experience, testing has repeatedly surfaced opportunities to improve user interactions that, if left unaddressed, would have significantly impact the site’s success.

* Your credibility is at stake. With usability testing, you’re in a position to fix user issues before you launch and guarantee successful user adoption of your new feature(s). And, with a series of successful launches on your side, you’ll build your team’s credibility, making it easier to secure funding for future web projects.

Debunking the Myth
All too often, usability testing is misunderstood as an extremely costly, time consuming, and clinical process administered by social scientists. Unfortunately, many usability shops compound the problem by presenting overly complex theories and methodologies in order to convince clients that:
a) there’s a good reason to pay tens of thousands of dollars for their services; and,
b) they shouldn’t try doing this on their own.

Apply Home-Grown Testing
In my experience, the exact opposite is true. As a site owner/manager, there’s nothing more powerful than having direct contact with your users. Information about your customers is valuable: have you noticed how a colleague can quickly garner support for an idea by citing customer feedback that supports her claim? By presenting customer insights about your web site, your extended team is more likely to support your goals.

If you’re a small business, your only option may be to conduct testing on your own with some assistance and coaching. In the next post, I’ll share more details about usability testing and how you can build this competency in house.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Subscription sites get sophisticated

A recent MarketingSherpa article highlighted results from a survey of 400 subscription marketers who rated these tests as delivering the best ROI:
1. Multivariate testing of site pages
2. Email list cleansing to improve quality of responses
3. Usability testing of registration and/or shopping cart
4. Implementing high-end Web analytics
5. Shopping cart design/functionality tests

My reaction: These marketers are wearing Chanel! I'm impressed they're employing more sophisticated techniques like multivariate testing (these people don't have time for A/B testing!) and usability testing, but my only criticism is that they're qualifying email list cleansing as a test to deliver high ROI.

Isn't list cleansing common sense? If you spend less in email delivery costs to reach the same amount of engaged customers (because you're paring down the 20% of your list that are deadbeats), then sure, anyone will achieve a higher ROI.

A better test would be to test offers to re-engage the deadbeats on your list. Test various offers within a set time period and if they don't bite, then hit "delete."