For much of the life of the commercial web, websites were one dimensional, essentially online brochures that over time became large and often unruly repositories of tactical content. But, in just a few short years after the recession, websites have catapulted to the 4th dimension.
Skip forward to today where I just returned from a meeting with a client for whom we were hired to do a website. As it often turns out, we identified that their website was the strategic doorway to the other dimensions of the business in which the website lives: brand strategy, content (marketing) strategy and design strategy.
Brand Strategy for Websites - the 2nd dimension
Many of our clients have multiple products or services, speak to different audiences and have a different set of competitors for each product or service. They are often confused about how to architect their websites because there is often no apparent commonality in their audiences or offerings, so they focus on product or technology, which quickly gets tactical.
At this juncture we take them back to their brand strategy (or identify need for one); that underlying value proposition that unifies the seemingly disparate. If we discover that they are not able to articulate a clear and compelling brand strategy, they will have trouble architecting or providing concise, compelling content for a website. In the rush of trying to get s____ done, the brand strategy, which yields the ever important "messaging platform" can get glossed over. Doing the brand strategy work upfront saves massive time on a typical website project.
Design Strategy for Websites - the 3rd dimension
With websites increasingly addressing visitors on mobile devices, the ratio of words to images continues to shift toward less copy and more images. Our clients no longer want a whole site of generic stock images but instead want the images to convey meaning. Infographics are a way of expressing often quantative data in a qualitative storytelling mode. Infographics, icons and other graphics must work much harder now that there are less words to tell a company's story. We must distill strategic concepts into compelling visual stories that are visually branded in a cohesive way and can be leveraged on the web, in Powerpoint, tradeshow booth graphics, digital presentations and collateral. And repurposing is the essence of content marketing.
Content (Marketing) Strategy for Websites - the 4th dimension
While copy for websites used to begin once the information architecture (site map) was finalized, today the most important dimension of the website is the content (marketing) strategy. Assuming that the commonly accepted purpose of the website is to serve as a customer engagement channel and generate leads, you must address your content strategy much earlier in the web process. The components of your content strategy include:
- Buyer Personas - In order to make your website relevant to solving the problems of your audience, creating a persona of the buyer or the problem a buyer has is the first step toward a relevant website. And relevancy is the watchword Google considers when ranking your site.
- SEO: although Google has made it harder to track keywords, they are still enormously useful in crafting content for your site. Getting keywords right goes a long way toward producing relevant content.
- Calls-to-Action - Think less about your home page as the be-all and end-all. Every page in your site should be considered a landing page and have some sort of "call-to-action" to enable your audience to engage with you. This can be a white paper, webinar, related link, phone #, etc.
- Offer Creation - Create offers for visitors to engage with you at increasingly deeper levels. This builds your "thought leadership credentials" and over time, a valuable library of resources through which visitors will engage.
- Website Analytics - Tracking site visits to specific pages, repeat visitors and "bounce rate" are some of the ways you can gauge whether your content is resonating. The data will tell you if your content strategy is getting the desired results or whether you need to rethink or refine content to meet your goals.
Website copywriting is just tip of the iceberg. Like everything else, it requires a considered strategy.
- Continuous Improvement - Thinking about your website as a continuous process of improvement rather than an event to get done and check off your list is the surest way towards it becoming the powerful strategic channel it should be.
Is your website operating in the 4th dimension?
Just last year we won a terrific job by showing the client 10 competitor sites, which all looked almost exactly like theirs. The need for differentiation was alive and well.
I did a double take the other day when I happened on the website of a venture capital firm. It was a perfectly nice website, but I was taken aback by how identical it was to the site of a consulting firm or a high tech firm. In fact if the logos were removed, you might be hard pressed to guess what kind of business you are viewing. Homogenization is good... if you're a container of milk, not so good if you're trying to market.
What's behind the "Me too" movement?
There are five causes I can see for why websites have become much more simple, modular, prone to large type and created as a series of long, scrolling pages.
Technology is defining design by "mobilizing the desktop." The new standard for websites is "Responsive Design," which describes a way of designing and programing, which allows the website to detect the viewer's device and reconfigure itself accordingly. Designers have discovered that simplifying the design by removing complex image/type overlays, using small type, modular units of bold color, and scrolling navigation, makes the design process easier and the user experience less problemmatical.
Last year, Google changed their Search algorithm, making it much harder for businesses to track which keywords bring the visitor to their site. The density of website content had been somewhat a product of including as many keywords into the copy as possible such that Google would deem the site relevant and award a higher page ranking. Now that Google has changed their definition of what "relevancy" means, to something attempting to be more authentic, businesses have lightened the content load by simplifying the quality and quantity of their language.
It's a well-known fact that people are less able to focus on anything without multiple beeps, rings and interruptions, and are generally stretched so thin that reading a long web page of tightly spaced text was not high on the list of priorities. Some of our new clients had also been seeing steady dips in site traffic and felt that a more simple approach was an idea whose time had come.
In our B2B world, we always look toward B2C to see what trends will make their way to the world of professional services and technology marketing. Bold colors, big shapes, icons instead of words, pictures in place of paragraphs and infinity scrolling are what was happening in consumer websites over the last two years and is now the defacto standard of the B2B website.
The word "engagement" has become very important to businesses that are trying to cut through the noise and make a connection with their prospects and customers. Guiding a site visitor down a simple set of screens that gradually and simply tell a nice, clear, simple story with muliiple calls-to-action along the way is a more engaging way to generate leads and connect with people.
These 5 reasons explain the homogeneity of websites but don't entirely excuse it. Online brands still need to express themselves in compelling and unique ways, while adhering to best practices. B2B buyers are still people, and people react from emotion, as well as for rational business reasons. A recent site RainCastle did for former Procter and Gamble CMO, Jim Stengel, is a case in point, a hybrid of longstanding website best practices of clean design, deep content and ease-of-use with the new paradigm of modular calls-to-action and scrolling page content. It is also responsive, optimized for search and lead generation, and visually interesting, and not a copycat site. I think it is a fair expectation for clients to expect that as designers, we will create site experiences that aren't easily replicated by the masses.
I'd love to hear from you about other excellent new websites that exhibit best practices but do so in unique ways.
With the growth of responsive design, inbound marketing, personalization and web analytics, websites have become more complex, time-intensive and often expensive. While most clients require these services, often budgets do not keep up with technology, so agencies like RainCastle need to work smart to provide our clients the best and most current services at a reasonable cost.
Understanding how the website fits into your organization provides opportunities for streamlining the web design process, which leads to saving money.
1. Determine if Your Website Redesign is a Strategic or Tactical Project
Depending on your organization, your CEO or CFO will view the website as either a strategic project of critical importance or a tactical project that should basically, "do no harm." There is a gray area in between but the Director or Vice President of Marketing or the CMO, should know what degree of importance this project holds for the organization. Much time, effort and $ can be saved by being clear on this point from the start because a strategic website will involve much more key executive time, and a more sophisticated agency partner providing a greater degree of service than what is required for a tactical website. This reality should be factored into the budget. If lead generation is not a key component of your website, perhaps you don't need an expensive agency that takes a custom approach.
2. Establish a Clear Division of Labor with Your Web Agency
Initially you may assume that once you choose a Web agency partner, they will do the entire website. The reality is that a website project may consume more than a third of your time, if you are your company's point person for the website project. While the agency is responsible for designing, programming, QA and other web activities, you will be reponsible for:
- scheduling executive meeting times, and rescheduling
- establishing and maintaining corporate goals
- maintaining project momentum within your company
- getting input and approvals from all internal or customer resources
- assembling corporate content
- providing messaging feedback
- Leading weekly meetings
- Managing your agency partner
- Managing all of your other work at the same time (Remember, you already have a full time job!)
Because many agencies allocate their resources to your account according to the project schedule, understanding your own time committment will yield a smoother process with less stops and starts, which often add $ and time to a budget due to the agency's reallocation of resources.
3. Don't Write Your Own Copy
"Who knows our business better than us," you may ask? It's a legitimate question to which I'd answer, "Probably nobody." That said, we all know about the shrinking attention span of today's web reader, and we've discussed the internal time commitment required to do a website — on top of your already full-time job. Our experience with B2B websites is that in-house resources also find it challenging to write with brevity and to seamlessly infuse copy with relvant keywords.
Internal copywriting, is the single thing most responsible for broken schedules, which ultimately result in increased $ and more frustration than any other facet of the website design process.
4. Use Design Templates as They Are Intended
A wee bit of "abstract thinking" can go a long way to save time and $ on a typical website project. When designing any website, your web agency will look at the site's Information Architecture (IA), and with an understanding about the content of each web page — from prior discussion with you — will design a "page template," which will establish the design format to be utilized for as many similar type pages as the IA indicates. Where some clients want to see every page of the site individually layed out, costs can escalate. The best way to economize is to create templates with dummy copy, that reflect the amount and types of content the page will ultimately require. This requires that little bit of abstract thinking to imagine your specific copy in the layout, but the agency should write to a word count, which will make the result predictable. Then, once the copy has received final approval, it can all be flowed into each template once, during the Implementation, rather than many times during the Design Phase, thus saving on the time required to flow iterative stages of copy into the templates.
5. Your Corporate Culture May Define Your Website Budget
Within some B2B industries, such as Consulting firms or Architecture, Engineering and Construction firms (A/E/C), decision making is commonly a committee process, often a large committee. While the agency cannot and should not determine the approval process, it is important that businesses that make decisions this way will require more client service, more creative options, more review cycles and a longer schedule. Each of these have budget implications. When possible, a core decision committee of 3 or 4 individuals, is optimal for streamlining a web project and saving $. Organizations that make decions by committee, should condiser if there is a clear line between team members that get to "see" the website in all its phases vs. those that "approve" the website in all its phases.
Bonus point - Try to tie the launch of a new website to an event like a tradeshow, Sales meeting, user conference or major announcement. Having a hard deadline is wonderful for creating urgency and driving decisions!
Considering these 5+ points will either save your organization real money or provide reasonable expectations about what drives costs.
If one believes that in life nothing is permanent, then the constant changes in the science of SEO are just a fact of life. But for those who tend to get uncomfortable with things arcane, it's good to refresh yourself now and then. Managing your website's SEO in 2014 looks a little different than it did in 2004.
Let's quickly trace how SEO has evolved. SEO has been traditionally broken down into on-page SEO (keywords) and off-page SEO (links). The more keywords and links, the better the search. I've had many discussions with people who wanted to permeate their websites with search terms and links, which at times challenged principles of grammar or the creation of a natural "voice." And with everyone adapting this attitude, one's Google ranking constantly fluctuated as competitors outworded or outlinked one another.
Audience Focus - What people often overlooked was "their audience," i.e., providing full pages of content tailored to their audience's needs, and associating this content with compelling offers that would motivate visitors to register or in the case of a blog, share your content.
Relevant Content - As the arbiter of value in today's websites, Google rates "relevancy" more than quantity of links or keywords. By making repeated, incremental modifications to your website over time, Google views these steady additions as relevant, hence your rank begins to rise.
The use of Buyer Personas - Branding and marketing professionals have used "buyer personas" for some time and these are becoming more important for the creation of the more personalized web content your web visitors expect and which Google rewards.
The value of a keyword
- "Are keywords still relevant?" I can hear you ask. The answer is a qualified yes, because it is now a quality rather than a quantity game. The value is in picking the right keywords. How do you judge the value of a keyword? Moz
has a simple, 5-step process, which I will summarize here:
- Relevancy: Will searchers find what they need on your site based on the keyword?
- Do your own Google search: Seeing who already ranks for your keyword will suggest how difficult it will be for you to rank. The presence of paid search that appears at top or right side of the page indicates the presence of a conversion-prone keyword.
- Consider a Google Adwords test: Test traffic by buying the keyword so that it appears on the first page of Google, and track impressions.
- Use the data collected to determine the value of each keyword.
Additionally, HubSpot provides these keyword research tips for marketers:
- Understand "transactional" vs. "informational“ keywords.
- Use alternative tools like www.similarsites.com ormarketing.grader.com for competitor research.
- Google’s keyword tool is now “Keyword Planner”
- Use AdWords auction insights.
- Look at data from Webmaster tools.
Google Changes - Digging in a little deeper in his excellent Forbes article, "4 Changes Google Is Making And How They Affect Content Creation," John Hall explains the busy year Google had, trying to make Search more relevant. Foremost of the Google algorithm changes is "that you can no longer mine Google Analytics for keyword data, leaving website owners in the dark about what word searches were used to find or stumble upon their site." Google has done this to discourage those who keyword loaded their sites but were not necessarily the most authoritative resource on a subject.
"Ultimately, the key to Google’s algorithm changes lies in its guidelines for content creation:
- Content is key. Good content — clear, concise, informative — is better than bad content.
- Use plain English. Write for real people.
- Keep links to a reasonable number. Make your content readable.
- Really, it all goes back to one idea: Create quality content, and you won’t have to worry about it riding the Google update rollercoaster.
Key SEO Takeaways - In conclusion, 5 key high-level, takeaways for SEO optimized content are:
- Tailor more unique content to your audience (personas).
- Create more educational content. The blog is most useful for this and social media for sharing.
- Make meaningful, incremental content updates, don't add content to "bulk-up" your site.
- Google ranks for relevancy to human beings, so go for quality, not quantity.
- Have clearly defined business goals greater than ranking for Google.
HubSpot has additional resources; some of my content here is distilled from their e-book, "SEO- Past, Present and Future."
I've never written an annual "State of the Website" blog and endeavor for it to be more relevant than the State of the Union speeches have become. As the leader of a company that has been designing websites for 20 years, a recent blogpost by Michael Brenner, titled "Is the corporate Website Dead?" certainly caught my eye.
Dire prognostications are standard operating procedure in the blogoshphere. Example: a few years ago I read that Search, which is more relevant than ever, was dead. Americans need to be always onto the next great wave, whatever that is, lest we be left behind or be perceived as yesterday's news. We're all journalists now so I salute a good headline when I see one — hyperbole aside — so let's see what's behind this one.
Mr. Brenner sites research like:
- According to Webtrends, nearly 70% of Fortune 100 corporate websites experienced declines in traffic, with an average drop of 23%.
- 90% of website traffic comes from just 10% of the content and more than 50% of the traffic is from just 0.5% of the content. ~ InboundWriter
- 60-70% of B2B marketing content goes unused. ~ Sirius Decision
- 60% of the buyer journey is complete before prospects reach out to vendors. ~ CEB
These statistics, which seem to focus on the largest companies, which is not where most of us work, don't suggest the death of the website so much as the need for better understanding of and focus on audience needs and providing content that is reflective of that. Audience focus, or the creating of more personalized experiences is the future of the website. Big companies like Boeing, Siemens and Coca-Cola are now actively seeking audience participation to improve their website's relevance. They are also leading with highly produced customer story videos and prominent links to their well-staffed social channels to enable ubiquitous sharing.
My own experience is that most B2B companies are still quite enamored of their products, want them emphasized on the website, feel that education, while important, is a distant second on their websites, to lead generation. So, in 2014, we still need to lead discussions about the importance of focusing on the audience, addressing their pain points and providing relevant customer anecdotes.
While it is imperative for B2B companies to continually look at the B2C world and the Fortune 100, which is where marketing trends often originate, there is usually several years lag time before B2C or big company trends are absorbed and reflected in B2B websites. Compounding this is the generational reality that many individuals in B2B leadership positions today are not digital natives and have not yet really become comfortable with the notion that the website is becoming "A desination" within a network of customer channels, rather than "THE destination."
We are believers in multi-channel marketing, personalized web experiences and the website as a continual process rather than an one time event. RainCastle is often invited to bid on redesigning a B2B website and often a B2B brand in which the client presents the website as a finite project to be completed in a specific timeframe. The assumption is that we will create a better user experience with better content, navigation, design and content management capabilities. What it fails to acknowlege is that in order to stay relevant to their audiences and to Google, maintaining a relevant website is a constant process of creating new content, measuring its effectiveness and creating additional content based on analysis, to nurture prospects through a sales process, or others through an education process, and to connect with them in meaningful ways, across channels. This work is never "complete." In the B2C world, the website is becoming the most ubiquitous entry point rather than the final destination in many cases. This will be true for B2B as well, over time; change will be an evolution not a revolution, at least for the next several years.
2014 and beyond are looking pretty good for the website. We look forward to creating more and more personalized experiences across channels, over time.
Far from dead, the website is only now really coming to life.
I've never been one to announce my New Year's resolutions, but this year is different. This year I resolve to abolish the whole idea of New Year's Resolution in favor of "Seeking a Higher Algorithm." Let's face it, there is an algorithm for everybody and everything, making us all increasingly predictable. As a marketer I am a contributor to this revolution via the data-driven marketing practice known as "Personalization." In this week's Sunday Business section of The New York Times, I was reminded of personalization that targets... me, which I have to admit I found a little irksome.
In the article, "Listen to Pandora, and it Listens Back," the author, Natasha Singer, discusses how Pandora, the internet radio service, is moving beyond aggregating my "Thumbs Up" rating of songs in order to increasingly serve music to my liking. Not surprisingly, they are now mining my musical data in order to serve me more targeted ads, to improve the quality of my interruptions.
Online ad customization, known as Behavioral Targeting has been around awhile but Pandora, with more than 200 million registered users, has an enormous proprietary database tracking people's musical usage habits at an individual level. Pandora's algorithms will correlate my musical tastes and figure out that I am a political independent with a left wing zip code, a Jew with Buddhist leanings, am happily married and other inferences based on lyrics and musical patterns that statistically apply to the many individuals like me. I'm having a passing thought that maybe I'll go on a Hip-Hop binge or start listenining to Christian Gospel music and really throw them off, but my guess is that like the stock market, I'm in for the long haul and they will seek and find my level.
It's been the guiding principal of my life and thirty plus year career to take the independent path, to marry a free spirit and be a capitalist, to maintain a foot in the art world but run a business, to be conservative on some issues and liberal on others and never belong to either political party, to follow intellectual pursuits and enjoy B action movies — to avoid being stereotyped. So as the industrial era recedes further in the rearview and technology makes us smarter and faster, I realize that as much as I've tried to think unique thoughts and try different things, while I may not have ended up a carbon copy of my neighbor, I'm every bit as predictable.
So this year, I'm going to work on my spiritual life and getting in shape and when I see Groupon ads on my Facebook page for discounts on biking trips to meditation retreats in Thailand, I will have reached a higher algorithm. But first I'd have to spend time on Facebook, which is entirely too predictable.
RainCastle wishes you a happy holiday season, with sincere thanks to all our wonderful clients, partners and friends. This season, in celebration of our 20-Year Anniversary, a donation has been made to Urban Achievers Boston to support 20 middle-school students as they receive after school academic enrichment.
Most of the time, making a difference for our clients means moving the needle in terms of how they present their company, product or service; how they feel about their new brand, website and approach to marketing and ultimately, what the work we’ve created will do for their business.
This week, we launched a site for Urban Achievers (UA), an organization whose ultimate goal is not just to be a hub for driving business, but to support a community of educators, parents, students and professionals working together 10+ hours per day, six days per week, 11 months per year to improve the learning and overall development of students in underserved communities.
Based in Dorchester, MA, in the Epiphany School, UA offers after-school, weekend and summer programs to students starting in the fifth grade and continues to work with them through high school to provide educational and life-skills experiences that prepare them for future responsibilities and success.
Over the years, we spent a great deal of time at UA: meeting and interviewing the teachers, students, volunteers, Board and Founder. We watched as the first class of students graduated last spring; heard the names of every single child and the list of extraordinary high schools they’re now attending; met the many mentors around the community in various fields who continue to work with UA students and their families to inspire and motivate them to continue to succeed.
Launching the site and video this Thanksgiving is a way of expressing gratitude to all our clients and partners; you’ve made it possible for us to donate our services to UA. We’re grateful to all of you and we’re especially proud to be associated with Urban Achievers.
While marketers have come to recognize the power of content marketing and the need for it to be strategic, web visitors and social media users have begun to wonder what to do with so much content. So how can marketers get the attention of people who are becoming saturated with so much relevant content?
We’ve been researching this question, reading analytics and attending numerous seminars and events. Here’s what we think works best and is not going to require a big budget or more staff.
HubSpot, one of the most vibrant marketing software B2B’s around, analyzed whether using visuals increased click-through rate. They found that, “Marketers who are using interesting images to their advantage can increase traffic to their websites -- just as long as they remember to include links!”
Another powerful tool for boosting website traffic is video. Marketers may think production cost is too expensive but videos don’t need to be television-quality. In fact, a video shot with a pocket video camera that looks less commercial will feel more personal.
In a recent Marketing Sherpa article, “Content Marketing: Videos attract 300% more traffic and nurture leads,” a case study of a B2B company that posted videos regularly demonstrated:
- site traffic spiked;
- average time-on-site per visitor increased;
- time spent on pages with video was about twice as long as without video.
So, how can marketers best use images and video to engage users?
- Use an image, or even better, a video at the start of your blog posts. According to an Oracle/Eloqua newsletter, “Videos tagged with metadata about a specific topic within a post can help your SEO efforts. Google recognizes pages where a click leads to longer time spent on a page, so a video capturing viewers’ attention on your blog for even two minutes longer can make your content more sticky and more likely to show up in Google search results for a particular topic.”
- Use video in email campaigns. Email campaigns can serve as tremendous opportunities to leverage your video marketing for lead nurturing. In a GetResponse study of nearly a billion emails, those containing video had a 96% higher click-through rate when compared to non-video emails.
- Use video (and interesting images) in social media channels such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Hubspot found that compared to text-only posts, Facebook posts that included interesting images received 84% more link clicks.
For help on how to include video in your email campaigns, here’s a useful link:
At a recent Boston Business Journal event we attended that featured a discussion about winning practices for social media, panelists concurred on this point:
The best marketing is marketing that does not "sell," but instead promotes the experience that the business has to offer.
By showing photos and/or video of customers enjoying a particular brand, marketers can combine best practices for offering up strategic content marketing that gets readers’ attention.
I was so captivated by a photo a friend posted on facebook of museum goers experiencing a recent installation at the Guggenheim, that I went to the museum website, clicked on a link to the video, and proceeded to buy tickets to for the exhibit.
James Turrell's "Light" exhbit at the Guggenheim and people "experiencing" the exhibit
Featuring video and photos on your website and periodically providing links to videos on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook can increase site traffic. And the image or video needn’t be as arresting as the Guggenheim clip. Videos of product demos, customer testimonials, introductory explanations and interviews offered on a straightforward b2b site, can be used to draw in and develop leads. And repurposing video across marketing tactics can make them an even more successful means of content marketing. For more tips on how to use video:
To YouTube and Beyond! 5 Places Where Including a Video Will Boost Results
RainCastle is pleased to be working with Jim Stengel, former Global Marketing Officer of Procter & Gamble, and an industry leader in the fields of Marketing, Brand and Business.
While everyone has come to recognize the power of brands, it can still be challenging to quantify the value one's brand adds to the bottom line. Jim Stengel, through extensive research, identified the connection between financial performance and customer engagement, loyalty and advocacy. Essentially, he found that the companies with the best financial performance are what he calls "ideals-driven companies," i.e., ones in which the mantra of "improving people's lives" is indigenous to their vision, values and culture.
When I asked how the idea of an ideals-driven brand plays to B2B, Jim said many of his clients are B2B companies and the notion of improving people's lives just takes a different form than with a consumer company, such as Nike or Apple. His contention is that people are people and will always feel empowered when feeling that their product or service has a deeper purpose than its immediate function. IBM's "Let's Build a Smarter Planet" is one example of a B2B that has embodied their brand ideal. And at the end of their TV commercials, the voice over proclaims, "I'm an IBMer," giving the ideals-driven brand a personal touch and making us feel that everyone at IBM is united in the mission to build that smarter planet.
"Creating Marketing People Love," is marketing software vendor, HubSpot's tagline. HubSpot is one of the most vibrant B2B's around and it is plain to see that they are an ideal-driven brand whose financials have grown at an enviable clip. Their tools help businesses increase leads and convert those leads into happy customers — a sure way to improve people's lives. HubSpot puts an enormous amount of passion and energy on educating their partners and customers, providing white papers, eBooks and webinars, so their customers will be successful.
Brands are often described as needing to satisfy a balance of rational and emotional needs. One might sound the familiar refrain that B2B markets and their decision making process are necessarily more rational than in consumer markets, because they are often selling higher value products or services, which require many decision-makers. But it still comes down to people selling to people. And people are moved by emotional ideas. This means that a strong B2B brand is expected to posess all of the rational attributes, but will truly rise above by offering an emotional benefit found in authentic brand ideals.
In the B2B world, How important do you think ideals-driven brands are?