Monday, April 29, 2013

The 3 stages of data

The web is a glorious place that lets us collect data on almost everything a visitor does.  All this data is fun to look at and analyze with various dashboards and graphs, but it doesn't stop there.  Once you have found meaning in the data, you still have to use that knowledge.

These are the 3 stages of data: Collect, Analyze, and Implement.

Some data in easy to interpret and use.  If, in a split test, your visitors purchase more when exposed to version A vs B, the implementation is easy.  Show version A to all your visitors.

Most data insights are not as straight forward.  Consider the insight that people don't feel comfortable giving out their date of birth on your signup page.  Does this mean they don't trust your site enough to share personal info?  Should you not ask for a birth date or should you explain why you want to know?  Maybe the issue is unrelated and this is just a symptom.

When you don't have a clear path forward, you have to collect more data either through advanced collection techniques or testing, analyze the results, and try again to implement a solution.  It becomes apparent that even valuable data insights can take months to fully implement and realize.

It seems that while there are 3 stages of data, there is only 1 overarching goal:  Minimize the delay from collection to implementation.

If you're just collecting data and viewing it in a dashboard, your data isn't able to achieve its goal.

What do you do with your data?

Friday, April 26, 2013

The downside of automation

It seems that everyone reveres automation as the holy grail.  You can automate your marketing, your email campaigns, and even your coffee maker.  Automation is great because it ensures consistency and frees up valuable man hours to do more mentally intense tasks.  But, automation isn't always good.

Automation reduces personalization and requires extensive maintenance to keep up with variable change.

Personalization is important because it not only adds a layer of attention, but re-enforces social ties to your customers.  I'm not talking about the kind of personalization that your bulk email service provider offers, Hi [First Name].  I'm talking about true personalization that would take terabytes of data to be able to program into an automated system.  The digital equivalent of my coffee pot being able to recognize that I'm dragging more than normal this morning and responding by making me stronger coffee.

I'm not saying that personalization of this level is impossible to program, just that it isn't practical for most applications.  You could easily blend a little automation with a likable account rep and still benefit from automated processes while paying personalized attention to your customers.

Maintenance is another concern when looking to automate anything.  As humans, when we learn something new, we automatically integrate it into our process.  For a computer program, a change in the outside world may require a minor adjustment or a complete rewrite of the original automation.  

My personal belief is that if you can't afford to replace something, it's outside of your reach.  If you can't afford to replace your automation (based on the time and monetary investment), you're not getting enough out of having the process automated.  

Start manually and document each step and decision point of your process.  Just having the process scripted on paper should increase the consistency of your results and will help you determine if automating it is worth the effort.

I know a guy who took a 4 month process and made it a 1 day process through automation.  He didn't completely remove the human element from the decision points, just automated the basic steps (reason why it still takes a whole day).  The program would take weeks to re-write or make a major update, but that's still a huge savings over doing it manually, even once.

Is your automation working for you or just creating extra work?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Second Chance: Appeal the Bounce

A bounce is when a visitor lands on your website and promptly leaves without doing anything.  You work hard to get visitors to your website.  Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Social Media Marketing (SMM), Content Marketing, Email Campaigns, and Pay Per Click (PPC) ads all cost time and money to maintain.  If it costs an average of $1 to get each visitor to your site, each bounce is a wasted buck.

They came, they saw, they left... you lost a dollar.  What can you do?

Why not make one last appeal to your bouncing visitor to get them to hang around?  These "Are you sure you want to leave?" messages can be super annoying, but if you only show it to visitors that you've already lost, what will it hurt?  Even if you get just one of those bouncers to stay, you're ahead of the game.

I suggest limiting the message to those who are not engaged.  

Depending on the site, engagement could be as simple as scrolling or clicking (blogs tend to get lots of bounces because they are just 1 page.)  You could also limit it new visitors.  

Here is some sample javascript code.
<script type="text/javascript">
    //attach the exit confirmation to the onBeforeUnload that fires just before the page closes.
    window.onbeforeunload = confirmExit;

    //set a global variable to be able to turn on/off the exit confirmation
    var confirmLeave = true;

    //if the user clicks anywhere on the page, don't show the exit confirmation
    document.onclick = function() {
        confirmLeave = false;

    //if the user scrolls at all, don't show the exit confirmation
    window.onscroll = function() {
        confirmLeave = false;

    //function that displays your exit confirmation
    function confirmExit()
        //only if our global variable is true, Appeal to the Bouncer to get them to hang around.
        if(confirmLeave===true)        {
            return "96% of our clients would recommend ContourThis to a friend! Are you sure you don't want to check us out?";

You have to use the browser's built in popup box to display your message.  Not all browsers will let you display a custom message (FireFox), and some browsers won't keep the page from closing (Opera), but the point is, in the case of a would be bouncer, anything is better than nothing.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How to effectively market with email

In my last post, I covered the difference between advertising, marketing, and sales.  Now, it's time to see how they apply to email.  

Email is the new direct mail.  The format has changed, but the rules haven't.  

If you have a sexy product that people need, or will need after they see it, you can probably get away with mailing out a catalog.  A catalog serves as both advertising, to let you know a product exists, and sales, giving you a price and a number asking you to place the order.

Unfortunately, we can't all have sexy viral products like Chia Pets and Pet Rocks.  For us, the most effective way to use email is for Marketing.  

Email is a direct connection to another human being.  To prove how personal it is, write an email to a friend in ALL CAPS AND SEE HOW LONG THEY THINK YOU ARE PISSED AT THEM.

When you send someone an email, it's like knocking on their front door.  If they open it, you can't just tell them who you are and run away (Advertising).  Also, you can't jump straight into a sales pitch.  It's a one in a million shot they need your product, let alone are willing to listen to you.  You have to engage the person (Marketing).  

If you are sending advertising and/or sales emails to your email subscribers, "We have a new product! Buy Now!" you are probably getting the cold shoulder.  If on the other hand you offer them something of value, "Join us at our next event.  Subscribers get in Free!" you can keep them engaged and create an opportunity to show them your new products or ask for the sale.

Pro-Tip: This works for "cold" emails too.

Email is a personal domain.  No body wants to be interrupted to serve someone else's needs.  I'm much more likely to visit your website if there's something in it for me.  Once I've engaged you on your turf, I won't feel like your sales pitch is an invasion.

What's your email campaign look like?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Advertising, Marketing, and Sales

Whenever a topic is sufficiently complex and there is debate about where the boundaries lie, I prefer to substitute my own "simple" explanation.  The difference, use, and goals of Advertising, Marketing, and Sales is one such topic.

Few people know enough about all three disciplines to try to segregate them (unless your next stop is wikipedia :)  Some believe that one encompasses another or both within the larger umbrella.  But one thing is for sure, they are like atoms (hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon) that when combined create molecules (water, carbon dioxide, peroxide, etc.) that bring money into your business.

I propose the simple definitions:

  • Advertising - Increases Awareness
  • Marketing - Increases Engagement
  • Sales - Increases Revenue

Obviously, the borders of these three things are not black and white.  You can advertise your Guarantee in your marketing and sales material, and you have to sell you marketing to get people to bite.  But the goal is to over simplify.

If you look at my definitions again, you will see that they closely follow the traditional sales cycle: Awareness = Discovery, Engagement = Evaluation, Sales = Purchase.

I over simplify these so that it is easy to see where your company is lacking.  If you have a great product, like the Chia Pet, that you are sure people would buy if they just knew you existed - you are low on advertising.  If you have to resort to cold calls to make sales, you are probably low on Marketing.  And if your site is blowing up but your conversion rate is sub par, you're missing the final piece of the puzzle, sales.

What's your company missing?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Protecting your content on the web

Content is King, or so most marketers say.  It is for good reason that marketers have such high regard for quality content.  The normal sales cycle begins with discovery.  You can't buy something if you don't know it exists.  And thus, most content marketing strategies are aimed at increasing engagement with your potential customers during the discovery phase.

High quality content is informative, captivating, and begs to be shared.  This increases inbound links, visitors, and ultimately sales.  So, content is not only king, it is also gold.  But there's one problem.  High quality content isn't easy to make.

The web is an infinitely large place with far more content than any person could consume.  This leads some companies to believe that stealing content is easier than making it, and hard to catch.  

I once knew of a company that was scraping content (stealing content by means of a computer script) from various websites and reselling it to their customers.  This business model netted over $20MM each month.  (M is the roman numeral for 1000, so 1000 x 1000 = 1,000,000)  

If you are creating original high quality content, you may be feeding companies that make money from stolen content, or worse, your competitors may be using it to drive their sales.

I believe in a free and open world where knowledge is shared, but I also believe credit should be given where due.  The best way to protect your content isn't to lock it up and force people to look at it in a maximum security environment.  The best way to protect your content and grow from it is to share it and get credit.

For images and video, this means putting your logo on them.  If someone is siphoning bandwidth by serving the image from your servers, you can limit access to images or serve up a different image that brings people back to your site.

For ebooks and blogs, it means adding links back to your site and referencing your company and other content.  It also means taking advantage of microdata to let indexing bots like search engines know you are the original author.

You'll never be able to stop all the die hard forgers who go to great lengths to recreate your original work.  But, the further your content spreads, the more people it will touch, even if it is stolen.  If you give those readers a clear path back to you, getting your content stolen is almost a strategy.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Understanding digital security

Over the years, many people have asked me about digital security.  How often should I change my passwords?  What all do I need to protect my website and server from malicious attacks?  Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution to digital security, but it does help to understand how it works.

Just like "water resistant" doesn't mean your watch can't be damaged by water, having security doesn't prevent attackers from gaining access to your system.

If you have ever purchased a commercial grade safe, you know that they are rated based on the number of minutes it takes someone to crack them.  TL-15 means that it will take at least 15 minutes to crack the safe using normal tools.  When purchasing a commercial safe, you want to buy a rating that is higher than your security team's average response time.  

Similar to physical safes, digital security, including passwords and firewalls, all have a time rating.  An 8 character password can be cracked with brute force in just a few hours with a decent computer.  The goal of digital security then, isn't to prevent attacks, it is to identify them before they are successful.

For the websites I work on, I use a couple of simple methods to deter devious activity.  First, I limit the number of invalid attempts for certain fields and the number of overall page views within a given time frame.  This prevents large amounts of data from being scraped and increases the amount of time it takes to test 200,000,000 possible password combinations.  

The second part is to have automated monitoring of these activities.  Knowing someone is combing through 100+ pages on your site every minute, gives you options.  You can limit their access or discontinue it all together.

Highly sophisticated attacks will always be an issue, but unless you are a bank or government entity, you probably don't need to worry.  Most attackers are lazy.  If you put up a decent fight and prevent them from stealing the farm, they will end up moving on to the next, easier target.

What do you do to keep your files secure?

Monday, April 15, 2013

The importance of winning

Whether you're a professional sports team or a B2B company, winning is important.  It's not just about being recognized, getting an award, or even being the best at something.  It's about association.  People not only prefer to be associated with positive qualities, such as winning, they will actively seek out the opportunity to do so.  

I was born and raised in Kansas.  I don't consider that to be a bad thing by any means, but there are only a few occasions when I feel proud of my childhood state.  One of those times is during March Madness, the NCAA tournament.  Normally this is because KU is expected to go far, but this year Wichita State University was the team to go to the final four.  

Although my parents were married in Wichita, it's the air capital of the world, the birth place of Pizza Hut, and it is the biggest city in Kansas (Kansas City is mainly located in Missouri, but that's another story), I have almost no love for the city.  The strange thing is that when I overheard two guys discussing the Wichita State basketball program, I almost blurted out, "I grew up in Kansas."

When the home town team is on a losing streak, most people distance themselves from the action with comments like, "They can't seem to get it together."  But, when the team is winning, everyone basks in the glory and takes ownership.  "They" and "The team" quickly changes to "We" and "Our team."  There is also a coincidental phenomenon relating to the number of people who buy and wear team paraphernalia after a major win.

Winning and being the front runner, whether by an inch or a mile, is something we can all be proud of.  For sports teams, this means more donations.  For businesses, it means more sales.

What are your clients proud of?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Focusing on Business Utility

Most web gurus (SEO, CRO, PPC, etc.) care a lot about the data.  They work tirelessly to increase visitors, click through rates, time on page, and form submissions.  The best ones focus on the customer's bottom line. They use the data to increase revenue and profit while lowering advertising and marketing costs.  I focus on delivering business utility.

I can't argue that it is extremely important to deliver bottom line results, but not everything is measured in money.  Brand image, thought leadership, and customer service are all things that cost money and don't necessarily help your bottom line, but that doesn't mean they aren't good for business and the company.  In economics, satisfaction is measured in utility, so I call the measurement of these activities business utility.

When putting together a web strategy or evaluating where you allocate your resources on the web, it's important to look at how much revenue your social accounts generate, but it's also important to know how much business utility they provide.  It's hard to put a price on a friend.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A CMS is like Mongolian BBQ

I have long dreamed of building the perfect CMS (content management system).  I built my first webpage in the mid 90's, before many people even had personal computers let alone the internet.  From the beginning, I knew there had to be a way to let people make the edits and changes they wanted to make without wasting my time.

In my history of building for the internet, I have created a small handful of very capable content management systems.  These days, there are plenty of mainstream options to choose from as well.  But, the thing I came to learn is that a CMS is like Mongolian BBQ.  

For those who are unfamiliar with Mongolian BBQ, it is like a salad bar that has almost anything you could possibly think to put in a stir fry.  You pay for a bowl that you proceed to stuff with meat and vegetables and hand to a cook who will fry it up on a giant iron griddle.

If you know how to make the items work together (the chicken, pork, beef, veggies, sauces, spices, etc.) you can make a delicious plate of food that you can't find on any menu.  For most people, myself included, if you're just piling on items that look good, you'll most likely end up with a plate of decent food (if you're lucky) or outright garbage.  

Just because a CMS lets you build and edit webpages without having to code, doesn't mean or even imply that you will end up with a decent website.  You wouldn't buy a scalpel and scrubs and expect you can take out your cousin's appendix.  Owning the tools doesn't necessarily make you capable.

I think there are some great CMSs out there, and I think they could all be better, but I am no longer upset when a client asks me to update something, even if they have the ability to do so via the CMS.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Progressive engagement vs Direct call to action

Most websites that sell something (products or services) use a direct call to action.  Here's my product.  Buy it now!

Direct calls to action aren't bad, but along with the content revolution, many consultants are advising companies to use progressive engagement.

The concept behind progressive engagement is simple.  Instead of asking for a bunch of information upfront, you get a little bit with the first engagement, and then progressively collect more as the consumer's trust in your company presumably increases.

Here is an example of only collecting an email with the free "intro" ebook, and collecting additional information when the same user tries to download the "advanced" ebook.

Progressive engagement is designed to capture and track potential customers who are still in the discovery and evaluation phases of the traditional sales cycle. (Discovery → Evaluation → Purchase)  Direct calls to action only focus on purchases.  

I think progressive engagement is a great way to see who's interested, determine their current stage in the sales cycle, and measure their commitment and trust.  BUT, with that being said, you can't abandon your direct calls to action.  

Your website visitors are all in different stages of the sales cycle and have different purchasing habits.  Some need a longer, much longer, runway than others, and some have been waiting for years to find someone like you.  If you fail to have a direct call to action, it is the digital equivalent of slipping into the friends zone.

If you don't ask for the sale, they'll end up asking you for advice about another company.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

How the social web has changed business

Facebook has over 1.2 billion users, Twitter has 500 million users, YouTube has almost 500 million unique visitors each month, Google+ has 343 million active users, LinkedIn has over 200 million users, and the list goes on.  With this many people in just (1) place, social networks have an obvious impact on business.  They are a great place to find, meet, and interact with your customers, but that's not all.  The social web forces transparency.

In the old days, before the social web, when everyone used a fake name and birthday on their email and mySpace account, the world of business hadn't changed much.  If you made a major blunder that the news picked up, it would be heard far and wide, but in general, it was business as usual.  If you managed to upset and lose the business of a "social butterfly" you may lose other business, but only that which was closely or geographically tied to this person.

In the social web, every misstep for a business is magnified and published to thousands, maybe even millions of people.  This creates a level of transparency that forces honesty and authenticity within a company.  The smart companies have already noticed this, and are using it to their advantage.

The social web isn't just a hangout for people and a billboard for businesses, it is changing the way all of us interact.

How has social affected your company?

Monday, April 8, 2013

Building websites for people

We use to build websites for machines.  Now, we build websites for people.  Yes, the end user has always been a person, but the web experience is changing.  It's an important paradigm shift to think of your website as being built for your users.

For those who have been using personal computers since before 2000 you might remember DOS (Disk Operating System).  It was really phased out in 1995 but Windows still had a partial interface with it until 2000.  Before 1995, in order to use an IBM machine, you had to know how to use DOS.  It wasn't overly difficult, but it wasn't natural either.  DOS gave way to full interface operating systems that didn't require the user to "code" anything, there was a button, a link, and a graphic for everything.

Unless you are a programmer who still edits your production code using vi (just finished making an edit myself) it might be hard to imagine not having a button and graphic for every task you want to accomplish.  For those born after 1995, they have never known anything else.  

It use to be okay to make your users do a little work to get the most from your website.  Google, and every other search engine, use to let you use logical operators (< > = + - || & '') and various keywords to construct a targeted search query.  Google quickly realized that this kept a large subsection of their users from getting what they wanted, relevant results.  

As with Google, websites no longer need to make the user do the work.  This means we can start building websites for people, and not for machines.

The process for building a website use to start with the company's business.  What information does the business need in fill an order, tie into the CRM, make decisions, etc.  

Today, the process for building a new website starts with the customer.  What information does the customer want, what information will they give, and what inspires them to take action.

One thing that's great about conversion rate optimization is that it gives us a structured framework to systematically rebuild your website for your customers.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Barneys New York vs The Dollar Store

There has been a recent trend on the web of presenting 1 idea at a time.  The thought behind this movement is that you don't want to overwhelm the user by asking for too many things all at once.  Instead, if you present one topic or call to action at a time, the experience feels more conversational as opposed to attacking someone with information and ads.

Some companies have taken this concept to the extreme with HTML5 and responsive designs so you can only see 1 thought at a time. is my favorite example, and it works for this topic.  But, most websites are set up like a digital store front, you come in and learn about the company or browse their products.

This movement in the digital store world, is the equivalent of walking into Barneys.  I come from a working family, so when I walk into Barneys or any high end boutique store, I feel awkward.  (I'm sure the sales associates feel my presence is awkward as well.)  The excessive amount of space and lack of selection just isn't something I'm use to.

The opposite end of the spectrum is The Dollar Store.  You can't expect to be able to pass someone in the isle, and you'd get dizzy if you tried to look at every product on the shelf. 

Most people are more comfortable in a department store, where there is plenty of room and selection.  This is one reason that Walmart has continuously widened its isles and reduced the number of vertical shelves; it's an attempt at an upgrade from bargain store to department store.  

I'm not saying that the wide open websites with a single idea above the fold are all bad, but I believe you should cater to your audience.  If you need your visitors to have extra focus or they don't want to be distracted, a super clean, responsive website might be the answer.  If on the other hand, you're Amazon and are competing with Walmart, there's nothing wrong with using the extra space to up and cross sell your customers.

Does your web design match your customers?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The difference between B2B and B2C

B2C (business-to-consumer) companies are generally the first to embrace new practices on the web.  One of these "new" practices is having a friendly, engaging website that focuses on the customer and winning their business.  In the B2B (business-to-business) world, there is still a lot of skepticism that what works for consumer products won't work for them.

There are some key differences between B2B and B2C sales: 

  • Trust / Risk - If I hire the wrong developer to build my personal website, I'll regret the decision and pay for it in time, money, and stress.  If I hire the wrong developer to build our company's website, I could pay for it with my job.
  • Number of people involved in the decision - When selling something to another business, you seldom have just 1 person involved in the purchase decision.  This is because the people who control the budgets aren't generally the (only) people who will get their hands dirty doing the work.
  • Speed of sale - The higher risk and extra people dramatically reduce the speed of B2B sales.  Some industries take months to close a single sale.

Even with all the above differences, B2B sales are remarkably similar to B2C sales.  At the end of the day you are still selling to a person/people.  The psychological aspects of disclosing information, enjoying an experience, and building a relationship are all the same.

Traditionally, B2C companies made shotgun sales.  They'd shoot their propaganda into a flock of birds and hope to knock a few down.  B2B companies have always had/needed a longer runway.  They spend more time getting to know the customer and building trust before they make the sale.  For a B2B company, a successful sale and post sale relationship magnifies the trust between the client and the company.  This is why repeat business is so easy and fruitful for B2B companies.

The "new" practice on the web of having a friendly, engaging website is not a "new" concept, it is the digital form of the B2B sales funnel.  B2C companies have realized that if they can create that same pre-sale relationship, they can create very fruitful life-long customers.

So, if the "new" digital revolution is actually B2C taking a page from the B2B playbook, why are B2Bs so reluctant to jump in?

Does your website help build a relationship with your clients?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Design doesn't matter

When looking for things to change/test on your website, design doesn't matter.  This isn't to say that design doesn't impact the performance of your site, but that design isn't the heart of your problems.

Design is a form of art.  For any work of art there are three basic components: Subject, Form, and Content. For a website, the subject is generally your company or product, the form is structure or organization of the website, and the content is what (hopefully) people see and read.  

In order to be "appealing" a well designed website strikes a balance with the seven principles of organization: Harmony, Variety, Balance, Proportion, Dominance, Movement, and Economy.  Each one of these organization principles works together to make the design of the website more attractive.  But a good design, as defined in terms of art and appeal, doesn't mean a good website.

When you shrink your column widths, it isn't that the design of your site was terrible, it is because the original layout wasn't reader friendly.  When you change the design and style of a call to action widget, it isn't that the original design didn't work with the site, it is because the original design gets lost and doesn't stand out.

An aesthetically pleasing design is very important, but the keys to increasing your conversion rates are clarity, ease of use, and function.  The message, objective, and next steps need to be clearly defined, the site has to be easy to use and navigate, and it has to work.  

If you are thinking about testing a new design, try to determine the underlying problem that a design change will fix.  If you can't identify the problem or there isn't one, your new design won't likely do any better than the original.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Constant feedback builds confidence

I'm not sure if it is our human nature or a societal development aimed at survival, but we are not a self-assured animal.  Even the strongest willed humans are constantly looking for signs and encouragement that they are on the right path.

This is important for businesses and websites because so few do a good job of providing constant feedback.  If a customer has to ask about the status of a project or a user is left wondering how many more forms they have to fill out, you have created an uneasy experience.  Because most people shy away from confrontation, they will trudge forward, hoping that the situation will soon fix itself, while their experience of your site suffers.

Many common user experience developments have been created from this understanding of the need for constant assurance. Most long forms or buying experiences have "the progress bar."  Many forms feature instant feedback on important fields.  And when you "like" a video on YouTube, they instantly fake the count by adding 1 to whatever count you see on the page.  

These advances all serve to give the user confidence that they are almost done, have chosen a good username, or that their vote has been counted.  This works for forms and action items on your site, but what about during the evaluation or research process?  How do you assure people that they have found the right solution?

Each business is different, but your landing pages and in-depth product pages should give your visitors the same sense of assurance.  Depending on your business, you can use product reviews, testimonials, case-studies, client lists, associations, or guarantees.  The key is to view these items as customer experience improvers that tell visitors they are in the right place.

How do you build confidence in your visitors?