Web Strategy

The case for taking risks in web design

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Toward the end of November, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and an article titled “Stumbling Into Black Friday...Kate Spade’s Bad Month” appeared in my feed. Given that it was an investment article (not typically my cup of tea), I’m not sure why I clicked on it. Maybe it’s my fondness for Kate Spade purses, or maybe the fact that I misread “month” to be “mouth,” intriguing the public relations side of my brain. Regardless, it was a quick read.

In essence, the article was sharing that Kate Spade’s brand and stocks are suffering. But behind that, it pointed out that the luxury handbag brand as a whole is suffering, due in part to “industry sameness.” Luxury handbags aren’t taking risks with their designs, and are losing sales because of it.

I’ll admit I’m not much of a fashionista, but the concept intrigued me because it’s one that we see in web design as well. There are a lot of templated web design options out there, and honestly, many of them are fine. They’re solid websites, they’re low risk, and they’re easy to get your boss to sign off on. However, you’ll never see them win a design award. Why? There’s no uniqueness, no intrigue, and no desirability.

There’s danger in taking risks with design. What if a user doesn’t understand how to use a new website concept? What if, by taking a chance, you negatively alienate yourself from your competitors?

On the other hand, the rewards are substantial. You could have a user experience that defines a new trend in web design. Visitors might remember your website (and what you offer) long after they visit, causing return traffic. They might tell their friends. Ultimately, when shopping around online and visiting you and your competitors, they might remember you, because you’re different. These risks make you stand out, they make people want to visit you, and ultimately, they introduce the intrigue and desirability you want your customers to feel about your product or service.

Taking risks in your web design isn’t easy. You’re not going to successfully take risks using a template you found online, and you won’t take a risk if you give yourself a week to complete a new website project. Risks come from deep exploration and utilization of resources. I don’t just mean spending a lot of money on your new website, although a larger budget doesn’t hurt. Utilize your people -- employees and customers alike. Utilize your web designer and the experience they have. Utilize the time needed to produce an amazing website. Take a risk, be a thought leader, and wait and see the results.


Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

What’s a CMS, anyway?

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

When websites were “born” into existence, they looked pretty different from how they look today. Responsive web design wasn’t even a concept (probably because there were no devices to be responsive to), GIFs within web pages were all the rage, and font choices weren’t great. Oh, and we can’t forget Flash. Flash was everywhere.

For those who need a refresher, the Space Jam website is still living in 1996. You’re welcome.

Space Jam Website

In addition to the visual differences that we’re all trying desperately to forget about, the way websites were developed was quite different as well. Programming languages were various, and websites were “hardcoded,” meaning that every line of code was input by a programmer. These programmers had a specific set of skills, and those skills had to be made available for any change that a website needed -- from a single color change to a typo fix.

For those of us who run websites, that’s fortunately no longer the case. Many websites are now programmed with a CMS, otherwise known as a content management system. Wikipedia defines a content management system as “a computer application that supports the creation and modification of digital content using a simple interface to abstract away low-level details unless required, usually supporting multiple users working in a collaborative environment.”

As I briefly defined in a blog in April, a CMS is typically built of two parts, one being the content management application (CMA) and the other being the content delivery application (CDA). The CMA allows users who don’t know HTML to update their web page content. This is typically done within something called a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editor that allows a user to update content as easily as they would type in Microsoft Word.

Neat, huh?

Open source vs. proprietary CMS systems

With that introduction comes the detail that you really need to think about: Which system is right for you and your business? Website CMS systems can be referred to within two buckets: “open source” vs. “proprietary” systems. My goal with this website isn’t to convince you which one is better -- they both have their advantages -- but to simply inform you of your options.

Open source CMS systems are built with source code that is freely available on the internet.

This may be the point where you’re saying, “Free? But then why did I pay someone $20,000 to build me a website based on WordPress last year?!”

When we say free, we mean the base code is free. This code can be used without paying a licensing fee, and it can be modified by anyone in the world to add capabilities. These additions are what you’re paying a developer for. I should also mention that free base code does not a website make. There are still things that need to be done to that base to set up a website and make it usable, and no one’s time is free.

Examples of open source CMS systems include WordPress, Drupal and Magento.

Proprietary CMS systems are referred to as such because the way their systems are built is a secret. A web design company may use a proprietary CMS system to build their websites with, or a company may have a proprietary internal system that they use. With these systems, there is still a base that is pulled from, but that base was built and maintained as a trade secret.

Regardless of whether you chose to utilize an open source or proprietary CMS system, nontechnical individuals will be able to update the website. Depending on the system, this may have more or less of a learning curve, but the key to CMS systems is that they are built for “the rest of us” to use. And for those who have paid attention to my previous articles, you know that since a website is never done, the easier it is to update, the better off everyone feels.


Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Usability and your website

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Have you ever thought about the usability of your website? Maybe the last time you launched a new website for your company, you sat down with members of your team and had them click through a few pages, making sure they understood how to use the site prior to launch. You probably caught a few dead links, and you might have thrown some feedback to your web design company, but you probably didn’t make any drastic changes at that point.

Why not? Probably because drastic edits would have meant hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars' worth of development adjustments. That’s a hard pill to swallow when you’ve already invested a good chunk of change into the site to begin with.

Usability is defined by the Nielsen Norman Group as a quality attribute that assesses how easy user interfaces are to use. Nielsen Norman Group also says that usability is defined by five quality components. I’m rather fond of how they break it down.

Five quality components of usability

  • Learnability: How easy is it for users to accomplish basic tasks the first time they encounter the design?
  • Efficiency: Once users have learned the design, how quickly can they perform tasks?
  • Memorability: When users return to the design after a period of not using it, how easily can they re-establish proficiency?
  • Errors: How many errors do users make, how severe are these errors, and how easily can they recover from the errors?
  • Satisfaction: How pleasant is it to use the design?

If you’ve gone through the feedback process I mentioned earlier, you’re likely only getting observations on the “satisfaction” side of the scale. Errors pointed out are probably only regarding content, and learnability is only evaluated from the instructions given (which are not always the strongest).

A simple way to introduce usability testing

Although I’d love to say all of our clients take part in true usability testing, it simply isn’t true. Why? Because budgets are limited, and given the choice between a key feature or some hours spent on that testing, the feature will win almost every time.

Naturally, staff at a web design firm are thinking in terms of usability as they design the website, but that doesn't mean that it's a done deal. True usability is about getting your website in front of the right audience, and that's not always the individuals employed at that firm. 

Thank being said, an easy way to implement usability testing is to start in the design phase. Most web design contracts will allow one or two rounds of edits from the initial, proposed website design that they will ask you to review and sign off on. It can be easy to see that design, be drawn to the fun colors or bright photographs, and miss the opportunity to test site usability. But with this type of review, you’re only addressing the “satisfaction” the design presents.

How to use a design to test usability

  1. Source different people. It’s important that you present the design to people who aren’t overly familiar with your product, but would fall into one or more of your target audiences.
  2. Assign a task. Think about what you’d want someone in that audience to accomplish with your website, and ask them to do it.
  3. See how long it takes them to respond. Is it easy for them to make a decision about where to “click” on that home page? If not, you might have an issue.
  4. Ask for feedback. If your results weren’t positive, take the opportunity to ask the individual what they were really looking for, or why they were confused. Make edits with your team, designer or developer accordingly.

Obviously this works better if you’ve got a few designs that you can present a tester with, to help them understand page-to-page flow. But you can still get a good impression of how your home page is working with this simple test. If it doesn’t work on paper, putting code behind it won’t magically fix problems that are present.

Bonus: If you have glaring issues, fixing them in design is a lot less expensive than if you get through to development.

Extra bonus: If you’ve got two rounds of design revisions, you can take that new design back to the same tester and follow up with questions that help ensure there’s been improvement. To some extent, you can even look to test memorability and efficiency.

Not everyone has time to thoroughly test usability, but that doesn’t mean you have to ignore it completely.

How are you testing your website’s usability?


Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Embracing the challenges of a website

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

“Maintaining your website” can be such an ugly phrase. It really seems to have a negative connotation to most people I talk to. Website maintenance is the chore that they have to do after they get done with their brand-new, shiny website, and the maintenance part isn't nearly as fun. 

People ask me a lot what my job title means, and what I do on a daily basis. To me, updating our website might actually be one of the most enjoyable things that are part of my job description. I don’t see it as a pain or a nuisance, but rather a fun challenge. You might say I’m biased, working for a web firm, but I’ve enjoyed working on websites since I was young(er).

I don’t know that I ever realized how much I like working on websites until I observed how much others may not enjoy them. I’ve never found working on a website to be a pain or an annoyance, but rather a challenge to be taken on. A website is something that I can improve every day in order to stay ahead of our competitors. There’s always something new to learn, and some new idea to be discovered.

Why I love working on websites

I have a legitimate reason to love working on websites — and it may not be what you'd expect. The thing I've observed with most people's website complaints is that there’s almost always a silver lining of benefits underneath their supposed website chores. Next time you throw your website a snarky look, just remember …

“It’s so much work!”

This thing that is so much work is one of the most robust marketing tools you have the potential to get your hands on. You can have so much powerful information packed into one website, and that information can be targeted to different users. Think about how big a brochure would be if it had to include the same information your website does. Someone could be reading for hours!

“The website’s never done!”

Something I wish others would understand is that just because a website isn’t done doesn’t mean that it’s not acceptable to be on the internet. Sometimes having a “phase 1” and a “phase 2” means that you’re able to push your marketing out the door quicker, or with more robust features later. Not done is not the same as "bad," or "incorrect." The website just hasn't quite reached its full potential. But with a little extra work post-launch, don’t worry. You can get there!


“It’s hard to figure out how to update those images!”

I get it. Not truly knowing how to properly update your website can be a harder issue to deal with. However, I will still go back to a word I used earlier: challenge. Yes, it’s hard to figure out how to tackle a website issue when your main webmaster is on vacation and the handbook is, well, nowhere. But I would encourage you to not think of these issues as a nuisance, but rather as a challenge that you will overcome. Just try it! Even if the change is just a new head shot for your CEO, it can feel amazing to have conquered that assignment and have solved that problem. After all, the more challenges you take on, the better you’ll get at solving them (it’s inevitable).

How do you feel about updating your website?


Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Give your project the time it deserves

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Pokemon_GoYou’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard the phrase “Pokémon Go” in the past few weeks. Even if you don’t own a smartphone, it’s hard to miss the crowds of teens (and adults) wandering around the Pappajohn Sculpture Park at all hours of the day.

Whether you love it or not—most people have a pretty strong opinion on this issue—there’s no denying that the app’s popularity has exploded beyond what many might have imagined.

As this popularity has continued to expand, it’s easy to compare the seemingly overnight success of the app with what your brand might be doing in its marketing. After all, Pokémon, while popular in the '90s, has maintained a somewhat lower, albeit steady, awareness level in recent years. Then suddenly they release an app that quickly amasses +100 million downloads out of nowhere. What?

However, like anything else, there’s more to the story behind the app than most people know.

For instance, did you know that much of the data that went into building the game’s Pokestop and gym locations was built up by a previous game, launched back in 2011? Five years ago, Niantic (the creators of Pokémon Go) released a beta of Ingress, an augmented-reality multiplayer game with some similar gameplay to Pokémon Go. Additional data beyond this then helped Pokémon Go with one of the most fun aspects of the game: sorting out which Pokemon appeared where.

There’s more to the story, which I’d encourage you to Google, but my point is this: Niantic didn’t wake up one day, magically have the idea for Pokemon Go, and knock out the entire app in six months. At a minimum, without data from five years ago, the game wouldn’t have been able to exist in its current form.

It’s not uncommon for a client to come to Webspec with an idea that they’d love to become viral quickly. Obviously, we’d all love that for you as well! But great work isn’t quite that easy. You’ve probably all seen this concept, but it can be looked over quickly when pushed to meet a deadline.


Next time you’ve decided to take on a new website, application or digital project, I’d encourage you to keep this in mind, and if needed, share the example of Pokémon Go. You don’t always need five years to make your idea stellar, but you’d be surprised how many marketing managers I speak with who are given unrealistic deadlines for their projects.

Good work takes time, and it often isn’t cheap. Give your grand ideas the time and attention they’re worth, and you’ll reap the benefits. I’m not promising millions of downloads, but even one-tenth of that success wouldn’t be too shabby now, would it?

Logo property of The Pokémon Company International.


Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale.

Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

The buyer journey and your website: Decision

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

In April, I started a series on this blog about the buyer journey and how it impacts your website. I introduced, at a high level, what a buyer journey may look like in regards to making a purchasing decision, and outlined an example. In June, I talked about stage one: discovery, and stage two: consideration.

If you didn’t catch those two posts, I’d recommend heading over to the “Web Strategy” page and catching up a bit.

Now … decision. The end of the buyer journey. You could argue that it’s the most important piece of the puzzle, or the natural culmination of all the work conducted so far. Regardless, without decision none of us would have clients and we wouldn’t be here today.

By the time a client gets to the decision point, you’ve helped them find your website online and delivered content that they’ll find interesting. The key at this point is fairly simple - convince them that you’re worth their money.

This portion of the process is different for everyone. Some of you may have shopping carts, some may need a client to call and complete a purchase, and some of you may even need to schedule an in-person meeting. Regardless of what needs to happen, I firmly believe one thing is true when you hit this part of the process: The devil is in the details.

What do I mean by that? It’s the small things you can include on your website at this point that will stand out and push a potential client to act. What are you doing to help them? 

Help make visitors' purchase decision easier

  1. Ensure the purchase process is obvious to visitors. Like I said, every company is different, and many people have different ways that the process can be completed. Don’t make people guess at what they need to do. A good test for this is to grab a friend, sit them in front of your website, and ask them to make a purchase (don’t help them). You’ll quickly see how easy your process really is.
  2. Share customer testimonials - but make sure they MEAN something. How many of you have read a testimonial that said, “It was great working with X and X"? Did that help you make a purchasing decision? Probably not - it doesn’t mean much. For testimonials, we want something more along the lines of, “I enjoyed working with X because of his/her careful attention to my account details. He/she was always very prompt with getting back to me - I knew I could count on him/her!”
  3. Show them you’re more than a website. Have you ever been to a website where it seemed like if you had any questions, you were out of luck? That can detract quickly from helping someone make a decision. Include details that make you accessible, such as a phone number, support email, or even a live-chat feature. You don’t want a short question to lose you a large sale, do you? Didn’t think so.

Wow! What an adventure we’ve had walking through the buyer’s journey. I hope that through the last few blogs I’ve written you’ve gained some insights into what your buyer journey might look like. It’s different for everyone, and the most important thing at the end of the day is that you’ve considered it.

Have you made any adjustments to your website through this series of blogs? Are you planning to?

Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing & communications director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

The buyer journey and your website: Consideration

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

In April, I started a series on this blog about the buyer journey and how it impacts your website. I introduced, at a high level, what a buyer journey may look like in regards to making a purchasing decision, and outlined an example. Then, on Wednesday, I talked about stage one: discovery. If you didn’t catch those two posts, I recommend heading over to the “Web Strategy” page and catching up a bit.

All right, let’s talk stage two: consideration!

At this stage in the buyer journey, buyers know they have a solvable need, and they likely know about several companies that can address that need for them in different ways. In essence, the client has clearly defined the problem and is now in full-on research mode for the best solution. Your goal? To get them to consider YOU!

Buyer consideration and your website

If you recall, the last phase we talked about was “discovery,” or how we get potential customers to your website. To follow up on this, what we really need to talk about is what those customers are doing once they’re on your website.

Did you know that the average human has an attention span of eight seconds? That’s shorter than a goldfish (although only by one second). Think about your website -- what are you doing on your home page to keep individuals focused on your content?

This isn’t an issue we’re going to fix for you by the end of this blog. But it’s certainly a point to think about. For a casual test, I would recommend inviting a friend who’s not familiar with your website to sit down with you for coffee. Pull up your website -- for maybe 15-30 seconds, depending on how brave you are -- and take it away. Ask them what they remember. More than likely, what they remember is what attracted their attention first. Now think about it: Is their answer what you want it to be?

Attracting the attention of website visitors

I can’t emphasize this enough: PLEASE keep in mind that “attract attention” does not mean “make a button flash and change colors.” What we’re trying to address here is the question of whether your website visitors are indeed receiving the message you’re trying to send when they get to your home page.

In essence, you should be thinking about the user’s experience on your site first and foremost. Yes, you want to capture them as a lead, but if you cater to them and make their experience a good one, good things will follow.

I’ll close with one of my No. 1 pieces of advice that I give to those starting to think about website content. Granted, it’s based on personal experience, but it’s not inaccurate.

Think about the last time your boss came to you and asked you to find a new product to solve an issue occurring in your department. Maybe it’s 4:30 on a Friday, and you’re ready to head out for the week. Knowing this, they say it’s OK for you to give them a few quick options that they can review more in depth the following week.

You fire up Google, hit some search terms, and find a few websites. If you can’t find the “what we can do for you” statement within a couple of minutes of looking at the website, what will you do?

You might disregard the company completely.

Obviously this is (hopefully) a rare example. My point, of course, is that you shouldn’t try to make your visitors hunt for what they need when they’re in the consideration phase. Yes, you’ve got a lot of great content. But think about what needs to really be on that home page to pull the visitor’s interest. Then, when they come back for more, you’ll get your opportunity to really shine.

Join me for my next blog to learn how to address “decision,” and be sure to leave any questions in the comments below.


Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

The buyer journey and your website: Discovery

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Last month, I started a series on this blog about the buyer journey and how it impacts your website. I introduced, at a high level, what a buyer journey may look like in regards to making a purchasing decision, and outlined an example. If you missed that, you might want to jump over to that blog and catch up before following along here.

Ready to go? Good - let’s get started on the first stage I outlined: discovery!

At this stage in the buyer journey, your potential buyer doesn’t know you exist. They may not even know they have a need you can address as a company. Typically, they’re experiencing symptoms of a problem at this stage, and are beginning research to address this problem.

Through my work with websites - both at Webspec and outside of it - I’ve found that many organizations suffer with issues related to discovery. There’s often an attitude of “if I build it, they will come!” Unfortunately, real life isn’t like Field of Dreams, and there’s a little more work to be done than hoping that users will stumble upon your website by accident.

Discovery for your website can be approached a couple of different ways. One approach relates to an overall integrated marketing strategy, while the other relates to your digital strategy, particularly, your SEO.

Active Website Promotion

When you have a website, it’s important to take the time and promote it. If people don’t know that it’s there, they may not ever go on their own! This is especially important if your company or web presence is brand new to the world. Here are a couple simple ways to do this:

  1. Include Your URL. It’s easy to forget that your URL can be a small and simple detail in any type of marketing material you produce, from flyers to T-shirts. As you create marketing collateral or agree to any type of sponsorship or advertising, make sure your URL can be - if not front and center - at least easily seen by new audiences.
  2. Claim Your Business Online. Between social media accounts, review websites, and your Google My Business page, take the time to “claim” your business profile anywhere you can. This ensures that no matter what platform they’re on, users can find you. A case could be made for not claiming every social media platform (every channel isn’t right for everyone) but that’s a discussion for another day.

Optimize Your SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is a trend that isn’t going away. Luckily, business owners are starting to recognize and appreciate that fact.

What’s this “SEO” thing anyway?

If you haven’t heard the term “optimize your SEO” yet, it’s a simple concept. When you optimize your SEO, you’re working to ensure that your website ends up on page one of search results. When someone Googles your industry, service, business, or product, where do you land in the search results?

Why optimize your SEO?

Although it’s a bigger job than just promoting your website, one could argue the effects of optimizing your SEO can be both more important and longer-lasting. How many times have you Googled something already today? Amit Singhal, former senior vice president of Google Search, stated in October 2015 that Google gets over 100 billion searches a month. When an individual does a Google search, they’re actively looking to solve a problem they have, essentially creating a captive audience. Why wouldn’t you want to make sure you appear in the first page of results this person reviews?

Having worked both as an in-house marketer and in an agency, I understand how difficult and confusing the land of SEO can be. Not everyone is ready to invest in consulting to improve their SEO, however, at the very least you can make sure you’re asking your webmaster the right questions when you begin to build a new website.

“Have you considered how this sitemap will affect my SEO?”

“What kind of keyword research have you conducted to recommend the language we’re using?”

“What kind of SEO plug-in are you installing for me to update post-launch?”

These are all conversations that your firm should be able to have with you. If not, you might want to look a little harder at who you’ve hired.

Whew! That was a lot of information, huh? If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take just 2 or 3 suggestions away from this blog to try and begin to implement and encourage traffic to your own website. Once you’ve gotten those done, pick a couple more. Bit by bit, you will help new users “discover” your website, and then you’ll be ready for our next stage.

Join me for my next blog to learn how to address “consideration,” and be sure to leave any questions in the comments below.

Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

The buyer journey and your website

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

As individuals in the business world, many of us have been tasked with helping clients move along the “buyer journey.” After all, without a buyer, we wouldn’t have a business, now would we? But, just in case you’re not sure what I’m referring to, the buyer journey is typically defined in three phases.

Stage one: Discovery

At this phase, your potential buyer doesn’t know you exist. They may not even know they have a need you can address as a company. Typically, they’re experiencing symptoms of a problem at this stage, and beginning research to address said problem.

Stage two: Consideration

Buyers know they have a solvable need, and they likely know about several companies that can address that need for them in different ways. In essence, the client has clearly defined the problem, and is now in full-on research mode for the best solution

Stage three: Decision

Here, your buyer has now decided what the best approach is to their need. They’ve identified vendors who can solve this problem, and are now narrowing the list to select the final vendor they’d like to go with.

As you consider your website and other digital marketing efforts, it’s important to keep the buyer journey in mind. Read and think about the following real-life situation. Do you think it’s realistic?

Susie Smith drives home from work, thinking through her to-do list for the evening. “I don’t have time to purchase groceries for dinner tonight,” she thinks. “Let’s see, I could go out to eat. Or maybe I should get takeout? Maybe ... Wouldn’t it be nice if someone would just shop for me? I hate spending all the time weaving through aisles. Wait! I know there’s a local grocery that will shop and deliver the food to my house for me. That’s what I’ll do.”

Now, you might have gotten the point that “Susie” was thinking about Hy-Vee’s newer Aisles Online service. However, Susie would have never known about that service if Hy-Vee hadn’t marketed it to her. And, if they didn’t? She wouldn’t have known that service was an option, and therefore, might have gone to the typical takeout solution automatically.

Now that we’ve clarified (on a high level) what a buyer’s journey is, I’m going to spend my next few posts on IowaBiz discussing some ways that each of these stages can be considered throughout your website and digital marketing strategies. I’m excited to help you think about how to better align those stages with what you’re doing in your current web strategy.

First up: why you should consider “Discovery” first and foremost for your company’s web strategy. Stay tuned!

Alex-Karei_YPFinalist2016Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Five common web terms to learn today

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

I’ve been with Webspec for about a year now, and it’s crazy to see how the time has flown. I’ve learned a lot in my position, grown personally and professionally, and rapidly expanded my opinions on websites, search, and social media.

I’ve also learned quite a bit about “speaking the language” of web. Every industry has a language to learn, but as I use mine, it’s occurred to me that our language is one that is often misunderstood, but increasingly necessary for small business owners to understand.

Why? Because the web isn’t an emerging trend - it’s here, and many things throughout it are continuing to emerge in new and different ways. As a responsible business owner, you should know what is going on in technology and how those things will affect how you market your business. Let's start with some basic, but possibly new-to-you terms.

Five common web terms to learn today

  1. Content Management System (CMS) - This is a system that manages the content of a website. Typically, a CMS is built of two parts, one being the content management application (CMA) and the other being the content delivery application (CDA). The CMA allows users who don’t know HTML to update their web page content. Although not appropriate for every website, CMS systems are extremely helpful to small business owners and marketing teams that aren’t able to have access to a developer for updates full-time. Common examples of CMS systems include WordPress and Drupal. 

  2. Site Map - The term “site map” can mean two seemingly different things. One, a site map is a list of pages on a website that is accessible to search engine crawlers. But on the other hand, a site map can be a document used for planning a website design, designed in a hierarchical fashion. More often than not you’ll hear it used in reference to the latter, but the use of a site map for search engine crawlers might be the more important of the two. Without that, you can’t be sure that Google has “found” all your website pages!

  3. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) - Officially, this refers to the methods used to boost ranking or frequency of a website in results returned by a search engine, in an effort to maximize user traffic to the site (Dictionary.com). Sound complicated? It is. But in the end, it all comes down to where your website shows up when someone searches for your company or industry.

  4. Algorithm - When it comes to this term, you might be thinking you know what I’m talking about … until you heard the context. When SEO professionals mention the term algorithm, they mean the formula of how a website is ranked by Google. The algorithm determines a site’s PageRank, which ultimately affects where a website will show up in search.

  5. Responsive - Although a hot-button topic, I’ve come to find this term is also commonly misunderstood. A responsive website is a website that somehow adapts its layout to the size or orientation of the platform a person is using to access it. In essence, it “responds” to the user. This is different from a mobile site, where your users are visiting a separate version of your website that is created to be used exclusively on smartphones. Responsive sites are generally preferred.

What other website or digital terms have you scratching your head?


Alex Karei2Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her via:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com

Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei

Instagram: www.instagram.com/alex_karei

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Celebrating your new website

Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

As anyone who has launched a new website knows, there is a lot of work involved in the process -- both while building the new site and while promoting it.

It’s important to share your new and improved site with clients, but sometimes the one group that can get overlooked in all the hype is the team of people whom the new website represents - the company or organization itself. The members of this group differ depending on the type of website created, but nevertheless, the marketing department isn’t the only group that’s affected by a new website. Not convinced a celebration is worth the additional investment? Here are a few reasons you can take to your boss. Just don’t blame me when you get assigned as party-planner!


Four Reasons to Throw a Website Launch Party

1. You need to educate your team. Website redesigns often mean that some of the site map gets rearranged -- hopefully for the better -- but the last thing you want is your sales team scrambling during a webinar because they’re unable to answer a client question and they don’t know where the answer they were looking for went. Use a party to help create a map for those who need to know where they’re going!

Party Tip: Hold a “website scavenger hunt” at your launch party. To do this, give attendees a quiz to complete that includes finding facts or accomplishing different types of tasks on the site. Enter all those who finish into a drawing for a prize!

2. Prove to your stakeholders they made the right decision. Now that you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a website, you’re sure to have stakeholders who want to know what came of that investment. Throwing any type of celebration will help those investors to see how awesome the project turned out. But the best part? Showing them how excited others who will benefit from the new site (the rest of your staff, for instance) are about their new tool.

Party Tip: Gather testimonials from staff prior to the party to share on table tents or posters around the room. Then, let attendees guess who said what about their new website.

3. Point out new features. Have you added some new features as part of the redesign? That’s awesome; but if no one knows they’re there, it’s hard to know if they’ll ever get used. Make it a point to highlight new features, information or resources that weren’t on the site before to the entire group to ensure they know what’s been made available to them.  

Party Tip: Plan a short presentation in front of the group to show these features, but keep it high level. Although attendees will be excited, they aren’t going to have the same emotional attachment as you do and don’t want to spend 30 minutes talking about your awesome new events calendar.

4. Celebrate your hard work. Let’s be honest. Going through a website redesign is a lot of work! Team members who were directly involved deserve recognition for the time they’ve invested, whether they physically created the site themselves or if they worked with an external agency.

Party Tip: Create special awards for those who contributed to the site. Things like “Best Proofreader” or “Most Likely to find a Broken Link” can add some laughs while making associates feel appreciated.

A website launch party doesn’t have to be a thousand-dollar shindig if you don’t want it to be; even a presentation in the conference room with cake on a Friday afternoon can elevate the level of excitement and provide the proper education. But, don’t let your site launch without celebrating its “birthday”!

Have you had a launch party? Tell me about it in the comments!


Alex Karei_124Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her on:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alex_karei
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

What are the must-have features for my website?

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

For such an easy question, there must be an easy answer, right?

  1. About Page
  2. Staff Gallery
  3. Shopping Cart

Wait … you don’t sell your product online? Okay, then:

  1. About Page
  2. Staff Gallery
  3. Contact Form

Oh, shoot - you have a team of two people. Maybe a Staff Gallery doesn’t make sense anymore?

Round, and round, and round we go. The truth is, “what are the must-have features” really isn’t the right question to ask. The content on your website is heavily reliant on two things: one, the audience, and two, the goals you have for your website. So in essence, the “must have features” are going to be influenced by the answers to two questions.

Who’s your target audience?

You must take your audience into consideration when you develop your website; if not, you might be providing content written for the wrong people. Even worse, you might be providing the wrong content entirely. In an ideal world, you will know basic demographic information and the goals of your target audience. Then, you can deliver the content they want to see, how they want to see it.

Think of it this way. If you have a website about a summer camp for elementary school children - and you write it to that audience, you're missing out. Why? Because the parent is the one that is making that purchasing decision. They want to know different things than the child would want to know, and the reading level will be quite different. 

What are your website goals?

I’m not talking about the overall traffic you want to see. Everyone wants people to get to their website. What I want to know is, when people arrive, what would you like them to do?

If you can’t think of anything, think of it this way: why do you have a website in the first place? Examples of potential goals would be lead generation (this could be forms completed), purchases made, or event registrations. It might even be the knowledge that your users are getting three or four pages deep into your site, if you're providing purely educational content. Are they working their way through your content, or dropping off of the home page?

Once you have the answers to these two questions, you’ll be well on your way to identifying the “must have” features for your website. Those features will serve a greater purpose because they are there for a reason. And, hopefully, they will help your business or organization grow as a result.

Alex Karei_124Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her on:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Are you giving your users the attention they deserve?

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

That’s the opening statement in “Ten things we know to be true,” a collection of belief statements written by Google when it was a few years old. It’s a great list, but that statement really stuck out to me when I first read it.

If you own or market a business, you’re probably spending a lot of time every day doing one thing - trying to figure out one more way you can help influence a decision-maker to purchase your product or service. That’s not a bad thing. Without sales, you can’t sustain a business. However, in much of how we choose to market our products and services on our websites, we don’t always take the time that we should to stop and think about the user.

Some of you might argue that you are thinking about the user. For instance, you might be thinking about their problems and how to best present your product to solve them. Great! But that’s not what I mean. I mean, when you add 2,000 words of copy to explain how that product solves the problem, are you thinking about how annoying it is to read through all of the information you included to get the key facts? You might feel like all of your information is relevant (and it might be) but it’s probably not all required to convince the reader that your product is the one for them. And it could, in fact, be turning some of the users away.

Next time you choose to make a decision about your website, ask yourself these three things.

  • Is what I’m sharing something the user cares to know? We all feel like our company history is the coolest on earth - but at the end of the day, someone who is trying to buy a new pair of shoes might not care that the owner designed them in their garage. That piece of information isn’t helping the immediate sale. That’s not to say that it shouldn’t be used at all, but in its proper place.  
  • If the user doesn’t know this piece of information, will they still buy from me? Most salespeople could talk your ear off about the benefits of a product. But, think about what kind of information is really needed for someone to choose your product over another on your website. A purchase that is, say, $20 doesn’t always need as in-depth information available as one that costs $2,000. And, the more information you include, the longer it will take the reader to sort through and make their decision.
  • What kind of information are my competitors including? This does NOT mean you need to include the same things, but if your competitors have an entire section about their material sources - and that’s a crucial set of information when it comes to your product - you might want to think about including that information. That same concept applies the other direction, too. If you have long bios about each employee of your business, but it’s in no way differentiating you from your competitors, it could be something to consider cutting back on.

At the end of the day, my favorite question is a harsh one: “Who cares?” If you can’t (truthfully) think of a user who does, it’s time to think about cleaning up your content.

Alex Karei_124Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her on:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Analytics: What to look at to prepare for 2016

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Google-analytics-logoWhen you work in marketing, reviewing analytics of various types (especially at the end of the year) is part of the job. There are website analytics, Facebook Insights and Mailchimp reports to evaluate a whole year.

It’s a lot to cover, and it can certainly make your head spin. And, if you don’t have someone at your company with the time to spend on it, thinking through these analytics can be overwhelming. So overwhelming, in fact … I know some of you just aren’t doing it. It’s okay - you’re not alone!

That being said, there are a lot of benefits to reviewing even just a few of your analytics. After all, what better way to improve your website then to look at the cold, hard data? If you're limited on time, here's three things to start with. 

All of the following can be found within your Google Analytics. If you don’t have this free tool from Google installed, there’s a little legwork involved, but I promise it’s worth your time. You’ll notice that I’m not telling you how to look up your analytics. Don’t worry, if you’re unsure, there are plenty of resources out there that do that already.

List Your Top Visited Pages

Are your most frequented pages the ones you’d like them to be? If not, it could be for a couple of reasons. One, what Google is seeing might not be what you thought it would. In that case, you’ll want to find some assistance with your search engine optimization (SEO). Two, your navigation may not be optimally structured on your website. Are you helping your user find the pages you want them to find? If not, you may want to reevaluate!

Evaluate How Long Visitors Are Staying On Each Page

You’ve got visitors to your website - awesome! But, how long are they staying? Time on page is a feature that can be easily reviewed within the Site Content section of your Google Analytics. It can tell you two things:

  1. Are people spending enough time on a page to read or review your content? If not, maybe you should revisit your content or page design to better engage them.
  2. Are people spending too much time on that page? This might mean the content or action items are unclear.

Review Drop-off Points

This topic is a little more complex, but I know you can keep up, so bear with me! Under the “Behavior Flow” section of your analytics, you’ll find a horizontal flow chart. If you analyze this, you’ll be able to see where people are entering your site (this is the far left column), where they're going (following the grey lines to the next green box) and leaving it (which is represented by a red block). This can clue you in on why your conversions aren’t as high as you think they should be, or why visitors never seem to find a crucial piece of information you’d like them to see. If they are “dropping off” one page into your site (for example, on your “About Us” page) they may not find out what they really need to know to complete a purchase. Once you know where a visitor is dropping off, you can make an action plan for preventing that in the future.


Whew! Thanks for sticking with me guys. I know when you’re new to analytics, it can be tough. But with a little elbow grease, I think you’ll be excited to see what you can learn about your user behavior and how you can improve it in the new year.

Alex Karei_124Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her on:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Details can take your website over the top

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

When people hear I work in web, I often hear one question: “What makes a great website?”

There's not really one answer to that. The design, user experience, overall content and even the way the code is written can all contribute to a website that stands out from the rest. But when you drill down to it, the one thing that typically takes a website over the top - the thing that you can really pinpoint, in my opinion - is the level of detail in the final website development. This isn’t a feature that you can download a plugin and see, or an image you can purchase through a stock photo site. Detail is a result of analyzing each piece of a website and asking one question.

“How can this be better?”

Detail can come in different forms through a website, and serve different purposes. Some are self-serving for the site builder (to increase sales, for instance) and some are for the user (to make the visitor experience more enjoyable). Neither are inherently bad, and depending on your site, different types of detail can be appropriate.

Adding humor to website content

For some websites, detail comes in the form of humor. For instance, Mailchimp, a popular email marketing platform, is good at pinpointing areas where a normal task can be made more fun. For instance: if I try to make a new account with a username that’s already taken, Mailchimp suggests my evil twin has already beat me to the punch. This small detail is turning a potentially frustrating situation (picking a different username) into something that will make me chuckle.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 9.40.32 PM

React to visitor actions

Other website details react to the user’s actions. Google is known for showing images or special designs for different searches on its site, and those details are fairly well-documented if you search for them. But, one of my favorite examples is the popular social media website, Tumblr, and its concern for one of its target audiences. They serve, in general, a young demographic, and have chosen to react to those in that group who may search for  “thinspo” (an alarming term, short for “thin inspiration”, that young women with anorexia or bulimia may use to search for photos of bone-thin women to remind themselves of their goals to become thin). When the term is searched in Tumblr's bank of posts, a message pops up, asking the user if they need help.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 9.53.31 PM

Websites like Tumblr don’t have to pay attention to the user behavior to this level of detail to run a functioning website, but the details show they care - and make users remember them.

Increase overall usability

The last example I’ll share is one that adds to basic usability. Amazon.com has many examples of detail on their website, but a small piece of what they offer is the use of a number in the shopping cart icon that appears on every page, indicating how many items you’ve added thus far. This is especially helpful for those who may do a little window shopping from time to time. Forgot it in your cart? Amazon has your back.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 10.12.19 PM

Adding detail to your website

These are all creative uses of details on websites, but don’t let that discourage you. Even a small business owner can add unique details to their website. All it takes is a little extra care! Think about things like:

  • What is the “submit” button on my contact form? Could it show more of my brand personality - even with just the language?
  • Is there any way I can geographically cater website content to my users? (This may require the consultation of a developer, but it can be a really nice addition to a website!)
  • Am I doing everything I can to aid my user on their purchasing journey? Could any steps be more intuitive?

Remember, keep your users at the forefront, and don’t brush by the small decisions when it comes to pieces of your website. If you already have, it’s not too late to go back and make a few tweaks.

What are some of your favorite website details?

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

How much time do you spend on your mobile device?

Alex Karei

- Alex Karei, marketing director for Webspec Design, blogs about web strategy.

Returning from PubCon, a recent national online marketing conference, one of my coworkers shared a staggering statistic about mobile with me. Did you know that on average, we spend 177 minutes on our smartphones per day? So you don’t have to do the math, that’s nearly three hours. When that average was reported, it was shown to be a 15-minute increase in a nine-month period … and the statistic was calculated almost a year ago now.

So, think about it - do you spend three hours on your phone each day? Probably not that you’ve noticed. But start by thinking about the small bits of time you spend. Me, for example. Granted this isn’t a scientific study, but I've seen it to be a pretty regular pattern.

On my average morning, I might spend:

  • 5-10 minutes on Twitter while laying in bed after my alarm goes off.

  • 5 minutes checking the weather and my schedule for the day while brushing my teeth or drinking my first cup of joe.

  • 10-15 minutes messing with random apps or reading the news while eating breakfast.

  • 5 minutes catching up on Slack and email while waiting for my computer to boot up and my coffee to brew at work.

Adding it up, we're only at 9:00 a.m. and I have already potentially surpassed 30 minutes, depending on the day. Looking at it that way, it’s not that hard to see how quickly you could reach the average of three hours by the time you hit the hay at night. Granted, I could be on the high end of mobile use. After all, I am a millennial (at least one of you thought that) and that’s just our nature (which I would beg to differ - I know millennials not glued to their phones). Regardless, I would urge you to give some careful thought to what I’m saying, and think about your own mobile habits.

Then ask yourself: am I considering that potential clients may be accessing MY website during their 177 minutes? And if they are … what’s their experience with my content like?

It’s fair to say that mobile is on the rise, but also accurate to say that it’s already risen. Mobile is here - and if your website doesn’t take mobile users into consideration, visitors are probably struggling, at least mildly, with receiving your content. However, in some cases, you're probably losing them completely. 

Still not convinced? Open your website on your phone and do the following:

  1. View the site as a whole. Do you have to pinch and zoom to read the content? How many times?

  2. Try to click some buttons. Are you angling your finger or thumb to fit into a too-small box? Are you successful in clicking what you meant to click?

  3. Fill out a form or perform an action that's applicable to your site. Is there anything that doesn’t work as expected? 

Making the time or budget available to retrofit your site to be mobile-friendly can be difficult, but it’s a worthy investment.

And before you say that your 80-year old ideal clients don’t use mobile devices to access your current website, you should probably know that user experience isn’t the only reason you should be thinking about mobile. There's more to it than that! But we can talk about Google’s search preference for mobile-friendly websites another day.

Alex is the marketing director for Webspec Design, a website design and development and digital marketing agency in Urbandale. Connect with her on:

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei

Changing: seasons, business and content

- Alex Karei, marketing director, Webspec Design

Looking out my window, I can tell that the seasonal change is truly upon us. The colors are changing, leaves are falling and a fall chill has settled into the air. As the seasons change, we change as well. Sandals are exchanged for boots, bright decorations are exchanged for harvest themes and iced coffees are no longer as tempting as a cozy warm beverage (possibly, with some pumpkin).

Autumn leaves

In fact, we change as individuals with each season we encounter; and just like the seasons, our businesses are constantly in a state of change. Hopefully, the change comes in the form of growth or improvement, but regardless of what’s happening, a business is hardly stagnant.

That leads me to today’s point. As this change occurs, are you updating your website to reflect it?

At Webspec, this is an issue we run into a lot with clients. We build our clients their new, dream website – and they’re thrilled. But then, a month or so after launch, they get … busy. They’ve got a lot to do. The new website was fun, but they’ll update it later. Maybe next week. Well, maybe next month. That month turns to two months, turns to three – you get the picture. 

Just like you would never neglect pulling out your winter jacket, you shouldn’t neglect proper maintenance on your website. Depending on how many resources you have to work with, that can be a lot of work! However, there are some small things you can do to get yourself started on the right foot.

3 quick tips to maintain your company’s web presence:

  1. Go to your website at least once a week.
    This tip may be obvious to some, but it’s easy to overlook. Make sure that you visit your site each week and click around some, if not all, of your pages. Is everything looking like it should? Are page load times appropriate? This will take you less than five minutes, but is a good benchmark for noting anything out of the ordinary that you should report to your webmaster or add to your immediate to-do list.
  2. Make a schedule for reviewing content.
    Especially if you don’t have features (such as a blog) that you’re updating on a weekly basis, it’s a good idea to make a schedule for when you’ll review your website for any content updates. I would suggest making a monthly appointment on your calendar to do a thorough read-through, updating any content that may need to be changed. For example, updates on new staff members, current clients or upcoming events might have been missed when they happened, but your monthly review should catch these small mistakes.
  3. Give your website an “owner”.
    Some companies may feel it’s easiest to let multiple people update their website, and in a lot of cases, that’s probably true. However, if you put one person in charge of keeping track of what updates need to be done, you’re more likely to ensure things happen. The person in charge can plan to make updates themselves, or assign them out, but in general, they are responsible for keeping everyone on-track and your website looking as good as it should.

At the end of the day, remember that making small, ongoing updates will pay off when you don’t have to make a massive overhaul later. Plus, potential clients or customers will get the best, most accurate representation of your company or organization. Who doesn’t want that?

When's the last time you updated your website? 

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei
Blog: www.alextriesitout.com


Another corner of the internet: Meet Alex Karei

Alex Karei- Alex Karei, marketing director for WebspecDesign, blogs about web strategy.

I remember my first piece of the internet – it was a review website called “Alley Catz Reviews” that I painstakingly built in Microsoft Word during my middle school years.

I carefully exported each page and uploaded them to my school’s server, beaming with pride at reviews of my favorite boy band CDs, chick flick movies and Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels (yes, novels). I’m pretty sure I actually placed for a ribbon for the website at a local student technology fair. I do know the website is what allowed my acceptance to the Belin Blank Summer Institute, solidifying - or so I thought - my forever interest in being a graphic designer.

That website pushed me into some big things in my young life, but at the same time, I distinctly remember not caring what anyone thought of it. I thought it was well-written, high-tech and pretty much the coolest thing I had ever done.

I didn’t care that I had definitely broken some copyright laws by stealing images off the internet for visuals, that there was almost certainly no sitemap structure or that black text on a highly texturized, repeating background was in no way catering to accessibility needs.

Flash forward nearly 15 years? I’ve gained numerous graphic design classes from a wacky high school art teacher, hours of online research on how to use Photoshop and finally, a B.F.A. in graphic design. I’ve found my forever love of working in marketing (although really, I thought I was “forever” a graphic designer, so who knows what could happen, right?), and now, I’m working at Webspec Design, a web design and development, search engine optimization, and digital marketing firm in Urbandale. My job is a perfect mix of the web development and graphic design that I fell in love with and the marketing that I enjoy waking up to do each day.

As a new blogger for the IowaBiz blog, I now have another corner of the internet to reach people online; one of my favorite things to do. As I write to you here, my goal is to teach you the ins and outs of websites and the strategy behind them. The internet is changing every day, and it can be hard to keep up. So, although I won’t be able to cover everything that you need to know, I hope you can take a few things away that give you food for thought.

Here’s where you come in: I want to know what YOU want to know. I love meeting new people, online and in real life, and I hope that through this blog, I can. Email me, tweet me or find me at a networking event next week. But just tell me …

What do you want to know about websites or web strategy?

Email: alex@webspecdesign.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/alextriesitout
Instagram: www.instagram.com/alextriesitout
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alexandriakarei
Blog: www.alextriesitout.com

P.S. In case you were wondering, “Alley Catz” was a nickname my grandpa gave me as a kid. Although, I do wish I could bowl. 

Who owns my website, anyway?

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

When you buy something from a vendor or company it’s yours automatically, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to a website, the answer isn’t always black and white. This is why it is very important at the beginning of your website design and development process for you and the company you’re working with to have this conversation.

Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work automatically holds the exclusive copyright to it. Therefore, the only way that copyright may be transferred to a customer is in a signed contract.

There are many pieces involved in a website both on the design and development side. You should take the website copy and photography into consideration as well. When you hire someone (an advertising agency, web firm etc…) to build your new website, first consider what you would like to be able to do with the site after it is launched. If you’re looking for a long-term partner and feel confident with the company you hired (hopefully!) you might feel very comfortable not having any administrator rights (full control) over your website. Generally speaking though, even if you feel comfortable with the company you hired, it is best to at least have the option to have full access to your site. You always want to protect yourself and you never know when you might want to work with someone else, or possibly have someone in-house that is able to make updates to not only copy and photos, but also the actual code or content management system of the site.

As an example, at the end of all of our website projects at Happy Medium, our clients have full rights to their website and own it outright. We often continue to work with them on periodic updates, but if they wanted to do those updates on their own they could. It’s their website. This is outlined in the language of our contract, and communicated at the beginning of relationships with new clients. Don’t be afraid to ask this question because it’s very important!

Often we’ll try to help a client with a project or an update to their website and they find out they actually don’t even have full access to their site. Then, their only option is to sometimes pay additional fees to be granted the access, or worse, it’s just not possible. They are stuck with the option to either keep the same, stagnant site (which is never good), or to pay to start over again. Consider your website an asset to your company like all others. Confirm your ownership and ask questions until you fully understand. Then, get it in writing. Good luck! 

Questions? Tweet me at @klstocking


Does anyone know my hosting information?

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Sometimes clients can be pretty predictable – most of them, actually. At Happy Medium, when we begin a website project for a client, one of the first pieces of information we ask for is their current hosting information (site, logins etc…) Pretty much every time, the answer from the client is “can I get back to you?” Aka… I have no idea and I don’t honestly even know where to begin to find out. It’s really simple to not know actually. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you much about the itsahappymedium.com site hosting information either. What I can tell you, though, is where our password sheet is, and I know the information is on there.

It is really important to keep your website login and your hosting information in a place where it is easily accessible for a lot of reasons. Hopefully you’re using that website login (or someone is) to log into your site often and keep it up to date. (yes, checking your site weekly is important!)

If you own a company, or are in any way responsible for your company's website, I would suggest filling out this form today and posting it somewhere visible to anyone who might need it. Otherwise, it will be the year 2017, you’ll be ready for a new website and you’ll be wondering where the heck that email from 2014 from Hostgator is with your hosting login information. When you realize you don’t have it, you’ll get to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with someone you don’t know trying to get to the bottom of this mess. Or, you could just print and fill this out, post it and get to go to a happy hour instead when the time comes.

Good luck! 

-- @interactivekate

How to treat your website like a client

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Your website is generally the first impression potential clients, employees, or prospects have of your company. It’s obvious the first impression is incredibly important so why don’t more people take time to make sure their website is the exact impression they want to give?

One way to ensure you are prioritizing, is to treat your website as if it was a client. You treat your clients with the highest regard right? So why not your website with these tips:

1)   Check in on it – Generally speaking, if you go a while without hearing from or reaching out to a client, the relationship isn’t going to go anywhere or do much for either party. The same goes for your website. If you set it and forget it, what positive actions can you expect from it? Make sure you are checking your website. Set it as your default homepage in your browser so that it opens up whenever you open your web browser. It’s a very simple way to be constantly checking what is there (and if it’s working!)

2)   Update it – It’s of course important in your relationship with clients to not only check in on them and catch up – you also want to make sure to update them consistently of what is happening with the job they have hired you to do. This is vital with your website content, perhaps one of the most important tasks. I just opened a website today that featured their “holiday specials” smack dab in the middle of their homepage. The holidays were weeks ago and it looks just plain ridiculous to be still promoting them. It seems (to me as a consumer) the business is not organized enough to present itself properly – so how can they be organized enough with the service or product I’m considering purchasing from them? Don’t make people wonder what is (or isn’t) going on behind the scenes at your business. (Remember, first impressions are everything!)

3)   Invest in it – Clients like to be invested in. It commits them to you because they aren’t only spending money with you; you are spending money to be better for them. It becomes a partnership. My company, Happy Medium, builds websites. We always work with clients the best we can to meet their budget and website goals. There’s an old saying that goes “you get what you pay for,” which could not be truer for websites. You should definitely invest in your website. I always tell clients to try and figure out how much/many of their products they would need to sell to pay themselves back for any investment in their website updates. Generally it’s not much, if you have a good website that is the most current technology; you’re going to get leads because of it. Spend the money to make sure it’s right. If you get multiple proposals and a company is significantly under others, find out why. More than likely they are developing old technologies, which won’t do you any good.

4)   Realize its value – Like your clients, (hopefully) your website, although ideally ever-evolving, is with you for a really long time. If you completely ignore the value and potential it has to your business, you are going to miss out on a lot of business. Just look at your own life and how you do business. More than likely for a large amount of your purchases you refer to the Internet, either to find an address, research a product, or find who carries a product. If you’re looking online, so are other consumers. The value of your website is tremendous. Treat it that way.

Action item: Visit your website right now and find something that needs to be updated. Do it – then tweet me because I want to see! Let me know if you have any questions! @interactivekate


Your 2014-friendly website

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

For the 2013 holiday season, it was estimated that 33 percent of sales would be through online shopping. Post holidays it’s estimated a total of 40 percent of retail sales were made online (source: The Seattle Times). That is a 33 percent increase from 2012! If you are a retail business you can absolutely no longer ignore online sales if you want to stay relevant (or in business). 

This amount of online purchasing statistic should also be interesting even if your business is not retail or business to consumer. Hands down, if you take nothing else from it, realize people are looking more towards the online world for everything it has to offer. Convenience, price shopping, and reviews – does your website meet these standards? It’s the new year, make sure you don’t miss out on business in 2014.

Convenience – what is the status of your website? If you visit the site from your desktop – how does it look? Do the graphics look up to date, is the content up to date? If there are pixelated images and out-of-date content, your company is more than likely going to be judged in the same way. Your website is your storefront, keep it in shape. Once you view the site on a desktop – view it on a smart phone, a tablet, and any other devices you have. If the site doesn’t look nice or doesn’t stay user friendly on all platforms, it’s time for an upgrade. Currently 16% of all web traffic is through a mobile device (source: Mashable).  That number has continually doubled year to year; don’t miss out.

Price Shopping – This one is simple. we as consumers obviously want to pay the least amount possible for the products we want. Online shopping makes this possible. If your business doesn’t sell products online – would you consider price matching? Personally, I would shop locally if the local shop would price match (in the same way most retail giants do), what I found online. If you offer that service, the only place to tell people who are shopping online about it is on your website. Make sure your website is optimized to show up in consumer searches.

Reviews – One word: Amazon – the entire reason I personally started shopping on Amazon is because of the reviews. I don’t have to buy things and try them out myself and possibly mess with returning them. I can find the product on Amazon, read the thousands of reviews on it and then make a much more educated purchasing decision. In the same way whether you are retail or business to business - however I am doing business with you – I am more than likely going to search you online first. Make sure your reviews online are a true reflection of you. The best place to start is on your website, where you have full control.

Don’t wait until the end of this year to get your online storefront – your website – shining bright. Do it now – and you’ll be glad you did when the numbers come in next year that over half of all shopping is done online! 

Tweet me your thoughts @interactivekate!


Email marketing tips for your business

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Every business needs a way to communicate with its customers. This is where traditional advertising – television ads, radio ads, newspaper ads, and billboards – comes in. Of course, there’s digital advertising, too – Google Adwords, display ads, video pre-roll ads, and others.

But what about email marketing? Everyone and their uncle has used email before, and people are quite used to the notion of hearing from businesses through that medium.

However, email is complicated. It’s not like a billboard ad where it’s there no matter what, and people who choose to see it will see it. Email has to jump through many digital gates before it arrives in your customer’s inbox. And once it gets there, it can be tricky to make the content look and act like you had intended.

Here are a few tips to get you started in the right direction:

Avoid the Spam Folder

First of all, you want to keep your subscriber list clean. This means making sure your customers are opting in to your email list (you didn’t add them to it without their permission) and that you send them email frequently enough that they remember they meant to sign up in the first place.

Email marketing company Mailchimp has a few best practices for lists.

Update it as often as you can. Keep your list clean, if you haven’t sent an email to this list in a few months, there’s a good chance your subscribers might forget they’re on the list or why they’re on the list. That could lead to a few unfortunate “unsubscribe” or “mark as spam” actions.

Treat It Like Any Other Form of Communication

You’ll often hear email marketing referred to as “e-blasts”. Try to avoid that term. If your company refers to communication with your customers as a “blast,” then you’ll likely start treating it like that. Who likes to be blasted in the face with a bunch of salesy info? Not a single person.

Email is one of the most personal forms of digital communication we have, so make it so. Deliver readable, worthwhile content to your subscribers in the form of an email or digital newsletter. Make it quick – nobody likes their time wasted – and make it feel personal.

Treating email marketing like a digital ad space isn’t what successful email marketing is about.

Think About Mobile

At a recent luncheon, AMA Iowa tweeted an interesting fact from a talk given by Gina LaMar-Nykerk:

“80.3% of consumers delete an email on their mobile phone if it doesn't look good.”

That, alone, is a huge eye-opener regarding subscriber behavior on mobile devices. Even back in 2011, studies showed a major increase in mobile email opens. It’s time to get on the mobile bandwagon!

Either optimize your email in a single-column, mobile-friendly fashion or develop a responsive email template which expands/contracts based on screen size. Your subscribers will love you for it.

Consider Handing it off to a Professional

“What kind of open-rate should I expect?”

“What should I do in order to stay out of my subscribers’ spam folders?”

“How do I target certain groups of people based on interests?”

“How do I design a responsive email?”

These are questions you might already have, and a company who regularly does email marketing should be able to answer them. Sometimes it’s worth the money to make sure email marketing happens the right way instead of dealing with the hassle trying to do it yourself.

An email marketing professional will be happy to help you manage your list; write punchy, succinct subject lines; and arrange your content to be the most readable and effective. They’ll help you stay out of the spam folder, and will reach your target audience. They can also assist with setting up a responsive, mobile-friendly email template so your emails look great on any device.

Finally, a professional can help you analyze your open rate, click rate, and other metrics to make your time spent on email marketing the most effective.

Whichever method you choose, make sure your business considers making email marketing a priority in the coming year.

Tweet me your thoughts @interactivekate!


3 ways to screw up your next website

Editor's note: Josh Larson specializes in interactive design and SEO at Happy Medium LLC. He is filling in for Happy Medium Owner Katie Stocking. 

Launching a new website for your business doesn’t have to be complicated. But day in and day out, clients and web design companies alike do things that turn the process of building a website into a nightmare. 

Here are a few things that often happen during the website-building process. Each of these things will either make you or the web design company miserable, and each of them can easily be avoided.

1. Pay a ton of money to a company that doesn't do responsive design

The responsive web design movement has been around for a couple of years now, yet businesses are still paying web design companies their hard-earned money to develop a website that isn’t optimized for mobile devices.

This has to be frustrating for business-owners who think they’re getting a great deal as a web designer slaps a “fresh coat of paint” on their homepage. But the truth is that if your “brand new” site doesn’t look good on a non-desktop-sized screen, your website automatically becomes outdated. 

It doesn’t matter if the design looks great on paper, or if a visitor has a great experience using the website on a 27” iMac – as soon as someone tries to access the website on their phone or tablet, they’ll be pinching, zooming, and squinting their way off your website and to your competitor.

How do you avoid this? Be sure to pick a web design company with experience developing responsive websites or for the mobile platform specifically. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your money elsewhere.

2. Don't ask the right questions beforehand

You’ve chosen your web design company, and you’re ready to get moving on the project. Now it’s time to sit back and relax – the site will be picture-perfect, right?

Hold the phone – how can you be sure everything will meet your expectations if you don’t voice any concerns before the process begins? Ask anything from the most basic questions (How will I edit content on my website?) to more complicated questions (How will the user be notified of a completed order on my e-commerce website?).

Thoroughly asking questions before the process begins can be a great exercise. These questions help you define what’s important to your business and help you make sure the website will reflect your values.

Not asking questions doesn’t mean you’ll get a terrible website – but without guidance and a good knowledge of your company’s priorities, a web design company could deliver a product that’s not what you’ve been dreaming up.

3. Micromanage your designers

At the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to get too involved and start subtracting from the product’s quality as a whole.

This point applies to more than just web design, but in any client services industry, there are always a handful of clients who insist on micromanaging every detail of the product.

Sure – as a business owner, it’s your money, and you ought to have a say in the end-product. But there are processes for doing exactly this – gathering your input and creative direction and relaying it to the right people in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the productivity of the team.

Jumping in and sticking your hands in every part of the process will do a couple of things (hint: none of them involve getting a “way better product!”). In the world of web design, you’ll undermine the efforts of the designers and developers who are trying to create the best possible product. As soon as you, a business owner, start telling professional designers and developers how to do their jobs, you start lowering the integrity of the product.

Micromanaging your designers will almost certainly lead toward a product that no one is happy with. If you’re trying to handle every detail of the process as a business owner, and the website doesn’t meet your expectations, you can’t blame the designer or the developer anymore – the failure is on your shoulders.

You’ve hired a web design company for a reason: They’re good at what they do. So let them do their jobs, and a better product will become of it.

Hopefully, you’ve been able to identify with some of these mistakes and you feel more prepared when it comes time to work on your company website.

Tweet with me at @itsahappymedium and share any tips you have for a client/company relationship during the website design process.

-- Josh

Lessons learned from the Obamacare website launch

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

In case you missed it, the new Healthcare.gov website was a spectacular failure.

Immediately after launch, the site was swarmed with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traffic rendered the site useless for most people trying to enroll for health care, delivering a message like the one seen below:

(Sarah Kliff / Washington Post)

Other reports indicating the cost of the website have drawn more scrutiny to the buggy site: CGI Federal Inc., a Canadian-based company, won a $93 million contract to build the federal healthcare exchange.

Services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have served millions of users before those companies even had that kind of funding. So how could such an expensive website fail so badly at launch time?

While the code to the site isn’t open-source and no one outside the Healthcare.gov IT Team knows for sure, a developer gave a few possible explanations for why the site has had trouble.

If you think about it, most web apps aren't immediately released to millions of users. Facebook and other huge services roll out new features over weeks and even months just so they can fix bugs along the way.

And in the case of Healthcare.gov, there are a ton of moving parts - grabbing data from other data hubs and sites to be able to determine whether the user is eligible in his or her state. If just one of those connections goes down or a server outside the realm of Healthcare.gov gets bogged down, it can seem like Healthcare.gov is at fault.

Does that make it OK for such an expensive and important site to fail from the start? Probably not. But it’s good to be aware of what happened, and you can take action for your own website and development projects to prevent similar failures.

What We Can Do

Obviously we don’t have huge traffic spikes to worry about, but we can prevent other bugs and site issues by doing plenty of testing beforehand. Make sure you spend quality time fine-tuning your website before sending it out to all your users.

This doesn’t mean NEVER launch your website – there will always be bugs – but just be conscious of the experience you’re giving your users. Remember, your website represents your brand and the type of company you are.

Finally, it’s important to remember that websites are living, breathing things. You shouldn’t just “launch it and leave it” – keep iterating, evaluating, and making changes based on what’s working and what’s not. Even with a limited budget, you can make a huge difference to your audience and your website users by continually improving things here and there – whether it be content or code.

Tweet me your thoughts at @interactivekate!


Website redesign vs. new website

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

So you’re thinking your website could use a facelift. How do you figure out exactly what it needs though? Often at Happy Medium, we get asked to do website redesigns, but once we talk to them more we find that what they are really looking for is just a better website solution. Usually people looking for website work either A) don’t have a website or B) have a website and they want something different. Sometimes that means a website redesign, and sometimes it just means starting fresh. So how do you figure out what you need?

It’s important to know your options when considering diving into a website work in general.

If you already have a website, ask yourself these questions:

  • How long has your content been there? Is it still relevant and compelling?

  • How well is your content structured? Websites grow and change, and it’s necessary to re-evaluate your site hierarchy after adding or removing significant types of content.

  • Is your site accessible to modern devices (mobile, tablets, other points of access)? If your site was originally developed more than three to four years ago, your site is probably not mobile-friendly or isn’t taking advantage of the latest technologies (i.e. using images for headings instead of web fonts, which have much more support now).

If your content is mostly outdated, needs to be restructured or your site is not accessible on modern devices, it is a good idea to consider developing a completely new website. This will give you the opportunity to re-evaluate and construct your site’s hierarchy – a very important and functional step in the process of modern, responsive design.

If you just need a facelift (color, font, image and minor copy changes), you are probably OK with a simple refresh/redesign.

We’ve been doing more new websites lately because a lot of companies are coming to the realization of the importance of multi-device friendly websites. Happy Medium produces all websites in responsive design to support that. If you’re asking the questions above it should help you figure out exactly what you’re looking for. If not - check with a web professional and they can help you determine it.

If you want to see a sample of responsive web design - visit www.itsahappymedium.com on multiple devices and you will see what I mean.

Have any questions or thoughts on responsive web design? Tweet me at @interactivekate!


What's all this hype about the Apple Tablet?


Rumors are flying about Apple's mysterious upcoming product launch (supposedly happening on January 26). Tech industry analysts and insiders are predicting that during this event, Apple will announce some sort of tablet device.

This tablet (or iSlate, as some are calling it) represents a whole new category of devices, somewhere between a handheld smartphone and a laptop computer. E-Readers such as Amazon's Kindle have been gaining in popularity lately and I suspect this is Apple's entry into that market.

However, this tablet won't just let you read books and newspaper content - I expect it to be a full-fledged, personal media device capable of handling movies, TV, music, games, Web sites and custom applications.

Many people are dismissing this as just a large iPhone, but I do believe that these tablet devices (if built right) represent a new way to access media that mainstream consumers will learn to love.

Think about it - the content delivery pipelines are already in place: iTunes, Netflix instant streaming, Hulu, et cetera. Every day, more and more people are cancelling their cable TV and accessing media via laptops or set-top boxes like Boxee. This represents an opportunity for a device to emerge - something that feels comfortable in our hands and is portable.

I can guarantee you that portable DVD players are an endangered species and will be quickly killed off by these types of tablet devices. (Similar to what happened to the PDA after smartphones emerged.)

Business owners and marketing people: Take note that your customers will be accessing your website and/or custom applications on these machines (as they will all be wi-fi compatible) so be prepared to make sure your content is scalable, functional and good-looking on a tablet.

What are your thoughts on the rumored device?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

How to start an audio podcast on the cheap

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

Podcasting is a great way to create, syndicate and distribute your own audio/video content on the Web. We're just getting started with our own audio podcast at Lava Row, so I wanted to take a moment to explain how you can create your own show on the cheap.

Step One: Choose a recording device
Chances are your laptop or desktop computer came with a mic (corded and/or built-in). You can get by with this if you'll be the only one in the room talking and understand that it doesn't offer top-notch quality. Our podcast is always going to involve more than one person, so we chose the Snowball USB Mic from Blue Microphones (affordable and available for around $100 on Amazon.com).

Step Two: Figure out your content ahead of time
As with any digital initiative, the first thing you'll want to do is figure out how you're going to use the medium and determine what your content is going to be. Are you going to interview others? What will the topics be? What insight can you provide that other podcast programs can't?

Step Three: Record calls on Skype
Skype is a free VOIP application that you can download and install on your computer. If you're going to be interviewing guests who can't come to your "studio" in person, just call them with Skype and record the conversation with the Pamela Call Recorder add-on. The free version will let you record up to 15 minutes, and for $25 you can upgrade for unlimited recording times.

Step Four: Choose your editing software
At some point you're going to need to trim your audio file, add music, or edit parts together. For PC users we'd recommend Audacity (a free download) for these simple tasks. Mac users will already have the iLife suite installed on their machines, which is an amazing software package that contains sophisticated tools for audio editing/mixing.

Step Five: Distribution
Apple's iTunes is probably the most ubiquitous (and common) way to distribute your podcast. Here's an outline of guidelines and specifications about how to get your podcast feed synced up with iTunes.

Pretty simple, right? That's all you need to get going. If you've set up your own podcast, feel free to chime in below - how did you make yours a success?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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More changes on the way for Facebook Fan Pages

Facebook, Inc.Image via Wikipedia

If you administer a Facebook Page for your business or organization, you may want to take note of a few changes coming around the corner.

Content width: Facebook is changing the width of the content area underneath the tabs to 560 pixels wide from 760 pixels. This will have implications for you if you've done any custom HTML or FBML designs. If any of them are wider than 560 pixels, they may appear truncated or cut off.

Say goodbye to Boxes: "Boxes" are little areas and tabs that allowed you to build out and integrate custom content into your Facebook Pages. If you're currently using them, be aware that they will soon be disappearing. In my opinion the Boxes were hard to manage and clunky, so I'm glad to see Facebook streamlining how custom content is created.

E-mail addresses: In early 2010, Facebook will launch the ability for Facebook Pages to collect e-mail addresses from fans on an opt-in basis. This has huge implications for marketers - currently, you can reach fans through the Page itself, but every company would love to have e-mail addresses to go with it. Ideally you'll be able to achieve some crossover between your Facebook communications with your e-mail marketing initiatives.

These changes once again show that Facebook is always on the move in terms of improving and tweaking the social network. What do you think of the upcoming moves?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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How Bit.ly is fighting Twitter spam

Bitly-logo The microblogging social network Twitter has become infested with spam over the past year, directly alongside its meteoric rise in popularity. While Twitter is staying busy trying to fight this never-ending war, Bit.ly (a popular URL shortener service) is joining the battle.

Bit.ly is the most frequently used link shortener on Twitter. It makes up more than 75 percent of all shortened links, according to this TechCrunch article, meaning that it is frequently abused by spammers attempting to push Twitter users off to malicious Web sites loaded with malware and spyware.

Yesterday, Bit.ly announced that the service is partnering with VeriSign's iDefense, Websense Threatseeker Cloud and Sophos to beef up their ability to detect spam behind shortened links. This is in addition to some of their existing security features. For instance, you can add a + symbol behind any bit.ly link to preview it or make use of their Firefox preview plug-in.

There's another tool you can use to fight spam and that's called common sense. Just like we learned what the red flags for e-mail spam 10 years ago, we're now being taught the same lesson on social networks. Don't click on strange links from senders that you don't know. And if you receive a message saying "Is this you? [LINK]" - don't click on it.

What do you think about Bit.ly's announcement? Will this make a dent in Twitter spam or will the spammers evolve to leverage new ways to prey upon internet users?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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Exploring Google Reader's "Sort by Magic" feature

Sortbymagic Who has logged into their Google Reader account lately to discover 1000 or more items waiting to be read? Raise your hand. (Mine is currently raised.)

To combat this information overload issue, Google recently launched a feature called "Sort by Magic." This is basically an algorithm that prioritizes the information flowing into your RSS reader for you, based on what you've liked in the past (via the "star" and "share" buttons). As we all know, Google is really good at algorithms, so go ahead and give this a spin.

For those that don't know Google Reader, it's a news aggregator that lets you subscribe to various forms of content - sports scores, blog posts, keyword searches, news headlines, et cetera - and read them all in one place.

On day one, the feature won't be very intelligent. Over time, as you star and share more items, it will get smarter and more valuable for you. Google discusses the feature more in-depth on their Reader blog.

Facebook recently made some dramatic changes to their News Feed for the same reason: preventing individual filter failure. If filters fail, users stop logging in, so it's smart that both companies are tweaking their technology to address this.

What are your thoughts? Have you used the new "Sort by Magic" feature, and is it working for you?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

Can Twitter Lists save the social network?

Twitter-lists1 Twitter recently rolled out a new feature called Twitter Lists. It's a way for individual users to curate lists of people based on, well, whatever they like. For instance, you could make a Twitter List of entrepreneurs in your city, your funniest friends, celebrities, et cetera.

This sounds like a simple feature. But I think it will fundamentally change Twitter for the better. Here's why: the social network has been experiencing serious problems over the last year as it's popularity and growth has exploded, specifically with spammers and marketers trying to "game" the following/follower system. There are tools, applications, tricks and scripts readily available that anyone can leverage to get tens of thousands of new followers overnight.

Twitter Lists, I believe, will return us to the Twitter we first fell in love with, reinforcing quality over quantity. For instance, if another user deems you list-worthy, that instantly carries more weight than a one-click "follow." Now, when you're screening new followers, you can check out how many lists they are on in addition to how many followers they have. As you know, 10,000 followers on Twitter today doesn't necessarily mean what it did in 2008.

Lists will be integrated with their API, meaning that third-party applications like Tweetie, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite will be able to pull the data and push it into their services and products. There's already a Web site devoted to lists of lists, called Listorious.

In my first few days of playing around with the new feature, I've started a list of Des Moines East Village businesses, Des Moines entrepreneurs and people I've hung out with at conferences.

Ryan Lynch told me this weekend that he's advising clients to create lists of followers who are actively engaged with their updates. For instance, you may have 1,000 followers, but wouldn't it be nice to have a separate bucket for the 100 people who are frequently interacting with your business? Maybe this becomes a list of 100 V.I.P. customers over time.

How will you use Twitter Lists to your advantage? Please leave your thoughts below.

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

Augmented reality has arrived, will become mainstream quickly

"Augmented reality" (or AR, for short) is a phrase you're going to be hearing more and more through the rest of 2009 and into 2010. Basically, it's the ability to use a handheld device with internet connectivity to unlock and overlay information on top of your existing reality. Watch the video below for a demonstration.

So, let's get right into the practical business applications. UrbanSpoon.com (a review site for local restaurants) has just added a "Scope" feature to the UrbanSpoon iPhone app. Let's say you're in a dense urban area and craving a slice of pizza. Point your iPhone at the horizon looking through the UrbanSpoon Scope, and the application will overlay the percentage of positive customer reviews on top of the restaurants right in front of you.

GPS functionality makes all of this happen based on where you're standing at that very moment. The Scope feature is only available for 3GS iPhones, so if you have a first- or second-generation device (like me), you won't have access to it.

You can expect mobile devices to get smarter by the day, and you'll see a blend of GPS and AR functionality becoming the norm over time. Imagine all the possibilities here: Relevant information delivered based on current physical location.

How will you be using this technology for your business, and/or your clients?

The implications of Google SideWiki

Screenshot Google recently announced the launched a new product called SideWiki, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a sidebar that can be expanded/collapsed next to any existing website, containing user-generated information and commenting similar to Wikipedia.

This feature comes with the Google Toolbar (a plug-in that you have to install in your web browser). Currently it is only available for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers and not Google's own product, Chrome.

What does this all mean? Users can now leave comments on any static website - including yours. The caveat is that all the participants (commenters and readers) would need to have the Google Toolbar installed, something which is far away from mainstream adoption.

Jeremiah Owyang, a strategist at Altimeter Group, wrote an in-depth post about SideWiki and said:

"The impacts are far reaching, now every web page on the internet is social and can have consumer opinion – both positive and negative."

While I think businesses should absolutely pay attention to SideWiki content as part of their listening and online reputation management strategy, I'm doubtful that large numbers of users will embrace this right away. Remember that only 1% of Wikipedia's users actually author content there. Also, we're currently seeing (with our own clients) that social media users are engaging more and more with blog content posted via the Facebook Pages platform, instead of the actual blog itself. Translation: Don't be surprised when Facebook unleashes something similar.

Siva Vaidhyanathan posted this on Twitter on September 24th:

"Can anyone explain to me how Google Sidewiki could be anything but a trough for trolls?"

To address this issue, supposedly Google SideWiki will have an algorithm that can rank the "value" of individual comments, bubbling the most valuable ones up to the top and burying "internet trolls" (vulgar, hateful people who live to cause trouble online). It remains to be seen how well this algorithm works.

So what are your thoughts? Is Google SideWiki going to be a major player, revolutionizing how we think about static web pages, or is this just another Google "beta" project that will fade into obscurity over a few months?

Help! Facebook is ruining my company!

Modern, wheelchair-accessible drinking fountai...Image via Wikipedia

We hear this statement a lot from business executives: "Help! My employees are on social networks all day long, Facebooking and Twittering, and it's killing productivity!"

In response to that, I wanted to build upon my July 2nd post about corporate social network usage policies, where I focused mainly on security.

Social technology is just another scapegoat for diminished workplace productivity - another scapegoat in a long line of scapegoats, since the dawn of the 9-to-5 workday.

Let's review some of the others:
  • Cigarette breaks.
  • The water cooler. 
  • Gossip. 
  • Restroom breaks. 
  • The three-martini lunch.  
  • Magazines. 
  • Personal phone calls. 
  • Solitaire. 
  • eBay. 
  • Instant messaging.
  • E-mail. 
The list goes on and one. Proof that the situation many modern workplaces face right now is a human resources issue, NOT a "social networks are destroying the world" issue.

Here's the deal: As the leader of your company, it's up to you to define expectations for employees. If you're not going to be Big Brother and lock down all the internet ports, that's great, but you need to establish rules as certain employees will inevitably abuse these freedoms.

Internet usage rules aren't a bad thing. In the past, you've been upfront with employees that it's not OK to browse pornographic Web sites, right? Again, all you need to do here is establish expectations that, yes, employees can check Facebook from time to time but they are expected to stay on task and complete the work assigned to them in a timely fashion. You also need to spell out the consequences if they don't follow these simple rules.

What are your thoughts? Has your company or organization developed a social technology usage policy? Do you feel leaving social networks 100 percent open hinders employee productivity? Please leave a comment below, I'm excited to hear your feedback.

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Facebook adds "Get more Fans with SMS" feature

Facebook_logo I was poking around Facebook's Fan Page features the other day and came across something new that they just released. You'll find it on the left-hand navigation of any Facebook Page that you administer, labeled Get more Fans with SMS.

First, definitions: SMS stands for Short Message Service. Basically, it's a fancy term used to describe the standardized system for exchanging text messages between mobile devices.

Second, how does it work? When I clicked on the option, I got this message:

Tell people to text "fan lavarow" to 32665 (FBOOK) from their mobile phones, and they will be added as fans instantly. Standard charges may apply.

When you signed up for Facebook, chances are good that they asked you to enter your mobile phone as an account identifier in addition to your e-mail address. So, Facebook already knows your mobile number, meaning that if you send the text message "fan companyname" to 32665 (Facebook's shortcode), they will associate the phone number with your account and automatically make you a fan of companyname.

One caveat: An organization's Facebook Page must have a username (a.k.a. "vanity URL") activated for this feature to work. For more information on usernames for Pages, click here.

Third, what does this all mean? The obvious, immediate benefit to companies with Facebook Pages is an easy, quick method for gaining more connections with an audience unchained from their desktops or laptops. It won't be long before you see Text "FAN COKE" to 32665 (FBOOK) on the sides of Coca-Cola packaging.

Looking ahead even further, I won't be surprised when Facebook offers out-bound SMS marketing features to companies with Fan Pages, meaning that an organization could "push" some form of messaging, offer or coupon to opted-in Fans via text message. Sending SMS messages isn't free, so Facebook could potentially charge for this feature and monetize the service with some sort of set-up or maintenance fees.

The main takeaway here is that this move will add another powerful component to Facebook's marketing toolbox for businesses.

How to successfully unplug from your devices

Person with PDA handheld device.Image via Wikipedia

The more our day-to-day lives (both professional and personal) become intertwined with laptops, mobile devices and social networks, the more difficult it becomes to unplug from everything.

I actually wrote this post in advance because I'm on vacation right now, and want nothing to do with any sort of electronic communication device. However, that is easier said than done, and I've trained myself how to untether from those devices over the years. Sometimes I'm more successful than others - it's always a work in progress!

I truly believe that our mobile devices create unnecessary stress in our lives, because we've opted in to having information (e-mails, texts, Twitter DMs, et cetera.) blasted to our person rather than retrieving it at our convenience.

If you're looking to disconnect over vacation, or even on a daily basis, here's a tip. If your iPhone or Blackberry device makes a noise every time you receive an e-mail, turn that off. Consume your email messages in chunks. Go to it. Don't let it interrupt you minute-by-minute.

I used to have a habit of checking my e-mail messages on my iPhone before I went in to work every morning. Then, I'd spend the drive to the office contemplating how I'd respond to each message, and this created unnecessary stress. I have a personal rule now where I don't look at my phone before I go in to work. This simple method has made my life much more relaxed.

Last but not least, if you're on Twitter, one of the greatest things you can do is learn how to ignore it. Your network of tweeps will still be there when you get back, and I know this is hard to believe, but you won't miss anything.

Don't get me wrong, I love being connected in real-time with interesting people via these amazing devices, but at some point you have to learn how to "go dark." How do you unplug? Looking forward to seeing your comments below.

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FTC plans to crack down on forms of social media marketing

2404635465_caab54a0e6_m The Federal Trade Commission is considering regulating certain forms of word-of-mouth and social media marketing: specifically, certain claims made on blogs, forums and social networks.

Here is an excerpt from AdAge setting up the situation:

As part of its review of its advertising guidelines, the FTC is proposing that word-of-mouth marketers and bloggers, as well as people on social-media sites such as Facebook, be held liable for any false statements they make about a product they're promoting, along with the product's marketer. This could present a significant issue for marketers, including the likes of Microsoft, Ford and Pepsi, who spend billions on word-of-mouth and social media. PQ Media projects that marketers will spend $3.7 billion on word-of-mouth marketing in 2011.

This will definitely have an impact on marketers that send products to influential bloggers/social media users for review, which is currently a common practice.

As a marketer and consultant in the social media space, I'm not too worried about guidelines or regulations, because I've always imposed my own set of rules and best practices from the start. They've worked well for my business and my clients. The rules go something like this:
  • If you send a product to a blogger for review, encourage them to post their candid thoughts. Don't push for a positive review.
  • Encourage the blogger to disclose within the post that you sent them the product.  
  • If you participate in any sort of pay-per-post activity (i.e. paying the blogger for a review), be 100 percent transparent about this fact. Chris Brogan wrote an excellent post about the issue, and advertising and trust in general.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you'll steer clear of any murky gray areas. I'm not sure what shape the FTC guidelines are going to take, or if they're even necessary. I'd like to think that we can govern ourselves online, but as we all know, sometimes sleazy practices can get through the cracks.

So, what are your thoughts on the FTC's announcement?

Facebook's Fan Box adds social interaction to your website

250px-FanBox Facebook recently unveiled the Fan Box, which is essentially a "social widget" that you can bolt into your own website. This widget pulls in streams of social activity from your company or organization's Facebook Fan Page and plants it where all of your website visitors can see it.

In order to use this feature, you do need to have a Facebook Fan Page set up first. For the sake of discussion, we'll assume that you already have one. (If you don't, you can read more about the benefits and features here.)

In the past, websites and Facebook Fan Pages were completely seperate destinations. You may have been frustrated by lack of visitors to your website, meanwhile, your company's fan page was getting all sorts of activity and engagement and you naturally wondered: Why can't the these two things be integrated?

Well, now they can. And this is such a better solution than the "Find us on Facebook" badge that many websites have, which is simply a bridge that carries you off to the social network.

In addition to the benefit of increased social activity on a typically static website, you also gain more "discovery" of your company's Facebook presence. The Fan Box lets visitors become a fan of your company on Facebook in one click without ever leaving your site.

This is just more proof that the age of "brochure-ware" websites is quickly ending. Go ahead, stamp one of these Fan Boxes onto your website and tell me what you think.

Why corporations block social media sites: Security and productivity

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...Image by luc legay via Flickr

Recently, The Des Moines Register reported that the Iowa DOT (Department of Transportation) blocked the use of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and other social media applications among its employees, citing security concerns.

So, how unsafe are social networks, anyway? In my opinion, social technology is no more or less safe that any online destination and function (Web sites, e-mail, et cetera).

As an individual user, there are many precautions you can take, including using a safe browser: Firefox and Chrome get high marks for their advanced safety features, while Internet Explorer is frequently full of holes and security exploits.

You should also have some form of security software on your desktop machine or laptop that scans for viruses, malware, spyware and phishing apps once every 24 hours.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, have some common sense. Don't click on anything that looks suspicious sent from someone you don't know, whether it comes to you in the form of an e-mail message, a tweet or a Facebook post.

Now, to the other issue, is the Iowa DOT really concerned about security issues, or is this a smokescreen to ensure that employees remain productive? I truly believe social networks (when used properly) can enhance a business or organization, and blocking them may simply result in missed opportunities.

Security and productivity should be addressed, in my view, with proper educational training, internal policies and employee culture. It's up to each individual company to talk to their employees about what goes and what doesn't go.

In the Iowa DOT's case, I'd recommend keeping these applications open for marketing and communications staff as a start. These are the people who will need to make use of social media tools and channels right now. Other employees, especially those on machines with access to sensitive data such as social security numbers, can remain closed-off and perhaps activated on an as-needed basis.

For a good analysis of what an internal social media usage policy might look like, here's a Mashable article on the topic including examples from Ford and Zappos.com.

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