12 Hacks for Picking Web Apps

The world of web services has mushroomed in the past few years. This is great for buyers, except the vendor selection process has become more time-consuming.

You can easily build a comparison chart in a spreadsheet with feature comparisons, integrations, support and prices, but you’d miss the qualitative part of the story.

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Gmail changes: Users win, marketers adapt

Google made two significant changes to Gmail this year.

Marketers got into a tizzy.

More importantly… users yawned and gratefully accepted the changes.

Gmail Inbox Tabs

First off, incoming mail is now sorted (by an algorithm) into tabbed areas (Primary, Social, Promotions). This is pretty handy if you’re not a control freak. The worry for marketers was that their email blasts would get stuck into the Promotions “Purgatory” ghetto and never get opened.

Email diagnostic service Litmus was one of the first credible sources to report that clicks were down, in a characteristically candid post in August.

Well, someone at MailChimp dove into six months of data (29 billion emails, which I suppose is statistically significant) and came to a few conclusions:

  • Gmail open rates are down 1.5%, a bit more than average
  • Gmail clicks are down 1%, about average
  • Gmail unsubscribes are flat, better than average.
  • While we don’t know about the impact of conversions to sale (since that data is known only* to site owners) we can fairly assume that the effect is minimal.

So balance the decreased click engagement with the healthier unsubscribe measurement, and IT’S A WASH. As Matthew at MailChimp says, “If the data tells us a story, it’s that Gmail tabs are working as intended and helping people manage their inboxes.”

Marketers got off the ledge.

Cached Images

And then they got back on!


(Or, more likely, we’re just seeing pageview-driven headline bait. Move along now…)

So this week Google rolled a change which means Gmail users will see images by default.

Previously, you had to “Click to display images” or whitelist a sender.

Google’s stated motivations were for the user experience, and it is a nontrivial improvement. Fewer clicks is better! Like the tabbed inbox, most Gmail users will appreciate the change.

Their technical modus operandi, serving the images directly from their own servers (aka image proxying), however, has an impact on marketers.

Here’s why. Email senders track email opens by serving up a tiny image, uniquely coded for the recipient. Since Google is now the intermediary for that image, marketers lose a number of things. Geolocation of opens, multiple opens, forwards, and so on.

Bright minds are still figuring out the impact. The more fevered commentators are raising questions about anitcompetitive practices and pointing to how this helps Google’s display ad business.

Netting it Out

Large-volume marketers are understandably interested in the particulars of the changes, since marginal changes in a send of 50,000 emails can mean a difference in dollars down the line. Smart marketers will adapt to technical changes, as they always have.

But if your company sends out a modest amount of email, don’t worry.

For example, “Company C” sends out a weekly newsletter to 5500 people in the B2B space. Gmail represents a paltry 2% of their user base. Inbox Tabs mean their weekly open rate will drop 0.01%. Their aggregate data on geography and multiple opens will be 2% less reliable.

Another sober view came from Campaign Monitor who correctly point out that the impact of these changes is dwarfed by other factors well within your control: creative, offer, design, send timing, and landing pages.

Oh, and how good your email looks on a smartphone, which is now where MORE THAN HALF of emails are opened.

That’s where you should spend extra effort to raise your email conversion to sale. Don’t worry about marginal Google decisions.


*and, um, Google Analytics… 

A Tiny Failure to Sell

If you’re a college graduate, you know the drill when a rep from your alma mater calls you for updated contact information.

“It’s for the alumni directory,” they say.

“You’re here for my money,” you think.

The rep is actually with a firm like Harris Connect, who gathers information in return for the opportunity to sell grads their dead-tree directories. (As little as you look forward to a telesales call, you should actually appreciate this effort. Better data in the hands of the university means better networking for you.)

Harris’s telemarketer did their pitch. Harris’s email let me click straight to a form where I could change my info and save, and the following confirmation page pitched me on the “Deluxe Package Set, with hardcover book and CD-ROM” for $109.99, and four other versions of the directory.

A Tiny Missed Opportunity

But then I got a confirmation email from them. Here it is, in its entirety:



Where is the link to buy the directory? If they had included one, I might have changed my mind later and bought the directory.

One or two things happened when someone wrote this email.

1) The product managers weren’t being thorough, in development of the user experience or when testing it.

2) The marginal effort of adding a better message was too high. I can actually understand this; they probably have a “legacy” email broadcast system which is hard to customize.

But there are partial measures. In decreasing order of preference, this is what they might have included:

  • A link to a Harris shopping cart page that knows who I am and what directory I might want.
  • A link to the Harris shopping cart, where I can search for my college’s name.
  • The email or phone number to buy a directory.

I’d be truly surprised if a Harris person told me that they couldn’t even put a phone number in the confirmation email.

And at scale, the tiny missed opportunities can add up to meaningful differences.

Why have a website when you have Facebook?

cake2My English friend Frank makes cakes.

What begun as a hobby is now a day job. So he made blue polka-dotted business cards, and over coffee on a Sunday morning he handed one to me.

Under his email address was a URL. Was it cakesbyfrank.com? Nope.


Did he have any intention of building a “regular” website?


Your Company, On the Web

Companies that need an online presence (meaning, um, all of them) can either:

  1. Build a standalone website.
  2. Build a standalone website AND make a Facebook page.
  3. Make a Facebook page.

Most people are at #1, and moving to #2.

Frank made me consider, is choice #3 viable? Can you run a business with just a Facebook page?

Since I’m a consultant, the answer to hard questions is nearly always the frustrating but honest “it depends.”

Yet we so enjoy breaking down the Pros and Cons, and it’s a good thought experiment.

Evaluating the Facebook-only Approach

Customers. It always has to start here. If his customers are already on Facebook, then he’s not shutting business out. (One has to sign up for Facebook to see the delicious confections.) Frank targets upmarket people who have a big social event, so there is a sociographic match there. Is a Facebook-only web approach making it harder for the customer to buy? No, it’s the same as if he had a regular website. Verdict: No Difference Here.

Frank's Cakes_1299624644400Social Proof
. Buyers want to see market validation. On regular websites, this takes the form of testimonials, client logos, awards, twitter followers and so on. On Facebook, the social proof is right there, with pictures of “friends” running along the left column. This is dynamic and believable, and a major plus for the Facebook-only business site. Verdict: Easier and more personal on Facebook.

Startup Cost. Custom websites cost in the thousands (your mileage may vary), and you ordinarily need to spend a nontrivial amount of time with the development team. DIY websites (e.g. WordPress, Weebly) can be free or have a nominal cost, and they take about the same amount of effort. Verdict: Facebook is free, but so are other options. Tie.

Maintenance Cost. Facebook shines here, since the system is so templated and they have hundreds of developers working on the interface. Frank has uploaded photo galleries of his cakes without worrying about FTP and HTML. You can make basic updates to a Facebook page from a phone, or from any computer. WordPress has maintenance easy. Verdict: Facebook in a narrow win.

Intangibles/Positioning: The entire Facebook ecosystem is built around 1:1 personal relationships, obviously. So using FB as your site makes the most sense if your business is in that mental space. Like career coaches, personal trainers, churches, PR people, and event planners. In these jobs, you’re selling yourself as much as the service, and Facebook works best when there is a personal voice behind the business message.

Here, however, we arrive at the first big elephant in the room with the Facebook-only approach. Doing so risks giving the perception that your company is too cheap to have their own website, are technically challenged, or are just too new. The best way to counteract this is to have a lushly designed, popular Facebook page with several engaging apps. Attaining this requires either talent or money, which means you’ve lost some of the cost advantage. Verdict: It Depends.

Lead Generation: Interestingly, Facebook may have an advantage here. Advertising within Facebook is obviously possible — with its excellent targeting options — and you can run AdWords on Google with the FB page as the landing page. So you get to advertise use the biggest PPC search network, and the biggest social media network, all with one “site”. As for SEO, with a Facebook page you probably give up some upside on very competitive terms. For narrow “long-tail” terms like Princeton NJ Wedding Cakes, however, a Facebook page could theoretically break into the top three. (Disclaimer: I am looking for more data on this.) Verdict: It’s a wash.

Conversion and Measurement: At this writing, Facebook pages have no ecommerce component, so you’d need to complete a sale offline or at a third-party website. Facebook’s Page statistics are improving but come up short next to the commercial stats platforms. Plus, measuring conversions is much easier when you have your own site. (That said, if optimizing page conversion is important to your bottom line, it’s time for your own site.) Verdict: Facebook loses here.

facebook-logo1Branding and Control: 
A company Facebook page is always in the Facebook wrapper, which dilutes your corporate image. We can expect Facebook to give Page editors greater visual control in the future, but that will naturally bump up against their desire to keep some consistency of experience. Similarly, even though Facebook’s Pages can accomodate more widgets and functional applications, you can always do more on your own site. Verdict: Better to have your own website.

Security: Another elephant. If your Facebook account is compromised, all sorts of mayhem can ensue. Recovering access is time-consuming and uncertain. True, there are single points of failure in the website world as well (your registrar account, your email account), but the authentication safeguards are better, and you usually have recourse to a staffed help desk at your website host. Verdict: Facebook loses here. Use complex passwords everywhere.

Copyright and Ownership: Last elephant. Facebook owns the content on its site, not you. Even though their usage policies are not likely to affect you in the short term, this fact carries obvious business risk of the “unknown unknowns” variety.

What About Frank?

The choice is not really whether to build a standalone website or a Facebook page; most companies eventually grow into needing both.

For entrepreneurs like Frank, the real question is, “which is better to begin with?” The best candidates for the Facebook-only approach are small, young, local, businesses whose sales rely on a strong personal connection. Other than that, small companies are better off beginning with a WordPress site.


Sending emails to your list? Avoid this pitfall.

When you blast out a pretty email to your customer list, does it come out pretty?

Maybe not.

A clear majority of people now use email programs that block images from displaying, by default. This can affect your layout.

This is how it looks when you don’t take the proper steps. It looks sloppy and interferes with your message.


And here is a better-formatted email. The images are still hidden, but the layout works and the selling copy is presented in the desired hierarchy.



For comparison, here is the email once images are “allowed” by the recipient — either by a one-time clicks of “allow images” or “always display from this sender” i.e. whitelisting.


What You Can Do

  • Create special accounts at Gmail and Yahoo just for testing emails.
  • Ask your marketing people to design emails that lay out properly when you (the sender) is “untrusted” .
  • Use a better email broadcast service, like Campaign Monitor or MailChimp. They have lots of testing tools, advice, and templates for designing good emails.

Research shows: Content development is a winner

La-di-da, the very day I sing the praises of content development, MarketingSherpa shares this chart.

It shows what “highly effective” SEO techniques are being used by B2B companies.


All the large circles on the left (labelled in white) are basically one-time projects, requiring little ongoing maintenance.

Content development is the ongoing marketing project that gives the best SEO benefit. And, as I pointed out yesterday, it helps you convert more search-engine-referred visitors into leads.

Making new content is hard, but pays off.

Better Content for Better SEO and Lead Conversion

Is a search engine optimization program just for lead generation?


On the face of it, you might think that high Google ranking = more site visitors, end of story.

But perhaps you’re stuck at the #3 position, or the #7, or can’t even break into the first page. Or you see a lot of visitors coming into your site, but they don’t raise their hand.

In that case, you might need to upgrade from SEO Program A to SEO Program B.


SEO Program A: Onpage keyword optimization, Links from irrelevant sites.

SEO Program B: Onpage keyword optimization, Better website content, Links from relevant sites



The Difference Between Two Inbound Links

Let’s imagine two realty firms in San Antonio, who have the same website content.

Rae Lynn’s site has inbound links from 100 sites, including a Las Vegas ultrasound clinic, a Phoenix hair extension shop, an acupuncturist in Maryland, and so on. (This from a real-life example, by the way.)

Billy Bob’s firm has links from 100 sites, including the San Antonio newspaper, the local Chamber of Commerce, the local hospital foundation, and so on.

The site with the more relevant links will ALWAYS rank higher (all other things being equal), and thus get more site traffic.

Now, I cannot gainsay a SEO program of type A that gets you high rankings. Some links are better than none, and you may also be in a noncompetitive keyword space. You certainly will pay less for it, since SEO firms usually have a financial relationship with the ultrasound clinic and the acupuncturist. (Those websites are termed “link farms”.) And obtaining valuable links takes time and money.

But the “high road” positions you better for long-term online marketing success, not least because the  value of an irrelevant link usually goes down.

Then there is the matter of visitor conversion… which, after all, is the goal of a website.

Give the People What They Want

The middle item in SEO Program B, “Better website content” is the key since it helps you two ways. It simultaneously leads to 1) greater conversion of visitors into leads; and 2) links from better-respected sites.

Prospects are more likely to “raise their hands” on your site if you begin to help them fix their problem. How can you? By educating them about the problem and the solutions, by establishing your credibility, and by answering their most common questions.

People who run other websites are more likely to link to you if your site provides value for their readers.

Content achieves those things. Basic examples of content are case studies, engaging videos, and commentary and/or curation of relevant news.

So in a fantasy world, you would have all this great customer-friendly content on your site and be #1 on Google.

The tradeoff, of course, is that it takes money and time to create that content (and also to ask people for links).

Is it worth it?

Well, we now arrive at the consultant’s “It Depends” moment.

Factors affecting your decision to create compelling content include:

  1. Your “authority opportunity” – can you credibly establish that you’re an authority on something?
  2. What are your competitors doing?
  3. Are you patient enough to wait months for results, and understand that SEO has uncertain results?
  4. Do you have existing and noncompetitive relationships with other authorities in your industry?
  5. Are your current search engine rankings good enough?
  6. Are search engines going to become a more or less important customer acquisition channel?
  7. Can you reuse content in other marketing programs?
  8. Can customers create that content for you?

As complex as online marketing has become, it still boils down to giving prospects what they need to move to the next stage of the buying process. Content is central to that, and it can help your SEO too.


Easy Email A/B Testing

Testing two versions of something is a great way to 1) lift response and 2) gain a greater understanding of your customers.

Plus, the tools for testing your web pages and emails keep getting better, cheaper, and easier to implement.

How does A/B testing work? For a website, you would first build a variation of an important page. Then you would set your website to show that variation to some of your website visitors, and measure what happens afterwards. For a fuller definition, check out this glossary entry at Anne Holland’s Which Test Won.

What to Test?

So, what parts of your web pages and emails can you change?

  • Copy. Start here, by tweaking word choice. You can also test how people respond to different articles, which can give you insight into what buyers care about.
  • Formatting. Is a larger font better?
  • Layout. This is harder to do, but appropriate for high-volume response pages.
  • Images.
  • Button colors and size, especially anything that’s a call to action.

In an upcoming blog post I’ll review the web page testing tools. Today we’ll look at email.

My favorite service for blasting out emails, Campaign Monitor, has a built-in testing tool. It’s not exactly new, but oh is it easy. If you’re sending out a promotional email, there’s really no reason not to do this kind of test.

Dead Simple

Here’s how it works.

Say you have a list of 2,000 addresses. You take the email you’re about to send, and think of two different subject lines. Version A gets sent to 500 people, Version B gets sent to 500 people, and the service tracks how many people open and clicks. After a preset number of hours, the remaining 1,000 get sent the winning version.

You can also set Version A and B to have differing email bodies, or designs, or From addresses.

Below is the money shot from the Campaign Monitor help page.


The sizes of A and B are set with the grey slider.

If your mailing list has thousands of people, testing 30% of the list (as shown in the image) would be adequate. The people at Visual Website Optimizer have a nice tool for determining statistical significance.

All About Online Content, for the Business Owner

Most of the material on this blog is about improving the online reach of your company’s selling message. Or getting the message out in less time, or for less money, or higher conversion effectiveness.

Of equal importance to the distribution of the message, though is the message itself.

The content.

Herewith, some basics about online content…

Is Online Content Important For My Business?

If your customers are online when they do any part of their research or buying, YES.

If you have a national footprint, YES.

If you care about your position in the search engines, YES.


A Definition

Content is anything you produce other than your product that your customers choose to spend time with, and tells them at least indirectly how your company can fix their problem.

Let’s break that definition down into three parts.

“anything you produce other than your product”

The most obvious example is a description of your product or service – which can be written and/or photographic and/or video. More examples include customer case studies; testimonials; FAQ; user forums; press releases (sometimes); the About Us page on your website; a newsletter; your company blog, your LinkedIn/Facebook page; etc.

“that your customers choose to spend time with”

This bit is here to indicate the context: a person is actively evaluating your product or service. They have a need, they are looking for a solution, and their mind is open. This is your sales and marketing opportunity.

“tells them at least indirectly how your company can fix their problem”

Here is where you convey your own differentiating selling message, conveying the truth about your products in an engaging and relevant way.

Another way to look at content is thus:

Content Not Content
Graphic design
Direct Mail
Forms and other response mechanisms
Event planning


What’s The Role Of Content In The Buying Process?

  1. Advertising attracts.
  2. Content answers questions, engages and educates.
  3. Systems qualify, move prospects (i.e. develop leads) , and measure.
  4. People close.


Two Types of Content

The content your marketers churn out is one of two kinds.

  • The static, evergreen sort like brochures, FAQ, executive bios, and so on.
  • Another sort, which I’ll call the “Steady Stream” of content. This is the rest: the engaging, the promotional, the conversation, and the personality. Steady Stream comprises blogs, bylined articles, PR, newsletter articles, photos, videos, tweets, Facebook page updates, and so on.

The time and money commitment for Steady Stream content is an order of magnitude greater than that for static content, but the upside is equally great.

So Why is Online Content Important?

First off, content is the best way you can develop your leads, without talking to a prospect. And it’s scalable. Content usually doesn’t generate leads on its own. But better content helps revenue by improving your conversion to sale.

Second, content is the most important factor in search engine optimization. If you want a long-term high position in Google for high- and medium-traffic search terms, you need good content.

Third, the effectiveness of online content can be measured, and thus optimized through A/B testing.

Last, Not all companies produce online “steady stream” content effectively. (As compared to producing basic websites, business cards, voicemail etc.) Since your company’s peer group will have “haves” and “have-nots”, there is a competitive opportunity for the firm that creates online content consistently well.