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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Misleading Marketing

I subscribed to a magazine the other day, and the confirmation screen contained this.

Can you spot the problem? (The default state for the checkboxes is unchecked.)


The first five checkboxes are “opt-out” i.e. you must initiate an action to stop something.

Checkbox number six is “opt-in” i.e. you must initiate an action to start something.

This is bad interface design.

Most people will not read the explanatory copy closely, and leave the boxes unchecked.

People who take the time to read the copy will begin checking the boxes, and might tick the sixth box on the assumption that the logic is the same.


Is the magazine publisher trying to trick you into subscribing to their email blast?

Probably not, according to Hanlon’s Razor: “ Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Yes in this case we suspect the publisher is limited not by their brains, but by their systems. Their postal and telesales system probably assumes “opt-in” and the email system probably assumes “opt-out”. Combine the two little form widgets onto one page and you get dissonance.

The Downside

Is it worth fixing? The worst case is that hundreds of people, annoyed at receiving unwanted offers in their inbox, begin marking those emails as spam. Email providers like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo eventually learn from this aggregated customer behavior and preemptively treat all of these offers as spam. Delivery rates thus decline and the promotional channel is tainted.

Is that likely? It depends on the volume of subscriptions through this page, and we can only guess at this point.

Naturally, the best course of action would have been to build the forms with consistent logic from the start.


Two Excellent Web Apps Connect: Solve360 and Xero

solve-big1File under “two great tastes that taste great together.”

Solve360 is a web-based CRM, built by a small self-funded Calgary company called Norada. It’s a terrific tool for managing your customer list and nurturing prospects. It’s similar to Salesforce.com, except much less painful to use and without the features that only big companies need.

Xero is a web-based accounting system, built by a much bigger New Zealand company. Generally, Xero does what QuickBooks does but in a more web-native fashion.

xero-logo-hires-RGBI evaluated Xero earlier in 2012 for a customer, but we elected to use QuickBooks since Xero didn’t have a Bank of America feed.

Xero has added a lot of US bank connections since then — and none too soon, since so many firms are transitioning to a cloud-based business systems infrastructure.

Anyhow, last week Norada announced that Solve360 users could pull Xero-based customer invoice data into the Solve360 contact profile views.

This gives your sales and support teams a fuller context when communicating with customers. Read about the feature here — page 3 shows the payoff.

Strategically, this makes it easier to include the two apps as part of a full “recipe”. We think they are solid tools for most small businesses.

Six Questions to Ask Your Web Developer About Technology

My morning’s reading started with a brief discussion on Reddit about the relative capabilities of two website content management systems, WordPress and Drupal.

There is no definite conclusion to that battle, but the prevailing sentiment is that WordPress is easier to learn and cheaper to build, and Drupal is more powerful. Excuse this oversimplification, since my topic today is a bit higher-level.

If you’re a business owner intending to build a new website, what should you first ask potential web developers about the choice of system that would power your website?

I’m only listing questions about the choice of technology package — not about the web developers’ business track record, design chops, cost, and familiarity with comparable clients.

The obvious first question, of course, is “Can the CMS do what we need it to do, now?”

Asking these additional questions about the technology will give you a better picture of the total lifecycle cost of your website, and the tradeoffs associated with each.

Six Questions

1. How extensibile is it? After you launch the new website with a given feature set, how easy will it be to add features later on? Examples would be discussion groups, a non-English language, user commenting, a blog, more social media integration, and photo slideshows. Most popular CMS’s have plugin code modules for these features which make future upgrades easy. But ask your developer to investigate how their choice of system will support of your future needs. This discussion would be most productive if you have a rough 24-month roadmap for your site.

2. How well does it support mobile users? Your website needs to look good on iPhones and iPads and Android devices. Does the CMS have a good reputation for supporting this kind of alternative display?

3. How much trouble will it be to migrate my data out of the system? Website CMS’s have a lifespan. What was cutting edge five years ago (e.g. Movable Type, PHPNuke, ColdFusion) is now functionally obsolete. At some point you will need to rebuild your site using a new system, and the portability of the data on your web pages has a nontrivial impact on the upgrade cost. The good news is that most of today’s popular CMS’s store website content in a database, which fundamentally supports data portability. “Flat” websites built by the likes of Dreamweaver are not as futureproof.

4. Will my marketing manager find it easy to make changes to the website? A well-designed editorial interface reduces the risk of mistakes, and reduces the incidence of support calls to your developer. Make a list of the content that you might need to modify on the website before asking this question. Note that if you intend to outsource all your website changes to the developer (or his delegate) then the editorial UI shouldn’t impact your decision much.

5. How big is the development community for a given CMS? Put another way, how many people are available to work on a given system? Your web developer may eventually disappoint you or get out of the business altogether, leaving you with a temporarily unmaintained system. If you have a popular CMS, then it’s more likely that you will find a solid replacement person to work on it. Success is a virtuous circle for software. WordPress is the leader on this score, since it built a broad developer base during its early years as a solid tool for basic blog sites. See this Google Trends chart for one measure of the relative popularity of CMS’s.

6. Does this CMS have a good reputation for security? No web developer will admit to offering an insecure CMS which allows your website to be compromised, but there is a question of degree. Generally speaking, the inherent security risk of a CMS decreases with its developer base. Linus’s Law says that, “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” (Another benefit of success.) On the other hand, the most popular CMS’s are bigger targets and thus more inviting to the hacker community.

Bonus Issues

These topics are less critical to the choice of technology, but perhaps worth covering with your developer.

Cleanliness of code. The issue here is whether your CMS builds its pages with tidy code to save bandwidth and display quickly to the user. Drupal, as much as I like it, can produce giant hairballs of HTML & CSS on each page unless the developer is rigorous when building templates. On the other hand, throwing a little extra money per month at the problem (as I mentioned here) can alleviate the problem. I should add that rendering pages for mobile devices is an exception: you want those pages to be lightweight. A good modern CMS should be able to build mobile-ready pages with a more limited set of markup.

Search Engine Optimization. While SEO is obviously important for most websites, the differences between the major CMS’s in their SEO-friendliness are either marginal or overshadowed by factors like your domain name, the quality of your content, the number of inbound links, and site speed.

Accessibility for viewers with disabilities. This in practice usually means legally blind people with screen-readers. See here and here for more.

Don’t Get In the Weeds

Addressing all these issues will help you make a better choice of back-end system for your website, which reduces your total cost of ownership and makes customer acquisition more efficient. These technical questions may also sharpen your online marketing plan itself.

Yet the technology choice shouldn’t outweigh the business issues, as pointed out by the fellows at this web agency. Choose a web developer mostly based on trust, track record and cost.

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.


Tools for Video Marketing: Flimp and VisibleGains

If you’re a business that has decided to make a promotional video, the easiest thing to do is to post it to your website. That’s simple, and hosting the video is also easy whether you use Vimeo or YouTube (my take here).

Yet, if you’ve got 1) lots of website traffic; and/or 2) a large email list; and/or 3) a mental commitment to using video to grow your sales, there are at least two interesting tools for going beyond the simple embed-video-on-website approach.

For those of you who don’t have a video (i.e. finished footage), understand now that it takes thousands of dollars to make video look professional. The lighting, the audio, the postproduction… It’s a lot harder than a brochure, and comparable in effort to building a simple website. There are a handful of exceptions: “Business casual talking head” video can be done effectively in house, and the cinema verite approach can work for some people like Jim the Realtor.


Flimp is a paid service that you use to embed your video into a custom-made “microsite”, i.e. a standalone website with just a little content. You get to lay out and add your own text and images to the microsite, using an online click-drag-and-type editor. Most important, you add links from this microsite to your company’s website. Then, you upload a list of prospect (or customer) email addresses into their system, and they send out an email blast. You then see who has clicked into the site, and who has clicked over to your main website.
flimp-logoSee a sample here (opens new window). Note that the video is set to auto-play once opened, which may lift conversion but will annoy a few people along the way.

The sample microsite, incidentally, is cluttered with copy that competes with the video.

The Flimp team is positioning their tool as an quick and less-technical way to get video out in front of your prospects and customers. Yet you need someone with design talent to avoid having a homemade look — which usually degrades your conversion rate. Moreover, they use the term “video brochure” to describe their microsites, which is an overstatement since their microsites are apparently a single page.

Where does it fit into the sales cyles? Flimp is a lead development tool, aiming to convert cold leads into warm. It’s not a lead generation tool, since without email addresses you won’t get any additional benefit over simply placing the video on your website. Moreover, there is no incremental SEO benefit to Flimp.

Do temper your expectations when you hear “video” and “email” in the same sentence. Your prospects won’t see video right in their email program — not with Flimp or anyone else. Email clients, from Outlook to web-based email programs to mobile, hardly show images in their default view. Below are screen shots of 1) a Flimp email as it appears in Gmail with the default display options, and then 2) after permissioning Gmail to show images. No video, just a link to the microsite.

Flip’s email blast – not too exciting…

Now images are displayed, which invites the click.


Flimp is about $1800 a year, with addon usage fees kicking in at a high volume. It makes the most sense for businesses with 1) a large email list; 2) low video production costs; and 3) a marketer with moderate technical and design talents, and an appetite for testing. Here’s their website.


The VisibleGains product is different than Flimp, technically and in the role it plays in the sales cycle.
vg-logoTo explain how, let’s take a step back. When someone comes to your website, they have a task — usually to learn more about who you are and what your products do. Typically, people navigate through your site’s text and images to get to their answer. Along the way, they might lose interest, get frustrated, or get lost.

VisibleGains makes your video part of the user’s site navigation experience, and counts on the more engaging nature of video to retain more people on the site as they seek their answer.

The VisibleGains innovation is addition of built-in calls to action after the video stops (which is comparable to the “related video suggestions” you see after a YouTube video).

Take a look at their site now. They really really want you to play that video in the middle of the age, right? And then they steer you in several directions.

Knowledge of the customer’s needs is critical with this tool. You need to script the video and the calls to action to answer the most questions, and best develop leads.

That last point is a big difference between our two tools. Flimp helps your conversion from email to website, and VisibleGains helps your conversion on the website. Thus, companies with a lot of offline, PR, and SEO in their marketing mix would be better off with the VisibleGains product.

VisibleGains runs about $3600 per year, with the price stepping up with the number of custom videos running on your site. Logically, then, this is a tool best suited for companies with few big-ticket products, instead of many low-margin products. Also, service companies benefit more from the VisibleGains product since people per se are part of the product.

Does it Make Sense?

Before you commit to these tools, think about:

  • Is your web traffic high enough, or your email list large enough, to offset the large fixed costs of these tools?
  • Can you sell more by improving your conversion from email, or converstion of onsite visitors? (Or is it something else?)
  • Do you know well enough which video creative will really engage your customers? That is, can you make something they’ll watch?
  • Is your house email list straightened up enough, and segmented?
  • Is the person who would run these programs hungry to test different online promotions? It’s uncommon to get things totally right on the first try.


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.


Video hosting: The YouTube vs. Vimeo choice, about control and mobile distribution

What makes a marketing video successful? Most of the big factors have little to do with the technology, and instead are editorial and promotional in nature: The script, production, talent, and promotion/distribution.

My focus here is on a more mundane issue: where to host the video. That is, where does the video file “live”. A video can be embedded into your website, but be hosted by another company like YouTube or Vimeo. (Nearly all of your customers won’t notice the difference, and those that do won’t care.)

First off, don’t host video yourself. The difference in functionality between your own homegrown video player and service level versus Vimeo vastly exceeds the minimal cost of hosting.

There are some key differences between the two best hosting services, YouTube and Vimeo. I’m a fan of the latter for most B2B situations.

YouTube vs. Vimeo

Branding. If you embed a YouTube video on your site, you’ll see the YouTube watermark in the lower-right hand corner. That’s a bit of a distraction for your customers, and can cheapen the look somewhat. Vimeo offers a paid tier of service permitting you to remove their “V” logo.


vimeoViewership Control. All YouTube videos, if clicked when playing, sends the user to the video’s page at YouTube.com. That’s another potential distraction. If you’re using video on a landing page, where conversion is essential, don’t give prospects this kind of side door. Vimeo’s paid tier doesn’t have this click-away feature.

Privacy. Sometimes you want only a selection of people to see a video, if you’re sharing proprietary or competitive information. Examples include videos for an intranet, or an outside sales force extranet. Vimeo is the way to go here; you can prevent anyone from seeing a video except if they’re on a certain site. YouTube’s methods for limiting access are imperfect for business use.

Virality. Generally, YouTube is the choice for consumer-facing videos, since their reach is 10X that of Vimeo. Your video is much more likely to be encountered by people watching related videos, which means more traffic.

Cost. YouTube is free but has one set of features for everyone. Vimeo’s paid tier is $60 per year.

Mobile. Until last week, this was a major competitive difference between the two hosts. YouTube’s market power earned it perfect integration in the iPhone from Day 1. Vimeo, whose video player was Flash-based and thus nonfunctional on the iPhone, was left out in the cold. Yet on August 17, Vimeo finally upgraded their player code; now their videos work on iPhones and Android devices.

youtubeVideo Duration
. YouTube videos are limited to 10 minutes (July 2010 UPDATE: It’s now 15 minutes. Dec 2010 UPDATE - Now even longer…), which won’t work for long presentations or training material. Vimeo has a rather commodious filesize limit, so you can do very long videos.

Measurement. Both hosts have a solid set of metrics. Vimeo counts the number of times a video is watched in its entirety.


At the risk of oversimplifying, B2B companies are generally better off hosting their videos at Vimeo, and firms selling to consumers should probably start with YouTube.