Honesty is the enemy of traditional marketing

Honesty is the enemy of traditional marketing. It’s sad but true. It’s not because honesty isn’t possible in marketing, but that if companies were completely honest about their products and services—about how they’re made, what they do, their flaws, their shelf life, etc.—fewer people would buy them. That’s why creating illusions is so essential to marketing. But it only takes a tiny crack in the surface to destroy an illusion. As a colleague pointed out to me recently, a supermodel only has to stumble once before the illusions so central to fashion fall away and you are left with just people wearing clothes. If the quality is there, there is nothing to hide.

That’s the big-picture, but I think most honesty-erosion tends to happen on a smaller scale, where the line between truth and fiction can be pretty blurry. There’s a general impulse toward bending that line intentionally, one often motivated by our desire to bring attention to something we believe deserves it. Whether it’s a product, a service, or even a cause, we might be willing to “sex up the story” if doing so means bringing greater awareness to it.

This isn’t just a marketing problem, by the way. We do it when we believe the attention garnered by a thing or an idea or an injustice isn’t as big as it should be. Listen to the retraction issued by This American Life of Mike Daisy’s account of working conditions in Apple’s factories in China. Pay attention to how uncomfortable you feel. That discomfort is a measure of the distance between truth and fiction.

For the first year after graduating from college, I did freelance design work. I registered a business, created business cards, set up a website, the works. I wasn’t alone, either. Several classmates did the same thing, and we would often compare notes and even help each other get work from time to time. We learned all kinds of things by trial and error back then, but the one thing that left the greatest impression upon me had to do with how honest we were in describing ourselves. Every one of us made heavy use of the word “we” on our websites—though “we” was almost always just one person working from a room in a shared apartment—because we feared we wouldn’t be hired if it was clear that “we” was really “I,” a freelancer flying solo.

We believed that no matter how good our work was, we’d be ignored as individuals. So we created an illusion that we thought looked strong. “I” was just a kid on my laptop at a desk in his bedroom; “We” was a company, confident, experienced, secure. But that, of course, wasn’t true. I learned that there was no point in trying to convince potential clients of something other than that which would quickly become clear to them if they hired me. So, a simple rule: If you’re one person, never refer to yourself as “we.” That’s the kind of small-scale honesty we need to take seriously.

Ways to use the elements of navigation

When users look for information, they have a goal and are on a mission. Even before you started to read this article, chances are you did because you either had the implicit goal of checking what’s new on Smashing Magazine, or had the explicit goal of finding information about “Navigation Design”.

After a couple of seconds of scanning this article, and maybe reading parts of the introduction, you may have started to ask yourself whether the information that you’re consuming at the moment is actually relevant to you—the user. Unfortunately (and as certain as death and taxes), if users cannot find the information they are looking for, chances are they will abandon their track, never to return.

Being the compassionate human being that I am, I’ll try to explain to you what this article is about, so you can make your choice either to continue reading, or not. This article is not about where you should place the menu of your website or mobile application, or about the number of options a menu should contain. It is also not about how you visually enforce the perceived affordance of a user-interface element, and why that is so important.

This article is about the tiniest of details that goes into creating the main centerpiece of your digital product—the construction of the elements of your navigation. This is the most important aid you can possibly give to your users as they are constantly seeking a reason to walk out on you.

Words, Words, Words

The first thing I do when I start to sketch out the information architecture of a digital product based on the requirements at hand is to blatantly label stuff. This is nothing unique—I simply need to formulate a label (most of the time accompanied by a short description) of all the possible information entities I discover to be able to reveal taxonomy and relationships between them. You might have a similar approach, using tools like post-its, whiteboards or even some digital application created for this purpose. This can be the inception of small problems that will constantly grow over time if we do not assess them correctly and in a timely manner: the labels are yours, and yours alone.

“Locate store” is your label of something that enables the users to find physical stores in a mobile application. “Commodities” is your label of a view that enlists all the goods your client wants to retail on an e-commerce site. “Start” is your label on the landing-page of a website. From a linguistic point-of-view, you can analyze the meaning of sentences, words and letters in different context for hours on end.

You can look at the structure in terms of morphology, syntax and phonology, or why not look at the meaning in terms of semantics and pragmatics. Fortunately, in most cases you do not have reach as far as asking a linguistic researcher about your labeling—people in your target audience will do just fine.

Navigation - Start
“This might be a good start!”

User-Testing Labels

So what is the easiest way of doing a sanity check of the way you express the information space? A really cheap and well-proven technique is Card Sorting. By using card sorting, you can transform your early taxonomy prognoses into folksonomy. Card sorting not only helps you to create an informed information architecture, it also enables you to get an insight to what keywords users relate to different activities in your product.

Another test is a Word Association game. Take all potential labelings of your navigation design and try them out on users asking them to “say the first thing that comes to mind” (in regard of what they believe to be found beneath such a navigation option—call it Think-Aloud Protocol with a twist. For example, you could say “Products” and the participant might respond with “Price, description, information, stock”. Market researchers have used this technique for decades to ensure that the right message is conveyed by their target audience when promoting products.

Two important questions that you need to find to an answer to at this stage are:

  1. Can the users relate the labels in the navigation design to their explicit goals of exploring your digital product?
  2. Are the meaning of the words metaphorically and visually separated enough not to be confused with each other?

Navigation - Change
“Ok, so lets change ‘Commodities’ to ‘Our Products’ and ‘Locate store’ to ‘Our Stores’.”

Removing Redundancy and Lowering the Reaction Time

In his masterpiece “Don’t make me think”, Steve Krug writes, “When I look at most Web pages, I’m struck by the fact that most of the words I see are just taking up space, because no one is ever going to read them.” The more information we cram into our navigation, the harder it becomes for the users to quickly grasp the different options.

In 1935, the American psychologist John Ridley Stroop published “Studies of interference in serial verbal reactions” along with the now renowned “Stroop effect”. Stroop had found that given the task of naming the color a word was written in, took longer and was more prone to error if the word itself was the name of a different color (e.g. the word “Blue” written in the color red).

What we can learn from Stroops discovery is that we have a hard time not reading words—even though we are given a task explicitly instructing us not to. Have a quick look at the navigation in your design and ask yourself what can be removed without losing its meaning.

Navigation - Contact
“It seems I really donʼt need the word ‘Our’ in front of ‘Products’ and ‘Stores’.”

What Did Product ‘A’ Do In Situation ‘B’?

If you still have not managed to convince your employer that early user testing will pay off in the long run, you should at least have the courtesy to look at the benchmark. In what way have others solved their navigation design? Just spending some time looking at what others have done will help you reach valuable conclusions. This can be really time efficient and a good way to increase product usability, since users will be able to use previously acquired knowledge by simply recognizing similar terminology used in other products.

Navigation - Contact
“It does seem like all other websites in our business area have their contact information beneath an option labeled ‘Contact’. I better change ‘Reach us’.”

Symbols, Pictograms & Icons

Symbols, pictograms and icons in digital user interfaces are long gone from luxury to necessity. They contribute to signature, personality, recognition, and abstraction in our visual language. Furthermore, studies have given evidence suggesting that user interfaces have less favorable perceptions of usability and usefulness when only relying on textual expressions.

Why did I willfully write “Symbols, pictograms and icons” and not just “Icons” as we all love to call them? Before I start to use only the word “Icon”, I want to make sure we are all on board as to the differences (without digging too deep into the perilous depths of semiotic science).

What Is What

A symbol is typically defined as an abstract representation that requires conventional knowledge amongst the users for them to fully understand their meaning. People in some cultures have learnt that the meaning of an octagon shaped sign in a tone of red communicates “Stop.” So a symbol earns meaning over time through conventional use.

A pictogram on the other hand is usually defined as simplified pictorial representation. Pictograms—or pictographs—are, as far as possible, self-explanatory and most often do not require any deep previous learnings to make any sense. You often see pictograms (and ideograms) on signposts and in environmental design since they are least contingent to produce cultural misunderstandings. For example, a sign with an arrow indicating a direction.

The definition of the word “Icon” can be a bit vague depending on the context of use, but I like to say that an icon can be a sign, symbol, picture or image that stands for or represents an object in its resemblance as an analogy for it.

Whether you should use a symbol, a pictogram, an icon or a combination of all three to help you communicate information, all depends on the situation you find yourself in. Disregarding what we use, there is some common knowledge and analysis we can use to make sure that the receivers (i.e. our users) actually understand what we are trying to convey with our design.

User-testing Icons

There is an abundance of ways to perform user testing and peer reviews of iconography. My two absolute favorites are what I have come to call “tag-that-icon” and “connect-the-dots” mainly because they are quick to perform and they give great insights into users’ spontaneous opinions (plus, they are actually quite fun to prepare and execute).

You can perform tag-that-icon in one of two ways:

  • Method 1:
    Give several icon suggestions to the participants and ask them to tag them with whatever comes to mind within three minutes.
  • Method 2:
    Randomly show the participants one icon at a time during a day and ask them to come up with tags for each icon during 20-30 seconds.

The latter has most probably proven itself to be really good and better for testing different metaphors for one specific icon when the number of participants are low.

When you have a set of icons and labels that are closing in on finalization, you can then do connect-the-dots testing. All you need to for the test are printouts with one section of all your suggested icons (in a random order) and one section with all your labels (in a different random order). Then, give the printouts to the participants and ask them to draw a line between an icon and the label they think it is coupled with.

Navigation - Test
“At least I can be certain that all my suggested icons works for the ‘Directions’ menu option.”

Removing Redundancy Re-Visited

Just as with labels, avoiding redundant information in the icons is just as important. This is of course quite a bold statement from a designer, but there are many cases out there in the wild that simply add so many details to an icon that it starts to disrupt the users’ ability to interpret and differentiate them. This becomes most evident when you have common shapes in the icons that affects their intergroup saliency (i.e. the quality by which an object stands out relative to its neighbors).

Navigation - Circles
“Do I really need the circles? If I look at them briefly or squint, they all look the same—I better change that!”

Picture/Word Interference

Given a set of lined drawings of simple objects coupled with distractor words, humans show a clear effect of increased response time in naming the drawn object. This is also known as Picture Word Interference (PWI). What PWI can be interpreted to mean is that when an icon is paired with a label in a way that the user does not connect together, it becomes much harder for them to work out the intended meaning.

For humans, a label with “Banana” coupled with a cucumber icon would be unclear as to what it is. What makes matters even worse for users in a navigation context is; “What should I really follow—your icons or your labels?” Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between your icons and labels.

Looking at contextual consistency and standards in regards to iconography can really help you. There are some really great resources out there for finding inspiration, but you can also use them as a source of knowledge in finding trends and standards in iconography. If 9 out of 10 result with the term “Favorites” on Iconfinder.net that contain a star or a heart-shaped icon, then that may probably be a good starting point for your “Favorites” icon as well.

Navigation - Icons
“I have no idea what I was thinking. I think I have to throw away all of these, restart all over again and do some more user testing.”

Six Navigation Design Guidelines

After reading all of the above, you should have a good foundation to take your navigation design to the next level and place it in its intended environment along with the rest of the design and perform controlled user testing and see how they interplay. Here are 6 navigation design guidelines for you to consider as you embark the journey of designing the navigation of your upcoming project:

  • Clarity:
    Make sure that your navigation has a linguistic and semantic clarity that communicates to your users in an direct, efficient and adequate way.
  • Simplicity:
    Avoid using technical labels and icons that no one recognizes. Speak the language of the user rather than using complex terms and form factors unfamiliar to your users.
  • Saliency:
    Avoid having redundant and repetitive terms and shapes in your labels and icons that affects their intergroup saliency. This can easily influence your users ability to differentiate and interpret them as a whole.
  • Context:
    Look at the consistency and standards for labels and iconography used in the context that you are designing for. It is more efficient for your users to recognize rather than needing to interpret information that is unfamiliar to them.
  • Correlation:
    Avoid creating distracting stimulus through semantic interference between labels and icons. Reduce uncertainty and make sure that they clearly communicates one message as they are put together.
  • Tonality:
    Ensure that the tonality of the message is still consistent at the end of the design work. Colors, typography and form heavily affect the way your audience conceive and interprets the information.

Of course, not all types of navigation design contain both labels and icons. Some just use icons and some just use labels. you have roughly three cues for guiding your users: One factual (the label), one helpful (the icon) and then—the sometimes subliminal—character (color, typography and form). They do not always need to co-exist since different context requires different solutions. But your message can easily become blurred the fewer of them you use.

So ask yourself this: Can I afford to be vague in the way I communicate and help my users to reach their goal? (Hint: No!)

How to design engaging and enjoyable reading experiences

Finally, some good news from the media industry: digital subscriptions are growing. We’re seeing positive reports from newspapers such as the New York Times and magazine publishers such as Conde Nast: announcements about increases in their digital content sales and paywall members.

When you have fantastic and original content, ensuring the best possible reading experience is critical to keeping and building your audience. The following practices will help you design your content in a way that improves the experience for readers.

Navigation Methods

We often think that having many methods for finding things is easier for users. Unfortunately, the result can be mess of unhelpful and unrelated links, menus, widgets and ads. Many news websites place lists of “most-read articles” or “articles that your Facebook friends are reading” on their websites because they can. Analytics will tell you whether these methods are useful for your particular website. If no one is clicking on them, why are they taking up valuable space?

One way to quickly see the effect of slimmed-down navigation is to use Ochs, a Chrome browser extension specifically for the New York Times, written by Michael Donohoe. Open the New York Times in a different browser, then install Ochs and look at the website in Chrome. Ochs provides the massive benefit of a cleaner layout and clutter-free navigation. Things like reading tools and extra modules are removed from articles. The increased white space and removal of the New York Times’ dense navigation bars are a breath of fresh air.

New York Times with Ochs experience
The Ochs extension cleans up the UI of the New York Times.

There is a difference between having a reasonable way to navigate a website versus having one-click access to all of the website’s content. How do your users typically find what they want? Do they use the navigation links or jump straight to the search box?

Changing the navigation methods may be as straightforward as removing redundant menu bars or as involved as conducting user research to see which methods people use and don’t use.

Another thing to consider when looking at navigation usage patterns is that people rarely click on things that appear hard to read or cluttered. If that’s the case with your website, perhaps it’s time to look at your typography and spacing.

Experimenting With Type And Spacing

Not every typeface was designed to be read on a digital screen. Typefaces can have a huge effect on both the appeal of content and its readability. The typefaces for headlines may be beautiful and attention-grabbing, but if the ones for the copy are difficult to read, you could be turning away readers.

Not everyone will read your content exactly as it was designed. Some people set their own default font size, while others change their screen’s resolution. Still others use assistive technology, such as screen readers, to peruse content. During the course of a day, I read blogs on my iPad, pan and zoom through news on my mobile phone, edit documents on
an enormous desktop monitor and browse the Web from my television screen (at low resolution). For this same reason, tools such as Instapaper, Readability and Evernote are growing massively. The ability to control the format of what you read — and where you read it — is becoming increasingly useful.

The Boston Globe’s recent overhaul of its website received a lot of well-deserved praise, and two of the nicest things about it are the use of white space and the typography. The fonts chosen are central to the Boston Globe’s Web style, and they feel relevant to its almost 240-year-old print identity. Compare the new design to the original one, and the contrast is staggering. The Boston Globe’s new look is a great case study for news websites and readability in general. Definitely have a look if you haven’t yet.

The Boston Globe
The Boston Globe’s new interface has carefully chosen fonts plus more white space.

While some fonts were created specifically for digital reading, there is no magical formula for selecting type. To find out what works, do some testing. User testing, A/B testing and even testing within your own team can yield insights. Have everyone on your team read through a handful of long-form content on various devices. If people can’t make it through more than a few paragraphs, try different fonts, sizes or spacing. Or maybe rethink some of those distracting ads.

Respectful Advertising

How often do you see people rush to turn the page of a magazine just to skip an ad? Probably rarely. But people do it on websites all the time, panicking to find the small “Close” icon on a pop-up ad, or flummoxed as to which browser tab is playing an audio ad. I hope the people who create these creepy auto-play ads will one day experience the terror of being alone at the office late at night as a rogue audio clip begins speaking to them.

As an avid reader of both print and digital magazines, I’m overwhelmed by the stark difference in advertisements between them. Print magazine ads regularly hold my interest and engage me — I do not tear out pages of magazines, nor do I cover the ads. Magazines select advertisements that are relevant to their audience and that are attractive and well designed. Advertisers usually do not spend big money on print ads only to create unattractive content for them.

For some reason, all of this goes out the window when it comes to online ads. Companies are told that no one notices ads unless they grab attention, and so they create loud, garish ads — ads that do nothing for the product and that most likely diminish the viewer’s interest. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The advertising network The Deck prides itself on tasteful, targeted ads for an influential audience of creative professionals. Its ads are uniform in size and amount of text. The Deck does not pay for or run ads unless it has used the products themselves, so it vouches for all of its advertisers. The emphasis on small graphics forces advertisers to be creative, and advertisers get a return of 3% of all page views in The Deck’s current network.

Ads from the Deck
The Deck’s ads are tasteful and subtle.

Both advertisers and audiences have something to gain when ads are relevant and attractive. The growing shift towards responsive and respectful advertising has been written about at length by people such as Mark Boulton and Roger Black (see the related links at the bottom of this article). It’s worth reading their takes on these new Web ads, and you might even want to have an internal discussion at your company about how the advertising on your website could be made more valuable for everyone.

Moreover, if the ads on your website are respectful and relevant, people might check out the advertisers’ products, increasing both visited metrics and click-through rates, thus allowing you to charge more for advertising. So, do dive into your website’s analytics.

Check Your Analytics

We want to do the right thing: build websites that are responsive and that adapt to devices. But we have to be reasonable, too. What is achievable given your budget and time frame? Analytics are one of the best ways to hone in on what to prioritize. Even a simple free tool like Google Analytics can yield important insight into who is viewing your website and how. Google Analytics can also track readers’ paths through the website, showing you what content and sections are being avoided or ignored.

The Financial Times keeps a close eye on its visitor analytics. It has over 1 million registered users. In November, it announced that its Web app (which launched in June 2011) was replacing its native mobile app. The Financial Times also released data indicating the types of devices that are being used to access its website and the times of day. And it recently launched a native Android app — perhaps because the number of people accessing its website on Android devices is growing.

The Financial Times
The Financial Times ditched the App Store for its own Web apps.

If you notice that most of your traffic is coming from people on tablets, you can optimize for that experience first. Management at your company may be pushing hard for a native app, but you should determine a couple of things before writing the design specifications for a native app:

  1. Does the audience for such an app exist, or is one growing?
  2. Is that audience not getting a good enough experience from your website.

If your current audience barely has any iOS users but has a significant chunk of Android users, why not start there instead? Additionally, what are those Android users doing on your website? Are they sticking around and enjoying your mobile experience, or do they bounce quickly? The latter could indicate that the experience on your website isn’t ideal.

But if you want to know for sure, ask them.

Has Anyone Asked Your Users?

It saddens me how often content and experience decisions are made without consulting the people who those decisions will affect. Facebook users are familiar with the pandemonium that occurs every time a new interface goes live — people often struggle to find what was once familiar and obvious.

The Sunday Times’ iPad app was updated in August based on user feedback. Users requested to be able to download all sections with the click of a button. The Sunday Times added the ability to download all or individual sections, improved the functionality for deleting sections and editions, and bundled sections more usefully. These changes were the result of direct comments and feedback from users.

The Sunday Times iPad app
The Sunday Times listened to users and changed its downloading options.

Short in-person interviews or widespread surveys are fast and easy ways to get feedback directly from readers about what they like and don’t like about your content. Find out about their reading habits. Learn when and where they read articles — the answers may surprise you. Perhaps the section you were considering cutting has a growing audience. Maybe a feature that gets very good engagement in print doesn’t translate so well online and needs to be rethought.

And if users tell you they’re frustrated by trying to read anything on your website, consider offering them a quiet room.

“A Quiet Room”

Walking from the cacophony of New York’s Times Square into a tiny, quiet office can bring a feeling of relief. All of a sudden, no one is in your face trying to get you to buy something or take a tour or give them money. You can just relax and focus.

Finding a website or app that lets you read and enjoy its content is just like this. The experience is not stressful, and you can take your time and enjoy the writing, which seems to have been created just for you. As a designer, you can create this “quiet room” for readers, a place where they can fully absorb the content without having to close pop-ups or be confronted by an animation that screams that they are the 1,238,901st visitor that day. A quiet room is why applications like Instapaper and Readability get effusive praise.

A List Apart does a good job of avoiding clutter and letting the reader focus. Articles have minimal sidebar navigation and only a couple of small, tasteful advertisements. The majority of the page has a simple format: easy-to-read text (peppered with images), a conclusion that points you to related material, and a chance to discuss the article.

A List Apart
A List Apart creates room for readers to enjoy the content.

When Doesn’t This Work?

These approaches will not work for every group of content or every website. Some content is meant to be skimmed for quick comprehension. Other websites contain no narrative content. And many websites rely too much on advertising revenue to be able to change their ad strategy.

If your content changes rapidly, is short and to the point, contains little analysis or has any combination of these, then it’s likely not a good fit for this approach. But if you have done your research and you have content that is well written and that your audience likes to get lost in, then perhaps some of the ideas mentioned above are worth a try.

Regardless of the length and type of your content, here’s a useful exercise: go through each of the issues covered above and think of one thing you could change to make your content more readable. Some of the revisions might be long term and big picture, but you might be surprised by the easy opportunities to make a big impact. Give your readers a reason to enjoy your website as it is, instead of a reason to reformat the content and turn the page as fast as possible.

Resources

How to deliver exceptional client service?

We often hear companies, including Web agencies, boast about how they provide exceptional client service. But how do they define exceptional?

Consider this scenario. You are hired to design and develop a new website for a retail client. The client loves the design, and the pages you develop use the latest in HTML5, CSS3 and responsive design, resulting in a website that works wonderfully across browsers and devices. The e-commerce features of the new website help the client significantly increase their online sales, and the entire project is delivered on time and on budget. Now, is this “exceptional” client service? I don’t think it is.

When the client hired you, they expected that you would design and develop a great website. They also expected it would be done according to the timeline and budget set during the planning stages of the project. As successful as this project may have been for both you and the client, in the end, you did exactly what you were hired to do. You did your job.

Just Doing Your Job Vs. Delivering Exceptional Service

Nothing is wrong with “just doing your job.” In many cases, that alone is a tall order. So, while doing what you were hired to do is nothing to be ashamed of, it is also not exceptional — nor will it set you apart. There will always be other agencies or designers that will be able to do the work as well as you can — and there will certainly be someone willing to do it cheaper! The service you provide is how you can truly differentiate yourself.

Exceptional client service is about going beyond what is realistically expected of you. It is about surprising, and often delighting, customers, turning them into enthusiastic referral sources and lifelong clients who stick with you not only because you do great work at a fair price, but because the value you bring to them goes far beyond just your products.

In this article, I’ll detail a few of the ways that I have tried to take my own client service to the next level and deliver a better experience, starting with the most important aspect: the relationships that you establish with the clients who hire you.

superhero
There is a difference between doing what you were hired to do and delivering a superheroic level of service. (Image: JD Hancock)

Creating Real Relationships

Here’s a quick exercise. Write down your five most important clients (how you define “important” is up to you). Then, write down as many things you know about those clients that have nothing to do with their business or the work you have done for them. What are their hobbies or passions? How many kids do they have? How old are those kids, and what are their names? Where do they like to vacation? Things like that.

So, how long is your list? If you’re like most people I speak with, probably not very long at all. We learn everything we can about a client’s business, but we often fail to discover anything substantial about our clients as people. If we do not engage with our clients in a real, personal way, then we are just another vendor — and vendors are easily replaceable with better cheaper options. However, clients are much less likely to consider replacing people with whom they have real relationships.

So, how do you start learning more about your clients? Simple: ask them questions about themselves and their lives, not just about their business.

Asking Real Questions

When I give this advice to others, it is often met with some apprehension. Asking someone about their business goals is easy. Asking them about their life outside of the office is harder. We often avoid getting personal for fear of offending the person or saying the wrong thing; but by being overly cautious, we miss the chance to create a real relationship.

Whenever I get nervous about getting too personal with a client, I remind myself of a story. A few years ago, I had the privilege to work on the website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation. This non-profit foundation was named after a young girl who, walking home from school one afternoon, was struck by a drunk driver. Tori survived but was forever changed. Today, she is in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, speak or eat.

In one of my first meetings with this client, I sat down with the head of the foundation, Tori’s mother, Cathy. I began the conversation simply by asking her, “How is Tori doing today?”

Cathy smiled and answered that Tori was doing well. We had our meeting and discussed the website and the project. As we were wrapping up, Cathy thanked me for asking her about Tori. She explained that so many people avoid asking about her daughter, fearing the news would be bad or that Cathy would be upset by the question. The truth is that, even though Tori has bad days, Cathy always enjoys talking about her daughter and was very happy to be asked about her. By asking Cathy how her daughter was doing, I showed her that I cared about more than just the project.

tori-lynn-screenshot
The website for the Tori Lynn Andreozzi Foundation

Today, Cathy is one of my favorite people to speak with, and we begin every conversation by asking how each other’s children are doing. We have much more than a great client-vendor relationship, all because I asked a real question, honestly cared about the answer, and created a real, human connection in the process. Had I been too afraid to ask that question, I might never have been able to build the relationship that I have now.

Don’t be afraid to ask your clients real questions. If they don’t want to answer you, they won’t. But for those who do (and you will find that most, if not all, of your clients will be happy to have a real conversation that has nothing to do with business), you will be well on your way to building real relationships.

Participate In More Than Just Projects

Another way to build a relationship with a client that goes beyond the project is to participate in their events. If the client runs a non-profit organization, they might have fundraisers or similar events that offer you an opportunity to support their cause and nurture the relationship. Go to these events and participate. As a bonus, you will also be helping a worthwhile cause.

Not all of your clients will have fundraising events, but they might invite you to holiday parties and other gatherings. Take advantage of these opportunities to interact with your clients outside of a normal business setting. It will go a long way to reinforcing those real relationships that you are trying to create and show that you are more than just another vendor.

Similarly, consider inviting clients to some of your events to show that you view them as more than just a source of business. When they arrive, greet them warmly and enjoy their company, leaving business talk for another day.

Help Them With Services That You Do Not Provide

Clients may hire you to design and develop a Web presence for them, but in the course of the project you will often discover that they need other services that you do not provide. By listening to their needs, you might learn that they have issues with their payroll company or their accountants or some other aspect of their business.

Look to your own business and the vendors you use. There may be a service or company that you have had success with that you could recommend. Also look to your other clients to see whether they offer services that fit. If appropriate, set up a lunch meeting between you, the client with the need and the client that might be able to fill that need. Not only will you be taking two clients out for lunch, you will hopefully be helping them both by making a valuable connection between the two companies.

When a client can say, “I hired this company to design our website and they ended up helping us revamp our entire payroll system!” you position yourself as much more than just their “Web team” — you show that you are a valued business resource and a trusted advisor.

Pick Up The Phone

Good communication is key to any relationship. Still, judging from the number of clients I speak with who are unhappy with their current Web team — not because they do a poor job, but because they are unresponsive — quality communication is not always a given.

Regularly updating your clients by email is important, but also pick up the phone every now and then, so that you become more than just that distant person behind those electronic updates. By hearing your voice, clients will feel more connected to you and the project. It also shows them that you value them enough to take the time to make a personal call, and it gives you a chance to talk about something other than business.

Conversation
Regular phone calls allow you to have real conversations with clients, communicating at a personal level that email and other electronic updates do not allow for. (Image: opensourceway)

Face The Bad Times Head On

Have you ever had to share bad news with a client, but rather than pick up the phone to discuss the issue, you waited and sent an email at 5:15 pm on a Friday? By doing this, you may have bought yourself a few more days before having to face the client’s worried questions, but you also damage the relationship by hiding behind an email. It also means that the client will read the bad news first thing on Monday morning; definitely not a good start to their week, and definitely not the way to treat a valued relationship.

Here’s a secret: clients do not expect you to be perfect. They do, however, expect you to be honest. When something goes wrong, let them know quickly so that they are not blindsided by the issue later on. And never deliver bad news by email. Picking up the phone to discuss the news lets you reassure the client and answer any questions they may have. An after-hours email certainly won’t do that for them.

If the matter is handled correctly, the client will not remember that something went wrong. They will remember that you were honest and kept them apprised of the state of the project, even when it did not go according to plan.

Be Thankful And Show Appreciation

When was the last time you thanked a client for working with you? How did you do it? Did you send a basket of cookies or chocolate with a generic “thank you” message, or did you do something more personal?

Too often, we fail to even thank our clients for their business. We are so keen to finish a project and move on to the next one that we forget to properly show our appreciation.

While a basket of sweets and a generic message is better than nothing, consider sending a personal, handwritten thank-you note.

Handwritten letters have become all but extinct these days. With the rise of electronic communication such as email, social networks and text messaging, so few people take the time and effort to actually write a letter. The gesture of a personal letter will delight and surprise your client, not only because you have thanked them, but because the way you did so was personal, memorable and the perfect cap to a successful project.

Thank you!
A thankful, personal handwritten card is a great way to cap off a successful project. (Image: irrezolut)

How to promote your website content

OK, you’ve got a great new site and planned out a fail-proof content strategy. You’re going to be posting all sorts of interesting and insightful blog posts and newsletters, and everyone is going to come to read it. Then they are going to hire you to do work. Right? If you build it they will come. Isn’t that the way it works?

Not really…

While we are big proponents of a strong content strategy, simply putting the content out there is not going to drive traffic from far and near to come visit your site. You have to spend the extra time promoting your content as well. Producing the content is the first big step, and it is definitely going to send you in the right direction, but promoting that great content is just as important.

Newsletter Promotion

One great piece of content that is actually a promotion tool as well is an email newsletter. Just to be clear, when I say “email newsletter,” I am referring to long-form content that is well-writen and is distributed via an attractive email that includes a graphic, an abstract of the article, and a link back to the site.

The email should alert subscribers and drive them to your site to read the content, not deliver it all straight to their inbox. If you just deliver the full article, then it just becomes content, not a promotion tool. However, by providing an abstract of the article, then drawing the readers back to your site, you not only are promoting the newsletter content that lives on your site, but it also makes the reader aware of the other content you have to offer.

I would also recommend watching the webinar by Dan Zarrella called “The Science of Email Marketing,” to learn more about the best times to send your newsletters, the best words to use in subject lines, as well as some real data about frequency and the importance of subscriber freshness.

Blog Digest

While on the topic of email marketing, you should also consider putting together a digest email that promotes your short-form content (think: blog posts) by sending out a weekly or bi-monthly (or whatever frequency is appropriate) email that includes a list of recent content with links back to the site.

A digest can serve as a reminder to the user of all the content you are continually publishing. A relative few people utilize RSS readers, as most would prefer to receive the updates right in their inbox, so we suggest giving them this option.

Promotion through social media

I hate to be one to jump on the bandwagon, but the fact of the matter is that social media is one of the best ways to promote your content, if you do it well. You must determine what social media platforms are appropriate for your target audience. Is Facebook the way to go, or are most of your users active in LinkedIn? Or maybe they’re early adaptors and you want to promote on the new Google+.

Odds are, it is a mixture of social media avenues, and a mixture of active and passive promotion. Active promotion refers to you actively posting your website content to your social media pages. Passive refers to enabling sharing options on your site to leverage the social networks of your readers.

What we do to promote our content through social media is not going to work for everyone, and what others do probably won’t work for us. But, I will use Newfangled as an example.

Whenever we send a newsletter or post a new blog post, we promote it by first tweeting about it. Usually Chris Butler will tweet it once it is published, and it will usually get a couple of re-tweets from others in the office.

The other social media avenue we utilize is LinkedIn. We started a group on LinkedIn which is fairly active, and we promote discussion in this group. Because of this small, engaged audience, it makes LinkedIn a good place for us to promote our content as well. Joining active, tightly-focused LinedIn groups can be very beneficial because it enables you to reach a very targeted audience. Some other niche groups I would recommend are the PJA Advertising: This Week in Digital Media group, or the HOW Mind Your Own Business group, just to name a couple.

Use your website

Sometimes the best promotion tool is your own website. A website that is focused on content strategy should have various avenues to promote the all-important content.

For example, we have the ability to publicize newsletters and blog posts in specified areas of our homepage so that they are seen as soon as a user hits the site.

Another way we publicize within the site is our related content sidebar widget. If you look over to the right on this page, you’ll see a sidebar widget at the very top that suggests other related articles that you may enjoy. This is a more passive promotion, but we have noticed that it can be quite affective.

Make it personal

Occasionally taking the time to send a uniquely crafted, regular old email to someone who you think would enjoy reading and benefit from the content can really stand out. Promotion doesn’t always have to be to the masses – it’s OK to promote content at an individual level.

These are just a few examples of how to promote your content. Clearly, there are other ways to promote your content and your brand, but remember, writing the content is only half the work. The other half is getting it into the hands of people who want to read it.