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What is content strategy and why should you care?

The first thing to understand about content strategy is that no two people understand it the same way. It’s a relatively new — and extremely broad — discipline with no single definitive definition. A highly informative Knol on content strategy defines it as follows:

“Content strategy is an emerging field of practice encompassing every aspect of content, including its design, development, analysis, presentation, measurement, evaluation, production, management, and governance.”

This definition is a great place to start. Although the discipline has clearly evolved, this breakdown of its scope makes perfect sense. The aspects of content strategy that matter most to Web designers in this definition are design (obviously!), development, presentation and production. In this article, we’ll concentrate on the relationship between content strategy and design in creating, organizing and displaying Web copy.

As a writer and content strategist myself, I’ve worked with designers in all of these areas and find the creative process highly enriching. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with designers who are quick to challenge ideas that are unclear or unsound, who are brilliant at creating striking visual representations of even the most complex concepts. A lively interplay between design and content is not only fun, but is how spectacular results are achieved. This is why content strategy should matter a great deal to designers.

What Is Content Strategy, And Why Should A Designer Care?

Content strategy is the glue that holds a project together. When content strategy is ambiguous or absent, don’t be surprised if you end up with the Internet equivalent of Ishtar. When content strategy is in place and in its proper place, we’re on our way to producing beautiful and effective results.

While wrapping one’s head around content strategy might be difficult, the thing that makes it work is very simple: good communication. Sometimes a project moves along like a sports car on a superhighway. Other times, the road is so full of bumps and potholes that it’s a wonder we ever reach our destination. As we explore the relationship between content strategy and design, I’ll detail how I keep the channels of communication open and go over the workflow processes that I’ve used to support that effort. I hope that sharing my experiences (both positive and negative) will help you contribute to and manage projects more effectively and deliver better products to clients.

How To Get Started: The First Step Is The Longest

Project manager: We need a landing page for client X.

Designer: I can’t start the design until I see some content.

Writer: I can’t start writing until I see a design.

You may find this dialogue amusing… until it happens to you! At our firm, we find that the best way to get past such a standoff is to write first. This is because content strategy, at a fundamental level, frames a project for the designer. As a content strategist, my job is to articulate the why, where, who, what and how of the content:

  • Why is it important to convey this message? This speaks to purpose.
  • Where on the website should the message appear? This speaks to context.
  • Who is the audience? This speaks to the precision of the message.
  • What are we trying to say? This speaks to clarity.
  • How do we convey and sequence the information for maximum impact? This speaks to persuasiveness.

Bringing it down to a more detailed level, let’s consider a landing page. A content strategist will determine such things as the following:

  • Audience
    Is the audience sophisticated? Down to earth? College-level? Predominately male? Female? Etc.
  • Word count
    Some pitches scream for long copy, while others must be stripped to the bare minimum. SEO might factor into the equation as well.
  • Messaging priorities
    What is the most important point to convey? The least important? What needs to be said first (the hook)? What needs to be said just leading up to the call to action?
  • Call to action
    What will the precise wording be? What emotional and intellectual factors will motivate the visitor to click through?

Clear direction on these points not only helps the writer write, but helps the designer with layout, color palettes and image selection. When we start with words, we produce designs that are more reflective of the product’s purpose.

Landing pages are a great place to try this workflow, because in terms of content strategy, they are less complex than many other types of Web pages. A product category page, on the other hand, might have a less obvious purpose or multiple purposes, considerably greater word counts, more (and more involved) messaging points, and a variety of SEO considerations, all of which would affect its design.

Quick Tips for Getting Started

  • Make sure someone is specifically responsible for content strategy. If strategic responsibility is vague, your final product will be, too.
  • Slow down! Everybody, me included, is eager to dive headfirst into a new project. But “ready-aim-fire” is not a winning content strategy. Make sure everyone is on the same page conceptually before cranking out work.
  • If content strategy falls on your shoulders as a designer, cultivate an understanding of the discipline. Resources are listed at the end of this article to help you.
  • Make sure designers and writers understand what their roles are — and are not. There’s no need for writers to tell designers how to design, or for designers to tell writers how to write.

Perfecting The Process: Break Up Those Bottlenecks

Project manager: How are things coming along?

Developer: I’m waiting on design.

Designer: I’m waiting on content.

Writer: I’m waiting on project management.

Web development projects in particular involve a lot of moving parts, with potential bottlenecks everywhere. The graphic below describes our Web development process, with an emphasis on the design and content components. Chances are, whether you are freelancing or at an agency, at least parts of this should look familiar:

The process is by no means perfect, but it is continually improving. In the next section, we’ll look at the many types of content-design difficulties you might experience.

To help our designers lay out text for wireframes and designs, we utilize content templates based on various word counts. These templates also incorporate best practices for typography and SEO. When the designer drops the template into a wireframe, it looks like this:

The use of content templates not only takes a lot of guesswork out of the designer’s job, but also speeds up client reviews. When clients are able to see what the content will roughly look like in the allotted space, they tend to be more comfortable with the word counts and the placement of text on the page.

Communication can be streamlined using project management software. We use Basecamp, which is a popular system, but many other good ones are available. If you’re a freelancer, getting clients to work on your preferred project management platform can be an uphill battle, to say the least. Still, I encourage you to try; my experience in managing projects via email has been dismal, and many freelance designers I know express the same frustration.

The big advantage of a project management system is that it provides a single place for team members to manage tasks and interact. Internal reviews of design templates is one good example. The project manager can collect feedback from everyone in one place, and each participant can see what others have said and respond to it. Consolidating this information prevents the gaps and miscommunication that can occur when projects are managed through multiple email exchanges. Designers can see all of the feedback in one place — and only one place. This is a big time-saver.

Tune your site instead of redesigning it all the time

Companies often flush away millions upon millions on worthless, pointless, “fix it once and for all” website redesigns. All types of organizations are guilty: large government agencies, Fortune 500s, not-for-profits and (especially) institutions of higher education.

Worst of all, these offending organizations are prone to repeating the redesign process every few years like spendthrift amnesiacs. Remember what Einstein said about insanity? (It’s this, if you don’t know.) It’s as if they enjoy the sensation of failing spectacularly, publicly and expensively. Sadly, redesigns rarely solve actual problems faced by end users.

I’m frustrated because it really doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why redesigns happen, and some straightforward and inexpensive ways we might avoid them.

The Diagnostic Void

Your users complain about your website’s confounding navigation, stale content, poor usability and other user experience failures. You bring up their gripes with the website’s owners. They listen and decide to take action. Their hearts are in the right place. But the wheels quickly come off.

Site owner

Most website owners don’t know how to diagnose the problems of a large complex website. It’s just not something they were ever taught to do. So, they’re put in the unfortunate, uncomfortable position of operating like country doctors who’ve suddenly been tasked to save their patients from a virulent new pandemic. It is their responsibility, but they’re simply unprepared.

Vendor

Sadly, many website owners fill this diagnostic void — or, more typically, allow it to be filled — with whatever solution sounds best. Naturally, many less-than-ethical vendors are glad to dress up their offerings as solutions to anyone with a problem — and a budget. The tools themselves (search engines, CMS’, social apps) are wonderful, but they’re still just tools — very expensive ones, at that — and not solutions to the very specific problems that an organization faces. Without proper diagnostics to guide the configuration of tools, any resulting improvements to the user experience will be almost accidental.

Design agency

Sometimes design agencies are brought in to fill the diagnostic void. And while not all agencies are evil, a great many follow a business model that depends on getting their teams to bill as many hours as they can and as soon as possible. Diagnostics can slow the work down (which is why clients rarely include a diagnostic phase in their RFPs). So, many agencies move to make a quick, tangible impression (and make their clients happy) by delivering redesigns that are mostly cosmetic.

A pretty face can last only a few years, but by then the agency is long gone. Invariably, the new owner wishes to make their mark by freshening or updating the website’s look. And another agency will be more than happy to oblige. Repeat ad nauseam, and then some.

Oh, and sometimes these redesigns can be pricey. Like $18 million pricey.

See why I’m so grouchy?

Forget the Long Tail: The Short Head Is Where It’s At

Whether you’re a designer, researcher or website owner, I’ve got some good news for you: diagnostics aren’t necessarily difficult or expensive. Better yet, you’ll often find that addressing the problems you’ve diagnosed isn’t that hard.

And the best news? Small simple fixes can accomplish far more than expensive redesigns. The reason? People just care about some stuff more than they care about other stuff. A lot more. Check this out and you’ll see:

Monster Graph

This hockey-stick-shaped curve is called a Zipf curve. (It comes from linguistics: Zipf was a linguist who liked to count words… but don’t worry about that.) Here it is in dragon form, displaying the frequency of search queries on a website. The most frequently searched queries (starting on the left) are very, very frequent. They make up the “short head.” As you move to the right (to the esoteric one-off queries in the “long tail”), query frequency drops off. A lot. And it’s a really long tail.

This is absolutely the most important thing in the universe. So, to make sure it’s absolutely clear, let’s make the same point using text:

Query’s rank Cumulative % Query’s frequency Query
1 1.40% 7,218 campus map
14 10.53% 2,464 housing
42 20.18% 1,351 web enroll
98 30.01% 650 computer center
221 40.05% 295 msu union
500 50.02% 124 hotels
7,877 80.00% 7 department of surgery

In this case, tens of thousands of unique queries are being searched for on this university website, but the first one accounts for 1.4% of all search traffic. That’s massive, considering that it’s just one query out of tens of thousands. How many short-head queries would it take to get to 10% of all search traffic? Only 14 — out of tens of thousands. The 42 most frequent queries cover over 20% of the website’s entire search traffic. About a hundred gets us to 30%. And so on.

It’s Zipf’s World; We Just Live in It

This is very good news.

Want to improve your website’s search performance? Don’t rip out the search engine and buy a new one! Start by testing and improving the performance of the 100 most frequent queries. Or, if you don’t have the time, just the top 50. Or 10. Or 1 — test out “campus map” by actually searching for it. Does something useful and relevant come up? No? Why not? Is the content missing or mistitled or mistagged or jargony or broken? Is there some other problem? That, folks, is diagnostics. And when you do that with your website’s short head, your diagnostic efforts will go a very long way.

The news gets better: Zipf is a rule. The search queries for all websites follow a Zipf distribution.

And the news gets even jump-up-and-down-and-scream-your-head-off better: Zipf is true not only for your website’s search queries. Your content works the same way! A small subset of your website’s content does the heavy lifting. Much of the rest has little or no practical value at all. (In fact, I’ve heard a rumor that 90% of Microsoft.com’s content has never, ever been accessed. Not once. But it’s a just a rumor. And you didn’t hear it here.) Bottom line: don’t redesign all of your content — focus on the stuff that people actually need.

You’ll also see a short head when it comes to your website’s features. People need just a few of them; the rest are gravy.

And there’s more. Of all the audience types that your website serves, one or two matter far more than the others. What tasks do those audience types wish to accomplish on your website? A few are short-head tasks; the rest just aren’t that important.

As you can see, the Zipf curve is everywhere. And fortunately, the phenomenon is helpful: you can use it to prioritize your efforts to tweak and tune your website’s content, functionality, searchability, navigation and overall performance.

Your Website Is Not A Democracy

When you examine the short head — of your documents, your users’ tasks, their search behavior and so forth — you’ll know where to find the most important problems to solve. In effect, you can stop boiling the ocean…

Sailing the ocean

… and start prioritizing your efforts to diagnose and truly solve your website’s problems.

Now, let’s put these short-head ideas together. Below is a report card for an academic website that starts with the short head of its audience:

Diagram

In other words, of all the audience types this university website has, the three most important are people who might pay money to the university (applicants,) people who are paying money now (students) and people who will hopefully pay money for the rest of their lives (alumni). How do we know they’re the most important audiences? We could go by user research; for example, the analytics might suggest that these audiences generate more traffic than anyone else. Or perhaps the university’s stakeholders believe that these are the most important ones in their influence and revenue. Or some combination of both. Whatever the case, these three audiences likely swamp all other segments in importance.

Then, we would want to know the short-head tasks and information needs of each audience type. We might interview stakeholders to see what they think (column 2). And we might perform research — user interviews and search analytics, for example — to find out what users say is most important to them (column 3).

Of course, as the good folks at xkcd demonstrate, stakeholders and users don’t always see things the same way:

Universal site

That’s why talking to both stakeholders and users is important. And once you’ve figured out the short head for each, you’ll need to earn your salary and, through some careful negotiation, combine your takes on each audience type’s needs. That’s what we’ve done in column 4.

Finally, in column 5, we’ve tested each task or need and evaluated how well it works. (Because it’s a university-related example, letter grades seemed appropriate.) You can do this evaluation in an expensive, statistically significant way; but really, enough research is out there to suggest that you don’t need to spend a lot of time and money on such testing. More importantly, these needs and tasks are often fairly narrow and, therefore, easy to test.

So, after testing, we can see what’s not going well. Finding information on “mentoring” is hard for applicants. And current students have a devil of a time when they “look up grades.”

Now we’re done diagnosing the problems and can begin making fixes. We can change the title of the “Paired Guidance Program” page to “Mentoring.” We can create a better landing page for the transcript application. The hard part, diagnostics, is out of the way, and we can now fix and tune our website’s performance as much as our resources allow.

From Project To Process To Payoff

These fixes are typically and wonderfully small and concrete, but because they live in the short head, they make a huge and lovely impact on the user experience — at a fraction of the cost of a typical redesign.

The tuning process itself is quite simple. It’s what we used to arrive at the report card below:

Chart

If you repeat this simple process on a regular basis — say, every month or quarter — then you can head off the entropy that causes fresh designs and fresher content to go rotten. Thus, the redesign that your organization has scheduled for two years from now can officially be canceled.

Your website’s owners ought to be happy about all this. And you should be, too: rather than tackling the project of getting your website “right” — which is impossible — you can now focus on tweaking and tuning it from here on out. So, forget redesigns, and start owning and benefiting from a process of continual improvement.

Special Thanks – Illustrations

Eva-Lotta is a UX Designer and Illustrator based in London, UK where she currently works as an interaction designer at Google. Besides her daytime mission of making the web a more understandable, usable and delightful place, she regularly takes sketchnotes at all sorts of talks and conferences and recently self-published her second book. Eva-Lotta also teaches sketching workshops and is interested in (something she calls) visual improvisation. Exploring the parallels between sketching and improvisation, she experiments with the principles from her theater improvisation practice to inspire visual work.

Why writing Project Proposals is a bad idea?

After several grueling days I had finally finished the proposal. I sent it off and waited for a response. Nothing. After a few weeks, I discovered that they were “just looking”. Despite the urgency and aggressive timeline for the RFP (Request For Proposal) plus the fact that we had done business with this organization before, the project was a no-go. My days of effort were wasted. Not entirely, though, because the pain of that loss was enough to drive me to decide that it wouldn’t happen again.

Why writing Project Proposals is a bad idea?

I work at a Web development company and we’ve experimented with proposal writing a lot over the years. We’ve seen the good and the bad, and we have found something better. In this article I will share the pains that we have experienced in the proposal writing process, the solution we adopted, and our process for carrying out that solution. I’ll also give you guidelines to help you know when this solution is and isn’t appropriate.

Proposal Writing Causes Pain

After several years of writing proposals, we began to notice that something wasn’t right. As we considered the problem we noticed varying levels of pain associated with the proposal writing process. We categorized those pains as follows:

The Rush
Getting a proposal done was usually about speed. We were racing against the clock and working hard to deliver the proposal as efficiently and as effectively as possible. However, sometimes corners would get cut. We’d reuse bits and pieces from older proposals, checking and double-checking for any references to the previous project. While the adrenaline helped, the rush gets old because you know that, deep down, it’s not your best work. Besides, you don’t even know if you’re going to close the deal, which leads to the next pain.

The Risk
Our proposal close ratio with clients that came directly to us was high. We’d work hard on the proposals and more often than not, we’d close the deal. The risk was still there, however, and I can think of several proposals that we had spent a lot of time and effort on for a deal that we didn’t get. Not getting the deal isn’t the problem — the problem is going in and investing time and energy in a thorough proposal without knowing if there is even the likelihood that you’re going to close the deal.

The Details
The difference between a project’s success and its failure is in the details. In proposal writing, the details are in the scope. What work is included, what is not, and how tight is the scope? Now, this is where the “rush” and the “risk” play their part. The rush typically causes us to spend less time on details and the “risk” says: “Why spell it all out and do the diligence when you might not even get the project?” A self-fulfilling prophecy, perhaps, but a legitimate concern nonetheless. Selling a project without making the details clear is asking for scope creep, and turns what started out as a great project into a learning experience that can last for years.

Now, writing is an important part of the project and I’m not about to say you shouldn’t write. Having a written document ensures that all parties involved are on the same page and completely clear on exactly what will be delivered and how it will be delivered. What I’m saying, though, is that you should stop writing proposals.

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them

Write Evaluations, Not Proposals — And Charge For Them

A few years back, we decided to try something new. A potential client approached us and rather than preparing another project proposal, we offered the client what we now call a “Project Evaluation.” We charged them a fixed price for which we promised to evaluate the project, in all of our areas of expertise, and give them our recommendations.

They agreed, paid the price, and we set out to deliver. We put a lot of effort into that evaluation. We were in new territory and we wanted to make sure that we delivered it well. So we finished the report and sent it to them. The client liked it, agreed with our recommendations, and started a contract with us to do the work.

That project became a game changer for us, starting an on-going relationship that opened doors into a new market. It was the process of the evaluation itself that brought the new market potential to our attention, and gave us the opportunity to develop this business model. It was a definite win, and one that a project proposal couldn’t have delivered.

What Is A Project Evaluation?

A “Project Evaluation”, as we’ve defined it, is a detailed plan for the work that is to be done on a project, and explains how we do it. We eliminate the guess work, and detail the project out at such a level that the document becomes a living part of the development process, being referred back to and acting as the guide towards the project’s successful completion.

The Benefits Of (Paid) Project Evaluations

As we put our proposal writing past behind us and embraced the evaluation process, we noticed a strong number of benefits. The most prominent of those benefits are the following.

Qualification

If a client is unwilling or unable to pay for a project evaluation, it can be an indicator that the project isn’t a match. Now, we may not always charge for evaluations (more on that later). We also recognize a deep responsibility on our part to make sure that we have intelligently and carefully explained the process and value of the evaluation. After all that is done, though, you may run into potential clients who just don’t want to pay what you’re charging, and it’s better to find this out right away then after writing a long proposal.

Attention to Details

Having the time available to do the research and carefully prepare the recommendations means that we are able to eliminate surprises. While the end result may be a rather large document, the details are well organized and thorough. Those details are valuable to both the client (in making sure they know exactly what they’re getting) and to the development team (in making sure that they know exactly what they’re delivering).

No Pricing Surprises

Figuring out all the details and ironing out a complete scope means that we’re able to give a fixed price, without surprises. This gives the client the assurance up front that the price we gave them is the price they’ll pay. In more than a few cases, the time we’ve spent working out the details has eliminated areas of concern and kept our margins focused on profit, not on covering us “just in case.”

Testing the Waters

When a potential client says “Yes” to an evaluation, they are making a relatively small commitment — a first step, if you will. Rather than a proposal that prompts them for the down payment to get started on the complete project, the evaluation process gives us time and opportunity to establish a working relationship. In most cases, the process involves a lot of communication which helps the client learn more about how we work, as we learn more about how they work. All this is able to take place without the pressure of a high-budget development project. And by the end of the evaluation, a relationship is formed that plays a major factor in the decision process to move forward.

Freedom to Dream

Occasionally, we spend more time on an evaluation than we had initially expected. But knowing how our time is valued has given us the freedom to explore options and make recommendations that we might not have made otherwise. In our experience, the extra time and energy that the context of a paid evaluation provides for a project has consistently brought added value to the project, and contributed to its ultimate success.

The Evaluation Writing Process

The Evaluation Writing Process

Over the years we have refined (and continue to refine) a process that works well for us. As you consider the process, look for the principles behind each step, and if you decide to bring this into your business, look for ways to adapt this process and make it your own.

#1 — Do the Research

The heart of the evaluation process is the research. If it’s a website redesign project, we read through each and every page on the website. We take notes and thoroughly absorb as much content as possible. Our objective is to get to the heart of the project and gain as much of the organization’s perspective as possible.

If it’s a custom programming project, we try to get inside the project’s concept, challenge it, look for flaws in the logic, research relevant technologies, and work to make recommendations that keep the goals of the project in mind.

We spend time with the client by phone, over Skype, via email, and sometimes even in person. As our research uncovers problems or finds solutions, we run them by the client and gather their feedback.

The research process allows us to go deep, and in our experience it has always paid off, giving us a thorough grasp of the project and providing a foundation to make intelligent, expertise-driven recommendations.

#2 — Offer Recommendations

Each project evaluation is different. Depending on the nature of the project we may make recommendations regarding technology, content organization, marketing strategies, or even business processes. The types of recommendations we make have varied greatly from project to project, and are always driven by the context and goals of the project.

When it comes to areas of uncertainty for the client, we work hard to achieve a balance between an absolute recommendation and other options. If the answer is clear to us, we’ll say so and make a single, authoritative recommendation. However, when an answer is less clear, we give the client options to consider (along with our thoughts) on why or why not an option might be a match.

We share our recommendations with the client throughout the evaluation process, and when the final report is given, there are rarely any surprises.

#3 — Prepare the Scope

After we’ve worked through our recommendations, we put together a technical scope. This is typically the longest part of the document. In the case of a Web design project, we go through each page of the website, explaining details for the corresponding elements of that page. The level of detail will vary based on the importance of a particular page.

The scope document is detailed in such a way that the client could take it in-house, or even to another developer, and be able to implement our recommendations.

As the project commences, the scope document will often be referred to, and can function as a checklist for how the project is progressing.

#4 — Prepare the Timeline & Estimate

With the scope complete, calculating the cost and preparing an estimate becomes a relatively straightforward process. While how one calculates the price may vary, all the information is now available to see the project through from start to finish, identifying the challenges, and determining the amount of resources required to meet the project’s objectives.

Note: Prior to the start of the evaluation process, we nearly always give the potential client a “ball park” estimate. So far, that estimate typically ends up being about ten times the cost of the evaluation.

We take the estimating process very seriously, both in the ball park stage and especially here within the context of an evaluation. Once we set a price down we don’t leave room for “oops!” and “gotchas!”, and that means we are extra careful to calculate as accurately as possible, both for our sake and for the sake of the client.

Now, because of the nature of the evaluation, we are often able to research and explore options above and beyond what the client originally brought to our attention. In the case of a Web application, this might be an added feature or a further enhancement added onto a requested feature. Within the scope of the evaluation we carefully research these extras, and when appropriate, present them as optional “add-ons” within the timeline and estimate.

They are truly optional, and while always recommended by us, we leave the decision up to the client (there’s no use wasting research energy on an add-on you wouldn’t fully recommend). In cases where the budget allows for them, they are nearly always accepted. In cases where a tighter budget is involved, the add-ons are typically set aside for future consideration.

When Evaluations Are Appropriate

A project evaluation functions like the blueprints for a new office building. Imagine that I own a successful construction company, and I have a number of world-class office construction projects to my credit. A new client comes to me after seeing some of my work and tells me “I want a building just like that!”. Assuming, of course, that I own the rights to the building, I can say “Sure!” and tell them how much it will cost. Why? The blueprints have already been drawn.

Now, there will be variable factors, such as where they choose to have the building built, and any customizations they may request matter. But in most cases no new blueprints will be needed, and I can proceed with construction without charging them for the plans.

Suppose another client comes to me after seeing one of my buildings and asks me to build an entirely new design for them. A new design calls for new blueprints all of their own, and these must be developed before the project begins. Can you imagine a large-scale construction project without any blueprints?

Web development is the same way. In our experience, evaluations are appropriate when a client comes to us and asks us to take on a project outside of our existing set of “blueprints”. Examples where we’ve found a project evaluation necessary include:

  • A redesign of an existing website.
  • Developing a new Web application.
  • Bringing new technology into an existing project.

Without an evaluation you’re either left to go ahead and do the research on your own (with the weight of the rush, and the risk on your shoulders) or you’re stuck making as educated a guess as possible for the scope of the project. This dangerous guessing in a situation where an evaluation is appropriate can leave you with an estimate that is too high (which can mean losing the project) or even worse, an estimate that is too low.

When Evaluations Are Not Appropriate

When a project is familiar, and doesn’t require an evaluation (or fits within the scope of an existing type of evaluation), we give an informal, direct estimate along with a scope of the work. Small to mid-sized Web design projects typically fall into this category. While the content and design are new, the process isn’t. The key here is the experience and confidence in your abilities (and the abilities of your team) that the work will get done within budget to the expected delight of all parties involved.

Conclusion

Project evaluations up until now haven’t been given much attention. I would suggest it is a simple concept that has been overlooked and passed by amidst the rush of a booming Web development industry. I invite you to implement the process, experience the benefits, and stop the pain of proposal writing.

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)

7 reasons no one shares your blog

7 reasons no one shares your blog

Ever write a blog post, hit publish, and feel like all you hear are crickets? If your content isn’t remarkable, it’s not shareable. Search is social. So whether or not your content gets shared makes a huge difference in your blog’s traffic and lead generation.

People share content for a variety of reasons. A recent study from the NY Times’ Consumer Insight Group (CIG) looked into why people share content online. Among the variety of motivations was a desire to define ourselves to others with the content we share as well as a desire to grow and nurture relationships by sharing entertaining or interesting content. Is your content interesting and entertaining enough for people to want to associate their personal brands with it? If not, you better re-think your approach and consider these 7 tips.

7 Reasons No One Shares Your Blog Posts

1. Your Headline Sucks

Your headline is the most important part of your post because it’s your first impression. It’s what people see in big, bold text when your blog post shows up in search engine results.
It’s also what they see when your content is tweeted and shared on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+. So without a great headline, few people will get that initial intrigue that makes them want to click through and check out your post. Write great headlines that are descriptive but also spark a sense of urgency. And don’t be afraid to try a funny or snarky one, too. Grab their attention with the headline, and hook them with the great content behind it.

2. Your Timing Is Off

Blog posts published in the morning generate the greatest number of page views, especially when targeting women. Do you know your audience, and do you know when to deliver your content in order to get the best results? Get the insight you need to create more shareable content. Survey your audience and ask when they prefer to read your content, or dig into your audience analytics to get the information you need. And remember: planning ahead is key. Creating and maintaining a blog editorial calendar will prepare you to have content to publish each morning, versus constantly playing catch up and publishing posts in the late afternoon after you wrote them that day.

3. You Don’t Have “Regulars”

You want your blog to be like Cheers — where everyone knows your name. You want your posts to spark a conversation and to ignite an interest that keeps people coming back for more.

A great way to develop a relationship with your audience is by being attentive to blog comments. Spark a conversation on your blog by discussing recent industry events or asking for your readers’ perspectives on new research. It’s all about the writing style and balancing your point of view as the expert opinion and being a participant in the conversation. To get the comments rolling, make the content useful and thought provoking, and “reward” your commenters by responding. If you generate a group of regulars who always come back to read your blog content, chances are good they’re also regularly sharing and evangelizing your content, too.

4. You Write About Yourself

Your company is interesting to you. It’s also interesting to your mom. So she might subscribe to a blog full of company party photos, product feature updates, and long essays written from your point of view. But is your mom your target audience?

When readers are visiting your blog for the first time, they don’t care about you yet. Make them care by addressing the topics they want to learn and talk about. How-to articles and lists of tips and resources are good formats to begin with.

5. Your Posts Are All the Same

Ever listen to a band and every one of their songs sounds the same? Boring! Change up the format of the content with charts, infographics, videos, photos, and other visuals to keep people coming back for more. If you look at Social Media Examiner‘s posts, you’ll see how they break up the text with different visuals, headings, and bold text. Break up your content to make it easier to consume so you get more people to read it and more people to share it.

6. You Ramble

If there isn’t a clear takeaway from your content, people don’t have a key point or reason to share it with their friends and followers. Long paragraphs full of allegory, symbolism, adjectives, and adverbs are best saved for English class. Cut to the chase, and make the lessons from your content loud and clear.

7. You Make it Difficult to Share

It’s surprising to me how many blogs don’t have social sharing buttons. It’s easy to get caught up in selecting the perfect design or theme and then forget about the obvious, functional elements likes social media buttons or “subscribe by email” widgets. Have at least a simple design that looks clean, but first get the basic features on your blog and get a content plan in line. Then go crazy with design.