Thursday, May 10, 2007 - Best Web Practices

Back in January I went to L.A. to offer advice on how the website could be improved. Philatron was started in 1974 by Phil Ramos Jr, and is now one of the top brands in custom coil cable products. The last public article had their revenue at $15M back in 2003. I would guess they're pushing $100M by now, but that's just speculation. My good friend Eric introduced me to Phil, and it was obvious to me from the beginning his dedication to family, employees, and the quality of Philatron's products.

It's been over 3 months, and although I went down to do the educating, I've probably learned more from that experience than from any other this year. Over the next few posts I'll go over some of the topics I presented and hopefully convey some of what I was able to absorb.

First and foremost, we'll start with the website. To be frank, the site needs a lot of improvement. It by no means reflects the quality of the people or the products of the company. By looking at the website, you would never guess how great their products are, or how strong their brands have become in their industry.

Although a few changes have been made in the past few months, there's still a lot of work to do. So much so, that I'd like to review the first part of the document I prepared for them. The section was titled "A Corporate Website From Scratch: In 10 Easy Steps".

In chronological order the steps are:

  1. Identify An Objective – Product Marketing, Lead Generation, Branding, Other?

  2. Identify A Goal (ex: x new leads/month)

  3. Set A Deadline – No deadline means no effort and no accountability.

  4. Team Building - Put the right people in the right seats.

  5. Benchmark – What is the competition doing?

  6. Choose Your Tactics – Web site capabilities and marketing angles.

  7. Development & Design – Let the experts loose.

  8. Launch – If you don’t build it, they won’t come.

  9. Analysis – Measure your goals.

  10. Revise – Quantify success and failure, then change accordingly.

1. Identify An Objective
What's the purpose of the website? Generating leads for a sales team to follow up on? Getting people to buy a product or services once they get to the site? Making a branded product or service stand out, or making the company as a whole more recognized? A combination of these three? Whatever the objective, you have to know what it is before you can achieve it.

2. Identify A Goal
Now that the objective has been identified, how will success be measured? If the objective is to generate leads, then pick a figure that shows success in generating leads. The number of leads per month, or percentage of leads that convert per week, might be good starts. Find that figure and keep track of that number diligently.

If you're marketing products, "How many of which products that are being sold?" is what you might want to ask? Also, what's generating the largest profits month-to-month? What's generating the highest revenue?

For branding, periodic customer familarization and satisfaction surveys might be the action taken to determine how the level of brand value and recognition is being affected each quarter. Or maybe a permanent survey tool can be embedded in the web site. In any case, pick a measurable goal, and stick with it.

3. Set A Deadline
This is tough for a lot of folks, but in my experience no deadline means no finished project. Without a time frame even highly motivated people will end up spending more time building, or planning for future features, rather than delivering something that can be used in the present. There are a lot of schools of thought surrounding ways for people to work together optimally (Agile project management and extreme programming come to mind), but in the end there needs to be an end that everyone is accountable for.

4. Team Building
Putting the right people in the right seats is a phrase made popular recently by Jim Collins, but that's not such an easy thing to do. When doing that with internal resources won't work, partnering, training, and outsourcing may have to suffice. There's a potentially large cost associated with each of these methods, but if the objectives and goals are clear, then justifying how much external help you can afford becomes a whole lot easier. Additionally, remember to internalize what's learned from vendors and training sessions as much as possible so that internal resources can handle more of the job the next time around.

5. Benchmark
Now there exists an objective, a goal, a deadline, and a team. What's next? It's time to aim at a target. First, let's distinguish between a goal and a benchmark. A goal, as defined here, is a measurement like cost-per-click, unique visitors per day, or percentage of highly satisfied customers. A benchmark is the actual value. Because a strong team has been assembled, competitors can now be analyzed as well as the team's own skillset. What can actually be achieved is the question that needs to be, and can now be answered.

Benchmarking doesn't just apply to the numbers that are to be achieved, but also to the methods used to achieve them. What did Competitor X do to increase their traffic? What feature did Competitor Y use to increase the number of subscribers? The answer may not be obvious, but with a purpose-built team assembled for the project, speculation will provide some solid educated guesses.

6. Choose Your Tactics
By now, the team has lined up a nice bag of tricks to implement, but which ones do you use? There's AJAX-ified web forms, social networking sites, use of video, email mailing lists, blogs, search engine marketing (SEM) and a host of other techniques to implement in the site and in the marketing plan. The heavy-lifting for this part was done during benchmarking. Now it's just a matter of determining what features or methods will be most effective in achieving the goals and objectives, and matching them against the team's capabilities.

7. Development And Design
For decision-makers, this is the hardest part. Control must now be released to the people with talent. Let the experts loose. The problem here is that what the experts come up with may not be what the decision-makers had envisioned. What is important is that the goal and objectives can be achieved on-time and under-budget. It's up to the decision-makers to determine whether the project is on course with respect to these parameters. Unless the implementation and choices by the design and development experts are materially affecting cost and time, their decisions should take precedence.

This should hold true for two reasons. The first is that they are the experts. That's why they're there. Second is that if they're wrong, there will be an opportunity to change, and they will be the ones making the changes. So, give them some freedom, and let them lead the way.

8. Launch
If you don't build it, they won't come. Even the brightest people -- especially the brightest people, in fact -- are susceptible to inspiration. Unfortunately, with a deadline looming, trying to pack in all the inspiration the team can come up with into a web project that's on time and under-budget probably isn't going to happen. This is where decision-makers maintain their influence. If a new idea can't fly in time for launch, store it in a safe place and keep it in mind for use after launch, and after data has been collected on how effective the implemented ideas have worked.

9. Analysis
The project and marketing campaign have launched and now the data is starting to trickle/flow in. Now it's time to measure the goals, or maybe determine if the original goals were the right ones to measure. It's also time to evaluate the tactics that were implemented and plan on implementing the ideas that were put on hold.

Lastly, it's time to revisit the objectives, because now there's a new player on the team ... the unique visitor. In the end they determine what works and what doesn't. What will be profitable and what won't. As a whole, they should have even more influence than the team of experts.

The response of unique visitors define the profitability of a web site, and their influence may ultimately show that an objective of product marketing should be abandoned for branding, or lead generation, or vice versa. At this point, though, there's data, and so the amount of guesswork on next steps is reduced. This brings us to the last point.

10. Revise
Quantify success and failure, then change accordingly. Is the newsletter or the search marketing bringing more visitors? Is that AJAX form increasing the number of submissions? Should the top navigation be raised 10 pixels? Try it and see. Then try something else and see what happens. And keep trying, and measuring the outcome. As long as there's an objective, a goal, a deadline, and an experienced team it won't matter what's been tried because the better idea will eventually be found and implemented ... quickly and cost-effectively.

In a nutshell, this is what I tried to convey to Phil and Eric at Philatron. With a company that has such great products and strong integrity, a diligent effort towards improving their web presence should lead to some spectacular results.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

2007 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival

On June 9th Shab will be performing at the 2007 San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. A pretty big honor for a solo artist considering the scale of the group performances featured yearly at the show. Even more so considering that she was selected to close the first segment on the opening night of the 3-weekend event.

In a few weeks we should be launching her new website, which will hopefully be as highly regarded as her current one. We're adding some regular old HTML to the mix as well as continuing to use Flash. But, no matter how fancy it gets, it won't be as fun as watching her perform live. Here's a sample of what you can expect to see at the Ethnic Dance Festival (if you're lucky enough to get a ticket before they're sold out).