08/24/12

Activate Interactivity

It’s nice to be able to blame my job for the inordinate amount of time I spend thinking about the design of web pages. We are working on revamping our own website and we always have some microsite development projects on the table. When developing a client website completely from scratch recently, I reflected on the process and how web design has evolved.

There are tons of factors, choices, options, styles, etc. to consider and yet, like Occam’s razor, the simplest option is almost always correct. This is definitely the growing trend that I am seeing. By “simple,” I actually mean, “clean.” Clean design is the preferred method, because the content is the real star of your website. The reason I make the distinction between clean and simple is because you can make something that looks very clean but uses a great deal of sophistication. For me, I think the sweet spot is a style that is modest (or understated) and elegant and uses color sparingly in order to cut down on clashing. Also, I want a website to be graceful, and this has to do with movement.

Lately I’ve been giving a ton of thought to ways to make a site interactive. Interactivity is a multi-faceted issue itself. It relates to providing opportunities for users to give feedback on your content and then persuading users to become involved in the discussion. It involves the way a person relates to the website. EIther everything you need as a user is right in front of your face, so you don’t have to scroll around the web page, or, as I’m inclined to at the moment, building a page that has scrollability (i.e. encourages scrolling), which is another form of interaction that can have a profound impact on a user.

I’m thinking about ways to get people more involved in the experience of a website. Why do people play video games? Why do people find themselves losing hours on Facebook? They are physically and mentally engaged in the activity. That’s what it’s all about. So, I’m thinking of ways to make websites more like video games….this could go on forever.

08/15/12

Inspired by LIFE

I collect old issues of LIFE magazine from thrift and consignment stores when I come across them. Frankly I think they’re brilliant for inspiration and decoration. As a PR and marketing professional, I am always looking for great design, powerful copy, and vivid imagery to learn from and the pages of LIFE are chalk full of the triumvirate. There are plenty of aspects to focus on in discussing the magazine, but we’re going to focus on the advertisements, specifically, because that’s what we do.

The magazine was built around photographers. Then skilled writers were called in to cram important information into text blocks and short captions. LIFE magazine is simply one of the smoothest road maps to good marketing. The visual arrests the audience and the words drive the message home. The combined effect lingers on much longer after you turn the page.

Canadian Club’s Legacy

One of the magazine’s longstanding advertising partners, Canadian Club, has built campaigns that I find myself thinking of whenever I’m trying to get out of the box, so to speak. They developed story lines and contests that took readers to far off places on mysterious missions down winding paths, where eventually they would find…Canadian Club Whiskey. It’s completely bizarre, but it works marvelously.

Advertising Agency: Energy BBDO, Chicago, USA 

  • Chief Creative Officer: Marty Orzio
  • Creative Directors: Derek Sherman
  • Copywriter: Derek Sherman
  • Art Director: Jason Stanfield
  • Designers: Steve Denekas, Jason Hardy
  • Senior Art Buyer: Liz Miller- Gershfeld
  • Assistant Art Buyer: Jackie VanWinkle
  • Print Producer: Linda Dos Santos
  • Photographer: Robert Whitman
  • Account Services: Doug Ryan, Marzena Grecki

For more than a century, LIFE has documented history as it happened. It has also made history a time or two with brilliant design and ad campaigns. In the digital age, I see the lessons that can be learned from LIFE (it’s nearly impossible to get away from a pun) becoming more and more valid.

LIFE and Modern Web Design and Marketing

Web pages are extremely visual and fluid in terms of scale. Think of one web page as one broadsheet page from an old issue of LIFE. Now, the general rule is, keep the important information above the fold; however, most website pages are longer than that by necessity. Therefore it’s important to make sure that everything on the page is interesting and important. You want the reader’s eye to scroll all over it, soaking up as much as possible.

A Brief History of Life

Starting in 1883, LIFE was published as a humor and general interest magazine until 1936, when Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine, bought it and the trademark name. Luce launched LIFE as a weekly news magazine with a strong emphasis on photojournalism. From 1972 to 1978, it was published as an intermittent “special” that eventually evolved into a monthly from 1978 – 2000. From 2004 – 2007, Time Inc. published LIFE as a weekly newspaper supplement included in some American newspapers. With the launch of www.life.com in March of 2009, it came into the modern era, and then returned to the fold in Jan. 2012, as a photo channel on Time.com. While the emphasis is still on powerful imagery and sharp text, it has lost something of the style that I’ve been reminiscing about. You really have to pick up those old ads to see what I mean. Luckily, something that popular always finds a way to linger on long after the pages are gone.

For more on LIFE’s history:

http://historyasithappened.wordpress.com/2007/10/15/7/

08/8/12

SEO should never be a mechanical process

By now, every business large and small has come to understand that they need to tweak their web site to cater to the search engine. The Internet is a big place, and you can no longer take the position of “build it and they will come.” They won’t.

Unless that is, you take definitive action to make them come. Search engine optimization (SEO) is how you do it. Problem is though, there are differing opinions as to what that really is and how much it should cost. In the early days of the Internet, SEO simply meant creating a lot of pages of content, with a search phrase embedded in every sentence. The idea was to “game” the Google search algorithm, and it worked, but only for a little while, and we’re thankful for that. Keyword packing only results in lots of very badly written copy that’s written for an algorithm, not for people. Even if your keyword-packing tactics do get traffic to your site, once the actual people have found you, the klunky writing style of the keyword-packers will only make you look unprofessional and foolish.

Yes, you do need to write your web site copy with Google’s search rules in mind, but you can’t stop there. There are real, live people coming to your web site, and you have to write for them, and that means taking a much more organic approach to SEO rather than the mechanical keyword-packing, forum-spamming, artificial link-building tactics taken by the low-cost providers.

In addition to keywords, SEO also means creating mentions of your company and site in other locations, mainly for the purpose of creating links back to your main site. This helps your Google rank, and is a great tool for building traffic, but only if it’s done right.

Like the keyword-packers who generate bad copy that is little more than vessels to hold keywords, some link building services promise to give you an impressive number of links back to your site in a short period of time. The fact of the matter is, this is an organic process and it takes time to do it right. Here’s the dirty little secret these guys don’t tell you: They build spammy links by joining forums on your behalf, inserting links back to your site, and making article and forum comments that are meaningless nonsense–and make you look like a complete idiot. Most of these posts get deleted after a short time, but those that do persist will harm your reputation. This is not money well spent, and you don’t want those type of links.

And while we’re on the subject of dirty little secrets, here’s another one, relating back to the keyword trickery mentioned above. There are low-cost providers out there, who will offer, for what seems to be an unrealistically low fee, to get you ranked on the first page of Google SERPs, “guaranteed.” First of all, no reputable SEO expert is going to make guarantees, because there are too many factors out of his or her control. And, the way they are able to make these guarantees is by leveraging what are called “long tail keywords.” They make these guarantees, but if you read the fine print, they get to pick the keywords that you will rank for. If you want to rank for a primary keyword, for example, “tablet computers,” it’s going to take a lot of work. The “guaranteed first page results for $300 in one week” guys work this way: You’ll rank on page one, alright–but not for the key phrase “tablet computers.” You will rank on page one for a series of longer, very infrequently searched key phrases, such as, “macaque monkeys using tablet computers to search for bananas”. Obviously, the long-tail key phrases are very infrequently searched, so ranking on page one is easy–but does you very little good.

My key message is this: Search engine optimization doesn’t come in a box. It’s not a “package”, and it’s not a mechanical process. It’s ongoing, it’s organic, and more than anything, it involves sound marketing practices and just plain, old-fashioned good writing.

08/1/12

Decisions, decisions…

Well, I was planning on giving everyone my opinion about Windows 8. The problem is… I don’t yet have one formed. The beta is taking FOREVER to download! So I have something else of equal importance to talk about.

So today I’m a little torn. Tonight there are two local shows with great line ups on nearly opposite ends of the town. Tonight, Cheers will be hosting Battle of the Babes featuring Geronimo, Michigan City Vandals, Bitch Slap, Projekt Cog and a group of some of my favorite people, AKA Jed. The Bender Ballroom, located by the lovely Wooden Indian Motel, will be packed with talent presenting the bands Jassy Grazz, Fillmore’s Ladder, the Electric Jug Band and one of my favorite local talents, Infinite Buffalo. Unfortunately, I have told people at both venues that I would make an appearance, which complicates my evening.

It’s not so much the drive as it is Roseland. The venues are only five miles away from each other but the Roseland Police Department has had a lot of practice picking off the less responsible Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students and believe me – they will get you! Many scholarships have been lost on highway 933. I believe I’ve had nine tickets across several states for various traffic related offenses in my life, two of which are from Roseland. My last encounter transpired in the early morning hours after I passed an officer who was stopped at a red light that turned green as I approached, before I had to begin slowing down. I had my cruise set at 30 mph (yes, I’m paranoid) but he didn’t like that I passed him. I got off with a scolding and a written warning, thankfully, even though I think both were unsolicited.

Anyway, enough about Roseland…

There’s little known fact that I would I would like to share with the world: South Bend harbors some of the most talented musicians you’ll find anywhere. It also lodges some pretty awful musicians too, but I’m getting better ;) The general consensus about South Bend seems to be that there’s nothing to do. It’s terrible that this stigma is so prevalent because it’s not true. The mindset itself is a double-edged sword. It’s this mindset that has led many of my peers to destruction. But this is the same ingredient that makes great musicians. This perceived boredom has provoked several of us to pick up an instrument at some point in our lives and learn to play it.

I love music. I don’t love the radio. I would much rather listen to my friends play than turn on the radio only to have my heart broken when I hear Five Finger Death Punch destroy Bad Company’s, Bad Company. So support your local business and your local musicians! I hope to see people spilling out the doors wherever I may end up. Just please… love each other and be responsible :)