The Blog

7 Questions to Ask Your Next Web Designer

Submitted by Scott
on
July 8, 2010 - 2:14pm

There are a few things that have been on my mind lately.  One of them is how to tell if a web designer or SEO person actually knows what they're talking about.  You see, I run into a lot of "web people" in my different social circles.  Some are very talented and can code yours truly under a table; some can make a website for foot fungus facts look interesting; and some are simply salespeople who will promise you the new Facebook while delivering you a Myspace page.  So, how do you tell the difference?

1. ASK FOR REFERENCES.  You're probably saying "duh", but some people simply look at a couple of websites that the designer says they've worked on.  When you actually make a call to some of the designer's clients you may find that they were impossible to work with and the client did not get what they asked for.  The final website may look pretty, but if the client isn't happy then what make you think you'll be?

2. ASK THEM WHAT LANGUAGES THEY KNOW.  There are a few web design languages that any good web designer should know how to code in (or should at least be aware of).  Ask your potential designer if they know: HTML, CSS, and Javascript.  They should at least be fluent in HTML and CSS.  PHP and .NET are other languages that are helpful.  You don't have to know what all of those languages are, but they should be able to help you understand.  If not, walk away.

3. ASK THEM FOR WEBSITES THEY'VE DESIGNED FROM SCRATCH.  There are a lot of "designers" who simply use templates to create your website.  That may be okay for them and personal blog, but do you really want to pay someone good money to create something that a thousand other people may already have?  Designing from a template may also mean that they don't know enough to actually modify the template.  That means you'll never get what you truly want.

4. ASK FOR A BASIC KNOWLEDGE OF HOW SEO WORKS.  Many "SEO" people I run into clearly do not know what they are doing when it comes to SEO.  If they give you a run-around answer to your SEO questions and can never really explain anything about SEO except by giving you a few buzzwords like "Social Media" then maybe you should find someone else.  Another red flag is someone who says "You can never get good search results for your site unless you pay for it" or "If you give me X number of dollars I guarantee you'll be on top".  NO ONE can guarantee that. 

5. ASK FOR A SPECIFIC QUOTE ON EVERYTHING THEY'LL BE DOING.  When someone fixes your car you get an itemized bill of exactly what you're paying for.  Why can't it work the same for web design?  On every proposal I give you know EXACTLY what you're paying for.

6. ASK THEM WHAT THEIR ROLE IS IN WEBSITE CREATION.  There are a lot of web designers and web design firms out there.  Who do you want to work with?  Do you want to always talk to a middle-man salesperson who has no more knowledge of the web than you do, or would you like to talk to the man in charge?  The nice thing about working with a smaller firm is that you tend to get an answer immediately.  They don't have to ask 8 other people if what you want can be accomplished.

7. ASK FOR A TIMELINE. Timelines create accountability.  If the designer cannot give you a timetable then they may not have much experience.  If they can't hit your deadlines then how do you know your project will ever be completed? 

I truly hope this helps you in your search for your dream website.  Other questions you've found helpful to ask?  Leave a comment below.

5 Ways Church Promotions Can Stop Being Cheesy

Submitted by Scott
on
July 31, 2009 - 2:22pm

This will probably start a healthy debate.  My intent in writing this is not to anger anyone, just to point out some things that we in the church can begin to improve on a bit.  One of the main reasons that I got into graphic design was because I was working at a church and realized how incredibly cheesy our promotional materials were.  I said to myself, "Y'know, self, I'm not a graphic designer or anything, but I'm sure I could do better than this".  So, I sat down over the slower Christmas season and taught myself Photoshop.  I continue to see the same things continue to crop up in church materials.  That's why I've got "5 Ways Church Promotions Can Stop Being Cheesy".

1. Stop trying to copy exactly what everyone else is doing.  This works in anything creative.  If you try to do an exact duplicate of an ad or meme that you've seen it will fall on its face.  You simply cannot do it as well unless you have the kind of talent and/or budgets that the big dogs have.  Plus, as soon as something becomes a meme its imitators are frowned upon. 

2. Be willing to spend some money on promotions.  People respond to quality.  You don't get quality unless you can spend money.  It doesn't have to be thousands of dollars, or even hundreds of dollars, but get the necessary tools you need to create something classy.  If you can't do it well then don't do it all.  Better that than make your ministry a laughingstock.

3. Listen to the creatives in your church.  In almost every church I've ever been to I've met creative people.  Many of them are willing to volunteer their time if it's a cause they believe in.  Ask around.  You're sure to find designers, writers, painters, actors, and a million other people you never knew were there before.  You may have a vision for your ministry, but that vision won't be communicated properly unless you find good people willing to help.

4. Be perfectionists.  Ministry is full of imperfect people, but that doesn't mean that you have to settle for promotions that are less than extraordinary.  If you finish a video just under deadline to be able to show it on Sunday morning and it doesn't seem quite right DON'T SHOW IT!  It may turn more visitors off to your ministry than it will cause to stay.

5. Don't listen to the compliments of the encouragers.  Compliments are great and there are plenty of "bucket-fillers" in the Church.  It makes my day when someone appreciates what I've done, but I can't let their praise guide my projects.  If you know that it doesn't live up to the standards of what the intended audience is used to seeing then scrap it.

Again, I hope this is helpful to those of you in the Church.  I know that not everyone has big budgets (our ministry sure doesn't) or hundreds or professional creatives around, but if you begin to raise your standards you'll be amazed at what God does!

7 Ways that Macs Rule

Submitted by Scott
on
July 30, 2009 - 8:28am

I was meeting with a friend of mine yesterday who is a Windows guy.  I hesistate to call him "fan boy" because Windows doesn't necessarily have fans, just people who don't use Macs.  We started to get into a bit of a "discussion" about Macs vs. Windows.  Coincidentally, he resembles John Hodgman and I, of course, resemble Justin Long.  It made me think that the interwebs needed yet another list of reasons that Macs rule. 

1. You don't have to worry about going to the Geek Squad to get your laptop fixed.  Let's face it: the Genius Bar rules.  You make an appointment, show up on time, and they fix your computer.  At a Best Buy you wait in line (potentially for hours) just for the privelege of talking to a high school student whose lack of hygiene says that he was probably rejected by Taco Bell before coming here.  Which do you prefer?

2. You get to say stuff like: "I dunno why your screen just turned all blue.  My Mac never does that."  For years now I've had friends and family who've come to me for computer help.  Now that I'm not in that world anymore it's easy to constantly remind them why I switched.

3. You'll get more of your money back.  You ever shop for a used MacBook?  You're probably not gonna' get one for cheap.  That means that if you ever want to upgrade to the latest and greatest MacBook you'll easily be able to make a majority of your money back by selling your slightly older version.  Try that with a Dell.

4. You can pretend that you're on 24.  Whenever you see Jack Bauer's nemesis trying to hack into the most secretest secret government websites you know it's gonna' be on a PC.  The good guys, however, always beat 'em with a Mac. 

5. It's fun to watch new users dumbfounded by the Mac's simplicty.  I've helped a few people switched to a Mac recently.  When they first sit down they start looking for the "Start" menu.  Showing them the Finder, and then installing Quicksilver, puts a smile on any face.  Also, fun: teaching them to drag and drop an application into the Trash Bin to uninstall.  Usually, you get a: "That's it?".

6. You get to join a cult.  Mac users aren't just computer users.  They are cultists, pure and simple.  Once you switch you understand why.  With a Windows machine it's a necessary evil while a Mac makes all of your dreams come true.

7. Chicks dig 'em.  Having a brand new MacBook Pro or iPhone is a lot like bringing a baby to a mall.  Everytime you show up with one the ladies flock.  Women know fashion and a Mac is the perfect compliment to any ensemble.

Are you a Mac cultist?  Feel free to add reasons why in the comments.

5 Ways to Get Creative (Again)

Submitted by Scott
on
July 24, 2009 - 4:16pm

There are plenty of times that I am just plain drained and don't have the strength of mind to continue working on a project whose deadline is quickly nearing.  So, here are the top 5 things I do to get creative again:

1. Leave the environment you're working in.  I work from home.  That can be nice from the perspective that I could be sitting hear writing this in my underwear right now and you wouldn't know, but it can also be very unpleasant.  The walls can begin to close in on me, the albino squirrel outside of my front window can suddenly start quoting Shakespeare, and I can just plain begin to go insane.  So, I like to leave, go for a walk, go for a drive, or just amble through Target (I think security's beginning to follow me).

2. CAFFEINE!  That's right: recreational drugs.  Sometimes you just need that extra kick, that extra brain juice.  And caffeine is it.  This article proves it, and it's on the internet so it must be true.

3. Watch some TV or a movie.  One of the greatest escapes for me is to sit down and enjoy a little bit of the 'ol boob tube.  It gets my mind off of my current project and away from the same mindset that I've experience for the last 8 hours.  Seeing a commercial or graphic can also spur brilliant ideas that I didn't see before.

4. Have a conversation.  Some people are so driven that they think that if they take a break and chat with someone else it's wasted time.  One thing I've found is that my brain gets dusty and it needs to be shaken up a bit.  Telling stories and joking around can be that little extra jolt that I need.

5. Go to bed.  Many creatives are workaholics.  When we really get that itch to slave away it can be 3 AM before we finally look at the clock.  Sometimes I'll work and work and work 'til the wee hours of the morning before I realize that I'm stuck.  Even though I'd rather stay up and obsess about my project I hit the hay instead.  Often, after a good 8 hours or so of uninterrupted sleep, the idea just comes to me.  The cobwebs simply needed to be cleared.

So, what do you do for inspiration or to get the creative juices flowing again?  Let me know in the comments.

Transparency

Submitted by Scott
on
July 17, 2009 - 3:42pm

Who do you usually do business with?  That's an easy question to answer: someone you trust.  How does a business earn your trust?  A number a reasons: you've done business with them before, you've been referred by someone you already trust, and/or they are a well known company (chain or big-box stores).  But when would you do business with someone you know nothing about?  If a business was to open up their books and show you exactly what they're doing, how much money they're making, what every employee gets paid, and what their plan is for the future then you would probably give them some trust.  I'm not saying that many private companies go nearly that far, but what I am saying is that you tend to trust companies when they are transparent. 

Whenever I go about designing a website for someone, or helping a client with search engine optimization, I try to give them as much information as possible.  I like to put the power in their hands so that they know what they're paying for, and, if they would rather do it themselves in the future, they can.  You may think that's crazy, but I usually find that a client would rather spend time working in their profession than in mine. 

I don't believe in SEO or web design "secrets".  The information is freely available to all know how to Google.  Not giving a client certain information because you want to protect your job only breeds suspicion.  When you are transparent and show them everything you know they're more likely to keep coming back and refer you to others in the future.

Top 5 Social Network Marketing Mistakes

Submitted by Scott
on
June 12, 2009 - 11:13am

More and more today I'm hearing the term: "Social Network Marketing".  Week after week I have more Twitter users that I block for the simple fact that they say they are "Social Network Marketers".  I also continue to hear about seminars being held for people to learn how to "use social networks to win customers and influence people".  This is not necessarily a bad thing.  In my book, any ethical way that you can get sales is a good way, but I've begun to see a trend of major mistakes and wrong assumptions people make when they are trying to market their businesses.  Here are the top 5 social marketing mistakes that I see businesses making:

  1. Assuming that people want to be marketed to.  People are not on social networks so that they can find out about the latest way to "Make $2000 working part-time!".  They are on social networks so that they can connect with other people who they know or would like to know.  When you begin to use a social network only for marketing then the average person can see right through that and simply block any communcation from you.
  2. Not offering any content that is valuable to the customer.  When you do get someone who follows you on Twitter or becomes your fan on Facebook they are endowing you with a bit of trust.  They are saying that it may be worth their time to read your status updates or follow your tweets.  So, offer them something more than just the same links or ad over and over again.  Give them hints or tips that they may appreciate and that will give you more value in their eyes.
  3. Caring more about making a sale than making a connection.  Interact with your customers.  Media Temple (my web host) and Mosso (my former web host) respond to tweets very quickly.  Whenever I have a question I just Tweet it out and they've responded within the hour.  They don't exist on Twitter simply as a sales pitch.  They exist to continue to build good relations with their current and potential customers. 
  4. Follow spam.  Some very slick bridge salesman somewhere is teaching a class that tells people to follow everyone they can on sites like Twitter because then people will follow you back (perhaps you've attended his seminar).  That is, quite frankly, a lie.  Anyone who follows me who also follows 5,000 other people gets an automatic block from me.  They have just discovered a new way to spam, and most regular users can see right through it.
  5. Responding to people who didn't ask for it.  Twitter and Facebook are both brilliant social networks, but they are both very different.  The main thing that separates the two are their privacy standards.  By default, anything I say on Twitter can be seen by anyone.  The opposite is true on Facebook.  The openness of Twitter is great, but it also creates a problem.  Whenever I mention certain keywords phrases like "I need health insurance" someone responds to me offering a "great deal".  How would you like to walk through the mall on a Sunday afternoon and casually mention that you're hungry only to have 5 different fast food workers jump out and start telling you how great their food is?  Treat social network users just like you would in real life.  Don't give them something they didn't ask you for. 

If you can correct these easy mistakes then you are well on your way to succeeding in real "Social Network Marketing".

What Drupal Is and Why I Use It

Submitted by Scott
on
June 5, 2009 - 11:00am

Whenever I talk to a customer for the first time I bring up a word that they've probably never heard before.  That word is: "Drupal".  If you don't know it then you're definitely not in the minority.  Usually, I just throw it out there without much explanation.  Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes it's just because I'm so used to talking about it.  Often, people will act as though they know exactly what I'm saying and just continue to feign interest with whatever conversation comes after, but their faces plainly say what their mouths won't: "What the heck did he just say?  Should I know this?  Am I stupid for asking that question?".  Nope.  You're perfectly fine.  You've never had a reason to know about Drupal, but (if you hire me) you soon will.

Drupal is what is known as a "content management system".  Basically, it gives you the ability to login to your website and edit pages, upload images, create forums, blog, and monitor users' site usage.  It puts the power back into the hands of the users so that they won't have to be as dependent on their web developer.  Simply put, you are finally in control.  Now, there are many content management systems out there in the world.  So, why do I think Drupal is better than all the rest?  Here are my top 5 reasons:

  1. Power.  You can do anything with Drupal: build e-commerce sites, communities, blogs, or create multisite installations for corporations that run off the same database.  And, if you can't figure out a way to do what you wanna' do with already existing tools, then you can just write your own and connect it to Drupal (but that has been rare in my case).
  2. Number of Users.  There are a vast number of people using Drupal.  That means that there are a lot of individuals hammering away at code, improving things, tweaking things, checking out security issues, and generally just making Drupal better.
  3. Documentation.  Don't know how to even start with Drupal?  With just a little bit of googling you're well on your way to becoming a master.  There are books, videos, blogs, and simple tutorials all over the web.  You can also see how many books have already been written by doing a simple search on Amazon.
  4. Forums.  The forums at drupal.org are vast.  I've run into plenty of questions while using Drupal and only rarely do I have to ask a question that hasn't already arisen, or that doesn't already have an answer.  Plus, the forums are soon to get better with the brand new Drupal site that should be out soon. 
  5. Customization.  Any site that you need built can be built with Drupal.  When I design a site for a client I don't have to say: "Well, Drupal sites just don't look that way.  We have to make a different design decision.".  Nope.  I just make it happen, all with Drupal.

So, that is why I use Drupal.  Are you a developer, designer, or total web newbie?  What do you use?  Are there different tools that you use for different reasons?  Please let me know in the comments.

Waiting for Google

Submitted by Scott
on
May 25, 2009 - 1:21pm

This Spring I started a little garden on my front porch.  I have no green thumb by an stretch of the imagination, but I decided that it couldn't be that hard.  So, I bought some of those herbs from the dollar section at Target.  I planted the herbs, placed them outside and waited . . . and waited . . . and waited some more.  Finally, after a number of weeks, some things began to grow.  Of the six things I planted, five of them had shot right up.  The strawberries, however, were quite reluctant to show their faces.  Eventually, they began to come up as well.  Then, last week, a couple of the pots blew down and I had to replant.  I don't really know if they'll ever come back again.  So frustrating.

SEO is a lot like gardening.  One of the worst things about SEO is the waiting period.  I like to be know when something is going to get done.  Often, Google will take quite a long time to reindex my site and move me around.  Just last week I redid a lot of my site (text and mapping).  The work of writing and organizing, in themselves, take a long time, but you want to do it as quickly as possible so that you don't miss the chance for Google to index you and for the results to be reorganized sooner.  Just like the herbs I've been growing, all that I can do is wait.  Hopefully soon I'll be able to see the results of all of my hard work, but if I made a mistake I may not know for a month or two.  In the meantime I can continue to build links, tweak content, and blog. 

What is your most frustrating experience with SEO and Google?  Are there big mistakes you've made?  Have you waited for months only to discover that your hard work was in vain because you forgot to do one little thing?  Feel free to leave comments below.

Value

Submitted by Scott
on
May 21, 2009 - 2:49pm

Value is very subjective.  To someone who is dying of thirst, water could catch $100/bottle (and, in fact, does with some of the fancier, gourment water), but to someone who just had a full meal with plenty to drink, a gallon of fresh water from the streams of Mt. Ararat wouldn't fetch you a nickel.  So, what is the value of good design?  For many people the value is very low.  They don't understand that good design can = more business.  If you mow lawns for a living and have an ugly business card printed at Office Depot or Kinko's you probably won't get the big accounts that someone with a perfected image will. 

As a designer I talk to a lot of people who want to do both a website and logo.  Logos can take me between 40-50 hours to complete.  There is a lot of back-and-forth between myself and the client, and a lot of trying to interpret what they actually want.  Websites can often take about the same amount of time, but most people won't pay more than $200 for a logo.  They will, however, pay a lot more than that for a website.  Of course, this is really all dependent on what type of logo or website someone wants, but more often than not what is simple in their mind is quite complicated to actually complete.

So, how do we determine value?  It still goes back to what the client is willing to pay.  My job is to get them to understand the value in a good logo or website and what that will translate to in dollars of business.  After all, isn't that what every client is after anyways?

10 Steps to Happier Clients

Submitted by Scott
on
May 20, 2009 - 2:00pm

There are a few things I've learned in my time of working freelance/having my own business.  So, without further adieu, here are "10 Steps to Happier Clients": 

1. The old adage is true: the client IS always right.  The client is always right because they are paying you to do whatever they want you to do.  That is what you have to remember.  They may make a design or fiscal decision that you would disagree with, but they can do whatever they want.  Feel free to give the client advice or an opinion, but in the end: the client is always right.  Make sure you can handle that, or don't work with them. 

2. Clients don't know everything about your business.  That's why they're paying you.  Most of the time clients just want you to do what you were paid to do and not fuss with it themselves.  So, don't bother them every five minutes with questions.  Just get the job done.  Other times, a client is really picky and wants to do every little thing.  That's when you need to have a conversation about how you can take the work off of the client's hands.  They don't need to do anything if they don't want to.  After all, they're just wasting their money on you if they're gonna' do all of the work. 

3. Don't talk down to your clients just because you know more about a subject.  People are not stupid, but I've run into too many contractors who treat them like they are.  If you are an expert in an area then GREAT!  You can get paid lots of money for knowing something.  But, y'know what will stop you from getting that money?  Treating people as though they are idiots just because you know more than them in whatever area they're paying you to work.  If they don't understand something take some extra time to walk through it with them.  Educating people won't steal business from you.  In fact, your client may appreciate it so much that they'll refer you again and again. 

4. Underpromise and overdeliver.  Whenever I'm working on a project I tend to give the client the worst case scenario.  I do this for two reasons: 1. I look really great when I deliver a product sooner and in better shape than they thought and 2. When something takes a lot longer than I thought I've allowed myself plenty of leeway. 

5. Don't be afraid to say "no" to a client you don't "click" with, even if the contract could be very lucrative.  Having a bad experience with a client will give the client a bad experience as well.  This can potentially affect future income.  Say "no" before you're deep into the project from hell. 

6. Don't be guilted into working for free.  There are a lot of volunteer things that I do in my life.  I give time to serve in my church.  I have developed logos and websites at a reduced cost for people.  I have served in whatever ways I think are worthwhile.  One thing I never do though is work on a project because someone has guilted me into it.  All of us could work 40 hours a week for altruistic reasons, but you need to make money too.  Pick and choose who you want to help out.  That way, when you're working for free you know you're doing it with purpose. 

7. Always overcommunicate.  If you have talked about something on the phone follow up with an email.  Document everything so you don't forget what you promised and the client doesn't forget what they asked for. 

8. Keep a good record of your time.  This can often help in negotiations with the client for future projects.  It can also help the client to understand what he is paying you for.  If they ever question that you've actually done work then you can point to the when and where of everything.  Someday you may have an unhappy client who is wondering why it took you 10 hours to complete what to them seems like a simple task.  With detailed records you can show the client every little step you have taken. 

9. Don't "nickel-and-dime" the client.  You want your clients to feel comfortable to ask you questions.  If they know that every time they email you or call you they're gonna' get charged $100+ it could 'cause them to start looking for help elsewhere.  Asking questions is not a bad thing.  They may be thinking about hiring you again for a project that they're trying to think through.  Also, questions help out with #10. 

10. It's all about relationships.  You can be brand new in whatever field you're working in, but if the client likes you and trusts you, you will get the business.  On the other hand, if you're arrogant, don't listen, and talk about yourself like you are the god of your field the client won't want to hire you for a project where they will have to talk with you every day for the next month.  Build relationships.  Ask about family, friends, hobbies, life-goals.  Do whatever you can to become someone the client wants in their life.  Do that and you are well on your way to a successful business.