Discussion: Elements of a Successful WooCommerce Website

This summer, I sat down with some other WordPress experts to discuss the components of a successful WooCommerce website on the WP-Tonic podcast.

The other panel members were Morten Rand-Hendriksen of Lynda.com, Scott Buscemi of Luminary Web Strategies, Sallie Goetch of WP Fangirl, and Jonathan Denwood of WP-Tonic.

One of the recurring themes was that you have to drive traffic to your site, and you must have a marketing plan, especially for a brand new site.

So often, there is a “build it and they will come” mentality when it comes to marketing a website, and the same is true for e-commerce websites.

One that stuck with me is that as complex as the technical aspects of e-commerce are, we often neglect to know what the story of our product is, or who it’s for. Determining whether we have an audience or market for our products should be step one, before we sink tons of money into a website.

The main discussion about planning a successful WooCommerce site begins at about the 27:30 mark in the podcast.

 

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Why Your About Page Is A Big Opportunity

There’s a lot of websites that have the same opportunity — to connect with their customers.

It’s not hard to do, but — many sites fall short.

Most websites have a page with a name like About, History, Bio, or Meet the Team.

But most of them don’t list anyone who’s on their team, or perhaps one to two people at the most.

When the About page doesn’t list anybody, that’s the dirt worst.

Here’s why it’s a good thing to tell people who you are and who’s in your company.

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…Then You Need To Market

One of the biggest opportunities I see for service-based businesses is consistency in marketing their business.

Raising awareness of your services so qualified customers can find you is something every business can do year-round.

But consider what actually happens in many small and mid-sized businesses. When business is booming, most of the company’s resources go into getting the existing work done. Only when business gets slow again do most businesses re-evaluate their marketing efforts.

But when you’re busy, that’s exactly the time you need to step on the gas.

Building The Future Today

Building awareness for your company is something you must do year-round, not just when business is slow. The reason for this is sales cycles have a long timeline.

The average customer must hear a brand message twenty-one times before they even consider making a branded purchase.

This means you must build awareness of your company and what it offers about six months prior to each customer purchase.

The best way to prepare for your slow season is to make additional time to market your expertise when you are the busiest.

The work you put into building your brand today will benefit you six months from now.

Be sure to allocate time and resources for building your business long before you need it. Building momentum out of a cold start takes time. If you ditch raising brand awareness every time things get overwhelmingly busy, you will find it difficult to grow to the next level.

Marketing Is More Than Advertising

When you say the word “marketing”, many people hear the word “advertising”. Advertising is a subset of marketing, and far from the entirety of it.

Consider the noisy world we live in today. Even if you had a large budget to buy advertising, where would you invest that money?

Today, people barely glance billboards because they’re too busy looking at their phone. There’s thousands of TV channels on TV, Netflix, Hulu, and YouTube — and people either fast-forward or tune out completely to get past the commercials.

There’s also scores of social media platforms, millions of apps, and billions of websites there to fill the gaps in people’s day.

Don’t forget podcasts, which are growing exponentially. Radio, newspapers, and magazines also still exist. Advertising dollars have to be focused towards the right customer personas, at the right time, in the right medium, or that investment vanishes.

In today’s world, everyone has a portable computer in their pocket, and more information is created and published every few years than in the century that preceded them.

This is one of the main reasons I don’t rely on pay-per-click advertising as a main form of marketing.

We’ve been ignoring banner ads for almost two decades, and is advertising is ethereal by nature.

Pay-per-click continues to thrive though, because it’s the one thing guaranteed to get a message in front of an audience.

PPC is a financial penalty for not investing in long-term marketing through site content.

Content Marketing: A Long-Term Strategy That Works

I believe all businesses can benefit from content marketing. This means creating information which is interesting and relevant to your customers, and can be reused extensively.

For example, many books that are published today are written first as daily blogs. That’s content marketing in full effect.

Over a period of time, and these thoughts are collected in book form. But let’s say you don’t want to write a book just to reach customers.

What’s a manageable option for you?

Blogging is one possible option. By writing down your industry knowledge and addressing the questions your customers already have, you accomplish a few things.

First, you establish your expertise. What’s the difference between you and everyone else in your industry doing the same thing? Customers trust companies that establish their expertise through digestible information.

We trust what we can analyze to be safe. We fear the unknown.

Continually publishing information and insights allows your company to establish it’s expertise, and begins to establish you as an expert in your field.

Content marketing through writing, podcasting, and videos also has a curious effect on search results.

Google tries to match search results to the best individual pages that answer the searcher’s intent. Google looks for clues for what a site is about in order to better categorize the pages in that site.

When search engines see your company publishing about the same subjects, over and over, they begin to associate your brand with those subjects. Branded content is becoming more authoritative to Google and other search engines.

Brand As A Ranking Signal

You are more likely to rank higher by consistently publishing about specific subjects, as opposed to a company that never publishes anything new on their site, or a competitor that lacks focus in their content strategy.

Having a large amount of content that helps your customers solve their problems will also help your content get shared on social media.

Think about it. Which site are you more likely to share on Facebook or Twitter? A website with only a few vague pages about what they do, or a site that has blog with hundreds of articles on a particular subject?

The more of your insight and expertise you share, the more chances you have to make your content spread, and therefore introduce people to your company and your brand.

Marketing Has Many Forms

Marketing doesn’t always have to be online either.

Making new connections and closing deals almost always takes place face-to-face. It’s good to go to industry events, trade shows, local events, and community meet ups in order to make your company known.

As a business, hiding your light under a bushel does no one any favors. Embrace marketing.

In A world of increasingly short attention span’s, you have to fight to be above the noise.

We expect business to be like Field of Dreams. But the truth is, if you build it, it doesn’t mean they will come. They won’t come if they don’t know it exists.

If you build it, and then market it effectively, only then will your future customers show up.

First, You Have To Believe

It’s been written in every major philosophy and religion that belief precedes results.

Meaning, an event you wish to transpire will not occur unless you believe that it will happen first.

Why do you think this is?

Myself, I believe that we each are our greatest ally and our greatest enemy.

I also believe that we create our own reality through the stories we tell ourselves internally.

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WordPress Development: More Than Picking A Theme & Plugins

I was recently asked by an industry colleague about the hyper-focus many folks in the WordPress ecosystem place on themes and plugins.

What my peer was talking about was something different than the drive to keep up with industry knowledge.

They had noticed that some people believe WordPress development is something similar to magic. If you need functionality for a site, there must be a plugin and/or theme that takes care of that need, and it appears from thin air.

This is a dangerous fallacy that exists in the world of WordPress. Yes, plugins and themes are great tools, but someone had to actually develop those tools before anyone could use them.

The more you know about development within a platform, the more you can achieve with that platform. WordPress is no different.

Behind The Curtain

No doubt about it, plugins can be useful, and can usually help you get most of the functionality you want.

But somewhere, someone has to develop those plugins and keep them up to date.

Where problems arise is when folks install all manner of plugins, without keeping track of what plugins are still being maintained, or researching which plugins have security issues.

WordPress core has about 3 to 4 major releases per year. A large percentage of these updates involve hardening security, though most people focus on the improvements in functionality.

Because the WordPress platform is continually moving forward, it’s imperative that the plugins and themes on your site are continually keeping pace with these updates. On a long enough time frame, free plugins have a greater chance of not being maintained. Premium (paid) plugins and themes cost money, because in some cases, those companies are trying to cover the cost of ongoing support and maintenance.

What terrifies me is the reliance on marketplace themes, found on sites like ThemeForest, and the lack of knowledge of independent theme shops that produce and support a generally superior products.

Some of you are now wondering: What do I mean by lack of knowledge? And what do I mean by superior products?

Educating The Market

If you’re a do-it-yourself-er, I can understand why you’ve never heard of anything besides ThemeForest, or perhaps TemplateMonster. Their theme selection dominates the Google rankings, and this is how most people find themes.

What’s less forgivable to me is the large percentage of web studios who have never heard of The Theme Foundry, Press75, Elegant Themes, UpThemes, or Slocum Themes.

It takes more work to research independent theme shops, who aren’t present on ThemeForest. But these independent shops are usually following best practices in WordPress development much better than the marketplace theme sites.

“All-in-one” themes like the ones found on marketplaces are designed to look appealing to consumers looking for a quick solution, but are often lacking in performance, security, adaptability, or ease of use.

Marketplace themes generally come bundled with multiple plugins “baked in”. What this means is when plugins need to be updated, you won’t be alerted in your admin Dashboard, because plugins weren’t meant to be baked into themes.

Essentially, you are relying on the theme authors to update the plugin in their themes, and then let you know that you need a theme update.

There have been numerous cases where plugins bundled into marketplace themes had security holes and millions of sites had serious vulnerabilities for months without the plugin authors notifying anyone. But many DIY-ers are likely to skip updates, for fear of breaking their site.

Plugins, even when they aren’t bundled in a theme, can still have vulnerabilities, if not regularly updated. So choose wisely when it comes to what foundation you’re building your site on. Make sure the company behind each component will be here a year or two from now.

There’s a huge opportunity in the web development industry, especially at the small and mid level end. This opportunity is gaining knowledge of which themes are performance driven and which are not.

Unfortunately, most the top-selling themes are performance nightmares, filled with bloated code. The result is sites that load slower than they should, which causes increased bounce rates, decreased conversions, and even lower search engine rankings. And I still see tons of web firms perfectly okay with using these themes, because it is the path of least resistance.

There are a million ways to solve a problem, but not all of them are good for achieving business goals.

Simply having good working knowledge of which WordPress themes, plugins, and hosting can boost a web design shop into the top half of firms with actual knowledge of WordPress. Being able to create custom templates, themes, and plugins will boost a web studio even higher.

Some Plugins I Use

That said, using certain plugins are a great way to cut development time down. I rely on Gravity Forms for integrating form functionality with other moving parts, WooCommerce for e-commerce, and Types and Advanced Custom Forms Pro for custom post types and fields.

This allows me more flexibility in custom coded themes. (Most of the work I do is either custom WordPress theme development or child theme development).

Picking a theme and plugins isn’t really web development by itself — but it can be the right solution, in certain cases. WordPress developer Tom McFarlin calls this implementation, to distinguish it from web development.

Web implementation can be a good fit for smaller businesses, but is unthinkable for large or enterprise level businesses. The larger an organization gets, the more complex and custom their web development needs become.

Do Your Research

It pays to do your research when choosing themes and plugins. Sometimes that means enlisting someone to help you do just that.

My advice is use premium plugins to do important jobs, stay away from ThemeForest themes in general (10-20% of the themes are okay, but it’s hard to tell what you have until you buy it). Also, update everything, and don’t install anything that isn’t compatible with the current version of WordPress.

Focus On What You’re Good At

All our lives we’ve been told to improve the areas where we’re weakest.

If you’re unskilled at something, the common wisdom is to work on skill that really hard so you can eventually be a well-rounded individual. A human Swiss army knife, if you will.

A lot of that same mentality carries over into running a business.

And what happens is you have business owners trying to do all these things that they’re not really good at, because that’s what they think they should be doing.

Instead of knowing what we’re best at, and focusing on those strengths, we try to do it all. That leaves us being inefficient at everything.

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Ad Blocking: What’s The Future of Web Revenue

Read anything good on the web lately?

Perhaps you’ve noticed the abundance of online advertising out there.

Although web researchers have been warning us about “banner blindness” since 1998, advertising has been a viable revenue model since the dawn of the web.

Recently, a series of events have reminded online publishers of the looming probability that ad revenue may be an endangered species.

A Brief History of Ad Revenue

Many digital empires have been built on the pillars of trading tracking information for online content, and trading ad clicks for money.

Internet behemoths Google and Yahoo were built on the ability to deliver targeted ads to consumers.

For many years, media and content publishers have been able to generate supplemental income from placing ads on their site. Today, there are hundreds of web and mobile advertising networks, serving ads to site vistors, paying the hosting sites for clicks.

The Game Is About To Change

Earlier this week, the mobile ad blocking app, Peace, was the best seller in the App Store for about 36 hours. Developer Marco Arment then pulled the app, stating “Ad blockers come with an important asterisk: while they do benefit a ton of people in major ways, they also hurt some, including many who don’t deserve the hit.”

Arment elaborated, “I still believe that ad blockers are necessary today, and I still think Ghostery is the best one, but I’ve learned over the last few crazy days that I don’t feel good making one and being the arbiter of what’s blocked.”

What’s interesting to some people is the fact that this type of software is enabled on the recent iOS9 upgrade.

Some believe this is an attempt by Apple to force online publishers into their Newstand app (which cannot be deleted), in which ads are also, oddly enough, unblockable.

This would also simultaneously hurt Apple’s competitor, Google, by blocking their ads. Google is the largest server of ads on the web.

Journalist Nilay Patel writes that what’s happening is a war for proprietary platforms.

Patel states, “Google has the web, Facebook has its app, and Apple has the iPhone. This is the newest and biggest war in tech going today.”.

What’s unfortunate is that there are millions of independent publishers that depend on ad revenue to continue publishing. Servers and bandwidth cost money, and mismanaged success can be a bigger drain on a company’s resources than remaining obscure.

But the allure of an ad-free internet is Pandora’s Box. Once people get a taste of it, they won’t want to go back, if they can help it.

How To Make Money On The Internet

Ad blockers have been around for years, and yet advertisers keep finding ways to serve ads. This will always be a battle that keeps morphing into different forms.

In the present day however, if most content sites had 75 to 85% of their ads blocked, they would have to find a new revenue model (quickly) or shutter operations.

Many successful independent publishers advocate visitors to only frequent sites that serve no ads or serve them in a respectful manner.

Most consumers just want to read or watch things on the web. They won’t keep a tally of which sites bombard them with ads (most of the web), and which ones don’t. Nor should they be burdened with that responsibility.

So what are the options if you’re a content publisher, and you don’t want to see your revenue disappear, now or in the near future?

Do Paywalls Work?

The trick to making paywalls work seems to be producing very high quality content, and having a strong consumer base before implementing the paywall. For most online publishers, paywalls are not the all-inclusive answer.

Some newspapers, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, have successfully created a paywall revenue stream. Other online publishers with specialized, highly differentiated information like the Financial Times, Bloomberg Network, or Harvard Business Review also implement paywalls. Some of these are “hard” paywalls, while others are metered.

Services like Spotify offer you a choice of paying for a subscription, or being served ads with tracking information.

Do Subscriptions Work/

Subscriptions can work for independent publishers if they have certain things in place.

The publisher must have specialized knowledge or insight on a subject. They must have established some credibility in the community they are writing for. They must have high production values. The price must make sense to the subscribers.

In the WordPress community, Brian Krogsgard has been able to make the Post Status membership work. He offers annual memberships at the $99 level, and patronages at the $365 level.

Whitelisting Respectful Advertising

The Deck is an ad network that places one solitary ad in partner pages. Carbon Ads does something very similar.

The idea is to make ads less intrusive, and more tastefully done. The downside is that these ad networks are centered around design, development, and web culture, and selective about their partners and their advertisers. While these two ad networks are on to something good here, their solution will only work for a very specific niche.

The ad blocker Ghostery allows you to white-list ad networks, thereby rewarding publishers who use those networks by not cutting off their ad revenue.

The issue is, this is not a viable solution for the majority of publishers. Many sites use content blockers in order to force site vistors to see ads, otherwise they can’t access the content that they came to the page for in the first place.

Challenges Going Forward

The problem is that most of us now expect information to be free. If we’re going to pay for something with money, we have to see a lot of value in it.

Web advertising continues because there’s less friction paying in attention instead of cash.

But as Seth Godin writes:

And advertisers have had fifteen years to show self restraint. They’ve had the chance to not secretly track people, set cookies for their own benefit, insert popunders and popovers and poparounds, and mostly, deliver us ads we actually want to see.

…Ad blockers undermine a fundamental principle of media, one that goes back a hundred years: Free content in exchange for attention. The thing is, the FCC kept the ad part in check with TV, and paper costs did the same thing for magazines and newspapers. But on the web, more and more people have come to believe that the deal doesn’t work, and so they’re unilaterally abrogating it. They don’t miss the ads, and they don’t miss the snooping of their data.

This reinforces the fundamental building blocks of growth today:

The best marketing isn’t advertising, ‘s a well-designed and remarkable product.

The best way to contact your users is by earning the privilege to contact them, over time.

Seth Godin, “Ad Blocking”

User experience designer Jared Spool adds:

CSS innovator and web pioneer Eric Meyer reflects:

Showing Up

If you run a business, you want more people to walk through your doors and purchase your services. The only way to make that happen is to market effectively — both online and offline.

Showing up where your customers are looking already online makes a big difference. That means being in forums, having a solid social media presence and doing a TON of content marketing.

One goal of content marketing is to answer questions that people are typing into Google. Answer those questions consistently, on a long enough timeline, and people begin to recognize you as an authority in your industry. This works, but it takes commitment and patience.

The other half of that equation is doing offline marketing. This means getting in front of other people, and establishing your authority in an industry.

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Imagination, Stagnation, and Curation

At its heart, front-end design and development is still about putting boxes inside other boxes on a web page.

Granted, the tools, the techniques, and the processes have become more complex compared to even five years ago. That’s part of the territory.

What we do with those boxes has gotten more complicated, but web development is still in its adolescence.

Hell, we just started designing for smartphones five years ago. Double check the date on this seminal article on responsive web design — it’s only from 2010.

That’s not what this post is about, though.

What terrifies me is the idea that there’s a stagnation ’s going on in my own imagination. I get frightened when I think I’ve stopped dreaming of what is possible on the web.

Maybe you’ve felt it yourself. Maybe you’ve forgotten what it felt like the first time you started to understand how to build something on the web.

I can’t speak for anyone else but myself. I don’t live in your skin, or share your exact experiences. But here’s my tale.

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Why A Small Project Is A Good Way To Start

Whenever starting a new relationship in our personal lives, we don’t jump in with both feet.

There is a feeling-out process, where we learn more about the other person, and decide whether we like them or not.

Of course, the other person is doing the same thing.

Working relationships are a lot like our friendships and relationships outside of work.

It takes time to cultivate them. We have to see if we have good chemistry together. We have to establish trust in each other before we move on to investing more of ourselves.

Why is it then, that so many web projects start with a large-scale project, with no prelude to the relationship?

Instead of wading in the shallow end of the pool and then moving over to the deep end, both parties jump into the deep water without knowing if the other one can swim?

Instead of going on a date, and then going steady, getting engaged and finally getting married, why do we jump right into getting hitched after a week of meeting each other?

When starting a new working relationship with a web partner, both sides should start things off mellow, with a smaller project, before moving to a large project.

This gives both parties time to get to know each other, see how they work together, and see if they are a good fit for each other as long-term allies.

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