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Custom vs. Off-the-Shelf Software

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Business needs vary enormously from one organization to the next. So, naturally, continual improvement to processes and techniques to effectively run the business is a must. Business owners always have to step out of the normal day to day to evaluate whether or not we're being effective, how we can improve inefficiencies and how we can plan for the future. 

Because competition comes so strong and swift, we are in an age of process perfection. That is, we must understand our processes and constantly mine them for improvements. In many ways, we need to be like McDonald's where every small step has a predetermined sequence. This doesn't mean we'll abandon creativity and personality. With all their systems, McDonald's can be an amazingly creative force (e.g. Monopoly, kid's meals, play places). It's a common misunderstanding that boundaries limit creativity, but the contrary is really true (see "Creative Constraint: Why Tighter Boundaries Propel Greater Results"). Instead, we need to impose boundaries by tightening processes. One way to do this and track results effectively is with specialized software.

This isn't an easy task and choosing the right software to help you grow and adapt is crucial. The question often becomes "should I build a custom app that fits my needs exactly, or can I adopt off-the-shelf software to get close enough?"

Sometimes, this is an easy decision. Accounting software is used by just about every business, so there are an enormous number of flavors to choose from - Quickbooks, Microsoft Dynamics, MAS90, etc. Building custom software for your accounting needs usually doesn't make sense. The biggest issue arises when the business need is not a commodity, such as, a recycling company that needs to monitor pickups, drop-offs, sorting, and selling. Or a school district that wants to monitor facility usage and automatically adjust the HVAC system and unlock doors. 

But, even with non-commoditized needs, someone out there probably has fulfilled the need and built an off-the-shelf solution that you might be able to use. So, the decision ultimately becomes how good is the fit or can you do it better with a bigger bottom-line impact by building a custom application?

Here are some pros and cons of both. 

Off-the-Shelf Software

PROS:

  • Lower up-front cost
  • Contains many features, often more than you need
  • Support is often included or can be added with a maintenance contract
  • Upgrades may be provided for free or at reduced cost
  • If it's software-as-a-service (SaaS) there is no hardware or software to install

CONS:

  • Slow to adapt or change to industry needs
  • Your feature request may get ignored if it doesn't benefit the larger customer base
  • May require you to change your process to fit the software
  • Higher customization fees (proprietary software vendors often charge ridiculous hourly fees unless they provide an open API)

Custom Software

PROS: 

  • You can start with the minimum necessary requirements and add on later
  • Can be tailored to your exact business needs and processes
  • Changes can be made quickly

CONS:

  • Very high initial cost
  • All changes and feature requests will be billable
  • May incur additional costs ramping up new developers

Ultimately, you'll need to decide if you can use out-of-the-box software and fit a square peg into a round hole without too much pain or if you should build around the processes and systems you've worked so hard to develop. I suppose you could also do nothing and stick to the old way you do things but what's the fun in that?

I was once told by a business veteran that if there is a software solution that is good enough, then why incur the expense for custom development? I guess the answer depends on how fanatical you are about your business systems and how effective you believe yours to be over theirs. 

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Casey-Bertram Construction Launches Indianapolis Demolition Website

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Indianapolis Demolition & Construction WebsiteCasey-Bertram Construction, a leader in Indiana demolition services, launched their new website (www.casey-bertram.com) this week.  The site, which was designed and optimized by Marketpath and features our easy to use web content management system, positions Casey-Bertram as Indiana’s demolition services expert.

With 20 years of experience, Casey-Bertram has been a leader in the Indiana demolition market for quite some time, with demolitions projects involving Indiana landmarks such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Eli Lilly, the Indiana Convention Center, and the Indiana State Fair grounds.  Casey-Bertram even provided demolition services for ABC's Extreme Makeover Home Edition television series.

Website Hi-Lights Demolition Expertise

The main objective of the new site was to highlight Casey-Bertram’s demolition experience and breadth of service offerings in its three main markets: commercial demolition, industrial demolition and residential (home) demolition.  This was accomplished on the website with a number of features including: large image galleries, a demolition project gallery featuring over 25 Indiana demolition projects, a new Demolition Blog, and a section devoted to Indiana demolition videos.  The site even features the Casey-Bertram Salvage Store, where Indianapolis contractors or consumers can get great deals on recycled products ranging from electric motors, to brass doors, to air conditioner units.  

Scott Casey, President of Casey-Bertram, believes the new site does a much better of job of providing credibility and highlighting the organizations capabilities. 

“Marketpath has brought our website from very basic to a modifiable site that can grow as our business evolves.  I had no idea of interworking’s of SEO, blogs, keywords, etc. -  all the components that actually drive traffic and conversions on the web.  Marketpath extensively went over every detail and asked numerous questions to understand our business in order to tailor the website.” 

Indianapolis Building & Home DemolitionIf you need a small business or construction website - call Marketpath.  If you need an Indianapolis area building or home demolished - check out Casey-Bertram. 

Or just watch some of their demolition videos for fun!

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What's Your Mobile Website Strategy?

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Mobile SitesThe rise of smartphone usage over the past few years has come at a staggering pace.  There are now over 91.4 million smartphones in the United States alone (this stat is a few months old, and with the release of the iPhone 5 in late September, the number is probably over 100 Million in the US alone).  So, how does your website look to any one of these 100 million people that view your site on the device?  Clunky? Unreadable? Empty white boxes where Flash graphics are located? While we understand designing your site for multiple devices is a difficult trend to keep up with, we also realize that falling behind can be costing you…big time.

According to the Huffington Post, the average smartphone user spends approximately 25 minutes per day browsing the internet.  If you think your website is safe from mobile visitors, you’re probably wrong.  Go check your analytics.  One of our clients has about 20% of their traffic coming from mobile devices!

So, what’s your strategy?  Do you display a different website? Different content?  Well, that decision is likely unique to your business or organization.  However, here are a few tips that probably work for any industry:

  1. Simplify your design – focus on your brand, and easy to navigate content
     
  2. Get rid of drop down menus – If your main website has them, fine, but just make sure that you get rid of them for your mobile site, as they can be difficult to interact with
     
  3. Reorganize content to someone on the go – what are these mobile users looking for?  (Hint: Check analytics!)
     
  4. Make it easy to call you – prominently feature your phone number
     
  5. Give people the option to view the full site – Some phones are better than others, or some users don’t mind interacting with a full website on their phone, so give them the option to do so.

The main takeaway:  Put some thought into mobile.  The market is only going to grow as phones get better.  Aim to truly understand how visitors are interacting with your site, and you’ll be better off for it.

 

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Don’t Underestimate Your Website’s Copy

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New Content is CrucialEvery website project that Marketpath does follows the same process.  There is a hefty discovery portion of the project where we’ll discover everything from target audience & goals for the site, to design elements that will be utilized.  One question we always ask is about actual content on the site.  Who is going to write it?  What are you targeting?  Are you a good writer? 

Unfortunately, the content creation portion of a project is usually the portion of the projects that drag out the longest.  There are usually three different approaches to it (listed here from worst approach to the best):

Migrating old content to the new site

This is, by far, the worst approach that any company or organization can take.  Your old content was boring and doesn’t convert well (if it did, you wouldn’t be reworking your site).  Why would you want to mess up a fresh new site with stale content?  The reason this approach gets used so often, however, is that it’s the easy way out.  It doesn’t take any additional work, and therefore doesn’t cost any additional money.  However, not investing the time (or budget) into new content is just assuring your organization that the money spent on a new design was wasted.

Writing Content Internally

This approach, while better than just migrating the old stuff over to the new site, still leaves a lot to be desired.  Unless you have copywriters on staff, it is difficult for anyone within an organization to take a step back and write from a fresh vantage point.  Ultimately, you’re going to just polish up the old, stale content, utilizing the same boring, non-converting words and phrases.  Being entrenched in the day-to-day operations of a business can leave the mind at a loss when trying to create compelling content.

Outsourcing to a Professional

Ah, yes…we have a winner.  Within any new website budget, there should be a line item for content writing.  Depending on which firm you choose to work with, they may offer this service, so be sure to discuss it.  If the firm doesn’t offer a copywriting service, ask who they would recommend.  There are plenty of good writers (and companies) out there that make a living generating new content for companies.  Having a fresh take can prove to be an invaluable asset.  Another tip if you choose to outsource – think beyond your website.  Many of these writers will offer packages that can give you white papers, case studies, blog posts, and a myriad of different types of content.  Explore all your options.

The main takeaway: Content shouldn’t be an afterthought.  It is just as, if not more, important as a new design, new functionality, or a new brand.  Take that into consideration and you’ll have a much better chance at seeing a return on your investment.     



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Math vs. Content Problems – Why SEO as We Know it is Dead

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We attended Blog Indiana 2012 last week and came away with a new viewpoint on the SEO industry.  The two day conference was packed with speakers on various topics, but somehow, SEO always popped into their presentations.  The highlight, for me, was Doug Karr giving a presentation titled “SEO is Dead” (full slides at the link).  Even with the linkbait-like title, I was immediately intrigued with the topic.

SEO is Dead and DyingSEO, or the process of gaining higher rankings for search phrases, has been around for around for about 15 years.  It has gone through hundreds of changes as search engines have come and gone, evolved, and gotten smarter.  These changes always tweaked the algorithm in technical ways, but usually didn’t make drastic changes to the landscape of the web.  Well, in 2011 and 2012, Google has thrown the industry for a loop.  It has taken the complex math and statistics out of the equation and replaced it with something more transparent.  Keyword density, linking structure, link profiles, sculpting PageRank, and other statistic & math heavy topics are being discredited or even penalized.  Instead of focusing on what search engines want, these new changes seem to be moving search in a more traditional direction on the web.  SEO seems to be taking on characteristics of traditional marketing tactics.  Content creation, spreading the word socially, and converting visitors to customers are tactics of the new SEO.

Doug presented a lot of data around these changes and they all pointed in the same direction.  “SEO is not a math problem anymore, it’s a human problem.”

What does this mean for you?  Well, if you’re in charge of your SEO and you haven’t embraced the changes that were rolled out in the SPYW, Panda and Penguin changes, you’re already late to the party.  If you’ve contracted with an SEO firm to gain rankings and they haven’t talked about a content strategy, it’s time to evaluate your partnership with them.  It also means that if you’re a good marketer, but never really understood the link-building stuff, you’re in luck.  Do what you do best – update your site, create content, and share it to your audience. 

SEO isn’t dead, but it has definitely evolved once again.  This time, it has changed into something that more people are probably familiar with…good old, traditional marketing.    

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Online Marketing Strategy is Changing

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I’m not all together sure there is a more dynamic industry than online marketing.  With new tools, networks, tactics, and things to pay attention to debuting every day, how can anyone keep up?  It is a full-time job just staying on top of the latest trends, let alone rolling them out into a marketing campaign.  Gone are the days of launching a website with some keywords in the title tag and getting results.  Gone are the days of paying an SEO firm to "magically" gain rankings.  Gone are the days where this stuff was, well…easy. 

Change is Coming
​Are you ready for it?

It has finally happened.  Consumers are becoming smarter each and every day.  Search engines are changing ranking factors every month (or so it seems).  Has your business taken a step back and accessed strategy lately?  If not, you’re behind the curve.  Consumers are well aware of what SEO is.  Just ranking highly for competitive keywords doesn’t cut it anymore.  What value are you providing?  Why should I buy from you or fill out that form on your website?

You see, even SEO firms are realizing the game has changed…the good ones anyway.  Tactics are changing.  The process is much more client facing and transparent.  And guess what…that’s a good thing.  It means that anyone and everyone can play in this space now, not just the guy with the deepest pockets.  Being the richest doesn’t mean you’re the best or that you deserve to gain customers online.  You must provide value.  You must provide content.  And most of all, you must do it often.

Stop worrying about linking strategy and start worrying about creating link-worthy content.  Stop worrying about ranking for competitive keywords and start worrying about ranking for more keywords.  Stop worrying about the technical side of SEO and start worrying about providing value to your potential clients. 

If you can do these things, you’ll be able to absorb changes in online marketing industry.  You won’t have to worry about dropping one spot in Google for your top keyword.  You can get back to doing what you do best…serving your customers.

 

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3 Solutions to the Same Project

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We met with a prospective client last week to discuss their upcoming website redesign & development project.  This prospect is your typical small business where the owners make all of the decisions without much input from the rest of the staff.  There isn’t a dedicated marketing department, nor is there a “techie” on staff.  If you’re a small business owner, this situation may sound familiar…and you can vouch that it’s not easy.

Any vendor selection process is an exercise in analytical skills.  The two owners that we met with aren’t website guys.  This whole process is new to them, and while they know they need a new site, they don’t exactly know how to go about getting the best bang for their buck. 

After talking with them about the project, we discovered that we were one of three companies proposing a solution.  After a bit more digging, it became apparent that the three solutions being offered were drastically different in nature, and in price.  The decision on which firm to use is going to be a difficult one, as I’m sure we have all outlined our value proposition, highlighted strong points, and helped educate the two owners.  Here are the three solutions that are common in this situation:

                                            Different Approach to the Same Problem

​Different Paths to the Same End Goal

A Company like Marketpath

Marketpath designs and develops websites with our website content management system on the backend.  We focus on enhancing the online brand, building an easy-to-navigate website, building an easy-to-update website, and creating the best “hub” possible for your marketing efforts.  There are a lot of companies like us, some with their own CMS’s and some that use open-source platforms like WordPress, but you can rest assured that these firms are the experts in useable website design and development.  There will usually be an upfront cost and an ongoing monthly fee for hosting/support.

An SEO Company

This option is similar to the firms listed above, except their sole focus is on gaining an ongoing SEO client.  A new website that is “finely tuned and internally optimized” is the first step in their service offering, as a lot of the smaller SEO firms will claim that they need to code the website to be successful in the long run.  After the website is built, there will be an ongoing, monthly “SEO Maintenance” fee of a few thousand dollars a month.  If you like this solution, make sure you know the red flags to look for when hiring an SEO company

A Full-Service Marketing Agency

This third option is the other player at the table.  These full-service firms are typically very large in nature and can bring a lot of value to the conversation.  They care more about overall branding efforts than rankings - they try to tie online and offline campaigns together.  They are out to build you the best message possible.  While they can build you a great looking website, often times these firms aren’t experts in the web.  If you’re not planning on using them for more services, it could be overkill to choose this option.

Our Advice

During the meeting, I tried to explain to the prospect that, a lot of times, these three types of firms can work together.  If you’re looking for a local presence (as these guys are), on-page SEO may be enough to gain the rankings you’re looking for.  If you build a highly-optimized website (as we do), and don't achieve the high rankings, then you can bring on an SEO firm to help boost the efforts after you establish a baseline.  Automatically assuming you need to spend thousands a month on SEO is one heck of an assumption.  Also, hiring the mother ship of marketing to build you a website if you’re not planning on tying it all together with a major marketing campaign could result in a sub-par website.  Full-service marketing firms aren't cheap, and they are looking for clients that take advantage of the entire offering.

It’s important, as a small business owner, that you ask questions and understand why there are three different approaches to the same problem.  Understand the product and service offerings and select the best option for your company.

Have you experienced this same problem?  What was your solution?  Sound off in the comments below. 

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5 Signs You've Hired the Wrong SEO Firm

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When the time comes to hire an SEO agency to help boost your online presence and rankings, chances are you’re going to have a lot of questions.  This is okay.  I’ve been in and around the industry for close to six years and I am no expert.  Whether you’re a novice, someone who knows enough to be dangerous, or a seasoned veteran looking for some help, these 5 signs will help you eliminate a lot of so called “experts”. 

Guaranteed 1st Page Rankings

No Guarantee PleaseNo SEO company can or should offer a guarantee for first page rankings for your keywords.  I don’t care what else they say, or what else they show you, this is impossible.  Guarantees are the biggest red flag for any company and should end the conversation immediately.

Bottom Line - none of these companies work for or “have a special relationship with Google.”  It just doesn’t work that way.  Sure they may have a great track record, but guarantees are impossible to make in this industry.    

Won't Share Past Results

Piggybacking a bit off the first point, any SEO company that refuses to share their results with previous or current clients should be shown the door as well.  Any reputable SEO firm isn’t afraid to showcase their successes, their process, and even their failures.  Nobody is perfect in this industry, so be sure to ask them for examples or each. 

Bottom Line – Just because a company isn’t perfect doesn’t mean they won’t work for you.  Understanding the successes, process, and any failures they’ve had will go a long way in building a trusting relationship.

Unable/Unwilling to Give Explanations of Service/Process

No SEO Has ThisIf you hear the words “Through our proprietary process, your site will see an increase in rankings”, make sure you ask exactly what it is they are going to do.  If they are vague, too technical, or just very brief, ask for clarification.  If you’re still unclear, it could be time to look elsewhere. 

Bottom Line – In today’s SEO world, the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t is out on the web.  No firm should have an ace up their sleeve, or a proprietary process that nobody else uses (if they do, chances are it’s not a white hat tactic).

No Discussion of Overall Business Goals

Today’s SEO firms should act more as overall Internet Marketing consultants more than just “We swear we’ll improve your rankings” consultants.  The days of improving rankings by implementing nothing but a technical SEO strategy are gone.  Today, it’s more beneficial to build a brand, generate content, and share it across the web.

Bottom Line – Make sure the conversation leads to overall goals for the marketing plan and the business itself.  Improving rankings on a SERP should be part of an overall plan to grow, not the only strategy.

Links to Your Site Start Showing up in Questionable Places

No Spammy Links, PleaseAdding to the last point, a red flag that your SEO firm is engaged in some naughty practices would be that links to your site start showing up in questionable places.  Make sure you have Google Alerts and Google Webmaster Tools set up.  The Alerts will help flag any event on the web that involves a keyword (your business name), and the Webmaster tools will allow you to see which domains are linking to you.  If you see a suspicious domain, don’t hesitate to speak with your SEO firm and ask what they are doing.

Bottom LineGoogle is getting better and better at detecting these poor SEO practices.  Unfortunately, SEO firms still practice them religiously, so they need to be monitored and called out when possible. 

Contracting with an SEO firm is never an easy decision, but hopefully these five red flags will help you eliminate some of the less effective companies.  Keep in mind that communication is key.  There should always be an open dialog between client and agency in the SEO relationship.

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3 Mistakes Your Corporate Blog May Be Guilty Of

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So, you’ve taken the plunge and launched a corporate blog.  Congratulations!  All of the people that have been telling you for years that it’s a must finally won out, right?  Now, the hard part is here…making it actually worthwhile.  If you just said “Wait, what?” I don’t blame you.  Nobody told you that it was going to be difficult and time consuming.  Nobody told you that it’s not just as easy as throwing up a random thought here and there.  So, if that was your strategy, think again.  Here are 5 common mistakes businesses often make with their blogs, and some tips on how to improve them.

Lack of Updates

Consistency is KeyFirst things first, if you have a blog, you have to update it.  No exceptions.  No taking weeks at a time off (hi pot, we’re kettle).  Consistency is key here, not only for readers, but for search engines as well.  Nothing can kill a little momentum like an extended gap of silence. 

Tip – Combat this by creating a lot of content at once and scheduling that content to be released on a set schedule.  Shoot for 2 blog posts a week starting out.  Sit down at the beginning of each month and map out 8 blog topics, content associated with those, and which images are needed.  This may be a full day’s work, but it’s crucial for consistency.

Lack of Original Content

Corporate blogs aren’t meant for just PR and news items.  Sure, adding some of those types of posts in from time to time can be beneficial to your branding strategy, but news and PR should not dominate your blog.  The truly valuable content comes from thought-leadership, interesting conversation, and new ideas.  Try to avoid reliance on the PR type of article, as that content is better used elsewhere.

Tip – Your corporate blog is your chance to showcase your expertise and explore interesting topics.  Utilize sales and marketing collateral, find and explain industry trends, or showcase case studies.  As a general rule, one case study can often times be broken down into multiple blog posts.  Focus on one specific topic per post and create a series.

Lack of Promotion

Promote your BlogYour blog is part of your website (hopefully), but it doesn’t mean that it will gain any traction without some amount of promotion.  Why spend all of the time creating this great, original content if you’re just going to publish and forget about it?  These posts need promoted if they are going to get any value whatsoever.

Tip – Social media is a great way to promote content and gain new readers.  Focus on popular topics (hash tags on twitter) and be sure to promote the post via a simple tweet.  Look for opportunities to guest post on other blogs and be sure to reciprocate as well.  Growing your following on social media can have a tremendous impact on your blogging. 

What are some other pitfalls for corporate blogs and how do you avoid them?  Sound off in the comments below!  



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Marketpath Featured on MTFW Marketing Podcast

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On June 20th, TJ Furman from Marketpath was lucky enough to join Lorraine Ball and Allison Carter of Roundpeg on their weekly small business marketing podcast, More Than a Few Words.  The topic was content creation strategies and why just having a blog might not be enough.

If you're struggling to come up with content ideas that are interesting, we urge you to listen to the podcast and formulate a plan.  You can listen to the full show here:
 

 

If you have any additional ideas or want to join the conversation, make sure to leave your comments below.

 

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