An exercise in building brand, engaging customers and creating a community

Brand. Engagement. Conversation. Community. We hear these words all of the time, but for many, making use of them is time consuming and often drags you into unfamiliar territory. So how do we make the transition from company to brand and beyond?

When I walk into my gym, scattered on the reception counter is a collection of flyers and printed pamphlets promoting their various events. They’re on cork boards, stuck to walls, they’re announced over the speaker system, displayed on the flat TV screens in the gym, the changing rooms and the bar area — they’re promoting events everywhere throughout the gym.

Brilliant, eh? Well, nearly. To some extent, the strength of the message is being lost on those that are head-down busy like me; you’ve either got time or you haven’t. Promoting internally will have results, but people are increasingly becoming “ad’ blind”, and just don’t even see adverts. What’s needed is an elective process, one that people subscribe to.

Put your business through its paces

Much has been made of Facebook and many people labour under the impression that it’s is just for kids. Thankfully, that’s not the case. Because if it was, Octane wouldn’t be there.

For a business like Octane, community is a more difficult end goal to build because my offering is different. Blah, Blah! Technology has a very healthy Page, currently heading towards 400 fans. People appear to enjoy not only science, technology and social media.

So, my gym. They have a website, which I doubt is doing them an ounce of good. They have all of these great offers, promotions, give-aways, competitions etc, but the uptake isn’t as good as it could be.

Right now, they have all of these members, most of which elected to give up their email addresses when they joined. This being a private gym, membership isn’t exactly cheap — but the service and the facilities are excellent, I hasten to add! I reckon their demographic has a healthy bulge in the 30-35 year old area. I would say it’s not a great leap of speculation to imagine many of that group of people being on Facebook. And we already know they have a disposable income, so that’s a given.

Run a Page on Facebook

So let’s say my gym got themselves a Page on Facebook. What next? People. Specifically their members.

They’d need do a mail merge and ping out emails to all of their members with an announcement for their Page, with a list of features and benefits. The gym looks pro-active and score points for being in the face of their members.

Advice on Facebook — Creating a Landing Page for Twitter, Facebook.

Brand

Next up, they start a structured campaign of posting links to relevant content and internal promotions, such as:

  1. dietary planning;
  2. local sporting events (football, rugby etc);
  3. competitions / give-aways;
  4. up-coming acts at their very own night club and bar;
  5. healthy eating ideas and recipes;
  6. family events and kids sports days…

… offering up some good, sound advice to their members, for almost zero cost — they’ve usually got 3-4 people downstairs handling calls and shuffle paper around, all of whom could easily take on this task.

This is valuable know-how and advice, with experts on hand (those being the gym staff) to field questions, book one-to-one sessions, join classes etc.

In subtle but measurable ways, the perception of the gym shifts from just a company and to a brand — and from a gym to a place to meet people and build on your social life. The members now value what the gym represents and begin to talk.

Advice on branding — 10 personal branding habits of the professionals, Manage personal brand like a porn star.

Engagement

Pages on Facebook include the option to add Discussions, which are forums for people to discuss different topics. From personal experience, these either work or they don’t. But as a gym, they could post on a wide range of topics (protein supplements, types of pre and post work-out stretches, effects of alcohol, etc) and get people talking, asking questions and engaging.

When a curry night or a horse racing day comes up (among many others), they create an event for their Page, which then shows up on peoples front pages. The members then elect to say whether they’re to attend, not to attend, or say they’re not sure.

Over time, the gym can better gauge uptake for an event (what works, what doesn’t, when and why) and get an idea of how many are likely to attend. Plus, since people can share events with friends, they could invite someone as a guest, who might just turn into a member later on.

Conversation

The events go down a storm, as they usually do. The members and staff who were there took loads photos and recorded the odd video of dads dancing on their mobil phone, and later over the course of the following week post said photos and videos to the Page, tagging staff and other members.

People laugh, share comments, “like” photos, reminisce, strike up friendships and start conversations.

Community

Before long, members are organizing nights out, inviting fellow members and friends to fun runs, races, competitions, hiking trips, the list goes on. We’re no longer just members, nor are we just friends — we’re now a community.

Brand. Engagement. Conversation. Community. They’re all right there, for pennies. All without even breaking a sweat. Well almost. Like anything else that’s good in life, it takes time and effort. But if you invest both, then you invest wisely and be a winner.

If you’d like to know more about how social media and internet marketing can help your business, get in touch right now.


ASA serious about social media. Are you?

If ever proof was needed that social media was a legitimate marketing channel, the Advertising Standards Authority just delivered. Their intention is to regulate social media.

This is big news, because not only does this justify the efforts of many businesses like Octane that are banging the big social media drum, but it also helps clarify what is and what is not acceptable, in terms of a marketing messages and adverts. What the ASA is proposing is simply an extension of existing regulations:

“The proposed amendment to the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) Code — expected to be in force by September — will extend the regulatory framework currently in place for paid online ads to all other online marketing communications. As a result, claims from marketers on their own Web sites and third-party sites like social networks will now be subject to ASA scrutiny, as they are in TV, print, and other forms of online advertising.”

However, the introduction of any new legislation brings with it the specter of ambiguity; do we comply? To some, this will be a challenge, while to others, this will be an opportunity. As a business that sells information, a lot of what I and Octane do is educate people as to the possibilities and the potential of their business on the web.

As a pre-qualifier, if I feel that a prospective client has questionable intentions, I make my polite excuses and leave. I have no intention of ruining my hard-earned 10 year old reputation for a project I’m not happy with.

So how do these planned regulatory powers affect businesses using social media marketing?

Dispelling the social media myth — size isn’t everything

The biggest problem I have when explaining social media to someone is the very thing that makes it such a compelling channel to promote a business — it’s size. Because social media marketing is so relatively new — certainly for the vast majority of businesses out there — the prospect of a free way of marketing their business is just too tempting to pass up on.

There’s so many ways to use social media, and so many different ways to enter it, it can be overwhelming. The myth that social media is mostly free doesn’t help, either. Yes, most of the tools and websites out there are free to use and join, but it’s still your time spent learning these things, which is where the cost comes in. And it’s often an unrecoverable loss of time (and ultimately money) if you can’t make good of your efforts.

Avoid anti-social networking

So if you now overlay social media with the extended laws, enactable by the ASA, and then add in the aforementioned ambiguity of compliance amongst those businesses new to social media who have probably never done any advertising or marketing before, there’s a potential for inadvertent illegality.

Because the web is such an open venue, your business has the potential of reaching out to far more people than any regular marketing channel, such as mail shot, or a telesales campaign. Many of these people will not be native to Britain. So that tongue-in-cheek joke on your home page or a recent blog article could be hugely offensive to some.

I don’t want this to sound like a scare story, or to look like a cattle prod to marshal you, the reader, towards Octane. I just hope that, between now and September, the government and the Advertising Standards Authority do a good enough job of educating businesses.

Limiting your liability

There is always risk. That’s life. As a business owner, I create risk every time I engage in a client project. If I can limit the liability of a client in some way, averting an advertising snafu, or a marketing mishap, that’s a job well done.

Caught on camera

So you want an example? Photography. This is one of the most misunderstood areas in design. Photography can be a machine-like process, such a product photography. But it can also be an art form. It is often in the case of the latter that a photograph is used without permission and without a royalty payment to the copyright owner.

It’s a huge problem, but it’s so huge, people often feel it’s not like breaking a real law. And because it’s such a huge problem, it’s only those who make the mistake of infringing copyright in huge way (like in a TV or magazine advert, a poster campaign, or from September, if in a social media marketing campaign) that get caught.

The advise I give to my clients is simple; buy the photograph that you like. Once they do that, we’re all covered.

Demonstrate your difference

James Good, a design and illustrator uses the slogan: demonstrate your difference. It’s as succinct a question anyone could ask of a business. In this sense, it’s perfectly applicable, because it demands that we demonstrate not just how good we are, but how much trust our clients have in our abilities.

By working within the remit of legislation, and making this clear to my clients, I would be demonstrating a level of knowledge that instills a sense of trust — I would be, in effect, protecting my client (and myself) from possible prosecution.

Of course, I’ve yet to encounter a situation where I was asked to do anything that was offensive or misleading. But a knowledge of the law hints at a greater understanding.

So what do we take away from this new regulatory extension? First of all, we work within those regulations. Secondly, we use our knowledge of not just advertising standards but of any other law that our clients would benefit from. And thirdly, we keep on teaching as good as we learn.


Add multiple searchable content areas in WordPress with custom fields (video tutorial)

WordPress is more than just blogging software. It’s now a genuine, simple and cost effective way for teams of people to manage content. WordPress isn’t perfect — you only get the one content area, which isn’t ideal. Here I’ll explain a work around that’s both simple and effective.

In lieu of the WordPress ebook I’m working on (which is close to going live, by the way), here’s an advanced topic for the power WordPress users amongst you. If you’re not a power user, but understand the benefits of what this article discusses, let me know and I can certainly help out.

Here I am, re-working the Octane website from scratch. I have all these design ideas, but they all break when I take into account how WordPress 2.9 doesn’t allow for multiple content areas, which is a real shame.

A few months previously, I’d been playing around with custom fields for a client website — I’d used them to store information for the main navigation on the website, such as a shorter name for each Page to use in the navigation, and a value to tell the Plugin which Pages to include and exclude. So this got me thinking.

Can I use custom fields as content areas?

And the answer is a big fat yes! That said, anyone who’s used custom fields will know that you don’t get a fancy editor for your content; all you have is this plain text box. That itself could be the cue for a Plugin, but right then and there, it wasn’t an issue.

So that we know where all of this is going, I’ll explain what I was doing. I wanted to add blocks of text (containing headers, regular paragraph text and lists) to my Pages and then be able to add graphical devices in between.

Add the content into the custom fields

First things first, you need to add your content.

  1. Either edit or add a new Page or Post.
  2. Scroll down to the “Custom Fields” box.
  3. Under the “Name” label, either choose from a previous custom field from the drop-down / pop-up, or click the “Enter new” link button beneath it and type the name.
  4. Under the “Value” label, either type in or paste you content.
  5. Now click the “Add Custom Field” button.
  6. If this is a new Page or Post, be sure to either save draft or publish. If it’s a previous Page or Post, you don’t even need to update.

Add the custom field data to your theme

Now that you have your content added into custom fields, the next thing is to get that content into your theme. I don’t know where you’re placing any of this, so all I can do is explain how you pull your custom field content in.

  1. Select the place in your Page or Post theme file where you want your custom field data to appear.
  2. Paste the code below into that area.
  3. Swap out where it says: “features” with the name of your custom field.
<?php $block = get_post_meta($post->ID, 'name_of_custom_field'); if (!empty($block)) { foreach(($block) as $blocks) { echo $blocks; } } ?>

Keep in mind, you can call custom field meta data from outside of The Loop — which is to say, you don’t need to be inside the loop that WordPress uses to summon up data about a particular Post or Page.

Making your custom fields conditional

This code runs a check to make sure there’s data in the custom field. So, for example, you could invoke a layer in your Page or Post only if there’s content present:

<?php $block = get_post_meta($post->ID, 'name_of_custom_field');
if (!empty($block)) { ?>
<div class="name_of_division_class">
<?php
foreach(($block) as $blocks) { echo $blocks; }
?></div><?php
} ?>

But are custom fields searchable?

By default, no they’re not. So if you’re using them to store lots of content — such as product data, for example — people searching your WordPress-driven website won’t find any of the carefully curated content you’ve added into your custom fields. Dilemma.

However, there’s a fix for this, all thanks to John Hoff, who’s written a script that extends the scope of the WordPress search engine to grab custom field data, too — which you can download here.

I’ve taken his code (which was a Plugin in all but name) and turned it into an actual Plugin you can install into your copy of WordPress. Once installed, you’ll need to edit line 37, which includes the names of the custom fields you want searched:

$customs = Array('additional', 'benefits', 'features');

So, within the Array() item, just change names of the items within the single quotes.

Editing the name values of the custom fields array

To add a new custom field:

  1. add a comma after the last single quote;
  2. followed by a single quote;
  3. then the name of the custom field;
  4. followed by a closing single quote.

To remove a custom field:

  1. select comma before its name;
  2. and the last single quote after its name.

You’ve now learned how to turn WordPress into a more featured content management system, hopefully without breaking too much of a sweat. As always, if you get stuck, leave a comment and I’ll see if I can help out.


How to be a generalized specialist and why

“Me, a specialist? Oh no. I’m just a web designer, mate!” Contrary to popular opinion, web designers — the much maligned sub-species of the greater spotted graphic designer — can be specialists, much like anyone else. But does it pay to be a specialist in the noughties?

This is a pressing question for some, but not me. I’m happy in my skin, being a generalized specialist. And I’m not alone, either. Of my kind, their are many.

A brief history of specialization from a generalists perspective

When I started Octane back in ’99, I had every intention of offering a load of different services — everything from video production to 3D visualization and animation, right out to interactive CR Roms, as well as web design. Why no mention of web development? That didn’t come about until about 2002, about the same time my offering began to slim down into something resembling what Octane offers now.

The fact of the matter is, I just couldn’t do everything, not unless I had loads of time and loads of money. Money? For the software to back that proposition up. In reality, I had a finite supply of the former and hardly any (certainly not of the disposable variety) of the latter.

Over time, my proposition was whittled down, not simply because I wanted to focus on the things that interested me, but the things people kept asking for and I was in a reasonably good position to commit to, without wasting either their time or my own.

Now, some of you may be thinking to yourself: “What the hell has liking something got to do with doing it?!” I do what I like — in a very literal sense. If I don’t like doing it, or don’t want to do it, I don’t. If chasing the pound means selling my happiness, then I stop, sit down on a spare patch of grass and watch that gold-coloured coin just roll away in front of me.

It is entirely possible to be a specialist in a number of areas, but not a huge number, or you’re just over committing yourself, no matter how talented / quick you are.

I don’t see many out-and-out specialists these days, not out in the wild. If they exist, they’re usually on a payroll somewhere, where the weaknesses of their narrow field of occupation aren’t so badly exposed, and they remain insulated by other specialists, who together form a greater whole. That’s fine for an agency of 3-5 people, but for outfits like mine, it’s neither ideal or possible.

So how do you become a generalized specialist anyway?

I’m fortunate in that what I do either sits beneath or bestrides other disciplines and professions, depending on how you go about your thing.

I suppose when I talk about a generalized specialism, what I’m really saying is: your knowledge is like the root of a plant, probably not too deep like a weed or a tree, but deep enough so that the winds of client inquiry and project-related problems won’t blow you away.

Make your specialisms overlap

For instance, if you’re a head of marketing, you can employ a web designer or a web developer to realize your internet ambitions.

In another instance, if you’re a web designer like I am, what you do is a function of marketing, so therefor you can reach across into adjacent areas, such as social media, internet advertising etc, to bolster your proposition.

Similarly, web development will bring you closer to IT (though not too close, thankfully), since it’s more than likely you’ll be interfacing with servers, internal networks and their specifics.

With that as a background, and knowing your client needs.

Build a proposition from a specialism

You can start to build out your proposition around those needs and then target certain areas so that your knowledge is deeper and more complete than their current needs require.

So why do this? Because once you understand more of what is possible, you will then realize how you can offer your clients more. However, this does require an element of vision; the ability to anticipate the future direction of your clients.

Recycle your specialisms

Sometimes, you’ll get the direction wrong, but hopefully not by much. And, if you’re smart, you’ll play around with the timing of projects so that what you know can be applied to more than one client at the same time, amplifying the return on your invested learning.

Sounds easy, yeah? Well, it’s a skill that comes over time. If you’re not adept at dealing with your clients face-to-face, or have trouble imagining what they might or might not like, then that too is an area of generalized specialism you need to work on.

Jack of all trades and master of none?

I’ve got letters after my name. Those letters represent 6 years of my life. After all that time and effort and all I get is a lousy degree?! If I’d wanted a masters degree, I’d have needed to invest another 2 years of my life.

It was said by Doctor Watson that upon meeting Sherlock Holmes, he knew nothing of the motion of the planets. Yet in his defense, he got by. Why? Because he was a detective and not an astronomer.

As you can see, the level of commitment required to be a master is not inconsiderable. So don’t worry, Jack! Learn what you need to know, and know enough to know you maybe don’t know enough and you’ll do just fine.


Creating a Landing Page for Twitter, Facebook

Congratulations! You and your staff are on Facebook and Twitter. Now what? Chances are, there are people out there who want to know a little more about who you guys are and what you do. But, as part of a corporate entity, it’s not just the individuals they’re interested in, it’s your company, too. So what do you do?

Twitter, the global social networkAssuming your staff’s Twitter / Facebook profiles are company owned, you could just point all their visitors from Twitter and Facebook to your very corporate “About Us” page, but that’s often a little staid and obvious. This is about social networking, and each person you designate as customer facing is just that — a person.

Facebook, the global social networkSo rather than have a catch-all web page or blog article that just lumps everyone together into an amorphous blog of “we” and “us” business speak, why not let those people write something of their own in an article of their own? Why not let them talk about themselves, what they do, their interests, why they’re on Facebook, Twitter etc (here’s where corporate guidelines will need to be observed, to ensure some degree of consistency) and what their follow policy is?

If the social web is about the conversation, then what’s the conversation worth if we don’t talk to people? As I’ve said for years, people must first buy into people before they buy from people.

Taking things a step further, I’d recommend letting your team add photos of themselves, to give that personal touch, so that those in their social network can see the person they’re communicating with. Then add links to those personalized web pages into Facebook and Twitter, and voila! Everyone has their very own ‘landing page’.

What should a landing page include?

  1. Start with something about you and your role in the business.
  2. Then follow with something about you and your own interests, either within or outside the business.
  3. Talk about why you’re on Twitter / Facebook and what you intend to get out of being their.
  4. Discuss your follow policy — how and why you choose to follow certain people, and whether you reciprocate their following you.
  5. The advantages of having landing pages

There are possible other advantages here, too. For example:

  • If you choose to have each landing page as a blog article, then you have a collection of articles enriched with information about key members of staff, which will greatly increase the chances of your website being found. Let’s say you have a very active social networker on your team, having their name more visibly attached to your business increases your search visibility and helps with the smooth transition of trust between both you and your staff.
  • If you have a socially active team, active in different social networks, your business stands a much greater chance of being exposed to a far wider and deeper audience, of not just prospective clients / customers, but of suppliers, industry leaders and possible future employees, or perhaps investors.

In creating landing pages for Twitter, Facebook et al, you’re people first and business second. And since business is all about people, coming second never looked so good.