Blog

News, Insights & Resources

Are You Making Social Media Too Hard? Try These Simple Strategies Instead.

by David Jakobik / Apr. 15, 2014

A local retailer asked me for advice on maintaining his social media presence. He knows it’s important, has had some success with Facebook, but has trouble knowing what specifically to do. After all, there’s no limit to the amount of time you can waste online. Here’s how to do social media for your business, simplified.

Social media marketing has only one golden rule: engage your followers. It doesn't have to be difficult or time consuming to be the voice of your company, nor should it be. In fact, you already do it by talking to the people coming in through your door: customers. Followers, subscribers, and "like"rs are nothing more or less than future customers. Treat them as such.

My simple guidelines for social success:

  1. If your blog has only been updated once since the Clinton administration, get rid of it or change its title. Expectations can be set by what the content is called. Blogs should be updated with a full post at least once a week. "Articles" don't need to be on a schedule, and generally should have content that doesn't go out of date quickly. Call it "News" if you just want to throw press releases up and only plan to update when something noteworthy happens in your business or industry.

  2. Take stock of all your social accounts. If fallow, migrate the content elsewhere and delete them entirely. Having 5 followers on twitter and 1 tweet a year means you should abandon it. Few hundred likes (or more!) on Facebook and many posts with comment discussions means you're doing it right.

  3. Forums can be the best way to connect to a community. Find the biggest online forum that serves your industry and specific niche, search for your business name, and respond to any recent posts that come up. Occasionally start threads, even if they're nothing more than "Hey, it's Friday! What's going on in your neck of the woods this weekend?" They directly give your business a human voice. You're not faceless, and you're interested in your customers. Engage the forum members as these are the people who will become your most rabid and vocal brand evangelists. They'll fight to the internet-death on your behalf, for free! It's like having a customer service honey badger. They can smell when someone is being mean about your business, and they don't like it.

  4. Don't get bogged down in squabbles. If a paying customer complains about you publicly, publicly reply with an offer to help solve the problem, as well as contacting them privately. Any further communication on your part should be private only. If you can't offer a solution in the first place, walk away entirely. You getting involved in a flame war on Facebook or in a forum is only going to make your business look bad, just like getting into a screaming match with an unreasonable customer in your place of business. Any negativity about your business is amplified by your public involvement with said negativity. (Note: none of this applies to recalls, safety problems, or the like. Be as forthright, responsive, and proactive as possible in those cases.)

  5. If you're not having fun, reevaluate what you're doing. This isn't writing emails to your vendors on Monday morning, and it shouldn't feel like it. You should be enjoying interacting with your subscribers, sharing cool stories and links with them, like you do with your favorite customers. Not overanalyzing and obsessing over how your likes will increase if you post this news tidbit vs that one. You might be surprised at just how much personality comes across on social media, and no one particularly cares what a soulless stats-robot posts.

Heartbleed: How To Protect Yourself

by Kurt Elster / Apr. 12, 2014

The Heartbleed Bug is a critically serious vulnerability in a popular SSL software library that powers a majority of web servers. The vulnerability allows an attacker, with surprisingly little ease, cause a server to return the content of its memory to the attacker, with no encryption whatsoever. This is the worst kind of breach. The attacker can view traffic, data, passwords, impersonate users or even services, and even worse, leave no trace in the process. Yea, it's really that bad.

The same day the exploit was announced, we patched all of our affected servers. No Ethercycle service is presently affected by the Heartbleed bug. You can test your server here: http://filippo.io/Heartbleed/

You can't be too cautious. You can protect yourself now and in the future by...

  1. Changing your passwords on affected services.
  2. Using unique passwords on every site
  3. Enabling two factor authentication whenever possible.

We recommend using LastPass password manager. It will check for duplicate or weak passwords, and identify sites affected by the Heartbleed bug.

Sorry devs, Twitter Bootstrap isn't a "skill"

by Paul Reda / Apr. 03, 2014

Over the past year I've seen a big increase in projects that demand "Twitter Bootstrap experience" and devs claiming that they are "versed in Twitter Bootstrap." My colleague Bernard has even started seeing it in his intern applications:

Newsflash to all you kiddies out there: Bootstrap isn't a language that you know. It is not a skill that you have acquired. In fact, if you feel that Bootstrap is a noteworthy "skill" to have, it's going to make me question the actual depth of your knowledge of front-end development. Bootstrap is a tool to use and don't get me wrong, it has it's uses. If the most important thing is a basic design and a quick deployment, Bootstrap can be really helpful. It's got snazzy buttons and neat animations and you can make all that stuff happen with a minimum of effort. Sweet!

But if Bootstrap is one of your "skills", what does that say about you? You can unzip a folder and upload it? You know the classes to apply a bunch of pre-made styles onto a (now) generic-looking template? You can pile a bunch of javascript extensions onto an already bloated framework?

Claiming Bootstrap as evidence that you "know" development is like claiming that changing your oil means you "know" automotive engineering. Sure you can navigate your way though basic things, but this doesn't mean that you have an understanding of the mechanisms at work - and that's what's truly important.

Development involves testing of your problem solving abilities - how can I make this thing happen in the most efficient way? You can't do that if your knowledge of HTML/CSS/JS consists of plug-ins and templates. So break out of the walled garden of Bootstrap "skills" and make something happen from scratch. Your brain (and future employers) will thank you.

Quit Whining, Facebook Buying Oculus Rift Is The Best Thing That Could Have Happened To VR

by Paul Reda / Mar. 27, 2014

News broke on Tuesday that Facebook was buying Oculus Rift for $2 billion, and rest assured people were on the Internet within minutes registering their disgust throughout the world. From snarky tweets about how the product was going to be turned into a Farmville simulator to (the always calm and logical) Redditors spamming every possible news article talking about how "betrayed" they felt and how they were cancelling their hardware orders (because the already built hardware was no longer going to be fun or something?). The creator of Minecraft even threw a tantrum stating that he was cancelling the game's Oculus Rift port because the Evil Zuckerberg something something.

Let's be honest, what's really happening here is that the indie "cool" geek kids saw Oculus Rift as one of their own - this is was what was sold to them as part of the Kickstarter (and is an element of pretty much every Kickstarter) - and the Dark Lord Zuckerberg is definitely not "indie" or "cool", so now it must be "ruined." Quick, nobody tell them that Oculus had raised over $90 million in VC money, and had added notorious investor Marc Andreessen to their board. Damn, I wish I could get that indie.

What possible reason would a social network want to buy a gaming VR headset? Certainly it must be something nefarious! I don't know, why would a computer company make a music player? Why would a search engine buy a video uploading site? Why would a search engine make smartphones? Why would a search engine make an online maps service? The answer is to make things better than they previously were and to grow your company (and yes, make money in the process).

Let's look at what actually happened. The graveyard of dead virtual reality hardware is a large one indeed. VR headsets could never escape the pigeonhole of being an extremely niche gaming product, and thus couldn't get an install base big enough to lower costs and advance the technology. Facebook is the king of having a big install base, and now they've made a bet that VR is ready to be embraced by the masses. If you truly cared about VR adoption and support for VR products, having Facebook throwing it's billions around the concept seems like it should be a good thing, no? Could mean that other companies might become interested in the potential too?

Reserve the right to be pissed when Facebook does something stupid with Oculus (I'm sure they will at some point), but until then, maybe be excited a little bit? The thing you're supposedly really into just got a boatload of cash and support and is now seen as a technology that might be ready for prime time. That is, unless the only thing you truly cared about was pretending you were special and cooler than everybody else.

How Salt-n-Pepa Taught Me How To Manage A Project

by Paul Reda / Mar. 26, 2014

"The most important thing is that the site has to be absolutely perfect before we launch."

I've had this sentence (or some variation of it) said to me by clients many times, and whenever I hear it, red flags start to go up in my mind. In the worst cases I've dealt with, "it has to be perfect" becomes code for "I'm going to lose all sense of perspective and keep worrying and tweaking at this thing until the end of time."

Let's be honest, "perfect" is a relative term. One person's "perfect car" can be someone else's gas-guzzling death trap. I'm still trying to find the "perfect" TV media center for all my (baroque) needs, but I recognize that a Roku or AppleTV is "perfect" for most people. The "perfect" that exists in the client's head is only true for them, not necessarily their users or their customers.

There's nothing wrong with taking pride in your work - in fact, it's an integral part of becoming successful. But eventually there's a point where endless tweaking, massaging, and striving for "perfection" becomes masturbatory. You cross the line from a manager to "A Businessman!" trying to achieve the Platonic Ideal of your project, something that is not possible in reality.

So we fiddle away, trying to hew ever closer to amorphous "perfection", and the opportunity costs keep increasing. Timelines grow longer. The relative value of the changes we are making goes down, and the excitement around the project inevitably wanes. Everyone's thoughts turn to "Ugh, are we still doing this?"

So how does one escape from the endless loop of "perfection"? By pushing it. Pushing it real good.

At Ethercycle, we hammer the concept of Minimum Viable Product (MVP): once something has just the core features that the product needs, we launch it. Then we watch and see what happens, knowing that our customers will show us where the product needs to go after that. This strategy allows us to avoid wasting development on additional planning and features that end up never getting used and instead on the ones that our actual customers are clamoring for. This ensures that development is less costly, your customers are getting the things they need, and that production isn't caught in an endless loop of tweaking things that will never be noticed.

The one ironclad rule we have for all our Ethercycle Labs projects is that they have to be totally executed within 48 hours. We think up a problem or product, establish the MVP, and then push it out in 2 days. Additional features or add-ons will only be determined after we get the actual thing out the door. These are the projects that I always end up most proud of - development always stayed exciting, the ideas always kept flowing, and the production was never bogged down with add-ons or tweaks from out of left field. MVP has worked out pretty well for us too - our Labs network brings in over a million pageviews a month, which makes for some nice recurring ad revenue.

Nate Silver hits it right on the head in this interview before the relaunch of his new website:

Are things still on schedule for Monday? What percentage ready are you?
That’s certainly the plan. The thinking here is we’re 75 or 80 percent ready, but the thing is, if we waited another month, we’d still just be 80 or 85 percent ready. You’re going to make some mistakes once you launch that you can’t really deal with until you actually have a real product. It’s like playing poker for no money — you can learn some elements of strategy, but unless your neck is on the line, you’re not going get over that final 20 percent of tough stuff you have to learn.

Mike Tyson said "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." We want you to commit as little as necessary, then try to take that punch as soon as you can. This will leave you agile and ready to deal with the punches that are actually coming, instead of the ones you worried about before you ever got into the ring.

*This is not to say that Rick Ross' "Push It" doesn't also have something contribute: Remember, never traffic for fun, only traffic for funds. Your time and expertise have value, don't do work for free. Yes, I know it's hard. But the line of people looking to take advantage of you is never ending.

What Gordon Ramsay Taught Me About American Businessmen

by Paul Reda / Mar. 06, 2014

I'll admit that I watch my fair share of reality TV and my favorite genre is "a smart guy comes in and fixes all your business shit" like Kitchen Nightmares (the OG British version, not the American one that revolves entirely around yelling), Spike's Bar Rescue, and CNBC's The Profit. I'm consistently baffled by reactions of some of the owners on these shows; they have a business losing gobs of money and in danger of closing, but they fight The Fixer at almost every turn even though he's come to save them. Didn't they invite him to come? Don't they want to make money?

I was watching The Profit last night while yet another fight about “You can't change the name of the place!” was happening when I finally realized what's going on here. These owners aren't running businesses to make money, they're doing it because they want to be A Businessman. Goals, strategy, execution, all don't matter. They just like saying, “I'm a business owner.”

I end up coming into contact with these people a lot in my job. When we meet with a potential client there are a ton of questions we ask to help determine what's the best course of action for their businesses. Questions like What's your target audience? What are your goals? How will you know if we've succeeded? Many times they'll have totally vague answers or maybe even none at all. “But I've made some sketches of the logo, and you need to make it pop!” they'll say, or “I really want the design to be so cool that people want to share it!” Their focus is entirely on impressing people and they haven't given a lick of thought to things that actually involve running a business and making money. But isn't that why we're doing this?

What's harder: getting a job or starting your own business? Well, to get a job, you have to find an opening, send a resume (maybe a cover letter too), interview, interview again, then maybe a third time, and cross your fingers. There are gatekeepers. You have to impress somebody. To start your own business you just need to send $500 to the Secretary of State's office and congratulations! You're what makes America great!

In America, being labeled “a business owner” gives you a shocking amount of totally unearned, immediate respect. You're the backbone of this country! You're a job creator! You're what really makes us work! That's the American Dream! I have to admit I've seen it happen to me. When someone asks me what I do, I tell them— “I own a web development company.” In many cases, they suddenly seem impressed with me, their eyes filling with a grain of new found admiration, as though they're thinking “Ah yes, A Businessman!” I think that's what these misguided owners are chasing. What they really desire is the respect and control that comes with the station. The real reason they bring in The Fixer is because the business is going to have to close and they will no longer be A Businessman. It's not really that they're losing money, if they cared about that they would have made changes years ago. They weren't in this for the money. They were in it to feel important, to be The Boss. Their name on the building. Their logo to be cool. For them to be an exciting go-getter.

As part of our No More Bullshit stance for 2014, we've become totally honest with everyone who contacts Ethercycle. Brutally honest. We tell people: Your non-responsive website is giving your audience a subpar experience. Your website is huge and slow and it's driving people away. That font is unreadable. Why are there so many steps in the checkout process? Where's your call to action? How does that make any sense? Why do you think that's going to work? Did you think about this at all?

And you know what? It's worked out swimmingly for us. It immediately bifurcates our client base: there are those that can explain how things got this way and can accept our criticisms as part of the building process, or there are those that push back, pay zero attention to our expertise, and insist on pressing forward with their own uninformed plan. You can almost hear them say “How dare you speak to me this way, I'm A Businessman!” Guess which side we would rather work with?

Before you do anything with your business you need to ask, is this something that makes me more money? Or is it just to stroke my ego*? We care about our clients achieving their goals and we do our damnedest to make that happen. We know you know a lot about your business, but we know a lot about what we do too. If you want solutions, sometimes you need to let a Fixer come in and take the reins. In the end, everyone will win.

*And I realize that's ironic coming from a guy who just wrote an 800-word blog post telling you how to think.

The Problem With Sticky Menus (and How We Fixed It)

by Kurt Elster / Feb. 25, 2014

Sticky menus are a design pattern that fix the navigation to the top of the page.

While sticky menus make navigation quicker, they also present a new problem: They take up screen real estate. That might not be a problem for the six percent of you with 30 inch monster displays, but for the rest of us with 13" notebooks, it's annoying. Fortunately, we've come up with a mostly CSS solution:

Responsive design lets us solve the problem by moving the navigation out of the way out of the content. We've made a demo, we call it Crazy Responsive Sticky Menu.

On most displays, the menu is in the gutter or sidebar. I say most because this thing is crazy responsive. It works on all display widths, down to 320px. Yes, in all widths, the menu remains fixed to the top and readily accessible. On phones we cheat a little by using the popular iOS sliding menu style, but it's cool because we keep a navigation icon pinned to the top.

There are no dependencies. Aside from a little bit of JavaScript to append a class name on scroll, all the magic happens in CSS. This keeps your page load time low, and let's us sleep better knowing we're not using abusing jQuery.

Try out the demo or steal the code.

How Much Does a Website Cost?

by Kurt Elster / Feb. 19, 2014

The most common question people have when they first contact us is "How much does a website cost?" That's a straight-forward question with a complex answer. Let's break it down.

The first thing to realize is that you're not buying a single product, you're buying a package of services. For an average corporate website built from scratch, you'll end up engaging (even if indirectly) the services of a designer, front-end developer, back-end developer, IT manager, project manager, and maybe a quality assurance person. That's assuming you already have your own content. You don't? Well then you'll also want to consider a copy writer, illustrator, photographer, social media strategist, and possibly branding and marketing specialists. It becomes clear why prices can range wildly from project to project.

Like a car, project prices are based primarily on options. I'll use my Mustang as an example. It's a common car, I see them all the time on the road, and anyone can go to a Ford dealer and buy one. Makes sense, they start at $22,510 for the base model. So does a Mustang cost $22k? Like a website, it depends. My Mustang was actually 68% more than that at $37,930 because I have many options not present on the base model... but I don't even have all the options! A full optioned-out Mustang Shelby GT500 Convertible is $70K. So what does a Mustang cost? It depends, but somewhere between $22K and $70K.

Like the car, the determining factor on a website's price is its options. We break websites (from a development perspective anyway) in to three broad categories:

  1. Brochure/Informational - This type of website usually displays the same information to all visitors. Similar to handing out a printed brochure to customers or clients, this is the most common type of website. A single page site with 200 words of content and contact form will be $3K, but a custom WordPress theme with custom functionality to sort through hundreds of pages of content would start at $40K.
  2. Ecommerce - A website focused on selling products online through a virtual storefront or online catalog. A turnkey Shopify store with very little custom work will cost $5K, while a fully custom Shopify theme will be in the $12K to $20K range.
  3. Web App - The most complex of the three, web apps range from one page utilities to entirely new service businesses. Think “Web 2.0” sites such as Twitter, Netflix, or Google Docs. These can't be estimated. A one page javascript app like isthisretina.com or rainycafe.com would be $5K while a larger app like a YouTube clone would be hundreds of thousands.

These prices are just a general estimate based on our own years of experience building websites. An accurate price estimate is the result of several interactions, meetings, interviews, and general gathering of requirements to determine an ideal solution. These prices are just a ballpark.

You may think our estimates are too expensive. That's fine. You can always find someone inexperienced or willing to cut corners to work for less, but it isn’t in your best interest. The truth is that websites are hard work. No one competent is going to agree to build your “MySpace for Poodles” project for $500.

Great websites don’t happen overnight. They're the result of considering different concepts, working through them, and then revising them. It’s important to tease out all the important details about your project so the design and development team can build to your project's exact needs and specifications.

If you're still wondering how much a website costs, we've built a calculator that'll help you get a ballpark for your specific project based on various options: howmuchdoesitcosttobuildawebsite.com

Quick Win: How To Get Press For Your Start-Up

by Kurt Elster / Feb. 18, 2014

In the last two years, I've been quoted by Crain's, Fox News, Huffington Post, PC Mag, and more. It helps establish me as an expert, as well as boost my confidence. The best part is that anyone, including you, can do it.

It's a two step process.

  1. Sign up for Help A Reporter Out
  2. Follow up on relevant leads.

In the email to the reporter, I open with a one or two sentence introduction about who I am and, more importantly, why I'm relevant to the article. I answer their question, often by copy and pasting from my past emails, blog posts, or newsletters, and then close with: "if you have any more questions or need clarifications, I'm available for interview. Just ask."

To be successful at this, you need to put yourself in the reporter's shoes. Queries on HARO can generate literally hundreds of responses so it's great for the reporter to receive responses which don't require much, if any, follow-up. To increase your chance of being published, respond early, be succinct, and relevant.

There's also some SEO bonus here. Some articles will include links back to your website.

I challenge you to sign up for HARO today and in the next 24 hours respond to your first HARO query.

If you want a deeper dive in to PR, Amy Westervelt has a great look at how the media works.

Should I use a front-end framework like Bootstrap?

by Kurt Elster / Jan. 31, 2014

A potential agency partner asked me, "What are your thoughts on front-end frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation?"

Following my strict no bullshit policy, I told him my opinionated truth. Any good framework is just a set of opinionated standards. They’re great for inexperienced developers to pick up best practices from more experienced developers, but they can ultimately lead to bloat in any application or website. Since the person using the framework by definition doesn’t understand what’s going in to it, they can’t rightly remove all the unused cruft that’s left over.

We use HTML5 Boilerplate - HTML5 Boilerplate - because it’s the absolute bare minimum of best practices. (Even then there's room for improvement, like concatenating style sheets.) We even took HTML5BP a step further and released our own framework - Responsivize - as a way for people to see what a responsive website built from HTML5BP looks like.

His immediate response: "This all makes sense Kurt."