Are you getting bad business advice?

February 20, 2015
Denver, CO

I just realized something today after talking to a prospect who received bad advice from a web designer. She was told to build her website on a platform that only makes sense for certain types of businesses, but her business wasn’t that type.

From the web designer’s perspective, it’s the platform he knows and likes. He probably recommends it to everyone. It’s not a bad platform…it’s just not the right tool for every situation. But as the old saying goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This happens a lot in the web design business because of the nature of the technology. Each platform has its own “language” and it takes time to learn the language. Once learned, it’s hard to convince a developer to abandon ship and use something else because he has so much invested in the status quo.

And therein lays the problem. The platform you choose NEEDS to be a business decision, NOT a developer’s preference.

But most developers are not business people. They’re left-brained, logical problem solvers who couldn’t care less about making the right business decision. They only care about solving the problem that’s right in front of them…in the quickest way possible…so they can move on to the next problem.

Your website is one of the most important tools in your business. It’s WAY more than just a website. It’s the hub of your marketing. It drives sales. It may even be used to manage your business.

So don’t trust a web designer to make such an important decision for you. Educate yourself and work with professionals who can not only build your website, but also help you make good business decisions.

How to Hire the Right Web Designer (who won’t rip you off)

As a SCORE Mentor, one of my duties was to evaluate web design quotes for our clients. It was a duty I didn’t enjoyed very much because it constantly reminded me just how dishonest the web design profession is.

On one particular occasion, I was asked to sanity check a proposal for a basic eCommerce website with a shopping cart and catalog. Our SCORE client was prepared to write a check for $8,000 if I approved. The designer came recommended from a friend of hers so she almost didn’t ask for my opinion.

After reviewing the proposal, and the web designer’s website and portfolio, I did not approve.

TwentyTwelveThemeThe web designer had only three websites in her portfolio, all based on the free TwentyTwelve WordPress theme shown here. It’s not exactly an eye-popping theme.

In addition, none of the designs were very good. In fact, the designer’s own website was awful by most standards.

Nothing in her past work samples demonstrated her ability to design a website worthy of charging $8K. Yet a business owner was prepared to write the check for the entire amount simply because the designer was referred.

I’ve been in the software and web design business since 1995, and during that time, I’ve heard countless horror stories from business owners who hired the wrong web designer who ripped them off.

In fact, it even happened to me once. And that experience is one of the main reasons I founded OnlineStir. I made a rookie mistake and hired someone who came referred without following my own rules for hiring. You can read more about our Origin Story here…

Now, I’m going to share my rules with you to help you hire the right web designer or web design company…someone who won’t rip YOU off.

RULE #1: What You See is What You Get

Let’s continue the story of the $8K eCommerce website…

After showing the designer’s portfolio to the business owner, I asked, “Do you like the way these sites look? Is that what you want your new website to look like?”

She responded, “No, I don’t like those, but I thought ours would be different.”

A portfolio is meant to show off your best work. If you want to demonstrate your abilities, you certainly wouldn’t show off your worst work.

That means, what you see is what you get. If the web designer’s portfolio and their own website is below your standards, your website will be, too.

RULE #2: Talk to Multiple References

You can ask the designer for a list of references, but you’ll probably end up speaking to only their best clients, which are likely to be friends or family.

A better way to conduct reference checks is to contact random people from the designer’s portfolio. Open the client’s website and look for a phone number or submit the contact us form if you can’t find one.

When you reach someone, be honest and tell them you’re checking references for their web designer. Then ask the following questions:

  1. What was their role and what did they do on your project? (e.g. designer, developer, project manager, etc.)
  2. Did you enjoy working with them?
  3. Did they offer good ideas and suggestions?
  4. How were requirements clarified?
  5. How were deadlines handled and did they miss any?
  6. Were they able to work without much guidance from you?
  7. Did your website turn out as good as you expected?
  8. Would you hire them again or recommend them to a friend?

Your primary goal is to make sure the designer is easy to work with and delivers on their promises.

RULE #3: No Long-Term Contracts

It’s common in the web design world to encounter long-term contracts. My advice is to avoid these at all costs! Here’s why…

One of our marketing funnel clients is in the middle of a 1-year contract with an SEO/web design company, but she’s extremely unhappy with them.

The version of WordPress on her website hasn’t been updated in over 2 years…it’s 25 versions out-of-date! The website isn’t mobile friendly and it wasn’t optimized for conversions (until we re-designed her homepage).

But the worst thing they did cost her an estimated $60,000! Her website is so old that her opt-in form won’t work with her email system, so her opt-in’s are sent through her website and must be manually entered into Constant Contact. Due to the way her emails were being sent, the majority of her opt-in’s went into her spam folder for more than 3 months, costing her thousands of dollars in lost leads!

Now she’s stuck with this vendor for another 6 months because they’re refusing to let her out of her contract.

The problem with long-term contracts is that once they’re signed, the service provider loses their incentive to work hard for you. You’re a sure thing, so their energy is better spent on getting new clients to sign contracts or working for clients who refused to sign a contract.

If your web designer, online marketer or SEO company requires a long-term contract, find a different one.

RULE #4: Split the Payments

Asking for full payment to start the project is also a common practice in this industry. However, you don’t have to agree to it.

From the web designer’s perspective, it doesn’t hurt to ask for the full payment up-front and getting money sooner rather than later is a great benefit to them. But you have the right to say no…and you should.

If you make the full payment up-front, the designer no longer has any incentive to prioritize your project. Once again, it’s a better use of their time to find new clients or work for clients who refused to pay the entire amount to start the project.

By splitting the payment in two, half to start and the other half on delivery, you retain some control over the project and they have a great incentive to finish it sooner rather than later.

If they require full payment up-front, tell them that’s not how you do business. Offer half down and half on delivery, and if they refuse, find a different company.

RULE #5: Require Regular Status Reports

You have the right to know where your project is throughout design and development.

Regular status reports, weekly at a minimum, not only keeps you informed, but knowing they have to provide an update keeps them working on your project so they have something to report.

The report should describe what’s currently being worked on and let you know if the timeline or deliver date has changed.

At OnlineStir, we use a system called Wrike that allows us to share a snapshot of the project’s Gantt Chart so our clients can see exactly where the project is in relation to the timeline. Ideally, the designer you choose should use a similar tool.

RULE #6: Require a Standard CMS

CMS stands for Content Management System and there are lots of them to choose from. However, my recommendation is to use WordPress unless you have a very good reason to use something else.

Thousands of large and small websites use WordPress. In fact, it’s by far the largest CMS platform on the web, holding a 61% market share.

There are also thousands of 3rd party plug-ins that have been created to provide almost every type of functionality your site will need. And if you need something special, you can easily find a developer to create a custom plugin for you that you’ll be able to sell it or give away if you want to.

Since WordPress has such a large community of developers, it’s a very stable system that’s constantly being updated. In addition, there are more WordPress developers worldwide than any other system so it’s easy to find (or replace) a developer.

Due to the high supply, WordPress developers tend to be less expensive than some of the other systems such as Drupal, Joomla! or Ruby on Rails.

I’m often asked about hosted systems such as SquareSpace, WixWeebly or similar platforms. These CMS tools work very well, but they have two major drawbacks.

First, your website doesn’t exist outside of them, which means you can’t move it to a different web host if you have a falling out.

And second, your ability to customize them is very limited so you’re stuck with the functionality and templates they provide. If you need something they don’t offer, you either have to rebuild your website on a different CMS or you’ll have to pay their rates to build it for you. Neither of these options is very good.

Some developers have built their own CMS platforms. This is called a proprietary solution and something you need to avoid. Require your developer to use a standard CMS tool so if he gets hit by a bus or you decide to part ways for whatever reason, you can easily hire a replacement developer.

RULE #7: Focus on Conversions

Most web designers are very creative and artistic. That’s what makes them good designers.

However, the main purpose of your website isn’t to be creative or artistic; its main purpose is to convert visitors into customers. And the design is only one part of a bigger system that must work together to achieve that goal.

When you’re interviewing designers, ask them about the conversion rates they’ve achieved for some of their clients, and how they achieved those rates.

A conversion rate refers to the percentage of visitors who take action or opt-in on your website by signing up for a newsletter, buying something, registering, etc. A good web design company will help you identify a compelling call-to-action (CTA).

For example, OnlineStir built the following landing pages for our clients. Each landing page was carefully designed to appeal to different target markets, the copy was written by a professional ad writer, and the CTA was clear and concise.

As a result, here are the conversion rates we achieved for these sites:

If the designer you’re interviewing cannot provide similar examples, or can’t demonstrate their knowledge of conversion optimization, look for another designer.

A pretty site may look good, but if it doesn’t turn your visitors into customers, it’s a failure at its main objective.

Our CTA

As the founder of OnlineStir, I feel very passionate about this topic, which is why I’m sharing my rules for hiring a web designer or web design company.

We would love the opportunity to bid on your project, but I realize we’re not the only option you have. Regardless of who you choose to build your website, make sure you follow these rules…even if they’ve been referred by someone you know.

Become an analytics junky…the key to your continuous growth.

Having a mindset of continually improving…incrementally getting better and better each and every day, is the surest way to success for your business.

This, in essence, is what Conversion Rate Optimization is all about: getting better through small quantifiable steps. Increasing your sales figures by percentage points each week and month add up to a big leap forward by the end of the year.

For example, let’s say you are able to make a 5% increase to your online sales conversions each month for a year. That’s not an impossible task, and if you take a focused approach to your optimization, this is more than doable.

In our theoretical business let’s assume we have $10k per month in revenue. If we are able to grow that each month by 5% at the end of the 12 months, we would have grown our monthly revenue to $18,198 which is an astonishing 82% increase.

Now THAT is some math that I can get excited about!

One of the first steps to being able to continually improve your business is to know exactly where you are each month. By tracking the right metrics, you can check the pulse on your website in an instant. This is pretty easy to do using analytics software such as Google Analytics.

Here are some metrics you’ll want to track:

• What is your revenue per visitor?
• What is your sales conversion rate?
• How many times do customers come back per year?
• How much do they spend over a year?
• Where are customers dropping off during the sales process?
• How many people are putting things into your shopping cart?
• How many are adding items to the cart but not checking out?

You may find that by monitoring these metrics each month, they’ll start to increase…the improved focus and energy seems to have a magical effect on the different elements of our business.

If you divide your sales process into multiple focus areas, you’ll find it easier to determine how you can get the gains you’re after.

The first part to your website buyer cycle is inbound traffic. What could you do to increase the traffic? If you break each traffic source down with Google Analytics, you may see some opportunities for improvement.

For example, you might notice that you have good sales conversions from Facebook traffic, but you don’t have any Facebook ads running. Creating an ad campaign may drive even more conversions from Facebook.

Or maybe you notice that certain keywords in your Google AdWords campaign have a better conversion rate than others. This knowledge will allow you to research additional keywords that are similar to the high performing terms, while removing the low performing ones.

The second part of your website buyer cycle is what people do when they get to your website. How do they find your products? What steps are between the first page they visit and conversion?

To get the most out of this part of the cycle, you need to streamline the conversion process as much as possible, and make it very easy for your visitors to opt-in or buy.

If you have a mailing list (and you should), track how many people opt-in each month and work to increase that number.

If your shopping cart has a high abandonment rate, meaning people add things to their cart but never checkout, look into reducing that rate by improving or simplifying the checkout process.

Hopefully, after reading this post you feel inspired to improve your website conversions and become an analytics junky!

I would love to hear what things you’ve done to increase your website conversions. Please share your ideas below.

It’s a TRAP!

September 19, 2014
Denver, CO

Remember me talking about PromoteWare? The first company I founded that actually generated revenue?

In case you don’t remember, PromoteWare was a web development platform that I built 13 years ago. It was the same concept as WordPress with modules (or plugins) that could be snapped together to build a website very quickly.

The main difference between PromoteWare and WordPress was that I was the only developer IN THE ENTIRE WORLD who knew how to use it!

Great for me… Terrible for my clients…

Today, I wouldn’t recommend PromoteWare, or any proprietary software system, to anyone! It’s a TRAP, to quote Admiral Ackbar.

Unfortunately, this happens A LOT in the web dev biz. Web design firms create their own custom software and use it to trap their unsuspecting clients.

It’s a trap for one main reason: that design firm is the only one who can make changes to your site. If they decide to raise their rates or if they go completely out of business, you’re up a creek without a paddle, to quote my mom.

That’s why we recommend WordPress to our clients, and to anyone building a website. If you don’t get along with your designer, you can simply take your website to another designer. There are tens of thousands of WordPress designers around the world who will be happy to help you.

About 19% of the web runs on WordPress, and that number is growing. That means it’s much easier to find affordable talent to work on your site if you want to divorce your web designer.

There are other platforms such as Drupal, Joomla!, Ruby on Rails, Weebly, Wix, SquareSpace, and the list goes on. These platforms are all good for certain applications, but they’re not nearly as ubiquitous as WordPress and some aren’t nearly as customizable, either.

Bottom line is: Ask your web designer what platform they use to build websites BEFORE you sign on the dotted line. If they use a system they built themselves, walk away…quickly.

What’s the point?!

June 20, 2014
Denver, CO

Do you know what the point of your website really is? If your website is for a business, it should have only one purpose…a singular focus.

And guess what…every business website should have the exact same purpose!

What is the purpose, you ask?

It’s to get more paying customers! That’s the only purpose of any business website!

It’s not supposed to be a manifest of every feature each of your products and services has. And it’s not supposed to be a monument to yourself or a testament to your legacy.

If your website doesn’t guide your visitors down a path that eventually leads to the possibility of a sale, you’re doing it all wrong.

Don’t beat yourself up, though. You’re in good company. Most business owners struggle with this badly. It’s hard to be objective about something you’re so close to.

Lucky for you, it’s easy to avoid this mistake…just ask for help. That’s why I employ copywriters and ad writers. They have enough distance to see my business objectively and in a way that I’m too close to see.

Plus, the good ones have years of experience writing in a way that really resonates with people. That’s not something you can just figure out. These guys study continuously and practice daily. Kind of like what you do with your business…

After you delete this email, I’d like you to take a minute to look at your website and try to be objective. Does your content, images and layout guide your visitors down a path? Or, does it leave them confused and bewildered?

If you’re unsure, it’s time to ask for help.

Is your website…magnetic?

May 30, 2014
Denver, CO

In the next week or two, I’m going to be making a pretty big announcement. Things are changing…again. Ahhh, the life of an entrepreneur…

Now, for this week’s tip…

Is your website giving you all the paying customers you can handle? 9 out of 10 business owners say NO!

Ok…I’m just making that up. It’s probably closer to 99 out of 100!

The reason why most websites leave their owners wanting more is because they lack something compelling enough to get their visitors to take action. Many websites lack a call to action all together!

Truth is, most people don’t make a purchase on their first visit to a website. They want to have a look around, think about it, and decide later.

The problem with this is, later may never come and if it does, they may forget it was your website that has what they want.

That’s why it’s SO important to do something to capture their information so you can continue to market to them once they leave. One (non-creepy) way to do that is with a very enticing lead magnet, which is a value proposition they can’t resist.

Lead magnets come in a variety of forms such as free reports, resources lists, eBooks, special promotions, free gifts, etc. Ideally, it’s something that relates specifically to what you’re trying to sell, and provides the solution to a pain-point felt by your visitors.

Your goal is to get them to exchange their name and email for your valuable offer. Then you can continue to communicate with them after they leave, and hopefully, they’ll come back to YOUR site once they’re ready to buy!

Another way to stalk…I mean, get people back to your site is by using remarketing. That’s when you put a little cookie on their browser, and then use Google to show them ads for the product or service they were looking at on your website. It’s a little creepy, but it works. How to do that is WAY more complicated than I can cover here…

If you want your website to be magnetic, you need to give your visitors something they can’t resist so they’ll share their email with you. Then you have to stay in touch on a weekly basis…minimum.

Carousels Kill Customers!

May 16, 2014
Denver, CO

We had a great turnout for yesterday’s New Business Energizer Seminar. Thanks to all of you who were able to make it…and especially those of you who’ve already seen this presentation! I hope you all got a few good nuggets to help you energize and grow your businesses!

One thing I talked about during the presentation was the use of sliders on your websites.

A slider, or carousel as they’re sometimes called, is that cool feature we website owners love to use because we can show off more of our photos and offer more of our products and services above the fold on the home page.

However, this cool feature is costing you paying customers!

Multiple studies done on the use of sliders show users don’t like them and don’t click on them.

One study conducted by Notre Dame found that only 1% of the website’s visitors clicked on a “feature” displayed on the slider images, which is VERY low. Of that 1%, nearly all the clicks occurred on the first slide, meaning the other 4 slides were almost useless. In other words, there’s no need to have them.

One popular theory as to why this happens is a concept called “banner blindness.” We’ve become so accustomed to seeing banner ads on websites, that we’ve learned to subconsciously tune them out. And to our subconscious, sliders look like banner ads instead of content.

Hopefully I’ve convinced you all to remove those really cool, very pretty sliders from your homepages. Remember, your singular goal is to please your visitors and convert them into paying customers. That means you need to remove any obstacles that prevent you from making that happen!

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