New Year–Time for your Website Annual Review

Annual Website Review Checklist 

Many websites grow almost as large as a house.  Throughout the year it seems to get new pages, links, images and user generated content.  That’s why I recommend performing an annual review of your website. To help get you started and get your site in shape for the New Year, here is an Annual Website Review Checklist.

1. Review Your Domain Name Record

Don’t let outdated information cause you to miss renewals and other important notices. Verify that the contact names and addresses on your domain record are correct once a year. Use these resources to review your domain record now:

  • InterNIC[http://www.internic.net/whois.html]
  • VeriSign[http://www.networksolutions.com/en_US/whois/]

2. Check Website Email Addresses

Added new staff?  Replaced some others?  You could have invalid email addresses on your site. Make a list of all the email addresses on your site and confirm that they’re still active.

3. Update Your Confirmation and Automated Messages

If the automated messages from your registration, request, order and other forms have not been updated in the last year, it’s time to review them. These messages can be powerful customer relations tools, but only if they’re meeting your customers’ needs. Make sure your automated messages are serving your customers—not spamming them.

4. Test Your Forms

In conjunction with updating your automated messages, you should test your forms to make sure that they’re still functioning correctly—and to review how easy they are to use. Simply submit each as if you were a visitor on your site. Be sure to review your error messages as part of this process. You should test your forms often and immediately look into any sudden drops in the number of submissions.

5. Validate Your Links

Do your part to stop link rot, while improving your site, by making time to check your internal and external site links—especially if you’ve neglected this task due to more pressing demands. Here are a couple of basic tools that can help:

6. Check Your Site’s Search Feature

Like most of the items on this list, checking your site’s search feature should be done more than once a year. But we know it’s not always possible to review all aspects of your site on an ongoing basis. That’s why it’s important to make sure your search is functioning effectively and that outdated content isn’t showing up as part of your annual review.

If you don’t have a search feature on your site, now’s a good time to see if adding one would enhance your site’s usability.

7. Check Your File Sizes and Download Times

If a lot of updates and additions have been made to your site, it might be time to check your site’s performance. It’s not unusual for page and image files to slowly creep up in size with each successive update. Re-optimizing your files so your pages load faster will make for a better user experience.

8. Review Your Stylesheets, Standards, Accessibility and Compatibility

If you want to save some serious time for your visitors—and for yourself during site maintenance—the annual review is the perfect time to revisit or set site standards covering CSS, Web Standards, Accessibility and Browser Compatibility.

To help you wrestle with the issues surrounding evolving your site to new standards, we offer these articles and resources:

Web Standards

Cascading Stylesheets (CSS):

  • CSS Work from meryerweb.com[http://www.meyerweb.com/eric/css/]

Browser Stats:

9. Update Your Time References and Copyright

About Us and other background information on your site may contain specific time references such as “for five years”. Your site may also include a historical timeline or list of accomplishments that should be updated at the start of the year.

In addition, your copyright should be updated when your content is updated. During your annual review, check to make sure this task hasn’t been overlooked. Although you can simply use the date that the content was first created, it’s a good idea for your copyright to reflect when content was created and when it was modified. This is not only to protect your work, but also to avoid having visitors think that your content is out of date. Below are some examples of the syntax:

Examples:

  • Content created in 2009:
    Copyright (c) 2009 nxtConcepts, Ltd.
  • Content created in 2007 and updated in 2011:
    Copyright (c) 2007, 2011 nxtConcepts, Ltd.
  • Content created in 2007 and updated in 2009 and 2011:
    Copyright (c) 2007-2011 nxtConcepts, Ltd.

Learn More About Copyrights:

10. Check Your Search Engine Visibility

Search engines are one of the most important and cost-effective sources for attracting targeted traffic and increasing brand awareness for many sites. At the same time, many changes have taken place in how search engines return results and display paid (sponsored) listings. As a result, I check your site’s visibility on the top search engines by searching for your company name, products and other appropriate keyword phrases.

If your site isn’t coming up near the top of the results for these terms, you should look into the benefits of marketing your site through search engine optimization and paid placement:

Social Media Community Building

What is social media community building? It’s where people come together because of a ‘bigger’ idea. They have a common association or feeling that’s related to a person, product, organization, or event.

For me, creating a community online for a business is really the same as throwing a party offline.  You invite people to an experience and hope to keep them entertained with clear expectations and outcomes.  That way they can choose to spend time where they feel they can make a difference.  The problems arise when companies let their true goal (making money) become the main focus in social media.

The line between marketing and selling in social media is where many people and organizations get stuck.  Many people are ok to be marketed to in social media.  It’s when they are blatently sold to, they leave.  So, where’s the line?  People aren’t going to interact with you via social media so you can throw sales messages at them.   And, they aren’t going to come together and form communities so you can promote your product and grow your business.  Once you recognize that, then you can start using social media in the same way that your customers are, and for the same reasons.

There are three steps to building a community: exposure, awareness, motivation.

1. Exposure-Size matters.

Having influential people in your audience is important.  Audience size and influence does matter. You need to have both engaged followers, and a large number of followers.  Otherwise, your message will just not be heard.

2. Awareness-big and loud still works.  Personalize.

There’s almost an unlimited amount of options and noise in social media.  So, to get through, big ads, viral campaigns, videos, and exposure still work to get attention – to a point. Eventually, being the center of attention at the party gets old.   That’s where personalization becomes critical.  Once you get someone’s attention, you need to talk to them. Ever heard your name over the top of the noise in a crowded party? That’s selective attention; utilize it in your marketing.

3. Motivation-why do people share?  To make them look good of course!  So, help make your audience look cool.

Nobody likes to talk to the guy at the party who only talks about himself. Don’t be that guy on social media.  Your goal should be to motivate people to share stories and experiences.  Preferably positive one’s about your brand.  Some ways to do that: be relevant-focus on topics that your community will find interesting; use tools to increase the reach of your community such as sharing links, calls to action, and networking tools; provide something of value such as how-to/instructional information, warnings and alerts, even humor.  Be original but familiar.

One online community that has been very successful is Nike’s Nike+ running community. It meets every need of the consumer: ease of logging workouts, running accountability and connecting with others who have running in common.   It also has a coolness factor that lends to the passion the runners have for the sport.

Whether you have a social media community already or are just starting out building one.  The main thing to keep in mind is to be a good host.  Make sure to devote enough time and energy into encouraging involvement, responding to member’s comments and questions and making sure enough solid content continues to be published to give members a reason to come back.

When Marketing and Kitchens Collide – Red Bull Cola and Wiiings

Sometimes work and play do go together.  After attending the Red Bull Flugtag in St. Paul, MN, I had a mooking (marketing & cooking) moment.  Why not combine some of the Red Bull Cola with chicken wings.  Red Bull does say their products gives you wiiings, right?  I thought I’d put it to the test!  I’m happy to report it was a resounding success.

Want to try it yourself?  Here’s my recipe:

Red Bull Cola Glazed Wiiings Recipe

Servings: 4 as appetizer Prep Time: 30 minutes Cook Time: 20 minutes

I had some chicken wings and some Red Bull Cola.  Seemed like the perfect time to out the slogan “gives you wiiings”.  If you really want your taste buds to take flight, add some thinly sliced jalapenos too.

Ingredients:

1 cup Red Bull Cola
Juice of 2 limes
1 1/2 cups firmly packed light brown sugar
1 jalapeno, finely minced (discard the seeds)
1 tablespoon cooking oil
2 pounds chicken wings
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

Make the glaze
In a small sauce pan, bring the Red Bull Cola, lime juice, brown sugar and the minced jalapeno to a boil over high heat. Decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer until the mixture is syrupy, about 30 minutes; keep warm over low heat.

Prepare the wings
Cut off the wing tip and separate the wings at the joint. Place the wing pieces in a large bowl and season with salt and pepper. Pour about half the glaze over the wings and toss to coat Keep the remaining sauce warm over low heat.

Bake the wings
Position an oven rack 4 inches below the broiler element in the oven. Preheat the broiler. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place the glazed wings on the baking sheet and bake for 10 minutes per side, brushing twice on each side with the reserved glaze. Transfer to a platter.

Top 10 Search Engine Optimization Myths

Strategies for ranking well in “natural,” or “organic,” search engine listings are quite different from those used in paid search engine advertising. Search engine optimization (SEO) specifically concerns natural search results.

Plenty of unethical search engine marketers will take your money by making false promises without a moment’s hesitation. Unfortunately, the snake-oil sales pitches may tell you exactly what you want to hear.  Don’t fall for it!

What exactly is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?  It is the art and science of getting a website noticed on search engines such as Google, Yahoo, MSN, LookSmart, etc.  It is often a complicated, timely, and manually intensive process that is somewhat akin to working with a moving target.

Remember the fundamental principles of optimization:
•    Keyword-focused text. Use the words and phrases that your target audience types into search queries.
•    Information architecture and page layout. Give both search engines and searchers easy access to content while providing a sense of place and clear scents of information.
•    Link development. Increase the number and quality of objective, third-party links pointing to a Web page.

Myths

Myth 1: Submitting your site to thousands of engines is the way to get web traffic.
Unfortunately, there aren’t even a thousand engines to submit to.  Whether you decide to do it or pay someone to do it for you, all you will get is you website listed on “Free for All” (FFA) sites that are not really search engines.  All they really do is list links to the last 50 or so URLs that were submitted.  These sites are rarely used since search engines make up 90% of the searches on the web.  And that means that these programs or services will not even get you listed in many of the top engines.

Myth 2: It’s all about Meta tags.
The general reasoning behind people or companies still wanting or attempting to use meta tags is: “Meta tags will make all the difference for our web site” or “We have heard or read of companies that their web sites were placed way on top because of meta tags”. My response–five years ago, it could have been true.

At the beginning of the Internet, meta tags were originally incorporated in a site as an attempt to better assist webmasters. They were also included to help search engines discover what their site was all about. Well, it didn’t take long for people to find a way to abuse the system.

Some actually tried and successfully got around in abusing this technique by writing useless keywords into their meta tags in hopes to trick the search engines to rank them higher. Today, and because of all this abuse, most major search engines, especially Google, are placing less and less importance in the presence or absence of meta tags and their content.

Myth 3: Resubmit your website often to engines
Contrary to popular opinion, submitting a website every week or every month to the major search engines will not help your rankings, in fact it might do just the opposite. Once a website is in a search engine’s database, it usually won’t go away with time.

For all intents and purposes, once a website has been professionally optimized for all its major keywords & key phrases, normally the site should consistently yield excellent, positive results and will drive targeted visitors into your business. You should be careful of any company or individual that claims otherwise.

Many businesses and large companies are flooded daily with useless spam and emails that claim to offer a monthly submittal service for a small fee. The majority of the search engines that these services plan to submit your site are, for the most part, totally unknown to the search engine community.

Myth 4: SEO experts are too costly
Search Engine Positioning and optimization (SEO) is generally much less expensive than certain PPC (Pay-for-Click) programs and less costly than any other marketing campaign you can conduct, both online or offline. It usually costs much less than traditional offline advertising such as radio, TV, direct mail, print ads, booths at trade fairs, etc.

A professional SEO program can bring you a high ROI (Return on Investment) if done correctly. That means a fairly smaller investment could significantly raise your targeted site traffic by anywhere from 45% to 85% or sometimes even higher.

Myth 5: We can optimize ourselves in house looking to outsource it is a waste of money.

SEO isn’t rocket science, but it also isn’t something that can be learned overnight.  This is an SEO myth we get to hear a lot. As with so many things today, from the outset, it sure looks simple. Some think that a bit of “tweaking” with a few meta tags and inserting a keyword or a key phrase in the title tag amounts to great SEO optimization.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

To be really successful, a company that wishes to do “in house” optimization needs to get prepared to constantly adjust or make important changes to their search algorithm, and keep up with the daily changes in the world of search engines for the latest changes. Effective search engine optimization is demanding, complex, and precise. A competent SEO professional wields a wide array of technical as well as verbal skills, and deep experience is absolutely key to doing effective SEO.

To give a sense of the challenges involved, anyone who expects to make a go at doing SEO must be able to answer all of the following questions:
What percentage of popular single words vs. targeted multi-word phrases should you weave into your text, and in what frequency, density, and distribution?
How can Flash be used while preserving SEO?
What usability and navigation principles ensure that the traffic you get will convert optimally?

Myth 6: In-House SEO Is Cheaper
The Truth: SEO professionals can get higher rankings faster because Search Engine Optimization and Marketing is complex, technical and has a steep learning curve. Professional organizations devoted to SEO also have a team available, including copywriters, developers and SEO specialists.  Unless you have a room full of marketing staff dedicated to SEO it is hard to keep up. How much is 10, 15, 20 hours a month worth to you in a dollar amount? SEO professionals make you money by saving you that time and effort, at a cost you can afford.

Myth 7: Only go with a Guaranteed Search Engine Position company
SEO Myth: “Your top ten search engine ranking can be guaranteed”
The Truth: Some SEO firms will advertise a “guarantee” to have you listed in the top ten rankings. No one other than the search engines themselves can guarantee any ranking. Don’t believe it. Trust their results for other clients and make your decision from actual client successes, not empty promises and guarantees.

Credible, experienced, knowledgeable search engine optimizers can demonstrate results from past performance but cannot guarantee future results. In that sense, they’re just like stockbrokers. No broker knows how future markets will perform, and no optimizer knows what future search engine algorithms will be.

Except for pay-for-placement advertising, optimizers cannot guarantee top positions. Only one group has final control over what ranks and what doesn’t: the search engines themselves. All of the major search engines have some sort of disclaimer stating they ultimately decide which Web pages will be included in their indexes.

Unfortunately, a large number of the SEO firms that offer guaranteed search engine positions are spammers. To achieve top positions, thousands, even millions, of doorway pages are submitted to search engines. If one such doorway page gets a top position, even if only for a few days, the SEO firm fulfilled its end of the contract.

People like the comfort of a guarantee. Many believe a guarantee shows the firm’s confidence in their skills and expertise. Remember, a guarantee is only one part of a sales pitch. The same guarantee that convinces you to sign the contract may very well result in spam practices that will get your site penalized or banned altogether.

Myth 8: We can get you Instant Link Popularity
Anyone who promises link popularity right off the bat is spamming search engines. In all likelihood, SEO firms that promise instantaneous results build link farms to artificially inflate link popularity.

Quite often, these firms rely on expired domains on Yahoo and Open Directory. Many of the link farm sites aren’t even in the same industry. Why would a mortgage site link to a site that sells watches?

Results people see during the sales pitch that are generated by link farming are short-lived. Search engine software engineers discover the link farms and promptly remove their sites.

Quality link development takes time.

Myth 9: You Don’t Have to Change Your Web Site
A Web site is always a work in progress because the Internet is constantly evolving. Browsers are frequently updated to support improved HTML, Cascading Style Sheets, scripting, and multimedia files.

If you haven’t written your site using the keyword phrases your target audience types into search queries, your pages won’t rank well. And if you did use keyword phrases on your pages, were those phrases used prominently and frequently enough so the pages appear focused? This must hold true not only from a crawlers’ point of view but from your visitors’ point of view as well.

Be prepared to modify your content in places with the highest impact. That includes HTML title tags and visible (body) text: headings, paragraph tags, hyperlinks, table cells, ordered and unordered lists, and so forth. Modifying content in meta tags alone won’t make your site appear more focused.

If a site doesn’t contain at least one navigation scheme crawlers can follow and a URL structure they can easily index, participation in paid-inclusion programs should be part of your budget.

Myth 10: The goal is to be number one or on page one.
Not true. Your goal is to optimize your return on investment in SEO and SEM (Search Engine Marketing). You’ll miss the big picture if you focus myopically on obtaining page-one ranking for a few words that you think best describe your products or services. The goal of SEO and SEM is to engineer a diversified portfolio of hundreds or even thousands of targeted phrase combination’s of words that, together, achieve maximum ROI. Depending on the frequency of searches relevant to your offerings, a few targeted phrases could earn you enormous ROI. Or, conversely, you may need scores of synonymous phrases or single words to rank on page one in order to achieve maximum ROI.

Viral Marketing-The next strain of marketing

Originally written and published for Ski Area Management in May 2006.  It’s an oldy but goody!

There’s a secret new marketing strategy circulating through the ski industry. It’s basically free, almost always entertaining, and rarely involves a visit to the doctor.

In the old days, marketing was considered a function of your organization, and managing your message was an art. You used “visible” methods, such as printed materials, press releases and ads, TV, and radio spots to build brand awareness and generate sales leads. It worked, but the majority of these tools were expensive and inefficient. As the old adage went, “50 percent of marketing dollars are wasted, we just don’t know which half.”

That’s so last century. Today, marketing has become more personalized. It’s become more of an interactive experience. Instead of being an “art” and a function of your business it’s now an “act” of an organization, one that relies on “invisible” science and technology. We still use technology to generate leads, but also to talk directly with consumers. This is why “viral marketing” is rapidly replacing traditional marketing methods and has become the latest strain of marketing.

Traditional Visible Marketing

“What’s Out”

Invisible Viral Marketing

“What’s In”

Print Collateral Website
Print Ads Banner Ads
Direct Mail Email Marketing
Mail in Sweepstakes Online Contest/games
Professional photography Individual Camera phones
TV ads Video-on-demand
Press release Gossip & rumor mill creation
Emails Instant Message/RSS Feeds
Mailed letter Mobile text message marketing
In-house sales manager Affiliate marketing
Customer comment cards Blogs
Broadcast ski reporting (Snocountry.com) Desktop ski reporting software (Snowmate)

Driven by consumers, viral marketing is rapidly gaining momentum and acceptance in the mainstream business world. A handful of early adopter ski areas are realizing the power the Web has to target the right consumers with the right message and to deliver the message inexpensively. These resorts have come to understand that their guests want three things: segmentation (talk to my group), personalization (in a way that I understand), and conversation (let me have a say). And they are shifting some marketing dollars into online efforts, including viral marketing.

What is viral marketing?

Have you ever visited a website and found an article, a coupon, a special offer, or something else that impressed you so much that you immediately sent an email to a friend about it? If you have, you’ve experienced “viral marketing.”

Viral marketing is a highly effective way to “bug your customers” by marketing your products or services using web-based technology. It is enticing because of the ease of execution, relative low-cost (compared to direct mail), good targeting, and the high and rapid response rate.

The term viral marketing was originally coined by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson in 1997 to describe Hotmail’s email practice of adding advertising for themselves to outgoing mail from their users. The strategy was simple. On the bottom of each and every Hotmail email was the phrase, “Get your free private email at www.hotmail.com.” According to Jurvetson, this simple sentence helped to make Hotmail the largest email provider in India without spending a dime.

Viral marketing campaigns are used to generate awareness or to stimulate specific action. By harnessing the network effect of the Internet, viral marketing can reach large numbers of people rapidly, like a bug or flu virus in humans. Instead of propagating itself by human contact, it does so by computer contact (in a good way). One minute no one’s heard of a product or service like Hotmail; next minute, it’s everywhere.

Viral marketing is effective because it capitalizes on referrals from an unbiased and trusted third party—your consumer. Let just one of your customers catch your “marketing bug,” and they will happily “sneeze it” to everyone they know. Viral marketing campaigns can have a long life expectancy and are usually much more cost effective than other marketing methods, since your “sneezers” take it upon themselves to spread your message for free—more precisely, as the by-product of your customers’ normal online activity.

Building the Bug

A viral marketing campaign should focus on something you do, NOT on who you are. A viral campaign is something that is so cool, so exciting, or so creative that it gets people very excited; they can’t wait to share it with others. Often the ultimate goal of viral marketing campaigns (and the proof of their success) is to generate media coverage worth many times more than your entire advertising budget.

“Bob,” an animated character created by Elk Mountain Ski Resort in Pennsylvania, is a great example of a concept that “went viral” due to its broad appeal and loyal following.  “Bob” is everybody’s Elk insider-buddy who gives them the scoop on what’s happening. He came to life on the web in January 2006. According to general manager Gregg Confer, “Bob is just an ordinary guy doing an extraordinary job… especially for an animated character.” Customers can’t get enough of Bob, so he will soon be appearing in the resort’s coloring books, new clothing line, and on employee uniforms.

The “Bob” concept was developed to appeal to consumers in a fresh and entertaining way that differentiated Elk from its competition. For about $3,000 in development and implementation costs, “Bob” helped drive the resort website visits up 92 percent over a three-month time span during the 2005-06 season. To see how cool Bob is, go to www.elkskier.com.

Making the bug cool

Since viral marketing is relatively new, most organizations are confused about what viral campaigns are and how they work. The method is still evolving. However, there are three basic types of viral marketing: word-of-mouth, pass-it-on, and virtual tools.

1. Word of mouth involves integrated web technology that encourages you to  “Tell a Friend,” “Send this coupon to a friend,” or “Recommend this website to a friend.”

Killington has done a great job of word of mouth viral marketing with their weekly email newsletter “The Drift.” Unlike traditional (and boring) newsletters, this one is off-beat, with a personal writing style that caters to Killington insiders. Besides entertaining content, there’s a contest in every issue. Named “Gimme, Gimme,” the questions keep readers coming back for more. One “Gimme, Gimme” question asked, “If you weren’t planning to go skiing or riding on a given weekend, what could a resort do for you to get you motivated (hint, hint, wink, wink, and a nudge)? Free tickets and a foot of snow are not acceptable answers only because I can control neither.” Respondents could win two 2-Day lift tickets valid for the rest of the season.

Nick Polumbus, Killington’s marketing brand manager (and the personality behind “Drift”), was not able to share the area’s in-house subscribers numbers, but admitted that “our email subscriber list has stayed pretty consistent for the past 3-4 years. We’ve worked hard to deliver content, giveaways, and cool new things such as podcasting to keep our subscribers reading and hopefully coming to Killington.” He admitted that The Drift receives an average of 600-900 email responses to every “Gimme, Gimme” contest. Considering the only cost involved is a bit of creativity, that’s viral! To get the drift of The Drift, go to http://www.killington.com.

2. Pass-It-On is the ultimate viral technique. Ever pass on a joke or political cartoon? Sure, you and everyone else. A January 2006 study by Sharpe Partners revealed that 9 out of 10 adult Internet users in America share content with others via email.

Pass-it-on viral marketing relies on social networking, where the receiver feels compelled to “pass on” and share an article, cool tool, funny video, etc through email to a friend, family member, or associate. Echo Mountain, Colorado, has exploited this in a most unique way. To spread word of the all-park area’s impending opening last March, the resort tapped into the social networking power of snowboarders and freestyle skiers through Myspace.com. For those who have somehow escaped news of this infamous and wildly popular social networking website, it offers a plethora of instant communication (i.e., viral marketing) tools, including music & photo sharing, blog creation, anonymous matchmaking (match people of similar interests), community group space, and an internal email system to send messages to other MySpace.com friends. MySpace.com has recently been criticized for allowing members to post indecent pictures and use high levels of profanity, and for some advertising that violates good taste, none of which deters its fans. According to Alexa’s web report in March 2006, MySpace is the world’s fifth-most popular English-language website.

According to Eric Pettit, marketing director for Echo Mountain, “we chose to build a page on Myspace.com after listening to recommendations from our interns, who are closest in age to our target market. It made sense for us to go where there’s already a [freestyle skier and snowboard] community interacting online. The fact that it’s free didn’t hurt, either.” As for the controversy that surrounds Myspace, Eric said, “People are going to talk to their buds online. We can either join in and help lead the conversation or let it go on without us. We just try to watch what WE say.”

Their viral thinking has paid off. Just a few weeks after creating their page on Myspace.com they had already gathered hundreds of “friends,” comments and pictures. The best part? Their network of sneezers continues to grow, all without spending one single penny. You can see it online at www.myspace.com/echomtnpark.

3. Virtual tools are usually product- or service-based. A viral tool is used online and embedded with a marketing message, like Hotmail’s free emails.

In January of 2004, Vail launched “Snowmate,” a downloadable computer program that website visitors and resort guests could leave on their desktop to get up-to-the-minute information on weather, snow conditions, video clips, and travel offers. Snowmate lets users seek information in a fun, unique, and playful way. It includes “Trevvor,” an animated cartoon character, and animations such as piles of snow on the computer screen when it was snowing at Vail. Vail included “tell-a-friend” tools in the program that made it easy for users to email others favorite images or deals.

Although this type of viral tool is more expensive than most, it is still relatively cheap by traditional standards, and it produced significant returns. According to Kam Rope, director of online marketing and sales for Vail Resorts, there were 55,000 downloads in the first five months, and more than $200,000 in measurable revenue from click-throughs (users who used their mouse to click on a link in the program to visit a website or get additional information). The 2006-07 season will see the third generation of the application, with new elements to make the viral tool more compelling for the user and more rewarding for Vail Resorts.

Spreading the Bug

Coming up with a cool concept that people will embrace and share with others is not easy. But if you can get your “sneezers” involved in building the concepts, they will be more likely to spread your bug. That’s just what Snow Trails Winter Resort in Ohio did this past season.

The Snow Trails “Wanted Video Contest” focused on creating a place where terrain park enthusiasts could show off their best video tricks to all their friends. Snow Trails created a micro-site on their website that allowed registered contestants to upload personal video for “fame and prizes”. Here’s the viral part: to win fame and prizes, the contestants had to engage their network of friends to visit snowtrails.com and vote for their videos. By integrating “tell a friend” and “voting system” software into the micro-site, it was fun and easy for contestants to “spread the word” about their video—and the Snow Trails brand as well.

Snow Trails marketing manager Nate Wolleson says, “For less than $1,000 we were able to excite a target market that is normally very hard to reach, and to generate ten times our investment in sponsor money and prizes. The Wanted Video Contest not only generated a 12 percent increase in visitors on snowtrails.com during the campaign but also spiked an 18 percent jump in people that spent two or more minutes on the site. And, as you know, the longer they hang around, the longer they think about Snow Trails.”

How to Keep from Getting Sick

One of the most exciting things about viral marketing is the fact that anyone can do it. No matter if you are a 25,000 skier-visit area or a 250,000 skier-visit resort, the only thing you need (besides an open mind) is to create something that people WANT to share with others.

Remember that. Many marketers will be tempted to quickly throw together a campaign while viral marketing is still relatively new. Unfortunately, most will fail for one simple reason: lameness. To become viral, the email, website, application, or video being shared must be unique, informative and/or entertaining, or create a definite value by solving a problem. If it doesn’t appear to originate from a credible entity (i.e., a relevant organization or individual to the sneezer), it can be seen as blatant advertising and immediately discredited. Finally, if the leave-behind message doesn’t resonate with the target/intended audience, or provide a meaningful call to action, it’s a waste of time and money.

Spreading your own Bug

So don’t be lame! Inoculate yourself against failure—follow the top 10 best practices of the six areas mentioned above.

Ski Resort Viral Marketing Best Practices:

1. Know your audience

Start with something relevant to your sneezers to get their attention and encourage them to act. Understanding and delivering what your sneezers want is the key to “going viral.” This includes going to where they are (Echo Mountain and Myspace.com) and speaking their language (Killington’s The Drift).

2. Remember who you are

The tone and personality of your viral campaign will either build long-term relationships or destroy them. A fun and friendly viral campaign (Elk Mountain’s “Bob”) will reinforce how your customers see your resort. A borrowed campaign that is not aligned with your overall marketing objectives or your personality will almost always backfire.

3. Keep it short and sweet (K.I.S.S.)

Always keep your content brief and relevant. You have 7 seconds to make an impression that captures the reader’s attention. Use bullet points or short paragraphs to make information and sentences easy to absorb.

4. Layout and design

Appearance and style can play a major role in making your viral campaign a success. Build your viral tool around the niche group you are trying to attract. Keep in mind that not everyone has broadband. Readability and quick on-screen reading should be number-one priorities. For those that do have broadband and are web savvy, exploit it (think Snow Trails, Wanted Video Contest).

5. Covertly embed promotional concepts into your viral tools.

Encourage people to visit your website more often by offering the things that appeal to them the most, such as coupons, e-specials, contests, and fresh content (Vail’s SnowMate).

6. Be unique.

Do things that are unique and grab attention. Be subtle, not forceful.

7. Provide a call to action.

Tell people what you want them to do. Make it simple. Make it intuitive. Make it easy. Vail encourages visitors to download the application and start having fun.

8. Offer an incentive.

Greed is the most common motivator. Use it to encourage your sneezers to act on your behalf: “Tell a friend and be included in a drawing for …” Then, leverage, leverage, leverage! “Tell five friends and get a free …” Snow Trails’ video contest compelled contestants to get their friends to visit the snowtrails.com website to vote.

9.  Trust no one…

…because no one trusts you or what you will do. Post your privacy policy. Highlight opt-out options. Most people won’t consider giving out an email unless they know what you plan to do with it and can remove themselves if they so choose. Killington includes contact and subscription information at the bottom of every email.

10. Be prepared for a big response.

Viral tactics are designed to grow exponentially and are uncontrollable. You tell two friends, then they tell two friends, then they tell two friends, and so on. Often, these hordes will jam your web site, registering, downloading a large file, requesting a freebie, or buying something. If the campaign is strong enough, you might see a 10- or 100-fold increase in traffic within a day. Make sure whatever technology you use can handle the spike. There’s nothing worse than offering something you can’t deliver on.

Social Media Measurement. Let’s Talk Tangibles.

Social Media Measurement.  We hear a lot about it.  I constantly see people touting that it should be, and can be done.  But, when you get right down to it, I have a hard time finding people that provide concrete examples of how they are doing it.

Sure, I’ve seen quite a few articles and presentations where people say measurement is about:
“Focusing on listening”
“Facilitating conversions”
“Leveraging relationships”

Let’s be honest, that tells me absolutely nothing.  And instead conjures pictures in my mind of trapping people in a room and telling them the only way out is to say “the magic words”.  Even then, I bet there still would be people that wouldn’t listen.

Social media measurement is a tricky subject, there are quite a few intangibles.  Not everything can or should be measured.  And, getting data is a bit more challenging since the focus is on relationships and value exchange.  Not to mention the limitations within the networks themselves.  In any case, no matter how large or small your business, the first thing you need to do as a social marketer is answer the question, “why are we doing social media”.  The answers you get, will help you determine what to measure.

For example.  At nxtConcepts, we tackled  “why are we doing social media” with a few of the following answers:
1. To learn.
2. To demonstrate in a live scenario the work we can do for clients.
3. Affordable national brand awareness.

Once we wrote that down, it started to make the intangible, tangible and measurement possible.  (Without locking anyone in a room.)

Answer 1. To learn.
Measurement-Engagement (# of comments, retweets, Likes, Photo or video uploads, event participation, poll usage, bookmarks, downloads and discussions)

Answer 2. To demonstrate in a live scenario the work we can do for clients.
Measurement--Application usage (games, landing pages, media players, sign-ups, Foursquare type interactions, plug-in’s that extend social media to an organization’s website)

Answer 3. Affordable national brand awareness.
Measurement--Awareness (# of Fans and followers over time and how it compares to others in the industry, social media sharing)
Measurement--Analytics (profile data, conversions, demographics, page/media views, churn)

What are some ways your organization answers the question, “why are we doing social media”?

15 Practical Tips for Marketing a Business Blog

Just because you build a blog and write good content, doesn’t mean it will become an overnight success.  Like anything worth doing, blogs also need some nurturing and support.  After working with a number of blogs (personal, corporate, and for clients) I’ve assembled a list of blog marketing and optimization tips:

  1. Setup a Google account for Sitemap and statistics for tracking – Google Analytics.
  2. Identify authoritative blogs, web sites and hubs for outbound resource links and blogroll.
  3. Submit RSS feed and Blog URL to prominent RSS and Blog directories / search engines.
  4. Engage in an ongoing link building campaign.
  5. If podcast or video content are available, submit to Podcast and Vlog directories.
  6. Optimize and distribute a press release announcing blog.
  7. Request feedback or reviews of your blog in relevant forums, discussion threads. If you have a resourceful post that will help others, point to it.
  8. Research and comment on relevant industry related blogs and blogs with significant centers of influence.
  9. Post regularly. If it’s a news oriented blog, 3-5 times per day. If it’s an authoritative blog, 3-5 times per week, but each post must be unique and high value.
  10. Monitor inbound links, traffic, comments and mentions of your blog – Google Alerts, Technorati, Blogpulse, Yahoo News, Ask Blogs and Feeds.
  11. Always respond to comments on your blog and when you detect a mention of your blog on another blog, thank that blogger in the comments of the post.
  12. Make contact with related bloggers on AND offline if possible.  If there are other blogs in your industry, ask around and see if they’d allow you to guest post for them. In return, you’d get a link back to your blog in your profile, or post, on their site.
  13. When making blog posts always cite the source with a link and don’t be afraid to mention popular bloggers by name. Use keywords in the blog post title, in the body of the post and use anchor text when you link to previous posts you’ve made.
  14. Print your blog address everywhere you print your phone number.
  15. Give Away – If it’s a product blog, run a promotion on the blog giving away one of your products. Sometimes the value that can come out of giving something away can be more beneficial than all the items above.

Have a few more?  Please add them below.

TwitterChat 101

This week I am hosting a twitter chat on the twittersphere on Thursday, May 20 at 5pm EST, 2pm PST.  I’ve actually been following #mrktchat for the last nine months since Milena Regos @milenaregos (Diamond Peak Resort, NV)  and Eric Hoffman @eric_hoffman (Park City Mountain, UT) got the ball rolling.  It has been very successful in bringing together people with similar Snowsports industry interests from across the US, overseas and Australia in a virtual roundtable atmosphere.  Just read below and then join us!

So what is a “TwitterChat”?
Picture an informal meeting with a facilitator and a topic.  Only difference is that this meeting only involves typing.  No phone calls, no videos, nothing complicated.  Just a good ‘ole use of words.  Like instant messenger or texting for a group.

The way the group finds each other is by the use of a hashtag (the number sign plus a keyword).  There are tens of thousands of groups out there.  You can find them here http://wthashtag.com.  The #mrktchat group I’ll host today focuses topics around travel and tourism marketing.  It is always available and open to anyone.  But, every Thursday people come together to discuss for an hour a specific topic or snowsports industry related issue.  Its a great way to connect and learn.  Its informal, but every week there’s been great topics and different facilitators.

What’s Needed?
Basically, two things.  First you need to join Twitter and have a username.  Second, you will need a computer and/or a cell phone to be able to connect, follow, and post.

There’s a few different ways to track and post to the chat.
1. You can either use a web page such as http://wthashtag.com/Mrktchat or http://tweetchat.com/room/mrktchat
2. Use twitter related software you can download to your computer or iphone.  I use Tweetdeck and set up a column using the search function for #mrktchat.  Actually if you use Tweetdeck, all you have to do is click on a tweet with the hashtag #mrktchat and it will automatically create a column for you.

How It Works
Ok, so what will happen at 5pm EST today?
a) First, I will welcome everyone to the “tweetchat”.  Anyone that’s online and following the #mrktchat will usually introduce themselves to say they are there.  I will then ask some questions and look for responses.
b) Once the topic is introduced, people to start asking questions and making comments using the regular twitter rules (limited to 140 characters).  Normally we try to stick with a topic for 5-10 minutes then I will bring up another question/topic.  This goes on for the hour.  Other people are also welcome to bring up topics or other related items.

So, if it is a topic you want to say something about, do it.  Or, if you want to clarify anything or respond to a particular person, go for it.  Just a few things to remember:
1. Keep the #mrktchat tag in all conversations you want to be seen in that area.
2. If you are responding to a person in particular, then, make sure to include their twitter name (ie @srufo) AND the #mrktchat tag.  That way that person knows something’s been mentioned on twitter and can respond if needed.
3. To respond to a person without the entire group seeing it but you want to let the rest of the twittersphere see then just reply using their twitter handle (ie. @srufo).
4. To respond privately, direct message them.  But, don’t forget, you can only direct message people that follow you on Twitter.
5. Keep in mind your responses are public.  And, there is no “delete” button on the Internet.
6. Want to sell something?  Don’t do it here.  That’s better done somewhere else.
7. Have fun!

Have more questions?  Just let me know.

Americans Trust Small Businesses–But Government Hasn’t Caught On

There’s some interesting new research from the PEW Research Center.  People view small businesses with more trust than even churches, colleges, labor unions and other groups.  The study also showed that Americans say small businesses don’t get enough attention from the federal government. “At a time when a lot of institutions are viewed negatively, small business is viewed very positively. What’s really interesting is that large corporations are viewed almost as negatively as Wall Street. The contrast between large corporations and small business is enormous,” said Pew Associate Director Carroll Dougherty.

Although most of the media seemed to pick up and run with the fact that Americans have lost their faith in government, what was overlooked is the positive that small business IS trusted.  Let’s take a look at some of the study findings:

pew public view of institutionspew govt attn

Of course, as a small business owner myself, I (as well as other small business owners) have very little government influence.  But, don’t count us out!  Although, we may not have the power or funds of big business to change government, we do have power to change our world. Because we create most of the new jobs (65 percent of all new jobs are created by small companies). We have the power to innovate. And we have the power to create good working environments for our employees.

Do you agree, disagree, or have other “powers” to add?

Social Media Networks an Inside Look

A few months ago, a question was asked in one of the social media groups I belong to on LinkedIn:

“How many social media profiles do you actively manage?”

To date there have been over 830 comments from at least 500 people.  It’s a pretty active discussion.  It made me start to think…what a great informal research project.  So, that’s what we did.  We went ahead and tabulated how many social media networks this group uses regularly and what the most important/popular networks that are being used.

Here’s what we found:

Social Media Accounts LinkedIn users Manage Regularly

Social Networks Usage from Study

I found it interesting that most people that contributed to this called LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook “The Big Three”.  From the results you can see that a good portion of the respondents used these three social networks as their primary focus.

One other thing we found from this Discussion Group was the preferred tools.  Here’s a listing of the “best” tools to help make social media more manageable:

Let me know your thoughts.  Do you agree with the results?  How often do you update your online profiles for work or personal thoughts?

President of nxtConcepts, Ltd

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