Launch: Shanachie.com

Shanachie.comCongratulation to Shanachie Entertainment on the launch of their new & improved website Shanachie.com.

Full disclosure: The Shanachie project came to AU via Falco Design (http://FalcoDesign.com). FD worked with their client, created the design and was responsible for the (majority of the) front-end coding. AU’s responsibility was taking that input and making the CMS development magic happen with ExpressionEngine.

For some additional context,  you can read Shanachie’s press releases on Yahoo! News:

http://news.yahoo.com/celebrated-independent-record-label-shanachie-entertainment-relaunches-newly-110223373.html

Highlights of Phase 1

—Shanachie has full access and control of the website’s content. Text, images and video embeds are all managed with ExpressionEngine.

—Though the use of the EE add-on Playa (by Pixel & Tonic), different types of content can easily be related. For example, there is a Playa relationship between Artists and Tours. Once the relationship is established, the CMS (content management system) is coded to deliver the right content at the right time, as defined by the rules of the business.

—Entry categories are also utilized for suggesting appropriate content. For example, New Releases and Feature Releases can be quickly and easily defined by Shanachie by using ExpressionEngine’s categories.

—While SEO (search engine optimization) was not an emphasis of this phase, the site’s structure and URLs were architected to be “SEO friendly.”

AU’s Contribution

—ExpressionEngine web development.

—Extensive enhancement to a jquery plugin for list paging (e.g., the lower half of http://shanachie.com/videos/all-dvds). We were so pleased with the resulting plugin that we branded it ezPagination and will be launching a free-standing website (http://ezPagination) for it fairly soon.

Naturally, we’d like to thank Falco Design for choosing AU to handle the web development slice of this project.

As you can tell from the press release Shanachie is very happy. We are too.

Launch: GregsLandscaping.com

Launch: GregsLandscaping.comCongratulations to owner/CEO Greg Garnich on the launch of his new & improved iproperty GregsLandscaping.com.

Gregs Landscaping is a full-service company that believes that no client/project is too small or too big. Communication of all that is Gregs Landscaping was one of the key challenges of this project. The good news was Greg is also an avid photographer and has plenty of image content. Solving how to address the 20+ services took a bit more analysis. After a number of detailed discussions we all eventually agreed on displaying the services in a layout inspired by a “tag cloud”. The added innovation was that the tiers for each service could be service specific. This custom build functionality was essential to giving the GL brand the depth and breadth it needed.

Finally, the third key component of this iproperty was that every page is designed to function as a free-standing landing page for that particular service. When a potential customer does a search and then lands on an “inner page” for a particular service all the essential content will be there on that page. Even when they scroll to the bottom of the page the request a quote button and phone number is there waiting for them.

All this came together to form an experience that accurately reflects the Gregs Landscaping brand—honest, thorough and always easy to do business with.

Highlights of Phase 1

—Gregs Landscaping is built on the content management system (CMS) platform ExpressionEngine (EE). It is EE’s robust functionality and highly regarded flexibility that allowed AU to build a website that could “deliver the right content at the right time.”

—For example, content can be targeted to services/pages. That is, each FAQ, gallery image, header image, link and testimonial can all be assigned to the service(s)/page(s) it supports. Each is entered only once and is then assigned to many services/pages.

—Aside from being able to configure the tiers for each service in the service “tag cloud”, Gregs also has the ability to display content based on month. For example, if Gregs Landscaping wanted the copy on the home page for Sept to March to be different from the copy for April to August that is possible. Once the content setting were configured EE would handle the rest. In fact, even the service cloud can be configured to be seasonal. Images, testimonials, etc. all have a month by month setting for defining when a particular slice of content should be displayed.

—The URL structure and page markup is best described as “SEO friendly.” AU also consulted GL on SEO best practices (e.g., giving image files relevant names).

—To make Gregs’ site social media and “Facebook friendly” the markup includes a handful of key Open Graph tags.

AU’s Contribution

—Alchemy United is proud to say that this project was 100% AU. From project management, business needs analysis and wireframes, to design, HTML markup and CSS, and Expression Engine development, we made all the magic happen.

Once again, congratulations Greg. With your images and this full-power ExpressionEngine website we’re certain you’ll be converting more prospects to happy Gregs Landscaping customers.

Launch: TANAHome.com

Website launch: TANAHome.comCongratulation to owner Tiffany Brigante on the launch of her new & improved website TANAhome.com.

Full disclosure: The TANAHome project came to AU via Meridith Feldman and Skylographic Design (http://skylographicdesign.com). SD created the design, AU executed the web development.

Highlights of Phase 1

—The TANA site is built on the open-source CMS platform WordPress. All content can be managed and updated by Tiffany.

—By re-appropriating the native WordPress functionality the TANA portfolio is easier for her clients and prospects to browse. TANA can assign a given portfolio project to more than one area of expertise. This ability to add-one-use-many lowers her workload and increases her ability to market her areas of expertise.

—The design and the UX (user-experience) are best described as brand appropriate. Not only does the site visually convey Tiffany’s sense of style but its user-friendliness is indicative of what it’s like to do business with TANAHome. As they say, “The medium is the message.”

AU’s Contribution

—Consultation and collaboration on: IA (information architecture), UI (user-interface) and UX (user-experience).

—WordPress development. To expedite the process, the WordPress theme Twenty Eleven was used as a leaping off point. The theme was fully customized—gutted, re-skinned and enhanced—to meet The Guest expectations as well as business needs of TANAHome. The result speaks for itself.

—Additional functionality was added to the website using two of our homegrown WordPress plugins: WP ezSlider and WP ezWidget.

—The TANAHome website is also further enhanced using WP plugins for: SEO, site map generation and scheduled automated back-ups.

—In order to optimize potential SEO benefits, we also consulted Tiffany on various SEO best practices. We expect to see her further develop her SEO awareness as she uses her site to grow her business.

—Naturally, we also installed Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools.

Congratulations Tiffany!

And thank you Meridith for bringing Alchemy United in to participate in developing the TANHome iproperty.

From bar napkin to zillionaire in 10 “easy” steps

Funny how these things happen sometimes. A friend of a colleague/friend read my “How YouTube and Facebook are Killing Innovation and Success” from a couple weeks back. She/he appreciated the insight and suggested we get together to discuss a collection of ideas she/he and a couple “partners” had been kicking around.

A day or so later we met. After an couple of hours of mostly highly discussion she/he popped the question: “Mark, what would you do?”

Below is a rough and obviously very high level synopsis of the answer that came off the top of my head then (and has been refined a bit since):

Note: Many of these are not silos. That is, the reality is they are interconnected and take form in an agile and interactive fashion. They tend not to happen in a nice and neat linear list as you see here.

  1. Develop your logo / brand identity. This includes domain name(s), social media profile handles, etc.
  2. Formalize your mission statement. Be clear and concise about your idea to the point that all partners agree and sign-off, be it informally or formally.
  3. Organize your collection ideas into a 10 slide “”pitch-deck”. There could be multiple versions of this pitch depending on the target audience. Regardless, each pitch should answer the target’s “What in it for me?” Note: This step is as much about aligning the partners as it is about organizing your pile of ideas and crafting your pitch(s).
  4. Sketch out a marketing plan and set some goals. For example, how many Twitter followers and Facebook “friends” equals “critical mass” and success.
  5. Set up social media accounts (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and begin collecting followers. Track that against goals and regularly assess how much resources it’s going to take to hit your targets.
  6. Set up a basic / coming soon / sign-up-for-beta website. Use any of the above content to flesh that out. Ultimately, the site should get beta sign-ups, help add FB Likes, Twitter followers, etc. The fact is, with barriers to entry so low, cutting through the clutter is a very difficult task. Most non-marketers severely under-estimate how difficult engagement really is. In other words, you’re not the only outfit with a great idea trying to get people’s attention.—Be sure to use Google Analytcis on the site so you can monitor: traffic, nature of the visits, clicks, etc. in order to gauge the level of interest. GA is essential. Collect and analyze your all data in order to refine the sketch of your marketing plan.—I’d recommend a blog on the site to communicate ideas, show progress, collect comments, etc. A blog is also good for SEO. That said, content generation takes time. Who’s going to do that? Reply to comments, manage the social media accounts (correctly), etc.?
  7. With that said, define roles. Of the partners, who is responsible for what, when, etc. Don’t assume. In fact, never assume. Also, there’s a massive amount of truth to, “The devil is in the details.” You’d be surprised how easy it is to not  on executing once you get past the idea on a bar napkin stage.
  8. As that’s all moving along, refine your wants-list into real business needs, (fairly detailed) functionality, wireframes (hand-drawn is fine), etc. and begin to design and develop the brand’s website. Your critical mass goals, sign-up progress and traffic will help to dictate your timeline.—The current rule of thumb is to get in the game with a raw but solid idea and refine as you go. None the less, you have to have some framework to start with. Especially, if there are multiple decision makers. It goes without saying that personalities change as the bumps in the road come bigger and faster.
  9. As all that’s moving along, develop a network for press releases and other “good will” type channels. Contrary to popular belief, big dogs (e.g. Facebook) don’t exactly go viral. Once the angel investors and VCs kick in their part those players open up their “little black books” of media contacts to fan the fire of interest in their new investment. When someone tosses in 5, 6 or 7 figures they aren’t just sitting around praying for “viral”. They’re playing puppet master. If you’re more grassroots and boot strapped then you might be limited to praying for viral. It’s up to you.
  10. Discuss if not formalize an exit strategy. You’d be surprised how well defining the way out helps to determine the path(s) you take. Building a house to live in and building one to sell are usually two very different approaches.

And now for the Bonus Tip:

Don’t quit your day job until your have to. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Having your back up against the wall can be inspiring—provided the partners agree on who’s going to bear that burden.

Launched: VT802.us

Every now and then an idea/project comes along that’s too good to pass up. Maybe the appeal is its off-beat nature. Maybe it’s the challenge. Maybe it’s the potential for fun. Maybe it’s the chance to shine. Maybe it’s the bragging rights. Maybe it’s more productive than Big Bang Theory reruns on TV. Our homegrown VT802.us is all of the above and then some.

Background: Some months ago, in the process of purchasing some other domain names, I grabbed VT802.us. Call it pennies for a rainy day if you will. But at the time I had no idea how I might spend that cash cow. It just seemed like a good idea. Oh! Let me explain: VT is for Vermont and 802 is the telephone area code up there. Yes, they only have one area code. Make sense so far?

Long story short, I passed on the idea of a bit.ly Pro account. That was too mundane and too obvious. I waited. Then approximately six months ago I came across YOURLS.org. YOURLS is an open source project—thanks Ozh!—for doing your own URL shortener. Before you could say bazinga, a brand was born.

VT802.us – The World’s First Vermont-centic URL shortener.

Key Features & Innovations:

  • Submitted URLs that are already “shortened” will be unshortened and then reshortened with the VT802.us base domain name. This includes redirects. In other words, if a URL is a redirect to another URL, VT802.us will get to the end point and then shorten using the actual final destination URL.
  • Along with the to-be-shortened URL a short message for sharing to social networks can also be entered. Once the shortened URL is returned, the Guest has the option to share to any service supported by AddThis.com. Shorten once, share many. Neither bit.ly nor TinyURL offer this feature.
  • The AddThis code was heavily customized. In fact, in the process of trouble shooting a couple of bumps in the web development road even AddThis.com’s tech support admitted that the innovative configuring was an “unanticipated use” of their service.
  • Contact form (icon in upper right) is AJAX and jQuery. The main form and the contact form also use the jQuery Validation plugin.
  • Screen resolution is detected using Javascript in order to display the appropriately sized background image. Image dimension and quality helps them to load faster while not compromising the UX. (Note: Our photographer friends insisted we accept a bit of load time for a higher quality image.)
  • Images are selected randomly on each page load from a pool of files and meta data managed via the admin config.
  • The admin config has a number of fields for each image including: title, description, photographer and others.
  • Top message bar is done with the free version of HelloBar.
  • Banner ad is served with Google’s Doubleclick for Publishers. This feature enables us to analyze impressions, as well as allows advertisers to A/B test their banners. Pursuing advertisers is a Phase 3 pursuit. For now it was a matter of getting to play with Doubleclick again. That said, better to be ready sooner rather than later.
  • Logo and website design is also by Alchemy United. The markup uses HTML5 and is best viewed in Firefox or Chrome.
  • VT802.us also has its own Twitter account and Facebook Page. Please feel free to follow as well as Like. Thanks.
  • And yes, of course, Google Analytics too.

In short, VT802.us is a full-service end-to-end project, envisioned and realized by Alchemy United. As short and simple as it might appear to be this project still entailed quite a bit of attention to detail as well as thoroughness across a number of disciplines. Please let us know what you think about our “little” work in progress. Thanks.

Special Thanks:

I would personally like to thank Burlington, VT photographer/photojournalist Seth Butler (SethButler.com, @SethButler) for embracing the VT802.us vision.

Not only was he the first volunteer shooter to license a couple of images to the project but it was also his idea for the longer more detailed descriptions for the images. As a result, not only does VT802.us promote the visual side of the Green Mountain State but there’s a bit of education/insight as well. He also inspired AU to add the Image & Photographer information “page” (icons in the upper left).

Well done. Thanks Seth!

Relevant Links:

Happy Birthday Robin’s Nest Rhythm & Blues

Screen shot of RobinsNestRhythmAndBlues.comCongratulations! Alchemy United client Robin’s Nest Rhythm And Blues recently celebrated their one year anniversary*. RNRB is a Linden, NJ based Blues club, or as they like to call themselves, a juke joint.

AU designed and built RobinsNestRhythmAndBlues.com. We also developed their social media infrastructure and strategy.

Highlights of Phase 1

—All of the RNRB’s content, including home page slideshow, is maintained directly by RNRB via ExpressionEngine (EE). EE is a robust content management system (CMS) that some even consider to be a framework. The programming for RNRB makes considerable use of EE’s categories functionality. Categories enables the CMS to be programmed to deliver the right content at the right time. With EE the idea of a traditional page is replaced with “widgets” of content being pulled together on demand, assembled on the fly, and finally pushed down to the browser making the request.

—SEO-friendly design and architecture: Every page has a unique URL, page <title>, meta tags, etc. These too are defined by RNRB via ExpressionEngine.

—The website is not an island. Instead it serves as the hub in RNRB’s broader social media strategy.

—Notice how the colors and the box shapes are randomized on page refresh. A subtle but fun feature that also helps keep the site feeling fresh.

AU’s Contribution

—Project management.

—Analysis of business needs and defining of business requirements.

—Wireframes, as well as recommendations on UI and UX.

—Website design by Stephanie Bayard (StephanieBayard.com). Stephanie is a member of The AU Collective.

—HTML and CSS coding.

—Expression Engine architecture and development. Pages are defined through a collection of custom coded widgets. This modular approach makes the site easier to maintain and enhance as RNRB’s business needs evolve. For a complete list of EE’s features please click here.

—Selection and incorporation of jQuery plugins.

—Development of the RNRB social media infrastructure and strategy.

*AU recognizes and acknowledges that RNRB should have been added to the AU portfolio sooner, rather than later.

To Blog or Not To Blog

In the event that you haven’t been following my more granular work stream site Chief Alchemist (ChiefAlchemist.com), I’ll recap a bit. A couple months back I was commissioned by Trenton, NJ based Association Business Solutions (ABSNJ.com) to do a guest blogging series. The topic? Blogging. Yes, blogging on blogging.

Below is Part 5, the final chapter in the series. To read the prior four chapters just follow the linked titles back to the ABS blog.

Blog or Not To Blog: Part 5 (It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4)

Hard to imagine that you started down this road to blogging bliss less than two months ago, isn’t it? What once seemed to be an insurmountable unknown has evolved into a 2011 must-do. In the spirit of you have to start somewhere, just embrace your inner athlete and as Nike says, “Just do it!” But maybe you’re feeling just a bit under-inspired? If that’s the case then how about a quick recap?

Part 1: The Four Letter “B” Word?
The best place to start is at the start. What we learned here was that blogging isn’t as bad as many interpret it to be. In fact, blogging is just another fairly simple way to communicate.

Part 2: Self-Publish or Perish
Things picked up a bit on Part 2. I explained that as marketing evolves from being one directional to conversational a blog is the perfect way to embrace your public, and they you. Regardless of simplicity, for those organizations that want to reap the benefits, blogging is becoming the new business card. That is, it’s a necessity.

Part 3: Social networking friends with blog benefits
You asked for more benefits and you got ‘em. The content in a blog can be instrumental to improving your website’s SEO (search engine optimization). In short, Google’s bots and algorithms like blogs. A blog is also a great way to disseminate information by harnessing the power of social networks and the “share culture”.

Part 4: They say, “Everyone has at least one blog in them.”
And then in the previous chapter we resolved your final set of fears. “I don’t know what to write about,” and “I’m not that good of a writer,” and “I’m too busy,” were all resolved. Another answer was the soft sell – contact Karla or Paula at ABS and they’ll work with you to develop a solution to meet the needs of your business. Done deal!

Regardless of what your personal feeling are about the Internet, I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s here to stay. It’s certainly not going to go away just because you ignore it. Whether it’s blogging, using photos & video, tapping into social media or whatever other innovative trend or staple is ahead, your brand is going to have to participate in some way. There’s no need to overwhelm yourself, just chip away at it. The more you do, the more you’ll learn. And of course there are also resources such as myself to guide you along the way.

When it comes to business and marketing what I like to say is, The Internet. You can figure it out now, or you can figure it out later. But you will need to figure it out.

Yes! Yes!! ConsciousWellness.net!!!

ConsciousWellness — ConsciousWellness.netYes! Yes!! The new & improved Conscious Wellness web site has launched (www.ConsciousWellness.net.).

Highlights

— Friendly but thorough and easy to use site is a perfect match for the CW brand.

— Blog enables Beth to easily share with and engage the CW audience.

— Simple email sign-up form is featured on every page.

— Staying connected with CW via all the usual social networks is also given priority.

— All content is maintain by the client (with minimal expertise necessary).

AU’s Contribution

— Worked closely with the client to define her short term and long term business needs and personal aspirations. Much of the emphasis was on marketing and CW’s participation in the conversation of  a “Web 2.0″ world.

— Advised the client on “The Art of Blogging” including the use and impact of categories, tags, post titles and site content and how those relate to being “guest-centric” as well as  SEO friendly.

— Solution uses the highly respected open source blogging platform WordPress (www.WordPress.org). Theme is a heavily customized version of Atahualpa by BytesForAll (http://wordpress.bytesforall.com).

— Base WP functionality is supplemented with a number of plugins including (but not limited to): Goggle XML Sitemaps (by Arne Brachhold), MM Forms (by Tom Belmans and Takayuki Miyoshi), SexyBookmarks (by Josh Jones and Norman Yung) and WP-DBManager (by Lester ‘GaMerZ’ Chan).

— Creation and usage of icons gives the site a friendly contemporary look & feel.  (Full disclosure: The CW logo was created by another design outfit.)

— Recommendations on UX / UI, as well as how that might relate to the information provided by Google Analytics.

— HTML, CSS and PHP  enhancement and tweaks.

— Supplied client with numerous links to articles on copy writing.

— Shared various tutorials on WordPress and WordPress plugins.

— AU is currently in the process of customizing and enhancing Kieran O’Shea’s calendar plugin. The new and much improved version of this plugin should be available in the next four to six weeks.

Beth decided to have soft launch (approximately four weeks ago) and thus far the feedback has been positive. In that short time, she has recognized that having a web site she is confident in and that accurately reflects the attributes of her brand is giving birth to previously unrealizable opportunities. Beth is convinced that her RIO from this new site will be significant. Discussion of Phase 2 enhancements will begin in January 2010.

It’s alive! The new Falco Design site is launched

alchemy-united-expression-engine-web-development_175wIt’s alive! AU client Falco Design (www.FalcoDesign.com) launches their new web site.

Highlights

— All of site’s content, including home page slide show, is user controlled via the content management system (CMS) Expression Engine (EE).  EE allows pages to be created on demand (i.e., they are not static). The FD site makes considerable use of EE’s categories. This allows the CMS to be programmed to deliver the right content at the right time as based on FD’s biz rules. For example, services pages only display portfolio work for that service.

— “SEO friendly” design and architecture: Every page has a unique URL, page <title>,  meta tags, etc. This level of thoroughness is applied all the way down to each individual portfolio piece, even as you page through them. Images are also named and titled to increase “findability”.

— Google Ad Manager (GAM) is used to serve and track the banner ads. The control of GAM’s content is further targeted via EE.

AU’s Contribution

— Expression Engine architecture and development. Behind the scenes the content is managed / displayed via a collection of widgets.  This modular approach makes the site easier to maintain and enhance as Falco’s business needs evolve. For a complete list of EE’s features please click here.

— Incorporation of jQuery plug-ins

— Recommendations on UX / UI

— HTML and CSS enhancement and tweaks

— Copy writing (including “branding” and development of brand message)

— Recommendation of and integration of Google Ad Manager

— Selection of images for banner ads, as well as the development of associated copy / messages

Finally, the site was designed by (Falco Design employee) Stephanie Bayard (www.StephanieBayard.com). When not on the clock at Falco, Stephanie is also a member of the AU Collective.

In short, this site is a kick-ass example of the capabilities of AU and the AU collective.

Roles & responsibilities?

Yesterday AU had a meeting with a local marketing communications outfit to discuss a fairly extensive document (i.e., wire frames, biz requirements, etc. for an unusual e-comm site) we put together for a client. (Note: Due to the nature of this document we are not able to share its content at this time.) Per the client’s request, we’re shopping the document in order to explore the possibility of a design & development partner suited for this large and detailed effort. In the course of this meeting the head of their interactive group got bold and said, “We have a process. One of the things we aim to do is reassess and even validate the business model…”

Did he say, “Validate the biz model?” E-comm is the new gold rush. It’s growing hand over fist. Even marginal sites are doing 7, maybe even 8 figures, and this developer thinks his company has some grand insight into things? Shocking!  Marketing firm… Creative/developer type… Suddenly they’re in the in depth business consulting, management consulting, VC-esque biz?!?! Who’s going to dole out this expertise, the creative director?

This coming from the type of outfit who uses the term, “We’re selective” when they often should actually be saying, “This is more challenging than what we can handle. There’s risk involved here. We’re not good at risk. But give us a mainstream middle of the road B and we’ll make it a B+.” It sometimes difficult to understand what gets passed off as expertise, or at least is attempted to be as such.

On top of it all this there is no doubt that this agency’s own web site needs a make-over. Like a super model, it looks nice but the fact is it lacks depth. There was a severe disconnect between the brand they presented in the meeting and the brand that’s on their web site. If anyone should know that in today’s biz world the walk needs to align very closely with the talk it should be a marketing communications outfit. I was sitting in a meeting in the late 90’s.

Granted, one must keep an open mind. There’s always some potential insight to be gained from even the most unsuspecting of sources. But to put in a good 60 minutes and not hear anything about what this outfit is going to do for the client. About what makes this outfit that much more likely to deliver success *to the client* than someone else. Well, we were honestly dumbfounded. Sometimes it’s best to just shut up and listen to people who actually believe their own press releases. Unfortunately, the client with extensive depth in retail and e-comm wasn’t laughing.