Pelland Blog

Learn a Few Lessons from SkyMall

February 18th, 2015

By now you have heard about the Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing for SkyMall, the iconic airline shopping catalog. For a quarter century, SkyMall marketed its products to up to 650 million airline passengers each year, according to the company’s own survey statistics, which also claimed that 70% of passengers read through the catalog on every flight. Having negotiated contracts with most of the major air carriers in the United States, 90% of passengers found themselves within inches of the latest SkyMall catalog. The company claimed in 2009 that 60% of its sales came through its website and accounted for $80,500,000 in revenue. From this number, it is easy to deduce that the remaining catalog orders yielded total sales revenues of over $134,000,000.

After the typical passenger had read through the airline magazine, even before memorizing the locations of the nearest emergency exits, the next item of interest in the seat back pocket was usually the latest SkyMall catalog. In it, you could find everything from a robot to clean your roof gutters to a laser helmet that would regrow hair on a bald head to a pepper grinder that looks like a full-sized baseball bat. Ahem, let’s just say that they sold the same kind of non-essential merchandise that is hawked on late-night cable TV.

Anyway, parent company Xhibit Corp complained that the reason for the demise of the SkyMall catalog had less to do with a stagnant concept and a goofy product line than the onslaught of digital devices that are now permitted for use in-flight. Now that weary travelers could access Google, eBay and Amazon, where they could also compare prices and read reviews, why would they want to thumb through a catalog? In fact, Xhibit Corp’s acting CEO, Scott Wiley, actually insinuated that SkyMall was a victim in the process that led to its downfall.

The fact is that SkyMall evolved from its initial concept back in 1989, when it actually relied upon the technology of the time, and was hemorrhaging massive amounts of cash. At that time, it was supposed to stock all of the catalog’s merchandise in a network of warehouses located near airport terminals. Customers were supposed to place orders using the “air phones” that used to be built into the backs of airline seats, after which the items were supposed to be rushed to the airport’s baggage claim for pick-up by the customer. Take note of my emphasis on the word “supposed”. The concept didn’t work, but the company did not throw in the towel.

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The rebranded concept would now feature goofy products that the company did not own or warehouse, with the individual manufacturers of those products paying for the privilege of display advertising space in the SkyMall catalog. The company now made its money from the sale of that advertising space, either through (higher) flat rates (what they called their “Advertising Program”) or lower rates that would be supplemented by a percentage of sales (what they called their “Merchandising Program). In each instance, SkyMall also charged its advertisers a 5-6% “operational fee”. The advertisers would then be responsible for drop-shipping the merchandise to customers. The least expensive advertising space in the quarterly catalog was a quarter-page, where the most recent flat fee amounted to $41,100.00. Clearly, advertisers needed to sell a lot of baseball bat pepper grinders just to recover that advertising cost, let alone turn a profit!

If SkyMall reinvented its business model once, it could have done so again, rather than simply claiming that it was a victim of advances in technology. If airline passengers are picking up their smartphones and tablets instead of a catalog that is admittedly expensive to print, find a way to get your product onto those mobile devices. If you look at the company’s most recent business model (the one that led to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing), you will see that it is based upon advertising sales rather than a regard for the customer, and that concept is a formula for disaster. To succeed today, particularly in what is essentially an e-commerce model, a company must engage its customers and play the game on the customers’ terms, with an emphasis on service rather than sales. A company needs to build long-term customer relationships, not simply generate one-time sales; however, when the business model is primarily based upon advertising sales, there is little incentive to build loyalty with the end consumer. There is actually a disconnection in this regard.

What does this all mean for your campground or other small business? The first question to ask yourself is whether you are operating under a 25 year old business plan. Believe it or not, there are still campgrounds that do not accept credit cards, despite the fact that customers overwhelmingly want to use credit cards. There are also campgrounds that do not process reservations online, requiring customers to call them and inevitably enter into a game of telephone tag. In those instances, the customer is almost always going to be the one to call it quits, finding another campground that will process the reservation online and accept a deposit using the credit card of the customer’s choice.

How about your website? A majority of your customers are surfing the Web using mobile devices. Is your website mobile-friendly, or is it driving those customers away? How about your activity schedule? Are you still doing the same old, same old Christmas in July that you were doing back in 1979? How about your office practices at the time of arrival and registration? When guests are exhausted after a four-hour drive in Friday afternoon traffic, are you making them wait even longer at an inadequately staffed registration desk?

Using the SkyMall experience as a guide, take a close and honest look at your own business, putting aside practices that may have worked 25 years ago but are a bit out of touch with today’s rapidly changing world and customer expectations. Embrace not only the latest technology, but embrace the customers that are your key to continued success!

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Mobile Is Not Just a City in Alabama

February 4th, 2015

Nobody needs to be convinced these days that their business needs to have a website. What surprises me is how many people think that the website that was built 4 or 5 years ago, before the commanding surge in the use of mobile devices, could be adequately serving their needs today. Let me simply say that times have changed.

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Statistics compiled by Google, based upon the Google Analytics software that is running on websites around the world (and probably including your own) demonstrate that 50% of all website traffic is now mobile. In fact, this past holiday season, 22.5% of all online sales came through mobile devices (which are defined as either phones or tablets). Those numbers are impressive.

Google is now warning website owners if their sites fall short of being mobile-friendly … what they refer to as “critical mobile usability errors”, with the presumption being that these sites will soon be penalized in search results. Google is reportedly ready to begin downgrading those sites that are not configured for proper display on smartphones. The impact of that upon an older website could be tremendous, since the #1 source of new traffic to most websites is generated through organic searches on Google.

Taking steps in that direction, if you currently perform a Google search from your phone, the search engine results page will now label sites that are deemed to be mobile-friendly. Sites that fail that test typically display text that is too small to read on a phone, links that are too close together for fingers to navigate, or the lack of a mobile viewport (requiring users to pinch and zoom in order to view content). A site that is not mobile-friendly is not only at risk of losing out in its search ranking, it is losing its owner business today.

Let me demonstrate. I just performed a quick check of the Google Analytics on the conventional website of one of our clients, confirming that within the past 30 days, the lion’s share of the site’s traffic came from the users of mobile devices. The breakdown was 47.56% of visitors using smartphones, 14.98% using tablets, and only 37.45% using either a desktop or laptop computer. Keeping in mind that this is not a mobile-optimized site, the smartphone users visiting this site were spending only 60% of the amount of time on the site as the dwindling numbers of users of conventional computers. The bounce rate (the number of visitors who arrive at a site, then leave very quickly) was about 64% higher for smartphone users. Users of tablets, with larger displays, were somewhat more tolerant.

Nobody would have imagined this scenario a few years ago. Considering the fact that there is a direct correlation between the amount of time spent on a website and the likelihood of the user taking the intended course of action (in the instance of a campground, typically this means making a reservation request), these numbers are foreboding.

Before You Panic, Check Your Site

Fortunately, Google has provided a quick online test that will let you know whether or not your site is mobile-friendly. Go to the following link, where you may enter your URL:

https://www.google.com/webmasters/tools/mobile-friendly/

If your site passes the test, congratulations are in order. If it fails the test, it is time to at least think about budgeting for a replacement. The next question involves what type of mobile solution will best suit your needs. For all practical purposes, there are three choices.

  • Responsive Web Design: This is the option that is recommended by Google. A responsive website serves the same site content to all devices, with a fluid page layout that adapts to each device. These sites are easy to maintain, but they may be expensive.
  • Separate Mobile Site: This was the preferred option prior to the onset of responsive design. It involves the construction of separate mobile content. User’s devices are detected and shown content that is specifically built for that device, or they are redirected to a mobile-specific URL. These sites are more difficult to maintain (because content is duplicated among pages) and they do not present consistent content across all devices. For these reasons, this option is falling out of favor.
  • A Mobile App: This is a separate application that is built for mobile users. It must be downloaded and installed by the user, and it is often used in conjunction with a website. An app has a usability advantage for smartphone users, but the costs are both prohibitive and unnecessary for most small businesses, both upfront and when it is time to maintain and update content.

The bottom line is that, if you are concerned about mobile traffic to your site (and you should be concerned!), there are decisions to be made, and you probably do not want to indefinitely delay making those decisions. Your new site should adhere to a specific set of best practices. These include the avoidance of software that it not supported on most mobile devices, particularly Flash. (There are alternate ways of presenting animation, using CSS or JavaScript, that are mobile-friendly.) Your site should also not include text that is unreadable without zooming, content with a screen width that requires horizontal scrolling on small devices, or links that are not far enough apart for fat fingers to navigate.

There are new websites being launched every day that are based upon old methods. Investing in one of those today is roughly equivalent to going out to buy a new car but coming home with a horse and buggy instead.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

The Future is Always Connected: Netflix Nixes Offline Viewing

January 28th, 2015

As online video- and music-streaming becomes more and more advanced, many service providers and media portals have begun to roll out offline caching for videos and music. From Soundcloud to Spotify to Amazon Prime and Google’s brand-new YouTube Music Key, service after service has started to allow its users to store media locally, allowing for its later consumption. This feature turns out to be especially important for users on slower or bandwidth limited connections, who can locally store media on a WiFi connection to avoid long waits or bandwidth surcharges.

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With just about every service rolling out offline caching in some capacity or another, it seemed only a matter of time before the 800 pound video streaming gorilla in the room jumped on board. We’re talking about Netflix, of course. For a while now, rumors had been swirling that Netflix was planning to launch their own offline caching options.

Now, in the bright light of the New Year, these rumors have been unceremoniously dismissed by Netflix Public Relations Director Cliff Edwards. Techradar reports that Edwards bluntly stated that offline storage was “never going to happen.” Why is this?

Netflix, it turns out, treats the non-ubiquity of bandwidth and connectivity as a short term problem, one for which offline caching is nothing more than a quick band aid. Instead, Edwards predicts that within five years, bandwidth will be so cheap and universal that users won’t even remember that they ever wanted offline caching in the first place, and will regard local storage as an outdated and obsolete concept for technology.

This is a contentious stance for a company to take, since it essentially implies that Netflix is willing to offer an inferior service on the short term to save resources. Netflix seems willing to lose customers to whom offline storage is especially important. Amazon Prime streaming has been quick to affirm its commitment to providing consistent and universal service to its subscribers. Currently, offline viewing is available for Fire tablets, and Amazon has announced plans to extend this functionality to more of its devices in the future.

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Perhaps the case is that Netflix sees itself more and more as a content creator in addition to simple media provider. Like a more traditional TV station, Netflix is devoting more and more of its resources to the creation and curation of original video content, and perhaps sees its future as focusing more on this division of business. Netflix has already announced aims to debut at least 20 more original series in the next five years and is currently heavily promoting its new period drama called Marco Polo, following the adventures of the medieval Italian explorer.

No matter what you make of it, Netflix’s surprising decision about offline streaming belies a confidence that internet infrastructure will continue to be developed. Based on history, this is a safe bet, though it also shows a surprising self-confidence in their place in the market. Netflix seems to believe their position is unassailable. It will be interesting to see if this is the case.

Nick Rojas is a business consultant and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Chicago. He has consulted small and medium-sized enterprises for over twenty years. He has  contributed articles to Visual.ly, Entrepreneur, and TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter @NickARojas, or you can reach him at NickAndrewRojas@gmail.com.

This post was written by Nick Rojas

Do You Prefer This Blue or That Green? The Psychology of Color

January 21st, 2015

My wife and I recently took a drive in the countryside, where we encountered an otherwise beautiful colonial farmhouse. It was in the process of being painted hot pink with purple accents and trim. Our first thoughts were sympathy for the neighbors and a renewed appreciation for the fact that our closest neighbor is a quarter mile away. Afterward, this encounter reminded me of just how critical the selection of color can be when trying to convey the proper impressions regarding a business.

Big Businesses Cannot Afford to Stumble

When it comes to color, no successful business has ever left those decisions to chance. If you go into a Sherwin-Williams or Benjamin Moore paint store, you will not see hot pink among the residential exterior color swatches. Simply put, the color is inappropriate for that type of application. The fashion industry, with billions of dollars on the line and outsourced production requiring months of advance production time, spends an enormous sum of money financing the Pantone Color Institute’s projections of color trends in fashion. The Spring 2015 Fashion Color Report was released during New York’s Fashion Week in September of 2014. Click here for an advance look at the colors that you will be seeing on the best-dressed people this spring.

The Psychology of Color

Color, and the combination of colors, is far from limited to the paint and fashion industries. It is a commanding presence in the world of advertising and corporate branding. If your campground is part of a franchise, your colors will have been painstakingly researched and selected, referencing Pantone color standards that ensure consistency across applications. If your business, like most, is independently owned and unaffiliated, you will need to put a good deal of thought into making sound color choices, hopefully with the assistance of a marketing professional.

There is no question that there is a psychology behind each color that evokes a wide range of either positive or negative emotions. Some of these emotions are universal, and other color emotions vary from one culture to another. For example, the color yellow conveys varying emotions in Western cultures – everything from happiness and joy to cowardice and caution. It is considered sacred in most Eastern cultures, but it is the color of mourning in many Arabic cultures. Clearly, if your marketing is intended for primary consumption in your home country, the cross-cultural challenges are lessened.

Professional design is rarely limited to the primary (red, blue and yellow) and secondary (purple, orange and green) colors that make up the basic color spectrum. Looking at the Pantone Spring 2015 Fashion Color Report, your choice in green might very well be Treetop, Woodbine or Lucite Green, and your choice in blue might be Classic Blue, Dusk Blue, Aquamarine or Scuba Blue. These specific shades of color – and their combinations – will determine the color identity of your business, but the basic color emotions should influence your overall choices. With that in mind, the following is a listing of primary and secondary colors (plus black and grey), along with the highly generalized emotions that are associated with those colors in Western cultures.

  • Red: Energy, excitement, action, and passion. Tempered with anger and danger.
  • Orange: Visibility, refreshment and creativity. Tempered with caution.
  • Yellow: Happiness, joy, and hope. Tempered with caution and cowardice.
  • Green: Nature, environment, regeneration, and luck. Tempered with greed, envy, and inexperience.
  • Blue: Peace, trust, quality, authority, and calm. Tempered with sadness and depression.
  • Purple: Bravery, authority, power, and sophistication. Tempered with mourning.
  • Black: Power and strength. Tempered with death and mourning.
  • Grey: Wisdom and strength. Tempered with grief, boredom and depression.

Even if you have been aware of the psychology of color all along and have been giving it consideration when painting structures, ordering apparel, and designing both your online and print advertising (which, incidentally, use two separate sets of color formulas), you may want to give it even greater consideration from this point forward. Importantly, once you have made some informed decisions, use them consistently and precisely. Avoid settling for a “similar” color that will not serve to advance your identity. Above all else, do everything possible to avoid becoming that pink house that becomes a blight on the neighborhood.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Tech Acronyms & Abbreviations: A Quiz for the New Year

January 4th, 2015

Acronyms and abbreviations surround us and have become a part of our everyday lexicon. You are familiar with acronyms: words that have been formed from the initial letters of a series of words and are then pronounced as words themselves. Abbreviations, on the other hand, are also formed from the initial letters of a series of words but are not pronounced as words themselves. For example, NASA is an acronym for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and KOA is an abbreviation for Kampgrounds of America.

Many acronyms originated with military jargon, including RADAR (which stands for radio detection and ranging), AWOL (absent without leave), and SNAFU (which I will leave undefined). More recently, a whole new generation of acronyms and abbreviations has been generated by the proliferation of technology and the Internet. Many of these terms have become part of our everyday conversations, but how many of us really know the definitions of the words that we use?

It is the start of a new year, and I thought that we could take this opportunity to have some fun with a little quiz that will allow you determine whether you are a true geek or simply a nerd in geek’s clothing. I will throw in a few easy terms, just so nobody feels totally discouraged. I will provide you with the acronym or abbreviation, along with a brief definition. See if you know the words that provide the origins for the terms. Have fun and see how you do, checking for the correct answers at the end of the quiz.

1)    RAM – Usually found in pairs of “sticks” that fit into “slots” in a computer, these allow a computer to perform calculations quickly. Variations include SDRAM and VRAM. Not to be confused with an early solo record by Paul McCartney.

2)    PDF – These are pages of content that can be downloaded online and will always render identically on every display and print consistently on every printer.

3)    DSL – This is a form of high-speed Internet access over telephone lines that replaced the screeching sound and excruciatingly slow speed of dial-up modems. The next breed of this will use fiber optic cable.

4)    CPU – This is to your computer what your brain is to your body. Without it, your computer would be nothing but a case full of components.

5)    BSOD – This is the last thing that a Windows computer user wants to see on his monitor. It is also known as a stop error or bug check, and it displays a memory dump that typically includes thousands of characters of text that are totally undecipherable to the average human being.

6)    CMYK – These represent the colors that comprise four-color process printing, as opposed to the RGB colors of digital displays. Most folks read out the letters in this abbreviation, but other people pronounce it as the acronym “smick”.

7)    Wi-Fi – This is a means of connecting to the Internet without the use of cables. Everybody at your campground wants this available at their particular campsite, and it better be fast and free.

8)    USB – Before this was adopted as a standard, there seemed to be a different type of cable for every device connected to a computer, each with a unique plug and computer jack. Of course, as devices got smaller, there is now mini-USB and micro-USB found on things like smartphones. Thanks to USB, you probably have a box full of old cables that you cannot even give away.

9)    URL – This is the address of your website or any other particular page on the Internet. It is even more precise than a 9-digit zip code.

10) HDMI – This allows a single cable to transfer video and audio between devices such as computer monitors, video projectors, and digital televisions. Thanks to HDMI, almost nobody uses two tin cans and a string anymore.

11) HTML – The websites that you see online work because this allows text files to be “tagged” in a manner that allows them to display specific fonts, colors, graphics, embedded content, and links. Some people think that this is magic, but it is really some form of HTML.

12) JPEG – Probably the most common means of compressing and decompressing digital images. When saving an image, the amount of compression can be selected. Too much compression leads to serious loss of image quality.

13) IMAP – A protocol that allows e-mail to be retrieved from a mail server, it offers added functionality over the POP3 standard, including an improved ability to synchronize your e-mail among multiple devices such as your office computer, laptop computer, tablet and smartphone.

14) FTP – This Internet function allows for the upload and download of files, sometimes using a cloud service, from one computer to another. Many people try to send large files as e-mail attachments because they are unfamiliar with FTP.

15) SQL – If a website runs some sort of structured database, that database will be programmed using some form of SQL.

16) DVD – This storage format replaced the CD due to its greater storage capacity and its ability to play high-resolution audiovisual material. Thanks to the DVD, your VHS tapes are in a box with your old 8-track audio tapes and you no longer see “Be kind. Please rewind.” stickers.

17) GPS – This provides the ability for drivers to get from point A to point B without opening their glove box and unfolding a large, confusing piece of paper.

18) ICANN – When you want to register a domain name, you perform a “whois lookup” at an accredited registrar to see if it is available, but it is this organization that keeps the Internet running by allocating IP addresses and managing the domain name system.

19) GIF – Another means of saving graphic files, dating back to CompuServe and the early days of the Internet, it is pronounced “jiff”, not “giff”. If photos are saved using this format, they will have a blotchy appearance due to the limited number of colors represented. The animated version of this format is responsible for all those annoying little graphics that you don’t use on your website, right?

20) MIDI – Not a skirt length, this term also goes back to the early days of the World Wide Web, when it was commonly used to include songs on websites. Thanks to MIDI files, people quickly learned to turn off the sound on their computers. It was more annoying than Muzak, and copyright enforcement put the final nail in its coffin.

Well, how did you do? Scroll down below for the answers. You are probably happy that I did not include EXIF, FQDN, FLOPS, GUID, PPGA, TWAIN, SOAP and TCP/IP. In all honesty, I cannot identify most of those myself. On the other hand, I try not to think of myself as a geek. Let’s hope you had fun!

 

Stop scrolling here, until you want to see the answers!

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The answers:

1)    RAM = Random Access Memory

2)    PDF = Portable Document Format

3)    DSL = Digital Subscriber Line

4)    CPU = Central Processing Unit

5)    BSOD = Blue Screen of Death

6)    CMYK = Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black (or Key)

7)    Wi-Fi = Wireless Fidelity

8)    USB = Universal Serial Bus

9)    URL = Uniform Resource Locator

10) HDMI = High Definition Multimedia Interface

11) HTML = Hyper-Text Markup Language

12) JPEG = Joint Photographic Experts Group

13) IMAP = Internet Message Access Protocol

14) FTP = File Transfer Protocol

15) SQL = Structured Query Language

16) DVD = Digital Versatile Disc

17) GPS = Global Positioning System

18) ICANN = Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers

19) GIF = Graphics Interchange Format

MIDI = Musical Instrument Digital Interface

This post was written by Peter Pelland

10 Ways to Avoid Identity Theft

December 19th, 2014

If you follow the news, you are aware of massive security breaches that have taken place at major retailers in recent months. And then there is the Sony Pictures nightmare that has been in the news this week. You are probably also aware that your own personal identity is at risk in so many ways. Short of withdrawing from society and moving into a cave or feasting off coconuts on your own private island, it is probably a good idea to take some reasonable precautions to help to prevent hackers from cloning your personal identity or making you a victim of cyber-crime. Here are a few precautions that will help you to survive in this threatening environment.

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  1. Always choose a strong password. It should never be a common word or an easily recognized string of numbers like your phone number or birthday. Use a randomly generated string of at least 8 characters that include a combination of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters such as ^, #, _ and $. Use a unique password for every account, avoiding the tendency to use a common password. My rule is that, if the password involves a secure account that allows online transactions, give it an extremely strong, unique password. If the account involves online banking, stock trading, or tax filing, make your password ridiculously secure.
  2. If an account (such as your online banking) uses security questions, choose the most bulletproof options available, not questions with answers that are commonly known. You want to go with things like your maternal grandmother’s middle name, not the name of the city where you were born.
  3. Steer clear of unsolicited e-mails and unknown websites. Never download a file from an unfamiliar site, and do NOT open attachments, click on links, or unsubscribe from unsolicited e-mails. Any of those actions can lead to the installation of spyware, malware, botnets or viruses on your computer.
  4. Look for secure sites and the https protocol. Be sure that the URL begins with https before EVER entering your credit card number for payment.
  5. Keep your computer and mobile devices clean by promptly installing updates for your hardware, operating system, software and Web browsers. To run old versions of any of these represents a high level of risk. If you are running a Windows computer, there will usually be daily updates, and a major pack of security updates is issued the second Tuesday of every month, commonly known as “Patch Tuesday”. These updates are essential to your online security.
  6. If your business conducts e-commerce or accepts online payments, you have additional responsibilities that could impact your customers. For example, an Internet security issue commonly referred to as POODLE was identified in October. If your Web server was running SSL V3 (an outdated version), visitors using Internet Explorer 6 (an outdated browser) were vulnerable to allowing hackers to gain access to their otherwise presumably secure connection.
  7. Be sure that your office meets PCI (payment card industry) compliance standards. Never keep records of your customers’ credit card numbers. If you ever have to write down a customer’s credit card information – for example, if you are provided with that information over the phone – do not leave your desk before that information has been completely destroyed in a cross-cut paper shredder.
  8. How do you recycle or dispose of old computers? If you simply give them away or pay a disposal or recycling fee at your local landfill, where does your computer go? What kind of data are you leaving behind on its hard drive … for somebody to later recover? Before you ever part with a computer, it is essential that you first totally wipe all content from its hard drive(s). You cannot simply delete files or format the drive and then think that your data is gone. It is essential that you use a disk wiping or data shredding application that supports the latest Department of Defense standards. Even then, you would be amazed at how much data will still remain recoverable, if you were a criminal and your computer was being used by law enforcement to gather evidence. In your case, you want to protect your personal data from a hacker, who could be across town or scavenging a cyber-landfill across the globe. Some of the best software to use includes Disk Wipe, Darik’s Boot and Nuke, and Hard Drive Eraser … all free downloads that can be easily found online.
  9. What did you do with that old broken office copier? Did you realize that nearly every digital copier, fax, or multi-purpose office machine built since 2002 contains a hard drive? Like most people, you have probably made copies of your tax returns, credit applications, and other documents that contain your social security number and other highly personal information. A CBS News investigative report from back in 2010 exposed this vulnerability and how easy it was for anybody to purchase a used copier and then have full access to the contents of its hard drive. In the report, used copiers were purchased at bargain prices from a warehouse in New Jersey (one of 25 throughout the country), some of which contained classified law enforcement and private health records. The lesson learned was that, if your office has an MFP (multi-function peripheral) device that is at its end-of-life, take measures to ensure that its hard drive is destroyed.
  10. Finally, every computer in your office and every mobile device that you own should be running the latest version of a robust anti-virus software package that will be continually updated, typically several times per day. Sadly, the most common anti-virus products that come pre-installed on many computers or sold over the counter at office supply and computer stores are highly ineffective. I use (and highly recommend) Avast, a full-featured security suite for Windows computers, Macs, and the full range of mobile devices. It is available as a free download, with free updates (although, if you are not careful, you might click on a link for a paid upgrade that you do not need.)

If you know anybody who has ever been the victim of cyber-crime or identity theft, you know how important security measures such as these can be. If you were unfamiliar with one or two of these ten security tips – and implement the recommended precautions – you will be on your way to enhancing both your personal security and that of your business.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Does Your Website Work as Well as You Think?

November 26th, 2014

Sometimes it can only make me smile when I speak with a business owner who has a website that is either broken, harbors malware, looks like it was made 20 years ago, or is just plain uglier than a plaid jacket and a polka dot shirt. Almost inevitably, if I suggest that there might be room for improvement, I hear the response, “I get lots of compliments on my website!”

Okay, some people are nice and do not want to hurt another person’s feelings. In addition, how do you define the word “lots”? Does it include the 95% of visitors who are repelled by your website and will never do business with you? This is where live usability testing comes into play.

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If you have a skilled website designer who truly understands your business, industry and target market, you are probably fairly well assured that your website will meet its objectives, have a well-defined call to action, and will effectively convert traffic into added income. If you built your site yourself, it was built 8 or 10 years ago, or it was built by a webmaster who is more of a part-time tinkerer than a “master” of his craft, you may want to invest in some real world testing.

Usability Testing

With usability testing, you can certainly ask your existing clientele for their feedback and opinions; however, the more important court of judgment consists of the masses of people who are your potential – rather than existing – customers. Most websites of major businesses employ usability testing. It is something that even small businesses should consider or at least sample.

If you do a search online, you will find a plethora of companies offering a variety of live user testing services. Let me concentrate on two companies that make it simple, relatively inexpensive, and free to test.

The first is the Five Second Test from Usability Hub. With the Five Second Test, you upload a screenshot of your website (or a mockup of a new design that you might want to test) and set a series of questions that you would like answered. Testers get 5 seconds to view your screenshot before being presented with your questions. Afterward, wait for the test results which collect comments, extract keywords, and present the data in a graphical interface that makes a summary interpretation really simple. The Five Second Test is based upon the short attention span of most new visitors to a site, along with the fact that you have a very narrow window of time to either catch their attention or lose their interest. The best way to see how the service works is to volunteer to do a few random tests yourself. In fact, for each test that you complete (and they take less than a minute) you will earn credits (called “Karma points”) that may be applied to services that you order for your own business.

Other than the Five Second Test, Usability Hub also offers a Click Test, which tries to determine if a page’s call to action is apparent, and a Nav Flow Test, which tries to determine whether a site’s navigation is intuitive or frustrating. You can also volunteer to perform these tests, earning credits. Guess what? You are then one of the testers. This site’s services really allow you to help others in the same way that others are called upon to help you. That is a pretty nice concept, in my opinion. Any or all of these tests will provide you with valuable, low cost feedback that will either confirm that your site is hitting its target or suggest that there may be room for improvements. Some of the companies that routinely use these services include eBay and Yelp.

The next service that I would like to suggest is Peek from User Testing. With Peek, you will be presented with a 5-minute video of a real person who visits your site and describes their experience, telling you what they like, what they dislike, and what they find confusing. Using the link above, you can test your website immediately and at no charge.

With this service, you specify the demographic profile of the intended audience for your site, and Peek uses a screen recorder to let you know what is happening at the user end of things, including clicks, mouse movements, text that is entered, facial expressions, and spoken comments. If you are thin-skinned and overly sensitive, you may not want to encounter this type of reality check, but if you are serious about improving your business, this could be a terrific learning tool. Some of the companies that utilize this service include Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Adobe.

If you think you know how websites should work, you can also apply to be a tester at Peek. Click here to apply. If you are selected (which is significantly based upon whether or not your demographics match the target of companies testing their sites), you will be paid $10.00 for about 20 minutes of time. The site is also looking for people who are able to provide the needed feedback by taking a customer’s perspective, identifying things that are confusing, and thinking out loud so that the screen recorder will be able to capture your verbal comments. You probably spend time online without being paid, so why not give it a try? This service has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and on Good Morning America, among many other news sources.

By working as a tester for either of these services, you will also be learning about other websites, including what works and what doesn’t work. By directly utilizing either of these services as a business, you might discover some shortcomings in your own site and learn how your site might be improved.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

10 Questions to Ask Your Next Webmaster

October 29th, 2014

This past week, my company received an RFP (Request for Proposal) regarding website design and maintenance services. Although state associations and larger organizations often follow this formality, this instance was unusual because it came from the owner of an individual campground. Although we submitted a bid on the project, it reminded me how most people do not know the truly important questions to ask a prospective webmaster. With that in mind, let me outline a few of the questions that should be asked, along with some of the answers that should be anticipated.

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  1. Who is going to be the lead person on the project, and how will I contact that person throughout the course of production … and afterward? What is the background of that person, and are your work philosophies compatible? There may be a “team” of individuals working on your project, but you should expect to be in contact with the team manager, not the water boy. If key aspects of the project will be subcontracted or outsourced to an unidentified company or individual, you may want to look elsewhere.
  2. How many projects have been completed for similar companies that are comparable or larger than your own? How long has the company been in business, and what is its track record? Portfolios are always going to show a company’s best work. Campground review sites show both positive and negative reviews, and they help to present a more complete story. With this in mind, you might want to ask the company for an example of what it considers its own worst work.
  3. Will you provide an outline of the site’s proposed content and structure? Know what you want the site to accomplish, but let the developer propose the specific means to attain those goals. If you hire a painter, you need to tell that contractor what color you want on your living room walls, but it is probably best not to tell him what brand of paint to buy and what kind of brushes to use. Let the painter determine what will work best and what he prefers to use, based upon his experience. If you tell your webmaster how to do his work, you might very well be demanding the use of outmoded technology.
  4. What will be our respective roles in the ongoing development and maintenance of the site? Do not be obsessed with infrastructure, particularly presumptions regarding any particular CMS (Content Management System) platform. Too many people are determined that their new website should be built in WordPress or another specific CMS platform, simply because somebody told them that this was the way to go. The important question to ask is, “Who will be maintaining the site – you or me – and what will it cost over time?” In most instances, you want somebody who will stay on board to offer ongoing assistance to one degree or another, not somebody who expects you to sink or swim on your own.
  5. How will the initial content be provided, and who will edit that content? Typically, you will be expected to provide the basic text and photos that will be used on your site, but how are those supplied materials taken to the next level? Will photos be professionally enhanced in Photoshop? Will the text be proofread, edited, and professionally rewritten … then sent back to you for further revisions and final approval? What you do not want is somebody who does little more than copy and paste. Even the best photos need to be optimized, and even the best text can be improved, keeping in mind that the text on a website must be written for two audiences: a broad audience of human beings and a smaller but equally important audience of search engine robots.
  6. Speaking of search engines, will basic SEO (Search Engine Optimization) components be included in the cost of the project, or are those add-on services? Will Google Analytics be installed on your site at no charge? What additional SEO components will be included? Often, if you do not ask, services that might otherwise be provided at no charge will be absent from your project. Beware of extra charges for important services (such as Google Analytics) that are available at no charge and simply need to be setup and installed.
  7. Will the new site be expected to work on the full spectrum of devices and operating systems that are currently being used to access the Web? Specifically, is the new site designed to be fully functional on any and all of the latest smartphones and tablets? Older sites may have been built when compatibility with Internet Explorer 6 was an important consideration. Today, when people wait in line to be the first to buy the latest iPhone, backward compatibility is not nearly as great a concern as forward compatibility. Things like use of Flash animation (no longer supported on iOS and the newest Android devices) or separate mobile sites are old-school technologies. Be certain that you will be investing in the latest, solidly established technology. Avoid throwing money away on either old technology or planned obsolescence.
  8. What other services can the webmaster provide in-house? A new website should be a key component of an overall branding strategy. If the website development company has an understanding of and experience in orchestrating overall branding strategies, that is a big plus. If not, you could find yourself in the position where the graphic design that has been incorporated into your new website cannot be transitioned into the high-resolution demands of other formats such as print advertising and signage.
  9. What are the projected up-front (first year) costs of the project, and what are the anticipated long-term costs? I have seen “bargain” websites that needed to be scrapped and replaced a year later, and I have seen companies that charge outrageously overpriced, recurring fees for alleged SEO services. Expect to make a financial commitment when a new site is built and launched; however, beware of excessive long-term maintenance costs, particularly for intangible services.
  10. Can I find your business online if I type your business name followed by the word “complaints” in a Google search box? Needless to say, you perform this actual search yourself, rather than asking the prospective webmaster this question! If there are relevant results, read through a few. You are better off being forewarned now than putting yourself into a situation where you will be writing one of those reviews yourself a year from now!

You might have other questions in mind that you feel are important. If so, ask them! The important thing is to let your webmaster do his or her job, but to ensure that when that job is done it will be consistent with your own ideas and objectives.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Make it Personal

October 17th, 2014

The more that we get caught up in believing that mass marketing and technology are the sole keys to bringing in new business, the more that we might miss out on basic, time-proven principles that work. When a campground is looking to expand its customer base and occupancy rates, it is fine to put effort into growing your sphere of influence within the social media or building your website’s SEO; however, don’t obsess over these at the expense of the more personal approaches that are more reliable today than ever.

Even the world’s biggest brands are realizing the advantages of personalizing their marketing campaigns. A perfect example is Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign. Introduced in Australia in 2012, this campaign has been expanded around the globe. In the summer of 2014, some of the iconic Coca-Cola logos on 20-ounce bottles have been replaced by 250 of the most popular first names among the young people in the brand’s core demographic.

Share a Coke.

What Coca-Cola is recognizing in this campaign, which also tested successfully in the United Kingdom in 2013, is the power of personal appeal in growing brand loyalty. In addition to the bottles than can be purchased, the program is touring major colleges and universities across the country when students are returning to campus for the start of the fall semester. At these events, students are given an opportunity to personalize two Coca-Cola cans – as the promotional materials say, “one to keep and one to share”. That sharing part is essential. The campaign also allows people to create a customized virtual bottle that they can share online, encourages people to upload photos of themselves consuming their customized Coke via Twitter, and makes it easy for you to determine whether or not your name is one of the 250 that may be found at retail outlets. The costs of this campaign are probably enormous, but the return on investment was proven through two years of testing.

Your Campground Is Not Coca-Cola

Without spending a fortune, your business can capitalize upon the same concept of using personal appeal to expand your markets. I remember visiting a campground a few years ago where each campsite was graced with a carved wooden sign with the camper’s family name. An employee at the campground had a router and was skilled at quickly making these signs using pre-cut cedar slabs. Imagine the lasting, positive impression this created, when first-time campers arrived at their site and saw their name right below the site number! At the end of their stay, they took the customized sign home, as a continuing reminder of their camping weekend.

The most effective marketing and promotional campaigns succeed because they capitalize upon the element of surprise that comes from providing the unexpected. More and more these days, simply reaching out to your customers on a personal level will elicit a sense of surprise that will differentiate your business in a very positive manner. When reaching out to your customers, one of your key objectives should be to subtly recruit them to assist in your attempts at bringing in new business. Here are a few ideas that might work for you:

  • Encourage your customers to post online reviews that share their positive experiences at your park. In addition to TripAdvisor and Yelp, there are a number of review sites that are specific to campgrounds. Concentrate on the key players, but be careful not to offer incentives for positive reviews.
  • One of our campground clients runs a “refer a friend” program, in which they provide coupons where campers may enter the contact information of a friend who has not previously camped at the park. If they make a reservation, both the new camper and the camper who provided the referral receive a $20.00 credit.
  • Explore referral opportunities with complementary service providers. These might include local RV dealers, restaurants and other businesses in town, and campgrounds in other regions of the country. You may also want to include your vendors in these opportunities. Let the people who fill your propane tank, deliver your groceries, and service your equipment know that you are always looking for new campers. Printed literature – with or without a coupon incentive – works best in these instances.
  • If you post something newsworthy (such as an upcoming event) on the social media, encourage people to share your post and spread the words with their friends.
  • Consider adding a referral form to your website. This would also work more effectively if it included some sort of incentive (usually in the form of a discount) for both parties.
  • Giving a referral yourself is sometimes the best way to get somebody else to return the favor. You know your seasonal campers, and many of them are likely to be small business owners. If somebody is looking for an electrician, an auto body repair expert, a computer geek, or even a new car, one of your campers is probably in that line of work. Refer them!

As always, the bottom line is that surprising people by doing something unique is the best way to get them to take notice. Then carry that personal relationship to the next level so that both parties will benefit.

This post was written by Peter Pelland

Four Quick and Easy Ways to Boost Your Website’s Search Engine Ranking

October 7th, 2014

One of the most common questions I hear from the owners of campgrounds and other small businesses is, “How can I improve my site’s search engine ranking?” There is a long list of answers, most involving steps that should be taken by your site’s webmaster. Unfortunately, if you are your own webmaster or you hired a local person who lacks expertise regarding search engine optimization (SEO), you may be in for a rude awakening. On the other hand, if you hired any of the industry’s established website development companies, your site should be in good hands. To be certain, let me guide you through four tips that will allow you to check the status of your site.

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The Open Directory Project

The Open Directory Project was formed as an open-source alternative to the Yahoo! Directory’s paid site submission process, back in the days when Yahoo! was an online directory, not a search engine. Years later, you can still pay $299.00 to submit your site to the Yahoo! Directory, and you can submit your site for free to The Open Directory Project at http://dmoz.org. There are three good reasons that your site needs to be listed in The Open Directory Project:

  • Inclusion of a website in the Open Directory has a positive impact upon your site’s Google PageRank.
  • The Open Directory Project licenses its content distribution through hundreds of small search engines.
  • The Open Directory Project data is included in the directory services of major search engines, including Google and AOL Search. That’s right: Your search on Google will often reference site listings from the Open Directory.

The submission process is simple. First, check to see if your site is already listed. Go to http://dmoz.org and enter your business name into the search box at the head of the page. A business can only be listed in one category. If your site is listed, fine (unless you strongly believe that the listing should be moved to another category). If you are not listed, you can drill down through the hierarchy of categories to find the right place to list your site. For a campground in the United States, that category will be Recreation > Outdoors > Camping > Campgrounds > North America > United States > [Your State]. When you reach that page, you will also be able to confirm whether or not your site is listed. Do not be surprised if it is not. For example, there are 155 campgrounds listed on the Ohio Campground Owners Association website, but only 27 Ohio campgrounds listed in The Open Directory Project. There are also 200 campgrounds listed on the Campground Owners of New York website, but only 81 New York campgrounds listed in the directory. (Keep in mind that the actual numbers of campgrounds are probably higher because not all campgrounds belong to their state associations.) If your site is not listed, click on the “Suggest URL” link to go to the site submission page for that category.

Enter the following information on the submission page:

  • Your site URL. (Check the Regular option.)
  • Your site Title (taken from the Title tag of your site’s Home page).
  • A description of your site in 25-30 words. Try to write this as objectively as possible. The more that you embellish the text, the more likely it is that your description will be edited.
  • Your e-mail address.
  • Enter the captcha script at the bottom of the page, and hit Submit! You are on your way.

Total cost: $0.00

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Use a Permanent Redirect

This tip will need to be implemented by the company that is hosting your website, and there should be no charge for them to do so. Most people do not realize that their website’s URL, with and without the ‘www’ subdomain prefix, counts as two sites and splits what should be the combined impact of the site’s traffic upon its search engine ranking. Since the ‘www’ prefix is not necessary, some people will type your address using the prefix and others will not. What you need to ensure is that – either way – the visitor will be taken to one version of your URL … the version without the ‘www’ prefix.

The solution is to implement a permanent redirect (known as a 301 redirect), so that any traffic to www.YourWebsite.com will be redirected to YourWebsite.com. It is easy enough to check to see if this is being done. Go to a browser and in the address bar (not a search box!), type in your site’s URL with the ‘www’ prefix. See if the ‘www’ remains in the address bar or disappears when the page is loaded. Then type in your address without the ‘www’ prefix, and confirm that the site also appears. If so, all is well. Much to my surprise, I often see sites that are incorrectly set up on their server so that they will ONLY appear if the ‘www’ prefix is used … a major error!

Total cost: $0.00

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Find Unlinked Online References to Your Business

If there are websites that mention your business by name but do not include a link to your website, those mentions are providing little benefit. Particularly if your Web presence is relatively new, or if you recently changed its URL, there could be several sites that mention your business without a link or that provide a link to an old URL. Either way, you want to discover those and try to get the listings updated. Generally speaking, this is a two-step process.

The first step is to do a Google search for your business by name. Hopefully, your website will be the first search result! Go down the list of the first 50 or 100 search results. If there are sites that you do not recognize, click through to see if any of these appear to be legitimate sites that are lacking a link. In those instances, you will probably find a link that says “Claim this business”; otherwise, look for an “update listing” or “contact” link. Following those links is the second step.

Keep in mind that there are many local listings sites (often some sort of variation of the old yellow pages phone directory concept). Unless there is a very low, one-time fee, I generally advise against paying a site to add a link to your listing. A chamber of commerce, travel site, or camping-related site that provides specific information about your campground is probably a worthwhile listing; however, many of the sites that charge a fee for links are sites that generate low levels of traffic and probably zero searches for your businesses. They are little more than link directories. You want links on as many sites as possible that are legitimately capable of sending traffic to your site.

You might also want to search for the names of competitors or other nearby businesses, in an effort to discover any sites where your business may not even be listed by name but where it could be added. If you would like to stay abreast of any new listings that might materialize, set up a Google Alert for your business name, and you will be notified.

Total cost: $0.00, in most instances.

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Consider SSL

Google recently announced a new HTTPS ranking signal, indicating that SSL throughout a site will give that site a slight SEO advantage. Up until now, SSL was typically used only by sites that were engaged in online commerce or the transmittal of sensitive information, but an argument may now be made for broader implementation. SSL provides a secure protocol, where exchanged data is encrypted rather than being written in plain text. It provides levels of data integrity and authentication that are lacking in usual data transfer.

If your site is handling transactions that involve the entry of users’ personal information (such as if you are selling merchandise or accepting payments through an online gateway), it should be using SSL. If a site uses SSL, there are sound reasons for the SSL to be used throughout the site, not simply on payment pages. If your site is purely informational (which applies to the typical campground website), there has been no reason for it to use SSL – at least up until now.

Do not expect the use of SSL on your site to push it to the top of search rankings. That is not going to happen. However, use of the https protocol is one of 200 or more signals that currently influence Google search ranking.

There are complications involved when converting a site to use SSL, and some of these cons may offset the pros of making the switch – not the least of which is the added cost of secure hosting and the annual SSL certificate renewal. Discuss these with your webmaster to determine whether the benefits outweigh the costs in your instance.

Total cost: Varies.

When it comes to SEO, there are no easy answers and no one-size-fits-all solutions. Establish a trusted working relationship with a knowledgeable webmaster who makes the best interests of your business a top priority.

This post was written by Peter Pelland