Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Geek Whisperer Offers 7 Key Questions to Ask During Web Design

What’s a geek whisperer? Katie Hawkey, who acts as a liaison between marketers, techies and designers smoothing the path for successful web design, is called that by co-workers. Hawkey works for Astek Consulting, a web consulting firm based in Chicago, Il.

If your web site was designed more than 2-3 years ago, chances are it’s dated. And the last thing that marketers want is to look like they don’t know what they are doing. Hawkey, chief operating officer for Astek Consulting, provides a few key questions marketers can ask their web developers and designers so they don’t look like they need a copy of “Web Sites for Dummies.”

1. Can you create or use a content management system so that I can update my own web site?

Companies used to think of their web sites as online brochures, so it didn’t matter if the information was stagnant. But with social media, blogging and news feeds, you need to be able to change information on your site without going back to your developer all the time. Those small changes will add up. So make sure you get a web platform that allows you to make changes as you need too.

2. Will you be designing in html or Flash?

Even with today’s cool graphics and improving technology, Flash is still not as search engine friendly as HTML. For instance, says Hawkey, Google is unable to read the text in many Flash sites to index the content for search. So if the bulk of your site is in Flash it’s going to be tough for search engines to scan your site and find words they are trying to match to a user's search.

Also mobile phones read html and can be very unfriendly to Flash. The IPhone doesn’t read Flash at all. Better to stay with html and insert a bit of Flash to make your site more contemporary.

3. Can you design the site so we can feed our blog information directly into social media sites?

Many blogs do this because it gives the writer and his/her company complete control over all information that goes out, and updates every time a new blog post appears. But if your blog auto-feeds into your Facebook page for instance, it will start to look robotic (like the Facebook sites that look like they are participatory but won't let you comment or discuss anything), and people will stop coming back. Better to pick and choose which content is dynamic and what you want to feed out to other sites.

4. Can you deliver the designs for review in a way that we can view them in a browser?

At the beginning of the design process you will usually get a couple of comps that are options for your site's home page and/or secondary page design. A web site is a dynamic visual and you will never know what you are looking at if you get print outs of potential designs rather than seeing them in a browser. Color, images and design approach need to be reviewed in the medium in which they will be used. This will eliminate any surprise factor as you move forward with the design process.

5. What information do you recommend we put above the fold?

In a print piece, before the fold means what you see first, before you unfold the brochure or advertisement, etc. On a web site above the fold is what you see on the home page of a web site before you scroll down. You always want your most important messages above the fold, and secondary points or messages below it. You will also want to try calling up your home and subsequent pages on a Mac-based and a PC-based system as well as on mobile phones, IPads and other devices to see what it looks like live.

6. Can you help us brand our look and feel across multiple platforms?

Believe it or not, many marketers still don’t address all their forms of communications with customers and prospects when redesigning a web site. Particularly in tough economic times, a decision could be made to update a web site and leave other materials as they were before. You don’t want inconsistent visual, verbal or written messages across different communications platforms. Developing an integrated approach from the beginning will help, even if you end up phasing in the changes gradually.

7. What pixel width do you recommend for my site?

Right now Astek is recommending most clients go with a design at 975px wide. This is definitely a conversation to have at the beginning of the design process as it will have a huge impact on the layout. Google reports that 90% of Internet users will be able to see a design that is 975px wide without needing to scroll left to right. If you work in an industry where out-dated computers are the norm, you may want to consider keeping your site to 825px wide. This will accommodate about 95% of Internet users.

But there is a price to pay for the 150px difference. It translates to about two inches of additional width on most monitors, and it will have a huge impact on how much content you can get above the fold.

A final note from Katie is that you should tell designers at the outset you want 12 point type for all content - anything smaller will be too hard to read.

For more information email katie@astekweb.com.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Don't Follow Me and Other Online Ad Predictions for 2011

Doug Stevenson, the co-founder and CEO of Vibrant Media, offers predictions for the online advertising space in 2011. This is a recap, and I've cut a couple of predictions, but the ones that are here are worth reading.

FYI - online ads according to e-marketing sources are expected to grow 10.5% in 2011 and reach $40.5 billion in 2014.

1. More advertising integration with content. It's all for sale, pity the poor real journalists. Look for more convergence of content and advertising to continue in 2011, with branded utilities such as listings, live sports scores, weather, search results, Twitter, etc.

2. DON’T follow me. Remember the do not call list? Expect an online equivalent to gain popular support. Brands will engage consumers through clear, opt-in group-purchasing technologies leveraged for direct marketing.

3. The number of online ad networks will shrink. The weak will get purchased and the strong will grow. Stephenson says “The industry needs to simplify and become more coherent for marketers. Wall Street will take a vigorous interest in ad technology companies as the industry matures.”

4. Social media tools will become more common in advertising. Stevenson believes that you’ll find “like” buttons in everything from advertising to content. We’ll share more and new approaches will further the integration of social-sharing and social recommendation functionality, adding value to content through utilities such as toolbars.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Can Scientists Market Science to Kids?

A number of scientific organizations these days are creating Meet the Scientist programs and sending scientists and engineers out into public schools, science cafes, and other venues with the hope that they can drum up interest in pursuing careers in these fields. The idea behind these programs is to inspire students towards careers in these fields with the work that they do.

The problem is many scientists still don't know how to talk to the general public about their work, and today's students are even harder to communicate with. Raised on YouTube, Facebook and with a computer savvy that is far more sophisticated than many of the scientists who go to speak to them, students are far more likely to play Angry Birds on their cell phones than pay attention to a guest scientist.

How have the programs addressed this challenge?

Some Meet the Scientist efforts are training the scientists and/or giving them ground rules before they let them go out into the schools. The guidance I've seen is pretty good - PowerPoints are forbidden, they must bring physical examples of their work, do an experiment if they can, treat students as equals, etc.

Other programs have asked organizations to suggest scientists who are articulate and have experience talking to kids. But unless the scientists has done K-12 education sessions before, or have children that age, no one really knows how the scientists will do in front of a room full of kids.

Another approach that is gaining in popularity around the nation and throughout the world is sending science and health Nobel Laureates into high school to talk with kids. But many Nobel Laureates are older and male and haven't raised a child in a very long time. Rather than have an auditorium or room full of kids many of whom may not understand what the Laureates are discussion, the schools select their best and brightest which in essence is preaching to the choir.

The fact is an audience of school aged children is far tougher than a scientist's peers or even other adults to keep engaged. If the scientists are going to market science to the schools they need training and guidance.

Here are a few examples of what works and what doesn't according to my experience with these Meet the Scientist Programs.

Getting High School Kids to Come

I watched a scientist who helps wounded veterans learn to use new limbs that can literally function like real ones via signals from the brain. I first saw him in front of a room full of high school students who were really engaged with his talk. He brought props so the kids could touch and see them and left a lot of time for Q&A which went very well.

I discovered after wards that the real reason the students showed up for this lunch time event was the free pizza promised by the teacher. So that's a key learning - feed the kids and you'll get much better attendance. You know what - this works in companyies too.

Forgetting the general public is not a scientific audience

Interestingly, I saw the same scientist do a presentation a week later in front of a room full of adults at another location. This time he had no props - he had PowerPoint. I couldn't follow a lot of what he was saying and I already knew his research. By the end, at least half the people in the audience had walked out. If he had used the same approach he did with high school students, I bet they would have stayed.

It's Complicated - But the Math Kids will Get It

At another high school there was a mathematician scheduled to speak - a rather well liked and famous one - and I wanted to get some attention for the program by inviting local media. I had a reporter convinced it was a good idea to come (sold the prestige angle) but then he asked me questions that I couldn't answer - basically what the heck is it that this guy does.

I called the professor's university PR office and asked for general audience information on his research and a bio on him. The communications person had no idea what the mathematician did and no materials that I could understand. She was supposed to get in touch with the professor and get back to me. I never heard a word from either of them and the reporter didn't go.

Sell the Adventure and Remember It's Also Show and Tell

At a middle school, a scientist come in and talked about her work in archeology - she basically dug up dinosaur bones in pursuit of new and older dinosaurs. The kids asked if they could see them and she hadn't brought any. She also had a PowerPoint which was OK - at least it tried to convey the spirit of adventure in searching for life from millions of years ago. But by the end girls were nudging each other, and boys were doing that I can't sit here one second longer uncomfortable thing that boys do.

To be fair, the scientists were giving of their time and some had very successful presentations. One filled the stage with smoke from dry ice and another sang rock songs with science lyrics which were actually very amusing and engaging.

What Does Work? Ask Bill Nye or the MythBusters

The fact is in order to get the attention of kids science has to be theatrical. There have to be wows and scientists jumping up and down and a sense of excitement in the room that is palpable. If the scientists aren't going to get training before they go into a classroom at the very least they should watch a couple episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He knows how to get the attention of kids.

Without that, despite best intentions, many scientists end up reinforcing the notion that science and math are boring.

The Younger You Reach Kids With Science, the More It Can Help

Another issue with these Meet the Scientist programs is many of them are aimed at older kids. High school kids already know what they like and don't like - you're not going to take an 11th grader and suddenly convince him he wants to be a physicist with an hour long talk. Middle school kids are pretty cynical too, although they will listen if the presentation is fun and interesting.

I have taught seventh grade and it's remarkable how despite the constant refrain that being smart isn't cool that permeates our public schools, you can still get them excited when the presenter and the subject is really engaging.

Elementary, Elementary, Elementary

Elementary school teachers, on the other hand and to this day, despite No Child Left Behind, etc., teach very little science. And they are desperate for it. But most of the Meet the Scientist programs are aimed at older kids. Much of the reason why is that the scientists are uncomfortable talking to really little kids. So this is one area where training for scientists is really needed, and could provide a great deal of value.

Simply put, if the scientists can convince fourth graders that what they do is cool, everyone wins.

Don't Just Meet the Scientist Spend Time With Him or Her

One option for these Meet the Scientist programs is to really focus on elementary school kids and have the scientists dedicate more time than an hour to them. There is a program in the VA, MD, DC area where retired scientists make a commitment to support an elementary school class for a semester. They go into the classroom about six times and get to know the teacher and the kids well. The teachers love it and the kids get to not just Meet the Scientists but to know them well, and really understand their work.